The secret herb garden

Bart Beek | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 1

Herb gardens are decorative, useful, and, best of all, edible. They’re also an inexpensive and practical way to make your culinary dishes come alive.

When I was young, my mother taught me that the reward for growing herbs in the garden is a fabulous range of flavours on which to base your recipes. She inspired me with her cooking and was the reason why I chose to become a chef.

Garden herbs in early times were considered ‘the children of mother earth’. They were there to simply serve and delight us all. This large range of herbs included plants that were supposed to be important for physical, spiritual and mental well-being.

In modern-day cooking, different parts of the herbs can be used, including the seeds, roots, stalks, leaves, flowers and buds. Potted nursery herbs can easily be tucked into decorative pots, garden borders, window boxes or just about anywhere in the garden.

I wanted a formal herb garden, so I created a sense of order and balance by incorporating four built-in square boxes that provide clean access and easy maintenance. My focus was to create four separate herb categories: a Mediterranean box, a collection of mints and balms, an Asian mix and a French collection. I chose to incorporate my herbs into the decking structure because the area receives almost full sun, offers weather protection and creates a tranquil surrounding.

The recipes in this issue of Club Marine involve the use of most of the fresh herbs I have grown this way and all burst with the flavours of summer.

Herb Box Suggestions

The Mediterranean box - rosemary, continental parsley, sage, various basils and lemon thyme

Mints and balms - garden mint and lemon balm

The Asian mix - Vietnamese mint and coriander

A French collection - salad burnet, marjoram, Turkey thyme, oregano and French tarragon

Vietnamese spring rolls with chicken and prawn (cha gio) and nuoc mam, the classic dipping sauce

These spring rolls are delicious appetisers or snacks that are deep fried, but freshened up by being wrapped with fresh herbs in lettuce leaves. The dipping sauce is always found at tables where Vietnamese food is served.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 2 minutes

Makes: 50 small rolls

125g raw green prawns, cleaned

250g minced chicken legs

25g thin cellophane rice flour noodles

½ cup dried wood ear mushrooms, thinly sliced Salt and pepper, to taste

½ cup garlic chives

1 packet (50) spring roll wrappers

1 egg, beaten

5 large iceberg lettuce leaves

1 bunch Vietnamese mint

½ bunch garden mint

Soak the rice flour noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes, then drain and cut into 50mm lengths. Set aside to cool and soak the mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes. Drain well and add to the noodles.

Mince the green prawns and combine well in a bowl with the minced chicken, noodles, mushrooms, salt and pepper and garlic chives.

Place a level tablespoon amount of the filling into the centre of the spring roll wrappers. Roll up tightly, tucking in the sides and lightly brush the tail section with a little beaten egg. Set it on the seam and chill until required.

Deep fry in hot (185°C) canola oil until crisp and golden and present with the dipping sauce, iceberg lettuce, Vietnamese mint and garden mint.

Dipping sauce

1 tblsp caster sugar

3 tblsp water

1 tblsp rice vinegar

3 tblsp fish sauce

1 small red chilli, chopped

1 small garlic clove, crushed

2 tblsp finely cut sticks of carrot and white radish

Dissolve the sugar with the boiling water then add the vinegar and fish sauce. Cool, then add the garlic, chilli, carrot and radish.

Avocado salad with warm prawns and ginger scallops

A delicious combination of prawns and ginger seared scallops, enriched with avocado and a pickled Mediterranean mixed green salad.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Serves: 6

30ml extra virgin olive oil

18 green prawns, peeled and de-veined

18 sea scallops

1 tblsp freshly grated ginger

1 cup watercress, washed and large stems removed 1 cup rocket

1 cup zucchini, cut into thin strips

½ cup basil leaves

2 tblsp white wine vinegar

4 tblsp extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 avocados, cut into 2cm dice

Heat a fry pan and add 15ml of olive oil. Quickly sauté the prawns until just cooked and set aside.

Wipe out the pan with a paper towel and reheat, adding 15ml of olive oil. Grate the ginger over the scallops and mix well. Grill, turning only once until just cooked.

Combine the watercress, rocket, zucchini, basil, olive oil and white wine vinegar. Let this mixture sit for 5 minutes for the flavours to improve.

Gently fold through the avocado, prawns and scallops. Divide amongst six serving plates.

Butter glazed carrots with fresh oregano and orange

These glossy carrots taste and look sensational and are especially appealing to children. A lovely aromatic bouquet is produced by the fresh oregano.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 7 minutes

Serves: 4

600g Dutch baby carrots

70g unsalted butter

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tblsp fresh oregano leaves, chopped

1 navel orange (juice and zest)

Peel and trim the Dutch baby carrots, then place into boiling salted water and cook until just tender. Drain into a colander and pour out the water.

Place the saucepan over moderate heat and add the butter, orange zest and juice. Bring to a boil and reduce until just syrupy. Add the freshly chopped oregano and carrots. Coat well, season and serve hot.

Potato gnocchi with pesto

Gnocchi has been part of the Italian repertoire for centuries. Gnocchi (or ‘dumplings’) are kept simple, but come alive when served with a fresh and vibrant pesto.

Preparation time: 1 hour

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4

For the pesto:

2 cups washed basil leaves, well packed

3 garlic cloves

½ cup roasted pine nuts

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1.5 cups extra virgin olive oil

Salt flakes and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Wash the fresh basil well and leave to dry. Pick the leaves and measure out two cups. Place the basil leaves into a food processor along with the garlic and toasted pine nuts.

Add the Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper. Trickle in the extra virgin olive oil while running the machine and process quickly until smooth.

For the gnocchi:

600g Desiree potatoes (waxy)

Salt, to taste

150g plain flour, plus a little extra for rolling

Place the unpeeled potatoes in a saucepan and cover with salted cold water. Slowly bring them to a boil and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender. Alternatively, steam the unpeeled potatoes above boiling water until just tender.

Remove to a colander and drain well, cooling only until they can be handled. Peel by hand and remove any potato eyes with a small knife. While still warm, pass through a mouli directly onto a clean working surface.

Season the mix with salt and pepper and sprinkle in the plain flour. Work the mixture in quickly until it’s smooth and slightly sticky. Roll the dough on a well-floured surface into long sausage shapes. Cut into pieces about 2cm long.

Using two hands, quickly roll into balls and line up on the floured surface. Flatten one side with the back of a fork and pinch the other side together.

Add 20 gnocchi pieces at a time to gently boiling water. They will quickly rise to the surface when cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain quickly, and place into a buttered dish, then move into a warmed oven while you cook the rest.

Spoon some of the fresh pesto over the gnocchi, stirring very carefully so as not to break them. Serve immediately. Transfer remaining pesto to a jar and refrigerate.

Hints and tips:

These ‘little Italian dumplings’, when made correctly, will be light, smooth and velvety. They are fun to make and can involve the whole family.

The success of the gnocchi depends on several factors: selecting the correct potato, lightly mixing the potato and flour to the right consistency and eating the sauced gnocchi immediately after it’s cooked.

Waxy potatoes, like Pontiacs and Desiree, make excellent gnocchi and require no eggs in the mix. White potatoes do not make good gnocchi.

Always cook the potatoes in their skins to help reduce the amount of water they absorb and keep the amount of flour to a minimum. Too much flour will result in a heavy gnocchi.

Chicken and tarragon rolls with minted yoghurt

These rolls are a fabulous addition to any cocktail party or can be served as a first course. The mixture of chicken and tarragon, with the warmth of fresh ginger, is a classic combination.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Serves: 4 (3 each)

200g chicken breast fillets

60g butter

¼ cup fresh tarragon leaves

1 tblsp freshly grated ginger Salt and pepper, to taste

4 sheets filo pastry

30g melted butter

½ tsp toasted sesame seeds

Cut the chicken into strips (6 x 2cm) and season well. Beat the butter with the tarragon and ginger and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the pastry sheets into thirds and brush with the melted butter. Make only three at a time and keep the filo covered with a slightly damp cloth.

Place a piece of chicken onto each filo slice and roll up, tucking in the sides like a spring roll. Brush with butter and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Place onto a tray and bake for 10 minutes or until golden.

Yoghurt sauce

1 cup natural yoghurt

2 tblsp chopped mint

1 clove garlic, crushed

¼ tsp paprika

Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine the yoghurt, mint, paprika and garlic. Season well and serve with the chicken rolls.

Lemon balm and tarragon poached pears with crumble base

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Serves: 6 to 8

6 Packham pears

200g caster sugar

600ml clear apple juice

½ cup lemon balm leaves

½ cup garden mint

2 tblsp tarragon leaves, chopped

1 small cinnamon quill

½ split vanilla bean

¼ tsp ground cloves

1 small pinch saffron

Peel, halve and core the pears, then place into fresh water with a little added lemon juice until ready to poach. Boil together the caster sugar, apple juice, lemon balm, tarragon, mint, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves and saffron. Add the pears and gently poach until just soft. Remove the pears and boil the poaching syrup until reduced by one third, strain then set aside to cool.

Crumble mix

250g plain flour

190g unsalted butter

190g light Muscovado sugar

Place crumble ingredients into a mixing bowl and rub with your fingers until a lumpy mix has formed. (Some of the butter should still appear as small pea-size lumps).

Using an egg ring as a mould, place spoonfuls of the crumble mix onto a baking sheet and bake at 185°C for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

To serve, position a crumble disc onto a plate and top with a poached pear. Glaze with a little of the syrup and present with a little whipped cream.