Anna Bergenström, Fanny Bergenström
48 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Fanny Bergenström

Imagine cooking without herbs …

Parsley, so natural in parsley butter or in a salsa verde; the summery scent of dill on top of piping-hot new potatoes; and leafy green basil, which best releases its flavour when the leaves are pounded in a mortar or roughly torn over a salad – fresh herbs bring so much joy to cooking and they instantly make you a better cook. Their fragrance alone can raise your spirits, and their extensive historical heritage is a link backwards through time. Not to mention the fact that fresh herbs make food more appealing to the eye.

At our house (or respective houses, that is), we always keep a few pots of basil, thyme and rosemary in the kitchen window. We are also fortunate enough to be able to grow lots of herbs in the garden, and we use them fresh as long as the season allows: mint for the teas, sage for lamb and flatbreads, and lots and lots of fresh coriander, flat-leaf parsley and thyme, which go so well with almost anything. Herbal plants also make a great addition to any garden because of their beauty, and many of them are truly charming as cut flowers. In the wintertime, when our garden is covered in snow, we still enjoy some of the summer herbs that we dried and stored in the pantry. When dried, herbs become more concentrated in flavour, making dried thyme and rosemary perfect for fish soups, roast lamb or slow-cooked casseroles, while oregano and marjoram go into bean salads, soups, tomato sauces and much more. Yet somehow, we still feel that fresh herbs are beyond compare, as they provide such genuine inspiration to cooking all year round.

The magic mortar and more

Do you have a mortar and pestle? Mortars are unrivalled when it comes to grinding and pounding all sorts of herbs, spices, chillies and salsas. It isn’t just a question of mixing and blending, but rather to slowly crush, mash and pound the ingredients to bring out the flavours. Pesto sauce made in a mortar tastes fabulous, and so does a freshly made tomato salsa. You can always use a hand-held blender or a food processor, but it’s never quite the same. A mortar is a truly wise investment, and it’s actually practical to have two: a smaller one for dried spices and a larger one for salsas and such.

When chopping herbs, use your best kitchen knife and preferably a wooden chopping board. The herbs should be dry (so gently pat or shake them first, if rinsed beforehand), and any coarse stalks should be removed. Basil and mint leaves should always be chopped at the very last minute before using, or the cut edges will turn black and unappealing. A good way to finely chop basil leaves is to roll several leaves together into a hard little ‘cigar’ then slice them very finely (making a chiffonade). Or just roughly tear the leaves over a salad.

Fines herbes is a French fresh herb mixture of finely chopped parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives. This combination is marvellous on top of omelettes, or with veal scallops, poached salmon and more.

Bouquet garni is a small bundle of fresh herbs tied with a piece of kitchen string (or placed in muslin). The classic French combination contains stalks of parsley, thyme, bay leaf and a piece of leek or a couple of celery leaves, although the ingredients may vary. Bouquet garni is added to stocks or slowly cooked dishes.

A brief word on growing herbs

It’s lovely to have a small herb garden of your own, whether it’s just a few pots with your favourite culinary herbs on the balcony, or a larger plot with more varieties. Herbs are very easy to cultivate, and most herbs will be happy with only a few hours of sun a day. Ideally, the soil should be humus-rich and porous, and not heavily fertilised.

Alongside the most common kitchen herbs, some nice additions could be sweet cicely, hyssop, savory, sweet bergamot, marsh mallow, lemon balm and different varieties of lavender, for the occasional use and their sheer beauty.

Some favourite herbs

Thyme, Thymus vulgaris, is a firm favourite of ours. We use lots of it, both fresh and dried. Thyme works wonders in such a multitude of dishes: with roasted vegetables or chicken, with lamb and other red meats, in bean or lentil salads or simply scattered over cubes of feta cheese drizzled with fruity olive oil. Lemon thyme, Thymus citriodorus, has somewhat larger and shinier leaves. It is also nicely fragrant and very tasty; try it with fish or in potato salads, or in a yoghurt-based summer sauce alongside smoked trout or salmon.

Oregano, Origanum vulgare, is at its most aromatic when dried. The low-growing variety, Origanum v. compactum, has a deep, intense flavour. Oregano is great for pasta dishes, grilled chicken or lamb, pizza, baked eggplants, tomatoes and much more. You can use both leaves and flowers for seasoning and garnishing. And the flowers are beautiful in a bouquet as well.

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is a bushy plant with light-blue flowers. It’s a herb with a long medicinal history, and has been highly appreciated for its antiseptic benefits throughout the ages. Rosemary has a wonderful yet somewhat dominant flavour, and is perfect for grilled lamb or pork, and in stews. It is also delicious in herb butter or on top of roasted potatoes or root vegetables, or with olives and mild sea salt on focaccia bread.

Sage, Salvia officinalis, is a small perennial plant with greyish-green leaves. The tender new leaves are the most flavoursome. Sage works very well with pork, lamb, veal, in herb butters and in tomato dishes. It’s the classic herb in an Italian saltimbocca, and a few sage leaves quickly fried in olive oil make a tasty garnish for lamb chops or a frittata.

Mint comes in countless varieties. The leaves are mainly added when the dish is nearly or completely done. Fresh mint, Mentha spicata, is great for herbal teas, yoghurt dips, fresh cream cheese and bean salads, as well as with cucumber, roasted lamb, melon and much more. A variety of spearmint is the Moroccan mint, which is famously used for teas. Asian mint, Mentha asiatica, is commonly used in Asian dishes but you can just as easily use fresh mint leaves. Peppermint, Mentha piperita, isn’t all that great in cooking (it tastes too much like candy canes), but is suitable for herbal teas. Most types of mint are very easy to grow, but they have a tendency to spread out, so give them a corner of their own. When harvested, dry the mint leaves in an airy place (out of direct sunshine), and then store them in an airtight jar.

Basil, Ocimum basilicum, gives you a taste of summer all year round. Basil leaves, from the common variety Genovese, are the backbone of Italian pesto sauce, and are great in tomato and pasta dishes, and for salads. Basil originated in India, and there are lots of different varieties – cinnamon basil, globe basil, lemon basil and Thai sweet basil, to mention just a few – with tiny or huge, violet or wrinkled leaves.

Coriander, Coriandrum sativum, also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, is a truly versatile, annual herb. The tender leaves are perfect for stews, salads, barbecued meats and vegetables, Indian curries, South American salsas and many kinds of Asian dishes. In Thailand and India, the roots are also used for cooking, giving a deeper flavour to curries and soups. Coriander seeds, which resemble Seville oranges in flavour, are used in Scandinavia in bread and with salmon, and are included in Indian spice mixes such as garam masala. Coriander can be grown in a pot on the balcony, or in the garden.

Dill, Anethum graveolens, is a given ingredient in classic Scandinavian dishes such as herring, new potatoes, crayfish, sour cream sauces and cured salmon. Dill is also frequently used in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East, and occasionally in Indian cooking. Fresh dill is very fragrant and often best when added at the end of the cooking time.

Flat-leaf parsley, Petroselinum neapolitanum, has a lovely flavour that works really well with almost anything. Lemon and parsley is a splendid combination used in dishes such as Middle Eastern tabbouleh and Italian gremolata. Add the parsley leaves towards the end of the cooking time, or when the dish is done. You can also add the stems to the pot when boiling meat or fish.

French tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, is a perennial herb that becomes milder and more aromatic when dried. Use fresh tarragon in moderation – the flavour is so intense that only a few leaves are needed. Tarragon is perfect with eggs, chicken, in tomato salads and is essential in a béarnaise sauce.

Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, is a modest annual herb with delicate, light-green leaves resembling those of tender parsley. Chervil has a gentle flavour suited to omelettes or mild-tasting, creamy soups. It is one of the components in the French fines herbes mixture.

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