Archive for Herbs

Make Room for the Mushrooms

They are everywhere, legion. Erupting from the dark, invading plant pots, colonising any damp filled nook or cranny.
Every meadow has its crop. Shaded lawns collect them.

Mushrooms are extraordinary, not strictly a vegetable, fruit or herb. So why this particular 1980’s advert about them should be such an ear worm for me, I confess, I don’t know. It could just as easily have been Shirley Conran’s “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom.” At least that’s culinary. Her book of household tips and how to over come the daily chore of catering for the family, was published when women were beginning to carve out careers for themselves. Now of cause there has been a revival on the domestic front, with programmes like “The Great British Bake Off” making us revaluate the task of cooking, a skill we can all at some level achieve and be proud of.

I digress. As I said, mushrooms are exceptional.  They inhabit that unique category called the fifth flavour, umami, being neither sweet or sour, salty or bitter. Their taste is rich, earthy, almost meaty and rounds out the other flavours in a dish. Mushrooms are easy to cook with, generally only requiring a few minutes to cook, although as a casserole ingredient they stand up to a long cooking time without falling apart.

Mushrooms are used in medicine offering health benefits to those who suffer from arthritis, inflammation or minor heart problems. There are literally thousands of different fungi and they have a myriad uses other than being consumed by us. Many are of cause poisonous so if you fancy foraging, please take an expert with you.

 

The most common in cooking are the white button mushrooms which are available all the year round. They are still the favourite extra on a breakfast, quartered and sautéed, we add a little fresh lemon juice to the mix.

They make a great soup and are wonderful as a stroganoff. They are added to our chicken casserole and we use them  in our vegetable risotto and omelettes. On a cold autumn morning what could be nicer than a bacon and mushroom sandwich?

 

 

 

Seeding Summer

Walking up Friars Walk these mornings I am struck by how quiet it is. The children are not at school, so no weaving between push chairs and scooters, no excited greetings as friends meet at the gate.

Children no longer play in the streets as we did. They have organised activities, dance lessons, swimming, school holiday clubs. All perfectly wonderful, but not like the summer days we spent making” camp”, riding our bikes around, exploring. Whole days were spent going to the swimming pool, which was next door to the park, which was next door to the library. I loved a day spent this way. It didn’t matter if one went on ones own, you were bound to meet someone during the course of the day. 

The grass is seeding, arching sprays over the deceptive blackberries. Deceptive because although black and ripe looking, they taste sharp, tart on the tongue. We used to play a game with the grass seeds, stripping the stem with the thumb and fore finger, making a bouquet of heads. We presented them to a friend saying, “Bunch of flowers?” and then scattering them all over them with “April showers!” as the seed caught in their hair and clothes. Ah, innocent times.

I watched a glass blower making “seeds” in glass baubles for a chandelier to hang in the renovated “Willow Tea rooms in Glasgow. These imperfections, made prisms to catch and glance from the balls, enhancing the effect, magical. We use seeds in cooking, and not just the colloquial British “pip” as in apples and blackberries, but seeds such as cardamom in pilaf rice, pumpkin in muesli, mustard seeds in stroganoff, vanilla in custard. White pepper, a must for béchamel or any white sauce is made from ripe pepper seeds.

Seeds are everywhere, taking root for a new season.  

 

Fruits of the Earth

I recently found out that there are fifty thousand edible plant species on earth, and we manage to consume just a hundred of them. Yes that’s right, just a 100 varieties out of all the cornucopia this world provides. In the late seventies, I along with a million other people bought a book called “Food for Free” written by Richard Mabey, a slim paperback which I read more for the pleasure and information it provided, than because I wanted to go foraging.

Like all of us I have picked blackberries in autumn, ate hazelnuts, and young shoots of hawthorn, (bread & cheese). I’ve picked mushrooms, and prickly sloes for gin. My mother as a young girl was sent out to harvest the hedges for rosehips during the second world war, as they were a good,”free” source of vitamin c.

But there are so many wild plants we not longer value, from the humble dandelion, best gathered fresh in spring, a great leaf for salads, young tips of nettle, a good substitute for spinach, to green sea weed which is becoming quite trendy dried as a condiment. We have become disconnected from the countryside, viewing it as a vast play ground interspersed with industrial sized farming units, which provide us with the “correct” food to eat.

Now I realize that there are plants out there that are poisonous, or just taste plain strange to our modern palette. But with a good reference book, or in the company of an experienced forager, the walk you take for pleasure could also give you ingredients for a meal.

 There are so many recipes for “wild food” out there, from Elderflower fritters, to a four herbs vinegar,

(Cut basil, borage, mint and chives just before plant flowers. Bruise the leaves and pack them into a glass jar. Heat white vinegar and pour over the leaves. Cover and infuse for fourteen days shaking occasionally. Strain and store in glass bottles with screw top lids.)

that whole books are devoted to recipes, drinks and tonics made from natural products. If you have a favourite wild food recipe, we would love to hear about it. Why not drop us a line?

Pea Green has been celebrating summer with something slightly different, a wonderful fresh tabbouleh medley, made from puy lentils, sweet baby orange tomatoes, lemon, mint and spring onions. Served with our Asian Slaw and new potatoes, an exotic mix which is going down really well.

Take the few short steps across the car park. escape the glare and come into the cool, shaded Pea Green café for a taste of summer.

 

Friendly Lions & Wise Old Owls

I have a long connection to Herbs going right back to childhood. They were clouds of fragrance and spice as I brushed passed them in the gardens of which ever National Trust property we were visiting, a fleeting glimpse of another way of life. They permeated many of the books I read, from, The Little Grey Rabbit series to Tom’s Midnight Garden.

More prosaically they were one of my favourite television programmes. I was lucky enough to grow up in the era of the late great Oliver Postgate, and The Herbs were memorable. They were a motley bunch from; a very friendly lion called Parsley, through to Dill the Dog, Bayleaf the Gardner, and  Sage the Owl among others. They were enchanting, and herbs have been that for me ever since.

Herbs seem to create a slower way of life. They need to be picked, washed, chopped or shredded all the while releasing their wonderful aromas. The mere whiff of sage and onion and a whole roast dinner is conjured up.

There are over 14 different mints, of different strengths and flavours. I love mint, and have grown a range of them. It is probably my favourite herb. I could write a whole piece on just this versatile plant. It goes so well with new potatoes, but it can also compliment peas, lamb and chocolate. We use it in our Asian Slaw which is a lovely fresh garnish and pretty salad accompaniment. (Chef’s Tip, Moroccan Mint makes the best tea.)

Parsley is a vibrant, peppery herb full of calcium, iron and vitamin C. It can be used as a breath freshener. There are many varieties of this herb, but the most common are flat leaf or curly.
A firm favourite in white sauce over fish, but it can also be used in soups , stuffing, crusts and salads. We use it as part of our mushrooms in garlic.

“Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” Add a Bay Tree, some mint and a pot of Basil and you have a good range of herbs. Now we can buy “fresh” herbs of all sorts in all seasons. But a few pots of herbs on a sunny window sill, or in a plant holder in the garden, to cut and come again, will give you scent and flavour for minimum effort, all summer through.