How to get the best use of herbs and flowers in the kitchen
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 May 2016
Add something extra to a favourite family dish with a sprinkle of well chosen leaves
Chefs these days think nothing of growing their own herbs in window boxes or cultivating them in their kitchen garden. In fact kitchen gardens are often an important asset to successful restaurants. But it wasn’t always so in recent culinary history.
Alison Dodd, who began her career as Cordon Bleu chef, struggled to find a reliable supplier of fresh quality herbs and decided not only to grow her own but for almost everyone else.
And so she swapped the family restaurant kitchen for the growing fields of Thirsk. That was almost 20 years ago and she hasn’t looked back. Today Herbs Unlimited works with the country’s leading restaurants and supplies farm shops and supermarkets with one of the widest ranges of fresh herbs, edible flowers and baby leaf salads.
It’s not as if herbs and edible flowers and leaves are a new flavouring phenomenon but their use had, with a revolution in eating habits, well, wilted. Today it’s a very different story and there isn’t a menu or a recipe that doesn’t want to include the best and freshest herb, leaf or petal.
Demand continues to grow the more people look for natural ways of flavouring their food as they turn their backs on heavily processed food and give their support to local farmers and food producers in an attempt to do their bit for the environment by cutting down on food miles.
‘We specialise in high quality fresh cut herbs and baby salads,’ says Alison. ‘Poly tunnels give us an extended season to grow our unique range of baby leaves and speciality herbs, and this is done to the highest specification using innovative growing methods and biological controls.
‘Our dedicated growers are committed to producing crops in as natural and environmentally sensitive way as they can.’ Alison complements their seasonal production by importing directly from quality controlled growers in Israel and Spain. ‘This allows us to meet year round demand from our loyal customers, while ensuring we have full traceability from field to fork,’ she says.
We asked Adam Smith, head chef at the award-winning Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey, near Skipton and who is also our 2015 Yorkshire Life Chef of the Year, to give us some advice on the best use of herbs in the kitchen:
Fresh is always best. Fresh herbs are the only way to go, we often pick our herbs to order
When cutting or chopping herbs I would only cut a maximum of two times so as not to bruise and damage the herb and spoil its flavour. A sharp knife is essential
I like to cut softer herbs (such as basil, coriander) into larger pieces or even just tear them to keep that freshness
Herb infused oils are a great way to carry flavour and colour but always use a vegetable oil to allow the herb flavour to shine through. Take two parts oil, one part herb, blitz in a juicer for 90 seconds then pass through a strainer
One of my favourite combinations is lemon verbena and shellfish. A simply cooked lobster using the shells to make a bisque infused with lemon verbena is just amazing
I find the best way to store herbs is to wrap them gently in damp cloth, this works well to extend the life of a picked herb
Lovage and pork is another fantastic combination for me, a simple pressed ham hock terrine with a lovage mayonnaise is to die for on a summer’s afternoon.
I also use a lot of flowers in the restaurant, but it’s so, so important to taste and make sure they bring something to a dish; they may look amazing but they can pack a big punch and when paired with the wrong ingredients on a plate could ruin a dish
Candied herbs are also a great way to preserve but also enhance flavour. There is nothing better at the start of summer than candied angelica used with either berries or even fish
Herb sorbets are another great and very fresh addition to a dessert. Just pick 200g of soft herbs into ice water, drain well and cover with 500ml of ice cold stock syrup and blitz in a food processer until smooth, it is vital that the stock syrup is ice cold to retain the colour and freshness. Then churn and serve. I often use mint, basil, coriander and even tarragon in this way.