I couldn’t imagine my kitchen without fresh herbs. A simple dish can be transformed by using a few fresh herbs as they greatly enhance the taste, appearance and nutritional value of practically all the food we eat.
The word “herb” comes from the Latin herba, meaning grass or green plant. These days we associate herbs for their culinary and medicinal value. In the kitchen, bland food can be made exciting with the addition of herbs and they can also help to enhance and bring out the natural flavours of food in a similar way to salt, but it is important to use herbs correctly. Too many herbs can overpower and completely overshadow the natural flavour of food and too little in a dish will achieve nothing. The addition of herbs must be balanced to complement the natural flavours that are already in foods. They do deteriorate very quickly once they’ve been picked, so by growing a small selection of herbs, even in pots or a window box, they will always be on hand when you need them. Early spring is the perfect time to organise your herb garden. For the restaurants,I have just planted a few more obscure, almost forgotten herbs like Summer savoury, lovage; woodruff, hyssop, borage and rue, alongside other favourites such as parsley, chervil, tarragon, mint and lemon balm to complement the sturdy Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, fennel, marjoram and oregano. Mediterranean herbs have played an important part of people’s culture and wellbeing for thousands of year. Records date back to 2800BC when the ancient Egyptians used herbs for dyes, perfumes and food.
When cooking with herbs, there are a couple of basic rules you need to apply: Herbs with tougher leaves, generally have a stronger flavour and are usually added at the start of cooking - e.g. sage, rosemary, thyme, winter savoury. These herbs can also be added towards the end of cooking, but in this case they need to be very finely chopped and used sparingly. Whole sprigs can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, roasts and marinades, but they should be removed before serving. If the plants have soft, lush leaves, add them at the end of cooking, in order to retain their full flavour, colour and nutritional content - e.g. parsley, chervil, chives, basil, mint, coriander and dill. Fresh herbs are much more gentle than dried, normally requiring twice as much in any recipe. Dried herbs & spices need time to release their flavours and are added to the food at the beginning of cooking, while fresh are much better when added near the end.
So how can we maximize the use of our herb garden?
Well you could make Herb vinegars by placing fresh herbs into a bottle of vinegar and letting it stand, sealed, for at least 2 to 3 weeks. These vinegars are ideal as salad dressings and used in various sauces such as hollandaise. You could do the same with non-aromatic oils to make aromatic herb oils; Suitable herbs include Tarragon, sage, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and savoury. How about herb butter? Finely chopped herbs can be mixed with butter and used with freshly baked bread or to add flavour to roasted tomatoes and boiled vegetables.
Herb salts can be really useful as well, mix a little chopped thyme, rosemary, oregano and marjoram with flor de sal to make a wonderfully aromatic herb salt.
Local, wild herbs flavour one of the Islands most popular dishes, Frito Mallorquin. I must admit that most frito’s that I have tasted in local restaurants have been extremely disappointing and this is due to the fact that this is a dish that has to be cooked and served immediately and does not respond well to re-heating as it tends to dry out. The fritos you see on the counters of some tapas bars that are then heated in the microwave are the worst offenders. It is a dish that has many variations and can be made with chicken, pork or lamb. The most memorable frito that I have ever tasted was prepared and cooked for me by my friend and wonderful Chef, Benet Vicens of Bèns D'Avall restaurant in Soller. He called it “frito mallorquin de calamar” (squid) and it was a delight. The vegetables and squid were just cooked and it also looked appealing and colourful, flavoured with mint, fennel and marjoram. Here is my simple Frito Mallorquin recipe for you to try at home inspired by Benet.
Take 250g of diced pork loin or neck and fry it in 150ml of olive oil until golden brown, then add 250g of diced pancetta (streaky bacon) cook for another 2 or 3 minutes and remove. Then pan fry 250g of diced pigs liver for 1 minute and place all the meat in an earthenware bowl. Fry 600g of diced potatoes in olive oil until golden brown. Add 1 finely chopped red pepper, a bunch of chopped spring onions, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon of paprika and a bay leaf and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes until all the vegetables are soft. Mix with meat and season to taste. Sprinkle with chopped fennel, mint and marjoram and serve immediately. Serves 4-6.