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Herb – a cook’s companion: cookbook review

July 20, 2021

cookbook and onion tartOpening a new cookbook on your kitchen table, tearing scraps of paper to mark the most tempting recipes is such a pleasure. But the cookbooks that you put on your bedside to delve into more deeply, savouring the stories, slowly turning the pristine pages are the ones I treasure most.

Herb/a cook’s companion by Mark Diacono falls firmly into the second category and couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.

Since last Autumn, every time I’ve drawn the curtains I see a large garden. It’s abundant with grassy knolls, wild meadow areas, an apple tree, hedges and flowers, but no edible plants.  The unpredictable impact of the pandemic meant that a brief stay turned into a longer one without a firm end date in sight. I made tentative plans for a herb garden, dug out a border and ordered some seeds. In part, this was a longing for the freshness, flavour and profusion I’ve become used to in Dubai. Shoppers – both men and women – inspect every bunch, raising them to check the scent, the buoyancy of the leaves, the crispness of the stems and return them to the shelf with a look of disparagement if they fail the test.

Herb garden is probably a grand name for my tentative steps into horticulture; a small bed with a few aromatic plants might be more accurate. I scrounged a few cuttings, planted a lot of seeds in pots and sprinkled into the ground. The result has been mixed, I’ve learned a lot, some have not thrived, but I have a few herb varieties in abundance. I need inspiration and advice for dealing with quantities that far exceed the sad, limp offerings of British supermarkets.

herb cookbook

Herb/a cook’s companion is a beautiful book to handle; the hard cover is embossed with green leaves, it’s solid in my hands and very tactile. To describe Herb as just a cookbook is inaccurate, more a comprehensive guide to growing, harvesting and storing herbs as well as using them in the kitchen.  While the recipes and ideas are inspiring for my glut of herbs, it’s the book I wish I’d had before I sent off for a single seed packet or dug my trowel into the soil.

Mark Diacono is a new name to me even though he’s extolled as an ‘award-winning (and green-fingered) food writer‘ on the jacket. Brought up with a reverence for books, I  have an aversion to defacing them otherwise my pencil would be underlining great sections of his beautifully crafted passages. By the light of my bedside lamp I’m immersed in a scented border or over a pestle and mortar effusing potent aromas.  A few examples (I could easily have included more):

‘Anise hyssop looks like the offspring of a one-night stand mint had with a nettle.’

‘I used to think of dill as I do Peter Cushing: cast in a few specific roles, for which only it will do.’

‘This is the brother of the bulb fennel – both Foeniculum vulgare – this one lanky, the other has the bigger arse: Laurel to the other’s Hardy.’

‘Much as I am unable to pass a football without inclining my foot towards it, I bend to every lavender plant and play the softest tug of war with its flowers to lend my hands its scent. Somehow its perfume matches its colour. It is, like New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, as much uplifting as melancholy.’

‘This is fresher than Mae West after three gins.’

‘Once in a while, an ingredient tugs at your collar. You’ll be watching the match, chatting to a loved one, engrossed at the cinema, and a biplane will fly across your mind trailing a ribbon that says, ‘I wonder what that would be like on hot chips’ or ‘if I sprinkled that on a steak before frying as well as after…’. This salt is one of those.’

herb cookbook

The book starts with ‘Herb Skills’. Mark says that this chapter will ‘guide you through all you need to get the best from herbs in the kitchen, to capture their flavour, to preserve them, to know how and when to add them. It has all the principles you need to grow herbs too…’

This would have been so useful when planning and planting my own patch, rather than juggling individual seed packets. It gives an overview of the soil types needed, the aspect, and choosing what to grow. He recommends this is based on your personal preference; what you eat most of, ease of growing, and also a bit of exploring the unknown. Mark invites you into the garden with a clear and comprehensive guide to preparing the soil, planting out, dividing plants, watering, feeding and harvesting.

Once you’ve got them into your kitchen, there’s advice about using fresh or dried herbs, the art and methods of chopping them, capturing and preserving their scents and flavours. He takes you through freezing, drying and infusing into salts, syrups, vinegars, oils, butters and jellies.

In the chapter on individual herbs, listed in alphabetical order, each one is given a dedicated page giving varieties, growing, harvesting and how to use in cooking including a list of things they have an affinity with. I love the heading for the introduction ‘The bouncer at the door’ as Mark explains how he has chosen which herbs to include, ‘…a personal selection, with all the bias, contradiction and inconsistency that implies.’ There are many familiar friends like oregano, thyme, parsley, basil and rosemary. Then there are those I’ve never heard of including shiso, pineapple sage and winter savoury:

Shiso aka perilla, forms a rope bridge of flavour that spans the gap between mint and cumin.

herb cookbook with cherries and chocolateRecipes are the heart of the cook’s companion starting with some classic, herbal combinations. These have a lot in common but help you learn about the countries they come from in the way they differ. Simple, fragrant blends like French pistou, persillade,  Italian pesto, North African chermoula and adjika from the Caucasus plus their punchier relations – chimichurri and salsa verde.  Concoctions of salt, butter, oil and vinegar sit alongside interesting chutneys. One simmers nectarines and onions with lime leaves…

What is the collective term for supermarket nectarines…? An impersonation? An apology? A scandal of nectarines; yes that’ll do.  Cooking is their only salvation…

The book is then divided into Small Things, Soups and Sides; Bigger Things; Sweet Things; and Drinks. Most have an image of the finished dish opposite the recipe (but not all).

Again Mark brings fresh ideas with the familiar herbs, but unless you have a garden as prolifically stocked as his you may not be able to make several of these recipes.* However, if there weren’t recipes for the wide range of herbs for which he extols the virtues then this would be just another herb recipe book (there are many) and rather miss the point.

Take dried epazote (‘picked fresh [ ] it is a disgrace. You may as well suck your dog’s bed.). Mark uses it in a sumptuous-sounding Mole Verde – a lake of green, sunken with crisply-fried chicken and toasted pumpkin seeds. And there’s Apple, Quartered Charred Little Gems, Pancetta, Shiso ‘Zaa’atar where the plate is strewn with shiso’s spiky, purple leaves.

Chervil and lovage crop up quite often; these are not found in my local Morrison’s. And I don’t have access to the leaves of fig trees, blackcurrant bushes or rose scented geraniums.

herb cookbook

 

For some recipes, only the chosen herb will do, but for alternatives are given for many. I miss the huge bunches of fresh fenugreek that are available in the Middle East for making Methi Paratha, however there’s an option to use dried.  For Lamb Dhansak he says that the fenugreek leaf steals all the glory but using mint and coriander instead makes a very different, but very good variation. With others you might have to use the recipe as a guide and tinker a little.

The dishes are fresh and bright, or deeply comforting and the herbs bring old favourites to life. Herb Tempura, Herby Egg Mayo on Toast, Thyme and Parsley Honey Bread and Butter Pudding, Bay Chestnut Chocolate Cherry Cake for instance.

Several recipes are great ideas for assembling herb-laden ingredients especially salads: Spelt with Cucumber, Lemon, Lovage and Mint; Griddled Peaches, Basil, Watercress, Parmesan and Pine Nuts; Cherries, Lancashire Lovage, Honey, Lavender.

While writing this with the windows wide open, fanning myself on one of the hottest days of the year, the prospect of beef that’s been braised in ale with persillade or rosemary and fennel infused porchetta are deeply inviting for later in the year when there’s a nip in the air.

There’s odd quirky recipe; Tarragon and Olive Oil Ice Cream anyone? Intriguing. The drinks range from Raspberry and Lemon Thyme Switchel to a Tarragon gimlet.

Thyme is abundant in my herb patch right now. While thumbing the pages for inspiration I stumbled upon a tart that uses it liberally in the pastry and the filling. As it’s summer I used onions rather than leeks (sanctioned in the intro). It’s a simple recipe and I liked the easy way of folding in the rather ragged edges of my pastry rather than coaxing it into a tart case. The slightly medicinal tone of thyme and bay leaves are the perfect foil for the sweetness of the slow-cooked onion especially with a dusting of cheese that turns golden.  It’s vying for first place with my regular favourite onion tart (from Tamasin Day-Lewis – Art of the Tart).

Herb/a cook’s companion has moved into my kitchen but it’ll spend equal time as a bedtime read or out in the garden.  This book will definitely earn its keep.

*You can buy an extensive range of herbs seeds and plants online from Mark’s Otter Farm.

Thanks to Hardie Grant – Quadrille who published this book and sent me a review copy. All views my own.

Do you have any favourite herbs? How do you use them?

Please forward this review to any herb-growing friends you think might be interested or share on social.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tricia Evans permalink
    July 20, 2021 1:53 pm

    Another great & entertaining read Sally – & I’ve sent it on to Sian who is currently establishing her own herb & vegetable garden in Bulgaria.

  2. July 20, 2021 2:28 pm

    Sounds wonderful!

  3. kstienemeier permalink
    July 20, 2021 5:04 pm

    Lovely review Sally it also made me yearn for the bounty of the European markets I miss so much in Florida’s supermarket wasteland.
    Also sound like a fun book to browse and chuckle.
    Sadly nothing really grows here – it’s simply to hot unless you have a gardener to water and pamper all day long. Weirdly enough not even indoors.
    But that doesn’t stop me from driving 30 mins one way to find a specific ingredient or herb.
    Thanks got the journey to your garden cottage.
    xox
    Karin

  4. July 27, 2021 2:05 am

    I love herbs – that’s how you write “flavor” 🙂 Thyme, sage, rosemary, and basil are my staples, especially during summer as we grow them. Dried bay leaf is a darling all year around 🙂

  5. August 2, 2021 4:42 pm

    A great review!

  6. September 8, 2021 6:12 am

    herbs are the things that are being use by mankind for hundreds of years and this is the modern use of herbs. a honest and true review about the book

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