One of the most transformational things you can do to improve your cooking is to use fresh herbs. Fresh herbs lift a dish from the ordinary to the special, adding pep and a verdant sparkle to dishes.
Don't just use fresh herbs as a garnish. Make them a central part of a dish, as in this recipe for an emerald salsa verde sauce for fish. Or simply gather sprigs of mint, basil, parsley between flat bread, Middle Eastern style, with a sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of lemon as a casual sandwich.
There is a generational divide when it comes to fresh herbs – parsley in particular. Younger people, inspired by cooks such as Ottolenghi, are more likely to use fresh rather than dried herbs. When it comes to parsley, the best known herb in European cookery according to The Oxford Companion to Food, curly parsley is almost uniquely bought by older people. The younger generation of cooks have made the switch to flat leaf parsley.
For years in Britain, curly parsley was used ubiquitously as a garnish - the crinkly leaves tucked in everywhere like moss - rather than for taste. In catering, before every plate goes out to the feeding public, you are exhorted to 'green it up'. Somehow, a few fresh herbs bring a dish to life - rather like the fresh food produce being at the entrance of a supermarket.
Recent research by lovefreshherbs.co.uk, which supplies potted and cut herbs to all the main supermarkets, claims that coriander has supplanted parsley as the best-selling herb, with basil coming second place. Trends in herb buying are influenced by ethnic populations; towns with high Asian populations, for instance, will buy more coriander for use in curry. Best-selling cookbooks will also be part of that picture: dill is currently in ninth place and rising thanks to the recent vogue for Scandinavian and Eastern European cookery.
I suspect that people feel they are doing a little gardening, in a manageable form, when they buy potted herbs. How to keep them going? Pioneering herb grower Jekka McVicar at her Bristol herb farm gave me some advice:
- Don't overwater basil. Keep it thirsty.
- Buy three pots of a herb and cut them in sequence, so that one is always growing new shoots.
- Only pinch off the tops of the herbs - this encourages growth.
- Replant in a bigger pot.
- Split up plants. Reduce the pot to 2 or 3 roots and plant the rest out.
Salsa Verde Recipe with Sea Bass and Potatoes
At its most basic, parsley and garlic equals 'persillade', which, when creamed together with salted butter, makes a delightful garlic bread spread. But add in capers and anchovies, and you have a classic Mediterranean sauce for fish or meat. I also use salsa verde streaked over potatoes or grilled vegetables.
Ideally the ingredients are minced using a stone pestle and mortar or chopped finely by hand. To save time you can use a food processor, but somehow it doesn't taste quite as good.
For the potatoes:
1 kilo boiling potatoes such as Charlottes, peeled, quartered
1 tsp sea salt
2 litres boiling water
For the salsa verde:
4 anchovy fillets in oil, drained
1 tbsp (heaped) salted capers, rinsed, drained
1 clove garlic
Juice of half a lemon
60g parsley leaves (picked from 2 packs or pots of parsley)
30g basil leaves (picked from 1 pack or pot of basil)
100ml extra virgin olive oil
For the sea bass:
4 tbsp olive oil
2 large or 4 small fillets (approximately 200g per person), washed and blotted dry on kitchen paper
1 tsp sea salt
Wedge of lemon
Prepare the potatoes and boil for 20 minutes in a large pan of salted boiling water. Drain and cover until needed. Preheat the oven to 200ºC.
Grind the ingredients for the salsa verde together to form a chunky paste. It is unlikely to need salt with the anchovies and capers but add more if needed.
Add the olive oil to a baking tray and place the fillets skin side down. Scatter with sea salt. Place in the preheated oven and cook for 10 minutes, then flip over and cook for 5 minutes more.
Serve with the potatoes, a wedge of lemon and the glistening oily salsa verde spooned over the fish.