Long days and warmer temperatures bring all sorts of wonderful British food into season. While we are not all lucky enough to have space for a vegetable garden, most people can grow their own herbs. What can herbs do for both the flavour of our food and our health?
Summer is a perfect time to add some interest to your food with fresh herbs. In culinary terms, a herb is an ingredient added to food to provide flavour, rather than to add any quantity to the dish. While this also applies to spices, the difference between the two is that a spice usually comes from the woody part of the plant or its seeds, whereas a herb is usually the leaf or green stalk of the plant.
Herbs have been used in cooking throughout the world, and their use goes back many centuries. Most of us in the UK are familiar with the rosemary that enhances roast lamb, the parsley and dill that improve a fish sauce or the basil that goes in pesto. At Christmas, the stuffing has to contain sage to go with the onion, while the leftovers will be improved in a casserole if a few bay leaves are thrown in.
Outside Europe, there are many more herbs that are a vital part of Asian and Pacific cuisines. Some of these are familiar to us from the British version of curry, while other more exotic ingredients such as galangal, Vietnamese coriander and kaffir lime leaves will be rather more difficult to track down.
With our busy lifestyles in the UK, most of us use dried herbs for convenience. Although these are sold as long-lasting, they do have a limited life once opened. Anyone who has ever cleared out an overflowing herb and spice rack will know that those dusty jars will only contain dusty remnants with no aroma or flavour. So make sure that you only buy dried herbs that you will use within a reasonable time.
Dried herbs are a good standby, but fresh herbs make a huge difference to the taste of dishes. The great thing about herbs is that there is no need for a big garden – if you have a sunny windowsill you can grow your own herbs. There is also no need for any gardening experience or to spend a lot of time. Just follow the instructions about how to sow the seed, how much to water and whether the seeds should be covered while germinating. All you need is some pots and some compost, and a few of the appropriate seeds. With luck, you should produce some sturdy plants which will provide plenty of fresh leaves for your cooking.
Good herbs for the home windowsill include coriander, basil and parsley. Oregano needs a little more space but once you have chopped it into your dishes, you will never want to go back to the fresh stuff. For good yields from windowsill herbs, keep cutting off leaves and consider planting replacement seeds before the first plant is past its best.
As well as their culinary uses, some herbs are often helpful for various everyday ailments, especially if made up as herb tea. Camomile has sedative effects, mint aids digestion and dill is good for fighting stomach cramps. A simple herbal tea can be made just by cutting fresh leaves and leaving them to steep in boiling water for a few minutes. Fresh mint tea is particularly good as most gardens have some mint, one of the easiest plants to grow. (Do make sure that you know what you are picking – not everything in the garden is edible, and some common items such as rhubarb leaves are actually poisonous)
Parsley was used in Tudor times to sweeten breath in an era before toothpastes, and still works if you have overindulged with the garlic. Herbs can also help skin problems – aloe vera soothes sunburn and lavender has antiseptic effects. Finally, extracts of herbs such as lavender and rosemary are used in aromatherapy for their calming effects.
What about the medical uses of herbs? Many mainstream pharmaceuticals have their origins in herbal medicine, and the tried and trusted plant remedies have long since been absorbed into conventional medicine. For instance, willow bark and spiraea plant extracts have been used for millennia to treat fevers and pain. Both contain salicylic acid which is the core ingredient of the drug that we now know as aspirin.
Generally, a herbal remedy that works will be available as conventional medicine – while occasional new discoveries are made, most of the effective remedies have long since become mainstream. High-street chemists and supermarkets will happily sell you herbal remedies, but most of these rely on the placebo effect. Don’t be fooled by ‘natural’ claims – most substances are ‘natural’ in origin and as per the warning above, some natural items are toxic.
Herbs may not be a miracle cure, but they are a wonderful addition to food. Make the most of summer and plant your seeds now.
by Kath Webb
by Laura Briggs
by Kath Webb
by Kath Webb
by Jessica Ambrose