Apologies for the slightly clickbaity, buzzfeedy title. You won’t BELIEVE what these herbs did next…number 5 will SHOCK you...et cetera. Ahem. As my interest in food has diversified into gardening and growing my own fruit and vegetables, I’ve discovered some wonderful edible treasures that you don’t often hear about but that are widely available in garden centres or the internet. These herbal beauties will transform your cooking. Many of them are variants of the more common herbs that we can buy in the supermarkets, but I’d encourage you to seek out these lesser-known varieties and give them a try. They can all be grown in pots, so you don’t even need a garden or a lot of space. They’re fabulous for adding new interest to old, staple dishes, or for becoming the star of a new recipe. You might be surprised at what you can grow for your cooking - even exotic Asian herbs can be cultivated in the UK with a little care.
1. Lemon verbena (photo above). A gorgeous herb with elegant tapering leaves that have a beautiful glossy, bright green colour. There’s something quite exotic-looking about the way the leaves arrange themselves, I think. It grows well in summer – put it in the sun if you can, and make sure it doesn’t get too dry. I grow mine in a pot, because that way you can move it indoors during the winter after its leaves have dropped. It’s quite hard to find in garden centres, but you can order it on ebay, which is where I got my two plants, and they’re thriving. The leaves have a powerful zingy lemon fragrance that is wonderful in tea – simply steep a cluster of leaves in boiling water for a few minutes – but also excellent in fish dishes. I like to stuff rainbow trout with a few verbena leaves, seal it in a parcel with a splash of white wine and bake it for a delicious easy dinner. You could also add it to a fish pie, or finely chop a few leaves and use to garnish a fish dish or a fresh salad, perhaps with some lemon-roasted chicken. Lemon verbena also makes a fabulous fresh, fragrant ice cream – I use David Lebovitz’s recipe. The ice cream is great with fruit-based cakes and desserts, particularly with a summery apricot crumble or an apple cake.
2. Grapefruit mint. As its name would suggest, this is a variety of mint with an incredible grapefruit fragrance that has to be smelled to be believed. The leaves are more flamboyant than normal mint, slightly ruffled and also a little fuzzy. They are a duller, darker green than the fresh, pointy-tipped spearmint or peppermint you find sold in bunches or pots in the supermarkets. It’s very easy to grow – stick it in a biggish pot with good drainage (don’t plant in the soil as mint can take over and grow like a weed), water only when the soil feels dry, and harvest regularly to keep it nice and bushy – the more you cut off, the more it grows! The scent and flavour are sharp and tangy, with that astringent bite of bitter grapefruit but also a wonderful mellow perfume. You can use this in any recipe that calls for mint, particularly if you’re combining it with other citrus flavours, so try it with roasted lemon chicken, or a salmon salad. I love it in this Vietnamese glass noodle, edamame, pomelo and crab salad, and also to brighten up other east Asian salads. It works brilliantly, as you might imagine, in a salad with grapefruit segments, avocado and fried halloumi, and is also really good stirred into starchy grain salads, such as bulgur wheat, quinoa or brown rice.
3. Basil: Thai, lemon and purple. You used to be able to buy Thai basil in Waitrose (where else), but my local branch has stopped selling it. Yes, I am aware this is a first world problem of epic proportions, but Thai basil has a flavour that is difficult to replicate with anything else, and I have found certain recipes sadly lacking without. It is muskier, milder and much more aniseed-heavy than traditional basil, with less sweetness and more potency. One whiff of it immediately transports me back to Vietnam (not Thailand, oddly), which is where I first became hooked on its intriguing, complex scent. Fortunately, it’s easy to grow from seed, and the seeds are readily available at garden centres, as are lemon basil and purple basil. The latter is similar to normal basil, but with beautiful purple-green leaves that provide a lovely colour contrast in pale dishes, like pasta, chicken or fish. Lemon basil has all the sweetness of normal basil, but with a wonderful sharp, citrusy kick. Plant a few seeds in pots and you can have a year-round supply of all three. Thai basil is perfect for east Asian curries, and is essential for a chicken and Thai basil stir-fry – one of my favourite Thai dishes. It’s also excellent in this Ottolenghi coconut, rice and mango salad, which I like to serve alongside a beef rendang. I love it in Vietnamese pho (chicken noodle soup) and Vietnamese summer rolls – they’re not quite right without it. It’s great in this ginger and chilli stir-fried pineapple with peanuts. Lemon basil is fantastic in Mediterranean chicken, pork or fish dishes – think pasta, meatballs and pork chops with a white wine sauce. I bet it would also make an amazing pesto.
4. Kaffir lime. Don’t even bother buying these dried in a pot. You may as well put potpourri in your curries. There is no match for a fresh kaffir lime leaf, with its unmistakable sharp, citrus fragrance. They’re essential in a lot of Malaysian, Indonesian and Thai food, where they give sauces and stir-fries an incredible exotic, zingy perfume. You can buy them frozen in Asian grocers, and Sainsburys have started selling fresh ones, but kaffir lime plants are surprisingly easy to grow if you have a conservatory or warm, sunny spot in the house. You wouldn’t think a plant native to south east Asia could grow in Yorkshire, but plants can be surprising. I ordered mine from Suttons last year, and it’s quadrupled in size since I bought it. The trick is to wait until the compost is really quite dry before watering sparingly – kaffir limes don’t like too much water. Mist regularly with a spray bottle. Use citrus food during the summer (you can buy this in a little Baby Bio bottle and it lasts for ages) when you water. Put it near a sunny window, but not in direct sun. Repot as the plant grows. I think eventually they’ll start to produce fruit, which will be a glorious day, but for now just enjoy the fresh leaves and the amazing flavour they’ll bring to your cooking. Snip off leaves as and when you need them – pruning the plant seems to make it grow even more quickly, so you’ll have loads of leaves before you know it. If you have too many, they freeze very well. I use these in my confit duck leg Thai red curry, my lamb shank Thai curry and my slow-braised sticky Asian beef shin with pomelo salad – three of the best dishes in my repertoire. They’re also great in a Malaysian beef rendang and in the Cambodian curry paste, kroeung – see my recipe here – which you can use to make an incredible fish curry steamed in banana leaves, known as amok.
5. Pineapple sage. Another of those ‘does what it says on the tin’ herbs – it’s sage, but with the unmistakable sweet, tropical aroma of pineapple. The leaves are darker and more pointy than normal sage. I grow it in the garden in a sunny spot – it seems pretty tolerant of most weather in the summer. It’s great with pork, as you’d expect, particularly in tropical-themed pork dishes like pulled pork with mango salsa or stir-fries. I bet it would be amazing in a relish to go with this Cuban pulled pork (if you haven’t made this yet, you need to – it involves marinating a huge piece of pig in RUM). It’s also good with fresh, white cheeses like goat’s or feta, particularly when combined with earthy pulses such as lentils or quinoa. I grow normal sage too, but this is a lovely interesting variation. Try it in an Italian gremolata or finely chopped and sprinkled over rich meat dishes for a brighter flavour.