I have been cooking with herbs a lot this past summer, making use of the basil that I have finally worked out how to grow (essentially: have a hot and very sunny summer, plus a greenhouse) to make pesto in a vibrant shade of green you never find in the shops, and sprinkling with abandon the oregano that has also adored this almost shockingly summery summer. But roast season is coming and with it a switch from those light fresh herbs to the tough winter ones: there will soon be roast potatoes with sprigs of rosemary tucked in among them whole as they cook, and there has already been one meal featuring roast pumpkin scattered with sage leaves. Hardy winter herbs are strong and camphorous and I have no beef with them and am very much looking forward to their piny scents wafting through the house on a rainy Sunday, but their strength means that they are more for infusing or eating in small amounts, rather than for piling generously onto a dish and eating whole. I fancy trying something a little lighter, greener and softer leaved too while there is still time to be sowing it.
Three annual herbs enjoy cool winter conditions, particularly if they can spend said winter under cover. I decided to get coriander, parsley and chervil going now in the hope that I will have fresh leaves to eat in the depths of winter. Coriander is a pain early in the year, running to flower and seed at the drop of a hat. You are almost better to resign yourself to growing it for the seeds it seems to very intent on producing: try using them when they are still green and juicy. But in winter the plant’s reproductive urges are slightly quashed, and it will concentrate more on producing leaves than on passing its genes on to the next generation. I most probably have until mid-spring before mine start to get such ideas which gives me a few months of leaf production. They will stop during particularly cold spells but start growing again whenever it gets warmer. While the obvious thing to do with the leaves on a chilly night might be a carrot and coriander soup, I might force myself to make the same ingredients into a salad, just to remind myself that I don’t have to eat hot and mushed up food all the way through to April. I already have some parsley underway but these new plants will ensure there is plenty to follow through early next year. Together with some mint I am hoping to keep going through winter, I shall be eating a winter tabbouleh. Tabbouleh is perhaps the most herbal of all dishes, seeing as it contains the highest percentage of herbs. It really is almost entirely chopped mint and parsley mixed with a little bulgar wheat, and usually with diced tomatoes and cucumbers and all mixed with a generous and lemony salad dressing. I will just swap in the cucumber and tomatoes for tiny cauliflower florets.
Chervil is the daintiest of the lot. It hates to be transplanted as it has a long tap root, so I have sown into modules and will lift and replant these whole into a larger pot in the greenhouse once the seedlings are sturdy enough. It too bolts in summer and should be happier under cover in winter. It has a parsley-like taste with a hint of aniseed but loses its flavour on meeting heat, so stir in at the last moment or use in dressings. I love it sprinkled onto scrambled eggs or – when I’m determinedly turning away from the comfort food – in a yoghurty dip for winter crudités.