Fresh herbs are great. When all you have are a few back-of-fridge ingredients, herbs are the stuff to reach for. Finely chop and sprinkle them on a hot bowl of yesterday’s rice, chop them up with oil and drizzle over fried eggs or bash them into a pesto and spread over hot toast. These are delicious meals at little cost.
Herbs, especially the fresh soft ones, like parsley, basil and coriander, are especially useful. I’ve found their stalks are as packed with potent flavour and freshness, and can be chopped up to revive a tired meal, just as well as their leaves or fronds. Pick out their tougher stems and save those for the cooking pot (you can also freeze them), then pound or chop the rest – leaves, stalks and all.
My fave, Nigel Slater, uses the same trick. When I was still in London a few months ago, I cooked a warm, spicy daal from his book, A year of good eating, and finished it with a good old spoonful of his fresh coriander paste.
This is what he has to say about it:
“I make a coriander paste, fresh, lively and green as a spring lawn, by processing the leaves and thinnest stems with toasted cashews, basil stems and leaves and a generous splash of lime juice. The brilliant jade paste will keep for a day or two in the fridge, its surface covered with a film of olive or groundnut oil, but is brighter tasting when used as soon as it is made.”
And bright it is. For all their invigorating power, use herbs in their entirety, and never waste them. In Italy, herbs and their stalks are used all over the place. Like, penne alle aromi – a fragrant bowlful of pasta that I’ve eaten a lot of in the past month. It’s basically pasta tossed with plenty of finely chopped soft herbs, good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Sometimes toasted pine nuts or flaked almonds, chopped sundried tomatoes or olives find their way in, but often it’s minimal, simple and good. The delicate stalks of whatever herbs you use do well here. Pesto too, of course.
And then there’s salsa verde. Piemonte, in the North of Italy and where I recently spent a month, likes to claim salsa verde as its own. Parsley is the backbone of bagnet verd (in dialect), finely chopped together with anchovies, garlic, capers, then muddled up with lemon juice or vinegar and good olive oil to make a loose paste. Here in Piemonte, they add a bit of stale bread and even a boiled potato to thicken it, but I didn’t do that and I’m not sure it’s necessary. Try it if you like.
There are variations on this recipe all over Italy. Mint and basil, even tarragon and woody herbs, like rosemary, can be used, although parsley almost always features. Sometimes garlic is replaced with shallots, or vinegar for lemon juice, sometimes capers are missed out altogether, and cornichons added in. Anchovies, though, are a must. They add a pungent umami flavour that brings every ingredient together into something quite special. Actually, preserved anchovies pop up a lot in Piemonte. Vitello tonnato with veal and tuna (!) and garlicky bagna cauda are mainstay recipes, which makes sense considering it’s a landlocked region. But anyway, anchovies YES.
If there’s ever a time to eat salsa verde, it’s when you have nothing but a few eggs in the fridge. Salsa verde, in all its briny, pungent, fresh and zingy glory will elevate a simple fried egg to a first-class meal. Anchovies and eggs make a happy marriage, and none more suited than here.
Mix and match whatever herbs you have, but just make sure they are mainly green and soft. Pick out the delicate stalks and finely chop them into the mix too. Tougher stalks can be saved for another day, added to flavour a pot of stock, stuffed into whole chicken or fish as it cooks, or to infuse a bottle of oil. Herbs can stimulate a meal in more ways than one.
When you’re done chopping, you should have a nice bright-green paste. Next, add a good swig of extra virgin olive oil. It’s up to you how spoonable you like it, so add as much as you like. Drizzle it onto hot, fresh eggs, or keep it in a jar in the fridge, topped up with a layer of oil. Eat it in the days to come, smothered on a sliced ripe tomato or drizzled over ricotta on toast. Bloody heaven.
a big handful of fresh parsley
1 clove of garlic
2-3 anchovies in oil
optional: 1 tablespoon capers
½ a lemon or red/white wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil
Remove any tough parsley stalks (save them for flavouring stock another time), then finely chop the leaves and stalks. Peel the garlic, then start chopping it up along with the anchovies and capers, if using. Bring everything to the centre of your board and keep chopping until it’s all nicely combined and finely chopped.
Scrape the paste into a bowl, then add a squeeze of lemon juice or a swig of vinegar. Stir in a good pour of oil so it’s the consistency you like. Season well with black pepper, then taste and add more lemon or vinegar, if you think it needs it. Serve immediately or top up with more oil, cover and keep in the fridge for a couple of days.
Until next time…
Keep any leftover soft herbs in a glass with a little water in the bottom (like a plant!). Store in or out of the fridge.