Herb of the Month – Parsley

The fact that I have chosen Parsley as the herb of the month for December reflects not that it is at its best at this time but how essential this herb is.  Dried parsley would be utterly pointless so it is worth making the effort to grow a fresh supply all year round and we are lucky that our climate enables us to do this.  Several years of trying to track down parsley as the last remaining item on my Christmas food shopping list taught me the value of growing it year round!  I reckon to get through two good-sized bunches over the Christmas period.

Growing Parsley

Parsley is a biennial herb, but in its second year it tends quickly to run to seed.  Nevertheless this stands you in good stead until the current year’s sowing is ready to cut.  There is plenty of folklore attached to Parsley, one being that a good harvest is ensured if you sow the seeds on Good Friday.  Easter is a moveable feast, but if it happens to be early, so that Good Friday falls in March, I would be happy to go along with the superstition.  If Good Friday is not until mid April, I would find it hard to wait so long.  Spring sowings are best planted in a semi-shaded position whilst for a late summer sowing (mid July-August), intended for winter consumption, your choice of site will be more concerned with providing protection from cold winds.  For overwintering I tend to cover one row of flat-leafed parsley with a cloche whilst curled leaf parsley I sow in pots to keep in the greenhouse.

There are two key things to bear in mind when growing parsley.  The first is that it is very deep-rooted.  Germination time is very slow – said to be because the seed must first go down to meet the devil and back six times!  The second point is not unrelated – that is that it is a very thirsty plant, hence the deep roots that help it search out moisture.  With the amount of rain we tend to receive I find it hard to believe that failures in germination in my garden can be caused by a lack of moisture, but perhaps, because of my tendency to sow under the protection of a plastic cloche, this could in fact be the case.  The reason for the cover is two-fold, on the one hand it helps warm up the soil early in the season but secondly it protects the seeds from birds, which tend to use my herb bed as a dust-bath.  I frequently find parsley that has germinated outside of the row in which it was sown and the birds are, I presume, the reason for this.  Parsley seeds can be soaked in warm water overnight before sowing to aid germination, and watering the drill into which they are to be sown is also sensible.

Another bit of folklore – it was said that if parsley was transplanted misfortune would descend the household.  I have been saved from finding out by being spectacularly unsuccessful in any attempts to transplant pot grown seedlings to the outside herb bed.  I have had occasional success with the curled-leaf variety, but none whatsoever with the flat leaf.  So if you are planting in pots, make sure they are deep enough for the roots and just move the entire pot outside when inside protection is no longer required.

Culinary Uses

As you might imagine there are numerous uses for parsley, the most widely used of all herbs.  Firstly there is its role as an essential flavouring in stocks and stews – usually as part of a Bouquet Garni.  The stalks are just as flavoursome as the leaves, so use them for this purpose.

Next it is widely used as a garnish.  Forget the naff sprig on the side of the plate, but think instead of Italian Gremolata (chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest) used to top meat dishes such as Osso Buco, or the French version Persillade (similar to Gremolata but without the lemon zest), used to garnish  meat or vegetables especially lamb and potatoes.  Another take on this theme is chopped parsley and shallot – milder than garlic and perfect on top of oysters.  Chopped raw parsley freshens and lifts any dish but it is not spoiled by being briefly heated and so is used to finish both hot and cold foods.  Deep fried curled parsley is another popular garnish, especially with fish.

Parsley is less frequently the dominant flavouring, although you will note that in the recipe for Tabbouleh, given previously when considering mint, it is actually used in twice the proportion to the mint.  A good old fashioned parsley sauce is however one example of where parsley is allowed to shine in its own right.  I love it with gammon and broad beans.  The trick is not to make the sauce too thick, a velouté – made with half stock and half single cream is better than the traditional British white sauce.

Medicinal Uses

Chewing parsley as a breath freshener is a well known remedy, and the reason it so frequently partners garlic.  Less well known are the diuretic properties that make it helpful in treating urinary infections or that it increases mothers’ milk and tones the uterine muscles although should only be taken after birth, not during the pregnancy.

Given the prevalence of head lice nowadays it is also good to known of a natural remedy.  Apparently a tea made from crushed parsley seeds, then poured over the head and left, with the head wrapped in a towel for 30 minutes will kill the lice.  The hair should then be left to dry naturally.

Recipes:

Apricot, Celery and Walnut Stuffing for Turkey

Parsley, Lemon and Thyme Stuffing for Chicken

Tabbouleh

Persillade /Gremolata

Parsley Sauce

Herb Butter

Winter Celery

Celery is one of the triumvirate of aromatic vegetables used in the kitchen.  Together with onion and carrot this collection of flavourings are referred to as a Mirepoix in French cuisine – the starting point for any casserole.  With such a fundamental role to play, it is fortunate that nowadays we can import celery all year round, and have developed varieties that have extended the growing period from May until January in this country, yet such familiarity can cause us to miss out on the excitement of the traditional blanched (white) celery that is in season here for just a couple of months leading up to Christmas.

Wild celery, often known as “smallage” was used originally for medicinal purposes, treating anxiety, insomnia, rheumatism, gout, toothache and arthritis.  Like many medicinal plants it is very bitter in flavour (and, I can report from my own experience, self seeds like crazy).  At some time in the Middle Ages a sweeter, more tender variety was developed for eating as a vegetable and by the 19th century growers in East Anglia found that by earthing it up in September they could keep the vegetable going until the more lucrative Christmas market.  The earthing-up was intended to protect the plant from frost, but by excluding the light, it also made it white in colour, more tender and sweeter in flavour.

This white Fenland celery became particularly popular in Victorian times, when its appearance at the end of the Christmas dinner as an accompaniment to Stilton was considered de rigour.  The traditional method was both labour and land intensive as wide rows were required to allow for the black peaty Fenland soil to be banked up around the celery.  The celery was cut by hand, traditionally using the hard root to trim the roots of other bunches into a “pencil point” shape.  However the celery went to market unwashed and with the flavoursome leaves intact, so that represents some labour saving on today’s harvesting and packaging.  Celery needs a lot of water when it is growing, and is today often grown hydroponically, but this does not compare in flavour with that grown in soil.  The watery fens provide ideal growing conditions, including plenty of sunshine.

Such is the reputation of Fenland celery that the French have begun growing the Fenland varieties and marketing it as Fenland Celery, although it is green rather than blanched white, and, of course, not grown in the same peaty soil.  The east Anglian growers have now banded together to apply to the EU for protection for the name Fenland Celery.  Whilst I have in the past been critical of the relevance of many of these protected food names, the Fenland Celery application does appear to based on the sound link between product and terroir.  But my acid test is always does it taste significantly different to similar products grown elsewhere.  With this in mind, I conducted a taste test with half a dozen people and these, in order of preference, were the results:

  1. Fenland Celery – a notably more complex flavour, without bitterness, which would make it ideal for eating raw but also give a depth of flavour to cooked dishes.
  2. Organic green celery – somewhat too bitter for some people to enjoy raw, although good for cooking.
  3. Conventionally grown celery – far more white in colour than the organic celery, and without the bitterness, but also fairly tasteless.  Unlikely to offend anyone, but also unlikely to provoke much enthusiasm.

For those wishing you conduct their own taste comparison, the sad news is that the Fenland Celery crop, at least on a commercial scale, is already over for this year.  The exceptionally mild autumn meant that the crop couldn’t be earthed up early enough to blanche it properly because of the risk of rot setting in.  So this season was instead used to experiment with some alternative techniques, including environmentally-friendly cardboard, to mimic the blanching effect without damaging the plants.  So what was sold this year was comparatively green, but still with most of the distinctive taste.  There are a few market gardeners who may be able to supply the Christmas market, but not living in that part of the country, I don’t know where best to advise you to try – anyone with  more information please do comment.

Hopefully my local market gardener will have some of her celery at market this week.  It is not blanched, but comes complete with leaves, which is always a bonus.   For seasonal recipes using celery see here.

Lovely leftovers

Lovely Leftovers

Honestly, I mean it… I love using up leftovers! I realise not everyone feels the same. I have one friend who, as soon as she can summon the energy to rise from the sofa post Christmas dinner, strips every bit of meat from the turkey carcase and puts it all in the freezer. Only then, she says, can she relax and look forward to the rest of Christmas knowing she won’t have to face the turkey again until she is ready!

I, on the other hand, go all Victorian at Christmas, imagining I am presiding over some enormous household (when, in fact, most of the time there are just the two of us!) enjoying every bit of the cold table with all my homemade pickles until finally I make stock from the turkey carcase – the best stock of the year.

It has also become something of a matter of pride to see how long I can last before I have to shop for food again. I can now get through to the end of January without a major shop – bliss! I realise this also marks me out as a bit strange when it seems that everyone else has suffered such withdrawal symptoms following the shops being closed for Christmas Day that they get up extra early for the Boxing Day sales – well each to their own. But in addition to our growing awareness and guilt about how much food goes to waste, there are numerous other reasons – illness, extreme weather conditions, or a lack of money for example, why it is worthwhile having a few recipes that utilise leftovers up your sleeve.

Most food cultures have recipes that came about in just this way but have become so loved that meals are planned to ensure the necessary leftovers will be available. Bubble and Squeak is one such from Britain, Shepherd’s Pie another, although more often these days made with fresh minced meat rather than the leftovers from the Sunday roast. Incidentally, if your Christmas leftovers repertoire runs only to Turkey curry, you can take heart from knowing that you are cooking another British classic. The first recipe for “Currey the India way” was published by Hannah Glasse in 1747, who was responding to the demand from those returning from positions with the East India Company.

However, for real inspiration relating to leftovers I look to one of my greatest food heroes, the late George Perry-Smith. He was really the grandfather of the British restaurant culture, although I don’t suppose he would make much of a lot that is served today. He founded the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath following the Second World War, a time when virtually the only places where one could eat out were in posh hotels and rationing was still in place. Of course, eating out was a rare treat, for special anniversaries only, not something we expect to do at least once a week when we can’t be bothered to cook. George was a self taught cook, inspired, at least initially, by Elizabeth David and his own experience of French bistros. There was really no template for him to follow in Britain. Certainly no concept of portion control that has so much to answer for in today’s way of buying food for restaurants. George tended to cook whole joints, on the bone, and people were offered as little or as much as they wanted. This should have spelt financial disaster, although actually evened out pretty well, but he also learnt to make full use of the leftovers. So much so that his Cold Table, where many of the leftovers were reincarnated, became the most popular feature of the whole meal.

George was an inspirational teacher (his first profession) who created a network of disciples throughout the Southwest and beyond. In his book The British at Table written in 1983, former Good Food Guide Editor Christopher Driver lists 12 George Perry-Smith protégés whose own restaurants had also featured in the guide and that didn’t include others with successful food businesses like private catering. Stephen Markwick of Culinaria in Bristol is the last chef to have worked directly with George who is still cooking professionally today. Thankfully Fiona Beckett has recently persuaded Stephen to allow her to write a book documenting his remarkable 35 years at the stove and in it Stephen fully acknowledges the enduring influence that George has had on his approach to cooking. The book includes a recipe for the George Perry-Smith classic of Pheasant braised with Port and celery, which is immediately followed, in true Perry-Smith fashion, with suggestions for using the leftovers: fantastic deep-fried rissoles served with a consommé and a glass of Madeira. Using leftovers is all about improvisation so it occurs to me that it would work equally well with turkey, perhaps with a few leftover chestnuts included in the rillettes, and with Stephen’s permission I am pleased to give the recipe here.

Pheasant Rissoles

In the restaurant we make rissoles from the meat from the pheasant legs and sometimes an extra whole bird. You simply pass the cooked meat through a mincer and add this to some finely chopped shallot sweated off with some finely chopped mushrooms (you can chop these in a Robot Coupe or other food processor). You can also add some of the bacon bits and vegetables from the sauce. Add some reduced pheasant stock, sauce or gravy – just enough to moisten the mixture, season it well and refrigerate it. We cut circles of pastry with a cutter and fill them with the mixture – a bit like a baby pasty – then deep fry them and serve them with a cup of consommé and a glass of dry Madeira.

(From A Very Honest Cook by Stephen Markwick and Fiona Beckett)

The instructions for making a consommé are not given in the book, but you should remember that this is an improvised recipe, making use of what you have to hand. Therefore, at its most simple, a consommé is just a clear stock. A “double consommé” is richer, usually involving the same stock making process, but starting with a stock rather than water, hence the “double”. Likewise, ensuring that the stock is clear can also be a simple process of just lifting the solidified fat from the surface of the chilled stock and pouring the bulk carefully so that any residue is left in the bottom. If you have made the stock carefully in the first place, i.e. not allowing it to boil and skimming regularly, this should be sufficient but if not, whisked egg whites can be added to the cold stock to help gather up the impurities when it is gently re-heated and then strained through muslin.

Rather than getting hung up on the ultimate consommé, what I would like to consider here is basic stock making. I recently saw someone described as “the sort of woman who makes her own stock”. What sort of image does that conjure up I wonder? In a world of enlightened agriculture, where we eat “Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” I think all women, and men, will want to be the sort of people who make their own stock.

So why is proper stock so important? Well, our taste buds are capable of distinguishing 5 categories of taste – salt, sour, bitter, sweet and – the most recently identified one – umami. You may never have heard of umami before but you will certainly have experienced the effect when your umami sensors have been activated. The umami experience can best be described as intensely savoury, an enhancement of the sweet or salty tastes of other ingredients as well as a modifier of the bitter or sour. The food trade often tries to achieve this by including monosodium glutamate but glutamates are an amino acid that occurs naturally in protein rich foods. They can, however, only activate our umami sensors when they are in their free form – that is not bound with other protein molecules. In order for protein to be broken down to release the glutamates it needs to go through a process of ageing, maturing, long cooking or fermentation. Although there are non-meat sources of free glutamates, for example shiitake mushrooms or Parmesan cheese, one of the most effective sources comes from cooking meat. So, for example, a chicken stock will enhance the flavours of a vegetable soup far better than a vegetable stock can, and without any chemical additives. Therefore, when you have roasted a joint of meat it seems criminal to throw away the makings of one of the best flavour enhancers that there is – the bones.

In addition to the superb flavour you get from stock, it is widely regarded to have health-giving properties, although I am not sure of the science behind this! However, if you are feeling under the weather, having either succumbed to one of winter’s illnesses or perhaps a glass too many, test out the theory for yourself.

Once you are in the habit of making stock there is really very little to it. Admittedly it takes time, but you do not have to be present for most of it. I generally find that when I am clearing away the remains of a roast it takes no more than 5 minutes to add a few flavourings to the bones and the water can be brought up to simmering point in less time than it takes to complete the rest of the clearing away. If you are not going to be around at all during the 3-4 hours it takes to complete the stock you could put it in a very low oven rather than using the stove top. Don’t worry if you haven’t got all of the usual flavouring ingredients – you’ll still be getting a very worthwhile flavour from just the bones.

Without using any further meat, if you utilise the bones, you will automatically have at least one further meal from every joint of meat you cook. I have already mentioned soup as a one example, whilst a risotto is another, and perhaps more substantial meal, that just doesn’t taste the same unless you make it with a proper stock. Stock also plays a vital supporting role in most casseroles and many sauces.

Hopefully this has been enough to persuade you to add stock-making to your list of resolutions for the New Year and if you would like more information about the process you can find it here.