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5 unusual herbs and how to eat them

Herbs 3

With summer (hopefully) on its way, it's time to start thinking about new additions to your garden.

I'm a firm believer that no garden is complete without a section of edible herbs to add interest in the kitchen, and growing your own is much more economical than buying tiny bags from the supermarket.

Moreover, it gives you access to much more variety, particularly if you track down a good garden centre or supplier (esoteric herbs can increasingly be bought online). Beyond the usual mint, thyme and rosemary, there is a whole world of exciting flavours out there, and unusual herbs can add a real wow factor to even the most ordinary dishes, as well as providing you with wafts of fragrant delight in the garden.

Here are my top five interesting culinary herbs, and some suggestions for how to use them to take your cuisine to new heights.

Lemon verbena

Possibly my favourite herb of all time, this fragrant plant has beautiful tapered leaves with a citrus flavour rivalled only by lemongrass for freshness and that irresistible zesty tang. It's a pretty plant to grow, but make sure you grow it outside rather than attempting to keep it as a houseplant – whitefly and other pests go mad for those juicy leaves. Ensure it is well drained with a decent amount of sun, and snip off those fragrant leaves as you need them.

  • Scatter the baby leaves over desserts for a lemony kick – they work particularly well with anything creamy, and I love them decorating a blackcurrant cheesecake. Also good on a lemon tart or over ice cream.
  • Infuse the leaves in boiling water for a delicious, soothing, refreshing tea. Also try this chilled as iced tea in the summer.
  • Simmer the leaves in a sugar syrup then strain and use as a cordial, or over ice cream, or drizzled over a sponge cake for an epic lemon drizzle.
  • Add a few leaves to a pan of poached or roasted fruit – it works particularly well with berries, peaches and apricots.
  • Use to infuse fruit jams and jellies. Try my recipe for lemon verbena jelly here.
  • Tuck a few leaves into the belly of a fish before baking or grilling. It's very good with trout and sea bass.
  • The leaves also make a fragrant pesto, and are lovely thinly shredded and added to salads, especially with fish, chicken or soft cheeses.

Lemon basil

It can be hard to find this unusual variant, but it's easy to grow it yourself from seed and to keep on a sunny windowsill. The tender leaves can be used in similar ways to lemon verbena, especially in dishes with an Italian inspiration.

  • Scatter the fragrant leaves on top of a salad of ripe tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and avocado, dressed with your best olive oil.
  • Lemon basil makes a glorious pesto, particularly with cashew nuts and lemon-infused olive oil. Try on pasta with smoked salmon or crumbled goats cheese.
  • Top a pizza base with goats cheese, prosciutto, spinach, very thinly sliced lemons and thinly sliced red onion. Once baked, scatter over some fresh lemon basil.
  • Baby lemon basil leaves are sumptuous with strawberries or raspberries, in a tart, fruit salad or sorbet.
  • The leaves work well with pork and chicken dishes, strewn over at the end of cooking.

Pineapple sage

In the vein of grapefruit mint, this is sage but with a fruity, tropical pineapple flavour. Sounds too good to be true, but it's real and wonderful. It's great in recipes where regular sage would overpower or taste too Christmassy; the pineapple variety is much fruitier and sweeter, with less of a medicinal note. This is one to plant in a relatively sunny flowerbed, and it'll reward you by coming back year after year.

  • Pineapple sage is amazing with pork and cheese. Think Hawaiian pizza, but classier. I like it as part of a breadcrumb and cheese crust for pork chops, or as part of a cheese stuffing for a pork tenderloin. It's also good with chicken.
  • Try the baby leaves finely shredded over a tropical fruit salad or dessert.
  • Shredded leaves work well in a tropical salad of prawns, avocado, chilli and lime, or as part of a mango salsa to serve alongside fish or chicken.
  • Try using in a vegetarian version of the Italian classic saltimbocca (pork wrapped in prosciutto with sage). Wrap slices of halloumi in larger leaves and pan-fry until golden and crispy.

Chocolate mint

As good as it sounds, this is mint with the flavour of After Eights. The dark green leaves are beautifully dramatic scattered over desserts, and like all mint this is very easy to grow in a pot both outside and inside.

  • The baby leaves can be scattered over chocolate desserts to add interest and freshness, particularly a rich chocolate tart, fondant or mousse.
  • It may sound odd, but chocolate mint works very well with rich duck dishes, like slow-cooked duck confit.
  • Infuse the leaves in a sugar syrup and use to make cakes and desserts.
  • Try the shredded leaves in a fruit salad of summer berries.
  • Bake the shredded leaves into a shortbread dough for a delightful after-dinner nibble.

Grapefruit mint

As the name suggests, these dark, slightly fuzzy leaves have an amazing aroma of grapefruit combined with a minty freshness. They are perfect when you need a little citrus aroma, and can be used in exactly the same way as normal mint. The plant, like normal mint, is very easy to grow outside – just keep it in a pot so it doesn't take over your garden.

  • Grapefruit mint leaves make fabulous mojitos.
  • Try infusing them into ice cream or custard for an unusual summer dessert.
  • I love using the leaves in zingy Thai or Vietnamese salads and noodle dishes. They work excellently with prawns in a noodle salad or Vietnamese summer rolls. Be generous with the herbs.
  • The finely shredded baby leaves can be scattered over desserts, particularly ice cream, sorbet and citrus cakes and tarts.
  • The leaves work well in fish salads, or sprinkled over cooked fish before serving. Other good partners are avocado and cucumber.

Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.


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