Life

Mark Diacono: Herbs can be the tweak that changes feeding to eating

Expert gardener and food writer Mark Diacono's new cookbook is dedicated to herbs. And so far, we haven't been doing them justice, Ella Walker discovers

Dill, lemon and green bean pilaf from Herb by Mark Diacono

“WE DON’T need herbs,” says Mark Diacono, a man who has just written an entire cookbook about them. He goes on to call them “unnecessary” and adds, quite heartlessly, that “we can perfectly merrily eat for the rest of our lives without herbs and we will live”.

However, they are also “the thing that makes the difference between feeding and eating,” he says, turning this dark tale into a light-filled parable. “It’s the unnecessary brilliance of [using herbs] that just makes you want to eat this delightful thing and get pleasure from it.”

And so, in conclusion, we actually do very much need herbs on our plates and growing windowsills, and Diacono, food writer, photographer and creator of Otter Farm – a nursery designed to encourage people to grow “unusual and forgotten food” – is very willing to share his affection for herbs.

“We’re the only species on earth that cooks,” he continues. “We’re doing it for two reasons. One is to transform foods into something that’s edible, you know, just plain old ‘I can eat that/That’s not going to kill me and/or I’m not going to lose my teeth trying to get through it’. But once you’ve got to that point, the rest really is about pleasure.”

Herbs provide “that little tweak” that can amp up a dish or morph its character slightly – take Diacono’s bread and butter pudding. Laced with standard thyme he says it takes on a “Novemberish” feel, whereas lemon thyme conotes April.

Despite his adoration for most of them, Diacono does not indiscriminately enjoy all edible shoots. In Herb: A Cook’s Companion, the follow up to his 2019 cookbook, Sour, he rages amiably at the ubiquitous one leaf of parsley garnish (“It’s, ‘I thought about you, but I didn’t think about you enough…’”) and rails at being presented with whole mint leaves to eat (“They’re just unpleasant in the mouth”).

Poor lemon balm feels the full brunt of his ire. “I love it in the garden; in the kitchen, I couldn’t be less interested,” he explains. “There’s no meal that can be improved by lemon balm, there’s no delight to be had from it.” According to Diacono, it’s the sherbet leaves of lemon verbena you really ought to look for.

The problem is, most of us get “stuck” with the herbs that we use. Diacono nods to the usual suspects – mint, coriander, rosemary, thyme and parsley – which in a double-whammy of going through the motions, as we also tend to use them repeatedly in the same old ways. It means we’re accessing only a “tiny little sliver” of the green fronds we could be scoffing.

“If you get to grips with herbs just a little – and they’re very easy to get to grips with – then it could change your food like nothing else,” says Diacono. “These are the clothes that dress up the plainer ingredients. You’re in for a fair bit of fun with them.”

Pairing them in different combinations, or chucking them into dishes at varied moments during cooking could make a real impact, he reckons. For instance, when making mint sauce, Diacono doubles the mint; dousing the bulk of it in water, sugar and vinegar, and then topping it with finely shredded fresh leaves before serving for extra zing.

Another swift way to up your herb game is to consider how you’re wielding your knife. “How we chop is really important,” says Diacono, calling it an ‘ingredient’ in its own right. “If we leave the chop fairly coarse, what you get is a punch every now and again, of say, coriander – it becomes a surprise: ‘Oh, that was coriander!’ rather than if we chop it really finely and throw it in, everything becomes coriander. The impression is very different.”

He considers herbs a way to build, season and layer flavour, and fortunately, “it’s quite hard to overuse a herb I would say, so play, experiment and keep tasting – people tend to taste right at the end – keep tasting, keep tasting.”

Diacono is a hugely successful gardener – he writes gardening books as well as recipes – so it’s massively reassuring to know how relaxed he is about stuffing bundles of parsley guilt-free in the supermarket trolley.

“My belief is, buy the herbs you use masses of. There’s just no way, unless you have infinite time and space, that you can grow all the parsley, all the coriander, all the thyme you are likely to use if you like it,” he says. “You’ll end up hammering the thyme plant to death.”

The ones you should consider sowing and growing from seed at home, he says “are the embellishments on that”. He’s talking ginger rosemary, orange thyme, pineapple sage, Vietnamese coriander, the “varieties on the variety”, as well as the leaves you’d just struggle to buy, like shiso, salad burnet, chervil, savory.

“We tend to only have a certain amount of time and space that we can dedicate to growing stuff,” he says, “so make it the flavours you cannot have unless you grow it yourself.”

Even a few pots by the back door, he’s adamant, “can transform every meal you eat. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing and it’s very easy to achieve.”

Herb: A Cook’s Companion by Mark Diacono is published by Quadrille, priced £26. Photography Mark Diacono. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

DILL, LEMON AND GREEN BEAN PILAF

(Serves 4–6)

300g (10oz) basmati rice

400ml (14fl oz) chicken or vegetable stock

30g (1oz) butter

1 onion, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 bay leaves

Big bunch of dill, stalks and leaves separated and both finely chopped

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

½ tsp ground turmeric

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

200g (7oz) green beans, stalk end trimmed (or use thin slices of courgette/zucchini)

Finely grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

40g (1½oz) shelled pistachios (or use whole almonds), roughly chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Natural yoghurt and lemon wedges, to serve

Method:

Soak the rice in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes, then drain well. Bring the stock to a bare simmer.

Melt the butter in a wide pan over a low-medium heat and cook the onion, garlic, bay leaves and dill stalks for 10 minutes until soft. Add the spices and half a teaspoon salt and cook for a minute.

Add the rice to the pan, along with the beans and half of the dill leaves, stirring for 30 seconds to coat well and so it doesn’t burn. Cover the rice with the hot stock, add the lemon zest and check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid on and cook for five minutes over a high heat, then turn it down to the lowest heat and cook for 10 minutes until the stock is absorbed and the rice is just tender. Turn the heat off, remove the lid and place a tea towel over the pan, then return the lid and leave to rest for five minutes.

Fluff the rice with a fork, then scatter over the remaining dill and the nuts and serve immediately with yoghurt and lemon wedges on the side.

ROSEMARY AND BASIL AUBERGINES IN ZA’ATAR

(Serves 4)

4 aubergines, quartered lengthways

4 tbsp olive oil

A few good sprigs of rosemary, broken into 3cm (1in) pieces

4 tbsp za’atar (see below)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the za’atar:

(Makes a small jarful)

3 tbsp sesame seeds

1½ tbsp ground cumin

2 tbsp sumac

2 tbsp dried Mexican oregano, dried marjoram, oregano, savory or hyssop

1 tbsp salt

For the dressing:

50g (2oz) tahini

1 tbsp yoghurt

Juice of 1 lemon

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

To serve:

Pomegranate molasses

Hot sauce or chilli flakes

Handful of Greek basil leaves, or other basil finely shredded

Method:

Make the za’atar. Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a pan over a medium heat, shuffling them around a bit to ensure they don’t turn too dark. Combine all the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle, as much as anything to encourage the flavours and scents to be released as they mix. Store in a sealed jar, where it will keep for a few months, losing intensity over time.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Lay the aubergine quarters in a single layer on baking sheets, brush with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in the oven, turn the heat down to 180C/gas mark 4, and cook for 20–25 minutes until tender and brown.

Make the dressing by whisking all the ingredients together with two tablespoons water; use a little more water if required, to reach a consistency of double (heavy) cream.

Mix the rosemary, za’atar and a heavy grinding of pepper in a bowl. Remove the aubergines from the oven, top with the za’atar mix, drizzle with more oil and return to the oven for five minutes.

Drizzle with the tahini dressing, pomegranate molasses, hot sauce or chilli flakes and scatter with basil.

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