Herbs could amp up a dish – so have fun
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Expert gardener and food writer Mark Diacono’s new cookbook is dedicated to herbs. And so far, we haven’t been doing them justice, writes Ella Walker.
“We don’t need herbs,” says 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. “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 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. 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 connotes 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 and rails at being presented with whole mint leaves to eat.
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.”
Herb: A Cook’s Companion by Mark Diacono is published by Quadrille, priced £26. Photography Mark Diacono. Available now.