Healthy herbs for winter comfort food
Winter is all about comfort food and that means slow cooking; simmering soups and stews for hours until the meat drops off bone.
Make your own bouquet garni
The traditional way of flavouring winter soups, stews and hearty pasta sauces is with a bouquet garni. A bouquet garni generally consists of three or more herb sprigs tied together with some string (or use a stainless steel strainer), and added at the beginning of cooking. The flavour of the herbs slowly infuses into the sauce and just before serving the bouquet garni is removed.
The classic bouquet garni is a sprig of thyme and parsley, and a bay leaf. Rosemary is sometimes added. But you can create your own by combining two or three herbs that work together.
Use one strongly flavoured herb and two milder herbs. The milder herbs help the flavours to mingle.
Strong or robust flavoured herbs include garlic, oregano, rosemary, sage, sorrel, tarragon and thyme. They stand up well to cooking, and the flavours either become more subtle or more intense.
Mild flavoured herbs include bay leaf, chervil, marjoram and parsley. These are classified as mild because they combine well with most other herbs and their flavours often become milder in cooking. They can also be used in larger quantities, and with more variation than robust herbs.
Other culinary combinations
- ‘Herbes de Provence’ consists of oregano, savory, thyme, marjoram and rosemary for adding to vegetables and meat dishes.
- English Mixed Herbs brings together fresh Italian parsley, chives, thyme and tarragon and is a wonderful complement to lamb, pork or stuffing.
- An Italian chef’s selection for winter would consist of Italian parsley, oregano, marjoram and thyme.
Healthy herbs for stews
- Food garden: Thyme is a good companion plant with cabbage in winter, and fruiting vegetables in summer. Its aromatic foliage acts as a pest repellent, especially ants, and bees love its flowers.
- Cooking: Common thyme, lemon thyme and silver thyme are best for cooking, especially when added to slow-cooked meat and poultry dishes, or roasted root vegetables. Chopped lemon thyme enhances salad dressings, stuffing, marinades and herbal butters, as well as egg and cheese dishes.
- Health: Thyme has antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it effective in helping to relieve colds, chest infections and coughs, fever, flu and laryngitis. A facial steam aids decongestion.
Chives grow throughout winter and the leaves have a mild onion flavour. When snipped off at the base they quickly re-sprout, and in spring they produce purple flowers. Grow them as a perennial in full sun and fertile soil.
- Food garden: Chives are good companions for broad beans, beetroot, carrots, spinach and lettuce, because their onion-scented leaves are disliked by pests.
- Cooking: Snip the leaves into egg and cheese dishes, add to sandwich fillings and use as a garnish.
- Health: Being members of the Allium family, they help to counter infections of the nose, throat and chest, although are not as effective as garlic. Nevertheless, they are rich in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron. Adding one or two tablespoons a day to the diet takes very little effort.
Parsley is one of the most useful health-promoting herbs that grows through winter. It is a good source of vitamins (especially C), and minerals. It’s super easy to grow, pick and use on a daily basis. Plant it in rich, fertile soil in full sun to partial shade and fertilise every two weeks with a liquid feed because it devours nutrients.
- Food garden: Parsley is a good companion plant to grow in rows between broad beans, broccoli, celery, kale, lettuce and spinach. It acts as a tonic to nearby plants and many gardeners believe it improves the taste of the veggies as well.
- Health: A tablespoon of chopped parsley a day keeps the doctor away. Besides its nutritional value, it is a tonic that clears toxins, strengthens the respiratory system, relieves indigestion and strengthens hair, nails and skin.
- Cooking: Flat-leaved Italian parsley is tastiest and can be cooked for longer, whereas moss-curled parsley should be added just before the end of cooking. Add to all meat, fish and poultry dishes, as a garnish for vegetables, and an ingredient in salads, sauces, stuffing and dressings.
Coriander’s bright green feathery leaves look like Italian parsley and it has similar growth, with a height of 50cm and spread of 30cm. Preferring cooler growing conditions, it does best in autumn and spring, tending to bolt into flower in midsummer.
- Food garden: It likes full sun, light rich soil and regular watering, growing well with potatoes and anise, but not with fennel.
- Health: The seeds act as a mild sedative and digestive tonic. Put 1/2 -1 teaspoon of seed in a cup of boiling water and steep for 10-15 minutes. Drink before meals. Chewing the seeds freshens the breath, especially after eating garlic.
- Cooking: Pick just before using because the soft leaves wilt quickly. They also lose their aroma when dried or frozen. Coriander leaves have a pungent aroma, but don’t let that put you off. Once you have acquired a taste for its flavour, a culinary world opens up.
This is a beef stew cooked in red wine with tomato paste, but with 3 tablespoons of brandy, ½ cup of strong coffee, 3 tablespoons of honey, ½ a stick of cinnamon, 3 cloves and 2 bay leaves added. The stew is cooked slowly until most of the liquid has been absorbed. The bay leaves, cinnamon and cloves are removed before serving.