A wonderfully enterprising couple, Hamish and Libby Martin, have set up The Secret Herb Garden on the site of a former smallholding at Damhead, just south of Edinburgh. I found myself there on a recent day off and couldn’t believe the wonderful array of plants and herbs they have been growing in and around an old glasshouse.
The spot has bags of character and it felt like a good place to go looking for things to eat. I found figs, peaches and so many edible flowers it seemed rude not to come away with handfuls of them. Calendula, nasturtium and cornflower blues are not just pretty, they really do add to a dish. Those who know me know I don’t do pretty, but the subtle flavours of these flowers coupled with their vibrant colours really can turn a simple offering into a wow dish.
Another way of using the flowers is to preserve them to use once the season is over. There’s a special drying room at the Secret Herb Garden that truly is a spectacle to behold. And they even brew their own beer made from nettles.
Before I left I added a few different types of mint and basil to my stash, then hot-footed it straight back to the kitchen to have a wee play with the new tastes I had found.
If you haven’t yet explored The Secret Herb Garden, go. It shouldn’t be a secret.
4 breasts of good free-range chicken, skin on
100ml cold-pressed rapeseed oil
salt and pepper
a small handful of mint leaves
a small handful of basil leaves
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp capers
1 small clove of garlic
a few anchovy fillets
a handful of mixed edible flowers such as calendula, nasturtium, even rose or viola
4 150g hake fillets, scaled and bones removed (fishmongers will do this for you)
a handful of fresh Scottish squid, tentacles and bodies
25ml cold-pressed rapeseed oil
4 handfuls of heritage potatoes (I like Sharpe’s Express just now), par-boiled
a few spring onions, finely chopped
salt and pepper
a handful of curly parsley, roughly chopped
1 tbsp capers
a squeeze of lemon juice
a few radishes, quartered
a few wood sorrel leaves
450ml double cream
170g caster sugar
a handful of lemon verbena leaves
150g plain flour
2 tbsp ground ginger
3 pieces of stem ginger, finely diced
a few raspberries
FILLET OF HAKE, SQUID, CRUSHED POTATOES, CAPERS AND PARSLEY
We are familiar with haddock, cod and whiting, but did you know Spain’s biggest selling fish is hake? With a delicate flavour and a flaky texture, hake cooks quickly and is incredible with a few blistered tomatoes, slices of spicy sausage and of course, herbs. Here I’m keeping it British, serving it with heritage potatoes, smashed with butter and parsley alongside squid caught on our east coast.
1 Heat a non-stick frying pan on the hob then add a squirt of oil.
2 Season the fish and add it to the pan to fry. Add the squid at this stage too and season again. Crisp the fish skin-side down, this will take a few minutes.
3 Crush the potatoes in a pot with the back of a fork. Add the spring onions and season with salt and pepper. Add 50g of butter and gently heat, continuing to crush as you warm. When the butter has mostly melted, add half the parsley and continue to heat.
4 Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a small pan. Add the capers, the remaining parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional).
5 Put the potatoes in the centre of four warmed plates. Place the fish on top and garnish with the squid, radishes and a few sorrel leaves. Drizzle the caper and parsley sauce over the top and eat with crusty bread.
CHICKEN, SALSA VERDE, EDIBLE FLOWERS
Salsa verde is one of those versatile sauces that you can make in a big amount, especially when there is a glut of herbs, and store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week or so. I love the sharp, fresh taste and it’s delicious on a piece of simply grilled fish. If you are bored of pesto this is for you. You could even push some under the skin of your chicken on a Sunday before roasting, or add a spoonful to the bowl of tomato pasta we all give the kids once in a while. Anchovies are optional.
1 Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4.
2 Add a trickle of oil to a moderately hot pan on a hob, then add the chicken skin-side down and season with salt and pepper.
3 Cook until the skin starts to turn golden brown, then place in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove, season again and allow to rest somewhere warm, skin-side up.
4 To make the salsa verde, place the mint, basil, mustard, red wine vinegar, capers, garlic, anchovies and the remaining oil in a liquidiser, and season with a little pepper. Blitz until you have a smooth paste.
5 To assemble, carve the rested chicken breasts and arrange evenly over four plates. Scatter over some beautiful edible flowers then trickle as much or as little of the salsa verde as you like over each plate.
LEMON VERBENA POSSET WITH GINGER BISCUITS
As this recipe is so easy, why not try other herbs or flavourings that you may be growing, like mint, thyme or rosemary? Go on, give it a try.
Makes six glasses
1 Bring the cream and 120g of the sugar to the boil for 3 minutes, being careful to not let it boil over.
2 Remove from the heat and add the lemon verbena leaves. Let them infuse for 10 minutes before passing through a fine sieve into glasses. Chill overnight.
3 To make the biscuits, combine the butter, flour, ground and stem ginger then mix in the remaining sugar to make a smooth paste. Roll into a sausage shape, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for an hour or two.
4 Once chilled, cut the biscuit mix into thin slices and bake in a 135C/Gas Mark 1 oven on greaseproof paper until just golden, roughly 30 minutes. Scatter on a little sugar as they leave the oven.
5 Garnish each posset glass with a few raspberries and serve with the warm, fresh biscuits. Heaven.