Herb: A Cook’s Companion by Mark Diacono is not a standard cookbook. Best described as a marvellous marriage of two genres – gardening advice and how to enjoy herbs in your cooking – Herb is divided between salient advice on growing your own herbs (and handling store bought), and a selection of recipes that show off those herbs beautifully.
Diacono is a professional gardener, food writer, cook, and photographer, well known for his TV work in association with River Cottage, and for creating Otter Farm, a smallholding where he grows a range of produce including exotics such as Szechuan pepper, Chilean guava, salsify and more. He has published several cookbooks including Grow & Cook: An A-Z of what to grow all through the year at home, Sour: The Magical Element That Will Transform Your Cooking, Fruit: River Cottage Handbook No.9, Chicken & Eggs: River Cottage Handbook No.11 and A Taste of the Unexpected.
If you’re looking for a dictionary of every herb you won’t find it in this book (though many such titles exist in gardening and food reference niches). Instead Diacono shares a more personal collection – a subset of herbs which includes both familiar favourites and more unusual plants, alongside advice on growing, harvesting, buying, preserving and using each one. There are herbs you might expect to find in the book which are absent: I’m referring here to a running joke in the book that expresses Diacono’s recommendation of lemon verbena over lemon balm – a point of view I agree with wholeheartedly, having grown lemon verbena in our London garden for some years. Lemon balm is a poor cousin!
In the book’s introduction, Diacono touches on his somewhat arbitrary criteria for inclusion, a charmingly capricious definition in which he talks about leaves versus seeds, herbs that “feel more like vegetables” and some that may have fairly made it into the book but didn’t! But the herbs we know well in the UK are covered – rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, coriander, mint, parsley, basil, chives, dill, bay leaves and more. And there are many less familiar ones; these include less common varieties of those we know well – orange thyme, ginger rosemary, Korean mint, sweet cicely; some we have learned of from other cuisines – shiso, Thai basil, lemongrass; some we know but have almost forgotten in the modern kitchen – angelica, chervil, lavender, lovage, savory, sorrel; and a few leaves that one might not even think of as herbs such as fig and blackcurrant. And of course there is lemon verbena!
Diaconi paints a picture of the pleasure of a kitchen garden, sitting in the sunshine of summer surrounded by the beauty and scents of herbs and flowers, a decade and more of planting, nurturing and harvesting herbs, and the joyful knowledge there is still more to learn and to share. His words on the characteristics of herbs, how they elevate our cooking and can transport our senses, are evocative and poetic – a siren song to seduce you into the rest of the book, where the learning begins.
“Herbs fall into two camps”, says Diacono, “perennials that endure for years, and annuals that are sown, grown and eaten within a year.” Perennials are often woody, sturdy plants whereas annual tend towards soft and delicate leaves, though perennials such as mint and chives are the exception, with their soft leaves but long-term staying power.
The next main chapter covers ‘Herb Skills’ in the Garden and in the Kitchen.
For gardeners, Diacono shares key information on everything from climate and weather conditions of your intended plot, understanding your soil type, and making use of raised beds and containers. He succinctly takes us through choosing what to grow, starting off our herbs by growing from seed and planting out, as well as propagating from existing plants by taking cuttings or dividing root clumps. There is sage advice too (get it?) on where to buy herb plants (if you want to grow from bulbs or plugs). Once you have established your plants, follow the advice on pruning, watering, and feeding.
When it comes to herbs ‘In The Kitchen’, Diacono first reminds us that herbs are as much about scent as they are about flavour and the job of the cook is to capture the best of what each one offers. Next is key advice for anyone wanting to buy herbs ready to use rather than grow (and let’s be honest, whilst many readers will give growing several herbs a go, we’ll likely resort to buying the remainder). When buying fresh cut herbs from the supermarket, the fresher the better, and wash thoroughly once home – dried herbs often disappoint though there are certain exceptions where dried are often excellent. After lessons on how to store, Diacono runs through different chopping techniques such as confetti, fine chop, and chiffonade. Next, he share recommendations on drying and freezing herbs, and other preservation methods such as herb salts, herb sugars, herb butters and herb jellies. I’m a big fan of herby jellies, as you’ll note from my apple and lemon verbena jelly recipe, a technique I’ve also used for apple and mint, and apple and red chillies. The final section of ‘Herb Skills’ is all about ‘Infusing’, and covers dairy, sugar, vinegar and oil methods, plus a little note on muddling herbs into cocktails.
‘Herbs to Grow and Eat’ consists of 50 pages covering herbs that Diacono recommends for our kitchen gardens and tables, interpersed with plenty of full-page photographs. The format is really well pitched to provide a general overview of the herb and recommended varieties, advice on growing and harvesting, and a helpful section on when and how to use it. An Affinities column lists foods with which the herb pairs well, and there’s a quick summary block with latin name, type (hardy or tender, annual, perennial or biennial), time of year to harvest, and how large the plant grows. This is the section that really elevates the book from a straightforward cookbook to a cook and gardener’s companion.
Next come the ‘Recipes’ grouped into Infusions, blends and sauces; Small things, soups and sides; Bigger Things; Sweet Things; and Drinks. With the exception of the first chapter (many of which are sub recipes for later recipes), most recipes have a full-page image – with photography also by Diacono; the images are simple, bright and vivid, showcasing the food in a way that is fresh and appealing.
At the end you’ll find a list of recommended suppliers, as well as a comprehensive index that helpfully lets you search recipes both by herb and by other main ingredients.
The range of dishes is wide – I’ve bookmarked so many including Shiso pickled cucumber, Parsley honey, Fig leaf syrup, Deep-fried potatoes in rosemary butter, Herb tempura, Rosemary and basil aubergines in za’atar, Herb soda bread, Herby egg mayo on toast, Spicy herb and noodle salad, Grilled prawns with Chermoula, Green chicken curry, Lamb dhansak, Lavender celeriac ‘dauph’, Porchetta, and Thyme and parsley honey bread and butter pudding, to name just some.
Thus far we’ve made the Beef braised in ale with persillade, and the Lemon thyme and leek tart. Parsley is a herb we use far too rarely, more usually seduced by coriander and mint, or rosemary and thyme and it’s good to enjoy it in this classic winter warmer. Lemon thyme is a relevation, bringing a much-welcome sunny citrus vibe to the familiar thyme flavour, and such a great combination with buttery, sweet leeks.
Recipes are accurate, easy to follow and delicious with the chosen herbs giving each one that little bit of extra magic against similar recipes for the dish. The growing and harvesting advice is inspiring to those of us keen to grow our own, but the handy shopping and storage advice makes the book just as useful a companion to those preferring not to. As promised, Herb brings together the genres of growing your own herbs and cooking with them in a way that is at the same time inspiring and practical, earning it a prized permanent place on the bookshelf.
Recipes From Herb: A Cook’s Companion
We are delighted to share these three recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Quadrille.
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Herb: A Cook’s Companion by Mark Diacono from publisher Quadrille (RRP £26).