A herby salad with plenty of crunch is a perfect springtime dish – and these recipes invite you to make the most of your kitchen garden.
Whether you’ve got a garden, a balcony or a windowsill, spring is the time for sowing herb seeds – and after a long, locked-down winter sustained by comfort food, the sight of green shoots reminds us that the season of lighter, fresher fare is here to revive our taste buds.
But even if you don’t have the inclination to grow your own herbs, it’s still worth getting to grips with their culinary potential. As Mark Diacono explains in his new cookbook Herb: A Cook’s Companion, herbs are elevators which “carry other ingredients more deeply into the senses”.
This means that even a small handful can make the simplest of ingredients taste wildly different – a quality that is extremely welcome after the repetitious meals we’ve cycled through over the course of the past year.
Diacono’s book introduces us to the major players of the herb world, sharing valuable tips on the art of growing, cooking and preserving, as well as innovative recipes that make use of homegrown flavours in the kitchen. From woody perennials such as sage, rosemary and thyme, to annual plants like parsley, coriander and basil, it proves that the immense complexity, interest and flavour of herbs is thoroughly deserving of our attention.
Curious? Ahead, Diacono shares three herby salad recipes from his new cookbook. If you’re looking to jumpstart your spring lunches, the salad of grapefruit, mango, feta and sugar snaps with fennel and dill is a bright, zingy dish in which the herbs hold their own against stronger flavours.
Diacono’s Roman herb and anchovy salad, meanwhile, substitutes common leaves for a superpowered mix of celery heart, chervil and parsley.
Lastly, his watermelon and parsley fattoush with yoghurt dressing is an inspired mix of toasted bread, sweet fruit and soft herbs that’s perfect if you’re hosting an outdoor gathering with friends. The window box (or the fresh herbs section in your local supermarket) awaits your exploration…
Grapefruit, mango, feta, sugar snaps, fennel and dill
Mark says: “Around the time Are Friends Electric? knocked everyone sideways, I was eating a lot of grapefruit for breakfast. Even now, if I hear the song, I can taste that sharp juice; and if I taste a grapefruit, I can hear the song that still sounds like the future. In complete coincidence, it came on the radio when I first made this, which I take as a sign that this recipe was meant to be.
“Fennel and dill look mighty similar, yet their flavours couldn’t be further apart. Occasionally they jar; here they are perfect partners, elevating everything to a brighter whole. I like this quite big on the herbs but ease off if you fancy, and do serve as individual plates if you prefer.”
- 2 grapefruit, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
- extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- 100g sugar snaps, sliced in half
- 2 ripe mangoes, peeled, stoned and thinly sliced
- 200g feta
- ½ handful of fennel fronds, roughly chopped
- ½ handful of dill fronds, roughly chopped
- small handful of pistachios, lightly crushed
- good pinch of chilli flakes
- sea salt and freshly ground
- black pepper
Lay the grapefruit on a platter and drizzle with olive oil.
Toss the sugar snaps and mango together with a little olive oil, salt (just a little; the feta is salty) and pepper and spread over the grapefruit.
Crumble the feta over, sprinkle with the herbs and pistachios, then finish with the chilli flakes.
Roman herb and anchovy salad
Mark says: “Pour yourself a large glass of wine and one of water and prepare to masticate. The barely chopped herbs require you to chew, to properly chew in a way that we rarely do: the reward of it being your teeth rather than the knife that turn the herbs into something you can swallow is the most extraordinary flavour. You may well feel that you have never tasted chervil and parsley so completely.
“Classically, this sort of salad might be dominated by puntarelle but the celery and herbs work so very well here. You can use any bitter leaves, such as chicory, dandelion, endive, escarole and radicchio, and even mustard leaf, watercress or rocket if you prefer.”
Serves 4 as a starter
- 2 tbsp capers, rinsed, drained and chopped
- 12 anchovies, drained and roughly chopped
- finely grated zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp chilli flakes, or more to taste
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 6 tbsp coarse breadcrumbs
- leaves and stalks from 1 celery heart, thinly sliced
- big bunch of chervil, barely chopped
- big bunch of parsley, barely chopped
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Mix the capers, anchovies, lemon zest and juice, garlic, vinegar and chilli flakes and season to taste with salt and pepper (go easy, as it should be quite salty already). Allow to marinate for about 10 minutes, then stir through 4 tablespoons of the olive oil.
Fry the breadcrumbs in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil (add a squashed garlic clove and a good sprig of rosemary if you like) until golden and crisp; they keep well, so you can make a big batch.
Combine the celery and herbs with the oily anchovy mix, scatter over the breadcrumbs and serve.
Watermelon and parsley fattoush with yoghurt dressing
Mark says: “Fattoush may well be the noise a ripe watermelon makes as it hits the pavement when dropped from a crane. I hope so. I woke up one morning with the idea for this sitting right at the front of the queue of new day thoughts; here, after a few tweaks, it is.
“The slightly inky scent – like a leaky Bic – of watermelon and the herbs together, gives this a strange saffronish backbeat. The parsley, whole, as a salad leaf, is so good here. Adapt as you like: white grapes, halved, instead of/with the radishes is a very fine move, as is mint in place of the chives, with dried oregano instead of the mint in the dressing.”
- 2 za’atar flatbreads or use pitta breads dusted with za’atar or sumac
- finely grated zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
- 3 tbsp good-quality olive oil
- good pinch of sea salt
- 1 little gem lettuce, shredded
- ½ cucumber, peeled, halved, deseeded and thinly sliced
- 200g watermelon, peeled, deseeded and cubed
- 200g radishes, thinly sliced
- large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, whole leaves only
- 3 tsp dried mint
- 2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
- 120g yoghurt
- 1cm thick ponytail of chives, roughly chopped
Split the breads in half, toast until they are crisp and dry, and break them into pieces.
Whisk the lemon juice into the oil with the salt in a large bowl, then tumble in the lettuce, cucumber, watermelon, radishes, parsley and bread pieces.
Spread this out on a large platter.
Stir the lemon zest, dried mint and chopped garlic into the yoghurt and splatter over the salad. Scatter over the chives and serve.
Herb: A Cook’s Companion by Mark Diacono (£26, Quadrille) is out now
Photography: Mark Diacono
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Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.