Darina Allen: The Incredible versatility of garden herbs

Darina Allen: The Incredible versatility of garden herbs
Darina Allen: "Fresh herbs add magic to our dishes and have always been a big part of my cooking. Each and every one has a unique aroma and they have been part of the flavour of our food for as long as I can remember."

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. It’s so good to have something to distract us from the Covid-19 pandemic, so this week, prompted by National Herb Week, now in its sixth year, which celebrates herbs and herbal medicine, I’m going to focus on the culinary attributes of fresh herbs.

Fresh herbs add magic to our dishes and have always been a big part of my cooking. Each and every one has a unique aroma and they have been part of the flavour of our food for as long as I can remember.

At home in Cullohill, we always had lots of curly parsley in the garden for the parsley sauce we loved. I seem to remember chives as well and some thyme.

In Cathal Brugha Street hotel school in Dublin, I discovered sage and bay. 

Sage went into a traditional sage and onion stuffing for duck or goose and bay leaves went into beef stock and could be dried.

However, it wasn’t until I came to Ballymaloe House in 1968 that I really discovered the magic of herbs. Inside the walled garden and in the greenhouse there were row after row of fresh herbs.

At first, I couldn’t even identify many of them but soon I learned not only what they were but how to pick them at peak of perfection and how the flavour and often the shape changed at different stages and enhanced a dish.

French tarragon perfumes a classic sauce to serve with a steak or a succulent roast beef. Gutsy rosemary flavours blackcurrant jam, a slow roast shoulder of lamb or a robust stew.

When it flowers in May, we love to use the purply/ blue blossoms as a garnish. Dill makes a sweet mustard mayonnaise to accompany gravlax or smoked mackerel. The dill flowers provide little bursts of aniseed to fish soup and green salads.

In the early 1980s, on my first trip to Italy, I discovered basil. I didn’t love it at first but Italians seemed to find it indispensable.

Famous Italian chef Marcella Hazan showed me how to make pesto and soon, I too was hooked. 

I brought home a packet of basil seeds and planted them in the greenhouse. Basil is an annual, native to the Mediterranean, it needs and loves the sun and is a heavy feeder.

If you buy a plant, transplant it immediately into a big pot. Keep it in a greenhouse or on your sunniest window sill and pinch off any flowers to encourage more growth.

Darina Allen: The Incredible versatility of garden herbs
The right herbs can add incredible flavour to your dish

Nowadays, you can get most types of herbs in the supermarket, but they are a poor substitute for a little herb patch close to your kitchen door where you pop out at a moment’s notice and snip a little bunch to add to or scatter over your dishes. 

If you don’t already have a herb garden, why not start with a few perennials, once planted they will re-emerge every year.

Some, like sage, rosemary, thyme and bay are hardy and can be used year round. Others like fennel, chives, sweet cicely and lovage die down every winter but pop up again in spring.

Annual marjoram, possibly my favourite herb of all time, is just that, an annual. Seeds must be sown every year, dill also plus coriander and chervil. 

Indispensable parsley will last for two years, it’s what gardeners refer to as a biannual.

Each herb has its own medical as well as culinary flavour. Herb flowers too are edible, delicious and look beautiful scattered over salads or as a garnish.

Mint can be a thug, once planted it romps around your gardens but I can never have too much, I throw fistfuls of it into all kinds of things, homemade lemonades, fruit salads and apple jelly.

Fresh coriander always provokes a strong reaction, it’s an acquired taste, few people like it initially but then
become hooked. 

It’s an essential flavour in the food of the east, Middle East and South America. So if you still feel you dislike it, keep trying otherwise you’ll miss out on all those delicious flavours.

Baked Cod, Haddock, Hake or Pollock with Cream and Bay Leaves

Darina Allen: The Incredible versatility of garden herbs
Fresh herbs and aromatic leaves like bay leaves can add magic to our dishes

This recipe transforms even the dullest white fish into a feast. Be generous with the bay leaves, their perfume should distinctly permeate the sauce. Pollock is a good alternative fish. 

The fishing community need our support — make sure you are buying fresh Irish fish.

Serves 4–6 as a starter or main course


  • 25g -1oz- butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 6 thick pieces of fresh round fish (allow approximately 110–175g (4–6oz) filleted fish per person)
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 – 5 fresh bay leaveslight cream (enough to cover the fish)
  • 15g (½oz) roux approx.

Melt the butter in a sauté pan, just wide enough to take the fish in a single layer. Fry the onion gently for a few minutes until soft but not coloured. 

Put the fish in the pan and cook on both sides for 1 minute. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add bay leaves.

Cover with light cream and simmer with the lid on for 3–5 minutes, until the fish is cooked. 

Remove the fish to a serving dish.

Bring the cooking liquid to the boil and lightly thicken with roux. Taste and correct the seasoning. Coat the fish with sauce and serve immediately. 

For a whole meal in one dish, pipe a ruff of fluffy mashed potato around the edge.

Note: This dish can be prepared ahead and reheated, and it also freezes well. Reheat in a moderate oven, 180C / 350F / gas mark 4, from 10–30 minutes, depending on size of the container.

Potato, Onion and Lovage Soup

Darina Allen: The Incredible versatility of garden herbs
Darina's Potato, Onion and Lovage Soup

Lucy Madden from Hilton Park in Co Monaghan, one of Ireland’s most charming country house hotels, made this delicious soup for me from the organically grown vegetables in her garden.

Serves: 6


  • 10–25g butter
  • 225g onions, very thinly sliced,
  • 350g potatoes, thinly sliced,
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper,
  • 1.2lites of good homemade chicken of vegetable stock,
  • Large handful of lovage leaves
  • Lovage and parley to garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on a low heat, add the onions and potatoes, season with salt and freshly ground pepper and seat until soft but not coloured.

Add the stock and boil for 5 minutes. Snip the lovage leaves into thin strips with a scissors.

Put 3 tablespoons into the soup and cook for a further 10minutes.

Serve with a sprinkling of snipped lovage and a little fresh parsley.

Taken from: 'Traditional Irish cooking', by Darina Allen. Published byKyle books


Tabouleh - A fresh, lively and health meal
Tabouleh - A fresh, lively and health meal

Serves: 6-12(served as a starter or a main course)


  • 110g bulgar — cracked wheat
  • 25-50g freshly chopped parsley
  • 25-50g freshly chopped mint
  • freshly squeezed juice of two lemons or more if you need it
  • 75ml extra virgin olive oil
  • Spring onion, green and white parts, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper


  • 6 very ripe firm new seasons
  • Irish tomatoes/ a selection of red and yellow, pear-shaped, would be great, diced and sprinkled with a little salt, pepper and sugar
  • 1 firm crisp cucumber, cut into 5mm dice
  • Small crisp lettuce leaves such as cos or iceberg rocket leaves
  • Black olives, (optional)

Soak the bulgar in cold water for about 30 minutes, drain and squeeze well to remove any excess water liquid.

Stir in the olive oil and some of the freshly squeezed lemon juice, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, leave it aside to absorb the dressing while you chop the parsley, mint and spring onions.

Just before serving, mix the herbs with the bulgar, taste and add more lemon juice if necessary.

It should taste fresh and lively.

To Serve Arrange on a serving plate surrounded by rocket and salad leaves and little mounds of well-seasoned tomato and cucumberdice.

Garnish with sprigs of flat parsley, a few black olives wouldn’t go a miss either if you enjoy them.

Baked Brill with Herb Butter and New Season Zucchini

This is a very simple ‘master recipe’ which can be used for any flat fish plaice, sole, brill, turbot, dabs, flounder and lemon sole or a noble turbot.

Depending on the size of the fish, it can a starter or a main course. Because it is cooked with the skin on, it retains maximum flavour. Peel the skin off carefully before serving and anoint the fish with the fresh herb butter. Simple but succulent.



  • 1 – 2 brill
  • Herb butter: 110g butter
  • 4 teaspoons mixed finely-chopped fresh parsley, chives, fennel, chervil and thyme leaves
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5.

Turn the fish on its side and remove the head. 

Wash the fish and clean the slit close to the head very thoroughly.

With a sharp knife, cut through the skin right round the fish, just where the ‘fringe’ meets the flesh. Be careful to cut neatly and to cross the side cuts at the tail or it will be difficult to remove the skin later on.

Sprinkle the fish with salt and freshly-ground pepper and lay them in 1cm of water in a shallow baking tin. 

Bake in a moderately hot oven for 20-30 minutes according to the size of the fish. The water should have just evaporated as the fish is cooked.

Check to see whether the fish is cooked by lifting the flesh from the bone at the head; it should lift off the bone easily and be quite white with no trace of pink.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and stir in the freshly-chopped herbs. 

Just before serving catch the skin down near the tail and pull it off gently (the skin will tear badly if not properly cut). 

Lift the fish onto hot plates and spoon the herb butter over them. Serve immediately with melted courgettes.

Melted Courgettes Serves: 4 

  • 1lb (450g) courgettes, no larger than 12.5cm in length
  • 1 oz butter
  • A dash of olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Freshly chopped parsley, basil or marjoram

Top and tail the courgettes and cut them into 5mm slices. Melt the butter and add a dash of oil, toss in the courgettes and coat in the butter and oil. Cook until tender,about 4-5 minutes.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. 

Turn into a hot serving dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Darina's Hot tips

Say no to mow in Cork

Since this pandemic began, green areas have been allowed to flourish with flowers growing through them. Let's try and continue this trend.
Since this pandemic began, green areas have been allowed to flourish with flowers growing through them. Let's try and continue this trend.

Help the bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects by not mowing the green areas. 

During the pandemic many of our public green areas have been allowed to grow wild.

Green areas have been allowed to flourish with flowers growing through them.

Widespread decline in bee numbers and other pollinators from habitat loss are a growing concern. 

However, the spontaneous flowers that we often call weeds, like dandelions and clover, provide excellent pollen and nectar sources. ‘Please don’t mow, don’t spray, let them grow’.

Sign the petition on my.uplift.ie

Green Schools Food and Biodiversity Flag

Food: how it is made, where it is made, and how we consume it have becomes ever more important as a result of our Covid-19 lockdown experience.

Green-Schools are launching an exciting project to reconnect students with food issues. 

Eight schools have been involved in the pilot for the past two years — planting, growing, preparing and eating.

Students map the food habitat of their school, do scientific experiments examining the health of the soil, nurture plants and cook what they grow. 

Along with these practical elements, the project also involves learning about climate change, food miles, food waste, packaging, pollinators and more.

For more information go to www.greenschoolsireland.org

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