Herb/ a cook’s companion. Book Review

By Mark Diacono

Published by Quadrille, an imprint of Hardie Grant Publishing

RRP £26 Published spring 2021. Hardback. 272 pages

ISBN 978 1 78713 6359

Reading corner in the orchard, currently under cherry and pear blossom

At about five or six, I was given the task of ‘collecting the mint.’ My grandmother, who was cooking lunch, had a huge patch of mint in her farm garden. Basket in hand, I carefully plucked the sprigs of mint and laid them neatly in rows, tips all the same way. No higgledy piggledy stems for me. Even at that young age, I took things seriously. Given a task, I wanted to do it right. I smile now, looking back at what a serious little girl I was. The first grandchild, surrounded by adults, there were no siblings or cousins for five years. I listened intently to all the adults talking and took in every word. Through their conversations, I formed a view of the world. Many years later I can still hear their voices quietly reporting the day’s events, whispering a neighbour’s misfortune, a sadness, a death. Murmuring sorrow for some, and joy for another- a wedding, a birth, some good fortune achieved. Conversations at the kitchen table brought the world into the home. I listened and learned, but cocooned in the routine of work, gardening, farming, cooking and eating, nothing appeared to change for us. It seemed as if everything happened to other people, but my world stayed the same, stable and safe.

The scent of fresh-picked mint still has the power to transport me back to happy childhood days. My mint was sprinkled over home grown new potatoes, tiny and white, as shiny as pebbles, with creamy home-churned butter and a sprinkle of grainy salt. Something so simple, delicious and ultimately, memorable.

This last 12 months, many of us have found comfort in baking. Focussing on the past, perhaps I’ve attempted to bring back the security and safety I felt as a child. I’ve found myself cooking hearty soups, casseroles, and vegetable pies. The spicy, buttery Welsh cakes my Welsh grandmother cooked on a griddle. Rice puddings, fruit crumbles and sponge cakes. Separated from family and friends, these old favourite recipes have been a comforting presence. Sights, sounds and scents of cooking, recalled as if they were only yesterday.

However, we have now emerged from lockdown, and I’m looking for a new way forward. I’m keen to try new recipes and new ideas. I’m eager to welcome family and friends back into my home and garden and I’m looking forward to making new memories for them- and for me. While not forgetting all the echoes from the past.

Mark Diacono’s new book ‘Herb, a cook’s companion’ is a good starting place. Recipes such as Lemon Thyme and Leek Tart have a rich butter and egg pastry base with a leek and cream filling. Lemon thyme leaves and nutmeg add a delicious twist to a familiar recipe.

Here’s my first attempt. I must admit, it’s not perfect. My pastry needed to be folded over more firmly, as the lovely egg filling escaped over the side. My second attempt was better and everything held firm. I’ve never thought of adding herbs to the pasty base before, and it was a triumph. The lovely buttery lemon-thyme pastry melts in the mouth. A perfect complement to the leek and creme fraiche filling. Again, adding nutmeg and bay leaves lifts this recipe out of the ordinary. It looks beautiful too. Presentation is something I’m trying to improve on. This looks as good as it tastes and received thumbs up from the family.

Greek Herb Pie.

Mark says: “This Greek summer favourite, aka Spanakopita, is so worth making a delicious regular. Heavy with spinach, salty feta and crisp laminations of filo, it’s as good cold as hot, early in the day as late. This version nudges the spinach (which can be a bit of a grump at times) towards the cheerful with the brightness of dill and mint in generous quantities, and parsley anchoring the leeks to the cheese. A delight.”

Herb Soda Bread

A buttermilk, oat and wholemeal flour bread, with a small bunch of chives or sweet cicely, or either of the savories, finely chopped.

Lemon Lavender Meringues

A twist on the usual meringue recipe. Between 5 and 8 lavender heads are whizzed with caster sugar in a spice grinder and added to whisked egg whites and lemon zest.

Fig Leaf and Lemon Verbena Rice Pudding.

Even my family favourite rice pudding is given a new lease of life with the addition of fig-leaf infused milk and lemon verbena leaves. Such a lovely change from the usual.

The book covers how to grow and harvest herbs and how to preserve them in sugar, vinegar, oil and salt, and how to dry and freeze them.

There’s comprehensive coverage of choosing what to grow, how to grow herbs from seed, taking cuttings, propagation and planting out. There’s full plant descriptions of many popular herbs such as anise hyssop, Korean mint, basil, bay, chervil, chives and parsley for example. Then there’s suggestions for more unusual plants such as shiso or perilla – which I’ve always grown as a purple ornamental bedding plant. Seems it can be added to salads and used with recipes containing aubergines, grilled or barbecue prawns, and with eggs and avocado. I shall experiment!

Following the growing section, there’s recipes featuring soups and side dishes, main meals, puddings, biscuits and drinks. There’s something surely to please everyone – especially people like me, looking for a special dish to make for friends and family, as we start to reconnect.

The publishers have kindly offered one copy to give away. Please leave a comment in the box below to be included in the prize draw. A winner will be randomly selected. International entries are welcome.

Please look back on Wednesday 5th May to check if you have won a copy. I’ll announce it on the blog. (Please do not give out your address or any other details to anyone. Be aware of scams.)

Have you found cooking a source of comfort over the lockdown times? Are you, like me, looking to try something new this year, as we start to feel more positive and move forward. Get in touch and let me know your thoughts. And thank you, as ever, for reading my blog. It’s always appreciated.

* comments box is right at the bottom of the blog, past all the hashtags. Or click on ‘comments’ under the headline.

27 thoughts on “Herb/ a cook’s companion. Book Review

  1. Shame I was too late for the draw, but thanks for introducing me to the book, which looks really interesting. Good to read that you are feeling more positive about things again and I hope you and all your family are well

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for posting about this book! I have seen it in a couple of places today, Kate Bradbury bought a copy and posted about it on Twitter and it was also featured in the Waitrose newspaper. I wondered about the content but can see from this post that there are probably quite a few recipes of interest.

    I planned last year (at the start of covid) to use up everything that needed using up in my cupboards and freezers but for some reason it didn’t go to plan and I didn’t even make simple things like flapjacks anymore 😦 In fact I found that we were leaning more towards convenience foods which was not good.

    I have thankfully started cooking our meals from scratch again, including a few old recipes from my Nan’s farmhouse cookbook, meals I used to make 20 plus years ago when I moved in with my partner and I had no idea how to cook! Maybe I will start using up the contents of my cupboards after all 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello and thank you for reading my blog. I always take note of what Kate Bradbury says. She’s always got some very interesting projects on the go. I know what you mean about cooking. Last year was such hard work getting anything achieved. Everything seemed to take longer than usual. I’m glad you’ve got your Nan’s cookbook. I started writing family favourite recipes on the blog here when I became very ill four years ago. I suddenly realised all my recipes were on scrappy pieces of paper, and my daughters might want to make them and remember all the happy times, like I do now. Thanks again for getting in touch. Please check back after 6pm to see who has won the prize draw for a copy. If you don’t win, there are five more books coming soon, and gardening equipment too. Publishers and manufacturers have been very generous. Best wishes. Karen 😊

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    • Hello Suzanne, well, you’ll be cooking meals from scratch again. You’ve won the Herb book. Please e mail me your address and name to k.gimson@btinternet.com. No one else will contact you. Please don’t give out personal details to anyone. Be aware of scams. There’s nothing to pay. Thanks for reading the blog and joining in with the prize draw. There are more to follow. Enjoy!

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  3. Sounds idilic sitting and reading this gem. Loved reading your blog, it brought back some memories from childhood and I’m loving the twist in some of the recipes. Looking forward to getting a copy and trying these out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Claire. Thanks very much for reading the blog and getting in touch. Glad it brought back happy memories for you too. Please check back after 6pm for news on the prize draw. Also, there’s five more cooking and gardening books and some gardening tools coming up in the next week or so. Thanks again. Karen

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  4. I love Mark’s writing and herbs are the easiest, most transformative plant that anyone can grow, so a win-win! I have been so looking forward to this book – thank you for sharing your thoughts and photos (and your tart looks scrummy)

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  5. Hi Karen, sounds a lovely book, I will be taking a look once I can get to a bookshop! I’ve expanded my herb garden this year and promised myself to try new recipes using especially the chocolate mint- which smells wonderful, but not enough growth to taste yet. I used to hate mint sauce as a child, but like you am always reminded of my Nan as she used to make it and had a huge square patch surrounded by a little brick wall. I grow mine in an old metal pail left by our gardens previous owner and use it in salads and cocktails!

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    • Thank you Ella. I’ve got my mint in raised planters in the poly tunnel, and huge plant pots outdoors. Some has escaped out of the garden gate and is flowering out on the lane. Happy memories of your Nan too. Thanks for reading the blog. Good luck in the draw 👍

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    • Thank you Gail. Thanks so much for persevering and finding the comments box. Thanks for reading the blog. Good luck I’m the draw. Check back tomorrow evening to see who has won.

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  6. Karen, your reading corner under the cherry blossom and pear is a delight, lovely. If I am in time to sign up for the book raffle, I will sign up. Karen I really like reading your happy memories of your childhood, when everything was a bubble in which everything that happened was good and your dear grandmother would send you to the garden for mint for a potato stew and you took it so hard serious and you did it very well. And I love that when you smell freshly cut mint, it transports you back to your happy childhood, it’s wonderful. During the fateful last year you have found comfort in cooking, and especially in your Welsh grandmother’s recipes that brought you the security of your childhood. Mark Diacono’s book, “Herb, a cook’s companion” is wonderful and I love all of her recipes and how they are presented. Karen I love the cake you made, even if the egg leaked, it had to be delicious! They also teach you how to grow herbs, harvest them and preserve them in different ways. With the recipes in this book, after confinement, you will be able to make very special dishes to start receiving family and friends at home and in the garden, and leave them with good memories, while you start contact with them again. Karen I am very happy that you are excited about the new panorama that is opening up with vaccination, but go slowly and very carefully: do not rush, the Covid is very dangerous and its new variants, especially India, which has arrived. Spain on a cargo ship, although the sailors who suffer from it are all isolated. Luckily it was caught in time and none disembarked !!!! Health, strength, encouragement, positive thinking, hope and much love for your whole family, Mr B and for you. Special affection for Merlin, the three chickens and the Three Musketeers. Special hugs. Much love from my mother and mine. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita xxx 😘😀🌸🌞

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much Margarita. I’ve put your name in the hat for the random draw. Thank you for your very kind comments. We are being extremely careful and not all meeting up at the same time yet. Also only meeting in the garden, although I think we are allowed indoors now. I’m filling the freezer with all kinds of cakes in readiness for our get togethers this summer. Take care and lots of love. Affectionate greetings from us all xxx 💚🌱🌷🌸

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much Karen. I’m so glad you’re filling the freezer with cakes for Summer visits – you’re baking non-stop! My mother and I are also being very careful. Much love to all. Take care. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita xxx 🌱🌼🌷💚

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  7. Really enjoyed this post Karen. And yes, I have been looking for comfort food over the past year and my waistline is the proof! 🤭 Hopefully the pounds will melt away as I get back into gardening. I love cooking with herbs and use them all a bit haphazard. I also remember picking the mint for my Mum for mint sauce with the Sunday dinner or perhaps for the boiled potatoes. I have recently bought myself a bay tree… very small and still acclimatising. It will have to come indoors over winter though. The book looks lovely. Please don’t enter me for the draw though as I suspect there is not much for a vegan in there! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Cathy. Good luck with your bay tree. I’ve just planted mine out in a sheltered spot. I’ve taken cuttings as an insurance policy. Fingers crossed it copes with the winter weather. I suspect I’ll be wrapping it up in fleece every night from December to March! Yes, happy memories of picking mint. I think ours went into mint sauce too, as well as on the potatoes. I can remember little jars of it on the windowsill. Must make some more again this year. Enjoy your week. I’m planting all the bedding plants into containers, and making room in the greenhouse for the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Hoping for some nice warm weather as it’s been perishing cold for the whole of April! Karen x

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  8. Your pictures would make a useful and good ‘how to cook’ book/let along with practical instructions, for people who are timid about trying something different on the basis it is too complicated and beyond their scope of ability. It particularly helps to show the very edible and interesting attempts, explaining, as you did, why the egg made its escape. x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. That’s very kind of you. Luckily, despite the escaping egg, the tart was absolutely gorgeous. I had to try it a second time as I couldn’t believe it when the dam broke on the first attempt…. I was determined, the second time. 🤞🙏 😃 xx

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