I forgot to dry the leaves of my lemon verbena (Hierba Luisa in Spanish) this winter, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a lovely cup of tea. However, with the recent rains it has sprung to life and lemon verbena tea is back on the menu. This is another plant that does very well in pots and can give a wonderful scent to your balcony for much of the year. Once established it can grow up to 3 metres in height. Don’t be shy of giving it a good prune when it becomes scraggly and making use of any cuttings or unwanted base shoots in the kitchen.
If you don’t want to waste your lemon zest when you freeze cubes of lemon juice, here’s a lovely recipe that uses lots of it. You can either use this cake mix for muffins, or to make two 18cm sandwich sponges (put lemon curd or chocolate filling in the middle), or as a lemon tea loaf (boil 5tbsp of lemon juice with 25g of sugar until it is slightly thickened and use as a glaze on the top).
Basic lemon sponge recipe: 200g self raising flour, 1 tsp baking powder, half a tsp of salt, 220g sugar, 120g butter (softened), 2 tbsp of grated lemon rind, 3 eggs, 100ml milk.
Method: Grease your tins and heat the oven to 180ºC. Mix all the ingredients together and bake until a knife comes out clean (the timing will depend on whether you are doing muffins or cakes so keep an eye on things). If using a lemon glaze, prick the cake or muffins with a fork and then apply the glaze liberally so it sinks into the sponge. Leave the sponge to cool in the tin before turning out.
It’s still a little too early for mounds of lush green basil and my store of frozen bags of last year’s pesto is now very thin. However, mint is in abundance and can make a wonderfully refreshing pasta sauce in the interim. Boil about 350g of pasta according to packet instructions. Take a large handful of fresh mint sprigs, strip the leaves into a food processor, add 3 or 4 good lumps of parmesan, a tub of creme fraiche and a good grind of black pepper. Wizz it all together and then add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water to loosen the mix. Add either a couple of handfuls of peas, or some asparagus to the pasta a couple of minutes before the end of cooking time, or add some cherry tomatoes directly to the sauce. When the pasta and veg are cooked, stir in the mint sauce and eat!
All herbs are perfect for the mini-gardener who only has space for a few pots on a terrace, and good herb pots make a greater impact on your cooking than anything else. Try to keep herbs together that like the same conditions, for example put mint, parsley and chives in one pot and keep it in an area of partial shade, while putting oregano, thyme, marjoram and basil in areas with plenty of sunshine.
Whether it’s blossom on fruit trees, courgettes, tomatoes or peppers a little help with the bees’ work via a soft paintbrush can substantially increase home grown yields.
My grandfather always used to say there was no such thing as a free lunch, but in one respect he was wrong. With a bit of dirt to plant in and couple of hens today’s offering didn’t cost a cent. Mixed herb omelette with carrot, rocket, radish and beanshoot salad. Yum!
They wouldn’t meet EU shop beauty standards, but carrots fresh from the garden taste great. Even thinnings can often be used in salads or my daughter’s favourite soup. Just give them a good scrub if they’re too small to peel.
Spicy carrot soup: 25g butter; 600g carrots; 1 large onion; 1 clove of garlic; half tsp cumin and nutmeg; quarter tsp paprika, turmeric, ground ginger and ground corriander; 1 tsp brown sugar; 900ml vegetable stock; 150ml milk; seasoning.
Method: Dice the vegetables and saute gently in the butter for a few minutes. Stir in the spices and cook for a minute before adding the sugar and stock. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Purée the soup then add the milk and season to taste. Feeds 4 to 6.
They are quick and easy to grow – planting to eating is about one month; they’re happy in anything from a pot to a field; the seeds are big enough to handle easily so there’s no need for wastage through thinning, and a single packet will provide sufficient seeds for many months of sowing, but the best thing is that when they travel directly from earth to salad bowl they retain their natural fiery flavour which is generally so absent in shop-bought radish. Remember to eat them before they become too large and woody – there’s always plenty more where they came from!