Summer in New Zealand is the time to embrace fresh flavour straight from the garden. ‘Fusion cooking’ is a term much touted by modern chefs and a relative, Peter Gordon, has just about perfected it, elevating this realm of cooking to an art form. Which makes me ask, where would it all be without the use of fresh herbs?
New Zealand’s excellent summer climate lends itself to the outdoors, and using herbs to enhance the flavour of fresh salads and barbecue food is the ultimate for the home gardener/cook. Here are some of the lesser-known herbs regarded as being ‘summer herbs’ in New Zealand. These delicious-tasting herbs are used fresh – just right for fusion cuisine.
Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) make up a group of ancient berries from which the modern-day strawberry has been cultivated and developed. The fruit is smaller than the newer cultivars, but the succulent berries have an amazingly rich flavour. They are available with red or yellow fruit, and there are several clumping varieties that do not send out runners, making them ideal for small, compact gardens. Given good light and moisture, they can be grown in an established strawberry patch and will provide fruit all summer long. They can also be planted out in any garden space as the fruit stays hidden, tucked away in the foliage, so birds tend to leave them alone. Serve with any raw salad or dessert, or just have a tasty treat as the garden gets tended! Children love to go looking for them.
Bergamot (Monarda didyma) has the most magnificent flowers in summer. Mophead in shape, the flowers are available in a variety of shades of pink, red and purple. Easy to grow, this herb is dormant in winter and spreads out to cover a 30cm area of foliage and flower in summer. In the right sunny spot this perennial will grow over 1m high. The elongated petals can be plucked from the head and tossed over salads, desserts or added as a colourful, edible garnish. The leaves and flowers can also be brewed to make a tasty herbal tea.
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are hardier and, for use in the kitchen, last longer in the season than common chives. The clump of small bulbs expands over several years to form and cover a good-sized area. This can be lifted and divided every three years to make new plants. Good sunlight and drainage are needed. Each leaf blade is flat and solid providing plenty of tasty onion flavour for egg dishes, salads, sauces and salsas. Use the white flowers, too, which can be stripped off the head and sprinkled over food.
Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemonii), as its botanical name suggests, has small, serrated leaves with strong citrus overtones. While the foliage may be fine and lacy, this herb will grow 2m high and at least 1m round. It needs full light and good drainage. The attractive daisy flower in summer is orange, and this is used as a lemon-infused garnish. About a teaspoon of finely chopped leaf is lovely added to salads and desserts. Just cut a branch and infuse in a jug of chilled water in the fridge for a tasty cool summertime drink.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a tall-growing herb that grows into a sturdy bush. The leaves are thick and leathery, enabling it to tolerate cold and wind well. Most popular on the Mediterranean coastline, this leaf is traditionally used for lamb and goat dishes. The leaf is inedible but laid under a roast or on the barbecue, it imparts a tasty, unique flavour to the meat. The pretty cream flowers can be used as a garnish, and the resulting blue-black berries when poached in sugar syrup and processed, yield tasty dried fruit.
Rice paddy plant (Limnophila aromatica) is yet another herb that hints to its flavour in its name. The rice paddy plant gets its common name from its natural habitat of growing on the edges of the water-filled rice field. It does need to be kept moist, so growing it in a container with a water-filled saucer underneath is ideal. South of the Auckland area it will need to winter over in a glasshouse. The herb growth slows in winter cold, but in summer responds to the heat to regenerate and provide plenty of lush, tasty leaf. It is chopped up and used in salads or as a garnish and compliments Asian cuisine.
CARE OF SUMMER HERBS
- An annual top dressing of fertiliser and compost early summer is best.
- Remember to water herbs at night so the water is slowly absorbed.
- Deadhead flowers on kitchen herbs to encourage good leafy growth.
- Liquid fertiliser applied in January will encourage good growth.
- Remove weeds from around each herb to keep plants healthy.