The weather may be heating up outside, but this isn’t to say that Dubai dwellers can’t be green-fingered inside. With regular water and a weekly helping of plant food (we also find chopped tomatoes work well), all manner of herbs – from basil and parsley to chives – can be easily grown on a windowsill. Not only will your herbs add a bit of natural colour to your kitchen, but will help you spruce up even the simplest dishes. We take a closer look the different herbs to grow and, with the help of executive sous chef Emiliano Bernasconi of Armani/Ristorante, suggest a few choice dishes in which they can be used.
Basil: This herb grows well in the sun and, provided its white flowers are pinched out all the time, it will grow for months. Basil is an essential ingredient for anyone who likes cooking – it’s primarily used in tomato-based sauces, salads and pasta dishes, and is the main ingredient used in pesto (see recipe, far right). Alternatively, tear up fresh leaves and add to a tomato and mozzerella salad, sprinkled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Chives: Chives are a member of the onion family, but have a sweeter flavour compared with their more bulbous cousins. When preparing chives, it’s best to snip with scissors rather than chop them on a cutting board with a knife – doing this will only squeeze out the flavour. They work wonderfully in crème fraiche over a jacket potato – or, as Chef Emiliano suggests, their unique, tangy flavour makes them a great accompaniment to caviar.
Dill: The feathery leaves of this herb have what’s best described as a sharp, aromatic flavour, which works well with fish dishes (as does parsley) and is also a good addition to sour cream dressings and sauces.
Lavender: Lavender is grown more for the smell than anything (the dry leaves are often used in pot pourri), but its sweet, floral taste can also be used to flavour ice cream. Chef Emiliano explains that lavender is a wonderful accompaniment to foie gras.
Marjoram: Marjoram goes well with seafood and veal, and complements stuffing for dumplings and herb scones. The herb is similar to oregano and is often used in Italian dishes, herb butters and salad dressings.
Mint: There are several different varieties of mint – spearmint being our particular favourite. Needless to say, mint is very good with lamb, particularly in jelly form: combine one cup of tightly packed mint leaves, one cup of water, half a cup of cider vinegar, three and a half cups of sugar and bring to the boil in a pan, stirring constantly. It’s also extremely good with chocolate or lemon-based desserts. Always add near the end of cooking to ensure a better flavour.
Parsley: One of the most widely used herb in Western cooking, parsley leaves can be used to flavour and enliven all manner of foods. The herb is especially good with fish and egg dishes.
Rosemary: This woody herb blends well with garlic and thyme to season lamb roasts (pierce a joint of lamb all over with a knife, then stuff with a slither of rosemary). If you’re enjoying the last of the barbecue weather, douse a rosemary bunch in olive oil and use the leaves as a brush to marinate meat before throwing it on the grill.
Sage: Sage is rare in that it dries well without losing its flavour. It’s a versatile herb that can be used to enhance the flavour of meat and breads.
Thyme: Thyme is commonly used in fish sauces, chowders and soups, but goes just as well with lamb. The herb is often paired with tomatoes – Chef Emiliano recommends using thyme with dry or roasted tomatoes, together with a little garlic and lemon zest.
Fresh herbs and seeds can be bought at Dubai Garden Centre, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 340 0006); or try the garden stores on Al Hudaiba Street, Satwa.
Time Out’s tips for growing your own
• Plan your herbs Parsley is a nice, slow-growing herb that needs little love. Oregano is basically a huge weed that, unchecked, will outgrow its container within weeks. Mint is very hardy, but as such dominates any area, so you’ll need to segregate it from other herbs (see below).
• Buy good soil fertiliser, otherwise nothing will grow. Phostrogen is a common choice in the UAE.
• Keep them separate When growing different herbs in a row, place half a brick between each section. This stops the herbs mixing with each other, which can happen faster than you think.
• Be careful of coriander Despite the abundance of coriander (or ‘cilantro’, as the Americans call it) in the supermarket, it’s very hard to grow. It loves bright sun to start with, but soon goes yellow, before dying very quickly.
• Be patient This is Dubai: don’t expect to be able to grow huge amounts of herbs resembling those on the supermarket shelf. It takes dedication to make anything grow here. Buy good potting soil, a decent-sized pot, add plant food when watering (at least one dose a week), ensure the soil has enough fertiliser, don’t leave anything out in the sun and keep those fingers crossed!
Now you have the herbs and have an idea of what to do with them, Chef Emiliano talks us through two simple Italian recipes – a pasta dish, brought to life with basil, and sea bass with chives.
Trenette pasta and pesto
Ingredients (serves four)
400g trenette pasta
200g fresh basil
10g pine nuts
40g grated parmesan
100ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper to season
1 Start making the pesto by placing the fresh basil leaves in a blender, then adding the garlic, pine nuts and olive oil.
2 To ensure a nice green colour, add one cube of ice and blend everything together, ensuring the blend isn’t too fine.
3 Add the grated parmesan and continue to blend for a little while.
4 Put the pesto aside and begin cooking the trenette pasta in boiling water with salt for about four minutes. When it’s cooked, stir in the pesto and serve, topped with a sprinkling of pine nuts and a sprig of basil.
Poached sea bass and chives
Ingredients (serves four)
4x 170g fillets of sea bass
50g chopped taggiasca olives
50g chopped chives
500g green peas
100ml olive oil
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 Roll the fish and skewer it so it’s easier to cook.
2 Mix the chopped olives with the chives, the chopped ginger and a dash of olive oil.
3 Cook the green peas in salted boiling water until they’re soft.
4 Strain the peas and blend half of them with a small amount of water, olive oil, salt and pepper, then set aside.
5 With the remaining peas, make a coarse purée (not as smooth as the first one). Set aside.
6 Poach the fish in salted boiling water for six minutes.
7 Serve by placing the smooth pea purée in the middle of the plate, spooning the coarse purée on top. Position the fish on top of the purée and spoon the olive and chive mix on top, then finish with a dash of olive oil and a sprinkle of cress.
Try Chef Emiliano’s food at Armani/Ristorante, Burj Khalifa, Donwtown Dubai (04 888 3444).