Herb Heroes

18th March 2011

While much of the food industry has been feeling the pinch during the recession, one category has flourished: fresh herbs. The rise in sales has been attributed to a change in cooking and eating habits: consumers going ‘back to basics’ and cooking meals from scratch. Around one third of us use fresh herbs already – and chef John Torode (of BBC One’s MasterChef) is supporting a nationwide cookery competition to convert the rest.

Herbs can transform the most ordinary meals into something very special, and have been used to add flavour and aroma for thousands of years. Now The British Herb Trade Association has launched its search for ‘the nation’s Herb Heroes’, looking for incredible food from real people who are transforming everyday meals with fresh herbs. If you love food and cooking, want to share your innovative herb recipes, and relish the idea of showing off your culinary expertise, this is your chance to shine.

Mat Prestwich, of the Association, says: “We’re always on the lookout for new and exciting fresh herb recipes. Perhaps you have a great family recipe which has been handed down through the generations or just love to come up with new ideas. We believe that when it comes to cooking, Britain really has got talent…”

John Torode, chef and restaurateur, is in complete agreement: “This is a great competition for people who love cooking and who understand the importance of using fresh herbs to transform ordinary meals into something really special. The best chefs know that fresh is best and herbs are no exception. Fresh herbs can elevate recipes to something really extraordinary. The balance of herbs in a recipe can make or break a dish, with the correct combination exuding taste, freshness, flavour and aroma.”

Details of entering are at the end of this feature.

Here's a recipe from John Torode to inspire you, and further recipes from www.fresh-herbs.co.uk to whet your appetite…

John Torode’s Chicken with Salsa Verde, Creamy Mash and Herb Salad

Salsa verde is a vibrant green sauce that is traditionally served with chicken, pork and grilled fish. Once made, it can be covered and stored in the fridge for 2 days.

Preparation: 20 mins • Cooking: 25-30 mins • Serves 4

For the salsa verde: 25g flat leaf parsley • 25g fresh basil leaves • 2 garlic cloves peeled & crushed • 1 boiled egg • 25g fresh white breadcrumbs • 15ml white wine vinegar • 15ml capers, drained • 60ml olive oil • a pinch of salt & a grind or two of black pepper

For the creamy mash: 700g Maris piper potatoes • 50g butter • 4-5tbsp milk

For the chicken: 4 chicken breast fillets • a little olive oil

For the salad dressing: 45ml/3tbsp olive oil • 5ml/1tsp lemon juice • salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad: 50g watercress • 15g flat leaf parsley leaves • 15g fresh mint leaves • 10 basil leaves • 10 fresh young thyme sprigs • 10 sprigs of tarragon • 10 sprigs of fresh dill • 1 long red chilli, deseeded and finely diced • 1/4 cucumber sliced into strips using a vegetable peeler

1. To make the salsa verde: put the parsley, basil and crushed garlic in a food processor and blend on the pulse setting until a paste forms. Add all remaining ingredients and pulse again until a uniform sauce is formed. Taste and season accordingly. Transfer to a bowl, cover and chill until required.

2. To make the mash: cut potatoes into even sized chunks. Place in a large pan, cover with cold water and add a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for about 15 mins. They are ready when you can easily slit a knife through the potatoes. Drain the potatoes, then return to the pan on a low heat to evaporate excess moisture. Mash well with masher or fork, keeping the heat going under the pan until they are thoroughly smooth. Season well, add butter and mix in roughly. Add the milk and beat continuously over the heat until the mixture starts to bubble. Remove from the heat, taste, season again if necessary. Keep warm.

3. To cook the chicken: Heat a griddle pan until hot. Drizzle a little oil over the chicken, and season with salt and pepper, rubbing all over the chicken. Turn heat down, then add the chicken and cook for 10-15 mins, turning once or twice until the chicken is nicely charred on both sides but cooked through in the middle – there should be no sign of pink juices.

4. To make the herb salad: first put the dressing ingredients into a screw top jar and shake very well, then leave to one side. Next place the watercress and herbs in a bowl, tearing them as you add them. Add the chilli and cucumber. Just before serving add the dressing, and toss to mix.

5. To serve: place a mound of mash on each plate, spoon a little salsa verde to one side,then lay the chicken breast in the middle of the sauce. Finally place a heap of salad next to the chicken. Serve straight away.

Fresh Coriander Pesto

Preparation: 5 mins • Cooking: 1-2 mins • Serves 4

60ml sunflower oil • 25g unsalted cashews • 1 clove garlic, peeled and halved • 1 red chilli, deseeded • 75g fresh coriander • juice of 1 lime • salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place the oil in a small non-stick pan, add the cashews and the garlic and cook over a low heat until the nuts are pale golden.

2. Transfer to a food processor and whizz to a paste. Now add the chilli and coriander to the food processor and pulse until a thick, fairly chunky paste forms. Transfer to a bowl.

3. Stir in the lime juice, and a little water to loosen the mixture slightly, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Once made, cover the pesto with clear film and refrigerate until required. It will keep in a the fridge for up to one week.

Serving suggestions:
Stir into curries just before serving, or toss into cooked noodles with a few cooked prawns.

Squash Risotto With Sage And Blue Cheese

Preparation: 10 mins • Cooking: 20-30 mins • Serves 4

450g butternut squash, peeled & deseeded • 25g butter • 1 onion, peeled & chopped • 1 (15g) pack sage leaves • 2 cloves garlic, crushed • 300g arborio rice • 150ml dry white wine • 900ml hot vegetable stock • 30ml olive oil • 75g Dolcelatte, gorgonzola or other blue cheese, crumbled • 25g Parmesan cheese, grated • salt and freshly ground black pepper • a little freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

1. Cut squash into 1cm chunks. Melt butter in a large pan, add squash and onion, cook over a medium heat: 6-8 mins or until pale golden.

2. Remove the leaves from the stalks, set aside about 12 leaves. Chop remaining sage leaves finely. Then add to pan with the garlic and rice, and cook, stirring until the rice grains are coated with butter.

3. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally until it has been absorbed. Add a couple of ladles of hot stock to the pan, then cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until the stock has been absorbed. Repeat this process until all the stock has been absorbed and the rice is tender: about 20 mins.

4. While this cooks, heat the oil in a small frying pan and add the remaining sage leaves a few at a time, cooking each for about 20 seconds until they sizzle and become crisp. Transfer to a piece of kitchen paper to drain. Set aside.

5. Stir the cheese into the risotto, and season to taste with salt and pepper and the nutmeg if using. Serve with the fried sage leaves scattered over.

Simple Cheese & Herb Omelette

Preparation: 5 mins • Cooking: 3-4 mins • Serves 1

3 large eggs • salt & freshly ground black pepper • a knob of butter • 30ml/2tbsp snipped fresh chives • 30ml/2tbsp snipped fresh basil • 30ml/2tbsp chopped fresh curly parsley • 50g/2oz cheddar cheese, grated

1. Beat eggs with salt and pepper and a dash of cold water. Add half the herbs. Melt the butter in a medium non-stick frying pan and when it’s sizzling, pour in the egg mixture.

2. Cook over a medium heat for 30 seconds or so, then use a wooden spatula to push the cooked egg to the centre of the pan allowing the runny egg to fill the space. Repeat until there is no runny egg left. Cook for a further 30 seconds by which time the base should be golden and the top just set.

3. Scatter over the herbs and cheese, then use the spatula to fold the omelette and transfer to a warm plate. Serve straight away.

Herb Heroes: how to enter

Entering the competition is simple and fun. Just create a home-video of yourself cooking up your creation, recording it on a mobile phone, camera or camcorder. Then go to www.fresh-herbs.co.uk/competition to follow instructions to upload it by 6 May. Videos should be no longer than 4 minutes. All entrants must be UK residents, and will be judged according to cooking skills, recipe, competence in the kitchen, but also their star quality as a presenter.

If you don’t have access to the internet, simply send your herb recipe and a picture of the finished dish, along with your contact details, to Herb Heroes, Mustard Communications, 5th Floor, Regal House, 70 London Road, Twickenham, TW1 3QS.

The top three entrants will be invited to the cook-off in London and treated to a two night stay for themselves and a guest, with the overall winner picking up top prize of £2,500. There is also a junior category for budding chefs aged 7-16 years.

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