Food features this month
The language of Herbs
By Carolyn Best
In 1253 CE, the English king Henry III bestowed a great boon upon the burgesses, or freemen, of Scarborough in Yorkshire. He granted to them and their heirs the privilege of holding a yearly fair within their borough. The fair was to begin on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and run until the Feast of Saint Michael, that is from August 15 to September 19. This exceptionally long fair soon became renowned amongst tradesmen, merchants and farmers. It attracted not only Englishmen but people from Norway, Denmark, the Baltic states and the Byzantine Empire. Each Scarborough Fair was an event of epic proportions, bringing vast crowds of buyers and pleasure seekers, all of whom sought to be entertained by musicians, jugglers and storytellers. The annual gatherings continued unbroken for about a hundred years, before other fairs displaced them. Even so, the Scarborough Fair was revived several times over the centuries, the last one taking place in 1788.
The traditional song “Scarborough Fair,” which enshrines the memory of this greatest English market of the Middle Ages, is still appreciated and performed today.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine.
The four herbs listed in the song’s refrain were not chosen randomly. Each held a readily understood medical or symbolic significance to medieval listeners, who believed that flowers and herbs held mystical properties and had power to influence physical and emotional wellbeing.
How would somebody at the Scarborough Fair have interpreted these herbal references in the context of the song?
Parsley, much used to aid digestion and remove the bitterness of certain foodstuffs, was included to soothe the bitterness that had entered a once-sweet relationship. As the heart has always seemed to be the locus of love in the human body, parsley’s ability to remove “heartburn” made it a curative for the pain caused by a love affair that had gone awry.
Sage, in Celtic and classical traditions, was a source of strength and wisdom. These are qualities that the singer wishes upon his estranged love, so that she may form the resolve to return to him.
The properties of rosemary, whose sweet smell lingers and perfumes the air in a lasting signature, are love, remembrance and fidelity. This, the herb used to weave the crowns, garlands and rings worn during wedding festivities, speaks of the singer’s ongoing commitment to his lover.
Finally, there is thyme, a herb that has been a code for courage since the age of Homer. The word “thyme” derives from the Greek “thumos,” or smoke – a reference to the burning of the herb in the temples of ancient Greece, where it was said to evoke a spirit of courage in those who inhaled it. For similar reasons, the wives and maidens of the Age of Chivalry included thyme in the floral favours they bestowed on their chosen knight; or they might embroider him a scarf depicting a bee hovering over a spray of thyme. In “Scarborough Fair,” the singer wishes his beloved the courage to take the steps that will reunite them.
Here are a few simple recipes with the herbs of Scarborough Fair.
Onion Parsley Sauce
(parsley is such a good source of iron that I like to put lots in a simple complement for buckwheat noodles)
Onions and parsley, one bunch of
parsley for each large size onion
¼ cup olive oil per onion
Chop onions and saute in olive oil until slightly browned. Take off the heat and add finely chopped parsley. Return to heat and cook and stir until parsley has wilted. Add 2 tbsp water and 2 tbsp tamari (per bunch of parsley) to finish sauce. Stir into a dish of cooked and drained soba (buckwheat noodles).
A wonderful pesto for a minestrone soup
1 cup finely chopped parsley
4-5 cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil
1 cup grated parmesan
Blend garlic and olive oil. Add parsley and blend. Remove from blender and stir in parmesan.
Walnut Oat Burgers
Rolled oats and walnuts in equal
Chopped onions sautéed in olive oil
Brown rice, cooked
Fresh or dried sage
Lightly chop the rolled oats in a food processor. Dry roast the walnuts in a cast iron frying pan, stirring over low heat or on a baking sheet in the oven at 350° until lightly browned. Combine oats, walnuts and sautéed onion in a bowl. Cooked and pureed brown rice serves as the binder for these delicious burghers. Combine the cooked rice with hot water and tamari in a blender and process to the consistency of a thick porridge. Stir into the oats and walnuts until the mixture holds together enough to allow forming the burgers. Add chopped sage and more tamari as needed for taste. Place the burgers on an oiled cookie sheet and bake in the oven at 350°, flipping once, until well browned on each side. The protein rich patties go well with ketchup and mustard condiments and a baked potato.
Portobello Mushroom “Steaks”
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp sea salt
¼ cup chopped fresh rosemary
Combine first four ingredients. Make diagonal slices on portobellos to get as large a “steak” as possible and place them in a baking dish. Pour marinade over mushrooms and allow them to soak for an hour or more. Then remove them and place a flat single layer on a cookie sheet. Broil for a few minutes until slightly brown. Turn them over with a spatula and repeat on the other side. This procedure requires close attention as the olive oil, which has soaked into the mushrooms, could catch fire if forgotten. When grilling is finished, keep mushroom steaks warm until ready to serve. Sprinkle with more needles of fresh rosemary. A wonderful entrée served over wild rice and sautéed onion. (But they are also delicious cold at a picnic!)
Thyme and Lemon Mascarpone Sorbet
Lemons, enough to make one cup of juice
¾ cup mascarpone cheese
½ cup sugar
½ cup honey
4 sprigs of thyme
Beat together the mascarpone, sugar and honey. Mix in the lemon juice. Strip the thyme leaves from their branches and stir the leaves into the mixture. Pour into a shallow sealed container and place in the freezer. After a few hours stir with a fork and return to the freezer. The sorbet will be well frozen in about 8 hours.
Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.
Kluai Buat Chi (banana in coconut milk) is a simple, sweet and fruity dish traditionally served in Thailand. Photo: Marisa Romano
Sombat’s special breakfast
By Marisa Romano
When I packed my suitcase and left Ottawa to spend a month in Thailand last February I was sure I was going to return with the skills to make the perfect pad Thai. What I brought back with me instead is a recipe for a bowl of an old-fashioned Thai dessert with the tropical flavour that marked my stay in Bangkok.
Kluai Buat Chi (banana in coconut milk) is a simple, sweet and fruity dish that is traditionally served in Thailand at the end of a meal or is enjoyed as a snack at any time of the day. “Like ice cream,” explains my friend Sombat, our host. But in this case he served the flavourful bowl in the morning, a special breakfast to welcome us to his country and his home, a beautiful apartment on the upper floors of a towering building on the shores of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
Sombat, the youngest sibling in a large family from a small village near the northern city of Chang Rai, recalls his oldest sister making the traditional milky comfort food for him as a young child, a special treat for the only boy in the household. The small lady-fingers-type bananas used were from trees grown just outside the family home and they abounded all year around. The coconut milk was freshly squeezed from the shaved pulp of ripened fruits.
Thais make this dish with Nam wah bananas, a variety native to the southeastern Asian peninsula of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and now cultivated in some other parts of the world, including southern Florida. Nam wah bananas are sweet and creamy, a little denser than the Cavendish variety that we usually eat. The “thin” coconut milk typically used can be replaced by the denser coconut cream diluted with water to reach the consistency of whole milk.
I make this recipe at home with our Cavendish bananas and add a little brown coconut sugar when I serve it chilled at the end of a meal. But for my breakfast I like it as is – the banana-infused milk is sweet and flavourful enough for me – and I top the milky bowl with granola and sliced almond…mmm, the ideal hearty breakfast for those first cool fall mornings!
Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.
Kluai Buat Chi
(banana in coconut milk)
1 1/2 cups thin coconut milk, or coconut cream (the denser variety of coconut milk) diluted with water to the consistency of whole milk
3 ripe bananas sliced lengthwise,
then in 3-4 chunks
1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1-2 tbsp sugar, or to taste
Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan and add the salt. Bring to a gentle boil, add the bananas, stir and bring to a slow boil again. Simmer uncovered for 2 to 3 minutes. Do not overcook as bananas should be tender but not mush. Add sugar. Remove from heat. The coconut milk thickens to a consistency similar to whipping cream.
Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled.