Ah, lovage. Blessed with the kind of name which conjures up images of old-fashioned English cottage gardens, nestled next to lavender, it was a herb I’d heard of but until last year I’d not cooked with, until Deanna Thomas gifted me with a generous bunch from her garden. You rarely see it for sale so it’s a herb best used from home-grown if you can manage to source it from a friend, or nurture your own. By all accounts it grows voraciously, so if you do have a patch, you may wonder how to use it up.
When I did start to use it, I was initially thrown by how to play to its strengths. I was delighted and confused in equal measure by its curious ‘curry meets celery’ characteristics… a robust savoury flavour, and it holds its shape and body better than parsley, but I couldn’t find many recipes which excited me. Last year I made an experiemental lovage pesto, served with grilled sardines and lemon juice, but the rest of my stash went into the stockpot and I never felt I’d taken full advantage of its full potential.
This year I was determined to make the most of lovage’s late spring delights, and thought it might work well with some south Asian flavours. A quick look online referenced ajwain seeds in Indian cooking, but despite common misperception these aren’t the same as lovage seeds. Despite not finding a great deal of precedent, I didn’t think I could go far wrong, so on a wet midweek evening last week I got busy in the kitchen for an hour, making a hearty veggie meal for myself and a mate who’d dropped round. Few things counter the soggy evening blues better than grinding your own spices and making something with a touch of spice.
The fenugreek & potato dish has become a firm favourite over the last six months, fuelled by a discovery of fresh fenugreek (alternatively labelled ‘methi’). As mentioned before, I’ve been inspired by Anirudh Arora’ recipes in ‘Food of the Grand Trunk Road‘ and one recipe which leapt out was Aloo Methi Ka Saag. It’s quick and easy compared to many of the recipes in the book, and it’s healthy and good for veggie guests.
I’ve always loved saag aloo, but was really intrigued by the inclusion of fresh methi in this take of a simple classic. Fresh fenugreek has small ovoid leaves and a mild aroma, and can be found in many asian groceries. However it seems to wilt incredibly quickly, even if kept in the fridge in water, so I’ve found it’s best to make this on the day of purchase if possible. You can wash and freeze the leaves: though it seems to tone the flavour down at least it’s a good fallback if you fancy a quick fenugreek hit.
However – and I’ll try to be delicate here – I’ve discovered that fenugreek does have a peculiar ‘characteristic’ which means you’re likely to be reminded of it for a day or two after consumption. Somewhat like the effect asparagus has on some people, the malodorous qualities are longer-lasting and tend to permeate from a variety of regions. It seems this is a common side-effect, and is known on mother and baby forums as fenugreek seeds are used for stimulating milk supply. Not sure I make the connection with maple syrup though…
Finally, I’ve had my cockles warmed by the hitherto unknown delights of panch phoran – a Bengali five spice mix – thanks to Rice & Pickle’s mango pickle recipe she posted a few months ago. Days after reading her recipe, while the name was still fresh in my mind, I stumbled across a pack of this mix in Unicorn, and have been adding it to dishes ever since. As it contains fenugreek seeds it has a particular affinity to fresh methi, and has proven itself to be another reliable addition to the larder shelves.
Over the years I’ve tried a few different recipes for onion bhajis, but have found this from Daxa Dashani on the BBC website is reliably reproducible. However I tend to increase the amount of onion in the recipe, using a couple of decent sized onions to add more bulk. I also dry roast and then grind the panch phoran, adding it to the mix before letting the batter rest. Instead of the spinach in the recipe you can substitute this for other greens: earlier this spring I used wild garlic, and here I used lovage leaves, chopped roughly. This recipe makes around a dozen bhajis, depending how generous you are with the mix. Make sure you drain the bhajis well after cooking, sitting them on kitchen paper or napkins to remove any excess cooking oil.
The final dishes were great (and disappeared in no time between two hungry lads): the lovage gave an extra savoury depth to the bhajis, but was less obvious in the aloo methi. I used a scotch bonnet chilli in the aloo methi, but cautiously removed it before serving. As I’d used smoked paprika rather than chilli the spice flavour was more muted than when I’ve made this previously, so I served it with some hot sauce on the side. A breezy fresh salsa or a fiery lime pickle would be an even better choice.
Best served with some raita, a chutney (which I overlooked on this occasion…doh!) and a glass of good Indian Pale Ale. Fast, fresh and healthy!
Potatoes with fenugreek and lovage
(based on a recipe by Anirudh Arora)
- 3 bunches of fenugreek
- 1 handful lovage leaves
- 30ml vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon panch phoran
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika or chilli powder
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 green chillies or 1 scotch bonnet, sliced into lengths
- 1″/2.5cm length of fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
- 8-10 new potatoes, sliced… or several larger potatoes roughly diced
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- juice of 1 lemon
- a decent squirt of tomato purée
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
- Coriander leaves to garnish