Monday, October 28, 2013

Herbs and Vietnamese 'Tacos'

Can I just say, if you never grow anything else, grow some herbs?

When I was younger I was quite cautious when using herbs; a little bit of parsley in the cheese sauce, some oregano in the bolognaise, a sprinkle of rosemary on the roast lamb.
These days, having travelled a bit and read a lot of cookbooks and food  magazines, I am much more liberal in my use of the flavourful green leaves known collectively as herbs.

I don't think I really have a single  favourite but I do have a list of herbs that I don't like to be without, although I sometimes do have to go without because if they're not growing in the garden it's bad luck, I can't exactly pop down to the shops and get them....and once you've had herbs fresh from the garden it is very hard to go back to bought ones because the flavour just isn't the same, not to mention the cost of them.

I have finally learnt how to grow thyme in this climate and am thrilled about that because it's right up there amongst my favourite, most often used herbs. I have planted it at the base of fruit trees in the orchard and it is both full sun and part shade. Previously I have tried it in pots on the verandah but it always carked it in summer. It's now been growing successfully in the orchard for three years. Thyme is great added to stews and soups. I like to bake oiled baby carrots sprinkled with salt and thyme, and combined with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil it makes a delicious marinade for pork chops (right)

Flat leaf parsley grows really well here and, happily for me, it self seeds all over the place. I usually manage to keep a few plants growing in a shady spot through the summer but in winter I literally have to pull it out of the garden beds or it would take over. Parsley seems happy to grow in almost solid shade or full sun (not in summer).

Mint growning in a large pot
Mint growing under the fig tree
Mint seems to either grow prolifically or with great difficulty. It likes a bit of shade in summer and I have it planted in the orchard on the south side of my fig tree and an orange tree. Actually, I am amazed at how well it is doing out there as the sun is pretty fierce, even on the south side of the trees. I also have some in a pot on the verandah and the leaves here are much softer and bigger than the orchard plants. It gets virtually annihilated by little green caterpillars every year but seems to recover quite well. Mint is a herb that has taken me a while to use with confidence but I now  use it often and with abundance. It's bright freshness livens up lots of different salads, salsas and sauces so don't be afraid to use it liberally.

Holy basil growing in a pot
Basil is a much loved herb that loves the heat and really dislikes winter. Our winters are pretty mild so I  can keep my basil alive through winter if I keep it out of frost prone areas. There are many varieties of basil but I only grow two sorts; sweet and holy or Thai basil. Sweet basil is the sort used for pesto and in many other Mediterranean dishes and holy basil is used mainly in Asian cooking. It grows well in a pot and likes full sun or part shade. I have a massive plant growing under my young mulberry tree as well as in pots on the verandah.

Parsley, basil and mint are a great combination in Mediterranean style salads and ratatouille and you can  be generous when using them.

Laksa Leaf mint under
the quince tree
Tiny, late planted
coriander seedlings
in the shade house seems to divide people in to 'love it' or  'hate it' camps. My boys are in the latter. They reckon the coriander picked fresh from the garden tastes like stink bugs, but they hardly even notice it in food when I use shop bought stuff.....which sadly I have to resort to because I just can't seem to grow it here in summer as it bolts straight to seed. I keep trying though and currently have some little seedlings growing in a styrofoam box in the shade house.  If you've been successful growing coriander in summer I'd love to hear how you do it. Fortunately it grows very well here in the vege garden from autumn to early spring and is easy to sprinkle on top of my own plate of food rather than 'contaminate' the whole of whatever I have cooked.  There are two substitutes for coriander that do like the heat and they are saw-tooth coriander and laksa leaf (also know as Vietnamese) mint. I have planted some laksa leaf mint under the quince tree in the orchard and so far it is growing very well. I haven't had much luck with the saw-tooth because it always seems to get overrun with mealy bugs and I have given up!

Mint, holy basil and coriander are  essentials in south east Asian cuisine and are usually served fresh in a bowl as a side dish for people to add whatever they like to their meal. And that brings me to the  recipe that inspired this blog!

Last week I had defrosted a chicken for dinner. I didn't really know what I would do with it, I was just thinking along the lines of something Asian, so I poached it in a 'master stock' and let it cool. After some brain wracking I remembered the fabulous crispy pancakes we had in Vietnam so I looked up a recipe for them and from there developed what I now dub, Vietnamese Tacos! This is a fun meal where everyone can fill their own pancake at the table, just as you do with the original, Mexican version. Great for kids and, for those to whom it matters, it's gluten and dairy free to boot!

Vietnamese 'Tacos'

Master stock poached chicken or pork 
Shredded lettuce
grated or julienned carrot
Finely sliced capsicum
finely sliced cucumber
bean shoots
halved cherry tomatoes
Fresh herbs (coriander, mint, Vietnamese mint, holy basil) washed (and picked off the stalks if you want to)

Crispy Vietnamese Pancakes (makes about 8)

rice flour
1 tsp 
ground turmeric
560 ml
 coconut milk
560 ml
½ cup
 chopped spring onion
peanut or vegetable oil, for frying
1/2 tsp salt 

To make the pancakes, place flour and tumeric in a large bowl. Add coconut milk and water and mix well to form a thin pancake batter. Add spring onions and allow to rest for 15 minutes.Heat about 1 tbsp of oil in a 20- 25 cm frying pan and ladle in enough batter to cover pan. Fry until crispy on one side. Don't flip. Slide out and let everyone fill their own pancake with cooked chicken or pork, salad and fresh herbs.   Serve with Nuoc Cham  

Nuoc Cham 
60ml (1/4 cup) fish sauce

60ml (1/4 cup) fresh lime juice

1 1/2 tbs water

1 tbs caster sugar

1 long fresh red chilli, halved, deseeded, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

There are heaps of other wonderful herbs of course but these ones are my mainstays.   So, if you're not already growing some, I encourage you to have a go at your favourites and use them with abandon! 



  1. I agree, I use herbs in everything now, and sometimes multiple herbs. I've been reading Isabell Shippard's herb book and learning so much about the healing properties of herbs, and it just makes me want to grow and use them even more.

    1. Hi Liz, I haven't really gone in to the healing side of herbs but I reckon if you eat enough of them they must do some good!
      Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks CJ, that looks like a bumper crop of chillies there!

  3. Great post Emma, I have added the recipe to my Evernote for later on. I came across your blog from Liz's Eight Acres.

  4. Thanks heaps Glenn, I hope you enjoy the recipe.

  5. I grow herbs, but they always get wasted 'coz I never use them! My husband is a super picky eater (only beaten as being the worst eater ever by his son who has a sensory processing disorder). I'm trying to make this year the year it happens, but I have no idea what I'd manage to sneak them into!!

    1. Hi Christine, thanks for visiting Outback Larder! I hope you can 'sneak' some herbs in to your cooking somehow but if not, lots of them are just great scattered fresh over already cooked food so at least you can enjoy them. All the best, Emma