festive herbs

Traditional Festive Herbs the South African Way

The year 2021 has been like no other, and as the festive season brings it to a close this bitter-sweet moment may also be a time to appreciate the ties that bind us together. A shared meal has become a life-affirming pleasure that is no longer taken for granted, which makes this year’s Christmas Eve dinner, traditional lunch or festive braai something special. Using healthy, fresh herbs from the garden for the celebratory meal somehow makes it even more personal. Festive herbs have always been part and parcel of festive fare. Imagine roast leg of lamb without mint sauce or rosemary, chicken without a sage and onion stuffing, peas without mint.

Herbs for meaty mains

Rosemary, bay leaf, thyme and sage are robustly flavoured herbs that mellow with long cooking while adding to the delicious aroma: Rosemary with lamb, forget turkey, a leg of lamb is regarded by most of us as the ultimate spoil.

  • Stud a leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic. Make about 30 small incisions with a sharp knife, and push a slice of fresh garlic and a small sprig of rosemary into each incision. Cover and refrigerate. Doing this a day in advance allows the flavours to infuse the meat.
  • Roast deboned lamb (rubbed with oil) on a base of rosemary, onions, vine tomatoes and garlic. Add wine and stock to the pan. Once the lamb is cooked, strain the juices from the pan and make a sauce by thickening the juices with cornflour and adding a handful of basil and pitted olives.
  • Even simpler, mix together 2 tablespoons chopped rosemary, 3 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, ¼ cup honey and 1 teaspoon lemon zest. Spread it over the lamb, cover and marinate overnight in the refrigerate. Lemon thyme, rosemary and sage with roast chicken
  • Mix 2 – 3 tablespoons chopped lemon thyme with softened butter. Season the chicken, then rub the butter/ herb mixture over it. Cut a lemon into quarters and push these into the cavity. Pour ½ cup white wine over the chicken, and roast.
  • Mix together lemon zest, crushed garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped rosemary, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and salt and pepper. Push the mixture between the skin and flesh as well as rubbing it over the breast, legs, wings and inside the cavity. Quarter a lemon and add this to the cavity. Tie the legs of the chicken and roast.
  • Traditional roast chicken usually includes sage and onion stuffing. Fry one chopped onion in butter until soft, cool and mix with finely grated lemon zest, 5 chopped sage leaves and 100g soft white breadcrumbs, using beaten egg to soften and bind it. Alternatively, make a stuffing using a chopped onion, 200g sausage meat, chopped thyme and one grated apple. Stuff the neck and cavity, tying the legs together to keep the stuffing inside.

Bay leaf with glazed gammon

Glazed gammon is often served as a second meat with roast chicken. It is first boiled in water with bay leaves and other herbs until tender, which takes about 1½ hours. Once this has been done, peel off the skin and score the underlying fat into diamonds. Push a clove into each diamond and glaze. The glaze may be a mix of port, sugar and white wine vinegar, or a mix of apricot jam, chopped chillies and melted butter.

Oregano, chillies, rosemary and thyme for the festive braai

Spicy chicken with chillies

This recipe from Evita Bezuidenhout works well for a braai. Combine 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons olive oil, a pinch of chilli powder (or fresh chopped chillies), a pinch of ground cinnamon and 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and cook the chicken in this sauce in the oven. When the chicken is just done, finish it on the braai. To slightly sweeten it and for a sticky braai finish, add 1 teaspoon (or more) of honey.

Porterhouse shish kebabs with oregano

Jan Braai describes his recipe as ‘Christmas tree’ shish kebabs, because of the colourful mix of sweet peppers, red onion, and cubes of marinated porterhouse steak. The secret is in the marinade: chopped fresh oregano, cumin, ground coriander, chopped garlic, black pepper, salt and sweet paprika. Mix the cubed meat with the spices, add olive oil and lemon juice, and marinade for at least three hours.

Beef fillet with herb crust

For a gourmet braai, nothing beats beef fillet with this herb crust. Mix 4 tablespoons oil, chopped garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary, 1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme, 2 tablespoons fresh grated Parmesan, ground black pepper and salt. Rub over the fillet and let it stand for a while before putting onto the braai.

6 best festive herbs

  1. Rosemary is a bushy, hardy perennial that grows in full sun in ordinary garden soil. Pick leaves all year round. Also grows well in pots.
  2. Lemon thyme is a small, bushy perennial that is drought tolerant, grows in full sun and thrives in pots or ordinary garden soil. Frequent picking prevents plants from getting woody.
  3. Oregano is an evergreen, frost-hardy perennial herb that needs full sun and likes fertile, well-composted soil that drains well. Most varieties are compact and also grow well in pots.
  4. Parsley needs at least four hours sun a day, and deep, fertile soil that drains well. Fertilise monthly and water regularly. The soil should never dry out completely. Do not plant with mint.
  5. Mint is actually a bog plant that likes rich, moist soil and partial sun. Most mints are creeping and will spread quickly. Water regularly so that they don’t dry out. Should they suffer from rust, cut back the plant to ground level.
  6. Sage thrives on neglect. Plant it in full sun, in soil that drains well, and don’t over water. Fertilise once a month. Cut back after flowering to keep it bushy.

Festive Herbs for side dishes and salads

Herbs that you shouldn’t do without are parsley, rocket, mint, coriander leaves and dill. Use them in green and mixed salads, as a leafy base and as garnishes. Try this: Mint salad dressing (Fresh Living): 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon honey, mixed. Sage roast potatoes (Fresh Living): Potatoes par boiled and halved, tossed in olive oil, duck fat or ghee, and roasted for about 40 minutes. Add a handful of sage leaves and roast for a further 15 minutes.

Keeping festive herbs fresh

Won’t be at home? Take your herbs with you. Store picked herbs together with a piece of kitchen paper towel in a Ziplock bag. This prevents the leaves from getting soggy and slushy. Stored that way they can last for up to two weeks. Keep soft leafy herbs in a screw-top glass jar, with the stems in 2cm of water, in the refrigerator.

The Gardener