Anna Jones’ recipes for herb pesto and spring stew with artichokes and peas | The modern cook (2024)

Last Sunday afternoon was spent in my friend’s herb garden, which surrounds their little cottage on a green, wandering Wiltshire lane. We sat and drank bubbly wine and tasted the food we’ll be feasting on at our wedding in a few weeks’ time. The table was perched on a little patio right in the middle of the herb garden, between the nasturtiums and the lemon verbena, just up from the nigella and the baby chard. As platters of joyfully cooked vegetables made their way out of the little kitchen and down the garden path, the chefs reached into the borders and picked fronds of bronzed fennel to adorn them or darted off to the top of the garden for a scattering of allium flowers. These herbs really made the plates of food we ate, anointing them with a herby, summery greenness.

Just before we ate, a light spattering of rain released a wave of clean, bright heady scent. I was instantly convinced that we must move to the countryside and create our own herby utopia – but that is by the by ...

As a young, wide-eyed chef I remember being fascinated by the medicinal properties of herbs, of how clever they are, how they grow next to plants they eat well with, how they can enliven and soothe. Mint and dill helps us digest our food, parsley cleanses our palate, basil calms and soothes and used to be infused in hot milk as a calming bedtime drink for babies (which I must try). There is evidently more to them than just the eating.

My fridge is always home to at least a couple of bunches of herbs. I keep them in glasses in our fridge door, with a little water at the bottom of each glass, like cut flowers. This way, they last for a week or more and the veil of green which meets me when I open the fridge means they constantly inspire and inform my cooking.

I use herbs in almost everything I cook and, when a bunch is looking like it needs using up, it gets blitzed into a grassy paste before going back into the fridge door for another week or so ...

Herb smash and pestos

Herb pastes and pestos are a key part of how I cook. They are spooned on to roasted vegetables, used to dress grains, slathered into sandwiches and tossed through noodles or pasta. If I have a jar of a herby preparation in my fridge, I know I have lunch with flavour and vibrancy on the dreariest of days.

Made with nuts, cheese, herbs and oil and a host of other ingredients, these smashes or pestos may not be in your daily repertoire, but they’re one of the easiest, most effective and labour-saving ways I know to give a dish a flavour boost. All you need is a hand blender or a pestle and mortar.

Start with a simple herb oil. Blitz up a bunch of herbs with a few tablespoons of oil and put it in the fridge, or in the freezer in ice cube trays. Use it to top soups and stews, to dress salads and to drizzle over roast vegetables or a poached egg. It’s a good way to use up a lingering bunch. Just don’t add any lemon or vinegar if you want to keep it for a while, as it will turn the herbs black.

You can experiment with the flavours here and make herb pestos. Play around and pulse, paste and pulverise whatever you fancy. The joy is that these pestos and pastes take only seconds to make, but boost the flavour of your food tenfold.

Anna Jones’ recipes for herb pesto and spring stew with artichokes and peas | The modern cook (1)

Late spring stew of artichokes, peas and herbs

Sometimes I stir through a generous helping of herbs, like in this Vignole, which is made all the better and fresher from a bold handful of mint and parsley.

Vinarola, or vingole, is a Roman stew that is cooked in April in Rome, and a little later here. It uses everything that is wonderful about this season. Mine is a little different from the classic Roman version as its topped with some crisp seedy bread and a lot of herbs instead of the traditional crowning of prosciutto. I will probably be in trouble with purists and Italians, but this dish is so good I didn’t want to stop making it when I stopped eating meat. It’s a celebration of the vegetables of the hour and the smoked salt and crisp cornered bits of bread add a depth that I think matches the classic version.

Serves 4
8 small violet artichokes
350g fresh baby broad beans, double podded
1 leek, outer leaves removed, washed and shredded
200g spinach or chard, picked and washed
Extra virgin olive oil
2 small white onions, peeled and finely chopped
350g podded fresh peas
A few slices of good seeded bread
1 tsp salt (I use smoked salt here)
Black pepper
1 small bunch fresh mint, leaves picked
1 small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked
A few chive flowers, to serve (optional)

1 Put the artichokes into a pot of cold salted water and bring to the boil. Cook for about 10 minutes or until tender (check by inserting a knife into the heart to see if it is soft) and drain. Allow to cool, then peel back the outer leaves till you reach the pale tender ones and remove the choke using a teaspoon. Tear the hearts into quarters.

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2 Fill the pot with water again, add some salt and bring to the boil. Blanch the broad beans for a minute, then remove from the water with a slotted spoon and drain. Blanch the spinach or chard until just wilted. Keep this water.

3 Preheat your oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Tear the bread on to a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Scatter liberally with salt, then put into the hot oven for 15 minutes to crisp up.

4 Heat a large saucepan, big enough to hold all the ingredients, and add a good splash of oil. Cook the onions and leeks very gently for about 10 minutes until soft, add the reserved vegetable cooking water along with the peas and broad beans, then bring back to a gentle simmer.

5 Stir the roughly chopped spinach or chard into the peas with the artichokes and the broad beans. Bring back to simmer and let all the vegetables stew together for about 10 more minutes.

6 Taste, season with smoked salt and pepper, stir together with almost all the chopped herbs and a good few lugs of olive oil. Serve with the crisped bread on top and finally the flowers, if you are using them, as well as the remaining herbs.

  • Anna Jones is a chef, writer and author of A Modern Way to Eat and A Modern Way to Cook. (Fourth Estate);; @we_are_food
Anna Jones’ recipes for herb pesto and spring stew with artichokes and peas | The modern cook (2024)


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