Stepping out of the back door to pick fresh herbs is a delight - especially if you use them in these delicate dishes.
Monty Don was insistent. The herb bed must be near the kitchen. He explained, calmly, that you don't only cook when the sun is shining. Sometimes you need to grab a bunch of parsley, a few sprigs of lemon thyme or a handful of verbena for a pot of tea when it's pouring with rain. Keep them to hand. And so, 10 years on, the herbs still nestle outside the kitchen door - some long-term survivors of frost, flood and forgetfulness, others new this season, full of hope and innocent of their end.
Any failure I have had nurturing them is almost entirely due to planting them in too rich a soil. Their roots hate standing in water. A gritty mixture and poor soil make them feel at home. I also notice a stronger flavour in some of the more toughly grown plants than in those pampered, thin-stemmed varieties I buy at the supermarket. We work with what we have.
Herbs can occasionally be the whole point of a dish. Basil pesto, for instance, or lemon verbena ice cream or mint sauce. They lie at the base of a recipe rather than play their usual top notes.
Earlier this week I threw basil, parsley and chervil into a batter and whizzed up green pancakes, then I worked chives and chervil into fluffy, coaster-sized ricotta cakes. I could have used just one herb for each, tarragon for the pancakes, perhaps, and basil for the ricotta cakes, but if you marry them thoughtfully, a mix-and-match approach can work well too. And that's what I have done. Little herbal delights from a spring kitchen and garden.
Herb ricotta cakes
For the batter:
plain flour 50g
butter 30g, melted
chives, chervil, parsley a small handful of each
For the topping:
avocados 2 medium
lemon juice of 1
ricotta 6 tbsp
sprouted seeds 6 large pinches
Make the topping. Halve, peel, stone and finely dice the avocados, put them in a bowl, then add the juice of a lemon, a little black pepper and a couple of glugs of olive oil. Cover and set aside.
To make the ricotta cakes, separate the egg yolks from the whites, putting the whites into a bowl large enough to beat them in. Add the ricotta to the egg yolks, then stir in the flour and butter. Chop the herbs, stir them in, then season with a little salt.
Beat the egg whites until light and fluffy, then stir into the ricotta mixture together with the chervil leaves. Melt a little butter in a nonstick frying pan over a moderate heat. When it sizzles lightly, add a sixth of the ricotta mixture and pat it lightly into a small cake, about the circumference of a digestive biscuit, with the back of a spoon. Add another two. When the cakes have coloured lightly in the base, flip them over with a palette knife (do this quickly and confidently and they won't break), then let the other side become a soft, pale gold. The full cooking time shouldn't be more than a few minutes. Repeat with the remaining mixture,
Remove the cakes with a palette knife or spatula, rest briefly on kitchen paper, then transfer to a plate. Place a heaped tablespoon of ricotta on each, divide the avocado mixture among them, add the sprouted seeds and serve.
Herb pancakes with mushrooms and crème fraîche
For the pancakes:
plain flour 100g
egg 1 large, plus an extra yolk
basil and parsley 20g, total weight
chervil leaves a handful
For the filling:
spring onions 4
butter a thick slice
button mushrooms 400g
thyme leaves 3 tbsp
tarragon 2 large handfuls
parsley 2 large handfuls
crème fraîche 300ml
butter and grated Parmesan to finish
For the pancakes, melt the butter in a small pan, remove from the heat and leave to cool. Sift the flour, together with a pinch of salt, into a large bowl. Put the egg, egg yolk and milk into a blender or food processor, add the basil and parsley and blitz to a pale green. Pour into the flour and add half the butter, beating lightly to get a smooth batter. Set aside for half an hour.
Brush a 20-22cm nonstick frying pan or crêpe pan with a little of the melted butter. Add the chervil leaves to the batter. When the butter starts to sizzle, give the batter a quick stir, then pour or ladle in enough to give a wafer-thin layer. Tip the pan round so the batter covers the bottom of the pan. Let it cook for a minute, then run a palette knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan. Slide the palette knife underneath then flip the pancake over quickly and smoothly. Leave to cook for a minute or two, then slide out on to a plate.
Continue with the rest of the mixture. You should make about six pancakes. (You will only need four, so keep the other two for later. They make a nice little snack topped with grated cheese and butter then grilled.)
To make the filling, melt the butter in a deep casserole over a moderate heat. Finely chop the spring onions, discarding any of the stem that is very dark and tough, and add them to the butter. Leave the onions to soften, giving them the occasional stir, then add the thyme leaves.
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Roughly chop the tarragon and parsley leaves, add them to the onions and thyme, then, when they have darkened a little, stir in the crème fraîche, salt and pepper. Finely grate the lemon, adding half to the filling and reserving the rest.
Place a pancake on the worksurface, fill with a quarter of the mushroom and herb mixture, then roll up and place in a lightly oiled or buttered baking dish. Repeat with the remaining pancakes and filling. Add a little melted butter, grated Parmesan and grated lemon to them, then bake for 10 minutes and serve.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pile it high: Nigel Slater's herb ricotta cake topped with avocado and sprouted seeds. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer