Tempura with udo, hogweed, sweet cicely and lovage

If you read online about the origins of the Japanese tempura cooking style, you will discover that it was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries who possibly adapted it from Indian pakora in their colony of Goa. The word comes from the Latin tempora or ‘times’, which was used to refer to the Christian fast days on which meat could not be eaten and fish was a popular substitute. However, we in Scotland know that it is simply an excuse to deep-fry things in batter and that no further justification is needed. If they can then be dipped in soy sauce, so much the better.

I have been experimenting recently with a number of strongly-flavoured shoots from the carrot family, including hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and lovage (Levisticum officinale), and one from the closely related aralia family – udo (Aralia cordata). In all the carrot relatives it is the young leaf stems that are eaten, preferably before the leaf itself has properly unfurled. Lovage is particularly strongly flavoured and is usually used as a herb, but it can be made milder by blanching it – excluding light from the growing stems so that they come up pale and somewhat chastened. Clay forcing pots are traditionally used for this but I find that an upturned bin works just as well (it needs to be large as lovage is quite a size).

With the udo on the other hand it is usually the pith – the flesh inside the central stems – that is used: the resinous skin is peeled or sliced off. In this case, however, I wanted to find a use for the tips of the shoots that are difficult to peel and include the young leaves. I thought that tempura might be a good way of harmonising all these strong flavours.

lovage - udo - sweet cicely - hogweed

lovage – udo – sweet cicely – hogweed

For my tempura batter I used plain wheat flour with a little corn flour, an egg and chilled water. I mixed it briefly so as to keep it light and fluffy. The stems were all cut up into bite-sized lengths, then coated in the batter and deep fried. You get lots of little bits of batter left in the oil once you take the large pieces out: it is good to get these out if you can or they will spoil your oil.

tempura

The verdict? I loved it! The strong flavours were all still there but tempered by the cooking and the mild batter and by the competition with the soy sauce. This is definitely a dish that I will be making again.

Lovage, actually

Lovage is the rather lovely name given to two plants, both in the carrot family but otherwise unrelated, that share a similar flavour: sort of earthy, yeasty and slightly celeryish. If you’ve tried Maggi sauce you’ll recognise it immediately, and in parts of Europe lovage has come to be known as the Maggi plant, although in fact there is no lovage in the recipe for the sauce.

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The first lovage plant is a monster called Levisticum officinale. It’s a tricky plant to make best use of, as in a favourable spot it grows into an 8ft tall triffid, whereas all it takes is a tiny fragment of leaf to flavour a dish. Fortunately, like many other carrot relatives, the spring shoots are much more mildly flavoured than the mature leaves and my main use of lovage is now in the spring. By shoots I mean the leaf spears just as they are coming out of the ground, still rolled up and pale green. Fortunately on lovage these are still pretty substantial. Even once the foliage becomes more grown up you can still often find new shoots coming up at the base of the plant.

Lovage shoots have lots of uses. They can be cooked like other shoots such as asparagus, fried in a little olive oil or butter. They are great in tempura and they also stir fry well. Lovage and tomato seems to be a particularly nice combination, so I also use them in pasta sauces. Their strong flavour is perfect for blending into leaf sauce, which I’ll post a recipe for soon.

Later in the season, when lovage generally gets rather overbearing, you can find another use for it as a green manure plant, cutting down the foliage for the compost heap to feed your annual crops later on. I take this dual-use approach with quite a lot of my forest garden plants now, making use of the crops themselves as green manures rather than taking up space with dedicated green manure crops such as comfrey.

The second lovage is a much smaller, better-behaved plant called Scots lovage (Ligusticum scoticum). It grows wild on the beaches up here and I have fond memories of adding it, freshly picked, to salads and pasta sauces on canoeing trips on the Sutherland coast. If you can’t be bothered going down to the beach every time you want a little bit, it grows modestly and unfussily in the forest garden, tolerating a reasonable level of shade (although not a plant for deep shade). It is milder and sweeter than big lovage too, so much so that the early leaves are great chopped into spring salads. It shares lovage’s affinity with tomato and I’m very fond of it with tomatoes and beans. Like parsley, it is best added close to the end of cooking.

Scots lovage

Note: In  postscript to this post, there seems to be a lot of variability in Scots lovage. One plant I have grows as described above, about 300mm in diameter; a second one from the same supplier (Poyntzfield Herbs) grew to over a metre. I got rid of it, but now I rather regret now finding out what the spring shoots were like.