"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Weeds and herbs and everything perturbed

Sit down and let me tell you a tale.

Up until the time I was 14, we lived in apartments.  When we moved into our first-ever house in Aonach Street, Clayton, I was overjoyed:  I could have pets (or rather, the pets I had could now move around)!  We wouldn’t be sharing walls with other people!  We could have a garden!

For some reason, even though I am not, never have been, and never will be anything that can even loosely be termed a gardener, it was this last point that most excited me.  The backyard had already been divided in half, and one of the halves was – as befitted a neighbourhood with such a huge percentage of Italian and Greek migrants – a well-fertilised and turned-over veggie patch that only needed some seedlings for it to completely transform into a suburban Horn of Plenty.

Parsley and basil sprouting under the artichokes
Like Mary in The Secret Garden, I asked mamá for “a bit of earth” and she agreed.  The bit I chose was underneath the juvenile pine, and for it I got a packet of mixed flower seeds that came with the Disney imprint and an illustration of Bambi, Thumper and bluebirds gambolling in fields of snapdragons and bluebells.   I planted them, I watered them, they grew, and it made me happy.   And that was the last time I had a garden – a bit of earth – that I considered completely and totally mine.

Oh – there were other gardens, but none that I ever considered mine.  For reasons too various, personal, and let’s face it, boring to list, I was unable to put much of a permanent stamp on any of the places I lived in the following 25 years, and despite having bits of earth for veggies and herbs, I never considered any of those gardens mine.
This variety is new to me.  Anyone used it before?

That is, until a few years ago, when I found myself making a new start in a new house.  The pull of this place was so strong that even when we’d only been in it three days and were still chin-deep in boxes, one of my sons said, “It feels like we’ve always lived here!”  I had arrived somewhere I’d always wanted to be.  And outside was a garden.  And not just any garden.  I recognised it immediately:  my garden.  Finally I GOT why gardeners rhapsodise about gardening.  I got the satisfaction, the feeling of being at one with Life, the Universe, and Everything.

My garden is already established and I don’t touch it much, except for the one area at the very back, the one that flourishes under my touch:  the herb patch.

Now… in saying that I’m not gardener, you have to understand that it’s more than that.  I actually kill things.  It’s distressing, particularly for someone who actually thinks plants have feelings and respond to humans (more on this later), so I stopped trying.  But the one thing I know I can grow is herbs, and here in this garden, they have grown like never before.  They have grown lush – so lush that the oregano bush grew as big as my arms curved towards each other to make a circle, so lush that the mint leaves were as big as my hand, so lush that weeds barely get a look-in, except for winter, when most herbs go dormant and weeds go, “Whoo-hoo!” and take over. 

The kaffir lime
And that’s where my story begins.

Some weeks ago, it is the end of winter, and my garden is a bit of a mess.  I make a call to Khel, the gardener who helps me whip the garden into shape a few times a year with the stuff that’s too gardenerly for me to do.

Khel comes in on Friday while I am at work.  No biggie, he’s often done that.  Saturday morning I go into the garden with My Baby, start poking around, surveying my domain, except… WHERE ARE THE HERBS?

My heart starts pounding.  Every single weed is gone, but so is almost every herb.  I’m not talking cut back, I’m talking GONE, roots and all.  The rampant, cheeky mint, gone.  The massive oregano bush, gone.  Half the thyme.  The chives.  The rosemary.  All that remains are the freakin’ nasturtium.  I start taking every single deity’s name in vain.  I can’t believe it.  I start fighting back tears at this point, and I do something I try to never do, and ring someone while upset.

“Khel?  You came in yesterday?”
“Yeah… I cleaned up as much as I could… Did the weeding…”
“Where the %^$@! are my herbs?”
“Ohhh!... I thought I smelt something!...”
“You thought you smelt something?  What the *&#@!??”
“Not all of it is gone…”
“$@*&!  You uprooted them!  The oregano, the mint… They’re gone!”
“The mint will be back, don’t worry about that.”
“And what am I supposed to do about mint in the meantime?”

My mother used to say that my father had Basil Fawlty moments, and I’m sorry to say that this is one of the not-so-admirable things I’ve inherited from him.  If you want to truly get a mental picture of what happened then, all you need to visualise is Basil Fawlty beating up a dead car, or howling because he’s lost money he’s won on a horse, or digging through a trifle to find a duck.  Khel – or should I say The Murderer – had left a pile of weeds.  They were fragrant with the scents of at least six different herbs, and I started digging through the pile with my bare hands, weeping, crying out, “Where are you?  WHERE ARE YOU?”

Oh, yeah.  I had an insane moment.  And because My Baby knows better than to argue with Crazy Lady (or Crazy Hippie Lady, as he would have it), he joined in, minus the tears and ranting.  I found a rootlet of mint, and My Baby found a whole clump of chives.

We talked about not paying The Murderer, we talked about never employing him again, we talked about me going to visit him with my Whacking Stick, but when the fire of my grief and anger had cooled down to embers, I knew that only one thing could make me feel better:  replanting.  So I went to the nursery and spent a small fortune on herbs.  A few weeks later when I had a birthday, friends and family who knew of my predicament brought in beautiful gifts of herbs, and one day when I was at work, Khel snuck into the backyard and left a few little pots of thyme.

And they’re coming along.  They’re coming along.  The mint rootlet I rescued totally regenerated (and yes, like Khel predicted, other mint is coming back elsewhere).  The chives that My Baby discovered are now so happy they’re flowering.  These pictures are of a herb garden that’s happily recuperating.  It’s not yet as lush as it was, but it’s getting there.  The herbs are happy.  That they are happy is puzzling to me – all I do is water them, give them worm castings, and OK, have a little chat to them – and I just find the whole thing so humbling.  So much reward for so little effort.  I am also humbled by the people who commiserated with me when this happened, who understood my insane moment, and brought to me pots full of green and fragrance.

The Vietnamese mint that Kylie brought, going insane under the Laserlight

So, with the parsley my sister gave me, and the new oregano bushes, I share with you a recipe that is indispensable to me:  chimichurri, the Argentine barbeque sauce.

Variegated and common oregano

Alicia's parsley and mint
Now… as indispensable as chimi is, I don’t have it on everything.  Argentines, as a rule, don’t, and this is something you should keep in mind as recipes for chimi become more and more bastardised, and as chimi is presented to you at a restaurant as a dip for bread.  Bizarre.  Chimi is, and always shall be, a traditional condiment for barbequed and grilled meats.  I only ever use it as a marinade for matambre, which benefits from the strong flavours (since its cooking method is poaching) and the tenderising quality of the vinegar.  I can’t go past Asado Argentina’s excellent treatise on chimichurri, but I just really want to highlight that any recipe telling you to strive to keep the fresh green colour of the sauce is just wrong, wrong, WRONG.  While there’s nothing bad about serving a chimi that’s just been made, the best chimi has actually matured and mellowed in the refrigerator for days, weeks, or months.  It is the reason why I make nothing less than huge quantities.  (Also wrong is any chimi that adds herbs more familiar to Mexican cuisine, such as coriander/cilantro, but really, to read the full rant, go to Asado Argentina).

While you do, I'll be firing up the barbeque outside and thinking about how lucky I am.  Dogs, walls not joined to anyone else's, a garden, friends who understand when you go nuts… yeah.  Life at 45 has much in common with 14.

This is my recipe, adapted from mamá’s, which is one of many.  You can tweak it… but not too much.  Here are the things you can tweak:  the amount of chili is up to you.  The oregano need not be fresh.  The bay leaves are optional.  Remember that this is not an emulsified sauce, and that’s OK, because not all the sauces in the world are French.  You put it in a pretty bowl or sauceboat at the table with a spoon, and each diner stirs it up before spooning it over their meat.  Chimi will keep, refrigerated, for up to a year.

3 bay leaves
1 cup boiling water
I cup finely chopped parsley
1 tbsp. dried crushed chili
1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup good quality cider or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil (not EVOO - if you don’t have olive oil that’s not extra virgin, combine EVOO and vegetable oil, half and half)
salt and pepper to taste

What you do:
1.  Place bay leaves in a small bowl and pour over boiling water.  Allow to cool to warm while you proceed with recipe.
2.  In a bowl or jar, combine parsley, chili, oregano, garlic, vinegar and olive oil, with salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk together with a fork, or put the lid on the jar and shake.  Add the bay leaves, and enough of their soaking water to temper the taste.  The amount you use is up to you, but remember that chimichurri is meant to be quite perky and tangy.  It is definitely NOT subtle. 

Yumbo McGillicutty!


  1. Oh, I would have been horrified! I love your herb garden and all the little surprises that are nestled in among the plants. I'm so glad that things are coming back and all is right with the world again.

    Thank you too for sharing the chimichurri sauce. It looks delicious.

  2. Wow - I wish I had a prize for you for making it to the end of that saga! But… sigh… I feel much better after writing it down.

    A friend of the family once told us that if anyone gifted you anything you deemed too ghastly for the home, it usually looks great in the garden, and she's right! I love my Buddha inside the curry plant, but the blue Medusa thing belongs to my stepdaughters, who pulled it out of a box of keepsakes meant for them and were horrified! I deemed it perfect for the herb patch, and lookadat! Looks like she was made to preside over the mint.


So! Whaddya reckon?