Healthy Cooking Tips Part III: Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs are one of the greatest ways to add flavor to a dish while cutting back on fat, sugar and salt.  Besides helping flavor foods, herbs offer additional benefits of their own. Researchers are finding many culinary herbs (both fresh and dried) are high in vitamins, act as anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, treat indigestion, appetite loss, joint pain, headaches and memory loss.  New research is also showing that herbs have the highest antioxidant content of all foods.

When I first started cooking with fresh herbs I had no idea what I was doing or what went with what (other than cilantro in guacamole and basil with tomatoes). Here are some simple fresh herb guidelines to dispel any mystery surrounding them.

When to Purchase Herbs: Purchase herbs close to the time you plan to use them (they generally last about a week).

When to Pick Herbs: Cut in mid-morning. Let the morning dew dry from the leaves, but pick before the plants are wilting in the afternoon sun (if you don’t have a garden, the ideal way to keep fresh herbs on hand is a window pot  – I plan on planting mine this month).

How to Wash Herbs: Wash herbs under running water when you are ready to use them. Shake off moisture or spin dry in a salad spinner. Pat off any remaining moisture with a paper towel.

How to Store Herbs: If you purchase herbs from a supermarket or farmer’s market, wash and dry them immediately. Wrap in a dry paper towel, place in a Ziploc storage bag and refrigerate.

How to Prepare Herbs for Cooking: For most recipes, unless otherwise directed, chop herbs into tiny pieces.  For herbs with sturdier stems, such as rosemary, marjoram, oregano, sage and thyme, you can strip off the leaves by running your fingers down the stem from top to bottom.  For herbs with tender stems, such as parsley and cilantro, it’s ok if you snip off some of the stem in with the leaves when you’re cutting them.  Be careful if using a food processor to chop herbs; it’s easy to turn them to a paste rather than tiny pieces.

When to Add Herbs During Food Preparation: Unlike dried herbs, fresh herbs are usually added toward the end in cooked dishes to preserve their flavor.  Add the more delicate herbs (basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, marjoram, mint, parsley) a minute or two before the end of cooking or sprinkle them on the food before it’s served. The less delicate herbs, such as oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme, can be added about the last 15- 20 minutes of cooking.

When Substituting Fresh Herbs for Dried Herbs: A general guideline when using fresh herbs in a recipe is to use 3 times as much as you would use of a dried herb.

Herb Guidelines and Food Combinations:

Basil: Only the leaves of the basil plant are used.  We all know that basil is great with mozzarella and tomato, but basil is also terrific in pasta sauce and pesto and with grilled vegetable sandwiches, salmon, whole wheat brushetta and stir-fries.

Chives: Both the leaves and flowers of the chive plant are used.  Uses include soups, salads, eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, chicken, soft cheese spreads, sauces and fish.

Cilantro: Leaves used, and some of stem is ok.  Cilantro is member of the carrot family is also referred to as Chinese Parsley and Coriander. It is actually the leaves (and stems) of the Coriander plant. My favorite and most used herb; cilantro is widely used in Asian, Indian, Caribbean and Mexican dishes.  Goes well with avocado, chicken, fish, lentils, peppers, rice, salads, salsas, shellfish, tomatoes, yogurt and curries.

Dill: Dill has an intense flavor and is commonly used in soups; it goes well with carrots, cottage cheese, fish, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and surprisingly with miso and garlic in a salad dressing.

Marjoram: Only the leaves are used.  Similar to oregano, marjoram carries a sweeter, milder flavor. Marjoram makes a great addition to carrots, chicken, corn, eggs, fish, stuffings, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, ravioli, salads, soups, spinach and squash.

Mint: Only the leaves are used.  Mint is wonderful in your ice tea, lemonade, cold water, with carrots, fruit salads, peas, tabouli and in pesto.  Also a wonderful breath freshener.

Oregano: Only the leaves are used.  Oregano, which is a classic addition to Italian food, also adds a robust flavor to stews, soups, fish and vegetables, especially peppers and tomatoes.

Parsley: Leaves used, and some of stem is ok.  Parsley adds a mild, fresh taste to most dishes. Both flat-leaf parsley (also called Italian Parsley) and curly-leaf varieties are available and are virtually interchangeable in dishes that call for parsley.  Parsley is great added to sautéed vegetables, chicken, fish, grain or vegetable salads, pesto, pasta dishes and soups.

Rosemary: Only the leaves are used.  The leftover stems make easy skewers that add a ton of flavor to shish-ka-bobs.  Rosemary carries a very bold flavor so, a little goes a long way.  Great on chicken, fish, roasted root vegetables, vegetable ka-bobs, soups, stews, tomatoes and bread.

Sage: Both the leaves and flowers of the sage plant are used.  A Thanksgiving staple, sage is also a great addition to eggs, poultry, and savory dishes such as pumpkin or squash raviolis.

Tarragon: Only the leaves are used.  A favorite in French foods, tarragon’s aromatic, licorice-like flavor makes a great addition to chicken, fish, eggs, vinegars, and soups.

Thyme: Only the leaves are used. Thyme is a great addition to eggs, bean dishes, potatoes, poultry, summer squash, tomatoes and poached fishes.



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