Baby Steps for Better Health: Using Herbs | Natural Gourmet Institute

Baby Steps for Better Health: Using Herbs

Posted May 4, 2018

Welcome to our series, “Baby Steps for Better Health,” where we share small food, nutrition, and sustainability tips that go a long way. This month we are sharing a few tips on the health benefits of adding herbs to your diet and the best ways to store and cook with them.

Herbs are the leaves of aromatic plants. At Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) we use both fresh and dried herbs to add color and flavor to our savory and sweet recipes. We use delicate fresh ones, like parsley, mint, or cilantro, to top off soups, add zing, and “finish” a plate. With heartier, woodsier fresh herbs, like thyme or rosemary, we add these earlier in the cooking process, so their flavors have a chance to merge with the dish. Dried herbs, on the other hand, are almost always added at the start of cooking. And, because dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh ones, we use them in relatively smaller amounts. A teaspoon of dried thyme, for example, will provide about the same flavor as a tablespoon of fresh. But herbs are more than garnish; they pack a nutrient-dense punch with every bite.

Herbs provide an important source of health-supportive antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. They stimulate our senses, enhance digestion, and increase our ability to extract and utilize nutrients from other foods. The vitamin C in parsley, for example, increases iron absorption whether the iron you’re eating is plant- (e.g. beets) or animal-sourced. And peppermint, as many cultures have long known, relaxes smooth muscle cells, like the ones in your stomach, providing a delicious antidote to indigestion.

Using herbs is an easy way to wake-up your cooking, explore cultural flavors, and create altogether new ones to your personal tastes. When picking fresh herbs, look for ones that are green all over, with no brown or wilted parts. Once home, keep them in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer, either in the container they came in or wrapped in slightly damp paper towels. They’ll stay fresh for about a week. But if you notice they’re losing color or vitality, pick off any spoiled parts and dry the rest in a low oven (below 90⁰F). Once cooled they’ll keep for a month or more in an airtight jar.  Or better yet, chop mixed herbs with a bit of garlic, lemon zest, and enough extra-virgin olive oil to moisten, and use your improvised sauce to brighten everyday meals for a good week to follow.

The next time you shop, make it a priority to check out the familiar and not-so-familiar herbs at your local grocers or farmers market. With over six-hundred varieties of mint out there, it would be a shame not to.

HERB SAUCE
(Yield: 1 cup)

Try this utterly delicious sauce on everything from toasted whole grain bread, to cooked beans, to platters of steamed or grilled vegetables or fish. It keeps for about a week, refrigerated in a covered jar.

Ingredients:

  • 1 ounce parsley, stemmed, washed, and spun dry
  • ½ ounce mint, stemmed, washed, and spun dry
  • 1 tablespoons minced garlic (1 large clove)
  • 1 small shallot or red onion, minced (about ½ ounce)
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Procedure:

  1. Roughly chop parsley and mint and transfer to food processor with garlic, onion, vinegar, lemon juice, and oregano, and pulse to combine OR alternately, mince parsley and mint with garlic and onion, then add vinegar, lemon juice, and oregano.
  2. If using a food processor, add olive oil through feed tube and continue to process for 30 seconds or until sauce is blended, but still retains some texture. If mixing by hand, whisk in oil until well combined. Once oil is added mix in salt and black pepper and serve.

References:

Madera, R. F. (n.d.) The World of Mint [PDF Document]. University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program. Retrieved from http://cemadera.ucdavis.edu/newsletters/The_World_of_Mint24506.pdf

Sellami, M., Slimeni, O., Pokrywka, A., Kuvacic, G., Hayes, D.L., Milic, M., and Padulo, J., (2018). Herbal medicine for sports: A review. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 15:14

Steinar, D., Senoo, H., Wake, K., Holte, K., and Bloomhoff, R., (2003).  Several culinary and medicinal herbs are important sources of dietary antioxidants. American Society for Nutritional Sciences.

Yoshikawa, T., and Naito, Y., (2002). What is oxidative stress? JMAJ 45(7): 271-276.

United States Department of Agriculture (n.d.) Medicinal and Culinary Herbs. National Agriculture Library.  Retrieved from https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/medicinal-and-culinary-herbs