by Sharon Quercioli
Do you ever walk into a kitchen and smell something delicious that makes your mouth water? Maybe it is homemade sauce or a fresh salad that’s got something extra yummy in it. Odds are that you can blame it on fresh green herbs—fragrant, flavorful and actually good for you. Fresh herbs bring a whole new dimension to healthy cooking. I really enjoy growing my own herbs and cutting them up for salads, but my favorite recipe (learned it from Carrabba’s) is cut-up fresh herbs with a little virgin olive oil. Then you dip Italian or French bread in the herb mix. Mmmm…
Fresh green herbs are delicious and available year-round in your local market’s produce section, or do like I do and grow them! With a little sunshine and a few pots, you can start your own easy-to-maintain herb garden. Then you can be 100% sure they’re fresh! Experiment with different kinds, and use your sniffer…you should be able to smell a full, fresh fragrance from bright, perky greens or rub a piece of the herb between your fingers—the smell is intoxicating.
Not sure where to start? Here are eight awesome herbs that’ll make your recipes sing and your health soar.
Parsley: This curly-leafed herb is one of my favorites and is available in most grocery stories. It has almost twice the carotenoid content of carrots and is rich in antioxidants. Parsley has been shown to help slow down the effects of aging and may help prevent coronary artery disease. Parsley also contains apigenin—a phytonutrient shown to have substantial anti-cancer properties by working to inhibit the formation of new tumor-feeding blood cells. One of my favorites is tabouli—a Mediterranean-style parsley salad that is amazing! You can also use parsley to get rid of bad breath, especially if you have eaten garlic!
Basil: A popular herb in the same family as peppermint, its slightly curly leaves are a good source of vitamin A and magnesium. They also contain iron, calcium, potassium and vitamin C. Basil has been shown to stop the growth of many bacteria, even some that have grown resistant to antibiotics. Basil has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that come from its high volatile (aromatic) oils content, which include—to name a few—linalool, estragole and limonene. Basil is an ideal treatment for people with arthritis because the oil blocks enzymes in the body that cause swelling. One of my favorite recipes is sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella topped with fresh basil and a touch of balsamic vinegar. Another great recipe is pesto, and we all know that pesto totally rocks on pasta!
Cilantro: A flat-leaf parsley, but with a very different aroma and taste, these delicate 1/4-inch leaves reduce high blood sugar, help cut cholesterol, promote detoxification of the blood, and are a good source of vitamin A and vitamin C. Chopped cilantro (and a squeeze of lime) on just about every savory Mexican and Middle Eastern dish is a delicious mix of flavors!
Mint: These small, fuzzy, wrinkly leaves have been shown to have strong anti-microbial properties thanks to the oils within. Mint oils inhibited the growth of bacteria such as salmonella and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aurea (MRSA). Mint also soothes your tummy and can be helpful in lessening the effects of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and dyspepsia by its ability to help relax the smooth muscles in all these areas. Have some mint tea! You will love it. How about a refreshing and fun mint julep!
Chives: This pungent, slightly spicy herb is related to garlic and leeks. Like garlic, chives are known for their high allicin content—the antioxidant compound that’s been shown to help scrub your system clean of toxins and have anti-aging properties. Allicin is also what gives chives their distinctive odor. Chives do a number on bacterial and fungal agents, much to our benefit. Nutritionally, chives are a good source of beta-carotene, potassium, vitamin K, calcium, and folic acid, plus trace amounts of iron and vitamin B.
Chives are most often used raw and are sprinkled on hot foods, like baked potatoes, soups and pasta. Experiment by sprinkling fresh-chopped chives on any savory dish you make (veggies, fish, soup or beans). It is delicious!
Fennel: What a wonderful different taste—that of black licorice! Its large, bulbous root end is the part used most. You can peel the stalks off like celery, and they can be sliced and prepared in the same way. The upper part of this plant—the dill-like part—can be used as edible garnish or added into any recipe. You can slice the bulb very thinly or leave the slices intact. It’s a good source of vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber and manganese. Plus, there are small amounts of calcium, iron and vitamin A thrown in for good measure. Because of its high fiber content, fennel has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and may help to lower cholesterol. A super-simple and refreshing way to enjoy fennel is to thinly slice a stalk against the fibers and lightly drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Or just nibble on the ungarnished slices. Chilled fennel is a wonderful treat.
Dill: You can recognize dill anywhere of its distinctive aromas and taste. It has delicate wispy fronds for leaves and is high in calcium, manganese, iron, fiber and magnesium. Like basil and mint, dill contains volatile oils such as limonene and anethofuran that have antioxidant properties. Ancient Greek and Roman soldiers would use burnt dill seeds on their wounds to heal more quickly.
Classically, dill is used as a cooking ingredient/garnish for any fish dish and as part of the pickling recipes for, well, dill pickles. A delicious dipping sauce is made with light plain yogurt, grated cucumbers, fresh garlic and chopped dill.
Oregano: Last but not least oregano is used in hundreds of cuisines from around the world? This herb is commonly found in dried form, but if you can find it fresh in your local market’s produce section, it is wonderful. I happen to grow it along with all my other herbs. Oregano has thick stalks with dozens of fuzzy curly little leaves measuring about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. Oregano is an excellent source of vitamin K and a good source of vitamins A and C. It also contains decent amounts of iron, manganese and folate. Together with oils, like thymol, that have been shown to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal in nature, the nutrients found in oregano pack a real power punch—even in small amounts.
For a great little snack and something very Mediterranean, try mincing fresh leaves very finely, and sprinkle on slices of cucumber and tomato, drizzled with a touch of olive oil.
Although fresh green herbs are generally used sparingly in any dish, if used on a regular basis you can benefit from all the good stuff packed into these fragrant plants. Experiment as much as you can with your own recipes. Some might not tickle your taste buds, but others might have your tongue falling head over heels in love!
Recipe: Fragrant and Fabulous Awesome Herb Salad
This is the fabulous salad that is loaded with a fragrant combination of greens. Put them all in a big bowl and eat them! You can eat it as is or serve it with just about any main dish. One of the myriad flavors within is bound to complement just about anything you serve alongside it.
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped basil
- 1/4 cup chopped fennel
- 1/4 cup sliced mint
- 1 tbsp. chopped dill
- 1 tsp. chopped chives (optional)
- 2 cups red leaf lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
- 1/2 cup baby spinach leaves
- 1 medium carrot, cut into matchstick-sized pieces
- 1 stalk celery, sliced
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
- 2 tbsp. chopped cilantro
Combine parsley, basil, mint, fennel, dill, chives, lettuce, spinach, carrot and celery in a large bowl; set aside.
In a small bowl, combine oil, lemon juice, and oregano, if desired.
To serve salad, combine greens, salad dressing and cilantro; toss gently to blend.
The greens can be combined ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag. This salad can be served with added protein such as grilled chicken or fish, hard-boiled eggs, cooked beans or sunflower seeds.