Cooking with herbs: Part 1

Cooking with fresh herbs is an easy and inexpensive way to make bland dishes come to life with vibrant flavors.

While dried herbs are widely available and can be very useful, the fresh herb varieties often provide a much stronger flavor. When purchasing fresh herbs, look for healthy-looking leaves that are not wilted, discolored, or have black spots. Smell them to test for a strong aroma. Buy only what can be used within a week as most green herbs will wilt within a few days.

Michigan State University Extension provides information on how fresh herbs can be grown at home and can also be dried at home. This can minimize the cost of purchasing them at the store. Home dried herbs will have a stronger flavor profile than store-bought dried herbs. If you have a larger quantity of fresh herbs and want to freeze them you can.

For freezing, make sure to wash, drain and pat the herb(s) dry with a paper towel. Next, wrap a few sprigs or leaves in freezer wrap and place them into a freezer bag. Finally, seal the freezer bag and place into a freezer. The frozen herbs can then be chopped and used in cooked dishes. Typically, frozen herbs are not a good choice as a garnish since they will be limp after thawing.

To incorporate fresh herbs into your cooking, wash them first in running water. Chop the herbs and then add them to fresh salads, use them in recipes in place of dried herbs, or combine with oil or vinegar to have flavored oil/vinegar within a week.

Most fresh herbs have volatile oils and flavonoids which have health benefits against free radicals and will function much like antioxidants. Herbs also are a great alternative to sodium.

Parsley

Parsley is an extremely fresh-tasting herb that is found in two main varieties. Flat leaf (“Italian”) parsley is more fragrant and less bitter than Curly (“Regular”) parsley which is often used as a plate garnish.

Parsley can be chopped and mixed with bulgur wheat, onion, mint, lemon juice and olive oil to make Middle Eastern tabouli. It can also be ground up with olive oil and garlic to make a fresh pesto for pasta. Combine chopped parsley with garlic and lemon juice and use as a rub on chicken. Sprinkle chopped parsley over finished dishes for a fresh and beautiful presentation. Parsley can also be used in an herb dip.

Parsley has antioxidant properties and is also a good source of vitamin K which helps with blood clotting and both vitamins A and C which are needed for immunity and to fight infection. It also contains folic acid which helps maintain heart health.

Sage

Sage is a large soft leaf that tends to have an almost fuzzy appearance. It is grayish green in color and is also an antioxidant/anti-inflammatory that may have a positive effect on brain function. Sage can be purchased fresh, as a rub (which is partially ground), or powdered. Add chopped sage to pasta sauce, omelets, on pizza, or on top of chicken and fish.

Rosemary

Rosemary looks like it was picked off an evergreen tree with its pine-like leaves and woody fragrance. The tops of the leaves are deep green and the bottoms are silvery in color. The leaves grow on a thick stem that can even be woody. To remove the leaves, run your fingers down along the stem in the opposite direction that the leaves grow to rip them off. The flavor is so strong and soothing - it is an herb you will definitely want to incorporate.

Rosemary is linked to health benefits of improved immune function, blood circulation, and digestion. Fresh rosemary makes a delicious addition to omelets, chicken dishes, roasted potatoes, tomato sauces, and infused in olive oil as a dipping sauce.

Thyme

Thyme is a small and tender looking herb with many leaves on a stem or “sprig”. It is delicious when paired with bean, egg and vegetable dishes. This herb is another that contains antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties that provide not only flavor but also health benefits.

Individual leaves of thyme can be curled and are oval shaped. The tops are muted green in color while the bottoms of the leaves are lighter. To remove the leaves from the stem, hold one end of the stem in one hand and run your fingers of your other hand down along the stem tightly pinching off the leaves. Chop leaves and add to pasta sauces, scrambled eggs, bean stews, pork and atop baked fish.

MSU Extension provides more fruit and vegetable information like this through the Michigan Fresh website fact sheets. A great Italian Herbed Butter recipe can be found on the Buying and Using Herbs fact sheet.

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