As a passionate food lover as well as a nutritionist, I’m always searching for that sweet spot where delicious and healthful meet. Herbs hit it perfectly. These luscious leaves — parsley, basil, cilantro, mint, thyme, oregano, rosemary and the like — not only add enticing aroma, fresh flavor and vivid green color to food, but also have remarkable health benefits. When you move beyond thinking of herbs as mere garnishes and start to see them as major culinary players, a whole world of healthy taste opens up to you.
Herbs have been used since ancient times for their medicinal properties, mostly concentrated into teas and tinctures. More recently, their healthful value as a food ingredient has been realized. For one, herbs add a burst of flavor to food, allowing you to cut back on salt without sacrificing taste. And several herbs, including parsley, have significant amounts of the essential vitamins A, C and K.
But the true power of herbs lies in their wealth of protective polyphenols — plant compounds with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Piles of studies show that polyphenols in herbs help combat such diseases as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and more. Polyphenols are anti-microbial, so they can help protect us from harmful bacteria as well. Although many of the studies on herbs’ effects have involved concentrated solutions of the leaves’ active components, there is evidence that their benefits still apply when they are cooked and eaten as part of a regular meal, too.
The best way to have fresh herbs at your fingertips is to grow them yourself, in your garden or in pots on your windowsill. This way, all you need to do is snip as desired, and the beauty and scent of the plants will be a natural reminder to use them.
When buying cut herbs, make sure the leaves are not wilted or yellowing — they should be bright or deep green, depending on the variety, and perky looking. To store them, wash and pat or spin dry in a salad spinner, then wrap them in a damp paper towel and place in a plastic bag or an airtight container.
Regardless of how carefully you select or refrigerate them, fresh cut herbs are highly perishable. The tenderest leaves, such as basil and cilantro, will usually not last more than a week in the refrigerator. Firmer types such as parsley and oregano will keep a bit longer, and hearty rosemary and thyme will last a couple of weeks. To preserve them longer, chop them and place in ice cube trays with stock or water. Freeze; then transfer the herb cubes into a plastic bag and keep frozen to add to soups, stews and sauces.
Although fresh herbs offer a clean, bright flavor and springlike appeal, don’t write off dried, which have upsides of their own. Dried herbs are easy to keep on hand, and they are at least as beneficial as fresh, if not more so, because the drying process actually concentrates the polyphenols and flavors. When buying dried herbs, get them in small quantities that you can use up in less than a year, because their flavor fades with time. And keep in mind that, as a rule, if a recipe calls for one tablespoon of a fresh chopped herb, you can generally substitute one teaspoon dried.
While there are plenty of inspiring herb-centric recipes from all over the world to explore — think of pesto, tabbouleh salad, chimichurri sauce — you don’t need any special instructions or culinary skills to get more herbs into your life. You can simply add them to foods you are already making. Here are 10 ways to get you started:
●Add chopped fresh or dried parsley or dill to your scrambled eggs.
●Tuck a few leaves of mint and/or basil into your ham or turkey sandwich.
●Pile fresh cilantro leaves onto your turkey or veggie burger.
●Toss handfuls of fresh tender herbs — parsley, basil, cilantro, mint — into your basic green salad, treating them more like a lettuce than a seasoning.
●Add a generous pinch of dried oregano or thyme to your vinaigrette-type salad dressing.
●Mix a handful of fresh Italian parsley or dill into your boiled or mashed potatoes.
●Rub a mix of dried rosemary and thyme onto your chicken breast before grilling.
●Muddle fresh mint or basil leaves in a glass then fill with iced tea or sparkling water and a twist of citrus.
●Spruce up jarred pasta sauce with a handful of fresh chopped basil leaves.
●Stir fresh basil, parsley or mint leaves with grilled zucchini or sauteed green beans.
Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author. She blogs and offers a biweekly newsletter at www.elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly Nourish recipes in The Washington Post’s Food section.
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