Spicing Up Life: Flavor & Health Benefits of Cooking With Fresh HerbsOct 01, 2019
Photographs by Christine Moss
Tips for spicing things up — enhancing flavors in the kitchen and medicinal qualities for our health with the use of fresh herbs
I did it! As a follow-up to my last blog where I shared some September adventures, I’m happy to report that not only did I teach the mushroom cooking class at the New Moon Mycology Summit — I’m thrilled to share that it was an amazing experience. Although I was nervous speaking in front of a crowd, I felt confident because I was doing what I love and my hands that were in motion cooking distracted me from my fear.
Stepping out of the restaurant kitchen, I loved connecting and sharing stories and cooking tips with everyone as a group. Many of the questions were simple like how to make the food they prepared taste better, or healthier. I was inspired when someone in the audience asked how to use herbs and spices.
I’ll also be honest, it was a refreshing reminder that I had taken much of my talent and knowledge for granted. We all tend to do this with our own skills and gifts. What had been commonplace to me, was in fact valuable information to another. I was on cloud nine sharing it.
So this month, not only do I want to address the wonderful question that a participant in that group posed — I want to prod you to celebrate and share your gifts as well.
And if you want to talk about flavor, we have to talk about fresh herbs. I’m going to tell you about the ones I use most often and give you some ideas on how best to use them in your kitchen.
First off, if you have a spice drawer or cabinet that you haven’t touched or used since you moved into your home — open the drawer, clear the cob webs and throw it all out (pretty please).
Although dried herbs last for a while, they can get stale and bitter. Your cooking might be great, but if you are adding in stale flavorless flakes it can make for a lackluster dish. Besides, nothing beats fresh produce and luckily fresh herbs are readily available throughout the year.
Start slowly. Pick one or two to begin with, taste them, reacquaint yourself and get to know them. Add them into different dishes you already like to cook or eat. Allow your own creative juices to flow. Ask yourself what tastes you like, which foods you like to eat would be enhanced with this new potent fresh herb.
Most herbs work better when you add them towards the end of your cooking process so as not to destroy their delicate flavors and volatile oils. Others, like rosemary and sage can handle a bit of heat and cooking time.
Pull the leaves from the stems and crush them between your fingers to release their aromas. Taste it. How do you like it? Is it very strong and you only need to add a little to enhance your dish? Or is the flavor very light and you can be more generous with how much you add?
It’s such an enjoyable experiment. I love the scent of herbs on my fingertips. Before you know it, you will become your very own kitchen alchemist. You can also toss some on top of a bowl of soup, mashed potatoes or over rice. Mix it in with pasta and olive oil. Allow your senses to guide you.
Once you have discovered a few herbs you love, start combining them together, such as parsley with chives or oregano with thyme.
Once you have used your herbs as much as you possibly can and yet you still have more left, tie them into a bundle with some string and hang them upside down in a cool dry place. After they are dried you can store them in a clean glass jar and use them over the course of the next few months.
Many culinary herbs have medicinal qualities as well. For example, cilantro has been used to cleanse the body of heavy metals. It is also full of vitamin A, K and C — wonderful when added to your green juice or chopped on top of an avocado with a squeeze of lime juice. In medical studies, parsley has been shown to lower blood sugar levels and decrease insulin resistance to help prevent adult onset diabetes. Tarragon is a perennial herb (It comes back year after year) in the sunflower family. It has been used to aid in digestion and stimulate appetite, and is sometimes an ingredient in bitters.
For optimal nutritional benefits you will need to eat more than just a pinch.
So, get creative and add them into your green salads, or whip up a fresh pesto to incorporate a higher quantity into your meal. Add them fresh into a compound vegan butter to have them readily available to add to your cooking or a delicious piece of toast (see the recipe below).
And on a parting note, even if you don’t have a green thumb or aspirations for a garden of your own — herb gardens are low maintenance and yield high satisfaction. You can plant them individually in flower pots or together in garden boxes. There’s nothing more satisfying than snipping fresh herbs from your own backyard (season permitting). Who knows…it might just bring out the gardener in you!
“Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of the cooks.”
Here are some of my favorite herbs:
Parsley, Flat or Italian and Curly
Probably the most commonly used herb. High in nutrients, vitamin K, vitamin C and beta-carotene. Pull the leaves from the stems and use whole or chop into smaller pieces. Bright green flavor, great in green salads, potatoes, grains and pasta salads, and soups.
You either love it or hate it — there’s usually no in between with this one. A bright citrusy green flavor used in Mexican and Asian inspired dishes. Perfect for guacamole, curry dishes and black beans.
One of my most favorite herbs both fresh and dried. A distinct spicy and pungent flavor, it works well with so many dishes including beans, pastas and soups.
An even stronger spicy and pungent herb, almost medicinal tasting. It works well with red sauces for pastas and pizzas, mix it into polenta and it gives a kick to salad dressings.
Rosemary has a very distinct and strong, almost pine tree citrusy flavor. A little goes a long way. Add it into some olive oil with a little black pepper and sea salt for dipping warm fresh bread into. Chop up the leaves and add it into your bread and biscuit baking. It also pairs well with white beans and is wonderful for roasting.
A nice light onion flavor, slice off the root end and thinly slice all the way up the green stalk. Add into soups, tofu scrambles and stir fries.
Another delicate onion flavor, often seen as garnish but it can be incorporated into vegan cream cheese for your breakfast breads or added at the end to pasta dishes.
A very strong flavor that pairs well with autumn vegetables such as pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Remove leaves from the stems and slice to use. This herb does well with some cooking heat. You can even quickly fry whole leaves in olive oil for a crispy topping on your main dish.
A familiar herb, pungent with slight licorice undertones that pairs well with tomatoes and is traditionally used in pesto. Use the leaves whole, or if slicing use them quickly as the edges oxidize and turn black almost immediately after you cut them. Submerge cut leaves in olive oil to help reduce the color change which is why pesto retains its color.
A delicate anise-flavored herb that is delicious in cream-based sauces and is lovely when paired with chanterelle mushrooms.
Recipe: Herbed Compound Butter
- 4 parts vegan butter
- 1 part fresh herb of choice or combination of herbs
- Bring vegan butter to room temperature.
- Prep herbs by removing stems and roughly chopping.
- Place vegan butter and herb(s) into a bowl and blend together using a fork.
- Using a rubber spatula, gather all of the vegan butter together and place on a sheet of wax paper in a long strip. Roll it up and once fully covered with paper roll it on a counter or table to get a nice cylinder shape. Twist the ends shut and store in the refrigerator.
- To use, open up from the paper and slice.