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Recipe for Health: Herbs offer guilt-free flavor

Becky Varner, licensed dietitian, discusses the merits of herbs.
BY BECKY VARNER Modified: April 23, 2013 at 4:06 pm •  Published: April 24, 2013
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Using fresh herbs can transform an ordinary dish into a memorable one, enchanting flavor and aroma without adding salt, sugar or fat.

Herbs and spices are mentioned and used together but are different. Herbs grow in temperate climates and are the fragrant leaves of the plants. Spices grow in tropical regions and come from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of the plants or trees. However, the same plant can supply both herbs and spices. For example, the same plant provides cilantro leaves, which are an herb, and coriander seeds, which are a spice.

Select fresh herbs that are fragrant and have bright, fresh-looking leaves. Avoid those with wilted, yellowing or browning leaves. Store fresh herbs by wrapping in damp paper towels and place in a plastic bag designed for refrigerator storage. Press as much air as possible out of the bag and seal. Most fresh herbs will remain fresh for up to a week. Fresh herbs can also be stored by snipping the ends and standing in a jar of water. Cover with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. The water should be changed every couple of days. Many fresh herbs that are still attached to the roots in a clump of soil are available in plastic containers found in the produce section of grocery stores.

Wash fresh herbs with cold water and pat dry with paper towels before using. Discard damaged leaves. If the stems are soft and pliable they can be used also. Some fresh herbs with soft green leaves or stalks such as parsley or cilantro are often used in large amounts, like ¼ cup to ½ cup in a recipe compared to stronger flavored herbs like oregano, rosemary and tarragon that are used in much smaller quantities.

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Herbs at a glance

Here are a few fresh herbs that can be used with many foods and are great as a starting point if you are new to using fresh herbs. Keep in mind that there are multiple varieties of many herbs.

Basil Fresh basil is available with green or purple leaves. The leaves have a sweet flavor with a hint of pepper, mint and cloves. Basil is often used in tomato sauces or dishes, egg dishes and pestos. It is also used with chicken, fish, meat, salads and summer squashes.

Cilantro These bright green leaves have a pungent, strong flavor and are used in many ethnic dishes, including Asian specialties, Indian sauces and Mexican salsas. Cilantro is commonly used in chicken, pork, salad, salsa, seafood and tomato recipes. It loses its flavor quickly when heated and so needs to be added to hot dishes at the last minute of cooking or used in cold foods for best flavor.

Dill The fine, feathery green leaves of dill have a fresh sweet and grassy flavor. It complements breads, fish, pickles, and many vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes. Because of sensitivity to heat, dill is best used in chilled uncooked dishes like salads and appetizers or like many other herbs added near the end of cooking time in hot dishes.

Mint The refreshing aroma and flavor of mint is delicious in beverages, marinades, salads, salsas, sauces and many soups. It is especially good in fruit cups, teas, with lamb and other meats and many vegetables. Mint makes a wonderful edible garnish for many desserts.

Oregano This pungent and slightly bitter herb is often paired with tomatoes, used in marinades, sauces, salads or salsas. Oregano is especially good in chicken, egg, lamb, pizza, pork, rice and spaghetti sauces, and many vegetables dishes.

Parsley The slight peppery flavor of parsley is delicious in poultry, tomato, seafood and vegetables dishes and is especially nice in pasta dishes and soups.

Rosemary The long and slender, almost prickly leaves of rosemary have a pungent flavor with a hint of pine. Rosemary is excellent with beef, chicken, fish, lamb, pork and potatoes and many other vegetables. Because of the bold flavor, a little rosemary goes a long way.

Sage The narrow, oval grayish-green leaves of sage have a musty and minty pungent taste with a slight bitterness. Sage works well with poultry, pork and in stuffing. It also complements some vegetables. Use sparingly because of the strong taste. The flavor develops during cooking.

Tarragon This herb has a strong spicy flavor and needs to be used sparingly. It is often served with most types of fish, poultry, various meats and many vegetables including asparagus, carrots, mushrooms, peas, potatoes and tomatoes. Tarragon is also good in vinaigrettes and other salad dressings.

Thyme This versatile herb has a strong, earthy and spicy flavor but is compatible with many foods including Creole dishes, gumbos, lentils, most meats, poultry, poultry stuffing, tomato sauces, seafood chowders, soups and stews.

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