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Exploring health and herbs through cooking

Exploring health and herbs through cooking

Herbs and spices add flavor!! Lots and lots of flavor!!  Using different herbs and spices to flavor your food allows you to use less of other unhealthy ingredients such as salt and butter or oil.  Salt and butter contribute a lot of flavor and mouthfeel to dishes, but unfortunately, cooking with these ingredients a lot isn’t as healthy for us in the long run.  Making the change to reduce the amount you use these ingredients reduces saturated fat and calories in your meals.  However, when you begin cutting them out completely or reducing the amount, you need to look for other ways to introduce flavor.

Enter herbs and spices!!!

This week in part one of this series, I am going to introduce you to some of my favorite herbs and explain how including them in your diet provides nutrition and health benefits.  Also, I will explore the relationship between health and herbs, share how to incorporate these herbs into your diet every day and give you recipes featuring these herbs.  Then next week, I will return and do the same with spices.

NOTE:  This post may include affiliate links which means that if you click through and purchase, I do receive some small financial benefit which helps me to continue to provide you with free content.    

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Uses of herbs

We think of herbs and spices as simply a way to flavor our food, but in the past uses also included their aroma to make perfumes, to embalm bodies and even as a method of payment.  In addition, historically many spices and herbs have had medicinal purposes that were used for centuries and in some place still are used indicating the strong link between health and herbs.

According to WHO (World Health Organization), more than 80% of the world still use plants and herbs as a primary source of medication.  Estimates indicate that in more developed countries such as the USA, that plant drugs make up about 25% but in developing countries this number is higher than 80%.

Photo collage of recipes included in post

Health and herbs

Herbs, especially for cooking usually refers to the leaves of plants.  Some of the more common herbs used in cooking include:  basil, bay leaf, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.  Many other herbs exist, but these are the ones used most frequently and with more availability to find fresh or dried in your local supermarket.

Antioxidants found in many plant foods have much more concentrated amounts in herbs.  And just cooking with more of them can boost your antioxidant intake.   In addition to antioxidants, research indicates that many herbs and spices also offer anti-inflammatory, bacteria killing powers, and other health benefits that may prevent chronic diseases.

Early research indicates that herbs also have weight management properties as well.  Why? Because eating and enjoying more flavorful foods may lead you to eat less simply because foods that taste good are more satisfying.   Research on this theory is early and more is definitely needed to confirm exactly how eating more herbs influences our digestion, absorption and metabolism of nutrients when we eat them.

Buying and Storing Herbs

In my opinion, cooking with fresh herbs is always the best way to go if they are available.  The flavor is just more delicate and authentic.  For me, I find the flavor of dried herbs to be quite different than their fresh counterpart.

When buying herbs, choose bunches that look the freshest and don’t appear to have brown leaves or edges or wilted leaves.

To store herbs, wrap them in a damp towel or paper towel sealed inside an airtight bag.  Using this method, your herbs will likely last up to five days.  The length of storage time is longer when you store the bunch with the stem end down in a glass of water.  Using this method, your herbs may last up to 10 days.

Many fresh herbs freeze with good results.  Simply wash and dry them well and then place it in a bag or container and freeze.  You can remove the leaves from the stems or freeze them intact.  Personally, I just leave them whole and then pull out the number of stems I think I will need for the dish I am cooking.  The leaves may turn a bit brown with freezing but the flavor will still be intact.  This method works for most herbs except where I’ve noted a different method in the herb description (such as the basil).

 

Rosemary sprig and bush
Photo by MonikaP @pixabay

Rosemary

This herb is my second favorite and what I like about it beyond its flavor is the slightly piney aroma that it imparts.  I even use rosemary essential oil in my home as a scent and find that it brings a reviving sensation when I diffuse it.  In addition to flavoring, rosemary is used as a scent in many products.

My favorite way to use rosemary is when roasting potatoes.  Toss the potatoes in a bit of olive oil and add a bit of chopped rosemary with salt and pepper and it’s super yummy!!  Beyond this use, rosemary adds flavor to a wide array of dishes including meats, vegetables, soups, stews and even desserts.

I also prefer the fresh version of this herb over the dried.  The dried is adequate in certain situations but in my opinion the flavor is greatly changed when it is dried.

Health Benefits

The polyphenols found in rosemary make it an antioxidant, an inflammation reducer and gives it antimicrobial abilities.  Early research indicates that its aroma may also be a pain reliever and improve mood.

Cooking with Rosemary

Chocolate Chip and Rosemary Cookies pictured with milk

Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies with Cranberries and Rosemary // Delicious and easy to make cookies by A Virtual Vegan combining chocolate and rosemary.  The rosemary creates a super fragrant cookie.  You try to eat just one!!!

Delicious rosemary oatcakes

Healthy Oatcakes with Rosemary // This savory cracker by Gathering Dreams only has only five ingredients and can be gluten free as well if you use gluten free oats.  Make a batch and eat them up with hummus or vegetable spread.

Bowls of Creamy Chickpea soup pictured with fresh baked bread.

Creamy Chickpea Soup with Squash and Rosemary // The Clever Meal brings you this delicious and easy to make soup.  Potatoes contribute the creamy texture and the soup flavor comes from a touch of turmeric and rosemary.  Cook it up and carry with you to work for a great lunch on the go.

Flat leaf parsley bunches
Flat leaf or Italian Parsley Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

Parsley

Parsley is way more than just some piece of green garnish on your plate.  Cooking with parsley adds a bit of a peppery flavor and freshness to the dish.  For my personal tastes, I prefer using parsley in cooked dishes as I find it’s flavor in salads and other uncooked dishes a bit too grassy for me.  The two varieties commonly found in American grocery stores are Curly parsley and Italian or Flat-leaf parsley.  Using fresh over dried is also highly recommended as I think dried parsley is mostly devoid of taste so adding it really does nothing to enhance the flavor of your dish.

Health benefits

Parsley is an excellent source of vitamin A and vitamin C.  In addition, it is used in many medically to treat stomach disorders, urinary tract infections, kidney stones and some skin issues.  In many instances research is still being conducted to ensure the effectiveness of using parsley as a form of treatment for these illnesses.

Cooking with Parsley

Cauliflower steak with chimichurri

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Chimichurri // Chimichurri is one of the classic dishes made with parsley.  Traditionally served with meats but the one created here by Veggies Save the Day complements cauliflower steaks in an excellent manner.  Similar in many ways to pesto, but made with lots of garlic and parsley instead of basil.  You can whip up a batch super easy and quick with a food processor or blender.

Bunches of cilantro
Photo by Tomasz Olszewski on Unsplash

Coriander aka Cilantro

Cilantro is an interesting herb and one that actually had to grow on me.  An interesting note about cilantro is that are some people who are genetically wired to HATE cilantro.  To these folks with this disposition, cilantro is said to taste like soap and is somehow related to the chemical composition of the flavor of cilantro.

Fortunately for me, I really enjoy the taste of cilantro and after living in South America for over six months I use it much more frequently than before.  I have discovered throwing a bit of it chopped up with some lime juice into a bowl of soup is absolutely delicious.  Something about the combination really brightens the flavors of the soup.  I also use cilantro frequently to season a chopped vegetable salad tossed with oil, lime juice, salt and pepper.

Health benefits

Cilantro has a history of being used to remove poisonous metals from the body.  Metals such as mercury, lead and aluminum may interfere with antibiotics and antiviral medications and removing them from the body with cilantro, allows the medications to work more effectively.  Cilantro also is strongly believed to have properties to kill certain bacteria and to have antioxidant properties.

Cooking with cilantro

Bright green vegetable soup with Latin flavors

Aguadito de Verduras // One of my favorite Peruvian dishes I discovered since arriving in Peru last June.  Typically a chicken soup, but I modified the recipe to eliminate the meat and filled it with tons of plant-based goodness. This bright green soup gets its color from the blended cilantro added at the end of cooking.  Full of vegetables and legumes this soup is delicious as well as super healthy, satisfying and full of tons of nutrients.

Oregano
Photo by photosforyou @pixabay.com

Oregano

Another herb from the mint family with several different varieties.  The Mexican variety used in the recipe here is more pungent than the mild Mediterranean variety.  My experience cooking with this herb has been mainly in using the dried version.  I do find it’s flavor to be very strong and recommend cooking with it in small amounts to achieve good results.  Maybe adding it slowly so you don’t overdo it.  Oregano most commonly appears in Mediterranean and Italian cooking.  To find the Mexican oregano needed for this recipe, you may need to check your local specialty Latin market.

Health benefits

The green color of this herb is an indicator that it is full of phytochemicals.  These phytochemicals provide us with antioxidants, inflammation lowering properties and cancer preventative action.  It may have a role in food safety since the herb contains microbe destroying activity against pathogens found in foods such as salmonella and E Coli.

Cooking with oregano

Pouring tea into glass with strainer.

Te de Oregano // This recipe for by Muy Bueno for a homemade cold remedy is super easy to make.  I love the idea of using herbs and spices for healing and this recipe shows just how easy it can be.  So the next time you feel a bit under the weather, consider making a batch of this wonderful healing tea.

Mint plan
Photo by Josefin on Unsplash

Mint

Fresh mint has uses in sweet and savory cooking. I am most familiar with using this herb in sweet dishes and in beverages.  I often add it to iced tea or a pitcher of water to add a minty flavor.   Also, mint shows up in a Mojito, a rum-based cocktail with muddled mint leaves, and is super delicious.

There are many varieties of this herb as well and at one time I grew some chocolate mint.  It smelled just like Thin Mint cookies, no lie and it had small, lovely and more delicate leaves than the mint you are likely familiar with finding in the stores.

Health Benefits

Mint plays a role in providing antimicrobial action against many common dangers in our food that cause food-borne illness.  At the same time, this herb also has antiviral, antioxidant and tumor prevention properties.  Historical uses of mint include the use to ease digestive issues and some animal studies indicate that it may provide some gastrointestinal benefit.

Cooking with Mint

Delicious herbed potatoes ready to eat.

Grilled Potatoes with Lemon Herb Sauce // This great side dish by Veggies Save the Day is great to serve at your next cookout.  It’s super quick to make — just throw everything in a food processor or blender and press the on button.  Boil the potatoes in advance so that they only need 5-10 minutes to heat up on the grill before they are ready to serve.

Fresh Thyme Leaves
Photo by Eugenia Vysochyna on Unsplash

Thyme

Thyme is part of the mint family, the same as rosemary.  There are several different varieties of thyme available and even a lemon thyme which has a bit more lemon flavor and aroma than other varieties.  Thyme combines with rosemary well to flavor dishes and I use this combination a lot.  Thyme has lots of uses in cooking vegetables, meats, stews and soups and sauces.  Another herb where I greatly prefer the fresh version over dried.

Health Benefits

Thyme has a long history of being used for healing purposes, mostly to treat diarrhea, stomach issues, joint pain and a sore throat. The bacteria fighting ability of thyme comes from thymol, a bacteria killing compound.

Much research has been conducted on the various uses of thyme to treat illness.  These uses include fighting yeast infections, acne, bacterial infections and even to possibly reduce the bacterial resistance to common drugs such as penicillin.  In most of these instances, research is early and more extensive research needs to be conducted to verify the results.

Cooking with Thyme

Clear glass full of delicious vegan red wine gravy

Vegan Red Wine Gravy // Fried Dandelions has the BEST recipe for red wine gravy featuring one of my favorite gravy herbs, thyme and its VEGAN!!  Serve it over mashed potatoes or polenta.  It’s so delicious you may want to put it on everything.

Whole carrots cut in half lengthwise and roasted with thyme

Thyme Roasted Carrots // This recipe by Babaganosh is so quick and easy.  Roasting the carrots sweetens the carrots and the thyme adds a delicious herby flavor.

Jar of bay leaves spilling over with leaves on table
Photo by monicore @pixabay.com

Bay Leaf

Cooking with bay leaves takes me all the way back to cooking with my mom as a teenager.  It is one of my earliest cooking memories and one that I treasure.  Maybe it’s because two dishes that I closely recall my mom making, spaghetti sauce and a vegetable beef soup, always included a couple of these leaves.  To this day, I almost always add a bay leaf to any type of soup, stew or pot of beans that I make.

The leaf comes from a laurel tree native to the Mediterranean and it has a history of representing festivities, honor and success.  Can you picture a Greek guy in his toga with a crown of leaves?  The leaves in the crown, are laurel leaves. Most bay leaves I have used are the turkish variety and I only have experience using the dried version so in this instance, I am not knowledgable about how to cook with the fresh.  It is important to use this seasoning in moderation as using too much can make the dish a bit bitter.  And be sure to remember to remove the bay leaf after cooking as it’s not really edible.

Health Benefits

Bay leaves contribute some nutrients to our diet such as vitamin A, C, magnesium, calcium, manganese, potassium and iron.  That’s a lot of nutrients packed into a little leaf!!  Bay leaves also contribute a variety of health benefits.  Oils or creams made from bay leaves have uses to treat dandruff, boils and joint pain.  It also contains microbe, both bacterial and fungal, killing power.  In addition, early research indicates that it may positively affect the blood glucose levels in diabetics and also have cholesterol lowering properties.

Cooking with bay leaf

Delicious bowl of carrot sup

Easy Carrot Soup (vegan) // This delicious yet quick soup by Veggie Society is packed with creaminess and flavor.  The soup is perfect for a cold day and works well to cook a batch and freeze for later.  Also flavored with ginger and fresh thyme which balances just perfectly with the aromatic goodness of the bay leaf.

Fresh Basil

Photo by Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

Basil

I‘ve saved the best for last!!!! This herb is likely my all-time favorite!!! And I feel like the dried version is no substitute for the fresh.  If a recipe calls for fresh basil and you substitute dried, the overall flavor profile likely will be wildly different.  So I encourage you to buy fresh ALWAYS!!  A trick so you don’t waste the excess herb is to chop it up, cover it with a bit of water or oil and put it in the freezer to use at a later time.  I’ve done this before in containers and also in ice trays.

This herb is commonly associated with Italian and Mediterranean cooking and is the “star” of a traditional green pesto sauce.  There are many varieties of basil and they all have difference tastes.  I am most familiar with Lemon Basil, which has a hint of lemony flavor and Thai Basil, with its purple leaves and deeper flavor of anise than the traditional basil we most often find in the store.

Health Benefits

Basil has a long history of being used to treat illness.  In Morocco, today it is still widely used to treat high cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.  Flavonoids in the basil, appear to protect your cells from oxidative stress.

Cooking with Basil

Picture of Jar of Pesto

Vegan Pesto with Basil // Whip up a batch of this simple vegan pesto by Vegan Heaven.  Ready in less than five minutes and full of the flavors of basil and garlic. And don’t worry about leftovers because you can always freeze this pesto and use later.

Basil and Cilantro Gremolata

Basil Cilantro Gremolata // Use this herb and lemon gremolata to add some punch to any dish. It works especially well to add flavor to vegetables, pasta or potato salad or even as a rub on fish or seafood.

Start cooking today with more herbs

In many cases, the medical uses of these herbs mentioned in this article are in the early stages of research and certainly many more studies need to be conducted in order to verify these uses.  But it seems to me that there is certainly no harm in cooking with them and any additional benefit you receive is a plus.

Now with more understanding of the incredible connection between health and herbs.  Enjoy exploring the many uses of these different herbs!!  I hope you check out some of these great recipes and begin cooking with more fresh herbs.

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Sources

In preparing for this piece I used two of my favorite books for reference.  Particularly, for information about the general properties of the herb and also it’s health benefits.

Food Lover’s Companion by Barron

The Plant-Powered Diet by Sharon Palmer

Links in the text indicate other sources used for informational purposes.

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