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The benefits of fresh, dry herbs

Published: 01:24PM May 1st, 2014

Spring has sprung here in western Washington. Now is the time for lighter, colorful foods to replace heavier, hearty winter dishes. The 2014 National Nutrition Month theme “Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right” draws attention to how important flavor is. Herbs are healthy ingredients that add wonderful flavors to food and push excess salt and fat away from your fork. Take “thyme” to read and discover what defines an herb, nutritional benefits, and how to choose, cook, and store herbs for use in everyday meals.

The original Latin word herba means “grass” or a “green crop” that lives long enough to produce flowers and seeds. While the American Spice Trade Association includes dried herbs in their definition of “spices,” spices are the products of plants: roots, bark, seeds, buds, and fruits, whether whole or ground.

In the culinary world, salt (sodium chloride) is often used to give flavor, texture and color to food. The average American consumes far beyond the daily recommended 1500-2300mg a day of sodium. This can increase the risk for developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. All herbs, however, are sodium-free providing wonderful flavors to low-sodium foods.

Research is ongoing about the health benefits of herbs. Eating more fruits and vegetables is a key component of the Healthy Eating leg of The Surgeon General’s Performance Triad health initiative. Getting the family, especially young children to eat more vegetables may be a challenge, but a 2013 research study found that preschoolers were more willing to try and ate more vegetables when given a reduced-fat herb dip.

Choosing: Herbs are meant to complement the flavors of other foods in a recipe. Since the flavors and aromas of dried herbs are more concentrated, you should use only one-third as much as fresh.

Cooking: The form of herbs should also be considered when determining when to add herbs in the cooking process. Dried herbs and fresh herbs with tough leaves or stems should be added at the start of cooking. Herbs with strong flavors may be added at any time. Don’t add delicate herbs (e.g. lemon balm or chives) until the final stage of cooking, because heat may ruin their essential oils.

Storage: Fresh herbs will last in the refrigerator for up to one week. Rinse, dry, and wrap the herbs in a paper towel, before placing in the refrigerator. If saving the herbs for use in the future, try drying herbs in the microwave for 2 1⁄2 minutes or hanging bunches of herbs in a dark, well-ventilated area until the leaves are brittle. Then store in an airtight container. Frozen herbs will maintain fragrances for 3-4 years. Puree the herb with a small amount of water or oil and transfer to an ice cube tray to let freeze.

You may have once believed that herbs are no match for the flavor that salt and fat bring to food. Now you understand how these sodium-free, nutrient-rich “green crops” are simple to choose, cook, and store. Allow the easy-to-use but complex flavors of herbs enhance your springtime meals. Here is a recipe that highlights the refreshing flavor of mint in a simple side dish.

Recipe:

1. Rinse 1 cup dried quinoa.

2. Boil 2 cups water and add quinoa. Cover, reduce heat to low. 3. Cook until all water is absorbed, approx. 10-15min.

4. Transfer quinoa to a mixing bowl. Let cool.

5. Gently mix in 12 oz. blueberries, 1 cup chopped, fresh mint, 2 oz. feta cheese, and juice of 2 key limes.

6. Refrigerate, then serve.