Fast Flavor with Fresh Herbs


by Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG)
Registered Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Coordinator

For all our gorgeous seasons, June may well be the most beautiful month in the New Hampshire garden. Every day we’re treated to a show-stopping array of blooms and lush green mounds of happy herbs. The weeds haven’t quite taken over (yet). Nothing’s really reached its scraggly past-due state. And, at last, it’s time to really get in there and *harvest* all those lovely plants for food and medicine! Now is the time to plant the last of your seedlings (those frost-sensitive babies you’ve sheltered til the last possible moment), to give them the chance to settle in before the heat of summer kicks in. Every year I load up on my annual seedlings and a few new perennials at the Herb & Garden Day plant sale (this Saturday!) and then spend the next day planting them. I really can’t wait to have lemongrass, Thai basil, holy basil, lemon verbena, and other favorites at my fingertips once again!

I am excited to also see *lovely* organic and locally grown potted herbs available for sale at the Co-op from Generation Farm – how easy is that? Just pick them up while you’re doing your regular grocery shopping and then pop them in the soil! You’ll find classic culinary herbs including thyme, parsley, basil, and (a personal favorite) purple basil. We hope to carry more organically grown cut fresh herbs as well from Generation Farm and other local farmers this summer, too! Fresh herbs are one of the best kept secrets of healthy, delicious at-home meals. Whether you’re topping off a salad with julienned fresh basil or creating an elaborate concoction, fresh herbs will enhance the flavor of your food without sugar, fat, salt, or even calories.

Flavor with Benefits

With that fresh flavor comes a host of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other beneficial phytochemicals that work in synergy with other ingredients to bring you greater health value. Think that’s just a bunch of herbal PR BS? In one study, adding some lemon balm or marjoram to a salad increased the antioxidant profile by 200 percent! Another study determined that adding garlic, ginger, basil, or oregano to your basic tomato/olive oil sauce increases the antioxidant value 50 to 200 percent, too! (Oregano topped the list, and lucky for me that’s probably my most-used kitchen spice, especially when tomatoes are involved.) The antioxidant levels of Greek-style lemon and olive oil dressing nearly tripled when garlic, rosemary, oregano, and mint were added. And for Italian dressing, garlic, basil, parsley, and oregano doubled the levels.

Quick Tips for Using Common Herbs

BASIL: This one is easy! Julienne or tear it to add to salad, Mediterranean mixes of cheese and tomatoes or bruschetta, or top off a soup (like this *amazing* roasted tomato-corn-basil soup recipe!). Scramble it into eggs with mozzarella….
Purple basil tastes pretty much like regular basil but offer a punch of color that looks as great in a dish as it does in the garden. Just know that once cooked or purred it will turn an unappealing grey-purple shade, so use it in fresh dishes and as a topper. It holds its flavor very well when dried. Learn more about Thai bail and holy basil here.

      Got too much? 

  • Turn it into pesto: Combine it with some salt, raw garlic, Parmesan, olive oil, and perhaps some nuts/seeds in the food processor. 
  • Make a frozen paste: Puree it with olive oil, then put it into a Ziploc freezer bag. Press it so that it’s flat like a book with most of the air removed, label, and freeze it. When you need the flavor of fresh basil in a dish, break a hunk off and add it to the pot.
  • Dry It. Basil can be fussy to dry, so try it in a single layer in the dehydrator, strip the leaves from the stems and crumble it up, and keep it in your spice cabinet for wintertime tomato sauces and stews.
  • Freeze It. Basil can also be tricky to freeze because it tends to turn black (better as the frozen paste, above), but you can freeze whole sprigs plain in a vacuum-sealed bag with good results. I did this with my Thai basil last year and was able to make delicious Thai fried rice in winter.

 
THYME: The international flavor enhancer, thyme can be added to almost any savory dish for a generic herb-y flavor. I make an all-purpose Italian seasoning blend with equal parts thyme, basil, and oregano that’s perfect for tomato sauce, meatballs, sprinkling on dehydrated tomatoes, etc. Also throw it into any saute, soup, or stew with an American, European, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern flair. It’s stellar with sage and mushrooms.

       Got too much?

  • Dry It: Thyme is super easy to dry for winter use. Just pack it loosely (still on the stem) in a bag or basket with another basket as a lid  and put it in a warm dry spot (like your car windshield, parked in the sun). Check it every day to see if it’s dry and fluff it around if it’s not. Once it crumbles, strip the leaves from the stems and store them in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dark, dry spot. Thyme isn’t very juicy, so it might just be done drying within a day!
  • Stuff It: Put whole sprigs of thyme under the skin and inside the cavity of a chicken before you roast it.
  • Make a Tea: Thyme blends well with a lemon wedge, some grated ginger, and honey. Steep it in a thermos for 30-60 minutes to pull the flavor from these leathery leaves. It’s particularly nice for sore throats, coughs, and chest congestion.
  • Tincture It: This alcohol-based remedy will keep for up to 10 years on the shelf! Use thyme tincture for chronic lung issues, chest congestion, and antimicrobial action. The flavor is reminiscent of Listerine. Chop and stuff the fresh plant into a 2 or 4 oz jar – get as much in as you can. Cover it with vodka and let sit for one month, then strain it through cheesecloth and squeeze as much liquid out as you can. Store the tincture in a dark bottle in a cool, dark, dry spot. A typical dose is 1-2 squirts (= 30-60 drops or 1-2 ml) mixed in a little water a few times a day. 
  • Infuse It In Honey: Chop up the herb, cover it with honey, and let it sit for a few weeks or so. Warm it a bit and then push the honey out through a strainer (you can use the dregs to make tea). Use the herbed honey to sweeten tea, make salad dressings and marinades, and take by the spoonful for coughs and sore throats (or just because it tastes good.)

PARSLEY: Yet another utilitarian herb! Use parsley any time you want to add fresh green flavor to your dish. It’s best fresh or added just at the end of the meal. Great on veggies of all types and as a substitute for cilantro (sorry, I hate cilantro!) in Mexican and Indian dishes. Throw it in eggs, potatoes, sautees…

      Got too much?

  • Juice It! It will increase the antioxidants and up the green ante on any green juice or smoothie with fresh flavor.
  • Make Tabouleh: Basically a Middle Eastern appetizer or meze based on parsley that is *perfect* for summer. Click here for a gluten-free quinoa tabbouleh recipe.
  • Make a Paste (see basil, above)

 

TARRAGON: This is one of those herbs that finds its way into many a garden but then goes totally unused. Don’t fall into this trap – it’s delicious! French tarragon has a green anise-y flavor that gives a little bit of sweetness to savory dishes and create a more well-rounded flavor (I particularly like it in combo with oregano and basil). When sweet corn comes into season, snip a little bit of tarragon into succotash and this corn saute recipe. And of course tarragon is classically infused in poached white fish, and creamy soups and sauces. Go light, though – it’s easy to overdo tarragon.

      Got Too Much?

  • Make Herb Vinegar: Chop up fresh tarragon and loosely pack it in a jar. Cover it with a good vinegar (apple cider vinegar is healthy but white rice or white wine vinegar will better show off the herb’s flavor and color). Use a plastic lid (vinegar eats metal), and let it sit for a few weeks, shaking daily. Strain it out and store it in your spice cabinet to make salad dressings and perk up dishes with a light sprinkle. It will keep for a year or longer.
  • Freeze It: See basil, above, but you don’t necessarily need a vacuum-sealed bag.

 
MINT: For every flavor, there is a mint, but our garden variety mints tend to be peppermint (or the variety of peppermint called chocolate mint), spearmint (and similarly flavored curly mint), and the fuzzy “gift from a friend” apple mint. All make great teas with slightly different flavors, ranging from bright menthol (peppermint) to earthy-minty (applemint) with doublemint gum (spearmint) in between. For culinary purposes, I separate peppermint from the other two and prefer it for anything chocolate. For example, you can puree fresh peppermint leaves with oil to add to brownie mix or just use the dried herb. Spearmint and applemint are more appropriate as a last-second ingredient in Southeast Asian stir fries, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Indian dishes – often in combination with a little lime juice. I love applemint, basil, and lemon balm in fresh spring rolls. A little applemint goes well with Italian seasonings as well and was my Sicilian grandfather’s secret ingredient. Spearmint is my favorite for mojitos (and alc-free mockitos). All mints do well with fruit.

      Got Too Much?

  • Dry It (see thyme, above): It’s not hard to go through a bunch of dried mint for tea!
  • Make Soda: Take three large sprigs  and poke them into an empty 1-liter bottle (if you plan to re-use the bottle, try to get them in stem-side-up for easier removal later on) and cover with plain seltzer. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and drink within the day for the freshest flavor. Apple mint seltzer is our favorite accompaniment to Mexican, Indian, and Asian dinners. It’s also wonderfully refreshing for a day of gardening. My husband likes to sweeten it with a little simple syrup (simmer 1 cup of sugar in 1/2 cup water until it dissolves – this will keep in the fridge for a week or longer).

Learn More About Growing & Using Culinary Herbs