Culinary herbs are the unsung heroes in the kitchen. They provide incredible flavor and function and can turn many dishes from drab to fab. Herbs contain a wide array of therapeutic properties that when consumed regularly may aid in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, infection, and autoimmune conditions.
Fresh is best and what better way to purchase vibrant herbs than at your local market, where they are in season. Many people just think of using herbs in savory dishes. Oh contraire! They can be just as delightful in sweet foods too. Check out this month's Strawberry Basil Chia Jam, Rosemary and Lemon Oatmeal Cookies, and the Three Herb Goat Cheese Frittata.
The word superfood has been designated to foods like kale, quinoa, and goji berries. By definition though a superfood can be any "nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being." Herbs deserve this title since the phytochemicals they contain help protect us from diseases. Here are some common herbs that are easy to grow yourself or commonly found in your local store.
Rosemary- Rich in polyphenols, rosemary exhibits antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory activities. Rosemary contains compounds that are good for stimulating the immune system, increasing circulation, and improving digestion. Need a brain boost? Rosemary has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, improving cognitive function.
Basil - The health benefits of basil come from two main areas: the flavonoids and oils. The flavonoids offer cellular support by protecting the cellular structure and damage from free radicals. The oils have been shown to inhibit pathogenic bacteria. The next time you reach for over the counter anti-inflammatories like NSAIDs, you may also think about reaching for basil, as it functions in the same way, but possibly to a lesser degree.
Chives - Part of the allium family (think onions, garlic, scallions), chives deliver a beautiful garlic-onion flavor to dressings, potatoes, eggs, and salads. Chives are rich in vitamin A and carotenes, antioxidants of the flavonoid family, which may protect against lung and mouth cancer. Like garlic and onions, chives contain an enzyme that converts to allicin, which has been shown to reduce cholesterol production, decrease blood pressure, and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Parsley - Consuming more parsley on a daily basis is a great way to increase antioxidant rich nutrients, vitamin A and C levels. Healthy amounts of vitamin C has been associated with reduced risks of atherosclerosis, colon cancer, diabetes, and asthma. The volatile oil, myristicin, can boost the activity of glutathione, thought of as the mother antioxidant in the body.
Dill - Dill acts similarly to parsley and basil regarding its antioxidant and antibacterial functions. In addition, it is a good source of calcium and magnesium. Try using more dill in egg dishes, chicken salad, or on top of fish.
Nothing says summer like firing up the grill. Using more herbs in your grilling preparation will act as a shield of armour, protecting you from consuming some unhealthy byproducts, like heterocyclic amines (HCA). HCA's occur as a result of meat cooked at high temperatures - a reaction between the amino acid creatine (found in animal protein) and sugars. HCA's can also be found in cigarette smoke. Fear not. You can grill your meat in a healthier way with these preparations:
Marinate! The Cancer Research Center of Hawaii has shown a reduction in HCA production when marinades containing herbs from the mint family (mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage) were used. Create a marinade of rosemary, garlic, lemon, salt, and oil and you've got a powerful antioxidant shield for your favorite cut of meat.
Steer clear of marinades and sauces with sugar as this will only increase HCA production.
Research has also shown that more well done meat contains higher amounts of HCA than medium rare meat!
Conserve and Preserve
Clients tell me they don't buy herbs as much as they'd like to because they sit around, wilt and then get thrown away. Here are some tips to making them last:
Clearly, herbs are a powerful source of flavor and nutrition. I hope this inspires you to move them from sparse garnishes to the front and center of your cooking. Have fun experimenting!