By Lana Turnbull
Long before recorded history, herbs were a part of man’s daily life. Whether they were used for medicine or magic, to improve the flavor of a meager meal or to cover unpleasant odors, herbs were very much a part of the evolving culture of man. Even in the prehistoric drawings of the Lascaux cave in France, herbs are depicted. Carbon dating traces those drawings back to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C. In more “modern” times, such as the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, listed approximately 400 commonly used herbs.
Today there is renewed awareness of herbs and a growing interest in their many uses. Health conscious cooks have found that herbs not only add nutrients to the dishes they compliment, they contain no calories, cholesterol or fat – a pleasing fact for those on weight loss diets. And, many doctors recommend the use of herbs in salt-restricted diets to enhance flavor without adding sodium content.
Cooking with Herbs
You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to add flavor and nutrients to your dishes with herbs. All you need is a basic knowledge of common herbs and the foods they best complement. Each herb has its own distinctive taste and specific relationship to individual foods. They can enhance the food’s natural flavor and create a livelier, tastier meal.
Herb – Best when used with… – Notes to the cook
Basil – Tomatoes, vegetables, poultry, salads – Use whole leaves or torn leaves from the top of the plant.
Chives – Egg dishes, soups, sauces, potatoes, fish – Snip with scissors for best results.
Cilantro – Asian, Mexican and Indian dishes; mix in salsas and chutneys – Leaves become bitter after flowering.
Dill – Tuna salad, omelets, vegetables, seafood dishes, dressings, herb vinegars – Use dill fresh or add to hot food just before serving.
Mint – Beverages, jellies, sauces, marinades; sometimes tossed with buttered green peas. – Use leaves whole or chopped.
Oregano – Lamb, beef, eggs, beans, eggplant – Similar in flavor to marjoram.
Parsley – Salads, soups, vegetables, especially potatoes, and pasta; garnishes for cooking. – Italian (flat-leafed varieties are best
Rosemary – Mediterranean dishes, lamb, poultry, fish, breads; stews – Very pungent; use sparingly.
Sage – Fresh sausage, holiday stuffing (or dressing); rich meats like turkey, pork, and duck. – Dried sage is often preferred in stuffing recipes.
Thyme – Mediterranean dishes, stews, eggs, seafood, poultry – Can be found in many flavors, such as lemon thyme, oregano thyme.
Make herbal butters and cream cheeses by mixing 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh herbs to 1/2 cup margarine, butter, cottage cheese, low fat yogurt or cream cheese. Let it set for at least an hour to blend the flavor; then taste test on a plain cracker or a melba round.
Use a light touch.
When using herbs to season food, it is important to use them sparingly. Herbs should be used to enhance the food’s natural flavors, rather than to dominate them. Only very heavily seasoned, exotic dishes call for large amounts of flavoring in their preparation.
• Try not to mix two very strong herbs together. Instead use one strong herb and one or more with milder flavors to complement both the stronger herb and the food.
• Usually, the weaker the flavor of the food (like eggs), the less added herbs are required to get a nice balance of flavor.
• Dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh, and powdered herbs are more concentrated than crumbled. Each herb is slightly different but a starting formula is: 1/4 teaspoon powdered herbs is equal to 3/4 to 1 teaspoon crumbled or the equivalent of 2 to 4 teaspoons fresh.
• If chopping fresh herbs, chop the leaves very finely because more of the oils and flavor will be released.
• Start sparingly with the amount of an herb used until you become familiar with it. The aromatic oils can be less than appetizing if too much is used.
• Usually extended cooking times reduces the flavoring of herbs, so add fresh herbs to soups or stews about 45 minutes before completing the cooking time.
• For refrigerated foods such as dips, cheese, vegetables and dressings, fresh herbs should be added several hours or overnight before using. Note: Fresh Basil is an exception. If you add it to salad dressing overnight or longer, it becomes bitter.
• For salsa, hot sauces and picante, add finely chopped fresh or dried herbs directly to the mixture.
When are fresh herbs at their best?
The most flavorful culinary herbs are harvested in their leaf making stage. All herbs have two phases of growth: the leaf stage and the flower (or reproductive stage). When the plant enters its flowering stage, leaf production slows or stops and the leaves on the plant may become bitter, grassy, woody, or yellowed. These leaves are not the best to use for cooking. Flowering can be delayed by harvesting kitchen herbs often. If your herbs grow too fast to use them all fresh, dry or process the extra for later use.
Flavor vinegar for use in cooking and in vinaigrettes. Sterilize your bottles or jars and let them dry thoroughly. Bruise one cup of leaves for every 2 cups of white wine or delicate vinegar. Bring vinegar to a boil and pour over herbs in jars. Allow to steep for two weeks. Chives, basil and rosemary are excellent choices for herb vinegars.
After herbs are harvested, they can become limp, soggy, and useless quite quickly in the refrigerator. To keep herbs fresh, crisp, and tasty, rinse them well under cool water. Then gently shake off excess water and pat them dry with paper towels. Cut off the excess stems, just as you might with fresh flowers, and place them in a glass filled with cool water. Refrigerate. Change water if it begins to look cloudy, and clip any leaves that turn yellow or brown. Note: Basil does best stored in the same way mentioned above, but instead of storing it in the fridge, you will keep it on your countertop.
4 oz chicken breast meat
2 tbsp julienne onion
1 tbsp red bell pepper (if available)
1 tbsp green bell pepper
1 tbsp yellow bell pepper (if available)
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp diced cilantro
1/2 tsp canola oil
Place oil in hot sauté pan. Add chicken and brown lightly. Add garlic, bell pepper and onion to pan and toss until translucent. Remove from heat and add cilantro, toss and hold hot.
1/4 head of iceberg lettuce carefully removing outside leaves for wraps
Remaining lettuce shredded for bed for pico de gallo and wraps
Cut lettuce head in half lengthwise and carefully remove outside lettuce pieces and stack. (pieces that tear can be used when shredding) Take remainder and shred ¼” in width and keep covered and cold.
PICO DE GALLO
2 tbsp diced tomato
1 tbsp diced white onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp diced cilantro
1/2 tbsp diced jalapeno
squeeze lemon & lime (1/2 tsp each)
Dice tomatoes to 3/8” x 3/8” squares along with onion. Fine dice garlic, cilantro and jalapenos. Place all in large mixing bowl and add lemon, lime and pepper. Chill.
To construct fajitas
Use lettuce to replace tortillas. Wrap chicken mixture inside lettuce and top with pico de gallo.
This recipe was provided courtesy of Chef Rob Stinson, host of the Mississippi Public Broadcasting program, Fit to Eat. The program airs on MPB TV Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.