Searching for that sweet spot where delicious and healthful meet? Herbs hit it perfectly. These luscious leaves - parsley, basil, cilantro, mint, thyme, oregano, rosemary and the like - not only add enticing aroma, fresh flavor and vivid green color to food, but also have remarkable health benefits. When you move beyond thinking of herbs as mere garnishes and start to see them as major culinary ingredients, a whole world of healthy taste opens up to you.

Health benefits

Herbs have been used since ancient times for their medicinal properties, mostly concentrated into teas and tinctures. More recently, their healthful value as a food ingredient has been realized. For one, herbs add a burst of flavor to food, allowing you to cut back on salt without sacrificing taste. And several herbs, including parsley, have significant amounts of the essential vitamins A, C and K.

Ellie Krieger, a passionate food lover as well as a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author, writes that the true power of herbs lies in their wealth of protective polyphenols - plant compounds with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Piles of studies show that polyphenols in herbs help combat such diseases as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes and more. Polyphenols are anti-microbial, so they can help protect us from harmful bacteria as well. Although many of the studies on herbs' effects have involved concentrated solutions of the leaves' active components, there is evidence that their benefits still apply when they are cooked and eaten as part of a regular meal, too.

Buying and storing

The best way to have fresh herbs at your fingertips is to grow them yourself, in your garden or in pots on your windowsill. This way, all you need to do is snip as desired, and the beauty and scent of the plants will be a natural reminder to use them.

When buying cut herbs, make sure the leaves are not wilted or yellowing - they should be bright or deep green, depending on the variety, and perky looking. To store them, wash and pat or spin dry in a salad spinner, then wrap them in a damp paper towel and place in a plastic bag or an airtight container.

Regardless of how carefully you select or refrigerate them, fresh cut herbs are highly perishable. The most tender herbs, such as basil and cilantro, will usually not last more than a week in the refrigerator. Firmer types such as parsley and oregano will keep a bit longer, and hearty rosemary and thyme will last a couple of weeks. To preserve them longer, chop them and place in ice cube trays with stock or water. Freeze; then transfer the herb cubes into a plastic bag and keep frozen to add to soups, stews and sauces.

Although fresh herbs offer a clean, bright flavor and spring like appeal, don't disregard dried herbs, which have upsides of their own. Dried herbs are easy to keep on hand, and they are at least as beneficial as fresh, if not more so, because the drying process actually concentrates the polyphenols and flavors. When buying dried herbs, get them in small quantities that you can use up in less than a year, because their flavor fades with time. And keep in mind that, as a rule, if a recipe calls for one tablespoon of a fresh chopped herb, you can generally substitute one teaspoon dried.

11 ways to herb up

While there are plenty of inspiring herby recipes from all over the world to explore - think of pesto, tabbouleh salad, chimichurri sauce - you don't need any special instructions or culinary skills to get more herbs into your life. You can simply add them to foods you are already making. Here are 11 ways to get you started:

  •  Muddle fresh mint or basil leaves in a glass then fill with iced tea or sparkling water and a twist of citrus.
  •  Stir up some basil or cilantro pesto - great on sandwiches, grilled meats, or tomato and mozzarella.
  •  Add chopped fresh parsley or dill to your scrambled eggs.
  •  Tuck a few leaves of mint and/or basil into your ham or turkey sandwich.
  •  Pile fresh cilantro leaves onto your burger - beef, turkey or veggie.
  •  Toss handfuls of fresh tender herbs - parsley, basil, cilantro, mint - into your basic green salad, treating them more like a lettuce than a seasoning.
  •  Add a generous pinch of minced oregano or thyme to your vinaigrette-type salad dressing.
  •  Mix a handful of fresh Italian parsley or dill into your boiled or mashed potatoes.
  •  Spruce up jarred pasta sauce with a handful of fresh chopped basil leaves.
  •  Stir fresh basil, parsley or mint leaves with grilled zucchini or sautéed green beans.
  •  Blend up a Green Smoothie - parsley, spinach, kale, frozen mango, and a liquid (water, coconut milk, etc.)

Visit the Siren farmer's market. We're sure to have some herbs for you! Every week we offer shoppers a tasty bite. Usually the sample features something seasonal, is easy to prepare, and is delicious and healthy. Every Saturday, 1:00 - 3:00 pm, Tesora Restaurant parking lot. For more info: marketsbcfm@gmail.com or (715) 349-5845.

Submitted by: Susan Armstrong, Burnett County Farmers Market Manager

"Healthy Minute" is brought to you by healthyburnett.org


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