Cooking and eating for health have been around forever. In the bad old days, before there was a pharmacy down the street, someone in the community knew which plants or foods would possibly help to cure or prevent different diseases. Asian, Native American, and Indian medical systems have been in place for centuries and have employed herbs for health and to add wonderful taste to food!
Rosemary, that aromatic herb, is a natural antioxidant. It can have an antibacterial effect on food and an antioxidant effect on humans. What this means is that rosemary may actually reduce the bacterial levels in some foods, acting as a natural preservative. In humans, rosemary may help to reduce certain types of artery damage, thus helping to prevent some types of heart disease. And it tastes so good in soups and stews! Rosemary can grow into a full hedge, if given enough room. Perhaps you can include a pot of fresh rosemary in your kitchen on your windowsill or in your backyard. Fresh rosemary adds invigorating aroma to any area where it is placed as a bouquet. Rosemary wood (the branches remaining after the leaves are stripped) can be used as part of the wood placed in a fireplace or backyard grill.
Parsley and Basil
Fresh parsley and basil have concentrated levels of chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants. Chlorophyll is thought to be a good ‘filter’; that is, it can help in maintaining the health of the stomach and small and large intestine. Eating chlorophyll-containing plants may help reduce the risk of some stomach and intestinal cancers. Chopped parsley and basil add wonderful texture, color and flavor to sauces, pasta, rice, and salads; throw some in and increase the health quotient of the dish.
Did you know that parsley is one of the most nutritious herbs around? All parsley varieties contain lots of vitamins A and C, some B vitamins and iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Parsley is even beneficial for your plant friends. Many gardeners will tell you that parsley can improve the health of roses and tomatoes when planted in close proximity.
Parsley leaves come in two standard forms, curly leaf and flat leaf (also called Italian parsley or celery leafed). Within the two varieties there are many sub-varieties. Don’t confuse curly or flat leaf parsley with cilantro (also called Chinese or Spanish parsley or fresh coriander). Cilantro is distantly related to parsley, but has a very different taste. Think parsley for European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, and North American dishes, and cilantro for Latin and South American, Thai, and Indian dishes.
Parsley is sometimes grown for its root, which resembles a bulbous horseradish but has a wonderful, mild flavor. Parsley root may be available in the springtime at local markets or farmers markets. Parsley root can be peeled and prepared just like potatoes. Mash parsley root along with potatoes, add diced parsley root to soups and stuffing, and even shave parsley root into salads. Freshly chopped parsley root spruces up tofu dishes, pasta, rice, savory entrées and vegetables, in addition to adding lots of nutrition without any sodium or fat. Also, if you have extra fresh parsley, wash and dry it, and freeze it to be used as you would dried parsley.
Mint belongs to a large family with over 30 species, the most common being peppermint and spearmint. Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, mints interbreed so easily it is often hard for even the experts to distinguish and separate all the varieties. All mints have the volatile oil menthol, which gives mint that characteristic cooling, cleansing feeling. The leaves and flowers can be used in cold salads, hot beverages, and savory or sweet side dishes.
The Greeks believed mint could clear the throat and cure hiccups. Menthol, found in all varieties of mint except spearmint, has been used in headache and muscular pain cures. To make a soothing mint tea, steep about 1 teaspoon of dried mint leaves in 1 cup of boiling water. Prepare mint tea and allow it to cool in the refrigerator, for a refreshing beverage. You can use mint tea to steam or cook springtime veggies, such as fresh peas, snow peas, sugar snap peas (with edible peas and pod), carrots, and green beans.
Mint does well as a potted plant. This aromatic herb can help to keep ants and fleas at bay. In ancient and colonial times, mint leaves were kept near food, beds, and wardrobes as pest control.
There are many types of mint. Match the type you grow or purchase with the foods and beverages you like to prepare. Try chocolate mint for desserts, spearmint for drinks, peppermint for drinks and desserts, garden mint for general cooking, and pineapple mint for salads.
Here are just some of the many uses for fresh mint:
Teas: Fresh mint, spearmint, and peppermint sprigs are great to put in your teapot with your favorite tea. Pick the top of the mint plant off, wash it and add to your teapot. Steep for 2-3 minutes to the strength you prefer.
Tofu: Add chopped mint leaves to scrambled or baked tofu or to cold tofu salads. Add the mint at the end of cooking for a delicate flavor.
Salads: Fresh mint leaves are good with salads. Pineapple mint particularly is great in a mixed green salad. Mixed with cooked barley or bulgur, red onions, tomatoes, parsley, and lemony vinaigrette, it becomes similar to a tabbouleh, a refreshing Middle Eastern salad.
Steamed Vegetables: Mint is popularly used with peas. Carrots, potatoes, eggplant, white or black beans, and corn all perk up with the addition of freshly chopped spearmint. Add the herb at the end of the cooking process.
Lemongrass acts like a magic wand, awarding everything it touches with a wizardly citrus aroma. Lemongrass is a native of India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Many of us have been introduced to lemongrass in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Lemongrass has traveled throughout the world, adding its spell to soups, curries, sauces, rice, marinades, and teas. Fresh lemongrass looks like a stiff, solid, pale green onion and has a faint citrusy note. It pairs perfectly with fresh spring vegetables and with fresh green herbs, such as mint, parsley, basil, and sage.
In addition to enhancing foods, lemongrass extract and essential oils are important to the perfume and cosmetics industries. Lemongrass has long been used in traditional Indian medicine to fight fever and infection; you may have heard of its herbal name, fevergrass. Lemongrass was often used as part of a ‘cure’ for malaria. The actual lemongrass plant has roots so strong that it is planted in Southeast Asia to prevent soil erosion.
If you can’t find lemongrass at your local market, many Asian groceries carry it. Try to find spears with fresh, fat, light-green stalks. If the stalk has leaves, they should be green and tightly wrapped, not dried out or brown. Peel off the outer leaves and save them for flavoring broths, tofu dishes, rice, or pasta. Place the stalks upright in a bottle or jar of water in a sunny location. It may take a couple of weeks for them to root. Once they do, plant your lemongrass in a bright outdoor spot or pot them and let them grow indoors in a sunny window.
When purchasing lemongrass as a culinary ingredient, you can wrap extra stalks in brown paper or paper \towels; they can last 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator wrapped in this way. You can also freeze fresh lemongrass for several months. Remember to segregate lemongrass from any ingredients in the refrigerator you don’t want to end up tasting like lemon.
Lemongrass has a light, breezy, citrusy flavor. When you’re ready to cook with it, peel fresh lemongrass down to within about two inches of the small white bulb. The lower part of lemongrass stalks and the bulb are tender enough to eat.
The upper part of the stem is too tough to eat, but has a great flavor and aroma, so save it for cooking. Remember to remove tough pieces of lemongrass before serving.
Lemongrass can be combined with ginger, red or green chili, coconut meat, shallots, sweet bell peppers, or garlic as a flavoring blend. Simmer a piece of lemongrass in bean soups, vegetable or mushroom broths, fresh vegetable sauces, rice, or light creamy sauces. Add lemongrass to marinades for vegetables and to salad dressings or mashed avocado. If you are preparing a curry, add a small piece of lemongrass for a counterpoint flavor.
Lemongrass can be used as a ‘swizzle’ stick for hot herbal and black or green teas. Prepare a lemongrass tea with slices of fresh or dry ginger, add a piece of lemongrass and allow tea to steep. Serve this as a hot or chilled beverage or use as a broth for light, spring vegetables such as green peas, wax beans, pea vines or shoots, or baby carrots. It can also be used as a cooking liquid for white or jasmine rice, couscous, or Yukon Gold potatoes.
Thank you to the Vegetarian Resource Group for this informative article written by Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE