Did you know that herbs are brain boosters?
Not only are they wonderful for flavoring recipes, but they also contain nutrients that support brain health and wellbeing.
I love translating nutritional information that I read and research to my hands-on cooking space – answering that question of how to use that “good for us” ingredient to create something tantalizing and delicious.
For 2022, my focus is on creating recipes with ingredients known to support better brain function. There is so much scientific information being shared on this topic. It’s timely and necessary, and I am fascinated by it. The great thing is that these “brain boosters” do double duty – what’s good for the brain is also good for our overall health. Bonus! And, they are wonderful ingredients to cook with.
So far this year, we’ve explored specific brain-boosting vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean animal and plant proteins, and healthier fats. This month, let’s talk about herbs since we are in the throes of summer with many at their peak.
WHY I LIKE COOKING WITH HERBS
This one is a no-brainer – no pun intended!
In terms of bang-for-your-flavor-buck, herbs are culinary powerhouses that can easily transform a dish from ordinary to vibrant and delightful in no time flat. In fact, many dishes would not be the same at all without the use of one or more herbs – pesto, salsa, pasta sauce, tabbouleh salad, or lavender syrup to name a few.
In addition to being a culinary staple, herbs have been used in natural medicine for ages. Rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, mint, and parsley, for example, are known to possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and provide essential vitamins such as A, C, and K. These nutrients support better brain health, and help lessen the chance of many serious diseases.
Herbs are usually categorized as either “hard” or “soft” for cooking purposes.
- Hard herbs are those that have sturdier, woody-like stems (such as rosemary, sage, and thyme) and are added early in the cooking process to infuse their aroma into the dish.
- Soft or tender herbs have tender leaves and stems (such as basil, mint and parsley) are added near the end of cooking so they maintain more of their color and flavor, or as garnish. NOTE: Dried soft herbs should be added earlier in the cooking process so they reconstitute and infuse flavor into the dish.
The availability of fresh herbs can vary greatly by type and location, so check your local farmers’ market and talk with producers about herb seasonality for your area.
- Perennial varieties (such as mint, oregano, thyme, chives, winter savory, rosemary) can be produced and harvested year-round.
- Annual varieties (such as basil, cilantro, dill, summer savory, parsley, marjoram) are generally available during warm weather months.
Many grocery stores carry various fresh herbs year-round – look in the produce section.
Grow Your Own
For those of you who, like me, enjoy a bit of digging in the dirt, you may wish to try your hand with a few pots of your favorite herbs. I can tell you from experience it does not require tilling up a garden plot if space it tight. Herbs do very well in pots on a porch, deck, balcony, or terrace, with a few hours of sunlight. In addition to bringing flavor and nutrients to cooking, they also add ambiance and color to any outdoor space.
Here are two resources to inspire you – one about planting companionable herbs together in one pot (a very eye-catching approach), and the other for growing herbs hydroponically indoors, which is quite fun and helpful during the winter months. Go ahead, give it a try!
STORING AND CLEANING
- Wrap in damp paper or cloth towel
- Add a layer of plastic wrap around the damp towel or place into an airtight container
- Store in refrigerator in crisper section
- Hard herbs last anywhere from 1 – 2 weeks
Soft or Tender Herbs:
- Trim the stem base and discard ends
- Place stems in a glass or water (similar to cut flowers)
- Store in the refrigerator or at room temperature (basil is best at room temperature)
- Change water every 1 – 2 days
- Soft herbs last anywhere from 3 – 7 days
Gently wash fresh herbs just prior to use, then pat dry. A salad spinner is a handy tool when cleaning herbs.
Drying Fresh Herbs
Consider drying any surplus fresh herbs for later use. The drying process concentrates the flavor and the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenols.
For information on how to dry herbs, check out HGTV.com – “How to Preserve Your Garden Herbs”.
USING FRESH VS DRIED
Some dishes truly shine with the use of fresh herbs (think salsa, pesto, salads, baking, beverages, etc.), yet dried herbs are oftentimes called for, or preferred, in other recipes, and may be substituted for fresh in such dishes as soups and stews, vinaigrettes, sauces, marinades and rubs.
Dried herbs release a more potent flavor than fresh herbs, so a smaller quantity is used in cooking. Just as with any seasoning, more can be added after cooking and tasting, if needed.
Start with a 3:1 ratio when using dried herbs instead of fresh herbs:
Store dried herbs in air-tight containers in a cool, dry place. Similar to fresh herbs, hard herbs tend to last longer once dried and soft herbs may last less time. Dried herb leaves and flowers will last anywhere from 3 months – 2 years, depending on the herb and storage conditions. If you do not smell the herb’s unique aroma when you open the storage container, it is past its prime.
It’s difficult to think of any dish that does not benefit from the addition of fresh or dried herbs. Get creative! Use them to add flavor to:
- Meats, Poultry, Fish and Seafood
- Soups and Stews
- Pizza and Pasta
- Dressings and Vinaigrettes
- Whole grain dishes
- Stock and Broth
- Cheese dishes
- Rubs and Marinades
- Baking and Desserts
- Condiments, Jams and Jellies
“Get your herbs on” with these herbaceous, brain-boosting recipes:
- Roasted Salmon Bowl with Creamy Herb Pesto – from Love + Craft Kitchen
- White House Garden Herb-Roasted Chicken with Braised Greens – from The Food Network, courtesy of Michelle Obama
- Spicy Cucumbers with Yogurt, Lemon, and Herbs – from The New York Times Cooking
Want a bit more information about using herbs to increase the flavor and nutritional value of your cooking? Get my free e-chart, “10 Herbs to Amp Up Your Cooking”.
What is your favorite herb to cook with? How do you use it? Share your ideas in the comments section.
Main photo: iStock
© 2018 Susan Denzer, Love + Craft Kitchen, LLC, All Rights Reserved