Gardening Topic for May 2009
Cooking with Herbs

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

By Christine M. Brown, Master Gardener 


Herbs can do more for you than just garnish a dish. They can promote health, influence the flavor and enhance the outcome of a meal. Herbs are plants we have used from the earliest times, not only to flavor foods but also in medicine, to beautify our body and for other domestic purposes. A current domestic use for bay leaf is to help deter cereal moths by leaving a few leaves strewn loose in your cabinets.

In this day and age herbs can by used to reduce or even eliminate salt from cooking. A high-sodium diet increases our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. The amount of sodium recommended by the American Heart Association is 2400 milligrams per day or the equivalent of one teaspoon (tsp). Yet many people consume up to 4000 mg. per day. Using herbs instead of salt in cooking can greatly reduce that number.
Many herbs also have antioxidants that help protect against diseases and cancer. A good example of a very healthy-for-you herb is parsley, which contains calcium, potassium, iron, Vitamins A, B1 and B2, niacin and Vitamin C.

Begin cooking with herbs by adding a small amount of fresh chopped herbs to something bland such as cottage cheese, butter, sour cream or potatoes. You can start with cottage cheese by adding one tablespoon (Tbsp.) of chives to cup of cottage cheese. If not flavorful enough, add a bit more to attain the desired flavor. When adding herbs to cold items such as cottage cheese, the herbs should be added the night before for optimal flavor. It is best to start simply, by adding one herb at a time to accent the flavor. If you determine you would like an additional flavor, add another herb.

To prepare herbs, place herbs in cool, not cold, water and swish around to remove the dirt. Repeat the process if necessary. Pat the herbs dry with paper towels or a tea towel. Alternatively, you can spin the herb in a salad spinner and then pat dry with the towels.

One rule of thumb for using powdered herbs vs. fresh herbs in recipes is as follows:
tsp. of powdered = to 1 tsp. of crumpled = 2 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. of fresh.

Mince the herbs with a chef knife or kitchen scissors. You can pick off the leaves of an herb such thyme and/or chop the herb to include the stem. However, later in the growing season, thyme develops a woody stem, so using only the leaves enhances the esthetics of the dish.

All the following herbs are easy to grow in your garden and work well to enhance the flavor of your cooking:
Basil – is a tender annual. It is easy to grow from seed. It is best used fresh. Wash gently and drain as basil bruises easily. It is an all-purpose herb used in soups, chowders, stews, spaghetti and other sauces. It makes a great pesto. Suggested equivalent: tsp. dried to 1 Tbsp. fresh.

Bay Laurel – a tender perennial. It will not survive our winter, so dig up your plant in the fall and bring indoors for the winter. It likes it cool, so it will grow in a partial shade area. The fresh leaves have a strong flavor. Always remove the bay leaves from food before serving. Bay leaves can be added to soups and stews in the form of bouquets garni. Use kitchen string to tie together a bay leaf, parsley and thyme. Add to the dish one hour before the end of cooking for the best flavor.

Chives – are a hardy perennial and are very easy to grow. Chives are a member of the onion family. The leaves and the flowers are excellent garnishes for many foods.
Chives can flavor vegetables, casserole, omelets, and soups – anything when a mild onion flavor is desired.

Oregano – is a perennial. The Greek oregano is labeled Oheracleoticum and is the preferred variety to use. It grows best in a sunny location and well-drained soil. Oregano can be added to bouquets garni. Oregano can be used to flavor seafood, stuffing, many vegetables and tomato dishes including spaghetti and pizza sauces. Suggested equivalent: tsp. dried to 1 Tbsp. fresh.

Parsley – is a hardy biennial, although it is best grown as an annual. It is used for seasoning (as in the bouquet garni previously mentioned). Chop well for soups, stews, vegetables, salads and stuffing. Suggested equivalent: 1 tsp. dried to 1 Tbsp. fresh.

Sage – is a hardy perennial. Sage prefers a light, somewhat sandy soil. It likes bone meal and a little lime + full sun. The fresh sage has a milder flavor than the dried.  It flavors meat and fish stews, stuffings, chowders, and soups. It also flavors vegetables including beans, tomatoes and summer squash. Sage makes a soothing aromatic tea.  Suggested equivalent: tsp. dried to 1 tsp. fresh.

Thyme – is a hardy perennial and has many species. You can harvest by snipping throughout the growing season. Even the flower has flavor and can be used as a garnish for pureed soups. You can use the whole sprig in cooking and remove the stems after the leaves have fallen off. Thyme is one of the best herbs for fish and shellfish.
“A pinch of thyme” is a good phrase to remember, as thyme is a strong herb. Suggested equivalent: tsp. dried (or a pinch) to 1 tsp fresh.

There are many additional herbs to use for cooking including Mint, Rosemary, Tarragon, Dill and Marjoram. There are many sources for finding recipes and ideas to increase the use of herbs in your cooking style, including the internet. It is an enjoyable challenge to use the herbs that we like to grow to enhance our meals.

For other articles, check out our archives

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association