Luckily there was a break in the weather which meant our Community Herb Garden planting went really well. Even the kids joined in, they loved helping and got their hands good and dirty. And it won’t be long before the plants will be ready for us all to use.
You know thousands of years ago herb gardens were mainly used for medicinal purposes. Nowadays we grow herbs to add flavour to meals, as well as medicine and as a preservative. Fresh herbs really bring out the flavours of your culinary creations. And the plants are just so lovely to look at too.
So what is a herb?
Well, herbs are the leafy part of a plant that is used in cooking – these can be used fresh or dried. Any other part of the plant, which is usually dried, is referred to as a spice. These include, for example, bark (cinnamon), berries (peppercorns), seeds (cumin), roots (turmeric), flower (chamomile), buds (cloves) and the stigma of a flower (saffron).
Herbs are a fantastic way to add flavour and colour to any sort of dish or drink, whether sweet or savoury, without adding fat, salt or sugars. In addition to flavour and colour, they each also tend to have their own set of health-promoting properties. Generally, fresh herbs are delicately flavoured, so if adding them to your cooking, do so in the last few minutes. Tasting your dish as you go along will help you tell if you’ve added enough. If not enough herbs are used then you’ll find that little difference will be made to the flavour of the dish, but if you use too many herbs then their flavour will overpower other ingredients.
Health benefits of herbs
Consuming herbs may help to prevent and manage heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It may also help to reduce blood clots and provide anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour properties. Research is ongoing but studies have shown that:
Garlic, linseed, fenugreek and lemongrass may help lower cholesterol.
Garlic is useful for people with mildly elevated blood pressure.
Fenugreek can help control blood sugar and insulin activity (as can linseed, flaxseed and cinnamon).
Garlic, onions, chives, leeks, mint, basil, oregano, sage and many other herbs can help protect against cancer.
Herbs are rich in antioxidants, especially cloves, cinnamon, sage, oregano and thyme, by helping to reduce low-density lipoproteins (‘bad’ cholesterol).
Fresh herbs often contain higher antioxidant levels compared to processed or dried herbs but if you are using herbs in order to harness their health-promoting aspects first and foremost, aim to add your fresh herbs at the end of cooking or as you serve to preserve these properties.
Cooking with herbs
You are only limited by your imagination with it comes to using herbs in the kitchen – they can be added to virtually any recipe. Try adding herbs to:
stews and casseroles
They don’t always have to be added into a dish either – herbs added once a dish has been served is another great way of enhancing the flavour, smell and visual appeal of your dish. For example, spaghetti Bolognese with some fresh basil leaves on top or a pumpkin or chicken dish with fresh sage leaves.
Good herb and food combinations
There are unlimited ways to use herbs in your cooking. Here are some traditional pairings to get you started:
basil – pesto, tomato sauce, tomato soup, tomato juice, potato dishes, prawns, meat, chicken and poultry, pasta, rice, egg dishes, strawberries
bay leaves – soups, stews, casseroles, meat and poultry marinades, stocks
chilli – meat, chicken and poultry, shellfish, tomato dishes, curries
chives – salads, chicken, soups, cheese dishes, egg dishes, mayonnaise, vinaigrettes
coriander – Asian dishes, stir fries, curries, soups, salads, seafood, guacamole
dill – salads, sauces, fish, sour cream, cheese and potato dishes
fennel – stuffings, sauces, seafood, salads
garlic – soups, sauces, pasta, meat, chicken, shellfish, pesto, salad dressings, bread
ginger – cakes, biscuits, Asian dishes
lemongrass – Asian dishes, stir fries, curries, seafood, soups, tea
marjoram – meat, fish, egg dishes, cheese dishes, pizza
mint – drinks, confectionery, meat, chicken, yoghurt, desserts, sauces, vegetable dishes
oregano – cheese dishes, egg dishes, tomato sauce, pizza, meat, stuffing, bread, pasta
parsley – pesto, egg dishes, pasta, rice dishes, salads, butter, sauces, seafood, vegetable dishes
rosemary – fish, poultry, meat, bread, sauces, soups
sage – stuffings, tomato dishes, cheese dishes, pumpkin dishes, chicken dishes
tarragon – salad dressing, egg dishes
thyme – chowders, bread, chicken and poultry, soups, stock, stews, stuffings, butter, cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar.
Tips for cooking with herbs
Suggestions for cooking with herbs include:
Dried herbs are more strongly flavoured than fresh. As a general rule, one teaspoon of dried herbs equals four teaspoons of fresh.
If you regularly use herbs, you might like to create a ‘bouquet garni’ by tying chopped and mixed herbs in little muslin bags – these can be added to your cooking for flavour but removed before serving.
Some herbs are hardier than others (like rosemary and parsley) and will retain their flavour during the cooking process – these can be added at the start of your cooking.
Some herbs are used only to flavour a dish but are not eaten – bay leaves for example.
The flavour of herbs fades with time, so discard dried herbs after 12 months.
Dried whole herbs, where the leaves are still attached to their stalk, tend to have a stronger flavour than loose leaves sold in packets or jars.
Although you can use one type of herb at a time, there are many great combinations that work well too. Some traditional combinations are:
basil – with chives, chilli, garlic, oregano
bay – with parsley, thyme, garlic, oregano, marjoram
chilli – with coriander, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, mint, oregano
chives – with basil, garlic, tarragon
dill – with chives, garlic, parsley, tarragon
garlic – with basil, rosemary, sage, fennel, chilli, coriander
oregano – with basil, parsley, chives, thyme, bay, chilli
sage – with rosemary, garlic, marjoram
thyme – with bay, parsley, garlic, rosemary.
Our food landscape is ever-evolving, particularly with the influence of the many cultures we have here in Australia. Vietnamese food is known for the using herbs with such abundance that, at times, there are more herbs than salad leaves in a Vietnamese salad. And many native ingredients like lemon myrtle, river mint and pepperberry, for example, are also widely available.
Be adventurous with herbs
Herbs can be used in an unlimited number of ways. The more you use herbs, the more adventurous you will become.
Not sure where to start? Try:
following a recipe that calls for one or two herbs you haven’t used before
experimenting with using other herbs in place of herbs called for in a recipe to see how the dish turns out
making your own bouquet garni
growing some herbs in pots on your windowsill or in the garden for use in your cooking
read up on native herbs and how they’re used
Besides boosting the flavours, smells, looks and textures in your meals, the more herbs you try, the wider the variety of potential health benefits you are likely to receive.