Herbs can easily transform an ordinary recipe into a fabulous dish. As an added plus, using herbs to flavor your food will help you cut back on the salt, fat and sugar in your diet.
Even better, researchers are finding herbs may offer a host of health benefits. Many culinary herbs, both fresh and dried, have antioxidants that just might help reduce your risk for things like cancer and heart disease.
With all the fresh herbs now available at local food stands, farmer's markets, grocery stores and gardens, this is a great time to begin adding more fresh herbs to your foods.
Basil is a natural snipped in with tomatoes. It's also terrific in fresh pesto and pasta sauce. Try chives in dips or on potatoes. Dill is good in recipes featuring carrots, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and fish.
Mint is wonderful in fruit salads and tabouli, as well as in beverages. You'll find oregano in dishes featuring peppers or tomatoes, and parsley in potato salad.
Rosemary is often found in dishes featuring chicken, fish, lamb, or pork, and is also found in many roasted potato, soup, and stew recipes.
Sage is found in stuffing; tarragon in chicken, egg and fish dishes; and you'll often see thyme listed in lima bean, summer squash, and tomato recipes.
Give cilantro a try in your next salsa. It's is a standard herb in Mexican, Asian and Caribbean cooking.
Unlike dried herbs, fresh herbs are usually added toward the end of cooking to preserve their flavor. Add the more delicate herbs, like basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint, a minute or two before the end of cooking, or sprinkle them on the food before it's served.
Less delicate herbs, like dill seeds, oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme, can be added during the last 20 minutes of cooking. However, some herbs need to be added at the beginning of the cooking process in some foods, like in batters for baked goods. You'll also want to add fresh herbs to refrigerated foods several hours before serving them to allow enough time for the flavors to blend.
Purchase or pick herbs close to the time you plan to use them. Then wait to wash the herbs until right before you use them.
You can wash smaller amounts of herbs thoroughly under running water, shaking off the moisture or spinning them dry in a salad spinner.
Then, pat off any remaining moisture with clean paper towels. If you're washing a large amount of herbs at one time, just treat them as you would salad greens.
Place them in a clean sink or a deep bowl filled with cold water and swish them around. Then lift the herbs from the water and transfer them to another bowl so any dirt or grit will remain in the water. Pour out the original water and repeat the washing process with clean water until all of the dirt and grit is gone and the water is clear.
While some recipes call for a sprig of herbs, normally the part of the herb harvested will be the leaves. For herbs with sturdier stems, such as marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme, you can strip off the leaves by running your fingers down the stem from top to bottom. With small-leaved plants such as thyme, you can use both leaves and stems for cooking early in the season. Later in the season when the stems become tougher, use only the leaves.
When adding fresh herbs to a recipe in place of dried herbs, you'll want to use about three times as much as you would use of that dried herb. Substituting fresh herbs for dried usually results in better dishes than trying to replace a fresh herb with a dried one. Just imagine what a difference there would be between fresh and dried parsley in a potato or pasta salad.
Most recipes recommend mincing herbs into tiny pieces. You can chop them with a chef's knife on a cutting board or snip them with kitchen scissors. For herbs with tender stems, such as parsley and cilantro, you can snip some of the stem in with the leaves when you're cutting them. Some recipes require cutting large leaves, like basil, into thin strips "chiffonade style."
The easiest way to do this is to stack several leaves, roll them together tightly and cut the roll into thin strips with a sharp knife. It's too easy to turn herbs into an unappealing paste in a food processor, so you'll probably want to leave it on the shelf and take the few minutes required to prep them by hand.
If you've been considering it, this is also a good time to plant an herb garden, but if you've never planted herbs before, you may want to start with transplants, rather than seeds. When selecting herbs to transplant, you'll also want be sure to choose plants meant for culinary uses, not ornamental herbs. They may have a less desirable flavor because they've been bred for appearance rather than taste.
If you plan to harvest herbs from a home garden, you might want to hose them down the day before to help remove large particles of dirt or grit that might be on their leaves.
Annual herbs can be harvested down to about 4 inches tall, and they still will regrow for use later in the season, but you won't ever want to take off more than of a perennial herb plant. To ensure the best flavor and storage quality, the ideal time to pick herbs is in the morning after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot.
Fresh herbs can be stored in an open or a perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper drawer for a few days. If you don't have commercial perforated bags, use a sharp object to make several small holes in a regular plastic bag.
If you have more herbs than you can eat, you can make beautiful and fragrant herbal bouquets. Use single herbs, combinations of herbs or use the herbs as greenery mixed in with other flowers. However, preserve the aroma and color of your herb bouquets by keeping them out of direct sunlight.
If you're looking for more ideas to improve your lifestyle, check out Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Eat Smart New York program. You'll find fun new ways to fit more exercise into your busy life, improve your eating patterns and save money. Sessions are held at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County. Bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502 ext. 217.