Fresh herbs are something of an unsung hero in cooking. Regularly destined to overgrown pots on porches or left withering on grocery produce shelves (or worse, your fridge), herbs are all too often overlooked, avoided or simply forgotten.
I understand that no one picks up a bunch of cilantro on its own and thinks “snack time!” Potent in flavor and fragrance, herbs demand the companionship of other complimentary ingredients to really shine. But there's so much more that can be done with herbs, aside from a cautious sprinkle adorning a finished plate. Herbs enliven the flavors of food by offering fresh and sometimes woodsy notes to heavy or flat-tasting dishes. Even though they are low in sodium (and calories!) they can help reduce salt content by adding layers of flavor interest, ensuring a recipe remains exciting on the palate. Plus, herbs are exceptionally medicinal, offering many valuable immune-boosting qualities, such as being highly anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. If herbs sound a bit like superfoods, that's because they most certainly are! So really, why not use them more…as in so much more? Let's look at how to incorporate these incredible ingredients:
Light Herbs: Use with (almost) reckless abandon.
There are some herbs that are less potent in flavor and function as a more laid back addition to recipes. If you're thinking parsley – that's certainly a great place to start and you can probably get away with using much more than you're currently adding! Other easy-to-use herbs include cilantro, dill, basil and chives. These herbs all taste best when they’re truly fresh, so you'll want to add them at the very end of cooking. Try using them in salads, dips (hello, amazing hummus) and dressings to complement either light or heavy flavors. Really, you can rarely go wrong with these!
Medium Herbs: Use with forethought.
Our second category of herbs is a little higher up on the potent scale, meaning you'll want to use much smaller quantities for the most part, as an overzealous hand can easily trounce a dish. Herbs like tarragon, mint and thyme fall under this category. Tarragon is a favorite herb in French cooking; it's best used raw, and dresses up both raw and cooked dishes, and can also be used in chilled soups and dressings. Mint is also best used raw and can provide unexpected flair in salads and glazes for proteins, as well as in sweet desserts. Thyme can be used raw, but is more commonly used cooked, and complements simmered stocks, soups and even savory baked goods.
Heavy Herbs: Save for special dishes.
It makes sense that the strongest herbs of all also require heavier food parings. Herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano and marjoram are more on the “woodsy” end of the flavor spectrum. These options pair with very particular foods, while being decidedly unfriendly to other flavors outside their circle. These herbs need to be at least briefly cooked (on occasion, you'll find oregano and marjoram used in their fresh form, but quite sparingly) and work best when simmered in a fatty base like oil, and possibly accompanied by an allium like onion or garlic. Protein-rich foods, hearty grains and heavy vegetables like squash, tubers and roots are elevated by their pronounced flavors, and stews or slow-cooked meals are where these herbs are really at their prime. Used with a light hand, these herbs can make an average dish something truly special just by their singular addition alone.
Now, if you're a superfood addict like me, I'll let you in on one last little secret: many superfoods are extremely herb friendly! Use greens like kale, spinach or Wheatgrass with any of the light herbs. Citrusy Goldenberries are a fine addition, too! Try Goji Berries or Acai with the light or medium set of herbs – both these berries really welcome savory flavors. And for the heavier herbs, I recommend medicinal mushrooms, Maca (which does well with rosemary in particular) and Hemp Seeds. Oh, and as usual, you can use Chia Seeds with anything!