Cooking with fresh herbs takes meals from ordinary to extraordinary

Christy Strickland Contributing columnist

LUMBERTON — Cooking summer vegetables with fresh herbs is a delicious twist on summer produce. With the Robeson County Farmers Market now open, as well as other produce stands across the county, it is the perfect time to explore growing and/or cooking with fresh herbs. Whether you plant your own or purchase them at the farmers market or grocery store, adding fresh herbs is a quick way to transform ordinary meals into extraordinary meals.

Besides helping flavor foods when cutting back on salt, fat, and sugar, herbs may offer additional benefits of their own. Researchers are finding many culinary herbs (both fresh and dried) have antioxidants that may help protect against such diseases as cancer and heart disease. A snip of a fresh herb into a dish also instantly kicks the appearance up a notch!

Unless directed otherwise by your recipe, add more delicate herbs such as basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, and mint a minute or two before the end of cooking or sprinkle them on food just before it is served. Less delicate herbs, such as oregano, rosemary, and thyme, can be added about the last 20 minutes of cooking. A general guideline when using fresh herbs in a recipe is to triple the amount you would use of a dried herb. When substituting, you’ll often be more successful substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs rather than the other way around. For example, think potato salad with fresh versus dried parsley!

Purchase herbs close to the time you plan to use them. When growing herbs in your own garden, the ideal time for picking is in the morning after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot. This helps ensure the best flavor and storage quality. 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 access to 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, enjoy herbal bouquets throughout your house. You can use either single herbs, combinations of herbs, or you can use the herbs as greenery mixed in with other flowers. To help preserve the aroma and color of your herb bouquets, place them out of direct sunlight.

One of my struggles in using fresh herbs is knowing the best combinations. Here are a few suggestions;

— Basil is great with tomatoes and terrific in fresh pesto.

— Chives can be added to dips, potatoes and tomatoes.

— Cilantro is used for salsas and tomatoes and used in Mexican, Asian, and Caribbean cooking.

— Dill enhances the flavors of carrots, cottage cheese, fish, green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes.

— Mint is often used in carrots, fruit salads, parsley, peas, tabbouleh, and teas.

— Oregano adds flavor to peppers and tomatoes.

— Parsley — the curly leaf is the most common, but the flat leaf or Italian parsley is more strongly flavored and often preferred for cooking. Naturals for parsley include potato salad, tabbouleh, and egg salad sandwiches.

— Rosemary is often used on chicken, fish, lamb, pork, roasted potatoes, soups, stews, and tomatoes.

— Sage can enhance beef, chicken, potatoes, pork, carrots, and summer squash.

— Thyme is often used with eggs lima beans, potatoes, poultry, summer squash, and tomatoes.

Adapted from Fresh Herbs: A Picture of Healthy Eating by the University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension.

Christy Strickland is the county Extension director with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center. She can be reached at 910-671-3276, or at [email protected]