by Maria Praeg, Natural Epicurean Alumni
I am sure most of us know that using herbs in our everyday culinary repertoire is not only delicious and adds much variety in flavour and texture but that the regular usage of herbs is also incredibly healthy for us. Herbs are well known for having many healing, medicinal and detoxification properties that can act as a solid nutritious supplement to add to any meal, juice, smoothie or snack. In terms of the energy (or prana) of food, adding fresh herbs to your dishes regenerates and rejuvenates ingredients, adding new life force energy to your dish, particularly if you are eating leftovers. Leftovers are great as they allow us to have access to quick, healthy and nutritious food, but when food “sits,” the life force energy of the food lessens. When the food becomes energetically ‘dull’ often the energy that it passes on to us when we eat it will be of the same quality, so it’s important when eating leftovers to add some fresh hints of herbs or freshly blanched vegetable or salad to the mix in order to liven the food up again.
Often, the importance of herbs in cooking or preparing food is overlooked. The tendency is to simply throw parsley on top of a finished dish or to garnish a finished plate with a sprig of basil. Truly, we should be slightly more heavy-handed with our addition of herbs into our meals. Just like most leafy green vegetables or plants, herbs offer an array of incredible essential nutrients that the body cannot produce. Increasing our intake of plant foods that contain high concentrations of these nutrients is highly beneficial to our health.
Herbs can be found in dry or fresh form; the fresher the herbs, the more of an intense flavour punch they give. They also maintain more of their nutrients and vitality in their fresh forms. Having said that, there are still many advantages of using dry herbs. One of the main advantages is that they are readily available throughout the year, regardless of season. Even though dry herbs lose some of their vigour and flavour over time, one can easily store dry herbs from 6 months up to a year. In terms of culinary uses, you can add dried herbs much earlier in the cooking process, which allows for the a more lengthy integration and slow release of flavours into the dish.
Here is some information on common herbs and kitchen staples:
- Rosemary: Many years ago rosemary was burnt in sick chambers to purify the air and cleanse the space and dotted throughout law courts in order to provide protection from “gaol fever”. In some communities, linen is hung over rosemary to dry so that the linen will soak up the rosemary extract which is known to be a potent moth-repellent. There are several varieties of rosemary. In terms of culinary uses the options are only limited to your imagination. Some fun examples of incorporating rosemary into your culinary bank of knowledge is to put it in your sugar to create rosemary scented sugar, to toss into salads, mix with creams for various uses both savoury and sweet, add to desserts to add an unexpected herbaceous flare, add to vegetable dishes to enhance flavour and aroma. A fun way to use the stem can be to use it as a barbecue skewer. One can also use the rosemary leaves in the bath in order to promote blood circulation. Rosemary is known to aid the digestion of fat, it’s also known to be beneficial for aching joints and rheumatic pains as it contains anti-inflammatory compounds and a high amount of Vitamin A. Rosemary can also be used as an antiseptic mouthwash.
- Thyme: In one of the oldest soup recipes recorded (1663), thyme and beer were used in order to overcome shyness, as it was often believed that consuming thyme would increase strength and courage. Thyme has a divinely floral fragrance and an enchanting array of subtle flavours such as: herbaceous, floral, woody piney, slightly sweet, and bitter. Thyme has a variety of health benefits due to its high mineral and vitamin content. It is particularly high in Vitamins C and A and has high amounts of manganese, copper, and iron. In terms of its culinary uses, thyme can accompany any vegetable or fruit dish, adding a herbaceous floral hint to fruity dishes and adding a musky, woody lightness to vegetable dishes. As with rosemary, the uses for thyme are quite endless due to its versatile flavour profile. There are many thyme varieties, English wild thyme being the one with the strongest medicinal properties. Infusing thyme as a tea can act as a digestive tonic and is known to help with hangovers. Thyme oil extract is also often used to help aid headaches. Thyme is known to relieve insomnia, poor circulation, muscular pain, and stimulate production of white blood cells, which help to fight against infections.
- Basil: Basil is one of my personal favourite herbs, often adding a deep flavour to any dish. It is native to India and is held in high reverence as a herb imbued with divine essence. It’s for this reason that the Indians chose to use Basil to swear their oaths on in court. Infusing basil in tea acts as a digestive aid, and the herb also has many uses in aromatherapy such as combating mental fatigue. In the culinary world, basil is known to go well paired with tomatoes and garlic, as you can see when looking at the use of basil in Italian cuisine. Tossed in rice dishes, pasta dishes, or in salads, basil is a go-to herb for most, adding a familiar, loving warmth to any dish. Basil offers a multitude of varying nutrients such as Vitamins K, A, and C, as well as manganese, copper, folate, calcium and omega-3 fats. Basil also has many antibacterial properties. Active constituents called flavonoids, particularly orientin and vicenin, act as protection (on a cellular level) within the body, helping to protect chromosomes and cell structures from oxygen and radiation related damage.
Some other exciting uses for herbs:
- Herb infused oils
- Creams for use in desserts or savoury dishes alike (example: coconut whipped cream with thyme or creamy “Alfredo” sauce made by adding rosemary, lemon zest and black pepper to coconut cream)
- Fruit juices, cocktails or smoothies to add a floral flare and flavour depth
- Adding a range of herbs into salads and sandwiches can be a fun and delicious way to increase not only the flavour but the nutritional depth of your meal
- Add herbs into your ice cube trays to add to drinks or for effective storage when you’ve purchased fresh herbs and they are about to turn before you can use them
- Vegan herb-infused “butter,” made with a base of coconut oil to add to your toast, or to your popcorn for a slightly snazzier movie night treat
As you can see, there are many reasons why we should not neglect the use of herbs in our culinary escapades – from creating in-depth flavour profiles within a dish, to increasing our nutrient intake and prana within our food and therefore within ourselves allowing us to have vital energy to live and give to those around us. With a diverse array of flavor profiles, herbs can transform a dish into a memorable experience that tastes better and makes us feel better as well.