History tells us that humans have been experimenting with culinary herbs since the dawn of time. Herbs appear in written texts from ancient Egypt and the Bible is full of references to various culinary herbs. Humans have discovered the health benefits from these herbs through trial and error, since scientific methods of measuring vitamin and mineral content is a fairly new science.
When you think about it, fresh herbs are simply dark green leafy vegetables, which are considered some of the most important vegetables for us to eat in regards to vitamin and mineral content. Herbs have vitamin content just like spinach or Swiss chard and in fact some herbs, for example parsley, has twice the amount of Vitamins A and C than an orange and three times the amount of Iron as spinach!
Herbal remedies like Echinacea and St. John’s Wort have become extremely popular in the past decade as many of us try to use natural and alternative treatments instead of pharmaceutical remedies. The amazing thing is that everyday herbs such as Basil, Rosemary and Dill contain compounds with health boosting benefits, not to mention great flavor, that are as potent as some of the more exotic herbs used in teas and tinctures. In fact here is a list of some of the common kitchen herbs with therapeutic and medicinal uses that help our bodies thrive in many ways.
Growing your Own Herbs
Awareness of the incredible uses of these culinary herbs, from flavor to medicine, should be inspiration enough to get outside this spring and plant your own herb garden, but if it’s not, perhaps the fact that an herb garden is the easiest garden to plant and maintain will sway you. Herbs are simple to grow, flourish in Cape Cod’s sandy soil and look and smell wonderful. Even better, you do not have to have acres of land to have a very fruitful herb garden that provides you with more than enough for the entire growing season. Herb gardens don’t require highly fertile soil so there is no need for fertilizer; in fact highly fertilized soil tends to produce herbs with lots of big foliage but lackluster flavor. Herbs do not like damp or wet soil so proper drainage is key. If you are sowing a garden from scratch it is best to remove the soil to a depth of 15 or so inches and put down a 2-3” layer of crushed stone to improve water flow before filling the rest with top soil.
How you arrange your plants depends primarily on which herbs you decide to plant. Sun loving herbs should be placed in the front of the garden, but some herbs like basil and dill which love sun can also grow quite tall so those might be best planted towards the back of the garden since their height will allow easy cutting. Parsley loves some shade so it is great to plant in the middle where it might get some shade from surrounding plants. Thyme is a great border and ground cover making it ideal for the front of the garden. Thyme is one of the few perennials herbs hardy enough to winter over here on Cape Cod; others are Chives, Marjoram, Mint, and Tarragon. Be careful with mint however which is so hardy it is borderline invasive. Instead, try planting your mint in a container in the ground to help it from overtaking your garden. Many herbs tend to be fairly pest resistant because of their pungent aroma so there is no need to use any products for pest prevention if you choose your plants wisely. Basil helps to prevent fungal growth and helps to deter aphids, mites and even mosquitoes. Chives also help with fungal protection and mint and garlic are also ideal for keeping those aphids under control. Some simple planning when it comes to plant choice will ensure that you are able to have a pesticide-free herb garden, making it even easier to maintain.
Since herb gardens require such low maintenance, it should come as no surprise that many of our local restaurants like the Coonamesset Inn in Falmouth, The Red Pheasant and Blue Moon Bistro, both in Dennis, The Brewster Fish House and many other fine dining establishments pride themselves on growing extensive herb gardens to complement their varied and many locally sourced menu offerings. But, if your interest leans more toward planting your own herb garden so that you may take advantage of these culinary delights on a daily basis, here are some recipes that proudly give your herbs center stage. The more you plant, the more you’ll use and your cooking this spring and summer will be tastier and healthier than ever!
Traditional Basil Pesto
1 Cup Fresh Basil Leaves
3 Cloves of Roasted Garlic
½ Cup Pine Nuts
Juice of 1 Lemon
¼ Cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
3 Tbs Olive Oil
(or enough to get the desired consistency)
Blend in food processor until pesto is almost
a paste-like consistency. Enjoy!
¼ Cup Fresh Basil
¼ Cup Fresh Cilantro
¼ Cup Fresh Parsley
2 Tbs. Fresh Rosemary
¼ Cup Mayonnaise (Canola or Olive Oil)
¼ Cup White Vinegar or Lemon Juice
5 Cloves of Garlic
Place ingredients in blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
This is a great sauce for fish and chicken and works with cold or hot foods equally well.
You can thin it with more lemon juice to make
it a bit more like a dressing.
Herbed Chicken PailLard
with Lemon Garlic Aioli
2-4 Cleaned Chicken Breasts
Various Fresh Herbs
Place 2 chicken breasts and half the garlic and herbs in a plastic bag, with a wooden rolling pin or meat tenderizer, pound the chicken to less than ½ inch in thickness. Pour in some olive oil and let marinate for up to 8 hours or overnight.
Place chicken breasts in a hot frying pan and sear each side for approx. 3-5 mins, depending on the thickness of the chicken.
Lemon Garlic Aioli
2 Egg Yolks
Juice and Zest from 1 Lemon
2-4 Garlic Cloves
1 Cup Olive Oil
Place yolks garlic and lemon in food processor and blend.
While on slowly pour oil into the food processor until mixture begins
to emulsify and become the texture of a light mayonnaise.
Serve with chicken paillard. If there’s leftovers, slice up the chicken and toss
it with the aioli and some almonds for a great chicken salad. Enjoy! – cha
Written by Heather Bailey, Spring 2009
Heather Bailey, CNC, has been a chef, food writer and educator on Cape Cod for the past 8 years. She has recently received her certification as a Nutritional Consultant and has opened The Optimal Kitchen, offering nutritional consults, private and group cooking instruction, wellness coaching and personal chef services. Heather can be reached at 774-216-9553.
Healthful Uses of Culinary Herbs
Basil: used to treat mild cases of hypertension, also acts as a breath freshener
Cayenne: truly more of a spice than an herb, this extremely anti-inflammatory spice helps to reduce pain symptoms from arthritis, reduces inflammation that can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as speed up the metabolism to help with weight loss.
Cilantro: a stimulant that also has potent carminative qualities, meaning it helps our bodies get rid of excess gas in our systems, no surprise here since Latin foods, which rely heavily on beans, also use lots of cilantro
Cinnamon: helps regulate insulin production making this spice a must have in a pre-
Dill: similar to cilantro, dill is a great digestive aid which helps relieve and reduce flatulence
Garlic (chives, scallions, shallots and onions): members of the allium family have potent medicinal attributes, including lowering blood cholesterol, a natural antibiotic which helps stave off colds and flu and it is even used in the treatment of acne. One key to garlic’s effectiveness is that you must crush the clove in order to activate the healing compounds contained inside.
Lavender: this herb has the ability to calm anxiety and nervous tension
Peppermint: is not only one of nature’s great stomach soothers, and ideal for quelling nausea, its stimulant properties have been known to counteract depression
Rosemary: a member of the mint family, is a mild analgesic and has been used throughout history to help with headaches, epilepsy and poor circulation
Sage: is a proven antiseptic and it is also estrogenic, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial.