Spring Produce Guide: Springtime Herbs

by Anastassia Skarlinski

Fresh herbs

I come from a long line of plant killers. We just cannot keep a plant alive no matter how hard we try. One exception to that, at least for me, is herbs. I actually have a passable track record in keeping herbs alive. Herbs are the leafy parts of a plant that we use to add flavor to a meal. They can be fresh or dried. It is worth noting that dried herbs have much stronger flavor than fresh, generally one teaspoon of dried herbs is equal to 4 teaspoons of fresh ones. Oh, and if the flavoring comes from the other parts of the plant, the bark, flowers, buds, seeds, or roots, it is then considered a spice.

There is evidence of people using herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes for hundreds of thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt there were schools for herbalists where herbs were studied for their uses in medicine, cooking, cosmetics, and more. Today herbs are a great way to add flavor to your food. There are a ton of different herbs out there to try but some popular ones include:

  • Basil– Basil is a member of the mint family and native to Asia. There are a ton of different kinds of basil, including purple basil, holy basil, lemon basil and more. Basil is typically a little peppery with some clove or mint notes. It is essential in many dishes, especially caprese salad, pesto, and Thai stir-fries.
  • Parsley– Parsley is native to the Mediterranean and is a member of the carrot family. The two main kinds of parsley are curly or flat leaf parsley. They both taste about the same, but curly parsley is usually reserved for decoration. It has been said that chewing on some parsley after a meal can help to relieve garlic breath. In the United States over 40% of the parsley we eat is grown in California.
  • Dill– The word dill comes from an old English word that means “to lull”. It was used to help soothe digestive pain and arthritis. Dill plants bloom pretty flowers, the herb offers its best flavor if you pick it before the flowers bloom, but can be used at any time.  Dill is a common ingredient in Nordic, German, and Greek cuisine. It is a commonly used as a flavoring for pickles, potatoes, served with salmon, or in the Greek dish tzatziki.
  • Rosemary– It has long been believed that rosemary helps memory. In Ancient Greece, scholars would wear a sprig of rosemary in their hair for assistance in exams. Rosemary is a tough perennial (keeps coming back) herb that can grow into a bush up to five feet tall. It looks a little bit like pine and has a strong distinctive flavor. It is an excellent addition to stews, vegetable roasts, and breads.
  • Mint– There are over 30 different varieties of mint including, spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, and chocolate mint. It has been used to ease upset stomachs, ward off insects, and cure headaches for centuries. Mint is incredibly hardy, and difficult to kill. If you grow some at your house, it is best to keep it in a container. Mint grown in the ground can sprout up just about everywhere, like kudzu. Mint can be used to flavor your water, as a refreshing tea, or even to make yogurt dips.

There are so many more herbs—oregano, thyme, cilantro, sage, the list goes on and on. Herbs are great sources of antioxidants, polyphenols, and even vitamins and minerals. Many herbs are being researched for their ability to decrease inflammation, tumor and cancer prevention, cholesterol lowering and more. The antioxidant effects of fresh herbs are generally at the highest when they have been cooked the least, so wait to throw them in at the very end of the cooking process.

So, what should you do with all of these fresh herbs?  If you don’t know where to start, I suggest tearing up handfuls of leafy herbs into your next green salad. You can also toss them in a quick soup, sauce or a marinade. You can whiz together a quick pesto if you have some basil on hand. Thyme, mint, and even rosemary can make unexpected, but tasty, additions to a custard or yogurt dish. You can also try putting sprigs in your glass of water to make it a little more interesting. If you have far too many fresh herbs you can freeze them too. Wash them and chop them up then put them in ice cube trays. Fill the trays up with some olive oil and freeze them. These make delightful little flavor pucks to add fresh flavor to your meals in the cold dark winter. For an interesting side dish, give this herby new potato salad a try.

Herby Potato Salad

1 lb new potatoes

2 cups watercress

½ cup almonds

1 bunch dill, no stems

1 bunch parsley, no stems

½ bunch mint, no stems

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 clove garlic

½ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a medium saucepan, boil potatoes 15 minutes or until tender. Drain, cut into bite size pieces and put to the side in a large bowl.
  2. In a food processor combine almonds, herbs, lemon zest and juice, garlic, and olive oil.
  3. Toss potatoes with herb sauce. Serve warm or chilled. Stir in watercress just before serving.

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