Nutrition Corner: Fresh summer herbs make tasty dishes

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Fresh summer herbs can spice up meals without much work. The aroma of freshly chopped basil makes any cook look forward to that first mouthful.

Herbs can make foods healthier, too. Their flavors can replace the traditional salt shaker and maybe even replace butter or margarine on top of vegetables. Reducing salt and lowering calories are two key steps to making foods healthier.

Herbs are the leaves of plants. We often use them in larger amounts than spices. The word herbs also means an herbaceous plant that dies down at the end of the growing season. Some plants yield both herbs and spices. For example, the seeds of the dill plants are the spice dill seed; however, the dill weed is an herb from the plant’s leaves. Another example is coriandrum sativum. The herb is cilantro and the spice from the plant’s seeds is coriander.

Most herbs like parsley and basil are easy to pick off the leaves and discard the stems. Herbs like fresh rosemary, oregano and thyme might be a little challenging. Here is an easy way to separate the leaves from the stem.

To strip off needles or very small leaves, hold the sprig of the herbs such as oregano, thyme or rosemary at its top, upside down. Hold your thumb and index finger together; run down the stem in the opposite direction that the leaves have grown. Bunch the rosemary needles and oregano leaves together and chop. Thyme is small enough to use without chopping.

Basil mint, sage and other large leafy herbs can be a bit challenging to chop. Use a technique call chiffonade. Here is how. Stack 5 or 6 leaves and roll tightly. Cut crosswise. This cuts the herbs into narrow ribbons.

Fresh herbs can be stored in an open or perforated bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer for a few days.

Whether fresh, dried or ground, if this is your first time using herbs, start sparingly. If a recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon of a powdered herb, you can use ¾ to 1 teaspoon crumbled or flaked, or 2 teaspoons fresh. Add ground or cut herbs midway or towards the end of the cooking process. For cold dishes, add herbs several hours before serving and refrigerate.

Fresh garden herbs make a great addition to a homemade meat marinades. I once made an Italian marinade for chicken by chopping fresh basil, oregano and rosemary. I added fresh chopped garlic, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It was delicious.

For vegetables, add seasoning to the cooking water or mix herbs with vegetables before roasting. Try basil, dill, chives, oregano or thyme to replace salt and butter on potatoes. On green salads, chop fresh basil, chives or dill to give extra flavor. This allows you to reduce the amount of salad dressing you normally use and enjoy the flavor-fresh herbs given to salad greens.

Be creative and follow these tips to give your foods an extra secret flavoring. Here is a fresh herb chart to get you started.

For beef: Sage and thyme

For pork: Sage and oregano

For chicken: Oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme

For carrots: Rosemary and sage

For peas: Parsley and sage

For potatoes: Chives, parsley and sage

For summer squash: Rosemary and sage

For tomatoes: Basil, oregano and parsley

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