Americans are becoming increasingly conscious of their salt intake. In some cases it’s due to a chronic health condition like high blood pressure. However, many more Americans are learning to control how much salt they eat as part of a proactive approach to maintaining good health.
Just because you salt your food less doesn’t mean it has to have less flavor. A healthy way to enhance the flavor of food is through herbs. In addition to accentuating food’s goodness, many herbs also have medicinal qualities that scientists are now beginning to understand, something the Chinese have known from ancient times.
So which herbs should you always have available in your spice rack? The answer to that question comes from some recent interviews with chefs and food experts who explained what they felt were essential herbs and why.
Maria Liberati is a famed chef and author of The Basic Art of Italian Cooking (Art of Living, PrimaMedia Inc., 2005). Her choice for a spice must-have is rosemary, because of it’s versatility. Here are her suggestions for some great uses for this spice:
- “Cut up a chicken and potatoes and place them in a roasting pan with some olive oil, and a pinch of salt and rosemary. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
- Put a branch of rosemary in bean soups like pasta fagioli (pronounced “fa-joel-lay”. Fagioli is the Italian word for “beans”. This soup is made by cooking elbow pasta, cannellini or kidney beans, and chicken).
- Make croutons with day old bread, olive oil, and rosemary. Cut the bread into small pieces, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with rosemary. Put them under the broiler for two minutes and then turn them to broil on the other side. Use the croutons as a garnish for soups and salads.”
Chef Arlen Gargagliano is an entertaining expert, cooking teacher, and author of many cookbooks including The Hot Latin Diet: The Fast Track Plan to a Bombshell Body (Celebra Hardcover, 2008), which she co-authored with Dr. Manny Alvarez. Here are her top picks:
“Cilantro — fresh salsas, sofritos, soups and more. (NYC Chef Sue Torres makes a fabulous pesto from cilantro leaves — and roots!) Cilantro’s flavor is pungent, distinctive, and has what some have described as a slight touch of anise.
- Basil — salads (especially with tomatoes), tomato sauces, sandwiches. Sweet basil’s flavor is reminiscent of cloves and licorice.
- Parsley — the better question with parsley is what doesn’t it go in? Much less domineering than its aforementioned cousins, somewhat grassy, mild-flavored parsley works well with just about any dish, sauce, soup, stew — and even as a garnish. I prefer the slightly more flavorful flat leaf variety to curly.
- Mint — this is not just because mojitos, which require fabulous fresh mint leaves, are my cocktails of choice. Mint adds a distinct touch to many dishes — from salsas and appetizers to desserts. It marries well with stews and soups, also yogurt, and meat dishes, especially lamb.”
When asked what were essential spices no kitchen should be without, Food Alchemist and author of the book Living Beyond Organic: Nutritional Knowledge Redefined! (Tiara Publishing, 2009), Christina Avaness, offered a slightly different spin. She chose herbs that not only enhance the flavor of food, but they also enhance its nutritional value and aid in digestion:
- “Thyme — one of the most important because it helps weak digestion by boosting organ function. Plus it enhances the flavor all your recipes, especially tomato-based pasta sauces, and marinades for meat and fish.
- Fennel Powder — stimulates digestive acids and helps pH balance the small intestine to prevent gas and bloating. Plus it adds a mild sweet flavor to your sauces and marinades and I like to use it in salad dressing too.
- Elephant Garlic — an essential in my kitchen because it is mild and doesn’t disturb the delicate pH balance of the small intestine, thus avoiding indigestion. First and foremost, replace regular garlic. Although it is nature’s anti-bacterial, it can be too strong especially if used on a daily basis. It can cause bad breath, and it can cause an imbalance in the micro-flora of the small intestine. For delicious garlic flavor that enhances your cooking instead of overpowering it, try elephant garlic!”
Alamelu Vairavan is a chef, cooking instructor, and author of the book Healthy South Indian Cooking (Hippocrene Books, 2001, 2003), which she co-wrote with Dr. Patricia Marquardt. Her spice essential is one that many Americans are unfamiliar with — turmeric. This spice is native to India, and it comes from a plant in the ginger family. You’ve tasted turmeric if you’ve eaten Indian curry. You can add it to meats, vegetables, and rice to give them an Asian flavor.
There are so many herbs to choose from, don’t be afraid to experiment and find your own favorites. Just remember that it’s preferable to use fresh herbs rather than dried whenever possible so that you get the benefit of the color and the texture in addition to the flavor of the herb. If you do use dried herbs, be mindful of the fact that they are three to four time stronger than fresh, which means a little goes a long way.