Something Green Part 4 - Healthy Herbs
When I told Mike, my husband that I was going to be doing a blog post on green herbs his comment was “Aren’t all herbs green?” always one with the wise cracks.
Well yes of course they are green, and that is one of the reasons why herbs are so beneficial for our health. They all contain chlorophyll but besides that they are also rich in phyto-chemicals. These are the beneficial plant chemicals that make herbs so potent and why they have been used in herbal medicine.
These phyto-chemicals also make herbs useful as anti-oxidants, they help to prevent cells from getting damaged due to oxidative stress. While almost all herbs are used medicinally some lend themselves more to being used in the kitchen, it is some of these herbs that I would like to highlight.
Culinary herbs take ordinary meals to new heights of flavour and with added health benefits. I have always enjoyed growing my own herbs and adding them into my cooking. It is well worth trying to grow a few of your favourites and having them on hand to add to your cooking. I make sure I grow them close to the kitchen so I have easy access to them. Herbs are fairly tough, find the right spot and they will grow well. They don’t require too much water. If you cannot grow your own vegetables at least try to grow your own herbs, it can be very rewarding. Below are a few of my favourites.
What would summer be without basil, this herb has a strong association with Italian food. But basil originally came from India, here the herb is known as Holy Basil or Tulsi and is a slightly different plant to the sweet basil we are more familiar with.
Basil is rich in minerals and has been traditionally used to calm both the digestive and nervous systems. It is a strong pungent herb and because of this works well alone, that is why pesto is such a success. If you every wondered why Italians have the reputation for being good lovers it may be because of the amount of basil in their diet. Basil has been thought to improve libido!
Like tomatoes basil grows best in the hot summer sun and the two are a match made in heaven. The simple summer salad of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil is a classic that never fails. Heirloom tomato salad. More surprisingly delicious is adding fresh basil with coriander to Thai green curries.
Coriander is sometimes referred to as Cilantro which is the name given to the leaves of the coriander plant. It is one of the most ancient herbs and has made it’s way into the food of almost every country but seems to have a particular strong affinity to Mexican, Indian, Asian and North African food. Somehow it works best with chilli and spices, calming down the heat. Not surprising then that medicinally the leaves have been used for their cooling and diuretic effect.
Rich in vitamin A and K and the minerals potassium, calcium and magnesium. One of the most popular health benefits of coriander leaves is to help for heavy metal detoxification. Along with parsley and celery it can also assist keeping the urinary tract system stay healthy.
I love adding it to Mexican salsa (avocado, tomato, spring onions and coriander)
When I make a rich Indian curry I make a little chopped raw salad with cucumber, fennel, carrot and coriander to serve on the side.
It always seems to be a contradiction how in Cape Town a herb that is so cooling and refreshing grows best in winter! Every summer I struggle to keep my mint going. It seems to love a cool moist spot to grow. That doesn’t happen in hot windy Hout Bay. As soon as winter arrives my mint comes back to life with a vengeance. Because it grows so aggressively it has spread across the world.
Maybe less commonly added to food because of its strong flavour. It is the volatile oil of menthol that is present in mint that gives the sensation of coolness. I love adding mint into drinks both in summer and winter. It is a wonderful stomach tonic, not only is it stimulating and cleansing it can also be calming and helps stomach aches and spasms, that is why in many counties mint tea is served after a meal. In winter I have it in hot water with ginger and in summer I add it to my water with slices of cucumber.
Recipe Tip: One of my favourite afternoon drinks is blending peeled cucumber, aloe juice, lime/lemon and mint together. This is a beautiful skin hydrating and cleansing drink which I have as an afternoon pick me up.
Peppermint essential oil is one of the oils I always travel with: calming, cooling, uplifting and great for headaches.
I grew up with a mother who used to bring home big bunches of curly parsley and chop it all up finely and put it into little bags in the freezer to always have on hand. Parsley was the one herb that my mother used in abundance and still does. It is a tough herb and grows wild in the Mediterranean, it’s leaves are easily confused with carrot tops and celery, that is because they come from the same family.
It’s high chlorophyll content helps to get rid of bad breath and of course has been chewed after eating garlic to get rid of the strong smell. One of parsleys real health benefits is as a diuretic. Used with celery it helps to prevent kidney stones and bladder infections. Also rich in vitamin C and iron makes it a great combination to prevent anaemia.
For me parsley is a herb I always grow because it helps to bring out the flavour of other herbs. I add it in when slowly sautéing onions, carrots and celery. But I also like to add it into the end of cooking when the dish has lots of garlic.
One of my favourite uses of parsley is as the base for salsa verde, I have two versions. Both use a lot more parsley than the other herbs.
Version 1 - fresh parsley, oregano, rosemary chopped up finely with 1 clove of garlic, chilli (optional) 2 anchovy fillets, black pepper and olive oil.
Goes well with grilled oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and snoek or with grilled vegetables.
Version 2 - fresh parsley, mint/basil, chives chopped up finely with zest of a lemon, juice of half a lemon, salt, black pepper and olive oil.
Delicious to glam up steamed vegetables or grilled chicken
NETTLE or STINGING NETTLE
While nettle is often seen as a weed because it grows wild it is in fact a very useful medicinal herb. And while maybe not typically used in cooking I love the fact that I can forage for it wild in winter as it just appears in my garden without any effort from me.
Although traditionally a spring weed I find in the Cape it tends to come up in late autumn and early winter. It naturally grows in the more temperate regions of Scandinavia, Scotland and Germany.
But be careful when coming across nettle as there is a reason why it is called stinging nettle, handle with care when fresh. But when you cook it the stinging little hairs disappear. Happily eaten by chickens, goats, cows and horses they must know something.
Nettle has traditionally been used to help with any skin irritations caused by eczema or allergies, it can help relieve the itch. Ironic considering that the plant can be so irritating! Sometimes an outbreak of hives is caused by someone irritating you and nothing brings more relief than nettle tea.
It has a cleansing action on the liver and is a natural diuretic. It helps to cleanse the blood and get rid of excess uric acid it was traditionally used to provide some relief from gout. Nettle is also rich in the mineral silica and calcium and has traditionally been used in Europe for improving the strength of hair, nails and bones.
I love to make a cleansing winter soup with fresh nettle I even came across some at OZCF a whole bag for R15! I love a bargain.
There are other herbs which also should be mentioned like rosemary, oregano and thyme and then there is fresh bayleaf so much better than the dried form. I love my potted herb garden and the spontaneity they provide to my cooking.
Don’t be afraid of exploring using herbs, with experience you become more attune to what combinations work best and which herbs work well with different foods. Don’t give up on a recipe if you cannot find one of the herbs suggested just leave it out or add in something similar.
Playing with herbs is great fun and I encourage you to explore the wonderful world of growing and cooking with these very special plants.
NB Any herb that has a diuretic action should be used with caution with any medication.