Judy Buss

Using herbs (and spices) is one of a number of exciting and effective strategies for cooking healthier cuisine as well as getting out of a culinary rut. Without a basic knowledge of these flavor heroes, you are probably — in desperation — reaching for the old standbys, such as butter, cheese, bacon, cream and sugar, or for lifeless, highly processed convenience food with artificial flavors and other health-busting chemicals.

Herbs are the edible and fragrant leaves of a wide range of plants that don’t have woody stems. They are widely available in a fresh or dried form. Some of the most common herbs are basil, bay leaf, cilantro, marjoram, mint, parsley, oregano, tarragon, rosemary and thyme. Italian seasoning is a combination of several herbs.

You don’t have to stock all of them in your kitchen. Having just a few at your disposal can transform boring and/or unhealthy dishes into delicious culinary experiences. Dried herbs have a stronger flavor than fresh ones; consequently, this must be taken into consideration when preparing a dish. Herbs that are stored for several months or longer lose some of their flavor; therefore it is best to buy them in small quantities so they are used up relatively quickly and replaced with a new batch.

Dried herbs should be stored in airtight containers and kept away from steaming food, or they will be ruined by moisture. Herbs (and spices) are not only flavor enhancers; they are also packed with powerful nutrients and medicinal agents.

Some herbs, such as basil, parsley, rosemary and oregano are easy and fun to grow in pots or in your garden. For basic growing information, check with an experienced friend or online. Take advantage of the vast selection of flavors that herbs have to offer, alone or in unlimited combinations. Explore the magical world of herbs. Your taste buds and body will thank you! Here are some hot weather recipes for you to try.

FISH SALAD IN TANGY TARRAGON DRESSING

2 servings

3/4 pound catfish or tilapia fillets

1 stalk celery, thinly sliced then finely chopped

1 tablespoon drained, finely chopped capers

¼ cup chopped parsley leaves, (about 4 sprigs)

DRESSING:

1 small clove garlic, finely grated

1 tablespoon dried tarragon

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse fish and place in large skillet skin-side-down. Wash hands. Add ¼-inch-deep water. The water should not cover the fish. Cover and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cook until fish is fork-tender at its thickest part, about 15 minutes. Remove from stove, drain, transfer to a plate and let cool. Meanwhile, in medium bowl, whisk together all dressing ingredients. When fish is done, add to dressing and break it up into small pieces with the edge of a spoon. Gently mix in celery, capers and parsley. Refrigerate in airtight container for 30 minutes before serving.

BLACK-EYED PEA SALAD

2 servings

2 cups cooked black eyed peas, drained

½ small, finely chopped sweet onion, (about 2/3 cup)

½ green bell pepper, seeded, finely chopped

1 small tomato, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped (from about 10 sprigs)

DRESSING:

2 limes, juiced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Mix in all the other ingredients. Refrigerate in an airtight container for 30 minutes before serving.

QUINOA-MINT SALAD

2 servings

1 cup uncooked quinoa

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt to taste

¾ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

½ cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves

Thoroughly rinse quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer to remove its bitter coating. Drain. In a medium saucepan place quinoa and 2 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, and cook slowly about 25 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed. Remove the quinoa from the stove and let cool. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix all the other ingredients. When the quinoa is done and somewhat cooled, combine it with the parsley mixture in the bowl. Refrigerate in an airtight container for one hour before serving.

Judy E. Buss is a syndicated food/health columnist, blogger for the American Holistic Health Association, nutritional cooking instructor and speaker.

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