Food & Drink

Fresh herbs can take your cooking to the next level

Not only are fresh herbs flavorful and healthy, they also add an extra dimension to recipes that make the dish come alive.

I often grow my own and find certain herbs such as basil, mint, chives, rosemary and thyme very easy to tend to. With adequate bright sun and watering when needed, growing your own herbs can be done on a windowsill or in your garden. For those who may not want to try your hand at growing your own, fresh herbs are abundant in every market these days.

Caring for herbs

Wash them right before using to preserve freshness. Store them refrigerated in a plastic bag or glass of water, stems down, similar to a bunch of flowers. This will keep your leafy herbs fresh as long as you keep the leaves dry.

Leafy herbs such as basil, parsley, cilantro, mint and dill can be kept for about five days. Drier herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage and tarragon can be stored in a plastic bag for a few weeks. Basil, cilantro and dill are especially sensitive to water and are best wrapped in a cloth or paper towel before storing.

Health properties of herbs

Herbs are very healing and contain anti-oxidants, aid in digestion and are packed with vitamins. For instance, fresh basil provides Vitamins D, K, C and omega-3 fatty acids. Holy basil contains eugenol, which is known to fight cancer.

Dried herbs, on the other hand, have about a third of the vitamins as fresh ones and often become stale and flavorless over time. I recommend you throw out dried herbs after a year or less.

How to use fresh herbs

I add herbs to almost all my dishes, especially when cooking quick, simple meals. They are wonderful in sauces, sautéed dishes, soups and salads. For an easy way to change the flavor of a dish, switch out an herb. Instead of Italian you have Indian. I especially love experimenting with blends of parsley, mint, chives or thyme, rosemary and basil.

Remember that herbs lose flavor and color when heated, so it’s best to add them in at the end of cooking or to add extra right before serving. I recommend snipping the leafy herbs with scissors or chiffonade to preserve their color and avoid turning them into a mush on the cutting board. Basil is very easily bruised and can be lightly torn if you prefer before adding to a recipe.

Amanda Cushman is a culinary instructor and food writer. She can be reached at chapelhillcookingclasses.com.

Wheat Berry Salad with

Parsley and Mint

This is a wonderful nutty, chewy grain salad that is delicious served warm or room temperature. You can substitute any of your favorite grains such as quinoa, brown rice, couscous or farro for the wheat berries. Wheat berries can be found in any health food or gourmet store. Developed by Amanda Cushman

1 cup wheat berries

2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons mint, chiffonade

3 scallions, all the white and half the green, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 teaspoon cumin

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Place the wheat berries in a small saucepan and cover with cold water by about 3 inches, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to medium, simmer until tender about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and transfer to a medium bowl.

Combine the feta, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.

Add the chopped parsley, mint, scallions, garlic, pine nuts, cumin, lemon juice, remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to the cooked wheat berries. Toss well and adjust seasoning. Transfer the salad to a medium serving bowl and garnish with the marinated feta.

Yield: 4 servings

Provence Chicken Thighs

with Herb Wine Sauce

This is an easy and elegant dish that can be made with other proteins, such as chicken breast or pork tenderloin. Using four herbs gives it plenty of flavor. Any herb works with chicken, so feel free to use tarragon, dill, cilantro or chives, if you prefer. For a gluten-free option, switch to brown rice flour. Developed by Amanda Cushman

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 large shallot, minced

1 tablespoon thyme, chopped

2 teaspoons rosemary, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

Salt and fresh pepper, to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped, garnish

5 leaves basil, chiffonade, garnish

Combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the chicken, wine, shallot, thyme, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper in a medium bowl and marinate at least 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a medium high-sided skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, reserving the marinade, and saute 4 minutes on each side, seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. Sprinkle with the flour and add the reserved marinade and chicken broth. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pan. Simmer until thighs are done about 10 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a plate and cover to keep warm. Increase the heat to medium and reduce the sauce by about half.

Pour the sauce over the chicken and garnish with the parsley and basil.

Yield: 4 servings

Cucumber Salad with Dill

This quick and refreshing salad is an old-fashioned favorite and can be served with a grilled leg of lamb or chicken kebobs. Adding thinly sliced red and yellow peppers or fresh mint would also work well. Developed by Amanda Cushman

2 English cucumbers, halved lengthwise, seeded, cut thinly on the diagonal

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt

3 tablespoons chopped or snipped dill

Combine the ingredients in a medium bowl and marinate for an hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Yield: 4 servings

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