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Six herbs can enhance your cooking and your health

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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As you consider your fall garden, think about adding herbs -- even if your garden is just some pots on the back porch. Herbs are great for adding flavor when cooking, and they also add nutrients to meals.

Gina Hill, nutrition associate professor and director of TCU's didactic program in dietetics, says adding herbs to everyday meals can lead to a variety of health benefits, from boosting the immune system to reducing the risk of disease. And adding nutritious seasoning to meals can reduce the urge to overuse table salt.

"When people season with herbs, they use less salt and other things that may be harmful if eaten in excessive amounts," Hill said.

So put down the saltshaker and head to the local nursery or grocery store. Hill says it's best to add fresh herbs at the end of meal preparation, as they can dry out if added too early. (If you're using dried herbs, they should be added earlier in the cooking process, as they can take longer to release flavor.)

Here are half a dozen to try.

Basil

What it's good for: Basil has antibacterial properties, which makes it an excellent additive to uncooked foods, Hill says. She suggests adding it to homemade salad dressings -- it can help kill bacteria that may be clinging to raw vegetables (though you should still wash them). Amy Goodson, registered dietitian at Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine, says basil can also reduce inflammation in the body.

What it's good in: Basil is great in the aforementioned salad dressings, but it's also found often in Mediterranean and Asian foods. Whip up a basil-based pesto sauce by processing the fresh leaves with olive oil and garlic, or make a Caprese salad with basil and slices of tomato and mozzarella.

Mint

What it's good for: Mint has been used as a digestive aid for a long time, most commonly in tea. "Mint has a long history of helping with digestion and settling a nervous stomach," Goodson says.

What it's good in: Mint tea is delicious -- as are mint mojitos. In cooking, it's commonly used in sauces that are paired with lamb.

Thyme

What it's good for: Goodson says thyme can inhibit bone resorption, a breakdown that can lead to osteoporosis. Hill says thyme is also antibacterial.

What it's good in: Thyme, while best known for its use in Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, is a tasty addition to soups and stews. It's also a great seasoning for beef -- add it to your favorite steak rub.

Cilantro

What it's good for: Cilantro is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, Hill says. "It can help people with arthritis, or swelling with their symptoms," she said. Goodson also notes that cilantro can be used as a digestive aid.

What it's good in: Cilantro is best known in the Lone Star State for its inclusion in Tex-Mex -- mix chopped cilantro with avocado, chopped tomato and lime juice and you have the makings of great guacamole. The herb is also commonly found in Indian and Chinese recipes.

Sage

What it's good for: A friend of forgetters, sage is commonly known as a memory enhancer, Hill says. "As people get older, they may find it's good to add to their teas," she said. Goodson notes that sage is also antimicrobial, which means that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria or viruses in the body.

What it's good in: Sage tastes great on poultry -- Goodson recommends laying whole sage leafs under chicken breasts before baking them. It's also great for seasoning bread -- sprinkle the fresh leaves in focaccia dough for a subtle Italian flavor. A simple sage-butter sauce is great with pasta like cheese tortellini.

Tarragon

What it's good for: Goodson singled out tarragon for its excellent digestive properties. "It promotes the production of bile from the liver, which aids in digestion," she said. Less scientifically, tarragon is said to calm nerves and fight off fatigue.

What it's good in: Tarragon is a great addition to vinegar and is often used for flavoring pickles, relishes and mustards. It can also be used as a salt substitute for people with high blood pressure.

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