Spice Up Health: Using Herbs for Flavor and MedicineAug 31, 2020 ● By April Thompson
Herbs add lush flavor to all kinds of dishes, and they are culinary friends that bring the benefits of helping to restore and maintain health. “Food is medicine, and herbs bring out the medicinal properties of food,” says Kami McBride, of Sebastopol, California, author of The Herbal Kitchen: Bring Lasting Health to You and Your Family with 50 Easy-to-Find Common Herbs and Over 250 Recipes. “The spice rack is a relic from another time when we knew how to use herbs and spices to optimize health and to digest our food.”
To get a medicinal dose of an herb, consider making teas, vinegar extracts or pestos, says Brittany Wood Nickerson, the Conway, Massachusetts, author of The Herbalist’s Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being. “Parsley, for example, is a nutrient- and vitamin-rich herb. If you garnish with parsley, you won’t get a significant amount of vitamin C, as you would if you make a pesto from it.”
Salads can also pack a healthy dose of herbs into a meal, says Martha’s Vineyard resident Holly Bellebuono, an herbalist and author of The Healing Kitchen: Cooking with Nourishing Herbs for Health, Wellness, and Vitality. “So many herbs, including violets, mints and red clover, can just be tossed fresh into a salad, offering both fiber and minerals.”
Vinegars are one of Bellebuono’s go-to methods to incorporate herbs into a diet, infusing fresh or dried herbs into red wine or apple cider vinegar for salad dressings and other uses. “Vinegar is great at extracting minerals from herbs and making them more bioavailable,” she says.
Drying herbs does not diminish their medicinal properties, but rather concentrates their essence, as it removes excess water, according to Bellebuono. “Dried and powdered herbs are a great way to preserve the garden harvest and add herbs into everyday dishes. You can throw a teaspoon of turmeric, a wonderful anti-inflammatory herb, in spaghetti sauce or oatmeal, and you won’t even notice it,” she says.
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While Mediterranean herbs like oregano and basil are often at the front of the spice rack, Nickerson also suggests lesser-used herbs such as sour sumac, anise-accented tarragon and versatile, yet often discarded orange peels, which can be added to soups along with fennel seed and bay leaves for a complex flavor. Thyme is another of Nickerson’s favorites, a hearty herb for fall dishes that’s also a powerful antifungal and aids with digestion, lung health and detoxification.
While some may think of parsley as a garnish, “It offers incredible freshness and livens up almost anything,” says Nickerson. “I use it as a vegetable and make a salad of its leaves or add handfuls of it into a quiche. Parsley is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and has detoxification properties.” Adding it near the end of cooking maintains its vibrant flavor and color, she notes.
McBride loves versatile herbs like mint and coriander that can be used in sweet and savory dishes with antimicrobial properties that help fight colds and flu. She also keeps salt shakers on the table filled with spices like cardamom, an antibacterial, anti-spasmotic and expectorant, to sprinkle onto beverages and dishes. Bellebuono also recommends infusing honey with herbs such as sage or oregano that support the immune system.
All herbs, whether leafy, green culinary herbs or spices like coriander and clove, are carminative, meaning they help digest food, McBride says. “Digestion can use up to 40 percent of your day’s energy, which is why you often get a nap attack after a big meal. Every meal needs a carminative, even if it’s just black pepper, which is one of the problems with most fast food.”
Pungent and bitter herbs, in particular, support digestion and absorption of nutrients and make them more bioavailable, says Nickerson: “Activating the taste buds dedicated to sensing bitter stimulates the digestive system.” A salad of bitter greens, for example, can help prepare digestion of a heavier meal to come, whereas a post-meal aperitif can help with digesting the food afterward.
“It absolutely adds up when you add small doses of herbs to your meals every day,” McBride advises. “Many Americans suffer from gastrointestinal inflammation from modern diets and lifestyles, and herbs can help reverse that. Your gut gets a little healing every day.”
April Thompson is a Washington, D.C., freelance writer.
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