Cooking with Herbs


Every Labor Day Weekend, Bennington comes alive with enthusiasm for garlic and herbs at the Southern Vermont Garlic & Herb Festival. More than 20,000 are drawn to the event to experience all of the many ways to use garlic and herbs. With good reason. Herbs are a tremendous way to boost flavor without extra salt or fat, ingredients that can become harmful to our health in the long term.

Our favorite thing about herbs is just how versatile and forgiving they are. You can use them to enhance your favorite dishes or learn new herb-rich recipes that can invigorate your entire menu. Best of all, the recipes are easy and, like the herbs themselves, can be used in lots of different ways.

Spice up your favorites. The first step in using more flavorful herbs is taking a look at your current menu. Many families rely on grilled chicken, and there are so many ways to enhance chicken with herbs. In fact, Southwestern Chicken is one of our most popular healthy entrees at the hospital’s Putnam Café. It is super easy to turn plain grilled chicken into Southwestern Chicken by rubbing it with dried cumin, coriander, cilantro, and chili powder or any combination of these that appeals to you. Similarly, rubbing a chicken with dried basil and oregano turns it into Italian Chicken. Rosemary, thyme, and sage is another great combination. You’ll notice a big improvement right away with little effort.

Low-sodium tomato soup is a quick and easy addition to a meal. Tearing fresh basil leaves into it as it heats add a lot of flavor. Try making a meal of tomato-basil soup by adding spinach leaves, poaching an egg in the hot soup, garnishing with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, and serving with a slice of whole grain toast. There is nothing easier or more delicious.

New recipes. Once you’ve seen how big a difference herbs can make on your ordinary menu, you may be interested in learning some new herb-rich recipes. Among the most famous is Italian pesto. Traditionally, pesto was made with fresh basil, olive oil, pine nuts (which are very expensive), garlic, parmesan, and a little salt. You put it all in a blender or food processor, and voila, it’s a tasty sauce for just about anything.

While you can try a traditional pesto recipe, you can also do a lot of substituting—broccoli for basil and almonds for pine nuts, for instance—and even leave out the cheese for a vegan version. Just about any fresh green and any nut or seed will work. Experiment with amounts and combinations to find one that fits your taste buds and your budget. Then, you can put it on all sorts of foods: whole wheat pasta, chicken, fish, and almost anything else!

Hummus is a Mediterranean dish made with chickpeas, plenty of garlic, sesame seed paste, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. What’s special about hummus is all of the tasty things you can add to it. Olives, roasted peppers, artichokes, sundried tomatoes… You don’t have to look very far to find ideas for more creative additions like pumpkin or even apples. And like pesto, you can substitute other types of beans and nut butters until you find a recipe you like.

Hummus is typically used to dip fresh vegetables or whole grain bread. It can be used as a nutrition-packed and delicious sandwich spread, too.

Too easy not to try. Among the easiest ways to incorporate more healthy and flavorful herbs into your diet is in salads. Try tearing fresh basil or sage leaves into your salad. The flavor boost will encourage you to dress the salad with a light and healthy combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, rather than a heavy often-sugar-laden bottled salad dressing.

For a refreshing drink, put a few sprigs of fresh herbs in iced water with your favorite fruit or vegetables, like lemon, strawberries, or cucumber. Leave it in the refrigerator for an hour before serving, and you will have a beautiful and delicious infused water.

This Labor Day weekend and all year, enjoy garlic and herbs. They contribute excitement to almost every dish, while increasing the foods’ nutritional value. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Kristin Irace RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.