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A Guide to Cooking With Herbs

Perhaps the most difficult thing about cooking with herbs is figuring out how to pronounce the word. Is it "herb," like the guy next door? Or is it "erb," with a silent "h"? 

Good news: Either pronunciation is acceptable, according to Webster. So now that we've got that out of the way, let's concentrate on what herbs can add to our cooking: in a word, flavor.

But even more important is what they don't add: fat and sodium. Herbs are an excellent way to replace the flavor when you remove fat and excess salt from your food.

If you're just getting started with herbs, go at it gradually. Experiment with one or two herbs at a time. For freshness, purchase herbs that have been newly dried, and buy in small amounts.

This brings up another vexing point: What's the difference between a (or an) herb and a spice? Herbs are spices that grow directly from the ground. Examples are mint, thyme, basil, and sage. Spices that grow on trees are not considered herbs. Cinnamon and nutmeg are two examples.

Gourmet chefs prefer fresh herbs over dried, but both have their advantages. Fresh ones have better texture and appearance, but dried ones are generally more convenient and produce stronger flavor. A tablespoon of dried herbs produces roughly the same amount of flavor as a handful of fresh herbs.

Suggestions for starting with herbs:

  • Be sure to wash them well and pat them dry.

  • Remove any leaves from woody stems. The stems carry much aroma, but the leaves are what you usually use. 

  • If a dish requires a long time to cook, consider adding the herbs toward the end of cooking.

  • Avoid using too many herbs at one time.

While there are hundreds of herbs you can experiment with, you will most likely want to focus on the kitchen herbs most commonly called for in recipes. Here's a list to get you started:

  • Basil. Adds flavor to any tomato dish. Also good in omelets and salads. Try it with poultry and fish, as well.

  • Chives. Chop leaves and add to salads, and egg, cheese, or potato dishes.

  • Cilantro. This herb has a unique taste often associated with Mexican foods. Use leaves in salads, in soups such as gazpacho, or in many Mexican or Thai dishes. Use dry seeds to sprinkle on cakes or sweet dishes.

  • Dill. The standard flavoring for pickles, dill also goes surprisingly well with fish, poultry, souffles, omelets, and potatoes.

  • Marjoram. Sprinkle leaves over lean meats before roasting or add to soups, stuffing, and egg and cheese dishes.

  • Mint. Great in Mediterranean dishes. Or, try it with carrots, fruit salads, and especially in iced tea.

  • Oregano. A staple in Italian and Mexican recipes, oregano is especially useful in meat and tomato sauces. Good on marinated vegetables, beans, and mushrooms.

  • Parsley. These leaves will liven up salads, soups, omelets, and potato and onion dishes. Parsley also helps freshen breath.

  • Rosemary. Insert a sprig into lean meat or poultry before roasting. Sprinkle chopped leaves sparingly in soups, stews, vegetables, and especially on green beans.

  • Sage. Use sparingly with poultry, cheese dishes, and omelets.

  • Savory. Comes in two varieties according to season. Summer savory has a more delicate flavor than winter savory. Use with beans, with fish, or in stuffing.

  • French tarragon. Great in sauces for poultry or fish. Good with soups and in salads.

Here's a simple recipe for a high-nutrition, low-fat chicken dish that can be surprisingly delicious thanks to the addition of a small amount of thyme, from your garden or from the store.

Zesty grilled chicken breasts with thyme

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half

2 teaspoons Dijon-type mustard

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 sprigs fresh thyme, about 1/4 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon horseradish (optional)

Combine all the ingredients except chicken in a bowl or container large enough to accommodate the chicken breasts. Coat the chicken breasts with the mixture and let stand at least 15 minutes. Grill (or broil) approximately 5 minutes per side, or until chicken is cooked through.

Note: Try substituting fresh oregano for the thyme. Or if you like a bit of a crust, roll in unseasoned bread crumbs before grilling. Or sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Serves four. Each serving contains about 142 calories, 27 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat.