by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, Lincoln Land Community College
Staffing a farm stand on the campus of Lincoln Land Community College, I’ve learned that many people are intimidated by the thought of cooking with fresh herbs due to a lack of knowledge on how to use them. But with a few basic ideas for preparing, storing and cooking with herbs, you’ll discover a world of new flavors, and most likely, some health benefits along the way.
While it’s difficult to narrow down, three common and easy-to-use herbs include parsley, basil and cilantro. Most anything you make on a regular basis will pair with one of these three herbs, and they are all found consistently at farmers markets and grocery stores.
The scoop about parsley:
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe. The ancient Greeks adorned victors of athletic contests and decorated the tombs of the deceased with the herb. It is full of nutrients including vitamin K, C (more than an orange) and A, along with iron, folate and chlorophyll. Parsley is renowned as a cleansing herb and has long been used to freshen the breath.
Two varieties – flat and curly – are widely available. Chefs typically use the flat leaf version because it packs a punch of flavor while curly parsley offers more subtle flavors and may be more appropriate for beginners. After washing the herb, pick the leaves off the stem or chop the bunch. Parsley stores well in the refrigerator for up to three weeks if covered in a moist paper towel and placed in the crisper drawer.
Parsley is arguably the most versatile herb for cooking and works well with most other ingredients. Use parsley with fish, meat, vegetables, salad, rice, soups, stews, meatballs, pesto, sauces, marinades, bananas, coconuts, grapefruits, mangoes, pineapples and summer melons. Sprinkle fresh leaves on top of almost any finished dish.
The scoop about basil:
Basil appears to have originated in India, but after more than 5,000 years of cultivation has spread to food cultures across the globe. Long ago it was used for embalming and to give people strength for fasting, perhaps due to its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Basil also offers high quantities of vitamin K.
Due to basil’s sensitivity, wash and thoroughly dry immediately prior to use. It also bruises easily and therefore it’s best to chop at the last minute. To store basil, trim the stems as you would flowers and place in a glass jar, top with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for a week, maybe a little longer.
Add basil to your cooking at the end for optimal flavors. Basil loves tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, but also pairs with oregano, pasta, onions, chicken, eggs, pizza, green leaf salads, bell peppers, zucchini, apricots, berries, figs, peaches and plums.
The scoop about cilantro:
Coriander, sold in grocery stores as seeds or powder, comes from the cilantro plant, but contains a unique flavor, not to be used interchangeably. The preparation and storage of cilantro follows that of parsley – place in a damp paper towel in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, and wash immediately prior to use.
Widely used in ancient civilizations, cilantro is high in vitamins A, C and K, and contains significant amounts of antioxidants, known for preventing a wide range of illnesses and diseases. Cilantro has been found to combat lead and other heavy metal toxicity.
For about 10 percent of the population, cilantro projects a soapy taste. Cilantro, featured in cuisines such as Chinese, Indian, Southeast Asian, Mexican and other Latin American foods, has a culinary history dating back millennia. It has been said that cilantro begs to be used in abundance, with abandon, wildly. Cilantro is commonly used in spicy dishes, salsas, chiles, curries, salads, soups, chicken, fish, vinaigrette, apples, bananas, mangoes, pears and summer melons.
When cooking with cilantro, add it toward the end of cooking. The delicate nature of cilantro does not hold up to heat.
Sautéed Summer Squash with Parsley and Garlic
*1 small garlic clove, minced
*1 teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon juice
*4 yellow squashes and/or zucchini (8 ounces each), trimmed
*7 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
*Salt and pepper
*1 ½ tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Combine garlic and lemon juice in large bowl and set aside for at least 10 minutes. Using vegetable peeler, shave each squash lengthwise into ribbons. Alternatively, chop roughly.
Whisk 2 tablespoons oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and lemon zest into garlic mixture.
Heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add squash and cook, tossing occasionally with tongs, until squash has softened and is translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer squash to bowl with dressing, add 1 tablespoon parsley, and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving platter and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons parsley. Serve immediately.
Pesto Potato Salad with Green Beans
*4 pounds small Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes, quartered
*1 pound green beans, cut into one-inch segments
*1 to 2 small garlic cloves, peeled
*2 bunches of basil (about one ounce each)
*1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil
*6 tablespoons (or more to taste) mild vinegar, such as champagne, white wine or a white balsamic
*1/4 cup chopped green onions
*1/2 cup pine nuts or walnut pieces, toasted
*Parmesan cheese to taste
*Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook potatoes in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Add beans; cook four minutes longer. Drain well and let cool, then transfer potatoes and beans to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, discard the stems from the basil and wash and dry the leaves. Puree them in a food processor with garlic, drizzling in enough olive oil that it gets saucy. Season the pesto with salt and pepper.
Toss the beans and potatoes with pesto. Stir in vinegar, green onions, nuts and season with salt, pepper and additional vinegar to taste. Finally, shave parmesan over the salad with a vegetable peeler.
Serve immediately, or make this up to two hours in advance. It can be stored at room temperature.
*2 pounds of white fish fillets (corvina, halibut, sea bass, tilapia, mahi mahi, snapper), cut into small square pieces
*2-3 serrano hot peppers, sliced
*2-4 garlic cloves, whole but gently crushed
*2-3 small red onions, peeled and finely sliced
*4 tomatoes, diced
*2 bell peppers, any color, diced
*20 small to medium sized limes, separated into about 10 limes to cook the fish and 10 limes for the onion and tomato marinade
*1 bunch of cilantro, chopped finely
*2-3 tablespoon of oil
*Salt to taste
Place the diced raw fish in a large bowl or dish with the sliced hot peppers, garlic cloves, a tablespoon of chopped cilantro, 1-2 teaspoons of salt, and cover it with lime juice from about 10 limes, the fish should be completely covered or almost completely covered by the lime juice.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about 3-4 hours.
Place the sliced onions or shallots in a bowl, sprinkle them with a few teaspoons of salt and add warm water (enough to cover the onions), let rest for about 10 minutes, drain and rinse well with cold water.
Combine the rinsed onions with the diced tomatoes and diced bell peppers. Add the juice from about 5 limes and some salt. Let this mix marinate for at least 10 minutes, it can also be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated until ready to mix with the fish.
Once the fish is “cooked” in the lime juice, it should be completely white, remove the sliced hot peppers and garlic cloves. Based on your preference, and the acidity level, you can keep all the lime juice where the fish cooked in, or just some of it. You can strain the liquid to remove any pieces of hot peppers (or seeds) or garlic.
Add the marinated onion or shallot, tomato, and bell pepper mix to the fish. Add the chopped cilantro, oil, salt and additional lime juice to taste. You can serve immediately or let it rest for another 20-30 minutes before serving.