Kitchen Herbs That Heal

Your herb drawer is a genuine apothecary. Here's why.
By Cheryl Myers

There’s nothing like cultivating your own culinary herbs to make you feel like a great cook. Maybe it’s the pride associated with growing your own ingredients or the way fresh herbs give recipes such a clean punch of flavor. But culinary herbs, like oregano, parsley, and cilantro, make food healthier, too, by upping recipes’ flavor profiles and reducing the need for butter, oil, sugar, or sodium.

Studies show herbs improve digestion, relieve gas and bloating, and stimulate circulation, helping alleviate headaches, premenstrual cramping, sexual dysfunction, and high blood pressure. What’s more, some herbs are diaphoretic, meaning they promote sweating, which can help break fevers. Many culinary herbs are also high in antioxidants, explains herbalist Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.

In the days before refrigeration, humans found that food sprinkled with herbs wouldn’t spoil as quickly. Herbs’ essential oils are naturally antimicrobial, protecting food from troublesome bacteria and helping the immune system battle bacteria, viruses, and food-borne illness. “Flavoring was an incidental benefit of preservation,” says Michael Castleman, author of The New Healing Herbs (Rodale, 2009).

So fill your diet with these four flavor-packed herbs—your body will be glad you did.

Easy to grow but expensive to buy, pungent, sweet basil is a mainstay in the world’s most flavorful gastronomy, including Thai and Italian—the name basil is even derived from the Greek word for royal. A great source of vitamins A, C, and K, calcium, iron, and potassium, this mint-family herb can be used to treat digestive problems, poor circulation, kidney ailments, headaches, and inflammation. Additionally, recent studies have shown that basil’s water-soluble flavonoids, orientin and vicenin, can prevent free-radical damage in cells, helping reduce cancer risk.

Try it: Make a simple bruschetta. Combine 3/4 cup roughly chopped basil, 2 pounds chopped heirloom tomatoes, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar, 2 diced garlic cloves, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread over sliced, toasted French bread, and top with shredded Parmesan cheese.

Also known as coriander or Chinese parsley, cilantro is one of the more polarizing herbs—some people liken its taste and smell to soap. Others adore the sharp, distinct flavor cilantro lends to recipes, many of which hail from Latin America, India, and Asia. Cilantro is an excellent source of beta-carotene and fiber and can be used to improve bad moods, freshen breath, and aid digestion. Recent studies show the herb also helps lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar. Herbalists rely on it as a natural chelation agent, meaning it binds to heavy metals, like iron and mercury, and helps flush them out of the body.

Try it: Use whole leaves to garnish tacos, fajitas, or tortilla soup. Or make a unique pesto: Process 1 bunch chopped cilantro, 1/4 cup chopped red onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup pine nuts, and salt and pepper until smooth. Serve over warm whole-wheat pasta.

This minty garnish often decorates the side of your dinner plate: Nibble on a little for its chlorophyll-supplied breath-freshening qualities. But parsley has more to offer than fresh breath. The herb is also high in beta-carotene, which is great for vision. Herbalists recommend parsley to soothe digestive problems, like gas and bloating. Its diuretic qualities also make it an excellent treatment for high blood pressure and the bloated feeling associated with premenstrual syndrome. And, according to Castleman, parsley inhibits the secretion of histamine, making it an effective remedy for seasonal allergies.
Try it: Make homemade tabbouleh by combining 1 chopped bunch parsley leaves, 2 cups cooked bulgur, 1 chopped medium tomato, 1/2 chopped onion, juice from 1 lemon, 1/2 cup olive oil, and 1/2 cup chopped mint. Serve cold.

Pungent and savory, rosemary has been used for centuries to enhance memory. In ancient Greece, scholars wore laurels of rosemary while preparing for exams, and in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia famously says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” But while there aren’t any studies to back up its ancient memory-enhancement claim, rosemary does have powerful potential: A recent study found its preservative capacity equals that of synthetic commercial food preservatives BHA and BHT. Rosemary’s antioxidant qualities also help prevent infections, says Castleman, who recommends pressing the leaves onto minor cuts. And if consumed over a lifetime, the herb may reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, Upton says.

Try it: Mix the herb into raw meat before your next barbecue to prevent spoilage. For a healthy take on garlic bread, sprinkle a few tablespoons of fresh, chopped rosemary leaves onto bread, along with crushed garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake at 325 degrees until edges are golden brown.

How to Store Herbs
Have more herbs than you can use? Don’t let them go to waste. Rinse with cold water and pat dry with a paper towel.

Dry low-moisture herbs like oregano, rosemary, and thyme. Bundle a few branches together, tie with a rubber band, and hang upside down in a dark, warm room for a couple weeks. Or place branches on a cookie sheet and bake in a 95-degree oven until dry. When dry, store in freezer bags or ceramic containers. To retain flavor, wait to chop or crush leaves until you’re ready to use them.

Freeze high-moisture herbs like basil and mint. Spread individual leaves on a cookie sheet, freeze them, place them in an airtight container, and then store the container in the freezer. Or place leaves in an ice-cube tray and fill halfway with water. Freeze, then top off the tray with water. Use these herbal ice cubes when cooking soups and stews.

Tip: You can also puree basil and olive oil and freeze the mixture in an ice-cube tray.