Thursday, July 28, 2011

Herbalicious

Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.”  He wasn’t speaking solely of herbs, but they formed a major part of his pharmacological studies.  Herbalism began its culinary career in ancient times as remedy for common food-borne pathogens.  The hotter, more tropical the climate, the stronger the herbs and spices used to counter the higher incidence of food-borne illness.  Herbaceous properties include antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, anti-depressant, and antimicrobial.  Some herbs aid digestion, some ease insomnia, and herbs are used topically for their “drawing” ability, and others for burn-soothing qualities.  Summer, when annual herbs mature and perennials are at their peak, has some of the year’s best cuisine simply due to herbal additions.

Recent culinary trends have brought a wide variety of fresh herbs  into grocery stores.  Depending on where you live in relation to the supplying source, your options may only be those little plastic packages of herbs which, price per ounce, can be very expensive.  Farmers markets offer tremendous savings on herbs – they sell them in greater quantities, at lower prices, without plastic wrapping, and are a very thrifty option.  We live in a desert, though, so many herbs aren’t grown locally.  However, our Farmers Markets does exchange products  with other markets in the region, so there are opportunities to buy fresh herbs when seasonal in neighbouring farm areas.  Some of the annual herbs like parsley, cilantro, and garlic can be found in most stores, in any season, generally in reasonable quantities and at fair prices.  These common herbs add plenty of flavour and food value but, if you’re looking for more variety and peak freshness, you might try growing your own.  Herbs are particularly susceptible to losing phytochemical values once picked, so it’s best to eat them soon after harvesting.

Summer need not be the only season when you have access to a thrifty source of good quality herbs.  Perennials like bay, lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage tarragon, and thyme make attractive and fragrant houseplants, though they’ll need special care and climate control – much like any houseplant would.  Annuals like arugula, basil, chervil, cilantro, dill, garlic and savoury, can also be grown indoors and make a eye-catching additions to any kitchen where they’re handy for quick pruning.  Most herbs require good drainage so you’ll want to choose containers with that in mind.  Some herbs need full sun for long hours and that’s just not possible in northern climes, or in homes with limited or north-facing windows.  Grow-lights can help you sustain both perennial and annual herbs, even through the darkest winter months, and their cost of operation is negligible when you figure in the savings and health benefits you realize with a year-round supply of fresh herbs.

At some point you’ll either have to harvest your annual plants, or prune back the perennials.  It’s good to be prepared, have all the supplies you’ll need at the ready, and a warm, dry, well-ventilated space available.  If you don’t have space for air-drying, you might consider other methods like freezer-, oven- or microwave-drying.  A dehydrator works best for soft-leaf herbs like basil and sage.  I’ve read conflicting opinions on how much, if any, of the essential oils are retained after drying.  However, there’s no argument where taste is concerned:  hands-down, all accounts stated the home-dried herbs had greater flavour than the store-bought counter-part.  Since it’s the essential oils providing the flavour, colour, and odour of dried herbs, those taste-tests tell me essential oils are retained, and the home-dried herbs, lacking the warehouse “aging,” had retained more because they were used sooner.

Summer is definitely an herbal  season.  If you’re planning to grow herbs indoors, now is the time to buy seed, while it’s still available. If you’re using natural foods as beauty products, the summer months offers a wide variety of herbs (and other plants) that work best when seasonally fresh.  If you’re growing herbs in the garden, they’ll not only provide you with healthful additions to summer cuisine, they’ll also help control pests in the vegetable patch.  Summer, known for food-bourne stomach upset, is a good time to take a page from history and dose meals with plenty of herbs and spices to give the stomach some delicious defence...or relief, as the case may be.  To quote Hippocrates again, “Leave your drugs in the chemist's pot if you can heal the patient with food.”  If any food can do that, herbs surely can!  And they’re much tastier.  So tasty its possible to reduce or eliminate the use of high-risk flavourings (e.g. mayonnaise or cream-based dressings)  by substituting herb and heart-healthy oil mixtures, instead.

How about you:  are your summers herbalicious?  Do you grow herbs indoors, outdoors, neither or both?  Which herbs do you use for their healthful properties?  If you had to choose only one herb for the rest of your days, which ONE would you choose?  If you’re a herb-lover like me and Hippocrates, that last one  is just too nasty to ponder!