fresh herb garden

The Mediterranean Diet—largely plant-based, abundant in fruits, vegetables and legumes, high in omega-3 fats, low in meat and saturated fats—is considered one of the healthiest diets on the planet. Of course, eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to skimp on flavor. Striking a balance between flavor and health is a hallmark of the Mediterranean Diet. And, herbs, with their enticing aroma, taste, freshness and overall versatility, may just be that unifying ingredient. Technically, herbs are the leaves of the plant, while spices come from the roots, bark, and seeds.

When Oldways updated the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 2008, the group of scientists who met made the recommendation (among others) that herbs and spices be added to it. Their reasoning? First, herbs and spices give regional expression to Mediterranean cooking. In other words, herbs and spices can make a dish Greek or Turkish or Italian, depending upon the herbs and spices used. Furthermore, using herbs and spices can also reduce the need for a lot of added salt. 

Common herbs found throughout the Mediterranean include: basil, bay leaf (aka laurel leaf), chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, fenugreek, lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano (Italian, Greek), parsley, rosemary, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon and thyme. There’s definitely an herb out there to suit everyone’s taste.

Like fruits and vegetables, herbs contain protective polyphenols, plant compounds with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Herbs also add layers of flavor to any dish, and are a healthy way to season foods besides just relying on salt. If you’re trying to improve your blood pressure and embrace a heart-healthy diet, fresh herbs are a fantastic ingredient to explore.

Herbs serve as the foundation for of a variety of sauces in the Mediterranean: Moroccan chermoula is a bright, garlicky,


cilantro-parsley herb sauce, often used as a marinade but also as an accompaniment to grilled fish and seafood. Yemeni schug (zhoug) is a fiery (chile-based), garlicky, herbaceous sauce of parsley and cilantro, lemon juice and spices, often served with falafel and shawarma. Another classic herb sauce is Italian gremolata, comprised of chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic. Similarly, persillade is a French sauce of parsley, garlic, and vinegar. Dill is a primary ingredient in tzatziki, Greece’s well-known cucumber and yogurt sauce.

A bouquet garni (French), a bundle of herbs, is an easy way to enhance casseroles, stocks, sauces and soups. It usually contains parsley (or parsley stalks, which have lots of flavor), a few sprigs of thyme, and a bay leaf. Similarly, fines herbes is a delicately flavored blend of parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil, best used with lighter dishes such as fish, eggs, or vegetables and often added at the end of cooking to preserve its light, fresh flavor. 

Herbs will certainly improve a humble pot of beans. Giant white beans known as gigantesis, a Greek staple, are oven-baked with tomatoes, a good amount of olive oil, oregano, and plenty of dill. White beans and rosemary are tailor-made for one another. Any number of herbs (e.g., rosemary, parsley, thyme) will add a fresh element when stuffed into the cavity of a whole fish prior to grilling or roasting it. Grilling cubes of lamb (or goat) on rosemary skewers over an open fire will impart a pleasant earthy, woodsy flavor. Or you can keep it super simple by adding fresh herbs to a vinaigrette, anything from thyme to tarragon to chives, which is sure to enliven your garden salad.

Knowing when to add fresh herbs during the cooking process depends on the herb. Robust herbs such as bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, and savory can be used in longer-simmering dishes. Gently bruise the leaves with your fingers before dropping them in to release more oils and increase flavor. More delicate herbs like basil, cilantro, and parsley should be added at the end of the cooking process.

Although fresh herbs possess a softer, brighter flavor, don’t write off dried herbs. Dried herbs offer a longer shelf life than their fresh counterparts. Moreover, the drying process actually concentrates their polyphenols and flavor. Accordingly, as a rule of thumb, when substituting dried herbs for fresh, you’ll want to cut the amount by one-third. 

12 Great Ways to Use Fresh Herbs

Consider supplementing your current collection with the following versatile dried herb blends:

Herbes de Provence, an essential component of French and Mediterranean cooking, is a mixture of dried herbs (typically, savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sometimes lavender) that adds a distinctive flavor to dishes such as chicken, roasted vegetables, grilled fish and meat, salads, soups and stews like ratatouille.

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern seasoning blend of herbs, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. Interesting tidbit, za’atar is also the name for an herb that grows in the Middle East; it is referred to as Middle Eastern oregano, wild thyme, hyssop or simply za’atar. Traditionally, a za’atar blend was made from the plant of the same name. By comparison, today’s za’atar blends are comprised of herbs like sumac, oregano, marjoram, and thyme—and actually don’t contain any of the “real” za’atar herb. An effortless way to enjoy za’atar is to mix it with extra virgin olive oil and then dunk a piece of crusty bread into it. Divine! Za’atar is used as a topping for a Lebanese flatbread known as man’oushe. It’s great with roasted vegetables, as a seasoning for roast chicken, a rub for fish, sprinkled over Greek yogurt or labneh, as a dip, tossed with popcorn, etc.

Pick one recipe or one herb or herb blend at a time, and you’ll be surprised just how quickly your dried herb assortment can grow. For an easy way to keep fresh herbs at your finger tips, consider growing fresh herbs in containers on your porch, in your garden, or on your countertop. This time of year, you can find potted herb plants at garden stores, farmers markets, or even in the produce section of some supermarkets—and often at the same price as a small bunch of fresh herbs. The aroma will instantly transport you to the Mediterranean!  

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