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.
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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