Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Lifestyles

March 30, 2014

Growing and cooking with herbs

ASHLAND — We all want to eat food that tastes good. One of the most common ways we tend to make food taste good is by adding salt. Unfortunately, most American diets are too high in sodium.

Diets high in sodium can raise blood pressure, which can lead to many major health issues, including heart disease. Herbs provide a great way for us to limit our sodium intake while still consuming flavorful foods.

Herbs also are some of the easiest things to grow. The simplest way to start an herb garden is to buy plants and transfer them to a window box. Soon, farmers markets and garden centers will have plants on hand. You can also grow herbs from seed. Herbs need a lot of sun to grow, so make sure you plant them in an area that receives at least six hours of sunlight a day. Basil, sage, parsley, chives and rosemary will do well both indoors or outdoors as long as they have plenty of sun and protection from cold weather.

You can begin harvesting herbs once the plant has enough leaves to maintain growth. In early morning right before the dew dries, clip undamaged leaves that have a nice aroma. You can harvest annual herbs like sweet basil, dill and oregano until frost. Chives, mint, parsley and rosemary will grow for more than one season if they are protected from harsh cold. However, you should stop harvesting perennial and biennial herbs in late August, as the plants will need time to prepare for the winter.

Some herbs produce beautiful flowers, but if you plan to cook with herbs in your kitchen, harvest the leaves before the plant flowers. In addition, you can cut or pinch the flower buds back to prevent blooming. Once the plant flowers the leaves begin to lose their aromatic flavors.

Once harvested, store fresh herbs in your refrigerator or preserve them by drying or freezing. To keep washed herbs fresh for up to one month in the refrigerator, store them in an airtight container and include a folded damp paper towel.

By experimenting with different herb combinations, you can use less salt, experience unique flavors and still have delicious dishes. For best results, chop or mince herbs before cooking. Volatile oils are released when the leaves are bruised, which provides their unique flavors.

Heat increases the rate at which herbs release their flavors. For dishes that require longer cooking times, add delicate-flavored and ground herbs at the end, so their flavor will not escape. Some herbs, such as bay leaves, require longer cooking times. Herbs placed in a cheesecloth bag allow the flavors to extract during cooking, and the herbs can be easily removed before serving the dish. Add herbs several hours in advance or overnight to uncooked foods, such as salad dressings or marinades. This will allow the herbs to blend with the other ingredients.

Seasoning your dishes with herbs will allow you to serve delicious, nutritious meals to your family. For more information about growing and preparing herbs and other ways to provide nutritious family meals, contact Boyd County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

DEBBIE CLOUTHIER is extension associate for food and nutrition.

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