Cooking with herbs: Part 2

Cooking with fresh herbs is an easy and inexpensive way to make bland dishes come to life with vibrant flavors.

Ah summer, the time when fresh produce and herbs abound in Michigan. As the great culinary dishes of the season are conjured up in the kitchen, the smell of fresh basil being used in a dish simply tantalizes the taste buds. As a relative to peppermint, this herb is often combined with tomatoes, pasta sauces, peas, zucchini and is great when making fresh pesto (a combination of basil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese).

Basil has round and billowy leaves that are often pointed at one end. The leaves are often bright green or sometimes purple and smell earthy. Basil can be found as a dried herb, but the fresh herb varieties often provide a much stronger flavor.

This herb is often available at many of the local farmers markets throughout Michigan. When purchasing fresh herbs, look for healthy looking leaves that are not wilted, discolored, or have black spots. Smell them to test for a strong aroma. Basil can be purchased in small growing containers (especially if you need a large quantity) or loose bunches at many grocery stores, grown at home and dried at home.

Combining basil with garlic, olive oil and diced tomato makes for a flavorful spread for pasta, chicken or bread. Placing whole leaves of basil in a layer over tomatoes and mozzarella cheese will create an Italian inspired salad. Basil can also be pureed with olive oil and onions in a blender and added to tomato soup. When cooking with basil, add it at the last minute to preserve the flavor.

After purchasing or harvesting basil, the best way to keep it fresh and fragrant for days, or even weeks, is to store the leaves in a jar of water on your kitchen counter top. Storing basil in the refrigerator will cause the leaves to quickly turn black and slimy and lose their unique spicy sweet flavor. Wash the basil just prior to use.

Basil contains volatile oils and flavonoids which contribute to its health benefits. It also boasts anti-bacterial properties that make it the perfect herb to include in fresh salads. It also works as an anti-inflammatory and can improve hearth health. Herbs also are a great alternative to sodium.

Michigan State University Extension provides more fruit and vegetable information like this through the Michigan Fresh website fact sheets. For more information on herbs, read the Buying and Using Herbs fact sheet.

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