Cooking with herbs

A trip to the garden helps add flavor without salt.

Published in Wellness Watch

The Veterans Canteen’s Basil Spread Sandwich.

Fresh herbs do more than add a final flourish of color to bland-looking dishes. With the ability to add depth of flavor both during and after cooking, they help chefs use a lighter hand with less-favored ingredients like oil and salt. Here’s how basil, parsley, cilantro and more are helping non-commercial operators serve up bold taste without the extra calories.

At Virginia Mason Hospital & Medical Center, in Seattle, health-focused patient menus get a flavor bump from fresh herbs like rosemary and tarragon, which punch up simple grilled pork loins. Sauces, too, will get the herbal treatment. “We have low-sodium and gluten-free gravies that are kind of bland and viscous. We’re going to move to adding fresh rosemary, oregano and a little bit of garlic to give them a rounded out, more robust flavor,” says Executive Chef Brian Brooks.

Dishes served in the staff cafeteria are also changing: Locally sourced herbs like cilantro, tarragon, chervil and lemon thyme add brightness to composed salads. Chowder gets a flavor boost with fresh thyme plus a fresh parsley garnish, while deli sandwiches are slathered with Brooks’ fresh basil pesto spread.

At schools, students often pick out green stuff, like herbs, in their food. But at Forsyth County Schools, in Cumming, Ga., fresh basil grown in the school gardens is added to a simple tomato and cucumber salad with success. The fact that students are involved in growing the basil themselves seems to make the produce-centric dish more appealing to young palates. “Since they know what basil looks like in the garden and they understand it’s in the salad, they don’t hesitate to try it,” says Valerie Bowers, director of the school nutrition program. “Instead of, ‘Yuck, what’s that stuff?’ they say things like, ‘Oh, yeah, I helped grow that,’ or ‘I know about basil,’” she says.

Fresh herbs also are a hit at St. Paul Public Schools, in Minnesota. There, Chef Seth Bixby-Daugherty helped develop a recipe for locally grown red roasted potatoes. Before hitting the oven, the potatoes are tossed with fresh rosemary and garlic, lending loads of flavor with very few calories. “By adding the rosemary and garlic, we use less salt and only just enough olive oil to roast the potatoes and get that beautiful, golden-brown crispness,” says Nutrition Specialist Angie Gaszak, R.D.

The new menu for the VA’s Veterans Canteen Service is getting help from herbs, too. “We have a smart choice menu that’s lower in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. We started it several years ago and have gradually added more fresh herbs, and the new recipes will have even more herbs,” says Health and Wellness Coordinator Meryl Garnto. Chicken niçoise is made with fresh parsley, the sun-dried tomato basil-crusted chicken features fresh basil, and several Spanish and tropical recipes highlight fresh cilantro.

The new herb-centric menu, which Garnto anticipates will debut in the summer, will be backed by plenty of marketing. In addition to signage at points of service, Garnto plans to feature online and printed booklets with recipes, pictures and cooking tips. “People want to know, what do you do if you have fresh parsley? How do you use that up?” Garnto says. The booklets will offer assistance with those questions. 

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
granola bars

Where possible, we make grab-and-go items reimbursable. For example, if we’re serving a fruit and milk smoothie, we let students take a granola bar or other grain component to make it count as a meal.

Ideas and Innovation
unsung heroes graphic

Febin Bellamy, a senior at Georgetown University, is the founder of Unsung Heroes, a nonprofit that features service workers on college campuses in man-on-the-street-style Facebook interviews. This year, Bellamy is working with a dozen schools to launch their own chapters of the storytelling platform. Here’s what he’s learned about staff shoutouts.

Q: Why did you decide to start Unsung Heroes?

A: One day I started a conversation with a custodial worker in the business school that I would see all the time. I learned that we had a lot of similarities; for instance, we both wanted to...

Ideas and Innovation
bolognese sauce

We’re trying to bring scratch cooking to all the elementary schools, but we’re taking it dish by dish. Right now, we satellite a lot of the dishes out. This month we made a Bolognese from scratch, and went to each of the schools to talk to them about the process and see if they could implement it. It helps us find out the hurdles and what they are going to need to make it work.

Ideas and Innovation
rolling silverware

Ensuring that employees regularly complete the busywork missing from their daily checklist can be a challenge, but these tasks often help an operation run efficiently with fewer unexpected costs. At Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Regional Executive Chef Dustin Cochran has found a solution to ensure his walk-in coolers always have a clean vent. Cochran starts with a thorough cleaning of the vent, then slips a hairnet over it to catch the dust. Instead of getting employees to deep clean the vents, they need only replace the hairnet.

FSD Resources