Cooking with herbs

Published in Wellness Watch

A trip to the garden helps add flavor without salt.

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.