Pantry Primer: Herbs

You don't need a culinary-school degree to understand the value of fresh herbs. They brighten up the flavors of everything from soups to desserts. But what's less appreciated is the nutritional value these coveted seasonings bring to the table. 

The aromatic leaves offer potent little doses of antioxidants and vitamins -- and not a drop of salt or fat. Eat them regularly to enhance a healthy diet that helps protect you against cancer and heart disease.

What: Bright green peppermint counts among the most widely used of the 600 varieties of mint. Its refreshing flavor lends itself to both savory and sweet dishes. 

Why: Peppermint's menthol, an active terpenoid, triggers a cooling neurological sensation and inhibits tumors by stimulating detoxifying enzymes. The herb offers a dash of vitamin A, calcium, and folate, too. 

How: Because menthol breaks down with heat, raw mint offers the most benefits. Try it in a salsa with cucumber or mango, or in pasta salad with peas, whole-wheat farfalle, olive oil, and grated Parmesan.

What: This native to the Mediterranean region has narrow, silvery-green leaves that are rolled so tight they resemble needles. Its soft, pinelike fragrance endures better than that of most herbs when dried. 

Why: In addition to having anti-inflammatory and antitumor effects, rosemary's flavonoids may help keep LDL ("bad") cholesterol from oxidizing, thereby preventing hardening of the arteries. The herb also works as aromatherapy; research shows its scent may improve alertness and memory.

How: Bake rosemary into bread or crackers; season apples or pineapples with rosemary before roasting them; or use in marinades for chicken or lamb.


What: A cousin of marjoram and thyme, pungent oregano has small leaves that taste flavorful fresh or dried. 

Why: Gram for gram, oregano offers more antioxidants (including rosmarinic acid) than any other herb, as well as most fruits and veggies. 

How: Whisk minced oregano leaves into a salad dressing, or combine it with olive oil, lemon slices, olives, and capers to make a marinade for chicken or fish.

What: A star in Italian cooking, basil has a spicy fragrance with hints of anise. 

Why: Basil contains cancerprotective phytochemicals, which help stimulate the immune system and block metabolic pathways linked to cancer development. 

How: Blend basil with olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts for a pesto; add to a sandwich; or toss torn basil leaves with sliced strawberries and add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

What: Also known as fresh coriander, cilantro often ends up in Asian and Mexican dishes. 

Why: Its main aroma component, decenal, offers antibacterial effects, while cilantro's phytochemicals, including phthalides and terpenoids, provide anticancer properties. Cilantro's blood-sugar-lowering effects may help stave off or manage diabetes. 

How: Add to guacamole, or stir chopped cilantro into plain yogurt for a vegetable dip.

What: Of this herb's 30 kinds, Italian, or flat-leaf, is a favorite because of its peppery flavor. 

Why: In addition to vitamins A, C, and K, parsley contains the phytochemical polyacetylene, which helps reduce cancer risk. A sprig can also fight bad breath, thanks to its odor-absorbing chlorophyll. 

How: Toss with cooled, roasted beets and goat cheese, or add parsley to mixed greens and dress with a simple vinaigrette.

To preserve the flavor of fresh herbs in cooked dishes, add them near the end of the cooking time or after cooking is complete.

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