conscious eating

Spice Up Health
Using Herbs for Flavor and Medicine
by April Thompson

Spice Up Health

Herbs add lush flavor to all kinds of dishes, and they are culinary friends that bring the benefits of helping to restore and maintain health. “Food is medicine, and herbs bring out the medicinal properties of food,” says Kami McBride, of Sebastopol, California, author of The Herbal Kitchen: Bring Lasting Health to You and Your Family with 50 Easy-To-Find Common Herbs and Over 250 Recipes. “The spice rack is a relic from another time when we knew how to use herbs and spices to optimize health and to digest our food.”

To get a medicinal dose of an herb, consider making teas, vinegar extracts or pestos, says Brittany Wood Nickerson, the Conway, Massachusetts, author of The Herbalist’s Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being. “Parsley, for example, is a nutrient- and vitamin-rich herb. If you garnish with parsley, you won’t get a significant amount of vitamin C, as you would if you make a pesto from it.”

Salads can also pack a healthy dose of herbs into a meal, says Martha’s Vineyard resident Holly Bellebuono, an herbalist and author of The Healing Kitchen: Cooking with Nourishing Herbs for Health, Wellness, and Vitality. “So many herbs, including violets, mints and red clover, can just be tossed fresh into a salad, offering both fiber and minerals.”

Vinegars are one of Bellebuono’s go-to methods to incorporate herbs into a diet, infusing fresh or dried herbs into red wine or apple cider vinegar for salad dressings and other uses. “Vinegar is great at extracting minerals from herbs and making them more bioavailable,” she says.

Drying herbs does not diminish their medicinal properties, but rather concentrates their essence, as it removes excess water, according to Bellebuono. “Dried and powdered herbs are a great way to preserve the garden harvest and add herbs into everyday dishes. You can throw a teaspoon of turmeric, a wonderful anti-inflammatory herb, in spaghetti sauce or oatmeal, and you won’t even notice it,” she says.

CE bonnie kittle 202009 wbonniekittle/Unsplash.comBest Herbal Buddies
While Mediterranean herbs like oregano and basil are often at the front of the spice rack, Nickerson also suggests lesser-used herbs such as sour sumac, anise-accented tarragon and versatile, yet often discarded orange peels, which can be added to soups along with fennel seed and bay leaves for a complex flavor. Thyme is another of Nickerson’s favorites, a hearty herb for fall dishes that’s also a powerful antifungal and aids with digestion, lung health and detoxification.

While some may think of parsley as a garnish, “It offers incredible freshness and livens up almost anything,” says Nickerson. “I use it as a vegetable and make a salad of its leaves or add handfuls of it into a quiche. Parsley is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and has detoxification properties.” Adding it near the end of cooking maintains its vibrant flavor and color, she notes.

McBride loves versatile herbs like mint and coriander that can be used in sweet and savory dishes with antimicrobial properties that help fight colds and flu. She also keeps salt shakers on the table filled with spices like cardamom, an antibacterial, anti-spasmotic and expectorant, to sprinkle onto beverages and dishes. Bellebuono also recommends infusing honey with herbs such as sage or oregano that support the immune system.

Herbal-Aided Digestion
All herbs, whether leafy, green culinary herbs or spices like coriander and clove, are carminative, meaning they help digest food, McBride says. “Digestion can use up to 40 percent of your day’s energy, which is why you often get a nap attack after a big meal. Every meal needs a carminative, even if it’s just black pepper, which is one of the problems with most fast food.”

Pungent and bitter herbs, in particular, support digestion and absorption of nutrients and make them more bioavailable, says Nickerson: “Activating the taste buds dedicated to sensing bitter stimulates the digestive system.” A salad of bitter greens, for example, can help prepare digestion of a heavier meal to come, whereas a post-meal aperitif can help with digesting the food afterward.

“It absolutely adds up when you add small doses of herbs to your meals every day,” McBride advises. “Many Americans suffer from gastrointestinal inflammation from modern diets and lifestyles, and herbs can help reverse that. Your gut gets a little healing every day.”

April Thompson is a Washington, D.C., freelance writer. Connect at

Herbal-Aided Delights

Spinach Grapefruit Salad Spinach & Grapefruit Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

The floral notes of tarragon in the dressing and the juicy, sour grapefruit invigorate the senses and wake up the digestive processes.
Yields: 4 to 6 servings

• 8 oz spinach (about 4 packed cups)
• 1 large or 2 medium-size grapefruits
• ½ cup pumpkin seeds

• ½ cup olive oil
• 1 Tbsp lemon juice
• 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
• 1 tsp Dijon mustard
• 1 Tbsp finely minced shallot
• 1 tsp finely chopped tarragon
• Pinch of salt

Tear the spinach into bite-size pieces, if necessary, and place in a large bowl.

Cut the top and bottom off the grapefruit so that the flesh of the fruit is exposed so it sits flat on a cutting board. Cut the peel and pith from the fruit using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler.

Set the grapefruit on one of its flat ends on a cutting board. The sections of the fruit will face up. Cut out the sections, slicing from the outside toward the center of the fruit, just inside the membranes. Leave the sections whole or cut them into bite-size pieces.

Toast the pumpkin seeds in a skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until they are lightly browned, have puffed up and begin to pop—4 to 7 minutes.

Combine the oil, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, tarragon and salt in a bowl and whisk together. Stir in any grapefruit juice that may have puddled on the cutting board while sectioning the fruit.

Pour the dressing over the spinach. If any dressing is left over, it will keep in the fridge for up to a week. Toss the spinach well, then add the grapefruit and pumpkin seeds and toss gently again to combine.

Recipe and photo from Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen by Brittany Wood Nickerson.

J Keller Mint Chive Bruschetta Herbalist KitchenMint and Feta Bruschetta with Chive Blossoms

Yields: 4 servings as an appetizer

•½ cup fresh chive blossoms (can be substituted with other edible flowers or left out)
• 1 French baguette
• ½ lb feta cheese, crumbled, or a vegan alternative
• 1 cup chopped fresh mint
• ½ cup minced chives (can be substituted with scallions)
• 2-4 Tbsp olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 325° F. While the oven is heating, pull apart the chive blossoms, removing the central stem and plucking the tiny purple florets.

Set the baguette in the hot oven and bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until the edges are crispy, but not browned.

Meanwhile, combine the feta in a bowl with the mint, minced chives and chive florets. Add enough of the oil to moisten then season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Remove the baguette from the oven and slice along the diagonal. Arrange on a platter with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the bruschetta mixture on each slice. Drizzle with a little more oil and serve.

Note: For the bread to be crisp throughout rather than soft on the inside and crispy on the outside, slice it on the diagonal to start with, brush each piece with olive oil and bake on a baking sheet at 325° F for 5 to 7 minutes until crispy.

Recipe and photos from Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen by Brittany Wood Nickerson.

J Keller Cilantro Pesto Recipes from the Herbalist's KitchenCilantro Pesto

Yields: about ½ cup

• 2 Tbsp (heaping) walnuts
• 2 cups packed cilantro leaves and stems (one large bunch)
• 2 garlic cloves
• 2 Tbsp olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground pepper

Soak the walnuts overnight in enough water to cover them. (This makes them easier to digest and helps remove some of the bitterness in the skin.)

Drain and rinse the walnuts. Combine them with the cilantro, garlic, oil and salt to taste, and a few grinds of pepper in a food processor. Blend until smooth.

Taste and adjust the seasonings as necessary. The pesto will keep for 5 to 7 days in the fridge or for 6 months or more in the freezer.

Recipe and photo from Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen by Brittany Wood Nickerson.

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