In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
Used for millennia to add flavor to our foods, culinary herbs are healthy seasonings in the kitchen as well as natural and abundant sources of healing chemicals.
They’re robust, tangy and pungent. They’re perfect for soups and stews, accents on pizza and in cheese dips and even desserts. And now we learn they are good for us, too. What a bonus! US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists recently carried out a scientific study on twenty-seven culinary and twelve medicinal herbs. The study revealed that many popular herbs are a great source of natural antioxidants, compounds that play an important role in neutralizing free radicals. In fact, the total phenolic contents of many herbs in the study were higher than those reported for berries, fruits and vegetables. Although we might have to eat more herbs to get the equivalent total amount of antioxidants consumed in fruits and vegetables, supplementing an otherwise balanced diet with herbs may be beneficial to our health.
Some of your favorite herbs might be on this list. In decreasing order of antioxidant activity, they include several oreganos and their cousin hardy sweet marjoram, rose geranium, sweet bay, dill, thyme, rosemary and sage.
The culinary herbs with the highest antioxidant activities are the oreganos, which belong in the mint family (Lamiaceae). In fact, this study showed that their extremely high phenolic content and oxygen radical absorbance capacity (or ORAC) make their total antioxidant activities higher than tocopherol (found in vitamin E).
Though there is some taxonomic confusion about oreganos, by far the most widely available variety is Origanum vulgare spp. hirtum, or Greek mountain oregano. This is the European oregano of commerce, what the Greeks call rhigani. Greek mountain oregano, with an ORAC of 64.71, is known for its pepper-flavored leaves that add a magnificent punch to pizza, spaghetti sauce and classic Greek cuisine like dolmas–flavorful tidbits of meat, rice, and spices rolled up in grape leaves. It is an asset, in fact, a staple, in any proper garden. Since it is a woody perennial, it will overwinter in many climates. My Greek mountain oregano has its own revered planter in my backyard and provides me the security of knowing I’m getting the real thing. (I won’t dwell on how I first planted an ornamental oregano and wondered why it didn’t have the wonderful aroma I’d heard about!)
It is their aroma that sets the oreganos apart. In fact, several herbal sources and experts recommend that it’s better to view oregano as a class instead of any one species as a flavor. Indeed, the main commonality, the one thing that makes any plant an oregano, is the flavor and scent that come from the essential oil carvacrol, a simple phenol they contain in varying amounts. What capsaicin is to peppers, carvacrol is to oregano; it imparts the savory, pungent, warming sensation to the tongue. Carvacrol is not specific to oreganos and can also be found in monarda and sweet marjoram. In addition to carvacrol, high levels of rosmarinic acid contribute to the oreganos’ antioxidant capacities.
Origanum x majoricum, commonly known as both hardy sweet marjoram and Italian oregano, has a slightly higher antioxidant activity than Greek mountain oregano (with an ORAC of 71.64). The x between the two scientific names indicates that it’s a cross between Origanum vulgare and Origanum majorana, or sweet marjoram. Because it’s a cross, Italian oregano tastes sweet and savory at the same time and is thus a versatile herb that can be used to season meats, eggs, soups and vegetables.
European bay (ORAC 31.70) is the leaf of the tree Laurus nobilis and is in the same family of plants as cinnamon, cassia, sassafras and avocado. (Just for the record, California bay is a different, more pungent species.) Run your finger down the stem of the leaf to release the odor–a mixture of balsam, vanilla, nutmeg, and a touch of citrus. Susan Belsinger, a nationally known herb specialist, uses bay in desserts, flavoring herbed syrups or puddings and custards. She drops the leaves in the pot at the beginning and removes them before serving.
Winter savory, Satureja montana (ORAC 26.34), was used in Roman times for meat dishes. While its cousin, summer savory, is an annual, winter savory is a woody perennial. Consider adding this culinary herb to your own garden. The Saturejas generally are used throughout the world for beans–either fresh, like green or wax beans, or with dried beans of any kind. They also go nicely with cheese. Belsinger uses savory for corn relish, fritters of corn or potato and savory-peach butter.
Dill, Anethum graveolens (ORAC 29.12), is a tender annual member of the carrot family. Native to Asia, it has become naturalized in most of Europe and North America. Its seeds are used to flavor dill pickles, but its feathery leaves go fantastically with fish, potatoes and yogurt (see recipe for Tarator). Dried dill is somewhat acceptable, but fresh is the best. The next-best form is frozen dill. Just chop fresh dill, put it in a Ziploc freezer bag, pop it in the freezer, and it will be available whenever you need it.
Garden thyme, Thymus vulgaris (ORAC 19.49), ranks next in antioxidant behavior. The principal culinary thymes are a narrow-leafed cultivar called French thyme, which has a stronger flavor and is preferred in France; and a broad-leafed cultivar called English thyme. Thyme is great for tomato sauces and mushroom sauces. In wintertime, Belsinger makes a compote of pears, apples and prunes, spiced with thyme in red wine.
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis (ORAC 19.15), is one of my favorite herbs for the kitchen. It is a common wild plant native to the hillsides and cliffs of the Mediterranean, whose very name means “dew of the sea.” Rosemary’s pinelike scent is perfect for roasted meats and potatoes. Sally Fallon uses rosemary to make a spicy walnut appetizer. You will not be able to eat just one, nor even one handful, of these tangy morsels: they are addictive. Rosmanol, the active antioxidant in rosemary, has more antioxidant activity than tocopherol.
Garden sage, Salvia officinalis (ORAC 13.28), is a culinary salvia with a strong, camphorlike smell. Americans are familiar with sage as the spice that gives an incredible aroma to turkey stuffing. Our ancestors may not have known about the antioxidant properties of sage, but they nevertheless put it to good use in sausage as a preservative. Sage is also a popular ingredient in mouthwash. There are many kinds of sages. In addition to sausage and stuffing, try sage with winter squash or other root vegetables.
So don’t hesitate. Now is the perfect time to add these herbs to your repertoire of flavorings. I recommend that you grow as many of them as possible in your own kitchen garden. Although you will have to replant the annuals like dill and winter savory each year, the oreganos, rosemary and sage are perennials in many climates and since they are naturally pest-resistant due to their high phenol content, they will thrive with little attention.
Stuffed Grape Leaves
This dish is native to many Balkan and Mediterranean countries, where they are called sarmi and dolmas, respectively. Serve it with yogurt on the side, and let your family and guests spoon it over the meaty morsels to act as a tart countertaste. The grape leaves come pickled in jars, available at middle eastern markets.
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2-4 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup uncooked rice
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
- 2 tablespoons dried winter savory
- 1 tablespoons fresh Greek oregano, finely chopped
- 1-2 teaspoons salt
- pickled grape leaves
Sauté onion and garlic in a little oil until the onion is just turning translucent; add rice and more oil if needed. Fry rice for about 5 minutes, during which time the rice will absorb flavors and oil. Add beef and fry until it is brown and water has evaporated. Remove from the heat; add paprika, savory, oregano and salt.
Stir well and cool.
Place grape leaves on a flat surface. Cut off protruding stems. Place a heaping tablespoon of the meat/rice filling near the stem area; fold over the sides of the leaf and then roll up the leaf to make a cylinder. Place individual sarma side by side in a well-greased 9×13-inch baking dish. Completely cover the sarmi with water. Bake at 350ºF, uncovered, for approximately 40 minutes, or until the rice is done. Serves 6-8.
Increase your antioxidant intake with this delicious cold yogurt-cucumber soup from Bulgaria. It makes a refreshing warm-weather meal. The consistency can be varied by the amount of water added. Used by permission from Bulgarian Rhapsody: The Best of Balkan Cuisine.
- 1-2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 medium cucumber, grated
- 2 cups yogurt
- 1-2 cups water
- 1/2-3/4 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped
Crush garlic with salt; then add oil and mix well. Peel cucumber, slice along natural divisions, and de-seed. Grate and add to garlic mixture; mix well. Stir the yogurt in its container and then pour over garlic/cucumber mixture. Add water if desired and stir into the mixture. Add dill and walnuts to taste. Serves 2-4.
Be sure to plan for the advance preparation of the walnuts in this recipe. Recipe from Nourishing Traditions; used by permission of Sally Fallon.
- 4 cups walnut halves
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- filtered water to cover
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup dried rosemary
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Mix walnuts with salt and cover with water; leave in a warm place for at least 7-8 hours. Drain in a colander. Spread out walnuts on a stainless steel or parchment-lined baking sheet and place in a warm oven (no more than 150-170ºF) for 12 to 24 hours; turning occasionally until completely dry and crisp. Cool and store in an airtight container until you are ready to use.
To prepare the walnuts, melt butter with rosemary, salt, and cayenne pepper. Toss the walnuts, spread on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and bake at 350ºF for 10 minutes. Cool and store in an airtight container until ready to serve.
- Alice Arndt, Seasoning Savvy, Haworth Herbal Press, Binghamton, New York, 1999.
- Susan Belsinger, Herbs in the Kitchen, Interweave Press, Loveland, Colorado, 1993.
- Thomas DeBaggio and Arthur O. Tucker, The Big Book of Herbs, Interweave Press, Loveland, Colorado, 2000.
- Arthur Tucker, “Will the Real Oregano Please Stand Up?” The Herbal Companion, February/March 1992.
- Wei Zheng and Shiow Wang, “Antioxidant Activity and Phenolic Compounds in Selected Herbs,” Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2001, 49.
Antioxidants and Phenols Defined
According to Shiow Y. Wang, a scientist at the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, “antioxidant activity measures the ability of foods, blood plasma, and just about any substance to subdue oxygen free radicals.” Over the years, antioxidants have become synonymous with good health. They are a class of compounds thought to prevent certain types of chemical damage caused by an excess of free radicals, charged molecules that are generated by a variety of sources including pesticides, smoking, and exhaust fumes. Some scientists believe that destroying free radicals may help fight cancer, heart disease, and stroke. “More succinctly,” says Shiow, “antioxidant activity is a measure of the ability of a food sample to disarm oxidizing compounds, which our bodies naturally generate as a byproduct of metabolism.”
Shiow says the term “phenol” or “phenol compound” embraces a wide range of substances that possess an aromatic carbon ring bearing an OH group, or hydroxyl substituent, including their functional derivatives. Among the natural phenolic compounds, of which several hundreds are known, the flavonoids and their relatives form the largest group, but phenolic quinones, lignans, xanthones, depsidones, and other groups, exist in considerable numbers as well as many simple monocyclic phenols. Hence, the total number of phenols in a given sample of food is referred to as its “phenolic content.”
The Hunt for Mexican Oregano
Unfortunately, Poliomintha longiflora, with an ORAC rating of 92.18, the highest antioxidant activity rating in the USDA study, is not commercially available in the United States. If you want to experience the benefits of this herb, you will have to track it down through the nursery trade for planting in your own garden. Additionally, according to Arthur O. Tucker, an expert on herbs and essential oils at Delaware State University, P. longiflora is more accurately classified as P.bustamanta. The sample of P. longiflora used in this study was collected from the culinary garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. where it was labeled Mexican oregano.
To make things even more confusing, the species most commonly identified and sold as Mexican oregano is not Poliomintha longiflora at all, but Lippia graveolens. The Poliominthas are subshrubs which grow about three feet tall and are only native to the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. By contrast, Lippia graveolens ranges in height from 3/1/2 to nine feet and is native to Texas and Mexico. In Mexico, it is sometimes called “Oregano cimarron.”
Ann Wilder, CEO and owner of Vann’s Spices in Baltimore, sells Mexican oregano from Lippia graveolens. Hence, a spice labeled Mexican oregano in your local supermarket is probably not the high-antioxidant Poliomintha-type oregano in this study. The study cited did not address the antioxidant activity of Lippia graveolens, but since sources say it contains up to 48 percent carvacrol, it probably does have a fairly high antioxidant activity. In Mexico, L. graveolens is put to much of the same uses as Origanum vulgare is here; it is the mainstay ingredient of cortido, a fermented condiment often served with fatty foods.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2003.