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Published April 16, 2010, 12:00 AM

Add some homegrown herbs to your menu

I heard a loud “Aagghh” coming from my kitchen. Then I heard a loud sneeze coming from my husband. Then I heard my daughter sneeze. She was about 2 years old at the time. Two more sneezes from each followed in rapid succession.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

I heard a loud “Aagghh” coming from my kitchen. Then I heard a loud sneeze coming from my husband. Then I heard my daughter sneeze. She was about 2 years old at the time. Two more sneezes from each followed in rapid succession.

I investigated the exclamation and the sneezing. I had my suspicions about what had happened.

Sure enough, my daughter had emptied a large box of pepper in a good-sized pyramid on the kitchen floor. She looked up from her masterpiece and grinned at me. Then she sneezed again, scattering grains of pepper around the kitchen. Soon I was sneezing, too.

After the cleanup, the sneezing subsided for the most part. I’m not sure my daughter learned anything from the experience, although from that day on, our pepper was kept in an upper cupboard. I hope she learned about cause and effect.

In the succeeding years, she has enjoyed opening other containers and sniffing my dried herbs, such as oregano or basil. She likes to measure them, too.

Fortunately, I haven’t found piles of herbs on the floor.

Although I’d like to say “good nutrition” is the No. 1 factor people use when choosing foods, “good taste” rates the highest. Adding fresh and dried herbs can improve flavor and help reduce fat and salt in your favorite recipes.

Herbs virtually add no calories, yet they add distinctive flavors. They get their characteristic aromas from chemicals known as essential or volatile oils.

These oils are concentrated in the flowers, seeds, leaves, roots or throughout the plant, depending on the species.

Dried herbs lose their potency through time, so use the “sniff test” every six months with your dried herbs and spices. If there’s little aroma upon sniffing, there will be little flavor.

You can grow your own herbs indoors or outdoors. In cooler months, a sunny window sill with exposure to about five hours of light per day is ideal. Herbs also will grow if they get 10 hours of fluorescent lighting daily. Use a warm and cool bulb in your grow light.

To grow herbs, you will need a container at least 6 inches deep with holes in the bottom (for good drainage), pasteurized potting mix and seeds or small plants from a garden shop.

If you are starting from seeds, plant the seeds as directed on the package.

Leave about an inch of space at the top of the container to allow for watering.

Treat your potted herbs like house plants. Water them regularly but don’t overwater, which can lead to soggy roots. Snip the herbs often so they will grow full and lush. For best growth, use liquid fertilizer mixed with water as directed every week or two.

Herbs can be preserved by drying them in a dehydrator, an oven on low or a microwave. They also can be frozen. Store home-dried herbs sealed in a bag or jar in a cool, dry place and use within a year for best quality.

To use fresh herbs, rinse them well under running water and chop into tiny pieces.

The idea is to expose as much of their surface area as possible. With dried herbs, use a mortar and pestle to grind the herb into a powder.

Herbs vary by flavor strength, so it’s important not to overdo them. Since herbs can lose some flavor during food preparation, timing is important. Add fresh herbs close (10 to 15 minutes) to the end of cooking when making soups and stews. When adding herbs to cold foods, such as salads, add them a few hours ahead of time to allow the flavors to meld.

Here’s a tasty dip that can be made with fresh or dried herbs. For more information about growing and using herbs, read “From Garden to Table: Harvesting Herbs for Healthy Eating” at www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/hortcrop/h1267.pdf.


Herbed Dip

1 cup low-fat cottage cheese

4 tbsp. low-fat plain yogurt

1 tbsp. chopped onion or fresh chives

1 tsp. dried parsley (or 3 tsp. chopped fresh parsley)

¼ tsp. dried dill

Place all ingredients in blender. Blend thoroughly and place in a container.

Cover and refrigerate. Serve with fresh vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli and celery, or whole-grain crackers.

Makes 10 servings at 2 tablespoons per serving. A serving has 20 calories, 0.5 grams (g) of fat and 1 g of carbohydrate.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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