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Published: Sunday, July 10, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Make your summer dishes sing with these 3 fresh herbs

  • Cilantro packs a fragrant punch and can be used in dishes from many cultures.

    ThinkStock

    Cilantro packs a fragrant punch and can be used in dishes from many cultures.

Part of eating well is eating more whole foods and less packaged, processed stuff. (That is what the experts keep telling us, anyway.)
And that means doing more home cooking.
Here's something new to try or perhaps do more often this summer: Use more fresh herbs.
Not only do these longtime culinary rock stars add bright flavors to our food, they're actually good for us.
That is especially true for seniors who should be seeking out dark leafy greens any chance they can get, said Cynthia Lair, an assistant professor in the nutrition department at Bastyr University in Kenmore.
"People often forget that herbs are dark leafy greens," said Lair, who is also the host of her own online cooking show, Cookus Interruptus. "You're getting folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K."
To inspire us in the kitchen, we asked Lair, the author of the 2008 cookbook "Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods," to share her favorite recipes for three popular fresh summer herbs.
You can find all the recipes mentioned here, plus demonstration videos for each of them, at
www.cookusinterruptus.com.
Basil
Like many fresh herbs, basil is often overcooked and sapped of its brilliant flavors, Lair, 57, said.
Indeed, delicate summer herbs such as cilantro, basil and parsley should be heated through or simply eaten raw, not thoroughly cooked.
"You really want to use those fresh and immediately," Lair said. "You want to chop them or mush them in some way to release the essential oils."
Lair likes to use about 1/2 cup chopped basil as a flavor-boosting finish for her Big Mo minestrone soup with garden fresh vegetables.
"At the very end, throw in a handful of fresh chopped basil," she said. "It's a very strong flavor that's immediately in your soup spoon. It really complicates the flavor of those sweet, bland vegetables. It really makes them pop."
Parsley
It's time to think beyond mere garnish when you consider this herb, available in curly and flat-leaf varieties.
Lair prefers flat-leaf Italian varieties because their texture is smooth and more approachable.
Her current favorite use for parsley is a parsley-pumpkin seed pesto, made with toasted green pumpkin seeds (known as pepitas), fresh parsley, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.
It can be used as a tapenade on a sandwich or even as a soup topping for the aforementioned minestrone.
"It's so simple. You would look at the recipe and think: 'Well, that's not going to be very good,' and it's amazing," Lair said. "It's really strong.
"You could add a big hunk of it to an oil-and-vinegar dressing and it would come crazy alive."
Cilantro
Why is cilantro sold in big bunches when most recipes call for only a few tablespoons?
We don't know. But with Lair's large repertoire of recipes, you'll be using a lot more and wasting less.
Cilantro which packs a big fragrant punch, can be used in dishes from many cultures.
"When I buy cilantro, I think, 'I'm going to make something Mexican for sure and then something Asian or Thai,'" Lair said.
Her top recipe for summer is fresh fish tacos with halibut marinated in lime juice, olive oil and soy sauce and topped with a creamy lime-cilantro sauce made with Greek yogurt.
"Putting that herb with something kind of bland and creamy and fattening just makes the whole thing be about the herb," Lair said.
"Anytime you want an herb to really show, not only do you not want to heat it too much, you want to give it a fairly mild background."
Lair's other cilantro recipes include chicken tikka masala, Asian noodle salad, huevos rancheros, chipotle black bean stew, Napa cabbage slaw and Thai steak salad.
Whatever you do with herbs, don't try to use them in place of salt, Lair said.
Most recipes require at least a dash of salt to make the herbs really sing.
Lair's dishes typically balance the sodium with an acidic component, too, such as vinegar or citrus juice.
"You have to have those supporting players for them to be the star," Lair said of culinary herbs. "Otherwise they're alone on stage."
Fish tacos with creamy cilantro sauce
Cookus Interruptus
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
1 pound fish, true cod, halibut or other white fish
8-12 corn tortillas or taco shells
Grated cheese
Salsa
Sauce:
1/4 cup mayonnaise or plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon water
Vegetables:
1/2 cup shredded cabbage
4 leaves romaine, rolled and cut in thin strips
1 carrot, grated
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
Salt and pepper
Combine 1 tablespoon each of lime juice, olive oil and soy sauce in a small bowl and pour over fish. Allow the fish to marinate for at least 30 minutes
Combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Cut vegetables. Dress with olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper and toss. Set side dressed vegetables and sauce.
Preheat the broiler. Place marinated fish on a broiler pan and broil about 10 to 15 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish, about 10 minutes per inch.
Warm tortillas in a skillet with a dab of butter one at a time or bake taco shells.
When the fish is done, cut it into small slices.
Place a few fish slices in tortilla with dressed vegetables on top. Pour a tablespoon or two of the sauce over the top and add a bit of grated cheese and salsa if desired.
Repeat process for each tortilla and serve immediately.
Makes 2/3 cup sauce and 8 to 12 tacos.
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