Kitchen herbs provide flavour and offer medicinal benefits. While herbs are readily available all year round in supermarkets, it’s easy to grow your own in pots on a sunny windowsill, in a dedicated herb garden, or even among flowering plants in a border. When they’re ready to harvest, you can use them fresh, and preserve them to use throughout the winter months.
The easiest way to store herbs is to freeze them and place in an ice cube tray where each compartment holds around a tablespoon’s worth. You can either chop the leaves or freeze them whole, covered with a little water.
Rosemary and bay leaves can be frozen as twigs and the leaves simply stripped from the stems when needed.
Leafy herbs such as parsley can be stripped from their stems, washed and dried using a salad spinner (or pat dry with kitchen paper) and placed in a freezer bag. Push the leaves to the bottom of the bag, either on their own or with other herbs such as chives, basil, rosemary and sage. Squeeze out all the air, compress the leaves into a sausage shape and roll up the bag. Once frozen, you can then simply open the bag and cut off a slice of compressed herbs whenever they are needed.
Although you can air-dry herbs on trays or wire racks, away from direct sunlight, this does not preserve the same level of flavour, aroma or polyphenols.
Peppermint is a popular culinary and medicinal herb with antiseptic and painkilling properties. It stimulating secretion of digestive juices and bile, improves digestion and relaxes intestinal spasm.
Several species of mint are used in the kitchen, of which the most common are spearment and the stronger peppermint which contains sufficient mentol to produce a cool sensation in the mouth.
Dried peppermint is highly antioxidant, providing as much as 12,000 mg polyphenols per 100g weight, while fresh peppermint provides respectable 980mg per 100g, including catechins. Dried spearmint provides 6,600 mg polyphenols per 100g weight while fresh spearmint provides 250mg per 100g. One tablespoon fresh peppermint provides 200mg polyphenols.
Fresh mint goes well with many vegetables. It can be preserved in vinegar, producing a delicious accompaniment for roast lamb.
Peppermint oil is also one of the most effective treatments for irritable bowel syndrome, and is more effective than the prescribed antispasmodic drug, mebeverine for relieving abdominal pain.
Mint tea: To make a cup of delicious, medicinal mint tea, simply add a sprig of fresh mint or a few leaves to a cup of boiling water and infuse for 15 minutes before drinking.
Oregano is used extensively in Mediterranean cooking. Its oil has a powerful antimicrobial action and can kill moulds, yeasts, bacteria and parasites even when diluted over a thousand times. Oregano is used medicinally as a general immune tonic to increase resistance against infection, and to improve blood pressure control.
Recipe: Cut 6 large, ripe tomatoes in half and arrange on a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil, and scatter over a tablespoon of chopped fresh oregano, 2 cloves crushed garlic and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Bake for 30 minutes at 180 degrees. Whizz in a blender to make a fresh tomato sauce for pasta.
Sage is such a useful medicinal herb that its botanical name, Salvia, comes from the Latin salvere which means to be saved or cured. Sage leaves – especially those from the red purple-tinged varieties – contain a number of essential oils with antibacterial, anti-fungal and antiviral properties. Pick young leaves from the top of the plant throughout summer. Sprigs can be frozen for later use, which retains the medicinal benefits better than drying.
Sage is a popular herbal remedy for treating menopause symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats, and is also used as a mental stimulant (nootropic) to boost memory and concentration. Its memory boosting action comes from an ability to inhibit cholinesterase – an enzyme that deactivates neurotransmitters in the brain. A study involving 20 volunteers found that taking 333mg sage leaf extracts per day significantly improved memory performance and accuracy in tests carried out between 1 hour and 6 hours after treatment.
Pick young leaves from the top of the plant throughout summer. Sprigs can be frozen for later use, as this retains the medicinal benefits better than drying. Rub fresh sage leaves onto insect stings and bites, or make a sage infusion with which to gargle away a sore throat. Sage tea can ease menopausal hot flushes and, as I found during a particularly unpleasant illness in Turkey, is an effective folk treatment for gastroenteritis. Although trimming plants after flowering helps stop them becoming too woody, they usually need to be replaced every 3-4 years. Propagate via cuttings in early summer, or by layering.
To make a soothing sage tea: Add 1 tablespoon sage leaves to a cup of boiling water and infuse for 15 minutes before drinking.
Most kitchen garden contains a rosemary bush whose evergreen shoots can be harvested all year round. Traditionally, rosemary lotion was rubbed into the scalp to stimulate hair growth, though sadly there’s no published research to support this use.
Make an infusion by covering a few handfuls of fresh leaves with boiling water and steeping for 10 minutes. Soak a pad in the hot infusion and apply as a compress to treat strains and sprains, or add the infusion to your bath water for a reviving soak. It also makes an effective mouthwash to combat bad breath.
Known as the scholar’s herb, or bee balm, this perennial member of the mint family has a sweet lemon scent that both reduces stress and attracts bees to your garden. Lemon balm releases a burst of zesty lemon scent with the slightest touch. Use the youngest leaves as older ones often have a soapy flavour. Lemon balm is often used for flavoring meats, fish and poultry or added to vegetable dishes.
Sow lemon balm seed in spring. It likes a rich, moist but well-drained soil and prefers full sunlight. Lemon balm can be propagated through stem cuttings or root division. Encourage foliage growth (and discourage flowers) by pinching out regularly. The herb self-seeds freely and will spread if not kept in check.
Lemon balm contains volatile oils (eg citral, citronellal) which have a calming action. Its traditional use is to uplift the spirits and reduce exam stress, while relieving stress-related symptoms such as nausea, flatulence, restlessness and anxiety. Its antiviral action can inhibit Herpes simplex cold sores.
Pick aerial parts from early summer onwards just before the flowers open for the highest content of volatile oil.
Chewing fresh leaves or drinking Lemon Balm tea can reduce anxiety.
Lemon verbena leaves are long and thin with pointed margins. Lemon verbena and lemon balm can be used interchangeably in recipes, and both are used to flavour teas. Lemon verbena produces a more intense lemon flavor and scent than lemon balm, and is often used as a seasoning for fruits and desserts.