An herb garden is a place for growing seriously healthy food that isn’t merely adornment and flavor. Yes, herbs are attractive and flavorful, but that stereotype limits our recognizing their most respectable characteristic – that they carry a huge nutritional wallop.
It isn’t a precious garden – some attention is required in the spring, cleaning up and rearranging, after that not much of anything. That’s the way with herbs, they like to rough it. They’d be good on a camping trip – hike for miles without water and then bed down for the night without any fuss. The Mediterranean landscape is in their genes and rocky scruffy soil and dry conditions make them feel right at home. Sure, they respond to a little TLC, but the point is they don’t want or need a lot of attention. Not at all like roses who will throw a temper tantrum on a whim, herbs are the least spoiled child in the garden. Leave them alone, they’re happy campers.
Their ability to survive poor conditions and even neglect may be the reason they’re packed with antioxidants. A hair-brained theory perhaps, but the best wine grapes, some say, are the ones that struggle the most.
Take parsley, for example, the most trivialized herb of all. Talk about a tough nut. Parsley didn’t blink an eye at this year’s harsh winter, standing tall and bright through all of it. Parsley contains more vitamin C than any other culinary vegetable, three times as much as oranges. Their iron content, manganese, calcium and potassium are noteworthy. Thyme explodes with antioxidants, as do many culinary herbs. Two teaspoons provide a load of vitamin K, iron, calcium, and more. The point is, these guys deserve recognition as serious food.
Nutrients elevate their status, they’re easy gardening and we should consider planting lots of them. The benefits of subtlety notwithstanding, we could occasionally put down our pinky fingers and use herbs with wild abandon – now and then recharge conventional salad with a bunch of parsley plus other herbs, embellished with a flourish of lettuce and dressed. Add herbs by the handful to any mix of greens, a pot of cooked rice, or to a piece of chicken, instead of the piddling pinch for good looks.
Our family’s favorite quick potato salad involves potatoes, scallions, fresh dill, tarragon and sliced dill pickles with a dressing of mayo, tarragon vinegar, more dill and tarragon. Thinking about it, I could easily add more of the vitamin-packed tarragon. I’d already decided to add more of almost everything to the herb garden this year. Not a big fuss, I’ll put them in the ground, they’ll take off as herbs are inclined to do, and many will overwinter. Thyme, sage, rosemary, fennel, parsley and bay are available year-round. Get wild with herbs – they’re much more than a pretty face atop a pile of food.
More about planting them next week.
An herb-related excerpt from Michael Pollan’s NY Times article on nutritionism, Unhappy Meals:
“Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:
4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.
This is what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.