Perk Up The Flavor In Foods Without Calories

Have you noticed birds returning to your backyard? I’ve seen some early returning birds checking out the food in our backyard bird feeders.

I’ve been looking for sprouts of green grass and the return of my perennial plants. I spotted some daylilies popping up. I love the colors of spring.

With a little effort, you can have a splash of green in your home all year and some valuable additions to your culinary creations, too. Try growing herbs on a sunny window sill.

Herbs add flavor without adding fat or sodium to your favorite dishes. Herbs can help you eat a more heart-healthy diet as a result. How about some homemade salsa with fresh cilantro? How about a slice of homemade pizza with fresh basil?

Inspired to grow some herbs, I checked with a couple of friends in horticulture to refresh my knowledge.

Many herbs used in cooking, including basil, chives, parsley, mint and oregano, grow well indoors. You can start your herbs indoors and plant them outdoors in a garden or pot when the weather warms.

A sunny window sill with exposure to about five hours of light per day is ideal. Herbs also will grow if they get 10 daily hours of fluorescent lighting. 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). Use a separate container for each type of herb. You’ll also need well-draining, pasteurized potting mix.

Pick out seeds or small herb plants from a garden shop. Be a little adventuresome in deciding what to grow. Look through your cookbooks for inspiration. Plant seeds as directed on the package and 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 them often so they will grow full and lush. For best growth, use liquid fertilizer mixed with water as directed every week or two.

While mature herbs won’t appear overnight, in time you’ll have flavorful additions for your cooking.

To use herbs, rinse them well under running water and chop in tiny pieces. The idea is to expose as much of their surface area as possible.

You can use fresh herbs in any recipe that calls for dried herbs. As a rule of thumb, use about three times as much fresh herbs as dried.

In “hot” dishes, such as soups and stews, add fresh herbs, such as basil, chives and cilantro, close to the end of the cooking time. Flavor can be lost with extended cooking.

In “cold” dishes, such as salads with dressings, add herbs several hours ahead of time to allow flavors to meld.

For more information about growing and using herbs, visit the NDSU Extension Service website at for our publication “Harvesting Herbs for Healthy Eating.”

Here’s a tasty recipe from the Wheat Foods Council for tabbouleh, a tasty salad that includes herbs and fresh produce.


1 c. uncooked bulgur
3/4 c. chopped cucumber
3/4 c. chopped tomato
1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley
1/4 c. chopped fresh mint leaves
1/4 c. sliced green onions or 2 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. lemon juice

Prepare bulgur according to package directions for 1 cup of uncooked bulgur and the recommended amount of water for reconstituting this dry volume. The directions will tell you how long to let the bulgur set to absorb the water and become softer. After the bulgur is ready, mix together bulgur, cucumber, tomato, parsley, mint, onions and garlic. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Then combine with the other ingredients, mixing well. Refrigerate and let chill for two hours before serving for the flavors to meld. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, before serving.

Makes six servings. Each serving has 180 calories, 10 g fat, 4 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber and 10 mg sodium.

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