• Greek Salad with Baby Mint, Oregano and Feta
• Lentil Soup with Bay Leaves and Vegetables
• Broiled Fish Fillets with Thyme and Lemon
• Vegetables Stuffed with Fresh Herbs and Eggplant
• Orzo Salad with Dittany, Spinach and Feta Cheese
• Poached Blood Oranges with Rose Petals
Greeks have always proudly treasured herbs for their wondrous flavors, scents, aphrodisiac effects, calming qualities, and healing abilities. There are hundreds of native herbs that grow abundantly in the Grecian landscape, including many varieties of mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, dittany, bay, sage, basil, and garlic. Greeks have used herbs to flavor and scent their food for thousands of years. The use of these herbs remains just as important today.
Throughout history, herbs have also been an integral part of Greek traditions, myths, and religious rituals. The ancient Greeks eagerly consumed herb-infused, honeyed wines for their mystical properties during their Dionysian revelries and Eleusinian mysteries. In The Odyssey, Homer writes of the wild herbs growing in the Greek countryside. The ancient Greeks worshipped Demeter, goddess of herbs, vegetables, the harvest, and agriculture.
Today, Greek Orthodox priests offer the blessing with bunches of fragrant mint and basil dipped in holy water. Greeks have always believed that herbs are essential for good health and continue to use them medicinally. As the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 b.c.) stated, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, used herbs from the Greek countryside as a foundation for medical science and healing.
Modern research has proven that herbs used in Greek cooking have tremendous health benefits and that traditional Greek Mediterranean cuisine is the heart-healthiest food in the world. Other scientific studies have shown that the rural people of Greece, Spain, and southern Italy have the lowest rates of diet-linked disease and obesity, and the longest life expectancy of any group.
At the core of the Greek Mediterranean diet are fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits, which researchers believe protect the heart with their abundant supply of antioxidants. The Greek Mediterranean diet also features heart-healthy monounsaturated fat from olive oil and valuable omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish, which have been shown to reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
But Greek cuisine is more than healthy. The dishes are also a delight for the senses. Packed with herbs, they’ll bring your spring meals alive with taste and aroma.
Elaine Gavalas is a nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and weight-management specialist living in New York City. She’s the author of Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking (Avery Penguin Putnam, 1998) and can be reached via e-mail at AskElaine@aol.com.