Monday, March 15, 2010

Rosemary: An Herb with History

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub and a member of the mint family. It has nothing to do with Mary or roses, instead deriving its name from the Latin "rosmarinus." which means "dew of the sea," referring to its light blue flowers and affinity for wet environments.

Rosemary has been traditionally used in Mediterranean cooking for both flavor and food preservation. In addition, rosemary has antioxidant effects, so may reduce inflammation.

Contrary to popular belief, rosemary is in fact an herb, not a spice. Not to get too fussy, but the difference is that herbs tend to use the leaf of the plant, fresh or dry (like rosemary, cilantro, and parsley) and tend to grow in temperate climates. Spices (like turmeric, cumin, and coriander) come from ground roots, barks, seeds and flowers and tend to be tropical.

Rosemary has a rich history of non-food use. Shakespeare's Ophelia refers to rosemary saying, "That's for remembrance." She might have been on to something. While evidence is conflicting, there are some indications that rosemary improves brain function and reduced anxiety when used as part of aromatherapy. Greek tradition says placing a rosemary twig under a pillow can prevent nightmares. There is less research on that... But, preliminary research does suggest that its topical use can prevent baldness (a technique some Native Americans have used for centuries). At various points in history, rosemary has also been used as an insect repellent.

The good news about rosemary is we don't need an excuse like improved brain function to eat it regularly. Fresh rosemary adds a bang to anything it's in; dried rosemary adds a more subtle full flavor. It's great in rubs and marinades (especially with lamb and pork), with roasted vegetables and atop soups. If you're feeling adventurous, it is great folded into whipped cream and the perfect topping for a refreshing brunch of French toast.

Rosemary grows quickly and without much work in the Pacific Northwest. In a sunny spot it can grow up to two yards tall. It may become a bit of an unruly bush if it isn't pruned back regularly. If kept in a smaller pot and trimmed every so often, it is a great plant for a balcony, patio or front step.

- Christie Taylor and Cristen Harris, PhD, RD, assistant professor and core faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science


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