Herbal essences: Adding a hint of flavor to cool drinks

Published: Tuesday, July 24 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Herbal lemonades add a twist to your usual summer sippers.

Valerie Phillips, Valerie Phillips

Looking for new ways to beat the heat and stay hydrated? Look to your herb garden to punch up the flavor in the usual lemonade and fruity spritzers.

Basil, rosemary and thyme are most often used in savory dishes, but they can add an unexpected complexity when infused with beverages. If you're bored with your usual diet soft drink, try adding a few fragrant sprigs to sugar-free lemonade mix. Lavender and mint add a playful note to many juices. Cilantro and parsley can perk up the Spanish perennial summer favorite, gazpacho.

Spiking your drinks with a few herbs can also be a somewhat healthy habit. After all, herbal teas have been used for centuries. But modern-day researchers are finding antioxidants in herbs that may protect cells from damage that lead to cancer.

"How this all translates to health benefits for humans is yet to be seen, but we don't need to wait for all the research to include herbs in our foods and beverages," said Alice Bender, a registered dietitian with the American Institute for Cancer Research. "You've found a delicious and beautiful way to include foods with potential cancer-fighting substances."

Of course, she cautions, no one food can protect you from cancer or chronic disease.

The AICR and other health organizations recommend avoiding sugary beverages because they contribute to overweight and obesity. Even 100 percent fruit juice should be limited to no more than a cup per day, "But with herbs and sparkling water, the flavor can be great. A lighter beverage for summer is more refreshing."

Pouring over crushed ice dilutes the sweetness of lemonades and fruit punches somewhat. If you want some fizz, add club soda, which is sugar- and calorie-free.

Some tips:

Aim for subtle flavor. Too much of an herb makes a drink bitter and astringent-tasting. Fortunately, ice-cold beverages tend to dull the flavors a little.

If you really don't like the flavor of a certain herb in savory dishes such as soup or spaghetti sauce, you probably won't like it in a drink, either. Try a little in a one-cup serving before adding it to a whole pitcher full of lemonade.

Most of the time, it's best to chop up an herb and let it steep in the liquid awhile to infuse the flavor. Then strain out the old, spent leaves it before serving. If desired, add a fresh sprig for garnish.

If you're using a fizzy drink, you'll want to serve it right away while the drink is still fizzy. You can finely chop the herbs so they're palatable, or just use a sprig of the herb as a stirrer or fragrant garnish. You'll still get a hint of the flavor.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com

Minted Apple Juice

1 can frozen apple juice concentrate

3 cans water

2-3 sprigs of mint leaves (about 1/4 cup), coarsely chopped

Club soda, if desired,/b>

Mix the apple juice in a large pitcher. Add the mint leaves. Refrigerate 1-2 hours. Pour the juice through a strainer and discard the spent leaves.

Serve over crushed ice, garnished with a few more sprigs of mint. Add club soda if you want some fizz. Makes 4-6 servings.

— Valerie Phillips

Basil Lemonade or Limeade

1 package diet lemonade or limeade mix, such as Crystal Light, prepared according to package directions

1/4 cup loosely packed basil leaves, torn or coarsely chopped