Holiday cooking is intoxicating as perfumes fill the air. Tray after tray of aromatic cookies seduce us; simmering pots of cider warm us with their fragrance. Spicy stews and soups enliven our taste buds. Holiday cooking makes our knees weak with desire and nostalgia, tradition and emotion.
What if I told you that these seductive spices also provided a boost to the health of your loved ones? I can almost hear the pitter patter of your feet running to the kitchen top whip up a spicy holiday treat.
Since ancient times, many cultures have employed herbs and spices not only to season and preserve food, but as natural ways to treat what ailed people. We may have lost our way and become enslaved to pharmaceuticals, but Mother Nature continues to provide a spicy alternative to pill-popping.
By the way, herbs are the leaves and stems of plants, while spices are made from the roots, bark and seeds of various plants. In both cases, their flavors are stronger when dried, but can be used either fresh or dried in cooking.
Current research has begun to catch up with ancient wisdom when it comes to herbs and spices. We may drink herbal teas to soothe an upset stomach, calm frayed nerves or relieve a sore throat, but experts now say herbs and spices can provide amazing benefits to our health. This little A-B-C primer will help you to use herbs and spices not only to add a little zip to a recipe, but to add a little zip to your health as well.
- Anise adds a lovely delicate flavor of licorice and is a favorite in pastries, breads, cookies and cakes. More important, humble anise helps alleviate gas, ease intestinal spasms and may even help prevent some cancers.
- Cardamom is lovely in pastries and other desserts, but its earthy flavor makes the sweet taste of winter squash and sweet potatoes utterly gorgeous. And did I mention that certain cultures use cardamom to relieve indigestion?
- Cinnamon, one of our most beloved spices, often described as smelling ‘like Christmas,’ enhances the flavor of just about any dish it hits. In both sweet and savory dishes, cinnamon shines, from cookies and chocolate treats to stewy, spiced tagines. The best news is that this delicious spice has been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, ease muscle pain, support weight loss by helping us process carbohydrates more efficiently, as well as help regulate blood sugar levels. Cinnamon has proven to be so powerful that in some cases, people on blood thinners are advised against using it at all.
- Capsaicin, the hot in hot peppers has been shown to be an anti-inflammatory that relieves pain and benefits the cardiovascular system.
- Ginger, that most brilliant flavor we associate with stir-fried veggies, marinades, sauces and baked goods…like gingerbread is more than just yummy. It possesses amazing anti-inflammatory properties; works to relieve motion sickness; relieves intestinal distress and improves circulation.
- Mint has a clean, fresh taste that brings out the best in fruit salads and teas. As a garnish to a rich soup, mint is without peer. But did you know you can use this cool customer to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and ease hay fever sniffles?
- Rosemary has a strong, earthy flavor that is perfect with fattier foods and can be used to bring out the sweetness in various veggies, like sweet potatoes and winter squash. And is there a more delicious dish than roasted potatoes with olive oil and rosemary? But this Simon and Garfunkel reference is more than just a great flavor. Rosemaric acid, the primary antioxidant in rosemary can prevent carcinogens from binding to DNA; inhaling the aroma of this herb can increase free-radical scavenging activity and it helps decrease the stress hormone, cortisol.
- Sage is a flavor that people either love or hate. Its unique flavor combines well with fattier foods, like oil-based sauces, but it shines in soups, stews and adds a beautiful flavor to bean dishes. But sage has been used for centuries to improve memory and alleviate a bad mood.
- Thyme blends well with a variety of dishes, but it loves olive oil and garlic. Basil and oregano work well with thyme to create a symphony of flavors on your palate. Considered a basic herb, thyme has been proven to have intense antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties.
- Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that adds a zesty flavor to Indian and Latin cooking and works well with ginger and garlic. But it’s the curcumin that is the star here, not the color. Research shows that it helps protect the liver, fights infection, inhibits tumor growth and reduces inflammation. Work is being done to see what effects turmeric has on Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, cancer and other diseases. This ancient spice is one to watch.
There are many more herbs and spices to look at in terms of our health and wellness, but these few are the herbs of this holiday season…and enough, I hope to wet your appetite for cooking for wellness.
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