Spice Up Your Health

A lot of what I hear about using spices and herbs focuses on how they can help you slash your sodium intake, which is a crucial part of keeping your heart, brain, and kidneys healthy.  At least equally important is the fact that these ingredients contain phytonutrients that have a profound effect on your overall wellness. If you don’t currently use these ingredients much, here are a few that you might want to start with (I limited myself to discussing five here):

Basil

Health Benefits: Basil aids in digestion and is often used to treat motion sickness, gas, and nausea. It is also helpful for treating various illnesses involving the lungs and is said to ease tension and promote sleep. Basil is used in several countries to reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease secondary to clogged arteries and appears to prevent the formation of blood clots. Lastly, it exhibits both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Pairs well with: A staple in Italian food, basil pairs well with Parmesan, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses; tomatoes; pasta; chicken dishes; eggs; garlic; and poached fish.

Additional Information: There are more than 100 varieties of basil with a range of distinctive flavors and aromas. Some taste like licorice, mint, or lemon.

A few recipes that you might want to try:

Mozzarella, Zucchini, and Basil Frittata

Black Bean-Quinoa Salad with Basil-Lemon Dressing

Seared Mahi Mahi with Zesty Basil Butter

Cinnamon

Health Benefits: In traditional Chinese medicine, cinnamon is a “warming remedy”. Recent studies have shown that as little as one teaspoon of cinnamon daily can help lower blood sugar and it may also help to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Cinnamon kills the bacteria that can cause food poisoning and those that lead to bad breath and cavities. Cinnamon relieves bloating and gas.

Pairs well with: Sprinkle cinnamon on sweet potatoes, hot cereal, yogurt, and fruit. It can also be mixed into apple sauce or batters (muffin, pancake, banana bread, etc).

Additional Information: Traditional Chinese five-spice powder contains cinnamon, fennel, cloves, peppercorns, and star anise and is most commonly used in chicken dishes. Cincinnati chili contains cinnamon, chocolate, cloves, and allspice.

A few recipes that you may want to try:

Cinnamon and Brown Sugar Custards

Grape, Walnut, Banana Breakfast Bowl

Cinnamon Glazed Baby Carrots

Ginger

Health Benefits: Ginger relieves nausea and motion-sickness, and it has anti-inflammatory properties. Some people believe that ginger boosts circulation. It does, indeed, warm you when you’re cold. Interestingly, it also cools you when you’re hot. Because it blocks the action of prostaglandins, ginger eases migraine and arthritis pain.

Pairs well with: Peel fresh ginger first and add grated ginger to stir-fries, carrot soup, fish and chicken marinade, and Asian-inspired salads. Ginger is also used in many fall/winter types of dishes such as roasted carrots, pumpkin pie, molasses cookies, and some cranberry sauces.

Additional Information: Be aware that high doses of ginger might upset your stomach and can worsen heartburn. It can also interfere with blood-clotting medicine. Foods with ginger in the name, such as some ginger ales, do not always contain any real ginger. You must read the ingredient list.

A few recipes that you might want to try:

Gut-friendly Ginger Pear Muffins

Ginger Salmon with Sesame Cucumbers

Apple-Ginger Chicken

 

Oregano

Health Benefits: In one study, oregano had the highest antioxidant levels among 27 culinary herbs and 12 medicinal herbs tested. It ranked even higher than fruits and vegetables. Oregano has demonstrated antimicrobial activity and can be used on the skin as an antiseptic. When brewed as a tea, it is said to aid digestion and relieve congestion.

Pairs well with: Oregano is good on roasted potatoes, chicken, pizza, pasta, pesto or blended into bean soup. Try mixing it into ground beef for hamburgers.

Additional Information: Fresh oregano has a robust, woodsy flavor.

A few recipes you might want to try:

Spanish-Style Roasted Potatoes

Pork Tenderloin Marinated in Garlic, Lemon, and Oregano with Greek Salad

Orzo with Garbanzo Beans, Goat Cheese, and Oregano

Turmeric

Health Benefits: Curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, is an anti-inflammatory and may treat arthritis. In fact, in some studies, it has been compared to prescription medications for treating rheumatoid arthritis. The components of turmeric and curcumin appear to have antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. It is potentially active against cancer (breast, stomach, colon); diabetes; Alzheimer’s disease; and other chronic diseases. Turmeric may help to prevent strokes. It also promotes wound healing, because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Some people have reported that turmeric helps with heartburn, stomach ulcers, and gallstones.

Pairs well with: Turmeric is good in curry dishes, egg or chicken salad, butternut squash, macaroni and cheese, and savory lentil or rice recipes. Lately, people have been drinking “golden milk” made with with turmeric, milk, and other spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, and/or cayenne pepper. Yellow mustard contains some curcumin. Curry powder, which contains turmeric, can be added to meat and seafood dishes or mixed into ketchup.

Additional Information: High doses of turmeric can cause drug interactions with anticoagulant/antiplatelet drugs and some diabetes drugs.

A few recipes you might want to try:

Turmeric Chicken and Rice

Broccoli Cheese Soup

Curried Squash Muffins

 

Some general tips for cooking with herbs and spices:

  • Dried herbs pack more flavor than the same quantity of fresh. A good rule of thumb is to use ½ to 2/3 the amount of dried herbs when substituting for fresh herbs.
  • Cold foods such as dressings and dips should sit in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours before serving so that the flavors can blend.
  • Add fresh spices and herbs to hot dishes as close to serving time as possible. Dried herbs and spices should be added early in the cooking process.
  • By making a paste of chopped fresh herbs and olive oil, you’ll allow for storage (in an air-tight container) in the freezer for up to six months.
  • Dried spices need to be kept in a dark, cool, dry place (not right over the stove!)
  • The USDA recommends replacing ground spices after two to three years. Smell your spices to make sure that they’re still pungent and replace them sooner if necessary.
  • Some people may be allergic to individual spices. Curry, paprika, and fennel are the most common culprits.
  • Buy organic herbs to avoid pesticide exposure when possible.