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Aromatherapy in Your Kitchen: Cooking with Herbs & Spices

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Donnay
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« on: November 03, 2010, 08:53:16 am »

Aromatherapy in Your Kitchen: Cooking with Herbs & Spices

Pat Thomas
The Ecologist
Fri, 29 Oct 2010 00:10 CDT

How to make your food your medicine and medicine your food, starting with six common herbs you can use in your recipes and everyday cooking

The smell of our food is inexorably linked to our enjoyment of it. In fact, taste and smell are the two most directly linked of our senses. Aroma is the essence of food, but as well as making food taste good, it can also enhance our sense of well-being.

While the concept of aromatherapy has become something of a catch-all phrase for a wide range of healing techniques, such as massage and steam inhalation, which involve the use of highly concentrated oils derived from plants and flowers, rarely if ever do we think of our food as having aromatherapeutic properties.

The health benefits of flavorful food are well known in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. While it is unlikely that you will be eating herbs and spices in anything like medicinal quantities, many have been shown to be concentrated sources of antioxidants, and if taken regularly in great enough quantities, some can have medicinal effects. Cinnamon, for example, helps regulate blood sugar; in Germany, sage is licensed as a standard medicinal tea to treat gastrointestinal upsets and night sweats.

Taste may also be important to feelings of satiety and therefore be influential in managing overeating and obesity. There is evidence to suggest that foods that are flavorful, taken in small bites, may increase a person's satisfaction with a meal and help regulate food intake.

Although it is an area that would benefit from more study, smell disorders have been linked with many health problems including obesity, and one small study found that in 20 per cent of participating children the ability to fully detect the aromas of their food was impaired.

Another study found that those who had the most taste buds, and therefore the greatest sensitivity to food tastes/smells, had the lowest body mass index.

One reason why we eat so many fried foods may be because frying can bring out the complex, satisfying aromas of food (for more on food flavors, see this extract from Eric Sclosser's book Fast Food Nation). So if your food preparation rarely goes beyond salting and peppering consider these alternatives and remember - whatever you are eating, don't overcook, and chew fully and slowly to release all the beneficial aromas and flavors.

Healthy herbs

Herbs will add subtle flavors to almost any dish. Unlike spices, which often come from far away, herbs can be grown easily in your garden and picked fresh when you need them. Always use the fresh herb and tear, don't cut the leaves. Gently crushing the leaves by scrunching them up in your hand or lightly bruising them using a mortar and pestle is a good way to releasing their aromas.

Basil fortifies the digestive and nervous systems and can be a good remedy for headaches and insomnia. It is also a good diuretic. When using it in cooking, opt for the fresh leaves and wait until the very last moment before adding them to your dish. Try scattering it on tomato salads, in soups and to egg, rice and mushroom dishes. Make your own pesto sauce, or put some fresh leaves into olive oil for a pungent salad dressing (don't worry if the leaves turn black).

Dill has a sharp/sweet taste, somewhere between mint and aniseed. It is a natural bactericide, diuretic and digestive soother and can be effective against cystitis and other bladder infections. Use it liberally with seafood, especially salmon. Sprinkle it onto salads or lightly steamed vegetables especially new or baked potatoes. You can also add the seeds to stews, soups or as a topping on cooked vegetables or in rice dishes.

Fennel is a relative of dill and has a slightly milder flavor. Its traditional uses are for lack of appetite, poor digestion, fatigue, fluid retention, headaches and bladder infections. It is also helpful in cases of anemia. Fennel is great baked on its own or with fish but is equally appetizing raw in a range of fresh salads. As an alternative, put the seeds into a pepper mill and grind over meats, pulse dishes or fish.

Lemon Balm is useful for depression and anxiety. It can also ease the symptoms of stress, such as headache, migraine and insomnia. Use the fresh leaves in (non-alcoholic) cocktails, in stuffing and in both savory and fruit salads. It goes well with fish and can be infused in milk for a lemony milk pudding.

Mint is a sedative and is good for the nervous system. It is traditionally considered an aid to detoxification and has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Mint is the traditional sauce for lamb but has many other uses. Fresh mint can be brewed as a tea or put in tall, cool drinks in the summer. Mix it with Bulgar wheat for a delicious salad. Sprinkle over new potatoes or peas or use in salads or dressings. It is also delicious mixed in with chutneys as a cooling accompaniment to spicy foods, such as curries.

Parsley has numerous uses including as a general tonic, diuretic and digestive aid. It is an effective treatment for constipation and the French revere it in much the same way that the Chinese revere ginseng. Don't just plop it on the side of your plate; stir it into a omelets, vegetable and rice dishes. Mix it with some butter, spread this on some crusty bread and bake briefly for a quick snack. Add it to mashed potato and use it when making fish or meat balls.

Rosemary is a natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It's a staple in Mediterranean cooking and can be used to infuse everything from lamb, poultry, pork, veal, and beef to roasted potatoes, green beans, peas, and mushrooms with a fresh flavor. Brew it as a tea to calm frayed nerves and relieve wind. Use it to make flavorful oils and vinegars or try something really different and use it to flavor custard.

Sage is an ancient remedy used to 'normalize' the female reproductive system. Eaten raw it can also be effective in rheumatic conditions, catarrh, excessive sweating and tummy upsets. Add to salads, soups and stuffing for rich meats like pork and goose. Make a seasoning by grinding up dried sage leaves with coarse sea salt. This can be used on almost any savory dish. Alternatively, make a uniquely flavored honey by adding freshly dried sage leaves. This can then be used in herbal teas and sweet dishes to give them a therapeutic boost.

Tarragon can settle the stomach and relieve constipation. It can clear the body of intestinal parasites, ease fluid retention and improve the appetite. Because it is so savory you may not need to use as much salt in cooked dishes - a bonus for those suffering from hypertension. Its most popular use is with chicken, but it can also be used in salads and omelets. Put some in a bottle of good quality vinegar for a tasty condiment.

Thyme is a general tonic and an aid to digestion. It is also useful for colds, coughs, flu, asthma and sinus headaches. Some sources claim it also acts as an antioxidant. Thyme is best used fresh in marinades and sauces, stocks and stuffing. It is a staple of slow cooked casseroles and stews and is reputed to 'fix' the iron in meat as well as making it more digestible. Crushed leaves make excellent herb oils and vinegars.

Spices don't simply add flavour to your food - they also aid digestion, protect against bacteria and prevent a range of illnesses

Cooking with Spices

Spices generally add a more pungent taste to foods. Wherever possible, it is best to buy the whole spice and grind or crush it yourself. This way the aroma will be stronger and you will benefit from more of the active ingredients.

As food activist Vandana Shiva has pointed out, unlike buying pineapple chunks from impoverished Ghanaian farmers or green beans from rain-starved Kenya, buying herbs and spices that are legitimate indigenous agricultural products is a good way to invest in developing countries and to give them access to the world market without destroying their food cultures in the process.

Our appreciation of the taste and smell of food actually begins in the womb. Not only does what you eat provide the building blocks for your baby's growth, it also provides, quite literally, a taste of the environment it will be born into, since amniotic fluid becomes flavored according to what the mother eats. In this way it is thought that babies become acclimatised to the food preferences of their culture.

While herbs are the leaves of herbaceous plants, spices come from the other parts of the plant, such as the bark, root, bud or berry. Unlike fresh herbs, spices are generally used in their dried form. This means their essential oils content is highly concentrated, and if stored properly - in airtight containers, away from light - they can keep their pungent odors for a very long time.

There are a wealth of spices you can use to make meals more appealing and many of these are also commonly used for their healing properties in traditional medicine.

Caraway has traditionally been used to aid digestion and relieve wind. Sprinkle fresh leaves over cabbage, potato and beetroot dishes. If you grow your own, you can also eat the tap roots as you would parsnip.

Cardamom is a good digestive stimulant and diuretic. It is effective against H. Pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers, and may help to prevent atherosclerosis. Buy the whole green or bleached white seeds to use, lightly crushed, in rice dishes, curries and meat stews. Freshly ground cardamom can give a surprisingly tangy lift to an everyday fruit salad.

Cinnamon is a first-class antiseptic and digestive aid. It is rich in antioxidants, which may be why one of its traditional uses is to aid recovery from colds and flu. There is some evidence that cinnamon is useful in helping to normalize blood glucose levels. It is equally nice in savory dishes, such as stews, stuffing, pickles and relishes, as it is in sweet dishes, such as stewed fruits and pies. It's lovely mixed with sugar on hot buttered toast and can be used to spice up rice or milk puddings. Try using a cinnamon stick to stir hot chocolate or coffee.

Coriander can stimulate appetite, help increase secretion of gastric juices and aid digestion. It is traditionally used as a diuretic and is a strong antibacterial shown to be effective against salmonella. The seeds can be used in curries, chutneys, stews and soups. They blend well with smoked meats and game and even fish. Ground coriander seeds also add a nice dimension to breads, desserts and sweet pastries.

Cumin is a good general tonic. It is antiseptic, antibacterial and is reputed to help improve circulation. It has antioxidant properties and studies show it can inhibit the growth of cancer cells, at least in the lab. It can be delicious added to a marinade for barbecues or kebabs. You can make a spicy eastern-style salad with tomatoes, green peppers, courgettes and/or aubergines, with a little powdered cumin sprinkled on top. Use the whole seeds in pickles or preserves.

Ginger can be used to combat nausea, vomiting and morning sickness. It can be as twice as effective as Dramamine in preventing motion sickness. It is antiseptic and also full of antioxidants. Its anti-inflammatory effects make it useful in treating arthritis and post-exercise stiffness. It is a digestive aid and can relieve symptoms of sore throats, colds and flu. Ginger is also tasty in pickles and cheese dishes, and can be used effectively in all forms of baking, particularly cakes and breads.

Juniper berries
are detoxifying and effective in combating rheumatic conditions such as arthritis. Juniper is traditionally used to aid digestion. It is an effective diuretic and can treat urinary tract infections. The fresh berries are best lightly crushed and cooked with meat and game. Used with garlic and sea salt they are a wonderful accompaniment to cabbage and other green vegetables. Juniper can also be used in a variety of stuffing, sauces, marinades and pÔtÚs.

Nutmeg acts as a stimulant, tonic and digestive. It can be beneficial for convalescents and those who are over-tired, can ease wind and is reportedly good for the heart. It is also reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Nutmeg can transform mashed potatoes and other vegetable dishes. Sprinkle over hot chocolate for a quick pick-me-up.

Peppercorns come in green, black, white and pink, and are actually a fruit. Pepper aids digestion and stimulates appetite. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and is traditionally used to aid detoxification, to ease lung and bronchial infections, and relieve shock and stress. Use in savory stocks and marinades, and liberally over salads and hot vegetable dishes. Coat meats thoroughly before grilling, and add crushed peppercorns to vinegars and oils to make spicy dressings. Always buy whole peppercorns and grind as required. Pre-ground spice quickly loses its active properties.

Star anise is traditionally used to ease wind, hiccups and fluid retention. It may also have antiviral properties that make it useful against flu (in fact, it is the starting material for the drug Tamiflu). Star anise has a spicy, licorice-like taste. The seeds go particularly well with figs. Use the whole spice or the seeds with fish and in vegetable dishes, soups, rice dishes and curries.

About the author

Pat Thomas is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster. She is also a former editor of The Ecologist.
« Last Edit: November 03, 2010, 08:56:15 am by Donnay » Report Spam   Logged

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Bad Penny
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« Reply #1 on: November 03, 2010, 11:08:02 pm »

Donnay:

Good find, but how do you get around guys like me who've learned that nothing enhances flavo(u)r like fat?  (The key is to eat the foods in small amounts, and, possibly, to consider the enjoyment of life in terms of quality rather than quantity (in other words, not to mind the heart attack one's working on in the course of enjoying a high-fat diet).)  Just look at my "Chicken Providence" recipe, in which the melting butter brings out the aromas of the fat-soluble spices, and you'll see what I mean.

One further point: many people swear by the medicinal properties of oil of oregano, a totally natural remedy.
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« Reply #2 on: November 04, 2010, 04:39:46 pm »

Hello Bad Penny, the real danger is male belly fat that is too much enjoyment  Wink

In the case of acute or chronic disease would not suggest oil based natural remedies there are alternatives such as capsules or teas.


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« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2010, 06:32:05 am »

IndependentWV:

I hear you, but I really don't suffer from excessive male belly fat, as I don't eat that much.  (I have very bad teeth, which fact enforces a certain discipline upon my caloric intake.)
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« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2010, 11:19:33 pm »

IndependentWV:

I hear you, but I really don't suffer from excessive male belly fat, as I don't eat that much.  (I have very bad teeth, which fact enforces a certain discipline upon my caloric intake.)


We absorb much more nutrition while spending less energy on digestion with blended foods such as soups. So actually you may be absorbing more nutrition.
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