Spices and Herbs
While most people think of spices, seasonings and herbs as the substances that make our food taste good, these colorful ingredients also pack a nutritional punch. To get the most benefit in both taste and nutrition, be sure your spices are fresh and, whenever possible, use fresh herbs rather than the dried versions.
Anise – licorice-flavored seed used to flavor baked products and in tea; also used to flavor some toothpastes, throat lozenges and cough syrup; popular in Mexico and in Mediterranean countries; different plant from licorice, although the taste is similar; a very good source of Iron and Manganese.
Basil – green, aromatic herb widely used in its sweet form for flavoring foods; appears to have originated in India; frequently used to flavor tomato-based dishes; main flavor in pesto sauce; may aid in digestion; easy to grow in a kitchen herb garden; may be protective against some pests in your garden; a very good source of Vitamin C, A and K as well as, many minerals.
-Basil recipe ideas:
Bay leaf – the long, pointy leaf of the laurel tree that is used to flavor soups and stews; popular in Mediterranean cooking; has a sharp, bitter taste; bay leaf is removed before serving.
-Bay leaf recipe ideas: Add a bay leaf to soups and stews for extra flavor. (Be sure to remove before serving.)
Caraway – aromatic seed used since ancient times for flavoring foods and for medicinal purposes; native to North Africa and parts of Europe; most popular in U.S. to flavor sauerkraut, rye breads and some cheeses; may be chewed to freshen breath and to aid in digestion; similar to cumin in looks, but not taste; very good source of Iron and Calcium.
Cardamom – ancient, aromatic spice derived from the seed of a plant in the ginger family; distinctive flavor of “windmill” cookies; often used in Indian curry dishes; may be a digestive aid; one of the more expensive spices when good quality; very good source of Iron and Manganese.
-Cardamom recipe ideas: Click here for Fruit and Nut Casserole recipe.
Cayenne – a pungent, red-hot chili, usually ground; originated in Central and South America; high in capsaicin, a potent anti-inflammatory compound; good source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K, as well as the mineral, manganese; may help lower cholesterol and boost immunity.
-Cayenne recipe ideas: Add a pinch of cayenne pepper to hot chocolate for Mexican Hot Chocolate. Add cayenne powder to tomato-based soups for extra zing! Click here for Four-Bean Chili Recipe.
Be aware that a little cayenne pepper goes a long way, especially if you are not used to its spicy heat!
Chervil - delicate green herb that is a member of the carrot family; looks like a carrot top; related to parsley in flavor; fragrance resembles anise; popular in French cooking; may aid in digestion; a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Manganese, Iron, Potassium, Calcium, and Zinc.
-Chervil recipe ideas: Add chervil to mashed potatoes, omelets, and sauces, as well as to salads. May be used as a garnish, like the more familiar parsley.
Chives – dark green herb that grows like blades of grass; leaves are hollow and tubular; member of the onion family with the mildest flavor; may aid in digestion; perennial plant that is easy to grow in a backyard garden; very good source of Vitamin A, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, and Manganese.
-Chive recipe ideas: Add chopped or shredded chives to mashed potatoes, potato salad, scrambled eggs, cottage cheese and homemade salad dressings. Adds a mild onion flavor to soups.
Cinnamon – pungent, brown spice derived from the bark of the cinnamon tree; available ground or in sticks (“quills”);good source of manganese, iron and calcium; helps control blood sugar so it may be useful to pre-diabetics and diabetics; has preservative properties; native to the Far East.
-Cinnamon recipe ideas: Sprinkle some cinnamon on hot cereal for extra flavor and a nice aroma. Add to breads, muffins and cookies.
-Caveat for cinnamon: Avoid large doses of this spice, especially the cassia type, since it contains a substance called "coumarin," which is harmful in large doses.
Cloves – sweet, aromatic spice native to Indonesia that, in its whole form, is the dried buds of the clove tree, name derived from Latin word for nail, may be purchased whole or ground, good source of manganese, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin C and Vitamin K.
-Clove recipe ideas: Tasty addition, when used sparingly, to apple, pumpkin and tomato dishes. Click on this link for Wassail recipe.
Coriander – ancient, aromatic seed native to the Middle East; leaves from the same plant are known as the herb, cilantro; one of the best healing herbs due to its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to help regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol, cilantro is one of the ingredients that gives Mexican salsa its distinctive flavor; a good source of Manganese, Magnesium, Calcium and Iron.
Cumin – tiny striped, bristly seeds that resemble caraway seeds; peppery flavor; good source of iron; may be a digestive aid and have anti-cancer properties; commonly used to flavor Mexican cuisine; a good source of Manganese, Magnesium, Calcium and Iron.
-Cumin recipe ideas: Use cumin in your Mexican recipes, including chili, refries, taco seasoning and tomato-based enchilada sauces. Click here for Tofu Sloppy Joes recipe.
Dill - aromatic seeds, leaves and stalks of the dill plant; often used in Russian cuisine; seeds have a stronger flavor than the leaves and stalks; good source of iron; used to make pickles; may be a digestive aid and have anti-cancer properties; good source of Vitamin A, Riboflavin, Folate Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Manganese, Iron, Calcium, Magnesium and Potassium.
-Dill recipe ideas: Can be used as a garnish and to flavor egg salad and potato salad. Click here for Potato Borscht recipe.
Fennel – light-green-to-brown, curved seeds with a flavor similar to anise; most commonly used in Italian cuisine and to flavor fish dishes; fennel is a bulbed plant that is also edible; seeds have medicinal properties, especially for the intestinal tract and may have anti-microbial effects; a good source of Manganese, Magnesium, Calcium and Iron.
Ginger – rhizome (root) of the ginger plant; warming herb with spicy, pungent flavor; native to Asia; medicinal properties include soothing intestinal tract, anti-nausea, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties; good source of potassium; considered a “super food” by some health experts.
Ginger recipe ideas: Make ginger tea by steeping two half-inch slices of peeled root in a cup of hot water. Add to pumpkin and apple recipes for extra flavor and nutrition. Add to smoothies for extra zing and digestibility.
Marjoram - sweet, fragrant, green herb; native to the Mediterranean region; often confused with oregano; good source of Vitamin C and Vitamin K, iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
-Marjoram recipe ideas: Use sparingly to flavor egg dishes, squash, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and soups and stews.
Miso – fermented soybean paste, popular in Japan; good source of trytophan, zinc, Vitamin K, manganese and copper; flavor varies based on duration of fermentation and ingredients added; process originated in ancient China.
-Miso recipe ideas: Miso soup can be made by combining Miso and water and heating on low. Vegetables may be added for more texture and flavor.
--Caveat: Soy products may cause allergic reactions for some people. They also contain substances that are known as “goitrogens,” which can affect people with thyroid problems.
Mustard – tiny, round seeds of the mustard plant; spicy and aromatic flavor; seeds may vary in color from light yellow to dark brown; may be purchased whole or ground; greens from the mustard plant are edible and very nutritious; good source of niacin, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, iron and calcium; Yellow mustard and Dijon mustard are made of different varieties of mustard seed.
Nutmeg – seed of a large, tropical evergreen tree, which also is the source of the spice; the reddish covering over the nutmeg seeds; fruit of the tree is also edible; native to Indonesia; flavor is warm and sweet; used to flavor eggnog; freshly ground nutmeg is tastier, since it begins to lose its flavor once it is ground.
--Caveat: Although a pinch will add a warm, sweet flavor, nutmeg is poisonous in larger doses.
Oregano – leafy herb that is similar to marjoram and even called “wild marjoram” in some parts of the world; available in Mexican (stronger) and Mediterranean varieties; native to northern Europe; good source of Vitamin K, Vitamin A, manganese, calcium and iron; oil has anti-microbial properties; fresh is more flavorful but dried works well, too.
Oregano recipe ideas: Sprinkle sparingly on pizza and garlic bread. Click here for Calzones recipe.
Parsley – popular, leafy green herb, related to celery and often used as a garnish; mainly purchased in curly or flat-leaf (Italian) varieties; Italian variety is considered the tastier of the two; excellent source of Vitamin K; good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron and folic acid; medicinal properties include digestive, and urinary tract benefits; may be useful in preventing and treating cancer.
-Parsley recipe ideas: Add parsley to salads and vegetable dishes or to soups and stews—or even smoothies--for increased nutrition and flavor.
Rosemary – fragrant, evergreen herb with a pungent flavor; good source of iron; may have health benefits for the digestive system, heart and immune system; seems to increase blood flow to the brain and thus be good for memory and concentration; good source of healthy anti-oxidants.
-Rosemary recipe ideas: Rosemary is most often used to flavor meat dishes, but it can be used in tomato dishes and egg dishes as well. It can also be combined with olive oil to make a dipping sauce for fresh bread.
Saffron – spice derived from the stigmas of a variety of crocus flowers; considered the most expensive spice in the world since it is hand-picked and requires a large volume of flowers to produce a small amount of spice; native to Asia; used sparingly in recipes such as Saffron Rice, Paella, Bouillabaisse and Cornish saffron buns.
--Caveat: A pinch of saffron will do—large doses can be fatal.
Sage – grayish-green, “velvety” aromatic herb; available in fresh or dried (whole, rubbed, powdered) form; has anti-inflammatory properties; may enhance memory; native to Mediterranean region; comes in many varieties including pineapple sage, which has a strong pineapple scent.
-Sage recipe ideas:
Salt - a general term for a variety of products that are used to season food; mostly made up of sodium chloride.
-Table salt – salt found in most saltshakers; mined salt that is refined to sodium chloride with added anti-caking agents and in some cases (iodized salt) iodine and glucose.
-Sea salt – a term used for a variety of less refined salt that comes from the ocean or sea; harvested and allowed to dry naturally in the sun; contains natural traces of other minerals such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, calcium, manganese, iron and iodine; comes in various grades from extra fine to coarse; includes a wide variety of colors and flavors.-
MY TWO CENTS about Spices and Herbs
Historically, salt has been a highly prized commodity. It lends flavor to foods, as well as preserving them. "Salt pork" was a staple in the days before the widespread availability of refrigeration methods.
Unfortunately, the salt that is used in most commercially prepared foods and that is found in most salt shakers is a processed variety, adulterated with bleaches and anti-caking agents, and not the natural product that was once so precious.
The good news is that you can still find natural, unprocessed salt, if you are willing to take the time and spend a little more. I use a brand called "Celtic Sea Salt," which is available on-line and in some health food stores. I find that it does not make me thirsty like processed salt does, and the flavor is exquisite. It comes in various forms--all very tasty!
Tahini - sesame seed paste used widely in Middle Eastern cuisine; comes in light and dark varieties; ingredient in hummus and halvah; can be used to make sauces.
Tamari – dark brown soy sauce that may be used to flavor foods instead of salt; not to be confused with regular “soy sauce”; good source of niacin and manganese; originated in China; popular in Japanese cuisine also; originally made from Miso, but newer versions have wheat or barley added; available in “wheat-free” form.
--Caveat: Soy products may cause allergic reactions for some people. They also contain substances that are known as “goitrogens,” which can affect people with thyroid problems. Also, look for tamari that does not have MSG added.
Tarragon – a green herb with narrow leaves; flavor like anise; best used fresh; French variety is best for cooking; tends to dominate flavors so should be used sparingly; used as a flavoring for vinegar; used to flavor cheese and egg dishes. Tarragon is a great source of Vitamin A, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese and Potassium.
Turmeric – yellow spice that comes form the root of the curcuma longa plant; gives yellow mustard its color; ingredient in Indian curry powder; warm peppery flavor; good source of iron, potassium, pyridoxine and manganese; contains a substance called “curcumin” that is anti-inflammatory, cholesterol lowering, and may have medicinal effects in the prevention and treatment of arthritis, cancer, digestive disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
-Turmeric recipe ideas: Add a bit of turmeric to potato salad and egg salad and to soups and stews.
Spices and herbs can spice up your life! Be adventurous and try adding some of these wonderful seasonings, herbs and spices to your cooking. Your food will taste great and your health will benefit as well!