I'm always skeptical of claims for herbs and spices touted in health-food magazines or on the Internet. But sometimes I pay attention, especially if they make claims that relate to recipes.
Over the centuries, spices have been touted for their beneficial powers. Ancient civilizations grew them for many medical uses. The Bible liberally refers to using them. India uses spices extensively. So do the Chinese. Arab traders brought spices via trade routes to Alexandria in Egypt, where Venetian merchants who held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe would scoop them up.
Medicinal use aside, at some point early people discovered that a pinch of this or that would make good dishes great. I've narrowed an extensive spice list down to three here, picking out some of my favorite recipes that use this flavorful trio. (Usual caveats apply: Before adding anything in large quantity to your diet, you should consult your doctor, especially if you are pregnant, lactating, diabetic or suffer from a blood disorder. Certain spices may interact with drugs you might be on.)
Turmeric: The active ingredient in turmeric is a plant called curcumin. Turmeric has been used for more than 2,500 years in India, where it was first used as a dye. There are any number of things you can do with a pinch of turmeric. Egg salad, omelets, rice or stuffed eggs take on a sunny hue and their flavor really comes alive.
These are some of the claims for turmeric I've compiled from my reading. Some of them may seem suspect but they're all of interest.
1. As a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent, useful in disinfecting cuts and burns.
2. When combined with cauliflower, it may prevent prostate cancer and stop the growth of existing prostate cancer.
3. May prevent melanoma and cause existing melanoma cells to kill themselves off.
4. Can be a natural liver detoxifier.
5. May prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
6. It is a potent natural anti-inflammatory.
7. Is a natural painkiller.
8. May aid in fat metabolism and help weight management.
9. Has long been used in Chinese medicine as a treatment for depression.
10. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, is touted as a natural treatment for arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
11. Promising studies are under way on its effects on pancreatic cancer
12. Studies under way on the positive effects of turmeric on multiple myeloma
13. Speeds up healing of wounds and assists in remodeling of damaged skin
14. May help in the treatment of psoriasis.
Ginger: Has been touted for years as a plant with healthy attributes and it has a unique flavor. While ginger is actually an herb, the root is used as a spice in food and as a medicine. It can be applied fresh, dried and powdered, or as a juice or oil, and there are many claims for it. I especially like to use fresh ginger when making stir-fry dishes and soups. Here are its attributes:
1. For various types of stomach problems, including motion sickness, morning sickness, colic, upset stomach, gas, diarrhea, nausea caused by chemo, nausea and vomiting after surgery, as well as loss of appetite
2. It has been used to treat upper respiratory tract infections, coughs and bronchitis
3. Fresh ginger is used for treating acute bacterial dysentery, baldness (yes, baldness!), malaria, poisonous snake bites, rheumatism, migraine headache and toothaches
4. Dried ginger is used for chest pain, low back pain and stomach pain
5. Some people pour the fresh juice on their skin to treat burns and pain
6. A flavoring agent in foods and beverages, like ginger ale or beer
7. As fragrance in soaps and cosmetics
8. One of the chemicals in ginger is also used as an ingredient in laxative, anti-gas, and antacid medication
9. Used for decreasing joint pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis
10. There is some evidence that ginger might reduce osteoarthritis pain
11. Used for colds, flu, migraine headaches, loss of appetite.
Cinnamon: The spice we use the most in food, from flavoring meat dishes like moussaka or picadillo to sweet sticky buns. I even add it to my cappuccino every morning. Nothing produces a more appealing fragrance to a kitchen than a cake scented with cinnamon baking in the oven. Although we usually buy it in powdered form, cinnamon can also be bought in little sticks. Sri Lanka produces about 90 percent of the world's cinnamon supply. Often it is used in savory dishes of chicken and lamb. Cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavor cereals, bread-based dishes, desserts and fruits, especially apples.
1. A teaspoon of cinnamon contains 28 mg of calcium, almost one mg of iron, more than a gram of fiber and quite a lot of vitamins C, K and manganese; it also contains about half a gram of "usable" (nonfiber) carbohydrate
2. Used for digestive ailments such as indigestion, gas and bloating, stomach upset and diarrhea
3. It has a mild anti-inflammatory effect
4. It also slows the spoiling of food and has anti-fungal properties
5. Researchers have found that sniffing cinnamon results in improved brain function
6. Cinnamon may improve Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance
7. Improving insulin resistance can help in weight control as well as decreasing the risk for heart disease
8. Improving triglycerides, blood pressure and LDL cholesterol
9. An oil known as eugenol from the leaves of the cinnamon bush has been shown to have antiviral properties in vitro, specifically against both oral and genital herpes viruses.
Here are a few ways to enjoy these spices in food:
3/4 lb garbanzo bean (dried)
2-1/2 lbs chicken (skinless)
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp ginger
1 tsp black pepper
3 garlic cloves (crushed)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp turmeric
1-1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ginger
12 onions (chopped)
14 cup parsley (finely chopped)
1 cinnamon stick
4 tbsp sweet butter
2 tbsp cornstarch
Soak chick peas overnight in water. Blend salt, ginger, pepper, garlic, oil and lemon juice in a bowl. With a skewer, poke several holes into the chicken. Then dip it into the mixture to cover all sides. Place chicken into a dish and cover with remaining mixture. Marinate for at least 2 hours. Drain chick-peas. Place them, with 1/2 teaspoon salt and fresh water into a sauce pan or pressure cooker and cover with lid. If using a regular pot, cook chick peas for 45 minutes. If using a pressure cooker, cook for 15 minutes (after it starts to hiss).
Drain chick-peas and submerge in a bowl of cold water. Gently rub the chick-peas to remove their skins. Immediately remove skinned peas from the water and place into another bowl. Place 3 cups of water, chicken and juices in the bowl into the large pot or pressure cooker. Add 1 teaspoon salt, turmeric, ginger, parsley, 2 cloves garlic, cinnamon stick and butter.
If using a pot, bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, turning the chicken frequently in the sauce. If using a pressure cooker, cover and cook for 8 minutes (after it starts to hiss).
Remove chicken, place back in the glass bowl and cover to stay warm. Add onions and cooked chick-peas to the pot. Bring to a rolling boil, cook until the onions are very tender. Reduce sauce to 2 cups. Mix cornstarch and a little water to make a paste, add to sauce to thicken. Return chicken into the pot to reheat. To serve, place chicken into a deep dish and cover with sauce.
and Tomato Curry
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 slice fresh ginger root
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 (1-inch) piece cinnamon stick, chopped
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
6 skinless chicken thighs
1 (14.5 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed
Place onion, garlic and ginger in a food processor and process into a paste. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add onion paste and sauté, stirring continuously, for about 10 minutes. Stir in the cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves and nutmeg. Sauté, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes. Place chicken pieces in skillet and stir them around with the spice mixture until they are well coated. Sauté for another 4 minutes, then pour in the tomatoes with liquid and stir.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 to 2 hours, or until the oil has separated from the liquid. Stir occasionally. (Note: If you simmer uncovered, the sauce will thicken; add water, or keep covered while simmering.)
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 onion, chopped
6 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tbsp sea salt
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained
1/4 cup blanched almonds
1 zucchini, sliced
2 tbsp raisins
1 cup orange juice
10 ozs spinach
In a Dutch oven, place sweet potato, eggplant, peppers, carrots, onion and 3 tbsp oil. Sauté over medium 5 minutes. In a saucepan, place 3 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, turmeric, curry powder, cinnamon, salt and pepper and saute over medium 3 minutes. Add garlic and spice mixture into the Dutch oven with vegetables. Add the garbanzo beans, almonds, zucchini, raisins and orange juice.
Simmer 20 minutes, covered. Add spinach. Cook 5 minutes.
Lamb Tagine with
Prunes and Cinnamon
2-1/2 lbs lamb shoulder (boneless, cut into 1-1/2 inch pieces)
1 red onion (halved and thinly sliced)
3 tbsp olive oil plus 1/4 cup
3 cinnamon sticks (3-inch)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
1 pinch saffron
1 tbsp white wine
2 -1/2 cups water
2 cups prunes
3 tbsp honey (mild)
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 cup blanched almond
salt and pepper
Toss lamb, onion, 3 tablespoons oil, spices (except saffron), 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot. Lightly toast saffron in a dry small skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat, 15 to 30 seconds. Crumble into wine and let stand 1 minute. Add wine to pot, then add enough water to just cover lamb. Gently simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, 1-1/2 hours. Stir in prunes and honey and simmer until meat is tender and sauce has thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt.
Toast sesame seeds in dry small skillet over medium heat, stirring, until golden, then transfer to a small bowl. Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in same skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then fry almonds until golden.
Drain on paper towels. Serve tagine sprinkled with sesame seeds and almonds.