Spices for good life

Many seasonings are apparently extremely healthy and beneficial.

Spices 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Spices 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whenever my husband asks people from India what makes their food so delicious, they smile and say, “the spices.”
They like to point out that spices are important not only for their flavor but also for good health.
I learned the value of spices from my Yemenite-born mother-in-law, Rachel Levy. She generously seasoned all sorts of dishes with the popular Yemenite spice blend of cumin, turmeric and black pepper. From the first time I tasted her cooking, I was impressed by the wonderful flavor and aroma the spice blend gives to food. It also imparts a lovely hue to pale foods like cauliflower, potatoes and chicken.
The recognition of spices as healthful has been gaining wider acceptance in western lands.
“For centuries Eastern doctors and cooks have embraced a belief in the preventative and healing properties of food,” writes my friend Nina Simonds, star of the “Spices of Life” video series on www.spicesoflife.com. “Ayurvedic doctors credit herbs and spices (as well as certain foods) with health-giving properties, and recent scientific research is confirming some of these beliefs.”
Turmeric, long regarded as healthful in the Mideast as well as India, is a “powerful antioxidant, so retards aging and prevents disease,” writes Simonds. Chili peppers are used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote digestion and to soothe a sore throat. They also contain vitamin A and more vitamin C than citrus fruits.
Simonds interviewed Dr. Jim Duke, who was the leading medical botanist for the US Department of Agriculture for 30 years and compiled databases of the latest scientific studies on herbs. According to Duke, cayenne and all hot peppers are “therapeutic wonders.” Some of their key benefits are that they stimulate circulation, prevent respiratory tract infections and ease constipation. Cinnamon stimulates circulation, fights colds and eases allergies.
“Ginger has been revered by Asian doctors for centuries, and recently, due to considerable research, it has gained the respect of Western doctors,” writes Simonds. “Ginger aids digestion, and prevents and cures nausea... To make a cup of ginger tea, put 6 slices of smashed fresh ginger about the size of a quarter in a mug. Add boiling water, cover with a saucer, and let steep 5 to 10 minutes.”
FOR HER chapter on North African and Mediterranean spices, Simonds finds inspiration in the cooking of a French-Moroccan friend, Lucia Douglas. “Spices figure prominently in her cooking, for flavoring as well as for their health-giving attributes.”
Douglas grew up in Morocco, “surrounded by fabulous spices” like ras el hanout, a blend for which each cook has his or her own formula. Lucia’s Moroccan sweet-and-sour carrots are dressed with a light sauce of red wine vinegar and canola oil flavored with Hungarian sweet paprika, cumin, mashed garlic that was cooked with the carrots, and parsley.
“Spices and herbs are among the most potent forms of antioxidants,” writes Rob Leighton, author of The Kardea Gourmet’s Mediterranean Spice Blends – The Forgotten Ingredients of a Heart Healthy Diet. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients found mostly in vegetables, fruits and whole grains that support the body’s ability to fight diseases and signs of aging.
“About a teaspoon of a spice or herb offers more antioxidants than five times the amount of many fruits or vegetables... You only need a small amount to significantly increase the antioxidant levels of a meal...
A half teaspoon of cinnamon, cocoa, turmeric or cumin or a teaspoon of oregano or rosemary can deliver as much antioxidant capacity as a half cup of berries or broccoli.”
Instead of focusing on a few “superfood” spices, Leighton advocates using blends of spices, such as French fine herbs, za’atar and a North African spice blend similar to ras el hanout. “You might be tempted to stock up on one or two very high antioxidant foods... You may obtain some benefits with this selective approach, but here is what nutritional science is telling us: the full power of a plant-based diet comes from combining many antioxidant compounds – as does a true Mediterranean diet! The selective approach, in fact, consistently falls short when compared to the holistic approach.”
Leighton encourages cooks to get into a habit of using more spice in daily meals.
“Many American home chefs use spices and herbs gingerly, maybe only one or two spices in a recipe... Take a moment to check out your own spice cabinet. You may well find spices purchased last year to make a special recipe for a holiday or celebration.
The spice made the recipe taste great, but did not find a place in your everyday cooking repertoire.”
Using blends makes it easier to incorporate spices and herbs into meals. To make French-inspired fine herbs, for example, Leighton mixes these dried herbs: 2 tablespoons tarragon, 2 tablespoons chives, 2 teaspoons parsley, 1 teaspoon thyme and 1 teaspoon dill. He uses this herb blend to flavor cubes of eggplant roasted with red peppers, garlic and olive oil, adding the herbs after roasting the vegetables to keep their flavor fresh. His mushroom-barley soup gains zest from Phoenician spice blend (a version of za’atar). To flavor roasted sweet potatoes, he uses North African spice blend along with a touch of olive oil, lemon juice and orange juice.
Spices can help to cut down on the amount of salt needed to satisfy our tastes, wrote Leighton. “Blending herbs and spices with acidic ingredients, like vinegars, wines and citrus, further enhances the power of spice to cut the desire for saltiness.”
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
For this easy dish, inspired by my mother-in-law’s cauliflower recipe, I cook the cauliflower in a light sauce instead of frying it. It’s great with Basmati rice as a vegetarian entree or an accompaniment for chicken or fish.
Makes 4 to 6 servings 1 or 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 large onion, quartered and sliced 1 large cauliflower, divided into medium florets salt to taste 1⁄4 tsp. ground black pepper, or to taste 1 tsp. ground cumin 1⁄2 tsp. turmeric 3 large garlic cloves, chopped a 400-gr. (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained a 225-gr. (8-ounce) can tomato sauce 2 Tbsp. water a 400-gr. (15-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained
Heat oil in a large heavy stew pan over medium heat.
Add onion and saute, stirring often, about 5 minutes or until softened but not brown. Add cauliflower florets in one layer, with stems touching bottom of pan. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, cumin and turmeric. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, checking once or twice to be sure onions don’t burn.
Add garlic, tomatoes, tomato sauce and water. Stir very gently but keep cauliflower florets with their stems facing down. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add chickpeas without stirring. Cover and cook about 5 to 10 minutes or until cauliflower is tender.
Check by piercing thick part of stems with a knife. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve hot.
This recipe, flavored with whole cloves and a cinnamon stick, is from “Spices of Life.”
“Surprisingly, no sugar is needed in this recipe,” writes author Nina Simonds.
“The vanilla bean, lemon peel, and prunes add a delightful natural sweetness to the dish.”
Makes 4 servings 2 or 4 slightly under-ripe pears 10 prunes 1 stick cinnamon 3 cloves 2 strips lemon peel 1 vanilla bean 1 1⁄4 cups water
Ground cinnamon for garnish
Peel the pears with a vegetable peeler or a paring knife.
Place in a heavy pot and add the remaining ingredients, except the ground cinnamon.
Cover tightly and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes, or until tender.
Test for doneness by piercing a knife through the center of the pears. If it passes through easily, they are cooked. Spoon whole or halved pears into serving bowls and sprinkle with the ground cinnamon. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.