by Marijke Vroomen Durning
As foods and spices from other parts of the world become more accessible in North America, many of us are discovering new flavors and learning how to cook with them. Not only are these tasty, some are also good for us. Cloves and saffron can have an antidepressant effect, for example, while capsaicin can help fight inflammation.
“All diseases have some sort of oxidative stress or inflammation. Oxidation is the process of breaking down or damaging the cells,” Monica Aggarwal, MD, a cardiologist in Baltimore, Maryland, explains. “Pollution, high-fat diet, aging or sunlight – these are all oxidative stresses. These cause inflammation, which puts us at risk for the triggers of so many diseases.”
By consuming antioxidants, we may be protecting ourselves against this stress.
Aggarwal has a list of spices that she believes should be part of every daily diet. This includes ginger, rosemary and cinnamon, but turmeric is her favorite. She calls it “Monica’s Gold.” Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant that may also help with indigestion, osteoarthritis, heart disease and some cancers, according to researchers at the University of Maryland . Cumin is also becoming a popular spice for home cooks.
How much spice?
One question that comes up when people are told they need to start adding certain elements to their diet is, “how much?” The answer to this question is “everything in moderation.” It’s not a matter of isolating a particular element or spice, which could be put in a pill or capsule, and everything would be fine, says Aggarwal: “The point is that you don’t get the benefit of spices that way. You have to mix them, you have to add the greens, for example. It’s the whole process of the different foods intermingling that make it so good.”
How to use spices?
Learning how to use spices isn’t difficult, says Monica Bhide, author of the cookbook Modern Spice. She suggests that the best way to use ground turmeric is to add a little to your stock or broth for your soups, and even to the water for boiling rice. “If you find it fresh (many Asian stores carry it), peel and grate a little into your salad, your soup, your meatloaf. A little goes a long way.” Bhide warns you to be careful when handling the spice, though, because fresh turmeric causes stains.
Cumin is a very versatile spice, giving dishes a lovely and toasty flavor, she says. You can play with it see how you like it best: sizzle it in some oil or dry roast it and then grind it to a powder, or just grind it as is.
“Each one of these techniques yields a totally different flavor. You can add it to chili and pilafs, or you can make a savory sauce with toasted ground cumin, grated ginger and yogurt.”
Saffron is one of Bhide’s favorite spices, with endless possibilities. She suggests using it sparingly to flavor desserts, lemonade, ice-tea, ice-creams, or whatever you feel you would like to try.
Marijke Vroomen Durning is a registered nurse, health blogger and author of the forthcoming book Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Drugs & How to Take Them Safely.
TapGenes Take Away: Explore new spices for a flavor — and health! — boost.
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