The winter season is upon us. Soon temperatures in the Chicago-land area will be in the single digits; our home heating systems will be hard at work keeping us warm.
While our bodies are not equipped to stay warm without this additional help, Mother Nature supplies us with foods that naturally help us do this.
One of the easiest and healthiest ways for us to stay warm during the coldest times of the year is to eat more so-called "warming" foods. Foods such as root vegetables and animal proteins keep us warm because it takes more energy to digest them, requiring the body to work harder which generates more heat and boosts the metabolism. The addition of easily absorbed iron from meat helps warm us as well.
But did you know that some of the tastiest foods of the winter and holiday season get their warming qualities from what is added to them when they are cooked?
I am talking about the spices that add delicious flavor to our holiday foods; cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves to name a few. Their bold flavor not only elevates the taste of standard winter foods, but also makes them more healthy for us.
According to Ayurvedic medicine, an ancientl Hindu practice, eating foods with warming spices during the winter months helps us stay healthy and keeps our body in balance. They help supply the addition fuel that is needed to keep our bodies warm.
Warming spices help heat the body by stimulating blood circulation. This brings blood to our extremities and to the skin surface, bringing warmth to all areas of the body. In addition, these spices help with digestion, regulate blood sugar levels, ease joint pain, stimulate energy levels, and help protect us against wintertime colds and flu.
Sweet or Pungent?
While these spices all work to help warm us, their flavor profiles can be quite different. For instance, some spices, such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, are considered “sweet.” Others, such as cardamom, cloves, ginger, and star anise are “pungent.” Coriander is the peacekeeper. It serves as a flavor bridge between the two, and helps blend their flavors.
How to Store Your Spices for Optimal Flavor
The oils that are found in spices give them their wonderful flavor. But they are volatile, which means over time the intensity of their flavor will diminish. Optimally, you should store your spices in airtight containers in a drawer or cabinet where they will be protected from direct light, heat, and humidity. Whenever possible, buy whole seeds, since ground spices tend to loose their flavor faster than unground.
I like to store my spices in glass jars in a drawer near my cooking space. I also have some stored in an upper cabinet nearby. This way, they are within reach when I am cooking, but somewhat sheltered from heat and light.
Some experts recommend replacing your ground spices every 6-12 months; others say every 2-3 years. I usually use my own judgment. If a spice is losing its flavor I will add a bit more to a recipe. I will toss it if it is old and has little aroma.
Herbs and spices contain a myriad of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants that help our bodies function optimally and keep us healthy.
But what if your spices have been dried? Do they lose their health benefits? I have always thought the fresher the herb the more health benefits it contains. Nutrients in fruits and vegetables start to break down after harvest. The plants are literally cut off from their source of nutrients and water that they need to survive and grow. To compensate for this, they begin to draw on the food reserves they manufactured and stored while growing. 1
BUT, according to this article by Superfoodly, a dried herb retains many of its health benefits based on the way that it is preserved, and may even have a higher concentration of those compounds that are beneficial to us.
“Spices are often processed immediately after harvesting. This dehydrating or freeze-drying almost entirely stops the degradation process…Once the water content is removed and made more comparable to the normal atmosphere, the breakdown of compounds is slowed exponentially. ”2 Of course, the quality of preservation methods and the specific herb all play a role in how much of the antioxidants are preserved.
Because an herb or spice is concentrated by removing most of the water content, its ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value is increased. The higher the ORAC value of a plant, the more antioxidant power it contains. A dried spice is 3 times more concentrated than its fresh counterpart, yet most dried spices have an ORAC value many times more than this. For example, fresh basil has an ORAC value of 4,805, while the equivalent dried basil is 61,063; more than a 12-fold increase. Here is a list of ORAC values of other herbs and spices.
Some Holiday Warming Spices
Here are some favorite holiday spices that will help keep you warm throughout the winter months, along with their additional health benefits.
Cinnamon contains many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. It is often used in Chinese Traditional Medicine to help minimize symptoms of cold and flu. It has also been shown to enhance glucose sensitivity, aiding those at risk for diabetes by helping regulate blood sugar levels.
There are actually two types of cinnamon that we can buy in our stores. One, Ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka, is considered true cinnamon. Harvested from the inner bark of the Ceylon tree, it is light and sweet in
flavor. Cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon, is another spice sold as cinnamon. It is less expensive and is commonly the cinnamon you see in the grocery store. It is likely that Cassia is the flavor you associate with cinnamon.
But a more important difference between the two is that Cassia contains
more of the chemical “coumarin,,” which acts as a blood thinner. Those taking medications for thinning the blood should be careful about the amount of Cassia they consume. In large quantities, coumarin can also be toxic to the liver and kidneys.
Cinnamon can be purchased in powder form or in cinnamon sticks (or quills.) While powder or sticks can be interchanged in a recipe, the sticks will infuse a recipe with flavor without leaving a brown tinge. Because the sticks are less processed, they will hold on to their flavor longer. They also add a nice finishing touch to a hot drink!
Ways to use cinnamon:
- Sprinkle it in oatmeal or other whole-grain breakfast cereals.
- Sprinkle it on sweet potatoes, squash, carrots or other roasted vegetables.
- Bake it into your favorite banana bread or pancake recipe. These little Banana Bites make for the perfect snack (or even breakfast!)
- Infuse water with apples and cinnamon sticks for a refreshing healthful drink.
- Make Pear Chips
- Cinnamon Roasted Parsnips make the perfect side dish.
- Use it in a fruit compote
- Try it in this savory dish Cinnamon and Chicken Stew
Ginger is one of the oldest of the Asian spices. It is thought that gingerbread goes back to the year 2400 B.C. It belongs to the same family as cinnamon and turmeric. You can buy ginger as a fresh fleshy root or a dried powder. It contains the active chemicals gingerol and shogaol that help settle the stomach, and reduce nausea caused by motion sickness or pregnancy. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and helps improve circulation. It has also been shown to protect against cancer.
Ways to use ginger:
- Combine it with honey for a fresh tea.
- Blend it into smoothies to enhance their health benefits.
- Sauté grated or minced ginger with stir-fries
- Try it in this wonderful simple salmon dish: Maple and Ginger Glazed Salmon
Because of its complex flavors, many believe allspice to be a combination of several different spices. In reality, it is the berry of an evergreen tree, originally grown in Jamaica. It can be found as the whole dried berry, or as a dark, red-brown powder, and has a pungent, sweet scent.
Like many of the spices, it contains anti-inflammatory compounds and anti-oxidants, and is especially high in eugenol, a compound with antisceptic properties which contributes to the anti-cancer properties found in allspice.
Ways to use allspice:
- I like to use allspice in place of nutmeg. Try using it in your favoritesauté for green leafy veggies.
- Try this fun healthy snack Roasted Honey Cinnamon Chickpeas
- It is great baked in into this Paleo Carrot Banana Bread
Cloves are the dried flower from an Indonesian tree . You can buy them whole (they look like little miniature trees) or as a powder. Not only are they wonderfully fragrant adding delicious flavor to any recipe, but are also high in beneficial phytochemicals and antioxidants that keep us healthy and fight damage from inflammation. Like allspice, it also has high amounts of eugenol. It is thought to have pain-relieving, anti-cancer, and anti-viral properties.
Ways to use cloves:
- Cloves are an especially good addition to baked goods, but can be used in marinades and curries as well.
- They combine especially well with citrus fruits.
- I have fond memories of making a “Sweet Pete” pomander when I was a little girl. Make your own following these easy instructions.
Nutmeg is the fairly large seed from a tree. Unlike other spices, its oils retain their flavor for a long period of time. You can use a grater to make your own nutmeg powder but it’s much easier to buy the powder. Like ginger, nutmeg has many digestive benefits. It prevents flatulence, and is sometimes used to treat diarrhea. It also has anti-viral properties.
Ways to use nutmeg:
- Although we usually associate nutmeg with bake holiday treats and desserts, it is especially good sprinkled into sautéed spinach and squash.
- It can be used in marinades for fish and meats, and in white sauces.
- This is a great Chai Pumpkin Bread that uses all of the spices mentioned so far.
- Or you might try this delicious Grain–Free Apple Crumble
- Looking for something a little different? I made this recipe when I had a bumper crop of radishes! Apple Radish Chutney
Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, but its flavor is very different from the dried leaves of cilantro. This is an ancient spice that has been found in Egyptian tombs and was grown in the gardens of Babylon. It has a mild, almost lemony flavor, and as mentioned earlier, combines well with other spices. You can find coriander as a whole seed or as a powder.
Ways to use coriander:
- It is often used in curry mixes, such as this one: DIY Curry Powder
- Try it in this delicious nutritious snack: Curried Chickpeas
These are just some of the warming or healing spices you can use during the winter months.
Other Warming Spices include:
- Black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Mustard seeds
- Chili powder
But they will have to be the subject of a future blog!
Yours in Health,