Using certain spices may improve health

Turmeric Rice Pilaf with Peas is a bright and tasty-looking dish. BY JACK CLEMONS PHOTO
March 3, 2014

Monday was a day of coincidences. In the morning I conducted a cooking demo at the Cancer Support Community on the topic of healthy spices, specifically, ginger, cardamom and turmeric. That evening at Fish On, Chef Matt Haley and Dr. Uday Jani hosted a talk on healthy cooking featuring ginger and curry. And, when I checked my email before going to bed, there was a message from the Culinary Institute of America about new ways to use cardamom and turmeric.

Why are these spices getting so much attention? Because they’re so very good for our health. All three (curry powder’s main ingredient is turmeric) are ancient spices: their culinary and therapeutic properties have been valued for centuries. And modern medical research has confirmed important anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties in the compounds found in these spices.

Let’s start with ginger, the underground stem or rhizome of the ginger plant. You’ve probably seen pieces of fresh ginger in the produce aisle: knobby and oddly shaped, almost like chubby fingers. Tan-colored, papery skin covers juicy, pale-yellow flesh that can be grated into a salad, chopped for a stir-fry or tossed in the juicer to add a bright, sweet, tangy flavor.

Anyone with an upset stomach who’s reached for a glass of ginger ale can confirm the soothing effects of ginger, a long-standing treatment for nausea. Several studies in the field of pain management have shown ginger supplements help reduce the headache pain of migraines and exercise-induced muscle pain.

The next spice to consider is cardamom, a member of the same botanical family as ginger. Cardamom is native to Northern Africa and the Middle East and is also found in Scandinavia. The plant produces small pods filled with sticky brown seeds; these seeds are what is ground into powder (although cheaper producers include the pods, which dilutes the flavor). For the freshest flavor, you can purchase the pods and grind the seeds yourself with a mortar and pestle.

Ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom seeds as a tooth cleaner and breath freshener, while both Greeks and Romans used it as perfume. You’ll find it as an ingredient in many cakes and cookies, as well as a subtle yet distinct flavoring in coffee and chai tea. Cardamom is used in much the same way as ginger for digestive problems and as an anti-inflammatory. Recent animal studies are showing promise that cardamom protects against and inhibits growth of some cancers.

The third and perhaps least familiar spice is turmeric. Also in the same family as ginger, turmeric comes from a fleshy root with tough brown skin and deep orange flesh. It has a warm, peppery and slightly bitter flavor and the signature yellow color seen in curries and mustard.

Turmeric has been used throughout history as a condiment, healing remedy and textile dye.

While turmeric has long held a reputation in Chinese and Indian medicine as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, it has also shown comparable effects in contemporary research. In animal studies, turmeric’s bright yellow pigment, curcumin, has been effective in preventing tumor formation.

Observational studies in populations that consume large amounts of curry have strongly suggested that curcumin may help prevent cancer in the lower intestine.

Now that we know why you might want to add these spices to your diet, how do you go about it? You can work these healthy flavors into your diet any number of ways: Sprinkle turmeric onto deviled eggs or into chicken soup; add cardamom to your pancake batter; steam carrots with chopped ginger.

I’ve included recipes for the dishes we sampled at the Cancer Support Center - spiced sweet potato soup, turmeric rice pilaf (see photo) and crumbly cardamom shortbread - delicious and good for your health.

Sweet Potato & Carrot Soup

2 T butter
1 diced onion
1/2 t ground cardamom
1/4 t ground turmeric
1/4 t ground ginger
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 1/2 C chicken broth
2 C water
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
plain yogurt for garnish (optional)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in onions and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in seasonings and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour in chicken broth and stir, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add water, sweet potatoes and carrots. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, and puree until smooth.

Garnish with a dollop of plain yogurt if desired.

Turmeric Pilaf

1 minced shallot
1 T butter
1 C Basmati rice
1 t turmeric
2 C vegetable broth
salt, to taste
1 C frozen peas, defrosted
parsley for garnish

In a medium saucepan, sauté the shallot in butter until softened. Add rice and turmeric, stirring until combined. Pour in broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and steam until rice is tender, about 18 minutes.

Stir in peas, cover and set aside for 5 minutes. Salt to taste before serving; garnish with snipped parsley.

Cardamom Shortbread

1/2 C sugar
1 C unsalted butter, softened
1 t ground cardamom
1 t vanilla extract
2 1/2 C flour

Preheat oven to 325 F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch glass baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Combine sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl, beating until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and vanilla, mixing until blended.

Add the flour, stirring just until the mixture combines (do not overmix).

Place the dough in the prepared pan and cover with waxed paper.

Using your hand or a glass, press the dough firmly and evenly across the bottom of the pan. Lightly score the dough in a grid pattern with a knife to mark out 2-inch-square cookies.

Bake until lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

When cooled completely, remove the cookies, snapping them apart along the scored lines.

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