Spice it up

The next time you're rummaging through all those who-knows-how-old containers of dried seasonings, desperately searching for tarragon for that new tuna recipe, remember that herbs and spices were once so rare and considered so valuable that wars were waged over them.

In fact, during the Middle Ages pepper was counted out one peppercorn at a time, and in many towns, taxes and rent were paid with it. The guards of London's docks were required to have their pockets sewn shut lest they steal the treasured spices.

Today herbs and spices are readily available and relatively inexpensive, making it easy to enjoy a world of flavors at home. Even better, these fragrant bits of leaves, bark, roots and seeds not only delight your taste buds, they also benefit your health.

Disease fighters

Adding herbs and spices to your food is a great way to increase flavor without adding fats and sugars. What they do add, though, are disease-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants. "Herbs and spices have a lot of potential as cancer-fighters," says Karen Collins, spokesperson for the American Institute for Cancer Research. For example, oregano and rosemary are powerful antioxidants, which ward off unstable molecules called free radicals that damage cells and may lead to cancer.

Many other herbs and spices also affect the enzymes that deactivate cancer-causing compounds, Collins explains. Curcumin, the source of turmeric's bright yellow color, offers protection against cancers of the mouth, stomach, colon, skin and liver.

Herbs and spices have the same types of health-boosting phytochemicals that fruits and vegetables contain, like flavanoids, carotenoids, sulfides and others touted in reports as helping prevent disease. For example, when cut or crushed, garlic releases allicin, which inhibits a variety of bacteria, molds, yeasts and viruses. And eating a garlic clove a day may help drop cholesterol levels by as much as 10 percent. Cinnamon also has been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people with type-two diabetes.

However, herbs and spices shouldn't replace fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but rather be part of an overall healthy diet. "The lesson we learned about fruits and vegetables is that it's variety that's important, not honing in on one fruit or just one herb or spice," says Collins.

A world of flavors

When you're learning to cook with new herbs and spices, think about the ethnic foods you enjoy, suggests Lola O'Rourke, R.D., culinary expert and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. If you enjoy Indian food, add curry powder to stews and sauces or flavor chicken with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and turmeric.

If Mexican food is a favorite, sprinkle your meats with cumin and add dried or fresh chili peppers. For a taste of Asia, saut meat with ginger root and add sesame seeds and soy sauce. Season dishes with garlic, marjoram, oregano and parsley for an Italian flair. O'Rourke also suggests mixing sweet spices into savory foods--cinnamon and cardamom on chicken or beef, for example. Or blend sweet and savory spices together such as cinnamon, nutmeg and chili pepper in a red bean and beef chili.

The art of seasoning

When cooking with fresh herbs, rinse and pat them dry with a paper towel just before you're ready to add them to a dish. You can use both the leaves and the stems of herbs with thin, tender stalks such as dill and cilantro. But with rosemary and others with tough stems, eat only the leaves. Strip the leaves by running your index finger and thumb from the top of the stem to the bottom. Chop them using a sharp knife or snip them with kitchen shears. The more finely you chop fresh herbs, the more flavor you'll get.

Add fresh herbs toward the end of cooking to preserve their flavor; dried herbs can go in early. For dips, dressings, cheeses and other cold foods, mix in herbs several hours before serving. And just about any fresh herb adds zing to a mixed green salad.

Unless they have passed their prime, the flavor of dried herbs is stronger than that of fresh herbs, so you'll need to adjust recipes when substituting one for the other. Here's a good rule of thumb: 3/4 teaspoon dried herbs = two teaspoons fresh herbs

If your garden is producing more herbs than you and your neighbors can use, experiment with making flavored vinegars. Bruise one cup of leaves by gently crushing them with the back of a large knife or spoon, and then add them to two cups of white wine vinegar. Use a bottle that can be sealed tightly (screw-top is good), and make sure it's very clean to avoid contamination.

Store the vinegar in a cool, dark place for two to three weeks to bring out the fullest flavor. The herbs will likely decompose, so strain the vinegar into another clean bottle. Homemade vinegar presented in an attractive container makes a great gift.

When cooking with fresh spices, toast whole spices, like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, before grinding them to release more of their oils and flavors. Over medium heat, toast the spices in a dry pan for two to five minutes until they're fragrant and lightly browned. Shake the pan often to brown them evenly and prevent burning. Crush the spices in a coffee grinder, and clean it thoroughly after each use by grinding a few tablespoons of raw rice.

Keeping the flavor

Store dried herbs and spices in an airtight container away from the heat of your stove. Generally, whole spices and seeds will last for three to four years, ground spices for two to three years, and herbs will stay fresh for one to three years.

Fresh herbs, however, should be stored in the refrigerator in an open or perforated plastic bag to allow some airflow. Trapped moisture will hasten their demise. They'll last even longer if you cut the stems diagonally and put them in a tall glass with about an inch of water and cover them loosely with a plastic bag.

Sturdier, thicker-stemmed herbs such as rosemary and thyme will last longer than more delicate ones like dill and parsley. Depending on the herb and how fresh they were when you got them, fresh herbs can last from a few days to longer than a week.

You can also preserve the flavor of fresh herbs by freezing them. After chopping them finely, place herbs into ice cube trays until about half full and cover them with water and freeze. Or try freezing basil, oregano and other Italian herbs in olive oil. Store the cubes in a freezer bag, and use them in soups, stews and sauces.

What's the difference?

Herbs are the leaves of plants that don't have woody stems, so they come from plants other than trees and shrubs. Whereas spices come from the other parts of all kinds of plants -- the stems (chives,) bark (cinnamon,) roots (ginger,) seeds (cumin, nutmeg, anise) and fruit (allspice, cardamom.)

Healthy seasonings

In addition to having antioxidant properties, which help protect cells from damage, these herbs and spices have been shown to have the following potential health benefits:

  • Cinnamon may lower blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides in individuals with type-two diabetes.
  • Garlic may decrease cholesterol and kill bacteria and viruses.
  • Ginger may deactivate cancer-causing compounds, fight nausea and boost immune function.
  • Rosemary may deactivate cancer-causing compounds.
  • Turmeric may help prevent cancer, reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
  • Cloves may have antimicrobial properties.

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for Hampton Roads Center for Clinical Research in Norfolk, Va.

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