To counteract the cold and damp of winter, and stimulate the immune system during cold and flu season, herbs and spices can truly benefit a winter diet. “Spices aren’t just used for flavor in foods”, says Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., “but also for health promotion.” Bowerman, coauthor of What Color is Your Diet (Regan Books, 2002) and assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, says that health-promoting phytonutrients are found in foods, herbs, spices, and teas.
Everyone loves ginger for its warmth. Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Western nutrition all include ginger at the top of their list of warming winter spices. Ginger calms an upset stomach, aids digestion, and serves as an anti-inflammatory. Bowerman says that since stomach bugs spread more often in the winter, ginger can be a beneficial addition to foods. Ginger has a multitude of uses; it can be simmered in tea, added to soup, or sprinkled over stir-fry.
Ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon can be added to breakfast cereal to enhance absorption of nutrients, stimulate warmth, and add flavor, says Amadea Morningstar, M.A., and author of Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners (Lotus Press, 1995). You can also add ginger and cardamom to baked pears for a soothing winter snack or dessert. Cinnamon, according to naturopaths and researchers Helance Wahbeh and Heather Zwickey at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, stimulates the immune system.
Wasabi isn’t just for sushi. Jennifer Workman, R.D., author of Stop Your Cravings (Free Press, 2001), adds warming wasabi to miso soup to clear sinuses. Workman also suggests adding the stimulating herb to foods like noodle dishes or soups when you are congested or are fighting a cold. Horseradish, related to wasabi, is another sinus stimulator that gives food a warming zip.
Most of us know it for its yellow color, but turmeric is an important health-promoting winter spice. Curcumin, a component of turmeric is being researched for its anticancer properties. For people who need to improve circulation, lose weight, or who want to protect against cancer, Workman suggests a warming winter soup made with turmeric, cumin, ginger, and even cloves.
Warming oregano, invigorating rosemary, and garlic – mainstays of Mediterranean cooking – are also delightful winter spices. Oregano is antiviral, antibacterial, and even antifungal, making your oregano-laced pasta sauce not only tasty, but good for you.
Adding warming spices to your winter diet is as easy as boiling tea water, sprinkling cardamom on cereal or stirring wasabi into soup. Open your spice cabinet to drive away winter bugs and stay warm. Here Deborah Madison, author of such best-selling books as Local Flavor’s: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmer’s Markets (Broadway, 2002) creates a warming meal for Healing Lifestyles & Spas
Spiced Tea – A Kind of Chai
Makes 4 cups
It’s great that ‘chai’ has become popular, but you can make your own spiced tea too, emphasizing the spices you like. Most commercial chai is very sweet and it’s nice to be able to make it less sweet, if you prefer it that way, or to use honey rather than sugar. Since the milk is diluted with water, know that whole milk will yield a more delicious drink. This can be easily halved or doubled.
2 cups water
2 cups milk, preferably whole milk
20 cardamom pods, bruised in a mortar or with a knife handle
1/4 tsp. peppercorns, slightly bruised
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 1/2-inch piece of ginger, sliced in rounds and ‘whapped’ with the handle of a knife
4 tsp. black tea, such as English Breakfast tea or Darjeeling
honey to taste
Put the milk and water in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil with the spices and ginger. Bring to a boil then simmer for 3 minutes; add the tea leaves and simmer 3 minutes more. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let steep for 2-3 minutes longer (taste to make sure the tea doesn’t get too strong), then strain into teacups. Serve with honey.
Makes 7 to 8 cups
You can use chicken stock, but even made with water this is a luxuriously rich-tasting soup that is invigorating on a cold day. You can drink it from a mug, or present it in a bowl with cooked rice for texture and/or a spoonful of yogurt.
1 large bunch of spinach (approximately 14-16 ounces)
1 tbs. roasted peanut oil or canola oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro plus sprigs for garnish
3 tsp. curry powder
3 tbs. uncooked rice (basmati is nice, can be any kind)
1 quart water or chicken stock
1 14-15-ounce can light coconut milk
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt and pepper (plus more to taste)
juice of 1 lime, to taste
Cut the stems from the spinach and wash the leaves well in water. If very sandy, wash it again, then set aside.
Heat the oil in a wide soup pot. Add the onion and cilantro and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the curry powder and rice, and then add the water (or chicken stock) and coconut milk along with 1-1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat so that the liquid simmers, then cover and cook until the rice is soft, about 12 minutes. Taste a kernel to make sure it’s soft. Add the spinach and cook until wilted and bright green, for about 5 minutes. It will seem terribly thick, but it won’t be in the end. Puree in two batches until smooth and return to the pot. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir in lime juice to sharpen the flavors, then serve garnished with a cilantro sprig in each bowl. Garnish with chopped cilantro, with a spoonful of yogurt, with cooked rice, or serve with all three!
Pears Poached in Red Wine with Peppercorns
Makes 6 halves
Unless you bite down on a kernel, you won’t taste it as much as you’ll feel its warmth. For wine, you can go with any red, but a Zinfandel would be my choice. A big spicy one like Serghesio’s Home Ranch would be ideal with the pepper. Although this is a dessert, it would also be good served with roast pork or duck.
2 cups red wine, preferably Zinfandel
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 scant tsp. peppercorns
3 firm but ripe pears, or six small Seckle pears
Put the wine and water in a 2-quart non-corroding saucepan with the sugar and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar. While the wine is heating, just slightly crush the peppercorns and add them to the pot. Neatly peel the pears with a paring knife then slice in half lengthwise, leaving the stem attached. Use a melon baller to remove the cores. Slide as many pears as will fit into the wine then cover with a piece of parchment paper. Simmer until the edges of the pears turn translucent, about 25 minutes. Remove each half to a serving dish as it is done. If you need to cook a few remaining halves, you might transfer the liquid to a smaller pot so that they will be covered.
Once all the pears are done, raise the heat and boil until only the surface is covered with bubbles and about 3/4 cup remains. This can take between 5-10 minutes. Pour the syrup over the pears through a strainer. Put a few peppercorns back with the pears then serve warm or at room temperature.