Winter is the season of comfort food: rich soups and curries, quick hot stir fries, and snuggling up under a blanket with a steaming cup of tea. This makes it the perfect time to incorporate some extra spice into your life, and enjoy not just a flavour boost but some serious health benefits.
I truly love using spices whenever cooking in the kitchen. They add such a depth of flavour and colour, and so good at warming you from the inside out. They’re also versatile and easy to use! I’ve included a couple of easy recipes below, but one of the best ways to work out how to use spice is to experiment. Use a little bit at first then work your way up until you find the quantity that works for you – cayenne pepper & turmeric in particular can ruin a dish if you get too enthusiastic.
Spices aren’t just about flavour. Since the days of Ancient Egypt and the Bible’s Old Testament, spices have been used and revered for their health-boosting properties – many are anti-inflammatory, boost the immune system and help detoxify the body. Each of the below spices also have their own individual health benefits.
Pepper has been popular for so long that, at one time, it was more valuable than gold. It can be used to preserve food but also has the dual benefit of stimulating the appetite and while aiding digestion, and can even be utilised to relieve a toothache.
Turmeric is renowned for the vibrant yellow colour it adds not just to food but to clothes dyes and even finger tips (if you’re not careful when grating it). You use its root, either fresh or in powdered form, which has a flavour like an earthy, spicy carrot. Turmeric boosts savoury dishes but I also love the warmth it provides to my green juices –finely grate it into the blender and add some coconut water, leafy greens, a banana and fresh pineapple. Turmeric is also anti-microbial, aids circulation and recent research suggests it can reduce the risk of cancer, dementia and heart attacks.
Cayenne Pepper is super-hot but when used very sparingly, adds an addictive warmth to any meal. It is a strange but perfect companion to the cool creaminess of avocado in a salad or guacamole. Like turmeric, cayenne pepper helps combat cancer and heart attacks, but it also helps heal the stomach & intestinal ulcers.
Garlic was found in the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, chewed by Roman soldiers before hand-to-hand combat, and traditionally used by the Chinese to ward off misfortune. It also happens to be my absolute favourite spice – try slow-roasting the whole bulb then squeezing out the caramelly, creamy contents of the cloves and you’ll understand why. It is famous for helping fight colds but can also lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
Confucius encouraged his disciples to eat ginger before meals to help digestion but it’s just as good for you when used to add flavour and zing to either your dinner or dessert. It’s equally as delicious in stir-fries and curries as it is in a gingerbread or drunk as ginger beer. It also aids digestion, combats nausea and motion sickness, and can be used to treat a wide range of health conditions. Combined with honey and fresh lemon juice, it will do wonders for a sore throat and other cold and flu symptoms.
Cinnamon has been used in food and medicine for 5000 years, and for good reason. It is wonderful in curries and casseroles, preserves, desserts, mulled wine and even chocolate. It also adds sweetness to dishes without the sugar. Cinnamon can be used to treat various illnesses including diarrhoea, lowers blood sugar levels, and may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Cloves are a perfect companion to cinnamon in a huge number of savoury and sweet dishes, as well as a spicy mug of chai tea. It’s also antiseptic and antibacterial, with high levels of minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, and will alleviate a toothache and indigestion.
If you’re new to spices, why not try the following super simple recipes:
Fry a teaspoon of powdered or finely grated fresh turmeric root and a quarter teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper in coconut or sesame oil for a minute over a medium heat. Add a couple of cloves of crushed garlic and some finely diced onion, and cook for a few more minutes. Keep stirring so that the onion and garlic gently soften without browning.
Toss in your favourite seasonal vegetables, such as peas, beans, carrots, zucchini or leafy greens, and sauté until the vegetables have softened. Season with salt if needed and serve over rice.
Who needs sugar when you can add ginger, cinnamon and cloves to your fruit dessert? To make a simple berry compote, put some fresh or frozen berries and stone fruit into a saucepan over a medium heat with a few cloves, a cinnamon stick, finely sliced or grate ginger, and a slosh of orange juice. Cook for around 10 minutes until the fruit have softened, stirring regularly, and lightly mash with your wooden spoon or a fork. This compote is divine over porridge or muesli, or with a dollop of natural yoghurt.
Once you feel confident, try experimenting with adding one or a combination of these spices to your favourite dishes, and see what a difference they make to warming up your winter!