Spice up your life
Ask anyone what they associate with the festive holiday season and chances are that delicious food, spending time with loved ones and enjoying a well-deserved break will top the list.
Spices like cinnamon and cloves are found in many traditional festive foods, reflecting the tastes and smells of Christmas like no other. Take, for example, mince pies laced with aromatic nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger, and chewy ginger biscuits packed with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom… Yum! While you’re indulging, isn’t it great to know that these spices don’t only make foods more flavourful, but also enhance the festive cheer with their many health benefits? All the more reason, we think, to include them in the foods you’ll be eating over the holidays.
Here’s what some of your favourite festive spices do for you:
The sweet, spicy taste of cinnamon is great for both sweet and savoury dishes.
Why it’s good for you: The antioxidants in cinnamon have been linked to reduced inflammation and better immunity. Importantly, research shows that it may help stabilise blood-sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Plus, it’s the ultimate “warming” comfort spice – perfect for cold winter days.
Enjoy it like this: Sprinkle cinnamon instead of sugar on cereal, porridge, toast and yoghurt, or add some to warm milk, herbal tea and smoothies. It’s also great in mince pies, Christmas pudding, biscuits, or added to couscous, wheat or barley salads. Make a soothing tea by simmering three or four cinnamon sticks in two cups of water and sweetening it with a drop of honey.
Like cinnamon, ginger can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, as its woody, zingy taste adds a refreshing tang.
Why it’s good for you: With a medicinal history dating back to the 1600s, ginger root is a stimulating herb that boosts circulation and fights inflammation, while warming you up from the inside. It may also relieve gas, chills and congestion, as well as reduce feelings of nausea (handy when you’ve overindulged).
Enjoy it like this: If you’re holidaying in a cold, snowy climate, a tea of ginger, cinnamon, chamomile and orange slices is sure to warm you up instantly. Available in ground, fresh, dried or candied form, you can use it in many foods, including breads, yoghurt, smoothies and cereal. It’s a key ingredient in ginger snaps and pumpkin pie, but also gives a zippy Asian flavour to stir fries, marinades, salad dressings and sautéed vegetables. Make a revitalising ginger tea by steeping 1 - 2 teaspoons of fresh, grated ginger root or half a teaspoon of powered ginger in a cup of boiling water for about 10 minutes.
The same plant produces white, black or green peppercorns, so pick the variety with the flavour you enjoy most.
Why it’s good for you: Studies indicate that black pepper extract has antioxidant properties, is a natural decongestant and may help ward off breast cancer. Research also shows that piperine found in pepper can boost the body's absorption of beta-carotene, vitamin B and selenium.
Enjoy it like this: Try to eat less salt, which increases your risk for high blood pressure, and go for more pepper instead. Opt for red-pepper flakes if you want to add an instant kick to chicken, grilled veggies and soups, or use white pepper to spice up pizza, sauces and sour-cream dips. Add red pepper slowly – it tends to get stronger during cooking.
Paprika’s rich flavour and distinct heat comes from roasting, grinding and sometimes smoking different types of bell and/or chilli peppers.
Why it’s good for you: Paprika’s heat-inducing ingredient, capsaicin, is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the body’s cells against damage. Paprika is a natural painkiller and fat burner. It also helps to increase metabolism, boost the immune system and improve circulation.
Enjoy it like this: Flavour stews, salsas, soups, pasta and rice dishes with this spice, or enhance meat rubs and marinades by adding smoked paprika. For a zingy popcorn topping, mix paprika with a little chilli and garlic powder.
Originating from Central America, allspice (pimento) is a heady taste sensation of sweet cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Why it’s good for you: Allspice is used to treat diarrhoea, indigestion and stomach ache. It also prevents and relieves flatulence, and some researchers are also investigating its use in helping to fight cancer.
Enjoy it like this: Allspice gives a delicious tang to chilli and curry dishes, and also packs a warm punch when added to cakes and desserts. It pairs particularly well with apple – another festive favourite. Soothe indigestion by infusing 1 - 2 teaspoons of allspice powder in a cup of boiling water and steep for 15 minutes before straining through a coffee filter.
This woody, perennial herb is a culinary favourite that has many uses during the festive season and throughout the year.
Why it’s good for you: Rosemary offers many health benefits including being an antioxidant, alleviating headaches and acting as a mild diuretic. It’s also a potent anti-carcinogen when you add rosemary extract to red meats that you grill or barbeque on a grill.
Enjoy it like this: Fragrant rosemary enhances soups and stews, as well as barbequed and roast meat and chicken. Use this culinary herb to make a delicious meat rub, add it to butter for a delicious spread, or infuse meat such as glazed ham with flavour by inserting a few fresh sprigs. It makes a wonderful addition to shortbread, savoury biscuits and cookies. You can also make rosemary tea by adding two teaspoons of leaves to hot water and steeping it for 10-15 minutes.
Not everyone knows that small, spiky cloves are actually dried clove flower buds.
Why it’s good for you: Chew a clove to freshen your breath, or use it for an upset stomach or to aid digestion.
Enjoy it like this: Stud oranges with cloves and simmer in a pot with sugar, spices and mulled cider or red wine. Enjoy the mulled wine as a warming festive drink. Baked ham gets an extra flavour boost when you remove the skin towards the end of the roasting period and score the fat before studding the ham surface with whole cloves.
A popular spice, nutmeg is a key ingredient in many festive goodies – think mince pies and puddings as well as mulled wines and cider drinks.
Why it’s good for you: Nutmeg helps with digestion, soothes unsettled tummies and also has relaxing properties. If your children have holiday hype overload, give them a glass of warm milk sprinkled with ground nutmeg to help settle them down. Soothe an upset stomach by adding a small pinch of nutmeg to ginger tea. Only use small amounts of nutmeg, as the spice can be toxic if you overdo it.
Enjoy it like this: Apart from all those delicious puddings, add nutmeg to soups, warm oats, or sprinkle it on pumpkin pie or hot chocolate.
This stimulating herb has a fresh taste and plenty of health benefits.
Why it’s good for you: Mint relieves heartburn, soothes indigestion, and can alleviate nausea. Applying a mint balm to the forehead also relieves headaches.
Enjoy it like this: Many people enjoy minted peas with a Christmas roast, but the herb also freshens up a salad or a fruit cocktail. Drink a cup of freshly brewed mint tea for a quick pick-me-up, or chew an after-dinner mint made with real peppermint extract to finish your meal.
TIP! Keep dried spices away from direct sunlight in a cool, dry spot and check their expiry dates. Powered spices usually last about a year, while leafy or whole, dried herbs can last much longer (one to three years). Check if the spice is still fresh by rubbing a little with your finger. It should have a full aroma, and if not, stock up on some fresh spices and get ready to enjoy them in your favourite festive foods.