Tahlequah Daily Press

January 16, 2014

The spice of life: Healthy, no-fat options

First in a two-part series on using herbs and spices in cooking

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — “A herb is the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” Those were words of wisdom spoken by King Charlemagne.

Seasonings add spice and flavor to a bland meal. Mix herbs into tomato sauce, and pasta becomes spaghetti.

Eating can be more than processing nutrients, or empty calories and fats, when care goes into the preparation and presentation of a meal. Dining is a pleasure when the food is special and shared among friends. A family meal can be a time of sharing over a meal, when the cook knows how to get the most out of herbs and spices.

Blending seasonings is as personal and unique as the cook, and it can turn an everyday dish into a gourmet meal.

“Whether you plant them or pick them up at the grocery store or farmers’ market, adding fresh herbs is a quick way to transform ordinary meals into extraordinary meals,” said Heather Winn, OSU Extension educator.

Besides adding flavor to foods and cutting back on salt, fat and sugar, using herbs may offer additional benefits, Winn said.

“Researchers are finding many culinary herbs, both fresh and dried, have antioxidants that may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases,” she said.

Removing a tablespoon of fat takes away about 10 grams of fat and 100 calories, said Winn.

“That could represent a 10-pound weight loss in a year,” she said.

Fried foods, sauces, batters and gravy have many more calories than herbs and spices, she said. Good substitutes for sugar are sweet-tasting spices like ginger, cardamom, allspice, anise, cloves, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg.

All the flavor, and it’s

good for you, too

Savory flavors with “bite” are good substitutes for the taste of salt, including garlic and curry powder, ginger, black pepper, onion, cumin, dill seeds, basil and coriander.

What’s the difference between a spice and an herb? Winn shares the definition from Ann A. Hertzler, Ph.D. and registered dietitian, “Herbs and Spices,” Virginia Cooperative Extension educator.

Herbs are the leaves of low-growing shrubs, like parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, caraway, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage and celery leaves.

Spices come from the bark (cinnamon), root (ginger, onion and garlic), buds (cloves and saffron), seeds (yellow mustard, poppy and sesame), berry (black pepper), or the fruit of tropical plants and trees (allspice and paprika).

Oasis Health Food Store is a good local source for herbs and spices. Many of the herbs and spices also have healthful benefits, besides enhancing taste.

A discussion between Daniel Franke and customer John DeFelice about turmeric root, often used in Indian and Asian dishes, along with curry, turned to health.

“I put it under my tongue for inflammation; I had an ear ache and it went away,” Franke said. “Turmeric is also an anti-oxidant.”

Flax seed is a go-to for DeFelice, who puts it in everything – including cottage cheese – for cancer prevention.

“Being Italian, I cook with oregano, basil and sage a lot, and bay leaf. Oregano is really healthy; my wife swears by it,” DeFelice said. “My wife is German and she puts cinnamon on everything. It’s good for blood sugar regulation and blood pressure.”

Try them and see how they affect you, he  said.

Spike is called “exciting flavor” on the label, and one of Franke’s favorites.

“I put it in my pickle recipes, salad, and anything I grill,” he said.

Offering a few cooking tips, Winn said fresh herbs are usually added at the end of cooking in the last few minutes to preserve flavor with delicate herbs such as basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint.

Herbs like dill seeds, oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme can be added about 20 minutes before the end of cooking, as they aren’t as delicate.  Add fresh herbs to refrigerated cold foods several hours before serving, since chilling helps blend the flavors.