Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Herbs and spices - more than just good flavours...

I've calmed down since my rant about Dragon Dad slaying my mint and lemon balm, but have been thinking about my new herb garden when we move, and the sorts of things I'd like to do. I lust after one of those traditional walled gardens with lots of hedges separating beds of different herbs, but it's highly unlikely I'll ever live in the kind of house that has the possibility of that kind of garden! And, hedges or lawn need to be not part of a herb garden in my life - the possibility that Dragon Dad might feel moved to do more overenthusiastic trimming needs to be minimised! 

My reality is probably going to be raised beds, because they're easier to work in, and paved pathways around and between them so that there's NOTHING to prune!! Something like this:
Ultimately, I'm not too fussed, as long as I can have a dedicated space to grow what I use most of the time, plus a few other odd things that I like to have in the garden because it's fun. I cook with them all the time, and I've long had an interest in the medicinal properties of herbs and spices, as they were all that was available to people to deal with illness and injury for millions of years, until medical science began to create drugs a bit over 200 years ago. There's a brilliant three part series that screened here on SBS TV that can be obtained from ABC shops on DVD called Pain, Pus and Poison, that's well worth watching for anyone who is interested in the developments over that 200 years. I also just found it on Amazon.

I digress. In an email conversation this morning, following a post on Facebook, I was asked if I'd write a blog post about the herbs and spices I use and why. In between bits of work today I've been thinking about how best to construct it, and what to say, so it's taken me most of the day to get to it. I must stress, as a disclaimer, I am NOT a doctor, nor am I a qualified herbalist. I am writing this from personal experience, and it is not intended to be instruction. My main use of all the herbs and spices mentioned in this post are in cooking, with an eye to their beneficial qualities, and I do make tisanes, or teas, from some of them specifically for medicinal purposes. The book I use mostly for reference, which of all my books on the subject is my favourite, is the Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, by Andrew Chevallier. Follow the link for the Amazon page for purchase. 

I will list the herbs and spices that are part of my regular cooking, along with their common medicinal properties. I'd also suggest, for those who are interested in experimenting, that you look into Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks, which are focused on Middle Eastern style dishes, and commonly use lots of herbs and spices. It's an easy way to get into using them and accustoming yourself to the flavours if you've not cooked that way before. Indian food is another cuisine that uses a lot of spices and many herbs, and provides easy access and familiar flavours for many. I can't go there as I'm allergic to chilli! It's something that takes familiarity more than anything else, if your usual acquaintance with herbs is a sprig of parsley to garnish! 

Here's what I use on an almost daily basis in one of other combination:

Parsley: (I like continental, or flat, parsley for the stronger flavour). The leaves and stalks are highly nutritious, and provide an excellent natural vitamin and mineral supplement.
Mint: Ordinary garden mint has mild digestive benefits. Variants, particularly peppermint, can have slightly different, or stronger, properties. Peppermint is particularly good as an anti-nausea remedy, in addition to being useful for soothing the whole gastro-intestinal tract. Topically, it can relieve pain and headaches. 
Basil: The quintessential Italian herb, and for me the flavour of summer... It can relieve indigestion, and ease flatulence, stomach cramps, colic, nausea and vomiting.  Externally, it's an insect repellent and the juice from the leaves can ease bites and stings.
Dill: This one calms the digestive system and can relieve wind. It's a mild diuretic, which can be useful for all sorts of conditions that cause fluid retention, and chewing the seeds improves bad breath.
Garlic: Nature's antibiotic. All the alliums (the onion family) are natural antibiotics. I'd like to think that one of the reasons I don't often catch colds is because of how much garlic we eat! That, and I love onions, and eat them most days one way or another. Garlic is also beneficial for the circulatory system, can help regulate high blood pressure, lower blood sugar and improve circulation. It has decongestant properties, which is why it's suggested as an addition to a hot toddy.
Bay: Another digestive aid - it stimulates the digestion, can settle a wonky stomach and helps with the breakdown of heavier foods like meat. The essential oil can be diluted into a carrier oil (grapeseed or something else that's light) and used as a massage oil that eases muscle aches and arthritic joints. A decoction (where you boil the herb then let it steep) of leaves can be strained and added to a warm bath for to ease aches and joint pain.

Cinnamon: Stimulates circulation, especially to the extremities - which, for arthritics, can help ease inflammation. It's also a digestive aid - useful for nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. It can help ease the aches and pains of colds and flu.
Ginger: This is one of the kings of spices for digestive issues. It's a powerful anti-nausea remedy and is good for travel sickness as well as nausea caused by prescription drugs. It aids digestion, eases wind and colic. It's a circulatory stimulant, and increases sweating, which can help ease a fever. Added to a hot toddy, it can aid coughs and colds.
Turmeric: There's been huge quantities of research into the medicinal properties of turmeric and many mainstream doctors are telling patients to take it either through cooking, or in capsule form (my own rheumatologist included). It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and is also anti-bacterial. It can be used to ease nausea and improve circulation. It is also an anti-fungal.
Cardomom: Another digestive aid, it can ease indigestion and griping stomachs. 
Pepper: Improves digestive function, and has antiseptic qualities that are particularly useful for the gastro-intestinal tract. The essential oil can be used to ease rheumatic pain, but that must be done with qualified supervision.
Cumin: This spice relieves flatulence and bloating, as well as stimulating digestion. 
Coriander: Both a herb and a spice, it has many uses. The fresh herb, infused as a tea, can be used as a remedy for flatulence, bloating and griping. The seeds can be chewed to freshen the breath. A lotion made with the seeds can be used for rheumatic pain - again, that is something that should be sourced from an expert. 

I use all of these herbs, singly and in varying combinations, most days. For dinner last night we had grilled chicken that had been marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and pepper, and our salad had chopped dill and parsley added. Other nights there might be more spices, and less herbs. It varies. One way or another though, I add SOMETHING to what I'm making. Dragon Dad has a bit of a delicate stomach, and the mint, dill, parsley, basil combination that lands in our salads, couscous or other grains, at least three to four times a week was started so I could see if it would help. He's noticed a significant difference in his digestion in the time that I've been really focused on doing this, and if I haven't made a good herby salad or side dish he complains and asks for it - and he was skeptical initially... For myself, my drug list and accompanying side effects is now very large, so between that and the herbs and spices, I can't honestly tell what's doing the most good. One thing I do know though, is that everything smells so good, and on the days my appetite is off, that's a huge help. 

Again, I have to reiterate that you're unlikely to get into any strife adding these herbs and spices to your cooking. However, if you want to investigate further and look into using essential oils, tinctures and teas, consult an expert, because like misused drugs, some of these, used wrongly, can be dangerous. 

And, because it's beautiful, the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is on my visit one day list... A garden planted specifically because of the medicinal properties of the plants absolutely fascinates me! Dragon Dad would have the whipper snipper out to do those lawn edges though...!

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