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Aromatherapy in your kitchen: part one - cooking with herbs

Pat Thomas

10th August, 2010

How to make your food your medicine and medicine your food, starting with six common herbs you can use in your recipes and everyday cooking

The smell of our food is inexorably linked to our enjoyment of it. In fact, taste and smell are the two most directly linked of our senses. Aroma is the essence of food, but as well as making food taste good, it can also enhance our sense of well-being.

While the concept of aromatherapy has become something of a catch-all phrase for a wide range of healing techniques, such as massage and steam inhalation, which involve the use of highly concentrated oils derived from plants and flowers, rarely if ever do we think of our food as having aromatherapeutic properties.

The health benefits of flavourful food are well known in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. While it is unlikely that you will be eating herbs and spices in anything like medicinal quantities, many have been shown to be concentrated sources of antioxidants, and if taken regularly in great enough quantities, some can have medicinal effects. Cinnamon, for example, helps regulate blood sugar; in Germany, sage is licensed as a standard medicinal tea to treat gastrointestinal upsets and night sweats.

Taste may also be important to feelings of satiety and therefore be influential in managing overeating and obesity. There is evidence to suggest that foods that are flavourful, taken in small bites, may increase a person's satisfaction with a meal and help regulate food intake.

Although it is an area that would benefit from more study, smell disorders have been linked with many health problems including obesity, and one small study found that in 20 per cent of participating children the ability to fully detect the aromas of their food was impaired.

Another study found that those who had the most tastebuds, and therefore the greatest sensitivity to food tastes/smells, had the lowest body mass index.

One reason why we eat so many fried foods may be because frying can bring out the complex, satisfying aromas of food (for more on food flavours, see this extract from Eric Sclosser's book Fast Food Nation). But there are other, healthier ways. So if your food preparation rarely goes beyond salting and peppering consider these alternatives and remember - whatever you are eating, don't overcook, and chew fully and slowly to release all the beneficial aromas and flavours.

Healthy herbs

Herbs will add subtle flavours to almost any dish. Unlike spices, which often come from far away, herbs can be grown easily in your garden and picked fresh when you need them. Always use the fresh herb and tear, don't cut the leaves. Gently crushing the leaves by scrunching them up in your hand or lightly bruising them using a mortar and pestle is a good way to releasing their aromas.

Basil fortifies the digestive and nervous systems and can be a good remedy for headaches and insomnia. It is also a good diuretic. When using it in cooking, opt for the fresh leaves and wait until the very last moment before adding them to your dish. Try scattering it on tomato salads, in soups and to egg, rice and mushroom dishes. Make your own pesto sauce, or put some fresh leaves into olive oil for a pungent salad dressing (don't worry if the leaves turn black).

Dill has a sharp/sweet taste, somewhere between mint and aniseed. It is a natural bactericide, diuretic and digestive soother and can be effective against cystitis and other bladder infections. Use it liberally with seafood, especially salmon. Sprinkle it onto salads or lightly steamed vegetables especially new or baked potatoes. You can also add the seeds to stews, soups or as a topping on cooked vegetables or in rice dishes.

Fennel is a relative of dill and has a slightly milder flavour. Its traditional uses are for lack of appetite, poor digestion, fatigue, fluid retention, headaches and bladder infections. It is also helpful in cases of anaemia. Fennel is great baked on its own or with fish but is equally appetising raw in a range of fresh salads. As an alternative, put the seeds into a pepper mill and grind over meats, pulse dishes or fish.

Lemon Balm is useful for depression and anxiety. It can also ease the symptoms of stress, such as headache, migraine and insomnia. Use the fresh leaves in (non-alcoholic) cocktails, in stuffings and in both savoury and fruit salads. It goes well with fish and can be infused in milk for a lemony milk pudding.

Mint is a sedative and is good for the nervous system. It is traditionally considered an aid to detoxification and has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Mint is the traditional sauce for lamb but has many other uses. Fresh mint can be brewed as a tea or put in tall, cool drinks in the summer. Mix it with bulgar wheat for a delicious salad. Sprinkle over new potatoes or peas or use in salads or dressings. It is also delicious mixed in with chutneys or yoghurts as a cooling accompaniment to spicy foods, such as curries.

Parsley has numerous uses including as a general tonic, diuretic and digestive aid. It is an effective treatment for constipation and the French revere it in much the same way that the Chinese revere ginseng. Don't just plop it on the side of your plate; stir it into omelettes, vegetable and rice dishes. Mix it with some butter, spread this on some crusty bread and bake briefly for a quick snack. Add it to mashed potato and use it when making fish or meat balls.

Rosemary is a natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It's a staple in Mediterranean cooking and can be used to infuse everything from lamb, poultry, pork, veal, and beef to roasted potatoes, green beans, peas, and mushrooms with a fresh flavour. Brew it as a tea to calm frayed nerves and relieve wind. Use it to make flavourful oils and vinegars or try something really different and use it to flavour custard.

Sage is an ancient remedy used to 'normalise' the female reproductive system. Eaten raw it can also be effective in rheumatic conditions, catarrh, excessive sweating and tummy upsets. Add to salads, soups and stuffings for rich meats like pork and goose. Make a seasoning by grinding up dried sage leaves with coarse sea salt. This can be used on almost any savoury dish. Alternatively, make a uniquely flavoured honey by adding freshly dried sage leaves. This can then be used in herbal teas and sweet dishes to give them a therapeutic boost.

Tarragon can settle the stomach and relieve constipation. It can clear the body of intestinal parasites, ease fluid retention and improve the appetite. Because it is so savoury you may not need to use as much salt in cooked dishes - a bonus for those suffering from hypertension. Its most popular use is with chicken, but it can also be used in salads and omelettes. Put some in a bottle of good quality vinegar for a tasty condiment.

Thyme is a general tonic and an aid to digestion. It is also useful for colds, coughs, flu, asthma and sinus headaches. Some sources claim it also acts as an antioxidant. Thyme is best used fresh in marinades and sauces, stocks and stuffings. It is a staple of slow cooked casseroles and stews and is reputed to 'fix' the iron in meat as well as making it more digestible. Crushed leaves make excellent herb oils and vinegars.

Next month: Part 2 - Spices

Pat Thomas is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster. She is also a former editor of the Ecologist

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