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It is beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

One of the magical things about this time of year are the smells – cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, ginger, fruit fillings and festive colors swirled around on cookies. Many of these powerful aromas stimulate memories and affect brain chemistry in positive ways.

All of these spices that add to the flavor of the winter holiday season have a warming quality, and in medieval times they were valuable for their food preservation effects. Known as “pie spices,” these flavors are indeed wonderful compliments to pies and other baked goods, but they’re also excellent companions to root vegetables, roasted meats, sauces, gravies and more. When flavoring, it helps to think of allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg as sweet; cardamom, cloves, ginger and star anise as pungent; and coriander as peace-making.

The flavors we call Spices’ come from the volatile oils they contain in the seed, berry, and bark.  These oils dissipate when they are left out in the open air or a bad quality storage containers.  Spices should be stored in airtight and tinted glass containers away from light, heat, and humidity. Whenever possible, buy small quantities and grind your whole spices to ensure fresh flavor.

According to A Guide to Buying and Cooking with Winter Spices

Ginger has been flavoring foods and beverages from antiquity forward. Ginger is versatile with a range of flavors from fresh, zingy and lemony to spicy and hot. It is one of the oldest Asian spices. Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval European culinary traditions. Ginger cookies feature prominently on Northern European Christmas tables. Of all the Christmas pastries, the gingerbread cookie was one the one most loved by early American children.  A large part of gingerbreads popularity hinged on gingerbread being cheap, and easy to make; a small batch would yield many cookies, and gingerbread dough stood up well under the vagaries of both brick-oven and cook-stove baking.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree native to Indonesia. This aromatic spice is found in kitchens across the globe. The word clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means “nail.” Its “nail heads” can be spiked into foods for a dramatic presentation. Ground cloves lose their volatile oils quickly, so it’s best to grind your own in a coffee grinder. Use pungent cloves sparingly when cooking. They are perfect for roasted meats, baked beans, split pea or bean soups, citrus, stewed and baked fruits, desserts, and pickles.

Allspice is the cured berry of an evergreen tree found in Jamaica.  When buying this spice look for dark, red-brown spheres with a rough surface. You should hear the inner seeds rattle when shaken. Ground allspice should be rich, dark brown, highly aromatic but not musty, and a bit oily, never dry. When using them for cooking select whole berries to avoid adding a brown tint to foods. Try allspice in sweet baked goods, Jamaican jerk seasoning, tomato and barbecue sauces, seafood, red meat and curry blends.

Cardamom is called the “Queen of Spices” in its native India. It comes in brown and green forms. Green cardamom is the traditional winter spice. Cardamom pods should be whole, slightly oily and lime green, not pale.

The flavor of cardamom is perfect for sweet and savory foods, especially curries and rice, and citrus. Ground cardamom loses its volatile oils and flavor rapidly. For the best flavor add whole pods, slightly bruised, to dishes cooked with liquids (remove pods before serving). Or split pods to remove the sticky, black seeds and grind seeds in a coffee grinder.

Star Anise as winter spices is beautiful and has a strong licorice flavor. Popularized in the 16th century, it is a relatively new spice to many parts of the world coming from China, Vietnam, India, Japan and the Philippines. Look for whole, reddish-brown stars with little splits that contain a shiny brown seed. When popped, the seed should release a strong, spicy aroma. Ground star anise should be fine and dark; purchase it in small quantities to retain freshness. Star anise pairs perfectly with many savory Asian dishes, most famously Peking duck. It also works well with pork.

 

Do It Yourself Spice Blend

—Adapted from The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill

This blend is the popular way to flavor fruitcakes, shortbread, sweet pies and all kinds of delectable pastries. Mix the following ground spices together:

4 teaspoons coriander seed

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons cassia

½ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon green cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon cloves

 

To impart a deliciously aromatic, sweet spice flavor to cakes, biscuits, cookies and pastries, add 2 teaspoons of mixed spice per cup of flour to the dry ingredients. Fruitcakes, mince pies, and rich or sweet foods require up to twice the amount if a distinct flavor is wanted.

 

Happy Holiday Season filled with Spice, laughter, and love.

Resources:

https://foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html

http://www.motherearthliving.com/Cooking-Methods/buying-cooking-with-winter-spices

Fermenting Adventures in an RV

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

Recently my husband and I decided late summer was a good time to learn how to ferment drinks and vegetables. A little background: Naturally fermented beverage products called Kombucha, Ginger Beer, and water Kefir are all the rage. Even general purpose markets are now carrying some form of fermented drink. The internet is awash with fermenting kings and queens sharing  pictures of their newest delivery, or gadget that aids in your fermenting of kimchee or beet kraut. These predigested or live foods are perfect for the Pacific Northwest, especially Oregon with it’s “Do it Your Self” culture.  Don’t confuse pickling with fermenting – they are not the same and do not yield the same health benefits. Fermenting is far older, found in almost every culture and as a live food, the health properties are greater than eating raw, organic or minimally processed foods. Many traditional cured types of meat from Europe are fermented – and not allowed into America by the FDA.

We Oregonians seem to like our independence in several areas but most assuredly in the food department. Part of that comes from the immigrants who built the strong farming and ranching history, of many parts of our state. The Willamette Valley has been producing hops for beer making sense the 1890’s. These same fields also are home to produce, grapes, nut and fruit trees and berries.

In the Oregon Historical Society resides a photo of men in 1950 circ, with their sleeves rolled up shredding cabbage and salting it for fermentation, right in the fields, for sauerkraut. So if they can do it, we thought,  so can we…. Not wanting to take on the job of sauerkraut or fist time out, especially as we are working and living in our 29’ RV; we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to save some money on our food budget and learn the art of fermented probiotic drinks.  After all, a half gallon glass jar doesn’t take up much room, or require as much space when packed for moving camp to the next job site right?  If you haven’t tried any of the fizzy, tangy, and yummy drinks from Dr. Kombucha of Portland or the dozens of others, I encourage you to, and once you see the price on them,  you will know why we are learning to make our own.

From past experience we knew sourdough starter could turn into an RV monster, crawling out of the jar, oozing across surfaces, seeping into drains and vents; from the agitation of the RV going down the road. We still have a sleeping bag with white butterfly patterns from sourdough starter escaping a sealed jar,  on our pack horse 20  years ago!  So surely with our gained knowledge and experience we could contain this next alien life form.

We went to Amazon and ordered a pack of water Kefir grains, assuming all we would need to know would come included with them. Well not really. It seems Kefir does not tolerate metal utensils, likes it between 60 and 70 degrees and takes up to 3 weeks for the grains to become happy in their production of the fizzy electrolyte-rich drink; you had your heart set on. But it is worth it, for the fun, nutrition, and health to be gained by the adventure.

By week 2,  we could taste fermentation, but it wasn’t as much as we had hoped for; I went to Amazon again and ordered a book: Delicious Probiotic Drinks by Julia Mueller, a nylon strainer, cheesecloth and more grains.  As I write this, I now have 3, half gallon jars at various stages lined up on my tiny RV galley counter – the baby won’t is tasted like we did before, Julia suggests pouring it out as the grains are just beginning to activate. The second jar is our 3-week old grains which are working much faster, and the water kefir is ready to strain and add fruit to after 24 hours. And that is the very bubbly, yummy strawberry lemonade in jar 3. It will be gone by tomorrow afternoon, which is when jar 2 will need to be strained and put on for its second fermentation with fresh fruit. So far we have not had any exploding glass jars, but this adventure is in its early days yet.

Naturally, fermented drinks are cost efficient and beneficial  when compared to supplements.  They are a simple and tasty way to rebuild your digestive tract from years of eating processed foods, antibiotic and prescription drug use, chlorinated water and stress. AND can be done in an RV galley. If you have IBS, Crohns, or Leaky Gut; these naturally fermented foods are a must, if you expect to heal. The era of eating processed food, using anti-bacterial soaps, and destroying our body’s ability to heal through the wonderful microbiome in our digestive system, is hopefully coming to an end. Traditional foods like these are safe and efficient ways to rebuild the immune function of the body potentially preventing chronic illness and debilitation age-related dementia. As so many knowledgeable natural health care and integrative providers are learning – “all illness begins in the digestive tract.” Sage words from the past.

To fizzy fun and probiotic health

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