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Herbs, spices deliver great taste, antioxidants at dinner table

By Greg Summers

When it comes to adding variety, flavor and aroma to foods, herbs and spices have been used for centuries.

“Spices were once so costly only the wealthy could afford them. In 11th century Europe, many towns paid their taxes and rent in pepper,” said dietitian and educator Alice Henneman, author of “Add a Little Spice (& Herbs) to Your Life!”

While it is a given that spices and herbs both come from for plants, that’s where the similarity ends, said Ann Hertzler of Virginia Cooperative Extension Service.

Herbs are the leaves of low-growing shrubs and non-woody plants. They are primarily used for savory cooking purposes. Examples include parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, basil, dill, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage and celery leaves, which can be used fresh or dried. Dried forms, Henneman said, can be used whole, crushed or ground.

Spices come from the bark, root, flowers, seeds and fruits of tropical plants and trees.

 “The reason for Columbus’ voyage in 1492 was to seek a more direct passage to the rich spices of the Orient,” Henneman said.

Spice examples include cinnamon (bark of the cinnamon tree), ginger (root), cloves (flower bud), saffron (stigma of the saffron crocus), nutmeg and cumin (seeds), and vanilla (the undeveloped fruit of an orchid).

The parts of some plants can provide both herbs and spices, said Foy Spicer of the Iowa State University Department of Horticulture.

Spicer said the leaves of Coirandrum sativum are the source of cilantro (an herb), while corriander (a spice) comes from the plant’s seeds.

“Dill is another example. The seeds are a spice while the dill weed is an herb derived from the plant’s stems and leaves,” Spicer said in an article published in the ISU’s “Horticulture and Home Pest News.”

 Some even have medicinal value and may have the potential to ward off cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that ounce for ounce, some herbs and spices have more antioxidant activity than many fruits and vegetables. In the human body, antioxidants fight off harmful free radicals that might otherwise damage cells and lead to disease.

Making healthier dinners that incorporate some of these herbs and spices isn’t that hard, said Dr. Wendy Bazilian. 

A dietitian and author of “The SuperFoodsRx Diet,” Bazilian advocates starting with dishes the family already loves and then boosting the excitement flavor and nutrition with healthy ingredients.

“Using ‘Super Spices’ like red pepper, oregano, ginger and garlic provides and added bonus because they are a delicious source of natural antioxidants, which play an important role in keeping the body in good health,” Bazilian said.

Cooking tips 

McCormick Kitchens recently took up the challenge to find ways to add flavor and antioxidants by combining the top Internet searched family dinner recipes with everyday herbs and spices found in most kitchen pantries. 

In 2012, the 10 most sought-after Internet family recipes were: (1) spaghetti; (2) tacos; (3) pork chops; (4) pizza; (5) chicken soup; (6) enchiladas; (7) meatloaf; (8) lasagna; (9) cili and (10) beef stew.

McCormick Kitchens combined these go-to tips with those dishes to inspire healthy meal choices on busy nights:

– Pork chops – Rub four pork chops with a blend of 1 teaspoon each garlic powder and thyme leaves, 1/2 teaspoon crushed rosemary leaves and 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper. Saute in skillet with 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1/2 cup apple juice, a sliced apple and 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon. This combination provides the same amount of antioxidants as 3 ounces of pomegranate juice per serving.

– Chicken soup Give homemade chicken soup a distinct Asian flair by stirring 2 teaspoons of ground ginger and 1 teaspoon garlic powder into 4 cups of soup. Top with snow peas and shredded carrots. This combination provides the same amount of antioxidants as 1/2 cup chopped cantaloupe per serving.

– Meatloaf – Turn everyday meatloaf into a Mexican fiesta by adding 1 tablespoon each paprika, oregano leaves and ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper to 2 pounds lean ground beef or ground turkey. Top with salsa. This combination provides the same amount of antioxidants as 1 1/2 cups of green peppers per serving.

– Chili – Make a lower-sodium turkey chili with tons of flavor. Blend 1 pound cooked ground turkey with two (8 ounce) cans of no-salt-added tomato sauce spiced with 2 tablespoons chili powder, 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper. This combination provides the same amount of antioxidants as 1/3 cup chopped asparagus per serving

– Beef stew – Spice up ordinary beef stew with 1 teaspoon each thyme leaves and oregano leaves and 1/2 teaspoon each garlic powder and ground black pepper.  Give it an extra nutritional boost by adding in sweet potatoes and chopped red peppers. This combination provides the same amount of antioxidants as 1 1/2 cups sliced kiwi per serving.      

Properly storing herbs and spices

As a general rule, keep herbs or ground spices for one year and whole spices for two years. If a spice or herb smells strong and flavorful, it’s probably still potent.   

Henneman recommends buying small containers until you determine how fast you’ll use a particular spice or herb.

– Store them in tightly covered containers in dark places away from sunlight.

– Don’t store them above a dishwasher, microwave oven, stove, refrigerator sink or near a heating vent.

– Refrigerate paprika, chili powder and red pepper for best color retention, especially during hot, humid summer months.

– Herbs and spices can get wet if condensation forms when a cold container from a refrigerator or freezer is left open in a humid kitchen.