Spice it up!

As a rule, American food tends to be rather bland.  We don’t utilize a lot of spices in our cooking and hence lack a lot of the richness and aromas that many ethnic foods contain.  Have you ever encountered a person that smells like the food they just cooked?  I have.  I think it’s wonderful.  It takes a lot of cooking and a lot of spices (probably in a rather confined space) to permeate one’s pores to the point they exude a delicious aroma in public, but it shows their love of and dedication to using a plethora of spices in their cooking.  I suppose you might be thinking, ‘wait, if you are trying to convince me to cook with more spices only to end up walking around smelling like an ethnic food market, no thanks.’  No, no no.  You needn’t worry.  That is unlikely to happen unless you are quite intentional about it.  But what may happen is you will enjoy a greater variety of lovely and intense flavors in your meals while benefiting from a host of healthful properties inherent in many spices.  You have probably heard that spices can be medicinal.  Indeed it is true.  Here are a few of my favorites:
Ginger:  Many of us know ginger can help feelings of nausea and motion sickness.  But did you also know that it is a power antioxidant with properties believed to help fight cancer?  It also may improve digestion, help relax blood vessels and improve blood flow. 
Cinnamon:  What would life be without cinnamon?  Not only is it extremely tasty in sweet and savory dishes but it has many anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-microbial properties, making it useful in disease prevention and fighting bacteria, fungi and yeast.  It is known to help reduce blood clotting, act as a natural preservative in foods, and support blood-glucose regulation.  A study in the December 2003 issue of Diabetes Care Also showed cinnamon effective at reducing blood sugar levels in people with Type II Diabetes.
Turmeric:  Curcumin is the active ingredient in this brownish/yellow spice.   A staple of many curries and a crucial component of your every-day mustard, this antioxidant-rich substance is believed to help aid in digestion and decrease inflammation.  In numerous studies it’s potent anti-inflammatory effects have been shown to be as effective as hydrocortisone and anti-inflammatory drugs such as Motrin without the potentially toxic side effects of common drugs.  Also it may be helpful in fighting inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, and also is showing promise in protection against many types of cancer.  Studies show it may support cholesterol reduction by improving the liver’s ability to clear LDL cholesterol .
Oregano:  Commonly used in many Mediterranean dishes, this little spice has numerous phytonutrients that give it powerful antioxidant capabilities, and, surprisingly, is one of the very few herbs that provides a good source of iron, calcium, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin K and even Omega 3 fatty acids.  Also oregano oil is known to be a great anti-bacterial agent.
Amazing, isn’t it.  And these are just a few examples.  Think of the hundreds of other herbs and spices out there, each able to add immeasurable health benefits to each and every meal you consume.
One common complaint about using herbs and spices is the cost.  Well I have got some tips for that.  For spices, try to find stores that sell in bulk.  The cost difference is astounding.   A little bag of cumin out of the bulk section will run you literally about 50 cents, whereas a jar in the spice aisle typically costs anywhere from $3-$6.  For ethnic spices, especially Indian and Middle Eastern, find an ethnic store that sells them (NOT Safeway or the like).  Not only will you pay far less, but the quality is far above the … ummm … crap … they sell in the supermarket.  Seriously, I had no idea curry could be so wonderfully aromatic and flavorful until I bought the powder in an Indian market on the East Side.  Worth the trip.  For herbs, farmers markets can be a good place to find them cheaper.  Another idea is to grow them yourself.  Thyme and rosemary are quite hardy and easily grow in most backyards.  Even if you just grow one or two, that is still saving you a considerable amount.  I myself only grow thyme and rosemary (believe me I’ve tried others, but my thumb must be black instead of green) but I still save money every time I make a dish with those herbs and simply snip them out of my yard.
Another barrier I’ve found is many people’s general lack of knowledge as to where to use herbs and spices in their cooking.  Well to help with that, I’ve got a recipe for you.  Everyone should have a curry dish in their repertoire, so I say.  If you don’t, now you do.  A trip to the East Side might be in order.  =) Hope you enjoy!  
*I do realize this recipe is quite spice intensive.  If you don’t have some of these, or any of these, spices in your cabinet, well you should!  Money well spent.  You will be very happy the next time you make a spice-alicious dish to be already so well stocked.  Plus you can impress your friends.
**I also realize this dish is quite time intensive.   You will likely have a ton of leftovers for meals to come, so should end up saving some time.  Plus you can always make a double batch and freeze.
***If you aren’t sure where to find an ingredient listed, just ask!
Coconut Lamb Curry
·         2 tablespoon ghee or butter
·         1.5 lb diced lamb shoulder
·         1 onion, thinly sliced
·         1 tablespoon grated ginger
·         1 long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
·         1 tsp ground turmeric
·         10 fresh curry leaves (you can find these at Uwajimaya)
·         400g can chopped tomatoes
·         2 cups beef stock
·         ½ cup coconut cream (not coconut milk)
·         2 tablespoon chopped cilantro
·         Steamed rice, to serve
Homemade Curry Powder (You could probably buy a good quality curry powder at an ethnic market if you do not have the time or inclination to make your own, but it may not be quite the same curry as this recipe intends.  But give it a try!)
·         ¼ cup coriander seeds
·         1 tablespoon each cumin seed, fenugreek seed,  mustard seed, and cardamom seed
·         8 cloves
·         5cm piece of cinnamon quill (cinnamon stick)
·         2 small dried red chillis or 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
·         ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
·         1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1.       To make your own curry powder, put the coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon in a non-stick frying pan over low heat.  Heat the spices for one minutes, shaking the pan or stirring them to keep from burning.  Remove the pan from the heat, the pour the spices into a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder along with the chili, nutmeg, and turmeric.  Grind to a powder, then set aside.
2.       Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter or ghee in a large pot over medium heat.  Brown the diced lamb in batches for 3-4 minutes.  Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.
3.       Add remaining ghee to the pan and turn heat to medium.  Add onion, stirring for 2-3 minutes until softened.  Add garlic, ginger, chilli, turmeric and curry leaves and cook for one minute until fragrant.  Add 4 tablespoons of your curry powder, stir well to combine, then add the lamb back to the pan and stir to coat.  Add the tomatoes and stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour 30 minutes or until lamb is tender.
4.      Stir in the coconut cream and chopped coriander, then cook another 10 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.  Garnish with extra cilantro and serve with rice.

Danielle VenHuizen, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian, Certified LEAP Therapist