Aromatic herbs and spices scream holiday cheer along the produce aisles. Here’s a winter wonderland of quintessential holiday flavorings to help you get the most from your sweet and savory treasured recipes.
A member of the mint family and close cousin to basil, sage can be overpowering, so follow the culinary ethos — less is more. A little of this musky, grayish-green leaf goes a long way with fatty meats and fowls, both dialing up flavor and aiding digestion. Sage equally enlivens vegetarian dishes from risottos and stuffings to tomato sauces and roasted potatoes. For the full flavor oomph, add sage toward the end of cooking or use dried instead of fresh, with a more pungent personality.
This anti-inflammatory Balkan herb has been revered for centuries for its healing powers, easing scratchy throats and creaky joints, putting the skids on menopausal flashes, boosting oral health and tweaking memory — don’t forget that!
Peppermint is one of the most popular herbs since classical times for its culinary and medicinal attributes. A hybrid of winter mint and spearmint, peppermint cools the palate and jazzes up everything from taboulis, pilafs, lamb dishes and assorted soups to hot cocoas, chocolate brownies and soufflés. As an added boon, this high fiber, vitamin-rich, antioxidant powerhouse has been linked to controlling bad cholesterol (and breath), heart rate and blood pressure, easing irritable colons and sunburns, and soothing mind, body and soul when inhaling the aromatic essential oils.
Cardamom is one of the world’s priciest spices, behind only saffron and vanilla bean. Known globally as the “Queen of Spices,” cardamom was held in high esteem by ancient peoples as an aphrodisiac, teeth whitener, sensuous perfume and relief from overindulgent eating. Indigenous to south India and a member of the ginger family, there are three cardamom varieties — green, black and Madagascar.
Cardamom maintains its expressive, aromatic flavor and scent when bought in pods, which are then peeled and discarded. Seeds (which can be ground in a coffee grinder) have a less distinct flavor than fresh pods, while prepared ground seeds are the mildest form. Cardamom is a staple spice in Indian cuisine, especially curries and lentils, perks up a cup of joe, and gives an exotic accent to pie crusts, strudels, rice dishes, chicken and duck. A pinch is plenty for this potent spice that’s also a great digestive aid.
Full of ginger
The gnarly beige tuber with fibrous cream-colored flesh is either grated fresh, ground into pungent powder or formed into candied nuggets to give a smooth, warm bite to seasonal holiday treats. Ginger enlivens comfort drinks, squash soups, stir-fries, roasted roots, nut breads, cookies, cream cheese frostings and preserves.
Ginger’s a natural remedy for all that ails you, from morning sickness and digestive discomfort to stuffy noses and scratchy throats. When buying ginger root, look for glabrous-skins with few knots and branches, and a fresh, spicy scent. For milder, less-stringy ginger, pick immature, stubbier stems.
Nip in the bud
Although available year round, the sweet and aromatic flavor of cloves enhances apple ciders, hearty soups, fruit compotes and pumpkin pies. Cloves are a dense little package loaded with phytonutrients and essential oils, heart-healthy omega-3s, calcium and immune-boosting Cs. The first breath mint in history, Chinese courtiers sucked on fragrant cloves for fresh breath when they had sittings with the emperor.
A close shave
An enchanting woodsy spice from the tropical evergreen, nutmeg is loaded with essential oils and other phyto-goodies, having antioxidant, anti-fungal and antidepressant properties, along with boosting bone health and managing stress. Nutmeg is equally divine in savory and sweet dishes. Dial up seasonal sips, including eggnogs, mochas, apple ciders or mulled wines. For sassy warm wilted spinach salads, zippy Alfredo sauces, soufflés, risottos, lasagnas, pumpkin dishes, rice puddings, apple pies and peach cobblers — a little dash will do you. Whip up a Moroccan dry rub blending nutmeg, chili, cumin, rose petals, cinnamon and cardamom to invigorate chicken, lamb or wild-caught fish. Where possible, buy whole nutmeg for longer-lasting distinct flavor. Use a microplane and grate away.
Cardamom Rice Pudding
1 8-ounce can evaporated milk
8 ounces almond milk
1 cup short-grain rice (cooked)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 large eggs
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg and cardamom
Method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place a large pan of water in the oven. Grease a 2-quart ovenproof casserole bowl. Add milks, rice and spices to the casserole.
In a small bowl combine eggs, sugar, extract and beat well. Combine the mixtures. Stir in raisins. Put butter dots on top (optional). Place in the water pan, and bake for 30 minutes. Take a sharp knife and mix the pudding. Lower temperature (325), and continue to bake until set.
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