Healthy food has an undeserved reputation for being bland and boring. This week Nikki Edwards shows you how to spice up your dishes and tickle your taste buds without resorting to sugar and salt.
“Eating healthily is so boring” is something I hear a lot but actually, sticking to my clean, lean and protein programme does not mean you have to succumb to a list of dull, flavourless foods. On the contrary.
There are in fact, a whole host of delicious ways you can spice up your dishes – and by doing so you can also benefit from some surprising health bonuses.
Now I’m sure you’ve all heard of superfoods – those packed with great disease-fighting properties.
But I wonder how many of you knew that certain herbs and spices are also delicious sources of antioxidants and other powerful nutrients?
A pinch of history
Herbs and spices have been used to flavour our foods and for their health properties for nearly 5,000 years.
But before they became a way to help preserve foods when refrigeration was limited or nonexistent, these ingredients were seen as purely medicinal.
Nutmeg, for example, indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia, became highly touted as a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.
And when they were first introduced to the UK, garlic was used as an antibiotic, Vanilla as a cure for impotence and cumin was believed to be the only way to prevent flatulence.
Is there any truth in it?
Technically speaking, herbs and spices are fruits and vegetables, which means that they are natural sources of concentrated antioxidants.
And there are several that researchers believe hold some of the greatest potential to improve our health.
Cinammon is a good example. A single teaspoon of cinnamon has the antioxidant power equal to 100g of blueberries or a cup of pomegranate juice.
It’s also a delicious way to spice up a cup of coffee or to sprinkle on breakfast oats.
Research has shown that cinnamon may also help regulate blood sugar, an important factor in conditions like diabetes.
Ginger is a well-known favourite of pregnant women because it helps prevent or reduce feelings of nausea and cloves also have magical qualities because they contain eugenol, which helps reduce toxicity from pollutants and prevent joint inflammation.
Cumin is rich in antioxidants, which may help reduce the risk of cancer and also has iron and manganese which help keep your immune system strong and healthy.
And nutmeg is rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C and can help reduce blood pressure.
Spice it up and live longer
Recent research into the properties of the chilli pepper has found that if you like your food hot, you may actually live longer than those who have a more mild palate.
The study quashed the long-standing myth that spicy food exacerbates ulcers and other stomach ailments and instead showed that hot peppers actually protect the stomach lining and may prevent the gastric damage associated with anti-inflammatory painkillers. They are also high in nutrients such as calcium plus vitamins A and C and may have some ability to prevent cancer.
Chilli is also a guilt-free way to make food more flavourful, interesting and exciting because they boost metabolism, help burn fat and keep us feeling full longer.
Today, chilli is an integral component of many traditional cuisines throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In fact it is the most common type of spice used worldwide, second only to salt as a seasoning.
Chilies and hot peppers can thank capsaicin, the main ingredient found within their veins (and the chemical that gives them their heat) for the health benefits that they exude.
Capsaicin has been scientifically proven to combat several common health issues, including high blood pressure, cholesterol, joint pain, depression, and digestion problems.
But chillies are not the only hotties that can improve your health.
Turmeric, the main ingredient in many spicy sauces and curries, contains curcumin which is thought to slow the progression of certain neurodegenerative diseases.
Recent studies also show that cultures that use hot peppers and spices in their diets have lower rates of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary embolism.
The healing power of herbs
Spice isn’t the only thing that can add flavour. Here are some examples of herbs which can be also be used to make your dishes more exciting, as well as offer you health benefits to boot:
- Basil: This bright-green leaf is high in vitamins A and K and has a good amount of potassium and manganese. You can grow basil plants on a sunny windowsill throughout the year. When to use it: Use basil in tomato sauces, salad dressings, pesto, soups, and chicken, beef, pork, and fish dishes.
- Marjoram: This fragrant herb contains many phytochemicals — including terpenes, which are anti-inflammatory. When to use it: Marjoram is delicious in any dish made using beef and is perfect with vegetables like tomatoes, peas, carrots, and spinach.
- Mint: Mint is excellent for upset stomachs because it soothes. But did you know it may also be a weapon against cancer? It contains a phytochemical called perillyl alcohol, which can stop the formation of some cancer cells. When to use it: Use it in teas, as part of a fruit salad or lettuce salad.
- Coriander: The leaves are rich in vitamins A, C and K and also contain thiamin, riboflavin and folic acid. It is used in some parts of the world to treat insomnia, anxiety and depression. When to use it: Coriander is one of the world's most commonly used herbs. It is green, leafy and strong-smelling with a fresh, citrus taste that makes it an invaluable garnish and flavour enhancer. Coriander tends to be associated most with Asian and Central and South American cooking. Great in curries!
- Oregano: Used in Italian dishes, this strong herb is a potent antioxidant as well as a good source of iron, fiber, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids. When to use it: Add oregano to salad dressings, soups, sauces, meat dishes, and pork recipes.
- Parsley: This mild and leafy herb is an excellent source of vitamin C, iron, calcium, and potassium. It can also help reduce the risk of heart disease. When to use it: Use it in everything from salads as a leafy green to rice pilafs, grilled fish, and sauces and gravies.
- Rosemary: Rosemary contains terpenes, which slow down free radical development and stop inflammation. When to use it: Use this pungent and piney herb in soups, stews, meat, and chicken dishes. Particularly nice with lamb.
- Sage: Sage’s most impressive effect may be against Alzheimer’s disease by inhibiting the increase in AChE inhibitors. When to use it: Its dusky, earthy aroma and flavour are delicious in classic turkey stuffing, sauces, soups and stews, and frittatas and omelets.
- Tarragon: This herb tastes like licorice with a slightly sweet flavor and is rich in beta carotene and potassium, too. When to use it: Delicious with chicken or fish. Use it as a salad green or as part of a salad dressing or mix it with Greek yogurt to use as an appetizer dip.
- Thyme: This herb is a good source of vitamin K. When to use it: It’s fresh, slightly minty, and lemony tasting, making it a great addition to everything from egg dishes to pear desserts to recipes featuring chicken and fish.
Spice up your life
So the remedy for the healthy-but-boring dilemma is simple: stock up your cupboards with some little pots of spice magic and fill your garden with a variety of leafy herbs. Herbs and spices are a simple way to boost the flavour (and not the calorie count) of your meals. Happy eating!
Recipe of the week – Chicken tikka kebabs with Indian salsa
- 150ml pot low fat natural yogurt
- 2 tbsp tikka masala paste
- 700g skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
- ½ cucumber, chopped
- large tomato, chopped
- 1 green chilli, seeded and finely chopped
- 1 small onion, finely sliced
- 4 tbsp roughly chopped fresh coriander
Method In a large bowl mix the yogurt with the curry paste. Then add the chicken, season and stir well. Cover and leave for 30 minutes at room temperature to give the spices time to flavour the chicken. Make the salad before you start to cook the kebabs. Simply mix together the cucumber, tomatoes, chilli, onion and coriander. Preheat the grill or use a barbecue. Push the chicken onto 8 metal or wooden skewers. Grill or barbecue the kebabs for 8-10 minutes, turning them frequently.
Exercise of the week – belly dancing
If you still haven’t found a fun way to exercise, how about trying a spot of belly dancing?
Believe it or not, there are plenty of reasons – aside from the fact it’s great fun – to shake your stuff.
Firstly it uses muscles you didn’t know you had working everything from your back, stomach and waist to your pelvic floor. It also improves your flexibility and burns calories.
It is especially beneficial for women as the whole dance has been developed around the female form and so every move will tone all those difficult and complex muscles that the gym cannot.
Where you can do it: Bellycise run classes all over Suffolk. For more information on times and prices visit website www.bellycise.com or call Alison on 01379 678176.