Cold, damp winter weather in northern climes calls for comforting ways to warm body and soul. In both western and Ayurveda herbal traditions, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, the fragrances and tastes associated with winter holidays, are considered warming for body and spirit!
Cinnamon, the fragrant dried inner bark of the cinnamon tree, grown mostly in Sri Lanka, is a warming spice. Both sweet and pungent, it is good for circulation, respiratory health, muscles and nerves. In warm milk or warmed juices such as apple or berry, it can bring comfort and relief to a body chilled from stormy weather or a cold ‘bug’. It also harmonizes the flow of circulation.
You probably already use ground cinnamon in baking holiday cookies, pies, and other desserts. It can also be used in meat and vegetable dishes, especially when combined with other spices. Cinnamon sticks are used in mulled wine or juice. Add the benefits and taste of cinnamon to your winter days by sprinkling it on your favorite tea, coffee, or other warm beverage.
Cardamom, an ancient Indian spice, is another sweet/pungent warming spice. Good for the respiratory system (I take long, deep cardamom breaths when I grind it!), nerves and circulation, it is a rock star for the digestive system. Not surprising, as the perennial shrub is a member of the ginger family and ginger root is the premium digestive spice. The little seeds found inside the fruiting pods of the cardamom bush stimulate digestion and can calm an upset tummy.
Used in Scandinavian baking year round, it is especially favored at Christmas in cardamom breads and cakes. Cardamom, which reduces the mucus forming properties of milk, is delicious in a cup of warm milk at night. I use cardamom in many vegetable and grain dishes, as an ingredient in a spice blend I often use, and with cinnamon and nutmeg in cooked fruit deserts such as baked pears or apples or a fruit compote, or cobblers. My favorite use is in tapioca pudding, (which I make with coconut milk, no eggs). Cardamom/vanilla tapioca, with a hint of coconut and sweetened with honey or coconut syrup, served warm (or cooled) is a soul warming sweet dessert on a wintry night!
Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree, a tropical member of the myrtle tree family. It’s name, from the Latin clavus, means nail, which the dried buds resemble. Also pungent, and sweet, it is considered a mild aphrodisiac, good for the lymph system, lungs, stomach, it is also found in many herbal salves for pain. A long-standing use has been for tooth pain. Used in combination with cinnamon and other spices, it is popular in holiday baking, as well as meat dishes. A strong spice, too much can cause stomach irritation, and the flavor can over ride other flavors. It’s a good thing in moderation! A “classic” holiday decoration is clove buds stuck in an orange and hung to scent a room or closet. Easy to grind, the flower buds last longer whole then pre-ground.
Nutmeg seems to have two primary uses in most western kitchens….holiday eggnog and desserts with fruit, such as pies and cobblers. It can also be used in cooking vegetables. A pungent spice, it works well with cardamom and ginger to aid digestion, especially in the small intestine. A superb spice for calming the mind, up to 1/4 t. of nutmeg in warm milk (or milk substitute) before bed time can help with sleep. Nutmeg and mace (another spice) come from the same evergreen tree native to Indonesia. You can buy the whole “fruit” or purchase it ground. Grinding nutmeg in a spice grinder takes a good sharp blade. It can also be grated. The resulting fresh ground or grated nutmeg will be stronger flavor than the dried, pre-ground spice.
Gingerbread and ginger cutout cookies are two favorite winter time baked goodies. Ginger is warming and “grounding” (it is a root after all!). Dried ginger is drying and heating to the body, fresh ginger warming but not drying. I prefer using the fresh in cooking soups, making tea, and some baked goods. The dried powder ginger is good in spice mixes and in baking. Ginger, considered a universal medicine, is good for many ailments, especially those of the digestion and respiratory system, and for blood flow ( it is a mild blood thinner). From baked goods to spicy soups, it is perfect for spicing up warming winter meals.
This post, long enough, barely touches on all the medicinal and culinary uses of these wonderful warming spices, nor does it cover the interesting history of them. Important as medicines and culinary use, all have been used for centuries. They are as ancient as the holidays we celebrate this month!
A few tips: For best flavor from an herb or spice, grind fresh what you need, never buy more pre-ground than you’ll use in a month, and buy from a source that keeps spices fresh (forget the little tin cans in supermarkets!).
Store spices in a tight jar. If the aroma is lost, toss. The fragrance of spices, from the volatile oils in them, generally tells how fresh the spice is, (this is especially true of dried green herbs like oregano, thyme, sage, etc). Once ground, these oils are released, which is why buying whole spices and grinding what you will use in a short period of time gives optimal flavor and fragrance. Of the spices above, I buy ground dry ginger (but use the fresh more) and ground cinnamon, as well as the sticks. (Cinnamon “sticks”, pieces of the rolled bark, can be hard to grind fine at home, buying ground cinnamon is useful for baking, but consider cinnamon “sticks” for beverages.) Occasionally I buy ground nutmeg, preferring to grind or grate the whole. Grinding whole spices brings out a stronger flavor and makes your kitchen smell wonderful! Use a small coffee bean grinder you designate as a spice grinder. They are a affordable, the task is pleasant, and the difference in flavor in your favorite baked goods and culinary dishes will be worth it. If you value fresh fruits and vegetables for flavor and health benefits, the same applies to spices.
Have a very merry spicy holiday!
two books on my book shelf about spices:
The Yoga of Herbs, by Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad, 1986. Gives the medicinal properties of many spices from the Ayurvedic tradition of healing.
The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, by Claire Loewenfeld and Philippa Back, 1974. An older favorite, gives a little history, botanical info and uses of most herbs and spices.