‘Tis the season of the pumpkin. It begins in fall as pumpkin spice lattes steam up the windows of local coffee shops. It continues as pumpkin patches fill up, jack-o-lanterns light up and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” plays on TV. It’s the star of Halloween and an integral part of Thanksgiving dinner. This time of year, even the afternoon sky reflects its rich hues.
This theme carries through the cold months as a bouquet of pumpkin pie spices – cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice - add culinary interest to many dishes, allowing us to use less salt, sugar and fat in recipes.
To indulge in the aroma of the harvest season, consider adding the following to spice up your recipes:
Cinnamon reigns as one of the most popular spices in the kitchen. Most commonly used in baked goods, it has both a spicy and sweet side that allow it to complement many types of foods. Cinnamon mellows the acidity in fruit so you can use less sugar. The next time you make apple pie or applesauce, use generous amounts of cinnamon and cut the sugar in half. It similarly highlights the natural sweetness of winter vegetables like sweet potatoes or acorn squash: add a sprinkle of cinnamon on top and use less (or no) butter. It also pairs well with chocolate. Try adding a tablespoon to your next mug of cocoa
Ginger, with its warm and woody characteristics, adds the defining bite to gingersnaps, gingerbread and ginger ale. A homemade ginger tea is a great way to warm up from the cold, particularly after exercising outdoors, and can be used as a coffee substitute in the morning, providing an eye opener without the caffeine. Grate a small amount fresh ginger root into a pot with one to two cups of cold water, bring to a simmer, and add fresh-squeezed lemon and a teaspoon of honey before sipping. Powdered ginger can be substituted in a pinch.3. Nutmeg
Nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree indigenous to the Maluku Islands—Indonesia’s “spice islands.” The sweet and slightly bitter flavor of nutmeg provides the characteristic aroma of mulled wine and eggnog. It can also be used in savory recipes, including ground meat and potato dishes, providing a significant snap that allows you to cut back on the salt. A small amount goes a long way. Sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon per 4 servings on fish, chicken or beef just before serving. If the flavor is too pungent, try mace instead. Mace comes from the covering of the nutmeg seed; it’s more delicate in flavor and adds an appealing saffron color.
Allspice, the dried, unripe berry from an evergreen tree in the myrtle family, is not a literal combination of spices but does combine the flavors of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. Typically used in Jamaican jerk seasoning, pickling spice and holiday baked goods, allspice was more widely used in the kitchen prior to World War II and may be the most interesting and versatile spice to get reacquainted with this fall. Add a few whole allspice berries to your pepper grinder for a seasonal way to spice up any entrée. A sprinkle will maintain the depth of a creamed spinach or potato au gratin dish when made with low-fat ingredients.
You can enjoy all or a combination of these spices in a pumpkin pie breakfast smoothie for two. Simply blend:
1 frozen banana,
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
½ cup vanilla Greek yogurt
1 cup soy or fat-free milk
In addition to the many culinary benefits, these spices may add nutritional benefits in terms of disease prevention or management.
Cinnamon, which has been consumed since 2000 BC, is purported to lower triglycerides, fight bacteria and correct erectile dysfunction. The most exciting research involves cinnamon’s role in controlling blood sugar levels and lowering cholesterol in those with diabetes.
Ginger root, most commonly found in powdered form, has been used medicinally in Asian and Indian cultures for centuries, primarily for digestive relief. Clinical research has shown ginger provides relief for menstrual pain, dizziness and nausea from surgery, morning sickness during pregnancy, and chemotherapy, although it is ineffective for preventing motion sickness and seasickness. Current interest is in ginger’s potential anti-inflammatory properties (which is also a beneficial property of another member of the Zingiberaceae family, turmeric). Some studies have shown taking ginger relieves pain as well as ibuprofen in those with osteoarthritis, and similar trials are being conducted on those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and migraines.
Nutmeg has traditionally been used to treat flatulence, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea, although most reports are anecdotal and clinical evidence is lacking. The lignin macelignan in nutmeg has been shown to have antimicrobial effects on bacteria that cause tooth decay. Psychoactive effects have also been reported from ingesting large amounts of myristicin, the principal aromatic ingredient in nutmeg.
Allspice boasts an array of medicinal uses in traditional medicine. Most commonly it has been used to kill germs in the mouth and to alleviate tooth pain. Recent studies have shown two active compounds in allspice, eugenol and gallic acid, have selective anti-proliferative and anti-tumor properties on human cancer cells.
Spices have long histories in traditional medicine that modern science is just now documenting. While the science has yet to support many of the working theories on how these spices affect health, as long as they are used in moderate amounts, not only do they do no harm, they also spice up our seasonal cuisine.
For more healthy holiday tips from Debbie Petitpain, click this link.
Debbie Petitpain, RDN, is a Sodexo Wellness dietitian in MUSC’s Office of Health Promotion.