This the unedited version of my article from Edition 8 of
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In this third and final ‘Healing Properties of Kitchen Herbs’ article, I will be sharing what I know and love about seven herbs I have in my garden and kitchen. Two of these are green leaves, the healthiest and most under-appreciated food group on the planet! The other five are seeds I source in bulk from organic growers. When I was a child, my mother, who loved the idea of using food as medicine, inspired within me great respect and admiration for the nutritional properties of edible seeds.
“Seeds are very rich in proteins, healthy fats, and minerals. They are little nutrient powerhouses!” she would say. “Think about it: they not only produce life in the form of a new seedling, sometimes after laying dormant for years, they’re packed full of all the nutrients the seedling needs to survive until it grows roots and pushes its way up through the earth into the sunlight.”
Just when I thought seeds couldn’t possibly get any more interesting, my mother’s mother retired from medicine, began studying botany, and was soon waxing lyrical about the sex-lives of plants. “They really are quite clever!” she would say with a blush. Grandma could tell me anything I wanted to know about the sexy ways seeds are made, and the very creative tricks Nature has for dispersing these tiny packages of promise.
Some plants have explosive spring-like mechanisms that fling javelin-shaped seeds out and away from the parent-plant. Other surrounded their seeds in fluff or equip them with wings, to be carried away on the wind. Then there are those that come with tiny inbuilt grappling hooks so they can hitch a ride on passing clothing or fur. Perhaps the cleverest trick of all is to package your seeds in yummy fruit, enticing animals from near and far. As the mushy fruit is eaten, seeds stick to fur and skin, wiped or washed off later in distant places. Even when the seeds get eaten, many of them survive digestion and are pooped out, hours or days later with free poop-fertiliser left as a parting gift. How clever is that?!
My elder-inspired childhood fascination with plants has evolved into a career as a plant-based naturopath, with a special passion for teaching clients about the therapeutic uses of ‘food-herbs’. What are food-herbs? Consider oats, ginger, garlic, thyme and rosemary. As both foods and herbs, you might find these items in your kitchen or your favourite recipes, but you’ll also find them in naturopathic clinics, in tablets, powders, teas and tinctures prescribed for all manner of ailments. Food-herbs are non-toxic, safe for general use, very difficult to overdose on, and they give us a much-needed glimpse into the medicinal actions of day-to-day foods. All foods have medicinal action, but there is currently very little research available on this topic, because investors can’t patent whole plant-foods. The therapeutic actions of whole plant-foods might be subtle and gentle compared with the powerful symptom-suppression action of pharmaceutical drugs, but they are profound, providing us with genuine healing and health insurance over a lifetime of use.
Many of the potent medicinal actions in plants come from natural plant-chemicals (phytochemicals) plants produce to attract pollinating insects, repel predators, and defend themselves from infections. Plants grown using herbicides and pesticides don’t need to be healthy or have strong immune systems to survive, and they don’t need to be grown in good quality soil full of healthy-supporting nutrition and gut-friendly bacteria. What does this mean for the health of humanity, after centuries of co-evolution with nature’s pharmacy? This is why, no matter where I’m living, I grow my own food-herbs. Herbs are nutrient dense, fast-growing, require very little room in the garden, and my home-grown foods going to be far more potent than store-bought produce that might never have had roots in the soil or have seen the light of day.
I’ve become quite fond of mustard seeds over the past year or so. First, I discovered yellow mustard seeds, and now more recently the smaller brown ones, which I prefer. I didn’t grow up with mustard, so these beautiful round seeds are a strange novelty I’m yet to develop an acquired taste for. I am intrigued nonetheless, because I love having food adventures that challenge and expand my palette! With a bit more practise I’ll become an expert in the fine art of combining mustard seeds with other flavours to create new recipes that totally rock. Until then, I might mess up a few times and add it when it shouldn’t be added, but trial and error is always the best way to develop expertise. So far, I’ve discovered that adding mustard seeds to scrambled tofu, sautéing them with other curry spices before adding vegetables and lentils, or adding them to my vegan cheese, mayonnaise and salad dressing recipes, works really well.
When mustard seeds are crushed, their plant cells release tear-inducing, sinus-opening, sulphurous mustard oil glycosides, waking us up and brightening up our day! These phytonutrients (also found in horseradish, wasabi and nasturtium flowers), are produced by plants as insecticides to protect them from insect attack. Mustard seeds also possess an antimicrobial action that protects both the plant and those who eat them from infectious diseases. Combine this with the warming, mucous-clearing effect of mustard, and you have an excellent addition to your food-based winter home-remedy kit.
In Ayurvedic medicine, mustard seeds are used to purge toxins from the body by functioning as a diuretic and mild laxative, while also stimulating bile release from storage in the liver. In fact, mustard seeds are a folk-remedy used by many cultures, famous for their ability to improve digestion and relieve the pain of joint and muscle aches. An old folk remedy suggests placing the seeds in hot water, soaking a cloth in this water and then applying this cloth to sore joints, warning that direct contact with the seeds themselves can lead to skin-blistering! Even when taken internally, the seeds may have something to offer in the way of easing pain, with ingredients such as curcumin (also found in turmeric) providing some anti-inflammatory relief.
Originally from the rainforests of Sri Lanka, cardamom is often referred to as the “queen of spices” in Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Researchers have found that cardamom supercharges the part of our immune system that fights virus-infected and cancerous cells. These tests took place in a petri dish, so we can’t assume that dining on cardamom-infused meals will automatically rev our immune engines, but it’s a possibility worth entertaining next time you are wondering what flavours you might use to jazz up your latest kitchen-creation. I adore the lemony flavour of dried cardamom seeds and when I first began using them I went a little overboard. My husband bravely risked the wrath of the kitchen goddess and gently asked me to back off: “Less is more!” he whispered.
As with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and bay leaves, one or two cardamom seeds can be plenty enough to flavour a dish. The seeds can be removed before serving, but I prefer leaving them in! Prudently used whole seeds are lucky-dip flavour-intensity surprises. If you aren’t quite so adventurous, grind the seeds as you need them and use the ground spice instead of the whole seeds. Why not just purchase pre-powdered spices you might be asking? Well, you most certainly can, but there’s a lot to be said for slowing your life down and turning at least one meal a day into a stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of experience: spice scents and flavours are breathtakingly potent and complex when you grind them in your own mortar, with your own pestle. Ground or powdered cardamom is perfect for flavouring fudge-like desserts and cookie recipes while the lightly crushed seeds add charm to split pea soups, lentil soups, curries, and home-made chai teas.
Like mustard, cardamom helps clear up mucous congestion and has a warming effect on the gut, making it the perfect home-remedy for nausea, indigestion, flatulence and abdominal bloating. Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese research has shown that several species of cardamom have an anti-allergic action, with many herbalists finding good results when they include cardamom in their treatment for food allergies, intestinal dysbiosis (gut flora imbalances) and leaky gut syndrome. Last but not least, we consider cardamom to be a restorative for the nerves and the brain, using it along with similar herbs like basil, black peppercorn and rosemary, to treat forgetfulness, poor memory and concentration, and mild depression.
When I first went vegan, I became a wee bit famous in my family for my tasty lentil burgers. Being new to veganism, I found a few pre-packaged products that made forming the burgers easier, like vegan gravy powder and egg replacement flour. I also learned that overcooked lentils mush together very nicely, helping the lentil burgers stick together better, but most important of all were the secret herbal ingredients: rosemary and freshly ground cumin seeds. This combination might sound strange, but it worked! I love mixing flavours from different cultures; when you get the combination and ratio right, the result really is ‘out of this world’! Besides which, blending Asian and European flavours is a fun way to honour the memory of my Slovak grandfather, Polish stepfather and Indian-food-obsessed Scottish father, all of whom loved to cook.
Like many kitchen herbs and spices, cumin improves digestion and has some antimicrobial and antifungal actions that help protect us from gut flora imbalances. I’ve found this herb to be a useful additional when taking an holistic approach to irritable bowel syndrome and abdominal bloating. Given the preliminary research studies I have seen so far on the effects of cumin, I encourage my clients to include cumin in their diet if they are prone to infections, they are diabetic, or they have problems with memory, focus and concentration. (If you’re curious about the medicinal effects of the rosemary in my lentil burgers, check out Part 2 of this series on the healing properties of kitchen herbs, in the last edition.)
ANISEED AND FENNEL SEEDS
Aniseed and fennel belong to the Apiaceae family of plants, keeping good company with familiar food-plants such as carrots and celery. The two seeds look and taste similar because they contain a phytochemical called anethole, an aromatic compound that gives them a licorice flavour, but they are completely different plant species: the botanical name for anise is Pimpinella anisum while the botanical name for fennel is Foeniculum vulgare. Isn’t Latin a beautiful language?! I love the way it rolls off the tongue.
If a recipe calls for fennel seeds and I’ve only got aniseed, or aniseed when I’ve only got fennel seeds, I’ll happily substitute one for the other, but aniseeds are best used in deserts and breads, while fennel seeds work better in savory dishes. Lucky for me, I have both spices handy at the moment, so I’ll be adding fennel seeds to the savory Indian dish I’m cooking for dinner tonight and this morning I made myself a big pot of caffeine-free chai tea, gently heating my rice milk in a pot on the stove, while I added a stick of cinnamon, some black pepper, cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, fresh ginger and last but not least: aniseed. What a delightful flavour!
Not only do these two spices do a reasonable job of standing in for each other in my kitchen, they are interchangeable in my herbal dispensary. Fennel and anise seeds are referred by herbalists as ‘galactogogues’, which means they can help increase a mother’s production of breastmilk. As expectorants, they clear mucous congestion from the lungs, either by making the mucous thinner and less sticky, or by improving the cough reflex. Like cumin, they are carminatives, relieving flatulence, spasms and pain in the gut by relaxing muscles in our intestinal wall. This makes them useful for everything from colic to abdominal bloating and irritable bowel syndrome. As an added bonus these spices are antimicrobial like basil, so they help our body fight off infections and rebalance gut flora, and they are estrogen-modulating like soy, able to block the action of excessive estrogen, or compensate slightly for its absence.
A breastfeeding mother came to me recently for help because she was having trouble with her milk production, her baby was suffering from colic, and her two year old had an awful cough. I happened to have fennel in stock, so I mixed up some herbal tinctures with fennel as the main ingredient, because it was so perfectly well suited to the family as a whole. Since then, I’ve begun teaching this mother how to use both aniseed and fennel in recipes and as an herbal tea. It’s such an empowering feeling, knowing how to use home-remedies for your family’s wellbeing! If you have both herbs in stock in your kitchen, it’s worth knowing that fennel is the more powerful carminative of the two, while aniseed is more potent as an expectorant.
Did you know that 1 cup of freshly chopped basil contains more iron than a cup of freshly chopped kale? As a herbalist, I prescribe basil to clear mucous congestion from the lungs and sinuses. It’s excellent for coughs and colds, not just because it’s an expectorant, but also because it has a strong anti-infective action that rivals that of thyme. Like most kitchen herbs, basil improves digestion, and can be used as part of a broader approach to reduce nausea, indigestion and stomach pains. I also use basil as part of my food-as-medicine approach to improving fertility and reducing impotence. In my experience, it tones reproductive qi and also helps harmonise menstruation. By far the most powerful and under-recognised use of basil is as a nervous-system restorative, in the treatment of physical or mental exhaustion, nervous depression and memory loss.
Basil is the star performer in my garden at the moment. It’s growing twice as fast as everything else, which is lucky for me, given the generous quantities I love to use in my recipes. If you haven’t tried home-made cheesy sauces, pasta sauces, dips, and pestos using copious quantities of fresh home-grown basil, you’re missing out on a true delight! I add big handfuls of fresh basil to the blender along with water, nuts, salt and lemon juice. Sometimes I use olives instead of lemon and salt, and in times past I’ve been known to use umeboshi paste as yet another alternative. If the mix isn’t creamy enough, or it’s too runny, add more nuts. If it isn’t zingy enough, add more sour and salty flavours. If it isn’t green, you probably need more basil!
Fresh basil is a timeless ingredient in tomato-based dishes like bolognaise, lasagne and pizza, and vegan versions of these dishes are always going to be more satisfying and convincing when you include herbs like basil. I also enjoy adding basil to my salads, which, of all the meals I prepare, are my husband’s hands-down favourite. My salads include fresh herbs, salad greens and edible flowers from the garden, along with an ever-changing variety of organic produce. What makes my salads all the more interesting is that they often include some cooked vegetables, such as roasted carrot and pumpkin, and they always include a piece of fruit. My current favourite is pear. Before that it was mango, before that, pomegranate. For some creaminess, I add a dollop or humus or cheesy basil pesto/dip/dressing. Last but not least, a sprinkling or nuts or seeds.
The addition of healthy whole-fats like nuts, seeds and avocado not only make your salads taste better, it significantly improves your absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as carotenoids, lutein, vitamin K and lycopene.
MINT AND PEPPERMINT
If I was told I could only add one fresh garden herb to a salad, I’d choose mint, and lots of it! Mint brings a salad to life. It’s also a great flavour to pair with chocolate when making desserts, and there’s nothing quite like peppermint tea to lift the spirits, calm you before bed and settle your stomach. Mint is one of the most antioxidant-rich herbs found in the average person’s garden, protecting our body’s cells and tissues against the ravages of aging and free-radical induced DNA damage. At the moment, I have both Thai mint and chocolate mint growing in my garden, peppermint tea in my kitchen, and peppermint tincture in my naturopathic clinic. Of all the mints, peppermint is the most well-researched and the one used by herbalists.
Herbalists use peppermint to treat colds and flus because it’s antimicrobial, reduces coughing, clears the sinuses, and helps lower a fever (when given as a hot tea) by inducing sweating. For the digestive system, peppermint is a useful carminative herb that is especially helpful in the treatment of nausea, stomach aches and irritable bowel symptoms. If you suffer from gastric reflux after using peppermint tea, it’s because the carminative action of peppermint is over-relaxing an already lazy muscle at the top of your stomach that is meant to stop food from rising up out of the stomach back into the oesophagus. Try making the tea weaker and drinking it just before you eat. As a herb with cholagogue properties, peppermint prompts your gallbladder to release bile, which assists in the digestion of dietary fats, but if you are iron deficient, don’t drink peppermint tea with your meals as it may compromise iron absorption. Like basil and rosemary, peppermint is a good remedy for neurological weakness, being used by herbalists in formulas to reduce headaches, dizziness, fatigue and absent-mindedness.
Mint also contains various plant chemicals that can help protect us against cancer. One of these, also found in the skin of citrus fruits, is limonene. Limonene works against cancer in many ways, such as inhibiting tumour growth and helping our liver produce phase II liver enzymes that detoxify carcinogens. Another cancer-fighting phytochemical in mint is luteolin, which has been found to inhibit oral, prostate, lung and colon cancer. Like rosemary, thyme and oregano, peppermint contains ursolic acid, which is anticarcinogenic and chemoprotective, helping to protect body tissues from the toxic effects of chemotherapy drugs. Ursolic acid is anti-inflammatory, protects the liver from damage caused by unhealthy diets and toxins like alcohol, and suppresses NF-κB. A protein complex activated by stress, free radicals, UV radiation, and so on, NF-κB is considered by some researchers to be the single most important factor causing inflammation in the body. Chronic activation of NF-κB has been linked to cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Yet another good reason to get started growing your own herb garden!