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Getting Spicy in the Kitchen

When the weather gets chilly it’s time to get spicy! Herbs and spices in cooking offer so much more than flavor. The warming pungent spices can help increase circulation and assist digestion. Here are a few notes I’ve come up with for you based on research through books, classes, and internet searches. Please do your own research too and know that culinary uses and therapeutic doses are different things. There are often few contraindications for herbs and spices when taken in reasonable amounts in cooking, (unless there is an allergy or sensitivity to a particular spice) but taking larger amounts of spices as a supplement require more mindfulness and it would be worth consulting a health care provider before taking large amounts of any herb or spice.

Spice things up for your better health:

1. Cinnamon: There are more reasons than tradition that cinnamon is such a part of fall and winter recipes. It is warming and aromatic, acts as a demulcent, astringent, analgesic, hypoglycemic, antioxidant and antimicrobial and has been used traditionally to treat toothache, diarrhea, blood movement, infections, arthritis, insulin resistance, colds, and flus. Cinnamon is incredibly versatile in cooking and is used in both sweet and savory dishes. There are two main varieties of cinnamon, Ceylon and Cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is higher quality and is the ‘true’ cinnamon. Both have health benefits and cassia is more pungent and spicier. If you are going to consume a lot of cinnamon for health benefits, it is best to choose Ceylon cinnamon, as the cassia has high levels of coumarin, which can be harmful in large doses.

2. Cloves: Like many spices originating from Asia, have many health benefits. Cloves are antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, stimulating to digestion, and help relieve dyspepsia and nausea. They have been used to treat headaches, toothaches, to control blood sugar, and even as an aphrodisiac. Cloves are a traditional spice in fall and winter holiday cooking, but a simple way to make them part of daily life is to suck on a clove to freshen breath after meals for 20-30 minutes.

3. Allspice: We all may have this spice in our cabinets, but don’t think about using it until we are making mulled cider. Allspice, also known as Jamaica pepper, is a common ingredient in ketchup, which may be its most common method of consumption. Like clove, allspice can help relive a toothache, improve digestion and rubbing the ground spice on your skin can help relieve muscle pain and even help with Raynaud syndrome symptoms. It is anti-fungal and can be effective in clearing up athlete’s foot. It is one of the ingredients commonly included in pumpkin pie spice, which is a wonderful blend of spices to add to dishes both sweet and savory.

4. Black peppercorns: One of the most common household spices, it may be easy to dismiss black pepper as nothing special, but it was once called ‘black gold’ and for many good reasons! Black pepper strongly supports digestion, and is antimicrobial, antioxidant, antispasmodic, carminative, circulatory stimulant, stimulating diaphoretic, and stimulating expectorant. It is helpful with fevers, mucus congestion, slow or stagnant circulation, increasing bioavailability of other herbs and spices like turmeric, hemorrhoids, and arthritis. Black pepper has been found in a study to help increase the bioavailability of curcumin in turmeric by 2000 percent and has been found to help with the bioavailability of Echinacea, goldenseal, coenzyme Q10, beta-carotene, selenium and vitamin B6 as well. For a stuffy nose, try sniffing a pinch of pepper…. yes, you will sneeze, but chances are you will be less congested afterwards!

5. Turmeric: This spice is enjoying its moment in the spotlight but has a long history of being used in cooking to improve your health, especially in Indian and Asian cuisine. Turmeric is most commonly available as a ground dry spice powder made from a fresh root, which is more increasingly available in markets. It is an analgesic, blood mover, cholagogue, antioxidant, astringent, carminative, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, vulnerary, and antispasmodic. It is not surprising that the dietary supplement market has made turmeric available in expensive capsules and tablets, but it is most beneficial for the body to consume in food and drinks. It is commonly used as a remedy for arthritis, digestion, eczema, bleeding, wounds, ulcers, diarrhea, liver problems, pain, Alzheimer’s, cold/flu, cancer, heart health and type 2 diabetes. Curcumin, a potent element in turmeric, is fat soluble, so it is a good idea to include fat when you are cooking with it. An easy way to eat it is to start with ghee or coconut oil in a pan, add turmeric and black pepper and cook until fragrant. Then add vegetables, eggs or other foods and sauté.

6. Star anise: A spice included in blends like Chinese 5-spice and Garam masala, star anise is a spice we don’t reach for often enough. Star anise is rich in antioxidants, antibacterial, and antifungal and can help regulate blood sugar. It contains the compound called shikimic acid, which is commonly found in medications sued to treat influenza, such as Tamiflu. It is a lovely add-in to a hot toddy, hot cider or mulled wine.

7. Fennel, cumin, anise, and caraway: In the interest of space and time I am grouping these helpful seeds together as they have similar properties and are good spices to include in your cooking on a regular basis. These spices are aromatic, carminative, antispasmodic, and a galactagogue. They are used in cooking but also make wonderful teas. A fun exercise to do it to take some time tasting each of these seeds individually, one at a time, to learn how they differ in flavor from each other.

8. Cardamom: Considered the ‘queen of spices’ in India, the intoxicating aroma and flavor of cardamom is a popular in teas, cooking and baked goods. It is one of the main spices in a Chai tea blend. It has been used to help with nausea and vomiting, cardiovascular issues, relief from asthma, sore throat and hiccups, bad breath and as an aphrodisiac. The flavor of cardamom is nicest when freshly ground and works great ground in a mortar and pestle or a pepper grinder.

9. Coriander seeds: Cilantro, a fresh herb used in Mexican, Asian, and Indian cuisine, grows from the coriander seed. If you taste them individually, back-to-back, you will taste the family resemblance. It acts as a stimulant, aromatic and carminative. If used too frequently, they can have a narcotic effect. Coriander seeds and essential oil have been found to have blood sugar lowering effects on the body and can be a natural way to treat a pre-diabetic condition. It is also helpful in relieving excess gas and in decreasing blood pressure. Coriander has a compound that is helpful in fighting against Salmonella, responsible for food poisoning.

10. Prickly ash berries/Szechuan peppercorns: Prickly ash, or Zanthoxylum americanum, has been used in herbal medicine for a variety of ailments. The fruits, or berries of this shrub are related to the Szechuan peppercorn, and well worth experimenting with in your kitchen. The quality of prickly ash is warming, spreading, and numbing, and it can be helpful in improving circulation by moving the blood as well as cleaning it. The berries are only present on the female plants and are usually harvested once they turn red and open to release the hard black seed inside, leaving the red fruit, the part that is used. Dry the fruits on a paper towel and remove all the black seeds. When dry, store in an airtight jar, and before using for cooking, toast slightly and grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. They add a curious flavor element to both savory and sweet dishes.

Extra credit: Garlic mustard seeds: Garlic mustard is an invasive species here in Minnesota, and there are many efforts all over the state to try to curb its rapid growth. Look for garlic mustard pulls in your area in the spring in city and state parks, and pull the greens, which are pungent and nutritious and great to cook with. In the fall, look for dried seed heads and gather in a paper bag. Shake to release the seeds and separate the seeds from the chaff and store seeds in an airtight jar and use in cooking as you would black mustard seeds. They are great baked into crackers or savory breads also.


Chai Spiced Biscotti

A favorite spice blend in a delicious tea originating from India, we now see this warming blend in chocolates, baked goods and even in cocktails. It is well worth the effort of making your own spice blend if this is one of your go-to flavors. Simply roast whole cinnamon, cardaom, cloves, all spice and pepper and grind in a spice grinder . Add in the ground ginger and nutmeg and adjust the spices to suit your palate.

Makes about 30 cookies

6 Tablespoons salted butter

2/3 cups maple sugar or cane sugar

½ teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

2 large eggs

2 cups King Arthur’s Gluten-Free all-purpose baking blend or all-purpose flour

½ cup sliced almonds, toasted until golden brown, cooled

Sparkling decorative sugar, if desired

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking pan with parchment paper. Blend the butter, maple sugar, salt, extracts and spice together until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, stirring between additions. Divide the dough into two, and shape into loaves on the baking sheet about 10” x 2”. Sprinkle the tops with sparkling sugar.

Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and spray the tops of the loaves with a fine mist of water to soften the crust to allow for easier slicing.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Slice each loaf into 1/2” slices and arrange on the lined baking sheet. Return to the oven and bake for another 25-30 minutes, turning over during baking after 15 minutes. Allow to cool on a cooling rack and store in an airtight jar or container. Drizzle with chocolate if desired.

Garam Masala Coconut Sesame Seed ‘Brittle’

This is one of our favorite spice blends, and we often use it in our daily cooking. We love it for roasting cubed winter squash in coconut oil, seasoning a chicken, or adding it to soups and sauces. There are plenty of pre-made garam masala blends in stores that are delicious, but it really is so worth it to make your own. The flavor is far superior!

Makes about 25 bite-sized pieces

1 cup large flake coconut, unsweetened

½ cup sesame seeds

1 Tablespoon coconut oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

1/8 teaspoon coarse flake salt

½ teaspoon garam masala

½ teaspoon orange, clementine or tangerine zest ( or other citrus zest)

Roast the coconut and sesame seeds together with the coconut oil in a large non-stick skillet until light golden brown and fragrant. Stir in the maple syrup and continue cooking over medium low heat, simmering very gently, shaking the pan and stirring occasionally, just to allow for even caramelization and prevent burning. When it looks evenly caramelized, turn out onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and spread into a thin layer. Allow to cool and crisp up. Break into bite-sized pieces.

If it doesn’t get completely crisp after cooling, bake in a 350 degree oven for a 5-7 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool before breaking into pieces.

Store these crispy sweets in an airtight jar. They will keep for a couple weeks.

DIY Fresh Ground Garam Masala

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from the green pod)

2 Tablespoons whole coriander seed

1 Tablespoon whole cumin seed

1 Tablespoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon fennel seed

1 (3” piece) cinnamon stick

1 star anise pod

½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Place the whole spices In a heavy cast iron skillet over medium heat, and stir gently while toasting. The spices will be aromatic and have a subtle color change. After 2 minutes or so, allow the spices to cool before transferring to a spice grinder. Add the ground nutmeg, and grind until fine. Store in an airtight jar away from light and heat. This will keep for up to 6 months.

5-Spice Shortbread

Another spice blend I like to use in my daily cooking is Five Spice. It is a blend of Szechuan peppercorn, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon stick and cloves. It is great is sweet or savory uses, and is used in traditional Chinese cooking. The flavors in this blend satiate the palate by including sweet, sour, pungent, salty, and bitter tastes.

Makes 12 portions

8 Tablespoons good quality salted butter at cool room temperature

½ cup confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 ½ teaspoon 5-spice powder (see Betsy’s homemade blend recipe using foraged prickly ash berries)

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free 1:1 flour blend or all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an 8” cake pan with parchment or lightly brush with butter or oil.

In a medium bowl with a paddle attachment beat the butter, sugar and extracts together and then mix in flour until the dough comes together. The dough will be stiff.

Press the dough into the bottom of the pan and pat to make an even layer.

Use a fork to prick the surface of the dough all over the surface, which will allow the steam to escape and prevent air bubbles from forming.

Bake until light golden brown, about 50-55 minutes. Remove from oven and cut into wedges while the shortbread is still warm. Once the shortbread has cooled, it won’t cut as nicely. Allow to cool completely on a cooling rack and store in an airtight container. Drizzle with chocolate if desired. They will also freeze well.

Sweet Potato Gingerbread

Pumpkin pie spice isn’t just for using once a year in your seasonal pies. In fact, if you’ve had a jar of pumpkin pie spice in your spice cabinet for longer than 6 months, it probably doesn’t have as much flavor. Ground spices lose their volatile oils after being ground, so have a shorter shelf life than whole spices. Buy smaller amounts of ground spices you use less frequently and label the jars with the date it was purchased. If you are feeling ambitious and you have a spice grinder, make your own fresh ground pie spice blend. Traditional pumpkin spice contains cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg

Serves 8

1 cup mashed cooked sweet potato, warm or room temperature

2 Tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

1/3 cup butter, softened

½ cup maple syrup or honey

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free 1:1 flour blend or all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons Pumpkin Pie Spice

½ teaspoon sea salt

2 eggs

½ cup molasses

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8” round cake pan and line with parchment paper. Mash the sweet potato, ginger root and butter together, and mix in maple syrup and baking soda. Whisk the flour, baking powder, spice blend and salt together. Beat in eggs one at a time, scraping sides after each addition. Mix in the flour mixture alternately with the molasses.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes until cake springs back in the center when touched with your finger. Allow to cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar if you like before serving. Cut into wedges and serve with spiced apple or pear sauce, ice cream or whipped cream if desired.

Warming Spiced Apple and Elderberry Butter

Make a big batch of this to have on hand to keep yourself healthy through the winter and give a few jars as gifts as well. It is perfect spread on toast, stirred into a bowl of oatmeal or yoghurt or just eat a tablespoon of it each day, as you feel you need it.

12 tart cooking apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled and cored and quartered

½ cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup water

1 teaspoon roasted and ground prickly ash berries

¼ cup fresh elderberries or 2 Tablespoons powdered dried elderberries

1 Tablespoon Ceylon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons fresh ginger root, minced

½ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

½ cup brown sugar

2–3-star anise

Place all ingredients together in a heavy pot with a well-fitting lid or use an Instant Pot or Pressure cooker or slow cooker. If you are using an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, cook on high pressure for 10-15 minutes and release pressure, mash apples until smooth and then slow cook with the lid removed until thickened, about 1 hour. If you are using a pot, simmer together for 30 minutes with the cover on, remove the cover and mash and simmer, uncovered for 1 hour. In a slow cooker, cook on medium heat 2-3 hours, until apples are soft. Mash and cook another hour with lid slightly cracked to allow excess moisture to escape. Prepare 8-10 (4-ounce) canning jars by boiling 5 minutes in a hot water bath. Divide the hot apple butter equally into jars and place lids, loosely tightened. Allow jars to cool for an hour and tighten lids and let them cool completely before storing in a cool dark place.

Vegan Golden Milk Spice Mix

Turmeric is being celebrated for its anti-inflammatory properties and becoming very popular as a nutritional supplement, but it is actually much more effective to consume it as food rather than in a capsule. Black pepper, when combined with turmeric, makes the healing properties of the turmeric more bio-accessible. Make a batch of the spice blend to have at-the-ready for making a warm, spicy and tasty drink.


1 cup virgin coconut oil

2 Tablespoons grated fresh ginger root

½ cup ground turmeric

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup coconut sugar, maple sugar or honey


1. Melt ½ cup of the coconut oil in a medium sauté pan and add the ginger root, turmeric, and black pepper and heat until they sizzle. Stir in the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Transfer the spice blend to a mixing bowl.

2. Stir in the remaining ½ cup coconut oil and the sugar and stir to mix well. Pour into a glass storage jar and allow to cool at room temperature, stirring occasionally until set up to make sure that the spices do not all settle to the bottom of the container. Seal the container and keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or keep frozen for up to 6 months. For ease of serving, scoop the chilled mixture into balls and store this way.

3. To make a cup of golden milk, heat 1-1 ½ teaspoons of the spice blend in a small saucepan and add 8 ounces of almond, soy, hempseed, or coconut milk and heat until warmed through.

Common sense statement:

As with any new food, you never know if you may have a sensitivity or allergy to it, so start small and see how your body reacts to it. Also, if a foraged food in unfamiliar to you, please use at least a couple guide books and websites featuring wild edible plants in your location to help you identify them, or better yet, learn face to face with an experienced forager. I share these recipes and information based on what I have learned thus far and know that learning is a lifetime process, and I will be the first to say I definitely don't have all the answers. I am just making my humble offering of ideas and recipes that I have made and enjoyed at home.

Please do reach out and let me know your discoveries with wild foods. We all so have much to learn from each other and it makes things so much more rich when we share our thoughts and ideas and dreams in community.

Photos by Tom Thulen

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