In the midst of the holiday season, when we’re often indulging in treats loaded with extra sugar, carbohydrates and fats, it’s nice to know we have natural healthy allies right in our kitchen pantry. Everyday herbs and spices can boost our immune systems, ward off colds and flu, and reduce inflammation.

So says Dr. Peter Knight, a licensed doctor of naturopathic medicine who specializes in nutritional and holistic treatment approaches to chronic health conditions. After receiving a degree in nutritional health sciences and a doctor of naturopathic medicine degree from Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash., he brought his love of cooking and gardening — combined with his belief in the healing properties of food — to Maine, where he had spent summers as a child.

Knight was recently at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus to share his knowledge about the benefits of simple, familiar herbs and spices. Currently a health-care practitioner at Healthy Living Health Care in Falmouth, Knight shared some tips and favorite recipes.

Q: What made you decide to make naturopathic medicine your life’s work?

A: I’ve had a passion for cooking and gardening since I was a boy. In dealing with several health issues of my own as a young adult, I discovered firsthand the profound healing power of food and herbal remedies. I thought about going to culinary school, but decided to attend naturopathic medical school after realizing I could have a greater impact as a doctor than as a chef. Food plays a prominent role in my treatment plans for patients. Because experiencing food is much more powerful than just hearing or reading about it, I teach a semi-monthly cooking class, “The Omnivore’s Delight,” where I discuss health and nutritional benefits of various whole foods and then show several examples of how to cook with them.

Q: What are the four top herbs/spices everyone should be using daily?

A: Most herbs and spices used in cooking have some amazing health benefits. Some of the most important ones include:

Garlic has been shown to lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure while increasing the levels of HDL cholesterol. It also helps to reduce the formation of blood clots that lead to heart attacks and strokes. Garlic is anti-inflammatory, which is helpful not only for cardiovascular health, but also beneficial for people with arthritis and asthma. It has profound effects on the immune system as well, and has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. In addition to its direct activity against pathogenic organisms, it also enhances the activity of several of our immune cells and may decrease the risk of certain cancers.

Cinnamon helps improve blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol levels in Type 2 diabetics. It can help with gastrointestinal function by decreasing gas and diarrhea and helps prevent food-borne gastrointestinal illnesses. It’s also anti-inflammatory and can be helpful for arthritis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. Just smelling cinnamon has been found to improve attention and memory. Most cinnamon sold on the market isn’t actually true cinnamon, but a related less-expensive plant called cassia that has similar health benefits to cinnamon, but a slightly different flavor. True cinnamon actually tastes the way cinnamon gum smells.

Turmeric is anti-inflammatory and has been found to be comparable to cortisone in its potency without negative side effects. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it’s very useful for people with rheumatoid arthritis, decreasing swelling and joint damage. In the gastrointestinal tract, it’s helpful for treating ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Its anti-inflammatory effects benefit heart health because it lowers total cholesterol levels and increases HDL cholesterol levels. It is protective against liver damage and can prevent the formation of gallstones.

Ginger is related to turmeric and has many of the same anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, it’s quite helpful for decreasing nausea. It can also be effective for motion sickness and nausea during pregnancy without any negative impact on the baby. It can lower cholesterol levels by decreasing the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. It has also been shown to help in the prevention and treatment of migraine headaches.

Q: What amount of these spices should be used daily for a medicinal effect?

A: One to two cloves of garlic should be ingested per day for cardiovascular and immune health. Use one-half to one teaspoon cinnamon a day for blood sugar control and to lower cholesterol and relieve inflammation. One teaspoon or one inch of fresh turmeric root can be eaten a day to reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular health. One-fourth to one-half teaspoon ginger powder or one-quarter to one-half fresh ginger root can be used to also reduce inflammation, as well as improve gastrointestinal health.

Q: How long do these ingredients keep in the cupboard? Do they get to a point where their nutrition is no longer viable?

A: Freshness is important. Once a spice or herb is ground it begins to lose flavor and potency quickly. Unground spices will keep their potency for several years but once you grind them they should be used within six months. Keeping spices and herbs in jars away from heat and light will help them to stay fresh longer. A simple way to know if the herb or spice is still potent is to smell or taste it. If it still smells strong then it is most likely still potent. If it has lost its taste or smell, it should be replaced.

Q: Do you believe these ingredients can replace the use of pharmaceuticals?

A: It depends on the situation. I don’t recommend anyone stop their medication and start using an herb or spice without consulting their health-care practitioner. That being said, there are many cases in which they can be as effective as medications. For example, one teaspoon of celery seeds a day can lower blood pressure by 12 to 14 points. Regular consumption of ginger and turmeric can often replace the need for anti-inflammatory medications. In other cases, they can be an important part of a comprehensive approach to a condition in combination with other natural or pharmaceutical approaches.

Q: What are your favorites and how do you use them?

A: Garlic is certainly one of my favorites. I add it to many bean, meat and vegetable dishes, but the best way to enjoy it is to just roast the whole bulb with some olive oil. Ginger is another favorite I use, as a tea or added to stir-fries, salad dressings and roasted root vegetables.

For more ways to use healthy herbs and spices, see several of Knight’s recipes on this page.

Roasted garlic

1 head garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

Small sprig of rosemary and/or thyme (optional)

A pinch of salt and pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut garlic in half. Place on a square of aluminum foil. Drizzle olive oil over it and sprinkle with salt and pepper (and other herbs, if using). Fold foil over garlic and seal up edges to make a small packet. Place in a small skillet in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and carefully open packet. Once garlic is slightly cooled, you can remove the cloves from the head. Serve on bread or crackers, or use in recipes like roasted garlic pizza.

Roasted garlic pizza

Crust

1/2 cup rye flour

3/4 cup brown rice flour

1/3 cup garbanzo flour

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk of choice

3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flours, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add milk and olive oil. Mix until smooth.

Topping

1 head garlic, roasted and removed from skin

2 ounces soft goat cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

Put garlic, goat cheese, olive oil, basil and salt in food processor. Process until smooth.

2 portobello mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1 small onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh minced thyme

1 roasted red pepper, sliced

Extra olive oil for coating pan and drizzling on top

Heat the two tablespoons of olive oil in medium skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and mushrooms. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and thyme. Saute until mushrooms have softened, about five minutes.

Coat bottom and sides of a large oven-proof pan, such as a cast iron skillet, with olive oil. Press dough evenly into pan. Spread garlic goat cheese mixture over dough. Top with mushrooms and roasted red pepper. Drizzle top with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place pan in oven and cook for 10 minutes. Increase heat to 400 degrees and cook for another 10 minutes.

Chana masala (chole)

(Serves 6)

2 medium onions, chopped (about 2 cups)

3/4-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 sweet potato, cubed (about 1 1/2 cups)

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 bay leaf

1/2-inch stick cinnamon

1  14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, not drained

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

2  14.5-ounce cans of chickpeas (3 cups), not drained

1/2 teaspoon garam masala (recipe below)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

Warm oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add cumin seeds, bay leaf and cinnamon. Cook until they begin to darken (30 seconds). Add garlic and ginger. Saute for 1 minute. Add onions and sweet potato. Continue to saute until golden brown, 12-15 minutes. Add tomatoes, coriander, turmeric, salt and cayenne. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add chickpeas, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in garam masala and lemon juice. Can be served alone or over brown rice.

Garam masala

1 small whole nutmeg

1 1/2 pod green cardamom

4  1-inch sticks of cinnamon

1 tablespoon whole clove

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

Grate nutmeg or crush coarsely with a mortar and pestle. Put all ingredients in a clean coffee grinder. Grind until it becomes a fine powder. Store in an airtight container. Best used immediately, but will store for up to 4 months. This can also be purchased ready-made in health-food stores or specialty shops.

Lemon ginger power balls

1/2 cup raw cashews

1/4 cup raw almonds

1/2 cup pitted dates, about 8

1 tablespoon chopped candied ginger

Zest of 1/2 a lemon

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Combine nuts in food processor and process to fine crumbs. Transfer to a separate bowl. Place dates, ginger, zest and juice in food processor. Process until it becomes a paste. Put date paste in bowl with nuts. Using hands, knead together. Break off small pieces and roll into balls. Makes 12.


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