Cooking for Health

Serving medicine for dinner may not seem terribly appetizing, but most cultures traditionally eat much of their medicine. It may not be a coincidence that nature has provided so many of our medicinal needs in herbs that taste good. When you want to take herbs over a long period of time – either to treat a chronic problem or to fend off disease – incorporating medicinal plants into your meals makes a lot of sense.

The next time you add a pinch of this or that, consider that you are doing far more than flavoring your meal. Throughout these posts and other websites, you have seen many familiar kitchen herbs and spices mentioned as medicines. For example, ginger relieves pain, garlic is “nature’s antibiotic” and ginger and turmeric, two of the main ingredients in curry powder, improve liver function.

Almost every cookbook is filled with recipes that rely on herbs for flavor. Once you decide to make herbs part of your diet, you can start by choosing recipes that use the herbs your body needs most – garlic for your heart and ginger to relieve your headache, for instance.

Our series “The Edible Herb” and “The Basics” provide many suggestions for herbs you can incorporate into your diet. For more ideas, see the book Cooking with the Healthful Herbs, by Jean Rodgers.

The Basics: Oils and Vinegar’s

Herbal oils and vinegar’s give you a quick and easy way to spice up meals. Herbs can turn an ordinary bottle of vinegar or oil into a gourmet delight. Of course, you can use them as the salad dressing – standard salad dressing recipes combine two parts oil with one part vinegar. You can always use a herbal recipe in place of commercial vinegar’s or oils. Thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves lend a Mediterranean flavor, and basil, oregano, and marjoram give foods an Italian edge. Cilantro and cumin are common in Mexican and Indian meals. Chinese favorites include black pepper and ginger, while tarragon, sage, and parsley are much loved by cooks in Northern Europe. You can even use onions and garlic. All of these herbs provide healthful benefits as well as wondrous flavors. I typically make many different types of vinegar’s and oils so that I have a wide range to choose from.

The tastiest herbal vinegar’s and oils are made using fresh herbs from the garden or a farmer’s market. Most grocery stores sell fresh basil, parsley, and cilantro. If you do not have a herb garden, dried herbs will do the end product just won’t be as flavorful. To really show off your herbal vinegar or oil, keep it in a fancy glass bottle. To add flair, add a decorative sprig of dried herb.


Herbal Vinegar

1 cup coarsely chopped herbs {any of those mentioned above will do}

1-pint vinegar {any type; white vinegar produces the best colors}

Fill a wide-mouthed jar loosely with herbs {do not pack them down}. Pour in enough vinegar to cover herbs. If any herbs do not sink, poke them down with a spoon. Stir to release any trapped air bubbles, and put a lid on the jar. Store at room temperature for 2 weeks; this will extract the herb’s flavor. Strain out herbs. Dilute the final product with plain vinegar; start with a half a cup, and adjust according to taste. I store my vinegar’s undiluted because they take up less storage space in that form.


Herbal Oil

1 cup coarsely chopped herbs {any of those mentioned above will do}

1-pint vegetable oil {any type, though strong-tasting oils, such as virgin olive, will overpower mild herbs}

Fill a wide-mouthed jar loosely with herbs {do not pack them down}. Pour in enough oil to cover herbs. If any herbs do not sink, poke them down with a spoon. Stir to release any trapped air bubbles, and put a lid on the jar. Store in a warm place – one that is slightly above room temperature – for 3 days {an upper kitchen cabinet will do}. Strain out herbs, and store your oil in the refrigerator.

Some people like to keep whole, fresh herbs in vegetable oil so as to have a supply throughout the year. If you are interested in preserving whole herbs, such as garlic cloves, you should be careful to refrigerate them and use them within a month.

The Basics: Soup

Herbs of all kinds – including many common kitchen spices – can easily be included in soups and stews. Many of the recipes I’ve included here use soup stock as a basic ingredient. You can purchase soup stock in cans or you can use bouillon cubes.

One way to use immunity-enhancing mushrooms such as reishi and shiitake is to eat them as part of your regular diet. The mushroom soup recipes provided here are thanks to my daughter and fellow herbalist. She says that she has seen soups like these restore vigor and health to adults and children who were weak and ill. It will also benefit your urinary tract, especially if you are prone to a bladder infection. Barley is an old European remedy for this problem, garlic treats infection and mushrooms boost the immune system. I love herbal soups and cannot imagine a tastier way to good health.

 mushroom barley soup

Mushroom Barley Soup

1/4 cup barley

3/4 cup soup stock

2 1/2 cups water

2 teaspoons tamari {or 1/4 teaspoon salt}

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 pound fresh medicinal mushrooms {such as shiitake}

Black pepper to taste

Cook barley in soup stock until tender. Add water and tamari. In a separate pan, saute onions and garlic in olive oil. When onions are transparent, add mushrooms. When mushrooms and onions are tender, add them to the barley-tamari mixture. Sprinkle in black pepper, cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes. For variety, add cooked vegetables of your choice, either chopped or grated.

chinese medicine image

Chinese Soup

2 ounces Chinese herbs {such as astragalus, ginseng, Rehmannia, codonopsis, ligustrum, burdock and schizandra berries}

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

1/8 cup uncooked rice

4 cups soup stock

1 diced carrot

1 beet or 1 turnip diced

1 diced yam

1/4 cup shiitake mushrooms, slivered

Place the herbs {including ginger} in a muslin bag or tie them together with a string. Simmer the bag and rice in the soup stock for 1 hour. Add the vegetables and mushrooms to the herbal stew, and simmer gently for another 30 minutes. Remove the bag filled with herbs, and serve the soup. If you use burdock in this soup, it can be finely chopped and need not go in the bag.

The Basics: Sweet Treats, Ginger and Horehound Drops

Ginger is a versatile herb, and its utility is not limited to the kitchen – its medicinal properties are seemingly endless. Honeyed Ginger and Ginger Snaps are pleasant ways for you to treat colds and flu’s, encourage sweating, ease morning sickness and help relieve all sorts of painful conditions, such as headaches and menstrual cramps. Ginger also improves the functioning of the heart and circulatory system, warms cold hands and feet, kills intestinal worms and aids liver function. Since I love the taste of ginger, I always double the amount called form in the Ginger Snap recipe.

honeyed ginger

Honeyed Ginger

1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh ginger

About 1/2 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon anise extract {optional}

1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract {optional}

Fill a clean jar with ginger. Heat honey to liquefy, then remove from heat. Add extracts to honey and pour over ginger. Stir with a knife or chopstick to eliminate all air bubbles. When done, the honey should cover the ginger. After about 3 weeks, it is ready to eat. Stored in the refrigerator, it will last at least a year.


Ginger Snaps

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup molasses

2 teaspoons vinegar

1 beaten egg

2 cups pastry flour {I use whole wheat}

2 teaspoons finely grated ginger

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cloves

Preheat oven to 325 F. Combine the oil, brown sugar, molasses and vinegar, stir in egg, then add the rest of the ingredients. Form the dough into 3/4-inch balls. Bake on a greased cookie sheet for about 12 minutes. As the balls meltdown during the baking, the cookies develop the characteristic crinkled surface.

Horehound candy was once very popular. Originally, it was used as a cough drop for sore throats. As late as the 1950’s, these drops could be found in any pharmacy. In time, people decided that they liked its bittersweet taste even when they were not sick. Horehound drops eventually found their way into candy stores. Since this is really a candy-making recipe, a candy thermometer will come in handy. It will show you when the mixture has reached the proper temperature to harden. Remember that horehound is very bitter – I like to soften the flavor with peppermint. Once you get the hang of making herb candy, try replacing the horehound with other herbs.


Old-Fashioned Horehound Drops

2 ounces dried horehound leaves {or 6 ounces fresh leaves}

3 cups very hot water

3 1/2 pounds brown sugar

2 teaspoons peppermint extract

Pour very hot water over the horehound. Steep 30 minutes, while keeping on low heat. Strain. Add sugar and dissolve. Bring to a boil and continue boiling until mixture reaches 295 F {the temperature for brittle candy}. Add peppermint, then drop mixture quickly on a buttered board, half a teaspoon at a time, or pour into a shallow, buttered pan and cut into squares before it completely hardens.