Turmeric: India’s golden spice

Roasted Winter Squash with turmeric, paprika and green peppers (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

I’ve been hearing a lot about turmeric. There are many reports singing the praises of this yellow spice. Claims say that it’s good for many things that ail us.

It’s an anti-inflammatory, and can relieve pain as effectively as ibuprofen.

It helps curb excessive immune responses responsible for allergies.

It benefits brain health and fights Alzheimer’s, possibly inhibiting the development of amyloid plaques.

It’s an antidepressant that treats depression as effectively as Prozac.

It lowers cholesterol as effectively as Lipitor.

It helps prevent some cancers.

It protects the skin from UVA damage, keeps skin looking younger and helps soothe skin harmed by radiation therapy.

It can help ward off viral infections like colds and flu.

I wondered what this spice is, how it can be used in cooking, and if these claims are true. Even if only partially true, it seems worthwhile to add this spice to my culinary creations.

Turmeric is a rhizome — a root vegetable in the same family as ginger, and used in a similar way. Like ginger, it is sold both as a root in the produce aisle and ground in a spice jar.

The knobby, beige-skinned root looks like a darker-fleshed ginger; when cut, it is bright orange. The bright yellow spice has a slightly bitter flavor and a peppery aroma.

When shopping, choose firm roots with a strong smell. Store wrapped in the fridge for three to four weeks. Powdered turmeric should be stored in a closed jar away from light, and is best used within 6 months. The only way you can be sure the spice has not been irradiated is to buy organic.

Turmeric has long been used in India, both as a culinary spice and a healing herb. Its Latin name, Curcuma longa, comes from the Sanskrit word meaning yellow.

India has the highest per-capita consumption of turmeric, which is part of the popular curry spice blend, widely used in curries, dhals and other dishes. Coincidentally, India has the lowest incidence of cognitive decline of any country in the world.

Ayurvedic and Chinese healers have used turmeric medicinally for thousands of years. Its uses include aiding digestion and liver function, relieving arthritis pain, heartburn, stomach pain, diarrhea, intestinal gas, and stomach bloating. After hundreds of studies, modern science is finding this herb indeed possesses a large array of health benefits.

Turmeric contains potent antioxidants and bioflavonoids, vitamin C, beta carotene, and the minerals iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese. The rhizome also contains several inflammation-fighting compounds known as curcuminoids like curcumin and ar-turmerone.

The antioxidant flavonoid curcumin is responsible for the bright orange color and many of the health benefits of turmeric. It has been studied extensively; hundreds of lab and animal tests have found anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immune boosting properties. Scientists have found evidence of its potential use in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Curcumin may also help fight infections and some cancers, reduce inflammation, treat digestive problems and help diabetics with sugar control.

Curcumin is sold as a supplement and used as an anti-inflammatory. You can find a selection of papers, studies and trials that have been conducted using curcumin at this link: http://fourfoldhealing.com/2007/12/30/turmeric/

Take advantage of turmeric’s health benefits by cooking with it. Use it with a little fat and black pepper to increase the body’s absorption of curcumin.

The spice blends well into tomato-based sauces, where the acidity helps mask turmeric’s slight bitterness. It pairs well with legumes, grains and vegetables. Use it in bean, grain and vegetable dishes like pilafs and dhals. Combine this Indian spice with salt and black pepper and use as a meat rub. Add some minced root or a few shakes of powder to your favorite soups, stews, chili, or pasta sauce. It will intensify the yellow color of egg dishes like scrambled eggs, quiche or frittata.

Don’t overdo it; too much can make your dish bitter. And turmeric can stain, leaving marks on clothing and countertops. It doesn’t dissolve well in water; use a little hydrogen peroxide to lift the stain before washing it out. Sunlight also significantly fades turmeric stains.

The powder is the easiest way to add turmeric to a recipe. But the root has more flavor and maximal health benefits – and is a better bang for your buck. You can tell if the root is dry and withered, but you don’t know how long the powder has been sitting on a shelf, or if it has been altered by processing.

Use the root as you would garlic or ginger; chop fine and saute in a little oil to bring out its flavor.

Roasted Winter Squash with turmeric, paprika and green peppers

Ingredients:

1 Butternut squash

1 medium green pepper

1 to 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut squash in half. Remove seeds and discard. Peel squash and cut into 1-inch cubes.

Wash the pepper. Cut in half; remove seeds. Slice into strips about 1 inch by 1/4 inch. Set aside. (Note: I used green pepper but if you like heat, you might experiment with hot peppers like jalapenos).

Crush garlic clove with salt. Add paprika and turmeric.

Toss squash cubes with oil to coat. Then toss in the spice mixture.

Spread cubes in single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast about 15 minutes.

Remove from oven, stir, and add reserved green pepper. Return to oven and roast another 10 to 15 minutes, until vegetables are tender and starting to brown slightly.

Serves 4 as a side dish. To make it into a main dish, add diced cooked ham when you add the peppers. Serve over potatoes, grain or pasta. (You can roast potatoes at the same time, or boil them).

Note: I used Butternut squash because it is the easiest to use and the most widely available, but any winter squash can be used.

Easy “Meatless

Monday” Veggie Pilaf

Pilaf (also called pilau) is a rice- or bulgur-based dish that originated in the Near East and always begins by first browning the rice in butter or oil before cooking it in stock. Aromatics – like onions, garlic, mushrooms – are often sautéed in the oil, and vegetables are added towards the end of cooking.

Ingredients:

1 onion

1 carrot

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon minced garlic (1 clove)

1 teaspoon minced turmeric*

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 cup brown rice*

2 cups broth (vegetable or chicken)

2 cups peas (can use frozen)

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 Tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice

Directions:

Prepare the vegetables. Peel and dice the onion. Scrub and chop or shred the carrot. Set aside.

Heat olive oil over medium-low heat in a deep skillet or saucepan with a tight-fitting lid,. Add onion and carrot, sprinkle with salt and saute for 3-5 minutes, until soft, while you prepare garlic and turmeric.

Peel garlic clove. Mince, press or shred with microplane. Add to skillet.

Mince or shred the turmeric. Add to skillet.

Add pepper, and stir. Cook 2 to 3 minutes to soften.

Add rice or whatever grain you are using. Cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the broth. Scrape bottom of pan to dislodge anything sticking to it. Raise the heat and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer until all of the liquid has been absorbed. This will depend on the grain you use; check package directions. Quinoa is 12 to 15 minutes, rice varies depending on type of rice you’re using.

Stir in the peas during last 5 minutes of cooking time (if using frozen) or last 10 minutes if using fresh peas.

Remove from heat. Add parsley and lemon juice and fluff with a fork. Taste to adjust seasonings; add more salt & pepper if needed. Cover and let sit 3 – 5 minutes before serving.

Because the peas and grain make a complete meal, you only need a salad and maybe a dessert to round out this simple meal.

Serve warm. Serves 3 to 4.

Notes:

*Feel free to substitute your choice of long-grain or brown rice, or another grain like millet or quinoa; just be sure to adjust the cooking time as needed.

*Use 1 teaspoon ground turmeric if fresh is not available

Turmeric Salad

Dressing

1/2 cup plain yogurt or sour cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

In a bowl, combine all ingredients and stir with a fork. Fold into salad greens.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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