The Spices of Life: Cooking for Health -- with Nina Simonds

Event Date: Thursday, April 28, 2005

By Nina Simonds
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript

Award-winning cookbook author Nina Simonds joined us on April 28, 2005 to share tips for cooking with spices for better health. Learn about the essential dried herbs and spices that not only provide flavor, but have wonderful health-giving qualities. Get tips for changing your eating habits with a focus on foods and dishes that combine convenience, pleasure, and health.

If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR: Welcome to WebMD Live, Nina. Thank you for joining us today. Your new cookbook is just gorgeous.

SIMONDS: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to speak to you.

It's important that people understand that I am not substituting foods and herb and spices for medical care. I focus on wellness, and on disease prevention and maintenance of good health, as well as pleasure. When people think of health they think of sacrifice, not pleasure. I believe that you can have it all -- pleasure as well as health.

MODERATOR: The recipes in the book certainly look like they would give great pleasure.

SIMONDS: In compiling this information, I consulted text and authorities on traditional health giving aspects. I checked with Chinese doctors and Dr. U.K. Krishna. He is highly regarded as an authority on Ayurveda. I also consulted with Dr. Jim Duke, who is one of the foremost authorities on contemporary research of herbs and spices. Dr. Duke compiled the database on herbs and spices for the USDA.

MODERATOR: You talk about the health benefits of various spices. If you could only have 10 spices in your pantry, what would they be?


  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Cinnamon
  • Chile Peppers
  • Basil
  • Mint
  • Black Pepper
  • Turmeric
  • Cumin
  • Cilantro

MODERATOR: Well, let's start with cinnamon. Cinnamon is one spice that many people love. Aside from the great flavor, what benefits did you find from cinnamon?

SIMONDS: We know that cinnamon aides digestion and relieves gas. We also know that cinnamon fights colds, coughs, and fevers. It stimulates circulation, also.

In very recent research we've discovered that cinnamon also helps reduce blood sugar levels. The Diabetic Association has acknowledged this as well. Some scientists are suggesting that a half teaspoon of cinnamon per day, sprinkled on cereals, lattes, desserts, and yogurt, can help to prevent the onset of adult type 2 diabetes.

MEMBER QUESTION: I am type 2 diabetic. Cinnamon is excellent for us. How can I use cinnamon in my diet?

SIMONDS: One of the things you can do is, if you have tea or latte, (I drink a decaf latte every day) just sprinkle it right into the tea or latte.

You can also use cinnamon sprinkled over breakfast cereal, on fruits, or sprinkle cinnamon and a little bit of salt and olive oil on sweet potatoes. I love sweet potatoes -- in the oven like regular potatoes. I serve them without butter but a little bit of cinnamon and olive oil and salt -- just a tiny bit. It really enhances the flavor of the sweet potato. If you make fruit salad, it's terrific as a refreshing dessert -- cinnamon and a little sugar or honey is excellent.

I also believe that midafternoon tea is a wonderful ritual for energizing and relaxing. I brew tea. You could do an herbal tea with cinnamon or have a biscotti or a muffin. There's an apple sauce cinnamon muffin in my book, and pumpkin apple sauce muffins with cinnamon.

You can sprinkle cinnamon over bananas and baste them, and it's delicious. I have a banana a day for potassium. Asians believe it keeps you regular.

Asians also use cinnamon in their brazing of meat.

MODERATOR: Check out the recipe for Fragrant Cinnamon Pork in Nina's book.

SIMONDS: It's fascinating to look at classic Chinese cuisine and classic Indian cooking because you see herb and spice combinations with food.

What we are learning is that there were reasons that herbs and spices were paired with different foods. The ancient healers felt that these foods had health-giving properties. They combined their herbs and spices to increase and compliment the different health-giving properties. It's really interesting to go back and see some of where it all began and to consult with the latest medical research and scientific studies that are now going on.

MEMBER QUESTION: Are there any herbs and spices you recommend to replace salt? I'm trying to watch my sodium intake.

SIMONDS: Excellent question! Yes. That is the idea behind this book and many of the recipes: if you take any recipe, savories, whatever, and you opt for other seasonings, you can then reduce the salt and even at times fat, if you need to.

For instance, there's a wonderful recipe in the book for roasted asparagus with a garlic dressing. The dressing does call for soy sauce - " lite" soy sauce. "Lite" soy sauce has a lower sodium content. But you can reduce the sodium even further by adding orange zest or lemon zest, which gives the dish flavor and adds a different type of sweetness.

What I tried to do is to suggest to people to increase amounts of herbs and spices because they not only give pleasure and flavor, they also give health.

As I mentioned you can reduce the salt or sodium in many dishes. And you can also reduce sugar, if you are diabetic or sensitive to sugar -- herbs and spices allow you to do that. So thank you, that was a wonderful question.

MODERATOR: You talk about cardamom in the book -- a spice that probably many people aren't too familiar with. Could you tell us about why and how you use this spice?

SIMONDS: We know from the latest research that cardamom soothes indigestion and relieves gas. It can also help ease congestion if you have a cold. Cardamom refreshes your breath and soothes your throat.

I think many people think of cardamom in sweet dishes. Cardamom is wonderful in breads, such as in hot cross buns. Many cultures use cardamom in their breads and coffee cakes. Indians use cardamom in their puddings and fruit desserts.

Cardamom is also excellent in some savory dishes. We have a wonderful recipe in the book for asparagus with cardamom butter. The cardamom infuses the butter. You could cut back on the butter by using a fruity olive oil and some butter for flavor. You melt or heat the butter and olive oil with a smashed cardamom pod and it infuses the dressing with so much flavor.

Cardamom is available in supermarkets, and it comes in jars in pod form. What you want to do is smash it; take a knife, cleaver or the bottom of the hand and smash it to release the flavor. Then, you can add it to many of the dishes, even tea or milk -- Chai is wonderful. Warm milk or tapioca pudding is wonderful with cardamom. You can use cinnamon, vanilla, and cardamom for a wonderful dessert. You can either use soy milk or regular milk, then you have phytoesterogens as well as a comforting, yummy food.

You should have a little pod in your kitchen that you put in a sunny place. It's lovely to look at, and you can snip a little of it and sprinkle it into your food.

"Cumin is excellent for colds and fevers."

People ask me how you can preserve herbs and spices, and one of the best ways is making pesto. We all know about Italian pesto, but many people don't think about cilantro pesto or mint pesto. Southern Indians make what they call chutneys, and southern Indian chutney is a fresh herb pesto. It's made with mints, cilantro, or basil. But you could use any herb -- they actually use coconut that is grated, but you could easily use olive oil, and keep that in your refrigerator. You can put a teaspoon or tablespoon in soups, or over roasted, grilled, steamed vegetables or seafood. I love herbal chutneys with grilled seafood, chicken and other poultry. It will keep if you cover it with a little olive oil and will stay almost indefinitely. I put it over pizzas and soups. For very busy people, start with chicken broth bought at the store and build a soup around it with vegetables and left over grilled meats; then flavor it with these herbal pestos.

MODERATOR: Rosemary pesto is also excellent.

SIMONDS: I also have to admit that I will take a good, ready-prepared soup from a good market (Pacific Chicken Broth is wonderful) to build meals around. I go through the refrigerator and throw in steamed vegetables, tofu, grilled meats, and I make a meal out of them with crusty bread. It's terrific. That extra herb and spice just adds a lot of flavor and accentuates the flavor of many good ingredients.

We're all busy. I'm a busy working parent like many people. The bottom line is to eat well. I'm not apologetic about using prepared foods -- good prepared foods are good to build on. We have to be realistic.

Part of the message in my book is that you can easily integrate a few things into your lifestyle. Good foods, relaxing every now and then and having a meal with your family and friends -- all of this improves your health and well being. I think that is really what it's all about and I want to show people how to do it. We're constantly told what to eat, what to do, but few books really show us how to do it. That's what I hope to do with this book.

I have to say that my other books have mainly been Asian inspired, but this book is extremely personal. There are Asian-inspired recipes, but there are also family favorites as well, such as the Sour Cream Coffee Cake, which my son adores. It's one of his favorites along with my great Aunt Sophie's Chicken Soup.

It has been recently discovered that Asians are more predisposed towards becoming diabetic than Caucasians -- two to one. It's becoming a huge global problem. In this country, about 10% of the Asian population has diabetes. The Harvard University's Joselin Diabetes Center is the world's leading center for treatment, education and prevention of diabetes. They've launched an initiative -- the Asian American Diabetes Initiative (AADI). It's an extraordinary program. I'm also with the Nutrition round table at the Harvard School of Public Health.

MODERATOR: How would you use cumin?

SIMONDS: I make a marinade with cumin, and it has a wonderful flavor. There are Asians that believe it has wonderful health properties. And another spice, turmeric, is wonderful for color and has an anti-inflammatory effect.

MODERATOR: What are the health benefits of cumin?

SIMONDS: It is excellent for colds and fevers. You can make a tea of cumin. It's excellent for digestion, fighting gas and flatulence. Indian doctors believe that it purifies the blood. It's considered one of the key spices in Indian cooking.

MEMBER QUESTION: What about garlic?

SIMONDS: One of the greatest things is that it is an antibiotic, so it fights and prevents colds and flu. I've resorted to chewing garlic cloves. Before my book tour, everybody had a cold. I ate a huge fresh garlic, made a chili pepper tea and sucked on ginger. Low and behold, I did prevent catching that cold.

We know that garlic improves cardiovascular health. They are doing studies, funded by the National Institute of Health, and it is believed that garlic strengthens the body's immune system. With most of these herbs and spices, as well as good food, they strengthen the body's immune system. They help the body to really fight and prevent disease, maintain good health and give us pleasure as well. A number of herbs and spices have antioxidant effects, so they help with aging to help prevent some of the difficult side effects of aging.

MEMBER QUESTION: I understand that ginger is good for digestion. Aside from gingerbread or gingersnaps, do you have some good suggestions for adding ginger to my diet?

SIMONDS: I use ginger as a simple marinade for seafood. You smash ginger slices, a little bit of rice wine or a dry white wine and salt, and maybe a little olive oil. It's wonderful for seafood.

You can chop ginger and put it in all kinds of stir fried dishes. It's a staple in my Asian kitchen.

I love to roast vegetables that have been sprinkled with chopped ginger and olive oil. It really brings out the flavor of sweet potatoes and all kinds of squash.

Candied ginger is superb. I suck on it. I take dried and candied ginger and make a tea that will soothe the throat and kill bacteria to help prevent sore throats and colds. I also love to add candied ginger to apple crisps. I have a peach berry cobbler in the book and have added candied ginger.

I poach fruit with ginger and sugar. You can add wine, and reduce the poaching mixture to a syrup and serve it with poached foods. You can also serve it over vanilla ice cream.

There are many dishes -- sweet and savory -- that you can add ginger to. I would also suggest taking a family recipe and adding some chopped ginger to it. A teaspoon to a tablespoon adds new life to the recipe. There have been studies that people have certain dishes that they make for dinner, about six to eight, and they repeat them. You can add herbs and spices to your normal repertoire of family dishes and give them new meaning and new life. So, while these herbs and spices increase flavor, they are also increasing the health-giving properties of the dishes. What's so great is that they are now available everywhere.

MODERATOR: Nina, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap things up for today, do you have any final words for us?

SIMONDS: As I said, I think that people think of health and sacrifice in the same sentence. What I hope to do is introduce people to the idea of health and pleasure with herbs and spices.

MODERATOR: Our thanks to Nina Simonds for joining us today. And thank you, members, for your great questions. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of them. For more information, please read Spices of Life . For more discussion on this topic, be sure to visit the WebMD message boards to ask questions of our online health professionals and to share questions, comments, and support with other WebMD members.

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According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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