Adding Spice To Life – Fresh Tastes By Bev
By Bev Laumann, Author of A Taste of The Good Life: A Cookbook for IC & OAB
“Can you imagine a world without spices?… Imagine life without Worcestershire sauce, mustard, pickles, chili sauce, seeded breads, tacos, or the myriad of tasty, convenient ready-made meals.”
Ian Hemphill, an Australian spice dealer, asks us to imagine such a scenario in the opening pages of his book, The Spice and Herb Bible (Robert Rose, Inc, 2002). Clearly for him, not having these items in his life would be unthinkable. Unthinkable?…. Hey fella, wake up and smell the non-caffeinated low-acid herbal tea– life without mustard and chili sauce is a challenge we deal with every day! And a challenge it is, to make food tasty and appetizing while not antagonizing a finicky IC bladder. Tens of thousands of us not only mange to do just that every day, we do it darn well.
One of the keys to enjoying flavorful foods while keeping a calm bladder is confronting the popular myth that “spicy” food means “hot” food. Sure, there are hot tasting spices like chili powder, mustard, and horseradish which reliably provoke bladder trouble. And less obvious spices such as cumin, cloves or paprika also have substances that may irritate some IC bladders. Yet many other herbs and spices are mild and bladder-safe even in relatively large amounts. Basil and mint for example are culinary herbs that most of us don’t have trouble with. But such common spices are not the end-all of bladder friendly flavors. The world is full of spices, many hard to find in grocery stores here but well known to famous chefs and five-star restaurants. Some herbs, like dandelion for instance, are simply not that popular in the foods on America’s tables today, but were common in the daily fare of centuries past. Other herbs, such as alexanders, are not well known in America, but are commonly found in households in other parts of the world. Trying uncommon spices is one way to add variety to mundane dishes and menus.
Mild bladder friendly flavors
Without going into detail about the many foreign spices available mostly in specialty shops and online, here are a few relatively bladder safe spices that are readily available in most grocery stores. If you are in the process of doing an elimination diet to find your unique bladder triggers, these mild but tasty flavors would be some of the first ones to try adding back into your diet.
Chervil is native to Eastern Europe where it enjoys its optimum growing conditions, cool and moist. A delicately flavored herb, it’s quite often used to enhance the flavors of other herbs and spices. It can substitute for parsley in many dishes, but if the food must be cooked for a long time it’s best to add it the last 10 minutes. The flavor is so delicate it will simply boil away if cooked too long. When you buy dried chervil, make sure it is dark to medium green, not straw colored from exposure to light in the store. Light not only degrades the appearance of this delicate herb, it destroys the flavor too. And because it isn’t a very popular herb, the store may not sell enough to keep the stock fresh. Try mixing dried chervil with celery seed and cream cheese (or cottage cheese) for dips and spreads. Chervil enhances the flavor of chicken soups too.
Dill is native to southern Russia and today is popular in the cuisines of Germany, Denmark, and Russia. Dill is a hardy annual plant with feathery leaves and it typically grows to about 3 feet high. It’s easily grown at home and the leaves and seed harvested can be dried in a cool dark place for a few days. Both the leaves and seeds of the dill plant are used in cooking. They have a similar but not identical flavor. Dill leaves (sold as “dill weed” sometimes) especially complement cooked cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. Add seeds or leaves to a mixture of cottage cheese and fresh chopped cucumber for a cool summer side dish.
The aroma of marjoram is warm, savory and almost grassy. Similar in taste to both thyme and oregano but not quite as strong, it not only combines well with those two, it also pairs with other Mediterranean flavors. Basil, olive oil, and garlic are often combined with marjoram in Italian and Greek cooking. Try marjoram with basil in beef meatballs, or marjoram alone to flavor dumplings. Marjoram works with zucchini, eggplant and cabbage especially well. Sprinkle it on pork roast or baked chicken.
Poppies are native to the Middle East where poppy seeds have been used in cooking for thousands of years. Poppy seed has a mild but nutty taste that blends well with many other spices, especially the sweet ones. Adding poppy seeds is a good way to get a bit of nut-like flavor without actually using nuts. It’s often used to top breads, biscuits, scones, noodles or potato dishes. Toss buttered pasta shells with poppy seeds. Add with allspice and cinnamon to cooked pear desserts (or just sprinkle poppy seeds over baked glazed pears).
Pungent but still bladder friendly
Here are two other herbs that are considered pungent because they have a fairly strong taste, but are still not “hot” and bladder-burning. Most IC patients don’t have problems with these even when they are used generously.
Thyme is indigenous to the warm, dry, Mediterranean region and is often used in Italian, Greek, Turkish, and Egyptian cooking. The tiny gray-green leaves have a warm heady aroma and the flavor especially complements green beans, zucchini and crookneck squash. In southern France thyme is part of a traditional spice blend used in terrines, pates and soups. Because this spice combines so well with sage and oregano, it is often used in commercial poultry seasoning and Italian seasoning blends. Unfortunately for us, these products often contain large amounts of black pepper (a problem for many female IC patients who also have vulvodynia). Sometimes the commercial blends even feature red pepper flakes. Try melting mozzarella on top of a slightly toasted slice of French bread, then sprinkle with a tiny pinch of thyme for a classic Mediterranean taste. Or brush olive oil on fish and sprinkle with a pinch of thyme and a dash of garlic salt before baking.
Bay leaves come from the bay tree (laurus nobilis), a native to the area we now call Turkey. Bay leaves were used centuries ago by the Persians and the Romans who introduced them to the rest of Europe. Today the best bay leaves still come from Turkey. When fresh, bay leaves are fragrant, dark green, and have an unpleasant bitter aftertaste. Drying changes the chemistry and eliminates the bitterness of the leaves, which is why– unlike many herbs– they are best used dried. Drying doesn’t compromise the strong flavor though, so be sure to use them sparingly. A general rule of thumb is to use about 1 to 1-1/2 bay leaves for every two servings of your recipe.
Bay leaves are used for slow-cooked stews, soups and such where a less intense flavoring would dissipate during the lengthy cooking process. Crumbled or ground bay leaves can be rubbed into a beef roast as a “dry marinade” . Rub in the spice, then refrigerate the meat for about an hour to allow the flavor to penetrate the meat before cooking. Or try this tasty fish recipe: Place fish fillets (snapper or halibut work well) on pieces of aluminum foil that have been coated with margarine or non-stick spray. Combine equal quantities of ground bay leaf and thyme and sprinkle lightly on the fish. Wrap the fish in packets and bake or barbecue.
Over the past several years a trend has developed in food marketing that is expected to continue: people want more convenience and are willing to sacrifice some creativity in cooking to get it. In terms of the spice market, that means spice blends will become more common. Some spice importers are already pushing aside some of the less popular individual spices in their product lines in order to accommodate the blends. On grocery shelves you will see more bottles labeled “Cajun Spice Blend”, “Taco Seasoning” or “Italian Herbs”. This is bound to make life a bit tougher for those of us with IC. Often a spice blend will have several bladder friendly spices but one “killer” component that rules it out of our diet.
Another problem with buying spice blends is that you wind up having more bottles in your spice cabinet (a fact not lost on the spice merchants). Rather than combining and recombining a handful of spices to get dozens of flavor variations, merchants want you to buy dozens of bottles of specialty blends, one for each recipe you cook. This not only makes for a lot of clutter and expense, but little-used blends become flavorless when they get pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten. (Mark each bottle with a date when you purchase it. Most spices won’t last more than three years, tops.) And lastly, there’s the problem of flavor enhancers and preservatives that are put in some of these blends…. some of them can be real bladder burners.
The solution? Make your own blends in small batches for the ones that you use often, and for rarely-used blends, mix your own on the spot when you cook the recipe. For convenience, you might print the recipes for your spice blends on 3×5 cards and tape them inside the door to your spice cabinet.
Bladder friendly spice blends
Fines Herbes is a traditional and easy-to make French spice blend that especially
compliments egg dishes. Mild and pleasing, it works well in vegetable omelets, scrambled eggs, or in hash brown potatoes. It’s also good sprinkled on hard-boiled egg halves, or on moistened salad greens instead of a vinegar-based salad dressing. It works well with subtly flavored foods like steamed potatoes or peas (add to some melted butter or margarine and toss with the cooked vegetables). Traditionally, it contains chervil, but because that spice is rather expensive to produce, some commercially prepared fines herbes blends often contain nothing more than parsley, dill and chives– all cheap ingredients.
Fines Herbes Blend
- 2 Tbsp. dried chervil
- 1 Tbsp. dried parsley (see note)
- 2 tsp. dried tarragon
- 2 tsp. dill
- « tsp. either dried lovage or dried chives (these are optional)
Notes: Parsley is fairly high in oxalates so if you have vulvodynia as well as IC, you may want to avoid it try substituting another tablespoon of chervil for the parsley.
Herbes de Provence is another herb blend from the south of France. It traditionally contains thyme and often also contains French lavender. French lavender is a milder version of the English lavender used so much in cosmetics and perfumes. While today we don’t think of it as useful for cooking, in past centuries lavender flowers were commonly used in European cooking. In North Africa and the Middle East lavender is today used as a popular culinary flavoring. Herbes de Provence is a stonger flavored blend than the fines herbes. But the robust flavor can perk up spring salads, steamed carrots, or mixed cooked vegetables. Try topping a hot baked potato with butter and a generous dusting of ground herbes de Provence. Commercially prepared versions of the blend often substitute cheap anise for the more complex flavor of tarragon. Again, recipes vary from family to family, but here is my favorite:
Herbes de Provence Blend
- 4 tsp. dried thyme
- 1-1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
- 2 tsp. dried parsley (see note)
- 1 bay leaf, crushed
- 1 tsp. dried tarragon
- 1/2 tsp. dried lavender flowers
- 1/2 tsp. celery seeds
- 1/8 tsp. ground savory
Notes: You can substitute dried chervil for the parsley if you want a lower-oxalate version. To use, figure about 1/2 tsp. to 3/4 tsp. of the blend per person or serving.