For years we have had diet trends come and go and some still sticking around about food and health. As a chef I firmly believe food is medicine and what you eat can affect your body. And I'm not just talking about too much sugar or fatty foods. Personally most diets I find to be completely useless unless you want to push your body to some extremes. At the end of the day you do need carbs, fats, and proteins. Saying any of these are bad and should be cut out just seems unhealthy to me. My "diet" for years now has simply been eat as clean as you can. Now don't throw all your more processed foods away. I still eat Doritos and Oreos are life, but try to reduce the amount and eat as many veggies as you can. I completely understand though that as a chef I love working with food and I'm good at flavoring, so cooking at home is easy for me. There are still so many other ways around it though and hopefully you learn a thing or two from me.
Besides the main ingredients though, more and more I find that the flavors we use and cook with are also a great form of medicine. Eating bland isn't just boring but you miss out on benefits using various herbs and spices in your food or other things in your daily life. And looking at it from other perspectives, historically, many Native cultures have used plants as medicine for thousands of years. As I get older I realize the wealth of knowledge skipped over from Native cultures and the need to bring that information forth. I've talked about herbal medicines in other posts but I wanted to open the door to discuss this topic and share the information I find as I learn more about this craft. I do want to point out that I will be referring to herbs, spices, and other beneficial plants simply as herbs. So as not to confuse anyone, herbs is the general term for beneficial and medicinal plants.
For years now, I've been a fan of more natural remedies and looking for medicine through food and plants before turning to other resources. Before I go any further though I want to make one thing clear, I still 100% believe in medical science and talking to a doctor (if possible) to find the best route for each person individually. One of my favorite quotes I've seen pop up a lot out there is along the lines of, "lavender for sleep, dandelion for stomach ache, and f***ing antibiotics for infections. You can treat a burn with aloe but you can't cure polio with plants." And that's really how I feel. There are many historic and researched benefits to plants but they are not the cure for anything and can interfere with modern medicines. So please always be safe and check how things work with any current medical issues you may have or medicines you are taking. I will share what I learn but it is still very individualized, what works for some may not work for others.
So back to what I've been doing and what I want to do moving forward. Of course I have books. Slowly starting the collection. I feel like if it's in print it holds more value compared to what's online. I have one book called Herbal Kitchen which has been a nice starting off point going deeper into using herbs in the things I eat. It has a lot of good information on benefits to a few herbs you may already have in your kitchen. I also have a couple foraging books, one for California and one for general plants native to North America. Not only in these books do I learn what certain herbs can be used for but they also describe how to find and identify them in the wild. If I do any online research, which I do, I always try to find multiple sources before taking something as useful or try to find scientific research about a specific topic. (Google Scholar is super helpful.) I want to make sure as I build this knowledge that it is good information. As I learn more though I want others to learn about the benefits to these herbs as well. Shared knowledge is how we all grow.
There is so much about various herbs that I can't write it all down at once. There's also so many and more that I have yet to research or use so those will come. As I expand on the benefits of various herbs I also want to talk about what you can make with them or use them for. I'm not going to tell you to try something I haven't myself so this is going to take time and be a developing topic. Before I even talk about benefits, I first want to discuss how to use herbs in various ways in your life. As I have learned new things about various herbs I have developed different ways to incorporate them into my lifestyle. There's also other methods that I have yet to try but we can discover those along the way too.
Got Some Herbs, Now What?
When I first wanted to start including more herbs in my diet I wanted to find the safest and easiest way to test the waters. And water is the first place I went. Tea or drink infusions is one of the best ways to include herbs in your life. If you think about it, tea is a brewed plant and you drink the water. Let's do it with more plants. Now I've been a loose leaf drinker for years. My family has always gotten our tea from this shop in Chinatown in San Francisco (and they do online!!!), so loose leave is nothing new to me. Add some herbs to it and get some new flavors and health benefits! Some herbs you may need to steep for a bit, perfect for sun tea during the summer. The best temp and amount of time to infuse are based on the specific herbs. There isn't a general rule of how exactly to steep them, but I do a couple minutes for my tea daily and reuse the herbs 6-8 times.
Not only with tea but you can steep the herbs into other things, like coffee, milks, or creams. I love a little lavender in my coffee for a light floral flavor, during the winter months I do some cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Depending on the time of year different herbs have better benefits, clove and cinnamon are great for colds and coughs so I'm always ready if I catch something. Think about apple cider's popularity in the fall and winter and the herbs used for the flavor, but they also provide benefits during colder months. Simply warming a liquid and adding herbs is the easiest way to start including and benefiting from plants.
The number one way of using herbs from what I've read is tinctures and cordials. This sounds super science-y and fancy but it's really not. A tincture is an infusion of herbs into alcohol or vinegar. Cordials are similar but with a lower proof alcohol. Personally I consider it just infused alcohol and not even vinegar. To me vinegar is another thing that I will talk about in a minute but first alcohol infusions.
To make a tincture, you need herbs and high proof alcohol like vodka. Some sources say it has to be 80-90% alcohol, others go lower to 70% and 60%. In my practices I use vodka to make tinctures since it has no flavor and will allow the herbs to stand out. The high proof also allows for more uses. No only edible but topical too. I make toners for Ben and myself, Juniper Berry is good for skin so I have a tincture of vodka and berries that I mix with witch hazel to make Ben's toner. (along with some essential oils) This allows for the benefits of the juniper berries to be used in a topical toner without actually consuming it. You can still consume tincture if they are food grade and use them in mixed drinks, teas, homemade sodas, or just straight up if that's how you fly. It's a simple way to get the medicinal benefits of herbs without consuming the actual herb.
Mixing up a tincture is really easy too. Airtight container, fill halfway with dry herbs (use more herbs if fresh), cover with vodka, and soak for a month or longer. Alcohol is a clean environment so you can pretty much let it go forever and it shouldn't spoil in anyway. The longer it set the more of the plant benefits it infuses. You can strain it after a month or two if you want but I see no issue keeping the herbs in there longer. If you think about it though, vanilla extract is a tincture you have already used in baking. I make my own vanilla with vodka and vanilla beans and let them soak! A lot of these older techniques are still used in the average kitchen today just with different terms and purposes.
As for cordials, they are the same as tinctures but lower proof. I consider them anything made with flavored alcohol. So for the winter maybe make a cinnamon and clove bourbon or whiskey. These also make really nice gifts. A little booze with some added flavor. Make some hot cocoa or a hot toddy with it for a great treat.
Along with drinkable ways to incorporate herbs into your life there are also cooking methods like infusing oils and vinegars. I already wrote a nice post about building flavor in your food (Check it out here!) and similar to infusing for flavor you can infuse for the medicinal purposes of herbs as well! What's great about some herbs though is they have antimicrobial and antifungal properties so there is less worry about bacteria or other microorganisms growing in the infusion! Things like lavender, cinnamon, and even basil naturally do this!
The last method I use and simplest way to get these benefits from plants is to just flat out eat them! Add them to a soup, a sauce, a rub, a dressing, a marinade. Just like drinking matcha gives you a lot more benefits than just steeping green tea, adding herbs to your food will increase all the goods you can get from them! Throw some more plants in your dish and get more than just flavor from them!
Before I finish this off and get working on more posts about various herbs, I want to also discuss sourcing for herbs. This is super important since you will consume them so you want to be safe for your health. There are many places where you can find herbs but along with finding them, you want to make sure they are of great quality. Overtime, not only do their flavors deteriorate, the beneficial compounds can also break down and lose their effectiveness. Fresh herbs is always best but we can't all live in a garden oasis with plants around us constantly ready to pluck from.
I have said this before and I will say this again, find a local spice shop you trust and buy from them over and over. I had one not too far from where I lived back in California. Now in Saint Louis there is one downtown I can go to and order from. Spice shops are great for the common cooking herbs. When you really get into this field, there are so many other plants that don't always contribute a ton of flavor but have a lot of health benefits/medicinal purposes. For these herbs I look for small business that are ideally BIPOC owned since these cultures were the first to use them. I always do a little research on where I buy my herbs to make sure they are of the best quality and sourced in sustainable ways. The best ones will have a small garden where they grow their own and harvest yearly.
When you dive into the world of plants as a form of medicine, it really is unique and a bit spiritual. It's about finding what works for you, what you like, what you need, and what you can incorporate into your lifestyle as you need it. Start small, buy $20 of herbs (they are a lot cheaper than you think) and play with them. Make your daily rituals, start your own tinctures and infusions, and soon you will be able to just grab what you need without second guessing it and reaping the benefits of using herbal medicines in your life.
As I continue to learn about this craft, I will expand more on the benefits of various herbs. I have already started using a lot in my daily life and as I see fit I will talk more on what I do and how you can find similarities for your life in what I do myself. At the end of the day, just play with food and plants. We have so much to appreciate in this world, why live life with bland food when you can have unperfect food.