Friday, July 24, 2009

Enhancing Summer Foods with Essential Oils

By Michelle Allen

Our summer gardens are officially in full bloom! Lettuces and leafy greens have already pushed through the spring soil, and now precious tomatoes and peppers are beginning to swell with the sweetness of the sun. Maybe last year you took a chance on cantaloupes, and this year you're trying your hand at growing an herb garden that can be dried and used through the cold winter months. Whatever the contents of your backyard garden or patio pots, the bounty of the warm months inspires us all to eat well and connect with the earth, the true source of our well-being.

For much of the year, our produce is trucked in from distant farmlands. Once summer arrives, though, everyone gets the chance to claim their birthright as gardeners and cultivators of their own food. What?s best, local summer harvests allow us to experiment with simple, nutritious meals. With very little effort, a meal of fresh vegetables and summer fruits can become a lavish feast. And if your simple cuisine asks for a hint of the exotic, you can harvest a bouquet of flavors from the most unlikely of places: your aromatherapy medicine chest.

When buying aromatic oils, you should always strive to use medicinal-grade oils. These oils come from huge amounts of plant material, so it?s wise to use high-quality oils from reliable sources. Of course we already consider this when we buy aromatherapy products for external use. However, committing to therapeutic-grade oils has a secret bonus: you can use these oils in food as well. If you?ve never seen your aromatherapy collection this way, just remember that smell has more control over our sense of flavor than even our taste buds do. Keeping that little fact in focus, here are some fun ways to use essential oils in your summer cuisine.

Before we get too lost in our senses, though, let's discuss using essential oils internally. Aromatic oils are all plant-based material. Granted, you probably wouldn't want to chew on myrrh resin for fun, it is still a natural product. It's safe in small quantities, but it might make you wish you'd stuck to regular chewing gum. Although some essential oils are definitely not safe to take internally, like birch or wintergreen, many oils can be ingested for medicinal and gourmet reasons. Most of the essential oils available on the market are labeled as GRAS by the FDA, meaning they are Generally Recognized as Safe. These oils are not technically used as food additives, but they are considered safe for consumption. When trying to determine if an aromatherapy oil is good for cooking, think of this: essential oils of kitchen spices and fruits will most likely enhance your meal rather than ruin it. The only thing to remember is that some oils, like peppermint, oregano and cinnamon, can be hard on the mucous membranes. Use these diluted and in small doses, though, and they will add zing to your dinner.

Now that you have the beginnings of a delicious summer harvest, take a moment to consider how essential oils might enhance the bounty. Citrus oils, like lemon and grapefruit, mix well with olive oil for salad dressings. Just add a couple of drops to two tablespoons of oil to zest up a summer salad. Lime essential oil can be blended with avocado for guacamole, and mandarin orange oil makes a great addition to spinach salad. And don't forget beverages! Citrus oils give juices and bubbly waters a great twist. Using equal parts lemon, lime and grapefruit, club soda becomes a refreshing citrus drink without the sugar or artificial sweeteners found in soda. Just remember, as with all essential oils, less is more. This rule applies to cooking, too, so use a light hand when sprinkling in these potent flavors.

What about the bevy of essential oils derived from well-loved cooking spices? Sweet marjoram, basil, ginger, thyme, oregano and bay can all be used to enhance food. Try blending sweet basil oil in with a tomato-mozzarella-Italian parsley pasta, or put a drop of ginger oil in your summer bok choy and carrot stir fry. Like your coffee with cardamom, Arabian-style? One drop of this oil transforms regular coffee into a delectable treat (hint: try this drink iced!). Cooking spice essential oils tend to be surprisingly strong, so again, don't be lavish with them. Too much oregano or thyme oil will definitely ruin an otherwise balanced dish, so be careful. It's also usually a good idea to wait to throw the oils in until the food is nearly done cooking, thereby reducing the chance of evaporation before you're able to enjoy your creation.

Essential oils can also be used when making sweets. Vanilla and cacao essential oils infuse foods with their distinctly delicious flavors without the addition of refined sugar. And, different from extracts, essential oils do not contain alcohol, the substance used to distill food flavorings out of plant matter. For many, a couple of drops of vanilla bean essential oil in a cookie recipe tastes better than the sugary, chemical concoctions we find in commercially-made desserts. The same goes for cacao. Think baking chocolate! Dark, bitter yet definitely "chocolate." Lucky for us, the chemical constituents of chocolate that make us feel happy are best found in the darkest cacao. Toss a couple of drops of cacao essential oil in your yogurt and experience the elation of a chocolate high without the guilt!

We think of summer cuisine, and its accompanying picnics and patio parties, year-round. The season's harvest helps us eat right and participate in the cultivation of our own food, a rare treat for many living in urban environments. Using aromatic oils to add variety and spice to our diet is easy and often enables us to forgo unnecessary trips to the grocery for specialty items. This summer, when a friend stops by unannounced and you're down to rice milk and coffee, don't despair. Take a drop of grapefruit oil and turn water and ice into a refreshing citrus drink. After all, that's how it's done in the summertime!

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