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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cooking with Essential Oils and the Bounty of Summer Gardens

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 far-flung farmlands. Once summer arrives, though, everyone gets the opportunity 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 decadent 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.

You already know that when using essential oils, it is always important to find therapeutic-grade oils. Because oils are concentrated substances, distilled from mass quantities of plant matter, you want to find the highest quality oil you can. While this makes sense when you think of essential oils being absorbed into the body through the skin, always sticking with therapeutic-grade oils has an added benefit: these powerful oils can easily be incorporated in cooking, too. Never thought of it that way before? Scent has a stronger influence on our perception of flavor than our taste buds do! With that in mind, here are a few simple ways the repertoire of essential oils can add a splash of flavor to your simple summer menu.

First and foremost, let?s address the issue of food safety. Essential oils are, obviously, plant-derived substances. While you may not want to eat a hunk of frankincense resin straight from the tree, frankincense is still a naturally occurring substance. It is not poisonous in small quantities, but it may make you want to brush your teeth immediately. Many essential oils are expressly dangerous for internal consumption, such as wintergreen and birch, but other oils can be used in small quantities for internal health as well as for cooking. In fact, the FDA has qualified many of the common essential oils as GRAS, Generally Recognized as Safe, substances. This means that, although they are not categorized as food additives, they can be consumed without apparent side-effects. When considering which oils to cook with, this is a good rule of thumb: essential oils of citruses, spices and other commonly-eaten foods are probably going to make excellent additions to your cuisine. Just be cautious when using essential oils that are known to irritate mucous membranes, such as cinnamon, oregano and peppermint.

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!

Summer eating is something we look forward to all year. Whether it?s the promise of picnics with friends or simple feasts for two after a long day?s work, the bounty of the season makes eating a variety of fruits and vegetables easy. The addition of essential oils, an equally simple flourish, adds variety to dressings, sauces and beverages and extends our menu without necessitating a last-minute trip to the store. The next time you find yourself with unexpected houseguests and nothing fancy for them to drink, don?t despair: take fresh water over ice and a top it with a drop of orange essential oil. Now you?re savoring the ease of summer!

-- By Norah Charles, for The Ananda Apothecary

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