Ras el hanout: A Warming Spice Blend for Your Holidays

ras el hanout

As some of you may know, I have a slight addiction to cooking shows and, during several Chopped and Top Chef marathons, I heard mention of a North African spice mixture called ras el hanout. My curiosity was piqued so I followed the trail.

Ras el hanout translates from Arabic to ‘head of the shop’ because the mixture is made from the top quality spices one might find in a spice shop. Ingredients vary slightly by region and even by shop but, at their base, they generally include clove, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek, and cumin. Some ras el hanout blends also include rose petals, fennel, or coriander. You really can’t go wrong with any of these and oh, my warm spice-y goddesses! This stuff if GOOD!

In addition, each of these spices has powerful healing properties—turmeric for general immune system strength and inflammation, ginger for gut healing, clove for respiratory and bacterial infections, cinnamon to regulate blood sugar… Ras el hanout thus helps serve as an excellent preventative for bad germy invasions and other illnesses.

This spice blend can be found in some grocery stores or you can make your own. Below is a recipe to bring North African flavors to your holiday table. These spice-y shallots can replace canned onions on your great aunt’s green bean casserole recipe. They’re also delicious on a ginger-y butternut squash puree or mashed potatoes. Enjoy!

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What’s in Your Food? Salt Packets

I have had several moments in the last few months where I have been surprised to learn about some of items in the foods we consume so I am creating a new blog series called, What’s in Your Food? I will highlight a variety of foods whose contents may just blow your mind (and not in a good way.)

This month, we are diving into the ingredients in commonly-used salt packets. Yes, you read that correctly: salt packets often contain ingredients, plural.

My first realization about this happened in a place that also surprised me: Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods does some great things for small farmers as well as the health of Americans (albeit expensively) and makes the following claim on their website:

“We don’t sell just anything. The products we sell must meet our rigorous standards. From basic ingredients to farm animal welfare, seafood sustainability, body care, cleaning products and more, trust us to do the research so you can shop with peace of mind.” [1]

I appreciate these standards and hold similar values so, when given the choice, I would rather support them than a restaurant that will also charge me $10 for a similar salad but provide lower quality food that has been sitting out for who knows how long. So, when in the city last month and grabbing my fresh-salad-that-I-can-feel-better-about, I also picked up a few salt packets to supplement my plain olive oil dressing. I have been trying to not be on my cell phone checking my email whenever I am by myself or have downtime (see meditation blog) so I turned over the salt packet and noticed this list of ingredients: salt, sodium silicoaluminate, dextrose and potassium iodide. My mouth dropped. Firstly, I expect better from Whole Foods. Secondly, why does salt have multiple, yet alone four, ingredients? Thirdly, what are those things mixed in my salt? I’ve never heard of them so I did some research.

salt packet

Here is what I learned about each of the substances:

Sodium silicoaluminate– Frequently found in powdered foods as an anti-caking agent, sodium silicoaluminate is a synthetic combination of silicon, sodium, aluminum and oxygen. According to an article in Livestrong, sodium silicoaluminate “[I]s generally recognized as safe in foods, but limited in certain standardized foods.” [2] With regard to this product, BeFoodSmart.com advises: “The association of aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease remains inconclusive.” [3]

The Chinese government in 2014 accordingly banned the use of sodium silicoaluminate in all food products produced in the People’s Republic of China. [4]

Dextrose– Dextrose is a processed form of sugar derived from plant-based starches such as corn. Dextrose has a high glycemic index which means that it quickly enters the bloodstream however, according to Morton Salt, one of the largest and oldest salt companies in the United States, the dextrose in one salt packet is ‘dietetically insignificant’. [5]

In fact, Morton Salt was the first to add dextrose to its salt:

“In 1924 Morton became the first company to produce iodized salt for the table in order to reduce the incidence of simple goiter. Dextrose is added to stabilize the iodide. Iodine is vital to the proper functioning of the thyroid gland and the prevention of goiter.”

Thus, dextrose is a preservative and is used to ensure that the iodide does not oxidize (i.e. start to evaporate and create a sulfurous smell). Non-iodized salt is unlikely to contain dextrose.

The corn that dextrose is derived from is very likely to be genetically modified (GMO) given the prevalence of the use of GMO’s in mass-produced processed foods in the United States. While one may consume a very small amount in one salt packet (0.04%), the amount of GMOs you consume adds up if you are eating many other GMO foods: adding iodized salt to every meal, snacking on iodized-salted corn chips, eating takeout every night from a Thai restaurant that cooks their food in GMO soybean oil… [6]

Potassium iodide- As mentioned above, iodide began to be added to salt in the 1920s to ensure people had enough iodine in their diets. Iodine deficiency continues to be a global issue, according to a 2007 statement from UNICEF. [7] Iodine is necessary for thyroid function and, in addition to goiter, it can cause a variety of problems during pregnancy including miscarriage, stillbirth, or mental retardation in infants. [8] The World’s Healthiest Foods, one of my favorite websites, states that most of us do not achieve the daily requirement of 150 micrograms of iodine and few food sources can provide the amount we need. [9] A 2008 study however, showed that most of the iodized salt in the US does not meet USFDA standards of iodide content. [10]

So what can we do?

  1. Read your salt label!
  2. Buy a little container, fill it with pure sea salt, and carry it around in your bag.
  3. Substitute salt for other condiments such as gomasio (seaweed mixed with sesame seeds), chutney, etc. or replace with salty foods, like olives or pickled vegetables.
  4. To get enough iodine, regularly eat seaweed, salmon, good quality yogurt, organic raw cow’s cheese, or eggs. Those of you who are vegetarians or vegans can get enough iodine from seaweeds and some fruits and vegetables but you will need to eat quite a bit each day or take a multivitamin with iodine in it. [11]



[1] Whole Foods Market Quality Standards Statement.

[2] Norma DeVault, “What Is the Use of Sodium Aluminum Silicate in Food?,” Livestrong.com, January 28, 2015.

[3] BeFoodSmart.com. “Sodium silicoaluminate.

[4] National Health and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China. “Notice on aluminum-containing food additives use adjustment by the NHFPC and four other departments. July 25, 2014.

[5] Morton Salt FAQs.

[6] For the risks associated with the consumption of GMOs, see Jeffrey M. Smith, “Doctors Warn: Avoid Eating Genetically Modified Food,Mercola.com, March 25, 2010.

[7] The Salt Institute. Iodized Salt, July 13, 2013.

[8] American Thyroid Association. Iodine Deficiency. June 4, 2012.

[9] The World’s Healthiest Foods. Iodine.

[10] Pernendu K. Dasgupta, et al. “Iodine Nutrition: Iodine Content of Iodized Salt in the United States. Environmental Science Technology. 2008. 42 (4): pp. 1315-1323.

[11] For more ways to get your iodine-intake, see The World’s Healthiest Foods article on iodine.

From the Garden: Fresh Herb Chermoula

(Or, What to do with the rest of the fresh bunch of herbs slowly going bad in your refrigerator)

Many cuisines include a condiment that has as its base fresh herbs, garlic, and oil: Italy has pesto, Latin America has chimichurri (often includes vinegar), and many Arabic cultures have a version of chermoula. It makes sense because the oil stretches the longevity of the herb. Garlic further preserves the leafies because of the bulb’s antibacterial properties. These pastes add nutrients and brightness to whole cooked grains, savory pancakes or fresh herbsgriddle cakes, roasted vegetables, eggs, fish, seafood, poultry, or meats (especially BBQ’d!)

Here is my easy adaptation of chermoula which includes a jalapeno instead of the most classic dried red pepper or cayenne. I like jalapeno because the green pepper brings an added freshness and there is something very satisfying about roughly chopping something and throwing it into a food processor. My favorite combination of greens is dill, mint, parsley and spinach but playing with different combinations can be really fun.

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Photo credit: © Gorilla – Fotolia.com

Turmeric: An Anti-cancer, Anti-inflammatory & Blood-building Powerhouse

Fresh turmeric

To me, turmeric is the golden nugget of medicinal foods. Its healing properties abound and it has been used in its native South Asia for thousands of years to address a variety of ailments from common colds to cancer, as well as heart and circulation issues, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, chronic joint pain, and as a poultice on cuts and scrapes.

Most people in North America know turmeric in its dried form, as a key ingredient in yellow curry powder, but turmeric is also increasingly available in its original root form. Like its cousin ginger, it grows in knobs underground and it looks a lot like ginger on the outside but the inside is a deep rich orange. Turmeric is generally more bitter than its yellow relative but it is also less spicy.

It is precisely this rich color that signals its powerful healing properties. Like other brightly-colored vegetables such as blueberries, dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes, turmeric is loaded with antioxidants. Studies have recently begun to proliferate about turmeric’s anti-cancer properties and in fact, it purportedly contains more cancer-prevention compounds than other antioxidant-rich vegetable or roots according to a study published on Pharmacology Online. [1] It uses these compounds not only to starve certain types of cancers of the genes they need to grow but it also incites some cancer cells to kill themselves. [2]

Powerhouse almost seems too tame a word for the superhero that is turmeric. It also can help you feel like a superhero because of its anti-inflammatory properties. A key component of turmeric, curcumin, blocks some of the proteins that build up and cause pain. It thus makes a great addition to a post-workout smoothie, and is increasingly being used to prevent and treat chronic joint problems such as rheumatoid arthritis. [3]

Turmeric is also used to address PMS, calm uterine cramping, and help bring on menstruation by stimulating blood flow and balancing hormones. Its support for the circulatory system has been previously mentioned in my blog about treatments for varicose veins but turmeric is also used by herbalists to address ectopic pregnancies and as part of treatments to shrink fibroids. This is in part due to turmeric’s rich Vitamin B6 content which tones and fortifies blood vessels. [4]

Before diving into recipes and ways to integrate this amazing food into your diet… A warning: Turmeric’s rich color can stain sometimes temporarily but sometimes permanently. If using the root, be careful with porous surfaces that you care about (like wood, ceramic and certain knives). A bit of salt or baking soda usually remove its rich tannins but this type of abrasion may scratch the surface. In addition, it may take a while for the stain to come out and sometimes repeated use alone will ultimately remove the stain.

And now for the fun part….

[yumprint-recipe id=’3′]Turmeric Powder in Indian Dal

Dal is a classic, warming Indian dish made from lentils or mung beans. It always contains a mixture of spices but turmeric is definitely the star. Check out this interesting article with a recipe at the bottom: Felicity Cloake. “How to Make the Best Dal.” The Guardian. 2 June 2011. [FYI, 400 grams of mung beans = a little bit less than 1 cup.]


[1]  Sheel Sharma, et al. “Fortification of Traditional Recipes with Antioxidant Abundant Food Stuffs and Their Acceptability Evaluation.” Pharmacologyonline 3: 1374-1383 (2011) p. 1377.

[2]  Robin Rose Bennett. The Gift of Healing Herbs: Plant Medicines and Home Remedies for a Vibrantly Healthy Life. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2014, p. 453; Dr. Claudia Welch. Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2011, p. 185; World’s Healthiest Foods. Turmeric.

[3]  Dr. Joseph Mercola. “Curcumin: The Spice That is Better Than Drugs for Rheumatoid Arthritis.” June 16, 2012.

[4]  Susun S. Weed. Down There: Sexual and Reproductive Health The Wise Woman Way. Woodstock, NY: Ash Tree Publishing, 2011, p. 271; Dr. Robert E. Svoboda. Ayurveda for Women: A Guide to Vitality and Health. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2000, p. 83; Lisa Gallant, “Turmeric: The Golden Goddess.” California College of Ayurevda.

From the Garden: Easy Basil Dressing

Basil leaves on old wooden table.It was a cold and rainy day in April and the winter felt endless. My friend, Stephanie, and I were both desperate for warm, spring sunshine. We met at a French/Senegalese restaurant in Brooklyn called Cafe Rue Dix and ordered a simple salad of baby, mixed kale and avocado with basil dressing. I took my first bite and the fresh basil burst on my palette. It was as if the cold rain disappeared and my friend and I were transported to a sunny picnic in the middle of a flower field. Sometimes you need inspiration to imagine a different world and this was one of those moments. My friend instructed me to figure out how to replicate this dressing so here is my humble attempt. This one’s for you, Steph!

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Corn Silk: A Natural Remedy for Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Green corn field growing up

Fresh corn-on-the-cob may be a favorite grilling vegetable but don’t toss out its outer shell too quickly. Indigenous Americans and communities throughout Latin America, Central Europe, and the Middle East have long used corn silk as a remedy for urinary tract infections, kidney and bladder infections, bed-wetting, as well as prostate problems. [1]

Many of you may be asking, “But what about cranberry juice? Isn’t that the tried and true all natural go-to for UTIs?” Because of its bitterness, cranberry juice most often contains sugar which can actually contribute to bacterial overgrowth. It can also sometimes irritate the bladder or aggravate preexisting acid reflux.

Like cranberries, corn silk is a diuretic that flushes the system and makes you urinate but it also contains unique anti-inflammatory compounds as well as Vitamin K and potassium, which support blood circulation. Note that corn silk’s high amounts of potassium can interact with some blood pressure medication so you should check with your doctor if you have questions about this.

Use non-GMO corn or organic corn if possible. Most standard corn in the US is sprayed with chemicals or is derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which have been shown to have potential negative effects on human cells. [2] If organic corn is not in season or you can’t find it, most herbalists or apothecaries should have it.

The tea that’s made from corn silk is very mild: It tastes like sweet corn water. It generally resolves mild UTIs within 3-5 days. According to many herbalists, small amounts of corn silk tea are safe to drink during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, and for children but, as with any herbal remedy, consult your physician if you have concerns.

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[1]  A 2012 article published in the Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmocology reports scientific evidence for corn silk’s healing properties.

[2]  See Arjun Walia, “10 Scientific Studies Proving GMOs Can be Harmful to Human Health,” April 8, 2014.



A Japanese Condiment to Swear By

Ume fruit and Umeshu wine Japanese aperitif and dessertUme plum vinegar. It will change your life as well as your steamed greens, scrambled eggs, salads, brown rice, and pretty much anything. It is a Japanese condiment made from ume plum, shiso leaf and salt. It is salty and sour and totally addictive. It can also be great for your body and energy levels because it stimulates your digestion and helps break down lactic acid, which builds in the body as a result of stress as well as some exercise. Eden Foods makes an organic version that you can find in most health food stores or online. The salt levels are pretty high though so use sparingly and only if you do not otherwise consume much salt throughout your day.