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Kitchen Shrink: Stay cool as a cucumber with summer spices

“Much virtue in herbs, little in men.” — Benjamin Franklin

Catharine L. Kaufman
Catharine L. Kaufman

You can beat the summer heat, and stay calm, cool and collected with a handful of handpicked herbs and spices following the ancient healing food principles of India. Here’s an A-(yurvedic) list of the top spices to keep you refreshed and exhilarated throughout the sticky summer months.

Mint Condition: Peppermint, a hybrid of winter mint and spearmint, is one of the most revered herbs since classical times for its culinary and medicinal attributes.

The Romans believed that eating mint would bolster intelligence, while the mere scent of these luscious leaves would stem a temper tantrum. The menthol in peppermint cools the palate and jazzes up everything from taboulis, pilafs, lamb dishes, fruit salads and gelatos to thirst- quenching lemonades, mojitos or iced green tea. Or chew some fresh sprigs for a quick pick-me-up.

Pod Cast: Cardamom is one of the world’s priciest spices, behind only saffron and vanilla bean. Known globally as the “Queen of Spices,” cardamom was held in high esteem by Ayurvedic healers as an aphrodisiac, teeth whitener, sensuous perfume and relief from gluttony. Indigenous to south India and member of the ginger family, there are three varieties — green, black and Madagascar. Cardamom maintains its expressive, aromatic flavor and scent when bought in pods, which are then peeled and discarded. Unleash the intense flavor of the tiny black seeds inside by grinding fresh with mortar and pestle.

A staple spice in Indian cuisine, especially curries and lentils, cardamom perks up a cup of joe, and gives an exotic accent to smoothies, pie crusts, strudels, fresh berries, along with rice dishes, chicken and duck.

Go for the Gold: Saffron’s etymology is from the Arabic word “zafaran,” which translates “yellow.” Whether from Iran or the plains of Spain, these handpicked crimson strands or stigmas from the flower of the crocus plant (80,000 blossoms produce a mere 16 ounces) are the caviar of spices carrying an exorbitant pricetag ranging from $600 to $2,000 a pound — and worth every penny.

They tint every dish a glorious golden hue from paellas, risottos and bouillabaisses to biscottis, flourless tortes and crème brûlées, in addition to infusing them with a sensual perfume, and exotic musky flavors of honey and the sea.

A Herculean healing spice, saffron has an astronomical amount of manganese to regulate blood sugar levels, boost calcium absorption and regenerate tissues. It also has a load of iron, immune boosting C’s, stress-busting B’s and fluid-balancing potassium. This precious spice has been used as a cure-all for everything from heartburn and insomnia to menstrual cramps and low libido.

Cook’s tip: Toast saffron strands over a low flame to release rich floral aromas. Dried stamens stored in a cool dark place will keep their flavor for two years.

In a Pickle: Whether fresh or dried, dill is a savory perennial herb that’ll cool your heels while dialing up grilled fish, chicken and vegetables, potato and other picnic salads, dips and frittatas.

Botanically this delicate feathery herb – a cousin to parsley, cumin, fennel and caraway – adds a grassy, anise-like zing to hot and cold dishes, and blends beautifully with allspice, ginger and garlic as a pickling spice for cucumbers, green tomatoes, peppers and seasonal vegetables. High in fiber, Vitamins A and C, iron, niacin, copper, folic acid and essential oils, dill has been found to lower cholesterol levels, put the skids on colds, the flu and inflammation, boost ocular and skin health, and lower blood sugar levels in diabetics.

Minty Cucumber Goat Cheese Salad
Minty Cucumber Goat Cheese Salad

Minty Cucumber Goat Cheese Salad

■ Ingredients

• 1 pound, unpeeled, thin-skinned cucumbers (Persian, Japanese or English), cubed

• 12 mint leaves, sliced thinly

• 1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallots

• 1/4 pound goat feta, crumbled

■ For the dressing

• 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

• 2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice

• 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

• 1 teaspoon honey

■ Method: In a large bowl, combine cucumber, mint and shallots. In a small bowl, add dressing ingredients, whisk to emulsify and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cucumber and top with feta.