A Seasonal Look At Cooking With Essential Oils
Now that summer is officially here, our home gardens are in their heyday. Spring's greens have already sprouted and given us the first gifts of the season, like bitter dandelion leaves, soft lettuces and nutrient-rich spinach. Now it's peas and squash, strawberries and raspberries. Last season you risked it and planted watermelon (and oh, what a harvest you had!). This summer you're branching out to cooking herbs and thinking of buying a backyard composting bin for all of your fertile scraps. No matter what you're growing in your garden or on your deck, the abundance of summer makes us want to eat healthy and pay attention to the earth, the real root of our nourishment.
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.
How can essential oils improve your summer harvest? Let's first consider one of the gifts of the Mediterranean region: the citruses. Oils like grapefruit and lemon blend beautifully with olive oil for simple, tangy dressings. All it takes is one drop of oil per tablespoon of oil, and your salad will be transformed. Love guacamole? Try a few drops of lime oil mixed with ripe avocado and serve it with corn chips or jicama slices. Still munching on this spring's spinach? Mandarin orange essential oil, which smells heavenly, is refreshing drizzled on greens. How about beverages? Oils add dimension to juices and fizzy waters, too. By mixing grapefruit, mandarin and lime in equal parts, seltzer water is transformed into a healthy citrus soda without the sugar found in commercial brands. As with all aromatic oils, though, don't overdo it. Thankfully, a little bit of oil goes a long way.
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.
Not surprisingly, essential oils also enhance desserts. Two of the most well-loved dessert flavorings come as essential oils: vanilla bean and cacao. The aromatic oils, however, do not come laden with sugar, nor are they soaking in alcohol, the process used to create extracts. If you find yourself craving a sweet vanilla, try blending your essential oil with honey instead of sugar and see if your craving is curbed. The same can be said for cacao. This bitter, dark essential oil is not a candy bar, but it signals the brain the same way chocolate does. A decadent way of indulging your sweet tooth without jeopardizing your diet is to drip two drops of cacao or vanilla into yogurt and eat like ice cream.
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!