As the daughter of a pharmacist, I’m a firsthand witness and strong believer in the benefits of modern medicine, pills and all. But as a nutrition-focused chef, I’m also aware that our first defense against many illnesses and stresses is in our self-care: how we are sleeping, how we move our bodies throughout the day, the strength of our social relationships, and—of course—the food we eat.
As we enter the fall and winter seasons, it’s a good time to focus on strengthening our defenses. One great way to do that is by building up our kitchen apothecaries, making sure that our daily meals are full of nutritious plants, spices, and pantry items that can promote natural healing, fend off colds, and also help us feel nourished and cozy during darker winter months.
Here are a few tips that I practice in my kitchen and share with my cooking class students. If the phrase “kitchen pharmacy” conjures up an image of bags of expensive superfood powders or bland, sterile meals, you are in for a pleasant surprise: some of the most powerful foods for health—particularly immunity and gut health—are both basic and tasty.
If you are building up your kitchen apothecary, here are a few must-include ingredients:
Probiotic foods including sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles are believed to help populate our guts with “good” bacteria, and scientists are just beginning to understand the power of the microbiome when it comes to our overall health. Try adding two spoonfuls of these naturally fermented vegetable foods to a macro bowl, sandwich, or on top of some sautéed veggies.
Be sure to shop for fermented foods in the refrigerated section and look for phrases such as “live and active” cultures to make sure they are truly living foods. Want to DIY? Rich and creamy coconut yogurt is one of the simplest (and least messy!) home ferments you could ever make.
Eat a rainbow! Pops of color make for not only a pretty kitchen, but also a nutritious plate. Colorful vegetables like squash and beets are typically rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Leafy greens, in particular, are nutrient superheroes, full of iron, calcium, and beta-carotene, as well as gut-friendly fiber. A hearty green like kale can be sautéed and topped with a fried egg for a simple breakfast, or massaged with lemon and olive oil for a lunch salad that can stay sturdy and fresh in the fridge for a few days.
The Standard American Diet is known for being low in anti-inflammatory Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega 3s are most famed for reducing the risk of heart disease, but are also believed to have a strong influence on brain and mental health, and even skin conditions such as acne and premature skin aging. Seek out wild and sustainably caught varieties of salmon, trout, sardines, and herring, and add to macro bowls or salads. Fish provides a more advanced form of Omega-3s; plant-based sources of Omega-3s include flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
The way I season my food makes me feel most like an alchemist, perfectly calibrating my meal for swoon-worthy flavor profiles. While salt is rightfully every chef’s best friend, think beyond it when seasoning, especially when it comes to adding immune-boosting or anti-inflammatory properties to your meal. Ginger and garlic are my winter go-tos for taste and immunity and are perfect as the base to any soup. Ground spices including cinnamon, cayenne, and turmeric can be added to almost anything that’s being baked or roasted in the oven. And of course, fresh herbs bring vitality to heavier winter meals and add energy-boosting chlorophyll and nutrients similar to leafy greens. Save extra fresh herbs and freeze into ice cubes to add to water to help you hit your hydration goal as well.
Recipes for macro bowls can look complicated because of all the different components, but remember that you don’t have to cook them all at once. Leftover rice from a stir-fry tonight can become the base of tomorrow’s macro bowl. Mixing and matching different cooked ingredients in my fridge throughout the week is how I eat new homemade meals everyday ... without having to cook everyday!
Mustard greens belong to the cruciferous family of vegetables— the same one that includes kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. I like their spicy bite (reminiscent of radishes) but if you aren’t a fan, substitute another leafy green or cruciferous vegetable.
For Roasted Salmon:
For Sautéed Greens:
For Peanut Sauce:
Cranberries are one of the joys of fall. These tart jewels are known for their high antioxidant content.
This crumble is essentially a compote topped with streusel, so it’s perfect for any non-bakers out there. I use coconut sugar and maple syrup for a less processed and less cloyingly sweet dessert.
When crafting desserts, I usually skip the highly processed or refined ingredients like grain flours and substitute whole grains and monounsaturated fatty acid rich nuts. Here I use spices like cinnamon, clove, and black pepper in larger quantities than expected to create a dessert that’s spicy and tart in addition to sweet.
For Cranberry Filling:
For Oat Crumble Topping:
Is there any food that suggests autumn more than roasted squash? Butternut or acorn squash works wonderfully for this recipe, but try kabocha squash (also called Japanese pumpkin) if you can find it. You’ll never look back after tasting this creamy, dreamy fall vegetable.
Massaging the kale with the dressing tenderizes the kale leaves and makes them juicier and less bitter. It also breaks down their insoluble fiber a bit, making them much easier on the digestive system and less likely to cause bloating.
The best part about a kale salad is that it can stay fresh in the fridge for a few days, even with the dressing on! Make this ahead for a holiday meal or for lunches for the week.
For the Chickpeas:
For the Squash:
For the Salad:
Agar is a seaweed-based gelatin that’s used to firm up the coconut milk as it ferments to make the texture mimic traditional yogurt. Look for it in the international aisle with other Asian products. You could use a traditional gelatin or leave it out if you don’t mind a runnier texture.
Yogurt is probably the most popular probiotic food in the American diet, but as more and more folks are sensitive to cow’s dairy (or simply want to avoid factory farming), decadent coconut yogurt is an easy substitute for breakfast or even dessert. Just remember that it’s very high in fat, so you’ll want to keep the portion size small.
Photography by Constance Mariena / Text by Alia Dalal
This story originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of The Inspired Home Journal, titled “Kitchen Apothecary.”