by Tara Pederson

It’s the time of year we all associate with a certain set of aromas, flavors – Citrus is in season, and our hearts yearn for the warmth of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, molasses – I daresay only a true Grinch could be unmoved by any combination of these delightful ingredients, here in the heart of the holidays.  But why is it we are so comforted by the faintest hint of honey and dried fruits just now?

It’s more than a whimsical question.  We actually make up for the scarcity of fresh produce this time of year with health boosting spices which also pack a major flavor punch or two.

Cinnamon is credited with being one of the oldest spices known to man, and has been traded globally since the 1500s.  Native to Sri Lanka, it dates back to Chinese writings in 2800 B.C. It was used in ancient Egyptian embalming, and in the first century A.D. was documented as being worth fifteen times the value of silver per weight.  In medieval times it was used to treat cough and sore throats, and to preserve meats. There is clinical evidence cinnamon enhances cognitive processes, which lifts mood.

And that’s just one ingredient!

Honey contains compounds that reduce inflammation. Clove is a natural stress reliever and has been shown to decrease fatigue, and the magnesium in nutmeg acts as a mild antidepressant. And all of the above have been known since the middle ages as pain reducers. The vitamin C in oranges and other seasonal citrus (remember those satsumas and kumquats I talked about in previous installments?) not only boosts the immune system, it also aids in keeping blood pressure in check.  All of this adds up to healthier, calmer, happier people enjoying the (sometimes) cold winter months despite deprivation of sunlight.

Here, we are as likely to visit the beach before taking in local decorations and celebrations. We throw parades and balls, host open houses with doors and windows flung open, and hedge bets as to whether or not we’ll be wearing shorts the morning of December 25th.  But it doesn’t keep us from our warm drinks and winter treats!

Be it via wassail, spice cakes, gingerbread, or fruit dishes, there’s really nothing quite like immersing oneself in the entirety of the winter palate experience. You can have it at the ready throughout the month by throwing together the recipe below, or wow your friends and family with a deceptively simple dish by following the recipes below –

Winter Spice Seasoning Mix:  In a food processor or high powered blender, blend 3 cinnamon sticks, 2 tbsp crystallized ginger, 3 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp peppercorns, 1.5 tsp whole cloves, ½ cup orange peel, and ½ cup brown sugar.  If you don’t have high powered equipment, mix already ground versions, and grate orange zest into the mixture. It may be stored at room temperature up to 1 month, unless fresh orange zest is used. In that case, store refrigerated.

Poached Pears:  Mix 2 cups orange juice, 1 tbsp honey, 1 tsp ground or fresh ginger and 1 tsp cloves. Bring mixture to a simmer in a medium pot.  Slice 2 pears, and  poached in simmering mixture 90 seconds-2 minutes, until just beginning to soften.