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Seasonal Pantry: You already may have a taste for turmeric

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You may or may not have wondered why French's Mustard is so deeply colored, a yellow so rich that it is almost orange.

This mustard, especially its color, is so iconic that almost anyone in American will recognize a simple squiggle of it, even if that squiggle is without context.

Mustard didn't catch on in the United States until early in the 20th century, when Francis French, convinced Americans were put off by mustard's intense heat, made a mild version of it, using exclusively white mustard seed instead of a combination of white, brown and black. White mustard seed is hot on the palate but does not have the vaporing heat that fills your sinuses, as black and brown seeds do.

He added a lot of vinegar and, for color, turmeric, a member of the ginger family that has a mild, earthy flavor.

He was right. French's Mustard took off and today is still the best-selling mustard in the country.

For decades, this mustard was one of the few ways average Americans ate turmeric. Over the years, that has changed, as it is a common ingredient in Indian and Southeast Asian foods. It's also become a darling of the health supplement industry, as turmeric is said to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and a wide range of other healing properties.

Two ingredients within turmeric have attracted the attention of health researchers, though it seems a combination of factors are responsible for the effects, not simply the isolated elements.

Curcumin may discourage cancer cells and turmerin, a bioactive peptide, seems to protect DNA from damage. This is interesting news, especially for people who believe natural foods should function as our medicines.In markets and supermarkets, you can buy capsules of turmeric in health supplement sections as readily as you can buy jars of it in the spice department. You can even find whole turmeric rhizomes in Asian and specialty markets.

I acquired a taste for turmeric in the mid 1970s, when I returned from India eager to recreate the foods I had enjoyed there. I cooked on instinct, mostly without recipes, trying to duplicate the tastes I recalled. When I found that my dal or curry was missing something, I experimented with spices and learned quickly that turmeric, though subtle, is essential.

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