Yes, yes, roast turkey and your aunt Millie’s sausage stuffing and mashed potatoes and six kinds of pie and maybe a few pecan bars and a chocolate chocolate chip cookie at bedtime because it is What The Hell month. The most fastidious food-is-medicine people I know call a screeching halt to their green smoothies (though greens are in season!) in December, and go on a sort of bad-food jihad, consuming every gluten molecule, sugar substance and cured meat in their path. Know why?
Because the winter holidays are, for whatever cosmic reason, designed to be really rough on your stomach. Whether you can’t digest wheat or can’t stomach your in-laws or get queasy at the sight of a shopping mall or go into a gut-twisting panic attack when you think about being alone on the holidays or with people who bring out your inner five-year-old or with people you genuinely love but oh my God the work and the preparation and the hassles and the details and and and….
Forget about it. What’s in season right now is coping. And if you do that by eating doughnuts and measuring your alcohol consumption in bottles instead of glasses? Look, judgment is the last thing this season is supposed to be about. It’s technically not supposed to be about rabid gluttony either, but I suspect that our evolution hasn’t caught up with the modern world here and that humans are primed from way back in the cave days to eat everything that isn’t nailed down at this darkest time of year because food’s freaking scarce. Or, it was. So my official prescription for this month is Let It Go. I mean, don’t go out of your way to make yourself sick, but don’t freak out about overindulging. If you can confine it to one month out of 12, you’re probably ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, some special medicinal foods you might want to consider incorporating:
Dwight Sipler CC BY
Fresh ginger is a rhizome (a creeping, fleshy underground stem). It’s sweet with a very spicy kick. One of the most versatile medicinal plants on earth, ginger is a go-to (added to cooked food, brewed into tea, or, if you have a masticating juicer, taken as a very bracing shot) for nausea (including morning sickness, ladies), indigestion and pretty much every dysfunction of the digestive tract. It’s thermogenic, which means it subtly raises your basal metabolic rate and makes you warmer; it’s a badass anti-inflammatory; an immune system booster (a compound in ginger is secreted in your sweat and actually might repel infectious agents that land on your skin!); and it’s been shown in vitro to kill cancer cells. Plus it tastes really good (though not subtle). Dried, powdered ginger is not as potent as fresh but it certainly can’t hurt you—candied ginger retains many of the herb’s benefits and is more palatable to some people, but obviously it’s very sugary too. One of the great panaceas of the natural pharmacy and zero side effects.
Steven Depolo CC BY
It’s probably not an accident that this tree bark is such a ubiquitous flavoring in winter holiday cooking. Like ginger, it is highly aromatic with a spicy character, and like ginger, it’s a natural thermogenic and anti-inflammatory. It also controls blood sugar, which is no small matter at this time of front-desk candy offerings and cookie-baking parties. If you have type 2 diabetes or “metabolic syndrome,” this stuff should be in your life on a daily basis; it improves insulin sensitivity. It’s being looked at very closely as a therapy for neurodegenerative diseases and has shown promise in reducing or slowing the effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. It’s an incredibly potent preservative, which you can translate to “inhibits bacterial and fungal growth”—not a bad thing during bug season. Plus in case you’ve grown up in a very strange bubble you probably already know this but the stuff is delicious. Simmering cinnamon sticks and drinking it as a tea is probably the easiest way to get the therapeutic benefits, but however you ingest it, it counts.
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The third winter super-herb on my list is also a ubiquitous flavoring in winter desserts, and probably not by accident. Fresh peppermint or peppermint oil (be careful with the latter, it’s potent) is another strong-flavored herb whose assertive character is a really good sign that there are a lot of high-powered phytonutrients lurking in those leaves and stems. It ranks with ginger as a remedy for pretty much anything that’s not right with your digestive system (both chronic conditions and situational overindulgence). It’s an expectorant and decongestant, which is great since your two-year-old niece will give you the worst cold you’ve ever had. It makes funky breath go away. It is also effective for tension headaches, and the mere smell of it lowers your stress level. Who doesn’t need that at this time of year? Fresh and dried peppermint is a must for many Middle Eastern dishes and it’s a wonderful, vibrant addition to green salads. (Try it with pomegranate seeds if you can still find good ones.)
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Let’s be honest: between the Zoloft and the cocktails, your liver is probably getting a little more of a workout than it wants. And while livers are incredibly self-regenerating, they will give up the ghost eventually, and it’s nice to help them out. Bitter compounds in artichokes lower cholesterol, improve kidney, liver and gall bladder function, and contain high levels of B-complex vitamins, which your body eats at a furious pace when you are under stress, which for many of us is pretty much all the time. They’re easy to prepare, versatile, and incredibly tasty.
Peter Lindberg CC BY
The other kind of medicine. Technically this is a drink. Actually technically this is a neutron bomb in the form of a drink. But in honor of my Scandinavian forebears I do need to mention that since you’re so shored up with all those fine, upstanding healing herbs, you might as well have a little fun and indulge in an après ski or holiday party beverage that will spread joy and happiness throughout…well, your kitchen and living room at least. There are a zillion variants on this mulled wine classic—my ancestral one combines two parts dry red wine, one part each madeira and sherry, half a part vodka (or aquavit), and an eyeballed amount of stick cinnamon, cardamom pods, cloves and orange peel. Bring everything to a near simmer. Prepare your mugs with a handful of raisins and slivered almonds (if you like). Then you pretty much dump a box of sugar cubes into a fine-mesh strainer, douse them with brandy or cognac, and set them on fire. Ladle the glogg through the burning sugar cubes until they are gone and your stockpot is a wreath of fascinating blue flames. Put the lid on the pot to extinguish the blaze, serve, and make a toast to warm lights on dark days.
An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.