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I Spice: Chamomile

Dried chamomile flowers can calm you. (Sala Kannan)

What can I say about a plant that can gently sedate you, calm your tummy, add aroma to your bath water and beautify your yard?

For starters, Egyptians loved chamomile so much that they dedicated this flower to their Sun god, Ra. Chamomile was used by the ancient Romans and Greeks to treat inflammatory conditions and as a sedative. Air Wick even uses it in one of its Relaxation products.

There are several types of chamomile on the market. In homeopathy, it is classified as a nervine herb (calming to the system), in two forms: Matricaria recutita, commonly known as German chamomile, and Chamaemelum nobile, Roman chamomile (the kind most often used for cooking). Herbalists usually use flowers from German chamomile.

Recipe Included

Amelia Hirota, a board-certified acupuncturist and herbalist, says chamomile is helpful for many conditions, but is best known for its ability to ameliorate anxiety and insomnia. For adults, it's most commonly taken as a tea made with the dried flowers. For children, she likes the prepared homeopathic version of chamomile, which is good for sleep problems, for its calming effects and for soothing for teething babies. “I've used this extensively with my son and it works wonders,” she says.

Amy Pennington, creator and owner of GoGo Green Garden, an edible gardening business in Seattle, loves chamomile's distinct flavor, “First it's flora-y and then it turns almost sweet on your tongue. There is really nothing else like it.” She uses fresh chamomile in the summer. Chamomile is fairly easy to grow, she says, and will reseed itself year after year with little attention.

Pennington began cooking with at Qullisascut Farm School years ago. "The chef there added chamomile to our oatmeal in the morning," she says. "I had no idea what the flavor was, but I fell in love instantly.”

Her method is simple: “I crush dried flower heads or mash fresh flower heads for my oatmeal. I start by browning some butter in a pan, adding some oat flakes and then some flowers and get it all nice and toasty. From there, I add water or milk to make the oatmeal.”

Pennington provides these other lovely ways to use chamomile:

  • Infused in jams; it's lovely with plums or other mild fruits.

  • As a flavor note in a fruit-crisp topping.

  • In simple syrup for a sweet summertime drink.

Is it a good idea to take something mildly sedating in the morning, I wondered?

“When I have busy days, I tend to second-guess eating it because I don't want to be sleepy when I'm trying to get stuff done," Pennington says. "After years of experimentation, I'm happy to say I have never gotten notably tired after eating a big bowl for breakfast."

Kathy Morgan, award-winning sommelier at Michel Richard Citronelle, uses chamomile to create a cocktail called the Citronelle Swizzle. She infuses Barbancourt rum with chamomile, then mixes the spirit with falernum and pineapple. I imagine this Hot Blonde, made with chamomile-infused gin, would be a great way to wind down after a tough day. And while Firefly restaurant used Chamomile Syrup to make a julep, I think it would be great in iced tea. Birch & Barley pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac likes to infuse chamomile flowers in dairy-based items, which yield the strongest flavor: “I have done panna cotta, ice cream or even a batter for french toast. On the lighter side, I have added a chamomile-infused simple syrup to sorbet bases. My personal favorite is apricot, but blueberry is good, too. I find that chamomile works best with other fruits that grow during the same season, which is late May through mid-July,” she says.

I like this simple recipe for Chamomile Lemon Sauce by Veggie Belly, one of my favorite local food blogs.

Dried chamomile is available locally at the Spice and Tea Exchange of Alexandria. (I buy my dried chamomile flowers from And, of course, chamomile tea bags are easy to find in supermarkets. Store dried chamomile in a glass jar, in a cool dark place. Fresh chamomile flowers should be used immediately.

-- Monica Bhide (Follow me on Twitter.)

Simple Pecan Crumble and Baked Apples. (Sala Kannan)

Simple Pecan Crumble and Baked Apples
4 servings

Pecan crumble is one of the easiest desserts to pull together quickly, and all of the ingredients are pantry staples. The crisp topping is great for stuffing apples or on top of a baked fruit crumble (double this recipe for the latter).

The apples can be substituted with peaches or apricots in the summer.

MAKE AHEAD: The pecan topping can be frozen in a resealable plastic food storage bag for up to 6 months. From "Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable & Seasonal Kitchen," by Amy Pennington (Skipstone, 2010).

4 medium tart apples, partially cored so the bottoms remain intact
1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup raw oats
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup pecan pieces, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons dried chamomile flowers, crushed
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the cored apples upright in a snug baking dish.

Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, pecans, cinnamon, chamomile flowers, nutmeg, salt and butter in a medium bowl. Use your fingertips to massage the mixture until it forms coarse crumbs and larger clumps.

Use the mixture to fill each hollowed core, packing the filling down and piling a little on top. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the apples are soft and easily pierced with a sharp knife.

Serve warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Per serving (not including ice cream): 470 calories, 4 g protein, 65 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 41 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  May 14, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, chamomile, recipes  
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Could you at least mention that chamomile may provoke severe allergic reactions for some people? It has cross sensitivities with a number of other plants, including ragweed. Please be responsible.

Posted by: svhagen | May 16, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate it.There may be allergies to almost any ingredient we write about so I think people have to be careful in what they eat overall.


Posted by: mbhide | May 17, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

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