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I Spice: Turmeric

Middle Eastern Chickpea Burgers. (Leo Gong)

I was going to start this week’s column by singing the praises of turmeric. I grew up with it. People who love salt "salt" their salt; I would "turmeric" my turmeric. (Read: Add more, usually.) But I digress.

Rebecca Katz, a senior chef-in-residence at one of the country’s leading cancer wellness centers and the daughter of a cancer patient, has come out with an amazing book called “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen” (Celestial Arts/Ten Speed Press, 2009). It is filled with flavorful recipes prepared with healing fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. I have cooked several dishes from it and I have to say, they are simply delicious.

Recipe Included

When I wrote Rebecca and asked what her favorite spice was, I learned that she and I share a love of ground turmeric. Here’s why you should care about this lovely golden powder: The American Journal of Epidemiology reported that a diet high in curry (which typically includes turmeric) may help the aging brain. As reported by Reuters, “Curry is used widely by people in India and ‘interestingly,’ the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease among India's elderly ranks is fourfold less than that seen in the United States.”

Think about it: fourfold!

This year, professor Murali Doraiswamy, director of the Mental Fitness Laboratory at Duke University, told the annual meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Liverpool, “Turmeric has been studied not just in Alzheimer's research but for a variety of conditions, such as cancer and arthritis. Turmeric is often referred to as the spice of life in ancient Indian medical lore."

But I digress yet again. Rebecca wrote to me: “I love the earthiness of turmeric, and the golden yellow color. However, I’m fascinated by the ancient spice’s healing properties. No other food has such a powerful anti-inflammatory effect on the human body. That’s why I make a conscious effort to cook with this spice regularly.”

What exactly is turmeric? It is a rhizome (underground stem) that looks a lot like the fresh ginger you can buy in markets. It is most popular in its ground form -- that gorgeous yellow powder. When using the powder, a little goes a long way. A little adds a toasty flavor; a lot adds bitterness.

How much is ideal? I usually add 1/2 teaspoon to a dish that serves four. Rebecca says she likes using turmeric in combination with cumin seeds and cinnamon; talk about a healing trio. To reduce any bitterness, she advises adding a healthful fat such as olive oil, ghee or clarified butter or coconut milk.

Rebecca provided some excellent suggestions on ways to use turmeric:

* Add 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric, with a pinch of black pepper, to olive oil and lemon juice for a quick salad dressing.

* Toss with roasted cauliflower.

* Add a teaspoon to the cooking liquid when preparing whole grains such as quinoa or brown basmati rice.

* Toss diced or sliced sweet potatoes with turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and a pinch of ground pepper before roasting them.

* Add to soups and stews.

* Add to any curry dish that uses coconut milk.

And here are some more from me:

* According to my grandmother, 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric added to a glass of hot milk can cure anything from job loss to a broken heart.

* They may not mend your broken heart, but these Indian Chicken Wings will be a big hit for a tail-gating party.

* When the weather turns cold, try turmeric in this slow-cooker Butternut Squash, Coconut and Lamb Stew.

While I buy mine either from Whole Foods or Indian grocery stores, Rebecca suggests buying ground organic turmeric from It sells the spice in very small packages, so the turmeric won’t lose its potency from sitting around for years in the back of your cabinet.

The best way to ensure benefits from turmeric’s incredible anti-cancer fighting properties, says Rebecca, is to use the spice along with a pinch of black pepper. This allows turmeric to be fully assimilated into the body.

-- Monica Bhide

Middle Eastern Chickpea Burgers
Makes 17 small patties

These chickpea burgers are similar to a Middle Eastern falafel. But the Americanized version of falafel usually resembles carnival food: they’re often deep-fried.

Here the secret ingredient is basmati rice, which holds the chickpea mixture together and helps create a complete protein. Gently pan-seared or baked, these burgers are bountiful, healthful bites, especially good when topped with a dollop of tomato-mint chutney.

MAKE AHEAD: The baked burgers can be refrigerated for 3 to 5 days. To freeze these burgers, either cooked or uncooked, stack them with parchment paper between each one, then wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Once defrosted, cooked burgers can be reheated at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, and uncooked burgers can be baked at 375 degrees for 22 to 25 minutes.

Adapted from “The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen: Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery,” by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson (Celestial Arts, 2009).

2 cups cooked chickpeas (may substitute a 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained, rinsed and mixed with a spritz of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 or 2 small cloves garlic, minced (2 teaspoons)
1/2-inch piece piece peeled ginger root, minced (1 teaspoon)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 1/2 cups cooked brown basmati rice
3 tablespoons finely diced red bell pepper
Leaves from 1/3 bunch flat-leaf parsley, minced (1/4 cup loosely packed)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine the chickpeas, salt, turmeric, paprika, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, oil and lemon juice in a food processor; process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and fold in the rice, bell pepper and parsley.

Moisten your hands to keep the mixture from sticking to them, then shape the mixture into seventeen 1/4-inch-thick patties about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Place them on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until the patties start to look crisp on the outside. They will firm up as they cool.

VARIATION: For a crispy burger, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the patties for about 3 minutes on each side, until golden brown.

Per patty: 102 calories, 3 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  October 16, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, recipes, turmeric  
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I like to put some in my chicken salad for the earthy flavor and color.

Posted by: mhjhahkh | October 16, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

I like the idea on "“The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen”. Very appropriate for a cancer patient like me. Thanks for the recipe. :)

Posted by: rckdrews | October 17, 2009 6:28 AM | Report abuse

made this over the weekend. The patties did not hold together at all, much too dry, but very tasty nonetheless. Any suggestions?

Posted by: patriciawsf | October 19, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Glad you liked the taste! Sorry they did not hold together well for you.

Did you have enough of the puree with the chickpeas batter? The chickpeas are binding. Also, the patties tended to firm up for me after they had cooked.

Another suggestion would be to place them in the fridge for an hour or so before cooking. This usually helps patties stay firm.

I found that they held better when I pan-fried them as well.

I will try to see if Rebecca can post some ideas as well.

Posted by: mbhide | October 19, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Here are some other ideas to help those chickpea burgers hold their shape.
Some chickpeas are dryer than others so when you blend your batter, make sure it's smooth and not chunky. If while you're blending, the batter seems to dry, add a few teaspoons of water. Here's another trick. When you cook your rice, start cooking it in cold water rather than boiling water. That will make the rice sticky and will serve as another binding agent. You can also fold in an egg to the batter if you wish. Using these tricks and the above suggestions will give you nice patties that will hold together. Don't forget you can make a lot of these in advance and freeze them for later.

Posted by: cookerkatz | October 20, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

thanks for the suggestions. I did refrigerate the mixture overnight, but the chickpea puree was dry from the get-go. I mispoke a bit when I said the patties didn't hold; in truth, the mixture wouldn't form patties even before they went on the baking sheet. I'll try adding some water next time.

Posted by: patriciawsf | October 20, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

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