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Fun Flavoring Summer Dishes With Essential Oils

Our summer gardens are officially in full bloom! Lettuces and leafy greens have already pushed through the spring soil, and now precious tomatoes and peppers are beginning to swell with the sweetness of the sun. Maybe last year you took a chance on cantaloupes, and this year you’re trying your hand at growing an herb garden that can be dried and used through the cold winter months. Whatever the contents of your backyard garden or patio pots, the bounty of the warm months inspires us all to eat well and connect with the earth, the true source of our well-being.

For much of the year, our produce is trucked in from far-flung farmlands. Once summer arrives, though, everyone gets the opportunity to claim their birthright as gardeners and cultivators of their own food. What’s best, local summer harvests allow us to experiment with simple, nutritious meals. With very little effort, a meal of fresh vegetables and summer fruits can become a decadent feast. And if your simple cuisine asks for a hint of the exotic, you can harvest a bouquet of flavors from the most unlikely of places: your aromatherapy medicine chest.

You already know that when using essential oils, it is always important to find therapeutic-grade oils. Because oils are concentrated substances, distilled from mass quantities of plant matter, you want to find the highest quality oil you can. While this makes sense when you think of essential oils being absorbed into the body through the skin, always sticking with therapeutic-grade oils has an added benefit: these powerful oils can easily be incorporated in cooking, too. Never thought of it that way before? Scent has a stronger influence on our perception of flavor than our taste buds do! With that in mind, here are a few simple ways the repertoire of essential oils can add a splash of flavor to your simple summer menu.

Before we get too lost in our senses, though, let’s discuss using essential oils internally. Aromatic oils are all plant-based material. Granted, you probably wouldn’t want to chew on myrrh resin for fun, it is still a natural product. It’s safe in small quantities, but it might make you wish you’d stuck to regular chewing gum. Although some essential oils are definitely not safe to take internally, like birch or wintergreen, many oils can be ingested for medicinal and gourmet reasons. Most of the essential oils available on the market are labeled as GRAS by the FDA, meaning they are Generally Recognized as Safe. These oils are not technically used as food additives, but they are considered safe for consumption. When trying to determine if an aromatherapy oil is good for cooking, think of this: essential oils of kitchen spices and fruits will most likely enhance your meal rather than ruin it. The only thing to remember is that some oils, like peppermint, oregano and cinnamon, can be hard on the mucous membranes. Use these diluted and in small doses, though, and they will add zing to your dinner.

How can essential oils improve your summer harvest? Let’s first consider one of the gifts of the Mediterranean region: the citruses. Oils like grapefruit and lemon blend beautifully with olive oil for simple, tangy dressings. All it takes is one drop of oil per tablespoon of oil, and your salad will be transformed. Love guacamole? Try a few drops of lime oil mixed with ripe avocado and serve it with corn chips or jicama slices. Still munching on this spring’s spinach? Mandarin orange essential oil, which smells heavenly, is refreshing drizzled on greens. How about beverages? Oils add dimension to juices and fizzy waters, too. By mixing grapefruit, mandarin and lime in equal parts, seltzer water is transformed into a healthy citrus soda without the sugar found in commercial brands. As with all aromatic oils, though, don’t overdo it. Thankfully, a little bit of oil goes a long way.

What about the bevy of essential oils derived from well-loved cooking spices? Sweet marjoram, basil, ginger, thyme, oregano and bay can all be used to enhance food. Try blending sweet basil oil in with a tomato-mozzarella-Italian parsley pasta, or put a drop of ginger oil in your summer bok choy and carrot stir fry. Like your coffee with cardamom, Arabian-style? One drop of this oil transforms regular coffee into a delectable treat (hint: try this drink iced!). Cooking spice essential oils tend to be surprisingly strong, so again, don’t be lavish with them. Too much oregano or thyme oil will definitely ruin an otherwise balanced dish, so be careful. It’s also usually a good idea to wait to throw the oils in until the food is nearly done cooking, thereby reducing the chance of evaporation before you’re able to enjoy your creation.

Essential oils can also be used when making sweets. Vanilla and cacao essential oils infuse foods with their distinctly delicious flavors without the addition of refined sugar. And, different from extracts, essential oils do not contain alcohol, the substance used to distill food flavorings out of plant matter. For many, a couple of drops of vanilla bean essential oil in a cookie recipe tastes better than the sugary, chemical concoctions we find in commercially-made desserts. The same goes for cacao. Think baking chocolate! Dark, bitter yet definitely “chocolate.” Lucky for us, the chemical constituents of chocolate that make us feel happy are best found in the darkest cacao. Toss a couple of drops of cacao essential oil in your yogurt and experience the elation of a chocolate high without the guilt!

Summer food has a way of reminding us of life’s simple pleasures. From a basic family barbeque to a neighborhood feast, the fruits of the season enable us to take care of ourselves while taking care of the earth, too. Essential oils bring new dimension and ease to already simple fare, and often the addition of an oil adds nuance to a dish without the need for an extra trip to the grocery. So remember: if you find yourself the sudden hostess of an impromptu summer get-together and you’re down to soy milk, just toss water, ice and essential oil of lime in a glass and call it a spritzer. This is summer, after all!

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