NATURES BEAUTY - BARLEY

Barley is one of the oldest domesticated cereal grains still being grown around the world today. It originated in Ethiopia and southeast Asia. It is most often used in bread and malted beverages such as beer (barley beer was likely one of the first alcoholic drinks humans developed). Over the centuries, barley water has been used for various medicinal purposes; it is good for clearing up urinary tract infections and is also said to be a good remedy for kidney stones.

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NATURES BEAUTY - CRANBERRIES

What would our Thanksgiving Day feasts be without cranberries? This staple of our holiday dinner has a long, proud history in the United States. According to the Cranberry Marketing Committee (uscranberries.com), Native Americans used cranberries as a food staple as early as 1550. They ate them fresh and mashed them with cornmeal and baked them into bread. They used maple sugar or honey to sweet them. They also mixed cranberries with wild game and melted fat to make pemmican.

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NATURES BEAUTY - MISTLETOE

My mother loved decorating for the holidays. From the tree in the den to the lights around all the windows and a big Santa decal on the front door, she was all in. She would also hang a sprig of (fake) mistletoe, complete with sharp-edged leaves and white berries, from the lintel of the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. She and my father always shared the first kiss under the mistletoe after she put it up.

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NATURES BEAUTY - VANILLA

When something (or someone) is bland and unexciting, we usually say they are like vanilla. Simple, colorless, ordinary, easily overlooked – that describes vanilla accurately, right? Well, not exactly. The more you learn about vanilla – its origins, its popularity and what it takes to get it to our pantry shelves – you may refrain from ever describing anything or anyone as “just plain vanilla.”


The aromatic spice, which you’ll find in various forms from scented candles to just the right amount in the best cookie dough and ice cream, has a long and storied – and flavorful – history. It was first cultivated by the Aztecs of South America. It’s actually the fruit of an orchid – the only orchid that produces anything edible (and there are more than 20,000 varieties of orchids!). According to the Food Network (www.foodnetwork.com), the vanilla bean was once thought of as an aphrodisiac. It was so rare it was reserved for royalty.


As you savor a vanilla ice cream treat, you might want to give some thought to how much work goes into creating pure vanilla. It’s the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. Remember the orchids mentioned above? They blossom only for a few hours one day a year. They must be hand pollinated because the plant’s one and only natural local pollinator, the Melipona bee, couldn’t do all the necessary buzzing about with such a short window of opportunity.

Once pollinated, the vanilla pods grow to their full size of six to 10 inches long in about a month and a half. Then they need about nine more months to mature. After this, they are hand picked, though they are still green and have neither the smell nor flavor we expect. The pods must be cured for three to six more months, a process that involves them getting a bath in boiling water, then receiving sun exposure, followed by a blanket wrap in which they are allowed to sweat at night. All this makes the beans ferment and shrink and turn dark brown, the way you’ve probably seen them in jars in the spice aisle of your local supermarket or on a cooking show.


The three most popular types of vanilla beans are the thin Bourbon- Madagascar vanilla beans (75 percent of the world’s vanilla bean supply comes from Madagascar and the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean); the thicker Mexican vanilla beans, which mainly come from the state of Veracruz and are more rare than the Bourbon-Madagascar beans because their growing habitat has been usurped by oil fields and orange groves; and Tahitian vanilla beans, thickest, darkest and most aromatic of all.

When cooking with the beans or pods (the word vanilla means “little pod”), you generally slit them lengthwise and scrape out the tiny seeds to add to your pudding, dough or sauce. You probably prefer goodies with all-natural vanilla as opposed to vanilla flavoring. You’ll notice the difference. And life is too short to settle for the imitation or artificial stuff.

TANYA TYLER

Tanya Tyler is the Editor of Health & Wellness Magazine

more articles by Tanya Tyler