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For Immediate Release: October 15, 2009
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NW: Questions about chamomile tea, slow cooking options, pressed tofu

Week of November 30, 2009
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

Nutrition Wise
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Does chamomile tea really have special benefits?

A: For thousands of years, people have consumed chamomile tea for its health benefits, though little human research validates the effects with which people often associate it. It is commonly used for sleeplessness and anxiety; some studies suggest it may have a mild sedative effect, but there is little clinical proof. Some people use it for upset stomach, gas and diarrhea, but research offers no proof of benefit for these problems either. Studies in animals show that flavonoid compounds in chamomile can kill bacteria and viruses, and reduce inflammation, and test tube studies show chamomile extract may promote self-destruction of cancer cells, but we don’t have clinical trials to prove these effects in humans. Some people drink or wash their mouth with chamomile tea to prevent or treat mouth ulcers resulting from chemotherapy. However, limited clinical trials show conflicting results of its effectiveness. The bottom line is that chamomile tea has not been well studied in people, so there is little evidence to support its use for any condition. On the other hand, especially considering its long history of use, there is little reason to avoid use. However, chamomile is in the Compositae family (such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds and daisies) so people who have allergies to these plants should be aware of potential reactions to chamomile. If you take warfarin or other blood thinner medications, discuss with your physician, since chamomile may decrease clotting abilities through its coumarin content.

Q: A lot of recipes using slow cookers look very healthy. Can I follow the recipes without the special pot?

A: Slow cookers allow you to combine and refrigerate ingredients in the pot the night before (or in the morning), put the pot on to cook in the morning and not worry too much about exactly when you get back for the meal at the end of the day. You can create similar moist, slow-cooked dishes in a large pot like a Dutch oven over low heat on the stove or in the oven, but they’ll cook in an hour or two and can’t be safely left cooking unattended. You can pretty easily adapt slow-cooker recipes for soups and most other dishes to stovetop use. Stew preparation often involves browning some chopped vegetables and perhaps a little chicken or meat, and then adding liquid and remaining ingredients. Braising means that you slowly simmer the food in just enough liquid to go no more than about halfway up the sides, so food cooks by both steam and liquid heat, resulting in a slightly different flavor than when food is completely submerged as in a soup or stew. These kinds of dishes mean you need the pan to be heavy enough to hold an even temperature and to have a lid tight enough to hold in steam and flavor. You simply need to keep watch to maintain a gentle simmer without losing too much liquid. Place a piece of aluminum foil over the pot and underneath the lid if needed for a tighter seal. Include plenty of vegetables for good nutrition; onions, carrots, winter squash, fennel and mushrooms hold up well and add great flavor.

Q: Some tofu recipes call for “pressed tofu.” What is this?

A: Cooks who use tofu extensively often say that they press tofu before use, except for silken tofu, the Japanese style smooth, custardy tofu. They say that by pressing out the packaging liquid that tofu has soaked up, it can better soak up the flavor of any marinade or cooking liquid you add. Pressing also creates a firmer texture, which works better for grilled or baked dishes for which you want tofu to hold its shape. You can press tofu as a whole block or in slices. Place a clean dish towel (which will go straight to the laundry when you’re done) or a few paper towels on a cutting board or baking sheet. Place tofu on top and cover with another clean dish towel or more paper towels. Stack one or more heavy pans on top, and let it stand from 20 minutes up to two hours, occasionally pressing on it a bit if you like. The longer you press the tofu, the firmer the texture will be. If you’re pressed for time, get this set up and let it press while you chop and prep the other ingredients for a meal.

 

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