Eating Seasonally: Spring Edition

Hello everyone! I hope that you all have been having a good week and are enjoying this beautiful spring weather as much as I am.

I’ve talked about the importance of eating seasonally on this blog several times before (see the winter edition and the summer edition here for a discussion on eating for both of those seasons along with some recipes). Today, especially with this being a week that involves some special meals prepared either for Passover or Easter, I thought it might be the perfect time to share a spring edition.

Eating seasonally is an important part of maintaining health according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. It helps our bodies and our digestive systems function at peak performance, and it also prevents troublesome health conditions from developing.

Spring in Chinese Medicine is associated with the organ of the Liver (and remember when I talk about the Liver, it doesn’t mean there’s actually anything wrong with the physical organ itself). In Chinese Medicine, the Liver is responsible for keeping your qi moving as it should. Just like little plant sprouts reaching up to the sun, spring is a good time for people to participate in activities that keep things moving and grooving. This can include things like stretching (the Liver controls the sinews and tendons, so stretching is especially important at this time of year), tai chi, and yoga. And if you’d like to pretend you’re actually a little plant reaching for the sun while you stretch, you do you and be the best little plant you can be!

The Liver is associated with the color green as well…perfect for spring! So eating foods that are green helps to nourish the body and keeps your qi happy and free-flowing. This brings us to one of my very favorite spring recipes. This is frequently on the menu for holidays and regular meals alike in my house. It makes a good amount of food, so even if you want to make up a batch on Sunday, you’ll have lots of delicious leftovers for the week ahead.

The recipe is originally from Ina Garten, whose Hampton lifestyle, adoring husband, and subtle sassiness all combine to make up one of my most favorite celebrities. You can easily make this without the potatoes if you are cutting down on carbs or sensitive to nightshade veggies, but, honestly, these potatoes are so good I can’t imagine it without them. Her original recipe also adds fennel when you add the beans and asparagus, but I personally find fennel gross so I leave it out. If you like fennel, however, roasting it is a delicious way to enjoy it.

Roasted Potatoes, Haricots Verts, and Asparagus

  • 1 pound fingerling or small potatoes
  • ⅓ cup good olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 pound French string beans (haricots verts), trimmed (These can occasionally be a little tricky to find, but I always can find them at either Stop & Shop or Trader Joe’s…if you can’t find them at your local store, regular green beans will work just fine)
  • 1 bunch thin asparagus, ends removed, cut diagonally into 3-inch pieces
  • Optional: 2 large fennel bulbs, cut into quarters and then again into long pieces
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat your oven to 425˚.
  2. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise, and spread them out on a baking sheet. Pour the olive oil over the potatoes, sprinkle them with the salt and pepper, and then toss until the potatoes are coated.
  3. Roast the potatoes for about 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once about halfway through cooking.
  4. Add the string beans and asparagus (and fennel) to the baking sheet, and toss with the potatoes. Roast for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the green vegetables are tender. I usually toss everything about halfway through this additional cooking time as well.
  5. Sprinkle Parmesan over all the vegetables and put back into the oven for a minute or two more, just to melt the cheese.
  6. Take the vegetables out of the oven, add a bit more salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

In TCM, asparagus are considered a sweet, bitter, and cooling food. They help clear heat and drain dampness, as well as moisten dryness (this seems counter-intuitive but often foods and herbs can have several important functions at once…dampness is a pathological state and draining it often requires the addition of something slightly moistening to prevent too much drying out). Green beans are a sweet and neutral food that help to nourish the Spleen and the Kidney. Fennel is a an ideal food for this time of year, helping to move Liver qi and strengthen the digestive system. Potatoes are also neutral and sweet, helping to tonify Qi. Putting all of these foods together creates a satisfying and nourishing meal that also helps clear a bit of heat that can develop when we move into warmer weather.

I hope everyone has a wonderful week, and until next time, be well!

Recipe originally from “Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics” by Ina Garten

All individual food properties sourced from “The Tao of Healthy Eating,” by Bob Flaws

A Happy & Healthy Halloween

Hello out there, friends on the internet! I hope everyone has been having a happy and healthy fall. It’s been absolutely gorgeous here in Connecticut, and I’ll be sad when these fall leaves start to go.

But before that happens, we have a holiday coming up! It’s Halloween pretty soon, and everyone knows what that means- candy!!

Now if you know me at all in real life, you know I love candy. I can take or leave most sweets like ice cream/cookies/cake/pie 99% of the time, but my sugar downfall has always been candy. Now as an adult medical provider who regularly advises her patients to limit sugar, I try to keep this habit in check most of the time (although I probably owe the makers of Sour Patch Kids a large commission for getting me through my doctorate degree).

Halloween is intrinsically linked to candy consumption in this country. There’s been bags of all sorts of trick-or-treat goodies on sale at every grocery store around here since August. This is not great for obvious reasons. If you’re anything like me and you buy candy early, there’s a very real chance that candy will never make it till Halloween, leading to a vicious buy-eat-repurchase cycle.

Sugar consumption is out of control in this country. Now I’m not saying here that treats can’t be enjoyed in moderation. But as a whole, we consume way too much sugar, a dietary pattern that is linked to many adverse health conditions. So (especially when stores start pushing candy sales two months early) do we really need to add sugar to a holiday that already has a ton of fun things associated with it?

Luckily there’s some options. You can always buy non-candy treats like individual snack bars, bags of almonds, or mini bags of pretzels/crackers to hand out.

The other option is to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project. The Teal Pumpkin Project is a relatively new idea, but I think it’s an awesome one. Created and sponsored by Food Allergy Research & Education (as well as supported by many other organizations such as the American Diabetes Association, the Allergies and Asthma Foundation of America, and more), the project works to help ALL kids enjoy a safe, happy, and healthy Halloween by encouraging people to have non-food based treats available at Halloween. There are so many kids out there with life-threatening food allergies, as well as kids with dietary restrictions due to a number of medical conditions, who just can’t safely enjoy the candy that they get trick-or-treating.

Kids with food allergies and dietary restrictions can have a really hard time at  a holiday like Halloween, feeling left out and different from their peers. By providing non-food based treats like stickers, pencils, bouncy balls, glow sticks, erasers, etc., you can ensure that all kids who come to your door walk away feeling like they got to enjoy their trick-or-treating like everyone else does.

So how do you participate? All you have to do is get a pumpkin and paint it teal or print out one of these fun flyers if you don’t feel like painting (downloads of the flyers are available at the website I’ve linked to above). You may have even seen pre-painted teal artificial pumpkins at craft stores like Michael’s, so that makes it easier to grab and display a teal pumpkin that can be re-used year after year!tppprintposterthumbThis is what I do at my house: I print out a Teal Pumpkin Project sign and display it on the table with a selection of treats. We have regular candy bars, a tub with bags of Halloween-shaped mini pretzels that are made in a dedicated peanut-free facility, and fun stickers. This gives the kids options and makes everyone feel included. It’s not expensive at all, and it’s so worth it in the end!

I hope everyone has a fun and spooky Halloween! Until next time, be well.

Eating Seasonally: Summer Edition

Hello everyone- it’s nice to be back! I’ve been busy with work and finishing up my doctorate program, which is rapidly reaching its conclusion. I’ll write another post when I am officially done to explain a little about what the new title means.

Today’s short and sweet post is about eating seasonally for the summer heat! A while back, I posted about eating seasonally in winter to talk a bit about the importance of eating in accordance with the seasons in Chinese medicine. Diet is a very important part of TCM and it can actually play a pretty important role in your general health.

Summer is obviously a time of heat. And this summer has been pretty hot indeed! We actually refer to this time of year in terms of “summer heat.” Summer heat shows up during the dog days of summer, and it can be considered a pathological factor. When the heat and humidity is very high, we can see symptoms like fatigue, excess sweating, digestive concerns, heavy sensations, joint pain, and more. Most of us have experienced this without even realizing it- think about how all you want to do on a hot summer day is sit in the shade with a cool drink. It’s easy to feel fatigued and uncomfortable if you try and do too much of anything,

Food can be a fun way to counteract some of this pathological heat and humidity. The recipe I’m going to share with you is a quick and easy one for a watermelon, mint, and feta salad. There are many versions of this recipe on the internet so feel free to research some options or make up your own version.

I like to make my salad with watermelon cubes (about 1″ each), crumbled feta cheese, chopped mint leaves, and arugula (or any other salad green you like!). I’ll sometimes add walnuts or another seed for a fun crunch aspect. You can make your own vinaigrette or use a high quality balsamic vinaigrette (I like to look for ones that don’t have any added sugar, corn syrup, or food coloring). Mix everything together and dress it as you like! Quick, easy, and delicious.watermelonandmint

Watermelon in Chinese medicine is considered cool and sweet. It also generates fluids and relieves thirst, which can help further cool down the body. In TCM, we actually use the white rind and the seeds of watermelon as well but for this salad, you’ll just want to use the fruit itself.

Mint is also cooling. It’s known as “Bo He” in Chinese, and we use it for a variety of things. It’s considered cool and acrid, which means that it is good at moving and dispersing things as well as resolving heat conditions. This herbal property can help with some of that stuck, bloated, heavy feeling that can happen in the summer. It can also help with things like heat rash or skin irritation that occurs during these sticky months.

As in all things Chinese medicine, everything should be in balance. So while this recipe is great to help cool you down in the summer, you shouldn’t consume a ton of it every day. Especially for people with problematic digestion, too much cooling and raw food can actually make digestive symptoms even worse. So enjoy in moderation!

I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer so far. Stay cool out there, and be well!

Ginger For Me, Please!

Hello there! Today’s post is another short and sweet one. I hope you all enjoyed last week’s post on seasonal eating. This week is also food-related, but I’m actually going to be talking about an important Chinese herb- ginger! Some of our commonly used Chinese herbs are also foods or spices that we eat regularly, and I think the best example of this is ginger.

When I talk about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), usually acupuncture is the big buzzword that people associate with it. However, acupuncture is just one small part of our Chinese medical toolbox. The practice of Chinese herbology (yes, friends, I did indeed study herbology…just like Harry Potter) is one that actually extends back even further through Chinese history than acupuncture does. There are hundreds and hundreds of medicinals in the repertoire of Chinese herbal medicine- plant leaves, roots, berries/fruits, barks, minerals, animal products, and even some particularly gnarly ingredients like scorpions, snakes, and bugs. However, today I’m just going to focus on one very important Chinese herb- the humble, yet delicious, ginger root. Herbs are very rarely used by themselves in TCM, but ginger is one that we can use just as a single herb.Ginger-rootGinger is called Sheng Jiang in Chinese and zingiberis rhizoma in Latin. It is considered part of the category of herbs that is said to “release the exterior.” That is a fancy way of saying that these herbs are used to treat conditions that attack us from the outside (remember my scarf post? Those types of pathogens). This means that this category of herbs is really good at treating a cold when it is just starting to show up- chills/fever, muscle aches, stiff neck, headache, coughing, etc. Ginger can be used at the first signs of a cold to help give those pathogens the heave-ho and send them on their way. It’s also good for treating coughs once they have settled in to stay.

Ginger is also very good at treating upset stomachs. I’m sure many of you have heard this as a folk remedy for nausea, and I’m here to tell you that it’s good advice! Ginger helps what we refer to as the “middle burner” in TCM, which essentially means it’s a good herb to help with our digestive system. Ginger can be used to treat nausea, vomiting, and any garden-variety stomach ickiness (including that general bleh feeling you can get after eating something that doesn’t seem to be sitting so well).

A ton of ginger root drying out in a neighborhood in China- this picture is from when I did an internship in Beijing in 2011
A ton of ginger root drying out in a neighborhood in China- this picture is from when I did an internship in Beijing in 2011.

There’s a couple of easy ways to enjoy ginger. I love ginger tea when you feel like you are getting a cold. You can buy ginger tea bags and let those steep, or you can just slice up some fresh ginger and boil it in some hot water for a couple minutes. I also like to add a little honey to ginger tea when I’m feeling under the weather, especially if I am coughing a lot.

You can also find ginger chews, hard candies, and crystallized ginger in most grocery stores. I like the products by The Ginger People company since they tend to have a pretty clean ingredient list (I’m actually eating one of their hard candies as I write this!). You can also add ginger to most things you cook- I personally love it with broccoli (sounds weird, tastes delicious). It’s great in stir-frys with pretty much any protein, and it can add a spicy kick to stews, curries, smoothies, and soups. Ginger also keeps really well in the freezer, so if you buy a knob and are worried about using it all up, just wrap up what you don’t use and throw it in the freezer. When I take it out of the freezer, I’ll usually just grate what I need when it’s still frozen and not stress about cutting off the skin, but feel free to thaw and peel if you’d like.

Obviously, too much of anything becomes not a good thing. Ginger is a pretty safe ingredient, as is evidenced by its easy accessibility. However, it is considered a warm herb, and too much consumption of a warm herb over time will eventually create pathological heat in the body. So add it to your diet in moderation. Plus, an ancient Chinese medical doctor said that too much ginger would drain the will and intelligence, so better to be safe than sorry (sometimes historical Chinese medical advice is straight-up bonkers, as evidenced here. I love it.). Obviously, if you have an underlying medical condition or are pregnant, it’s always a good idea to run any dietary changes or herbal supplements by your regular physician or Chinese medical practitioner.

Let me know your favorite way to eat ginger! And if you know The Ginger People and can ask them to send me many ginger items, I like the chews best 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful week, and be well.

All herbal information comes from: Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica (3rd. ed) by D. Bensky, S. Clavey, E. Stöger, & A. Gamble (Eastland Press, 2004). 

Eating Seasonally: Winter Edition (Feat. A Special Guest!)

Hello to my lovely readers! If you are on the East coast, I hope you all survived the weekend storm safely. I am really excited to talk about today’s topic. This is the first in a four part series where I am going to discuss the idea of seasonal eating in Chinese medicine. I’m going to do this once a season to give you an idea of how your food intake should change to reflect the seasons. Today we will discuss how to eat in winter, and in a few months I’ll talk about spring, and so on!

I’m also very excited to introduce a recipe from a dear family friend to go along with this discussion. Lisa Keys is an amazing chef, “Chopped” champion, and all-around bad-ass mama with an incredibly beautiful blog about love, loss, and the healing power of food. You should check out her blog Good Grief Cook and then spend some time reading her amazing posts and exploring her delicious recipes. She provided a recipe for us that goes along perfectly with the theme of today’s discussion, which I will share at the end.

Eating seasonally is a very important concept in Chinese medicine. What “eating seasonally” means is that you consume foods that help your body to adapt to and work well within any given season. This means that you eat foods with the proper taste and temperature for the season. Each food is considered to have a “taste” and a “temperature” according to TCM theory. Taste means the property of the food- sweet, salty, sour, bitter, acrid, and bland. Each of these different tastes corresponds with a certain action and effect on the body. For example, sweet foods build qi and help generate body fluids, but they can also damage the digestive system when eaten in excess. Each of the flavors can be beneficial, but it is important to eat them in balance. The same goes for temperature. Temperature doesn’t necessarily correspond to the physical temperature of the food, but rather the nature of the food- hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold. Again, balance is key here. You can’t eat only foods of one temperature without eventually creating imbalance in the body.

How this all comes into play is that you can eat a little more of certain tastes and temperatures depending on what the outside temperature looks like. If it is cold and dry outside, you should eat foods that are warming and that can nourish fluids. If it is hot and humid outside, you want to eat foods that are cooling and that can help drain some excess moisture.

Eating against the season can create problems, especially with digestion. If you eat a lot of cold raw foods in the winter, you introduce too much coldness and dampness into an a system already plagued by the cold and damp weather in the atmosphere. This can cause digestive difficulties, fatigue, and other unpleasant symptoms. (Side note: this is why the idea of juice cleanses that start after the holidays drives me loco. It’s literally the worst type of food to introduce into your system at this time. And real talk: no one wants to hear a juice cleanser preach the wisdom of the cleanse. It is nonsense, and you will get diarrhea from consuming 32 oz. of green juice in a day.)

So what does this look like in winter? Winter is cold, first and foremost. This means that you should eat foods that are warming in nature. At the time of year, eating cooked food is especially important. Raw fruits, raw vegetables, smoothies, and iced beverages should all be limited. Try and eat mostly cooked, roasted, baked, or sautéed foods as much as possible (this includes your fruits and veggies). You can also incorporate warming foods and spices into your diet- this includes foods like root vegetables, lamb, chicken, ginger, cumin, black pepper, nutmeg, garlic, and cinnamon. If you pay attention to what your body wants, many times it will tell you what you should eat! How often do you come inside from the cold and all you want is a steaming bowl of soup? It’s because soup is warming in physical temperature and in terms of energetics according to TCM theory. Soup often contains cooked meats, veggies, and grains, all of which are ideal for the season!

So that brings us to our lovely recipe! Lisa’s recipe is for a delicious roasted butternut squash soup. Winter squashes like butternut squash, pumpkin, and acorn squash are considered warm and sweet. This means they help build qi, strengthen digestion, and can reduce inflammation. Onions are also very warming and can help ward off the common cold. The curry powder is also very warming. Apples are actually cool and sweet, which is important to include in this recipe because of the concept of balance that I talked about above- you want to make sure you don’t introduce *only* warming foods into your diet. This can create a condition of excess heat, which is just as bad as excess cold. So I think this recipe is a perfect symphony of foods to help you feel your best this season! I’ve included a link to a blog post she recently wrote that featured this recipe (just click on the recipe name)

Curried Butternut Squash Soup Bowl

  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces (7 to 8 cups)
  • 2 onions, peeled, halved, quartered
  • 2 honey crisp apples, cored, diced into 1-inch pieces (don’t peel)
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • ground black pepper
  • chicken broth (about 2 cups)
  • 1½ teaspoons curry powder
  • Toppings: roasted cashews, diced apple, toasted coconut, sliced green onion

Heat oven 400F.  Place butternut squash, onions and apples on a large, rimmed sheet pan. Drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat it all. Sprinkle with kosher salt (a good two pinches) and ground black pepper. Give the whole pan a shake so things spread out into an even layer. Roast for 45 minutes, turning mixture every 10 to 15 minutes. The squash will be tender and you will have some caramelized brown areas, but not a lot of that. Put all of the roasted ingredients into a blender with 1 cup of chicken broth and the curry powder. Blend adding additional broth to arrive at desired consistency. If you have a Vitamix, use the soup setting and your soup will be piping hot out of the blender. If using a standard blender gently re-heat the soup on the stove-top. You can also use an immersion blender to blend all the ingredients together in a bowl if you’d like. Serve with your favorite toppings.

(photo courtesy of Lisa Keys)
(photo courtesy of Lisa Keys)

What a delicious, warming, and comforting dish to enjoy at this chilly time of year! Feel free to share your favorite winter recipes with me- I love to cook and am always on the lookout for new and delicious foods to try. Hope you all have a wonderful week, and be well!

All information about the tastes/temperatures of the specific foods comes from Bob Flaws’ terrific little book The Tao of Healthy Eating (Blue Poppy Press, 2007), specifically pgs. 72, 78, 93, 97.