Spring eating is about cleansing the residue of heavier foods we needed during winter. Good spring eating also supports the fresh energy that is spring itself. Our diet should move with the seasons, and during these transition times we clear out the old while preparing for what’s next. It’s important not to judge the warming foods we had been relying on through the winter— it wasn’t bad to be eating the meats, stews, beans, roasted foods, added oils— but now is the time to allow our digestion to refresh itself, using time tested strategies relying on the energetics of foods.
Meats, fats and heavy foods keep us warm during winter but can be taxing on our Liver energetics; luckily, the early greens of springtime are perfect to cleanse the Liver and clear any excess heat that may have built up. The best cleansing greens are often overlooked, but now’s the perfect time to reach for them. Nature, in its perfection, offers these foods as the first vegetables of the growing season, a flawless synchrony of need and provision. The spring cleansing greens include dandelion greens, asparagus, watercress, radicchio, endive, chicory, escarole, artichoke and bitter melon. They are perfect for clearing heat and fats from our systems, preparing for spring. The bitter flavor is the most overlooked of the Tastes; it is the taste that cleanses, drains, descends and cools. We have to time it properly, being careful not to begin cleansing too early, when the air is still chilly and we may be feeling a residual chill from winter, but we certainly want to clear the heat of rich and fatty foods before the hot days of summer arrive. The energetic needs of the body have changed. During Winter we need to consolidate to stay warm, while preparing for the heat of Summer we want to be clear, relaxed and open.
Perhaps we gained a little weight over the winter. Spring clearing should also include foods to drain dampness (water weight). Although not bitter, among the best for this are pea pods and string beans. Also important are mushrooms (they grow in damp conditions and help clear damp conditions inside). Snow peas are the first crop planted, literally while there is still snow on the ground. Peas and beans that we eat with the pods have a diuretic effect (they clear by activating the bladder) and a Liver affinity; they are classic springtime foods, helping the Liver renew itself through draining dampness and heat.
The idea is not to fast or even use juices; that can be stressful rather than renewing. Fasting goes against nature. While fasting can have its uses, the natural way when hungry is to seek food. Spring cleansing should work with nature, not defy it. This time of year a number of dietary clients ask about cleansing and I encourage them to adopt a cleansing program that nourishes while it clears. Below are a few recipes that follow this time-tested strategy to Welcome Spring.
Asparagus Grilled with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
As a traveler, the holy grail of meals is simple, perfectly executed market-based cooking done by neighborhood cooks who embody the essence of their local cuisines. One such revelation was a plate of fast-grilled spring asparagus in Valencia, Spain. With skinny, young asparagus, all that is needed is a few minutes on hot steel with olive oil and a sprinkle of the local sea salt. Serve right away, relax.
Asparagus is a classic Spring food; growing quickly, aspiring upward, with both sweet and bitter in its tastes. Although heavy sauces such as hollandaise are popular, the use of such sauces dampens the benefits of fresh asparagus. To retain the essence of this most classic springtime vegetable, cook it quickly and simply, then eat it right away.
Wilted Dandelion Greens with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Dandelions can be a pest in the yard, but the masters physicians of Chinese Medicine long ago noted that other plants grew better around them. The definition of a weed is a plant that takes more than its share from the environment and gives little back; with this view, dandelions aren’t weeds at all. Beyond benefiting the plants around them, they are very beneficial to us, as perfectly bitter springtime greens.
Buy organic dandelion leaves in any good greenmarket (or forage for them in areas you are confident have not been sprayed). To cook, simply wilt them in a medium hot pan for a minute or two, with a few splashes of olive oil, finish with a sprinkle of good quality salt. Have as a side dish often during the spring season to receive their benefits. In Chinese Medicine dandelion greens are called Pu Gong Ying (Latin: taraxacum) and are classified as cold, bitter and sweet, effecting Liver and Stomach, clearing heat and toxins, helping to resolve nodules, swellings, red eyes, and clearing the conditions that can foster growth of tumors. If diarrhea develops, you’ve had too much.
String Bean Soup
String beans are wonderful food, full of nutrients, but more importantly for this discussion they support clearing Liver toxins and what is called ‘wind’ in Chinese Medicine: certain disruptions that arise if we feel overwhelmed by change, depletion, and the associated pressures to adjust.
There are many ways to cook string beans, including sautéing or with a sauce. The use of oil or the stimulation introduced by stir-frying could add more heat and burden to the Liver (oils require Liver action for digestion and quick-frying is the cooking method that stimulates—and potentially tires—the Liver). If stir-frying, be sure to include mung bean sprouts in the cooking to temper the heat and help cool the Liver system. Better still, make a soup. Soups support digestion (Stomach and Spleen/Pancreas, in the organ system point of view) and cook at a lower temperature than frying or sautéing.
For a cleansing string bean soup, use a vegetarian stock made from dried mushroom and kombu (meat, chicken or bone stock are more fortifying and warming, inappropriate for spring cleansing cooking). Place one piece dried kombu and about 5 dried black mushrooms in a pot of cool water. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer. Remove mushrooms and kombu after 10-15 minutes. Reserve the mushrooms, toss the kombu. Add some salt if desired. Throw in a good handful of clean, trimmed string beans per person to the stock, cut in half or thirds if you wish. Add one half handful mung bean sprouts per person to the pot. Slice the mushrooms thinly on a cutting board. When the string beans are bright green and not-quite-soft and the sprouts just wilted, ladle into bowls. In the bowl, add the cooked mushrooms, a splash of good tamari, a dash of toasted sesame oil and a generous pinch of cilantro or parsley. This soup is a template; add root vegetables such as daikon, carrots or parsnips, sliced scallions, slivered fresh ginger, and so forth. For something more hardy yet still cleansing, add cellophane noodles, lentils, or use a fish stock. Options are open. Select foods with cooling and clearing energetics. String beans are a very useful option for those who prefer to avoid bitter tasting vegetables but still wish to support spring cleansing.
Bitter melon is a wrinkly green melon in the cucurbita (cucumber) family that can be found in Chinese markets. It has a startlingly bitter yet satisfying taste. Select one or two with firm, unblemished skins, slice them lengthwise, scoop out the seeds with a strong spoon, then slice 1/4” pieces crosswise. Stir-fry bitter melon slices in a little oil with ginger, scallion, salt and a few splashes of water or stock. Serve when the slices are nearly soft, as a side dish as part of a vegetarian, fish or beef lunch or dinner. Bitter melon is also excellent with a black bean sauce (fermented black beans are available in Chinatown markets or online. Soak the beans to rehydrate, discard soaking water to reduce saltiness, slightly crush the beans to release their pleasant, complex pungent flavors. For spring cleanse purposes, omit the garlic or hot spices commonly used in black bean sauce, but thickening with a bit of organic corn starch or kudzu powder mixed with water is fine in moderation.) Bitter melon is a powerful food, classified in the dietary branch of Chinese Medicine as bitter and sweet, cold, with affinity for Lung and Stomach. It can quickly lower a spike in blood sugar, clears fire toxins in the Liver, helps those who smoke tobacco and drink alcohol in excess, can lower high blood pressure, drain dampness, aid digestion, help clear skin rashes, and help build muscle tone. As with other strongly clearing foods, bitter melon should be avoided during pregnancy.
Spring cleansing may help drain some dampness and water weight, but it’s more about clearing heat and toxins than losing weight. How to lose weight through skillful use of food energetics will be the subject of a future posting.