Monday, November 21, 2016

Nourishing the Roots: The Source of Vitality

A tree with a deep, well developed root system is more likely to survive periods of drought, heat, cold or other extreme weather conditions. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, (TCM), the same can be said for humans. Maintaining a healthy, robust constitution is essential to one's ability to withstand the inevitable mental, emotional and physical challenges which confront us all.

Our genetic make up is referred to in TCM as the "inherited constitution" or "ancestral energy". Each person is born with their own unique quantity and quality of constitutional energy, which determines the trajectory of birth, growth, maturation, aging and death. Ancestral energy is finite; when it is used up the organism ceases to live.

An essential teaching of TCM is the importance of nurturing the inherited constitution through proper life style, which is the foundation of "acquired energy". This means that the preponderance of the body's day to day energetic needs should be derived from appropriate food, exercise, and sleep. If acquired energy is not replenished on a daily basis, the body taps into the finite storehouse of ancestral energy, reducing vitality, resilience and shortening its lifespan.

Like the root system of a tree, the body's vital organs are hidden, but they are the source of our ability to sustain life. Nourishing the roots is a day by day mindfulness practice which can provide us with the emotional and physical strength to meet the vicissitudes of life.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Of Autumn, Apples and Poetry

Autumn is a time to pause for reflection as the heat, light and activity of Summer diminish; it is a distinct period of transition between the expansive warm energy of Summer and the cold contracting energy of Winter, a time to let go of the pleasures of Summer and to gather and safeguard food and fuel for the season ahead when the earth freezes and growth ceases.

According to traditional Asian medical theory, the Lung is the organ system associated with Autumn; it is closely connected to our external environment via the nasal passages and throat and is vulnerable to changes in temperature and atmosphere. (I remember noticing while traveling in the chilly highlands of Guatemala that women habitually covered their noses and mouths with a shawl during cold weather, when the wind blew or when riding on a bus with open windows).

The energy (Qi) of the Lungs can be supported by eating specific foods, like the fruits which are now in season: apples, pears, grapes and persimmons. These are thought to protect the Lungs by keeping them slightly moist and cool, rather than too cold, dry, hot or damp. Spicy, pungent foods like ginger root, radishes, leeks, onions and garlic also benefit the Lungs by gently increasing local circulation. Appropriate exercise, adequate sleep and mindful awareness of unsettling thought patterns and excessive emotion are additional ways to protect Lung Qi.

Apples  (By Grace Schulman)

Rain hazes a street cart's green umbrella
but not its apples, heaped in paper cartons, 
dry under cling film.  The apple man,

who shirrs his mouth as though eating tart fruit,
exhibits four like racehorses at auction:
Blacktwig, Holland, Crimson King, Salome.

I tried one and its cold grain jolted memory:
a hill where meager apples fell so bruised
that locals wondered why we scooped them up,

my friend and I, in matching navy blazers,
One bite and I heard her laughter toll,
free as school's out, her face flushed in the late sun.

I asked the apple merchant for another,
jaunty as Cezanne's still-life reds and yellows,
having more life than stillness, telling us,

uncut, unpeeled, they are not for the feast
but for themselves, and building strength to fly
at any moment, leap from a skewed bowl,

whirl in the air, and roll off a tilted table.
Fruit-stand vendor, master of Northern Spies,
let a loose apple teach me how to spin

at random, burn in light and rave in shadows.
Bring me a Winesap like the one Eve tasted,
savored and shared, and asked for more.

No fool, she knew that beauty strikes just once,
hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,
tasting of earth and song, I'd risk exile.

The air is bland here. I would forfeit mist
for hail, put on a robe of dandelions,
and run out, broken, to weep and curse- for joy. 

"Apples" from The Broken String by Grace Schulman, Houghton Mifflin 2007.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Tomato, Tomatl, Solanum Lycopersicum!

The tomato is a fruit of many colors, shapes and names, and summer is the time to revel in its heady acidic sweetness. Though greenhouse tomatoes are available year round, a tomato in winter is but a pale imitation of robust fruit grown in healthy soil under the hot summer sun. 

Tiny wild tomatoes were native to South and Central America and were first cultivated by the Inca and Aztec peoples around 700 CE.  The Aztecs learned to breed large flavorful specimens which they called "tomatl" meaning "fat fruit" or "plump fruit" and "xitomatl" meaning "plump fruit with a navel" in the Nahau language.

Spanish explorers introduced the fruit which they called "tomate" to Europe in the sixteenth century; eventually it gained extensive culinary use throughout the continent and beyond. The Italians named it "pomodoro" or "golden apple" and the French call it "pomme d'amour", "apple of love". In Russia, home of the famous heirloom Black Krim,  the fruit is called "pomidor".

Known botanically as Solanum lycopersicum, tomatoes belong to the large family Solanaceae which includes potatoes, eggplants, peppers and tobacco. The etymological roots of Solanaceae are unclear, but Lycopersicum  as translated from Greek means "wolf peach", "lyco" meaning "wolf" and "persikon" meaning "peach". The "wolf peach" name may stem from early European folklore involving witchcraft and werewolves. Tomatoes were long thought to be poisonous since they belong to the nightshade family, which includes some deadly varieties.

Far from being poisonous, tomatoes are dense with valuable nutrients, especially lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which gives tomatoes their deep color and is thought to offer protection from several types of cancer and coronary artery disease. Tomatoes also contain plentiful amounts of vitamin C, potassium and fiber, and a 100 gram serving provides nearly a gram of protein. 

Tomato, tomatl, Solanum lycopersicum; whatever name you give it, the plump fruit of the Aztecs and Incas is one of the finest simple pleasures of summer. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Farmer's Markets: Where the Real Food Is

One of the great luxuries of life in Northern California is the accessibility of quality produce year round. Even in winter, a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits are available from regional farms. In San Francisco, neighborhood farmer's markets provide urban residents the opportunity to deepen their understanding of seasonal growing cycles and to become familiar with a broad range of produce which is seldom available commercially.

In our earliest millennia as a bipedal species, our primary occupation was to search for and gather our food. Anthropologists observe that foraging peoples walked an average of three to five miles a day in search of a remarkably diverse selection of edible plants, roots, nuts, berries and fruit. Our ancestor's survival hinged upon their knowledge of where each of many varieties of food was located in its season and the ability to gather it. Energy, intelligence and perseverance were critical to this task; our motivation was hunger. Homo sapiens succeeded in this endeavor well enough to reproduce and pass on the human genome from generation to generation.

Many thousands of years later, this essential human project has turned upside down. Moderns have little need to gather their own food, and little time to prepare it. Most of us spend our days (or nights) earning money with which to purchase our food, much of which bears faint resemblance to that of our forager ancestors. A vast assortment of what Michael Pollan calls "edible food like substances" is readily available in supermarkets and few calories are consumed in the effort to acquire it.

These changes have created a deep disconnect between humans and their sources of food, a decline in food intelligence and a troubled relationship between the instinctive drive to eat and an oversupply of aggressively marketed low quality calories. There is much confusion surrounding food choices and eating styles which has engendered a huge proliferation of widely variable and contradictory information about nutrition and health. Lost in the deluge of advertising and misinformation are the essential unprocessed foods which once were the sole components of our diet.

Farmer's markets offer honest commerce on a human scale. They bring farmers and shoppers together in venues where an abundance of the real food which truly nourishes and sustains us can be found. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Stone Fruit: The Naked Truth

Although San Franciscans are still sporting fleece and down jackets, the arrival of the first stone fruits in Bay Area farmer's markets hints that summer is near. Apricots, peaches, nectarines and cherries are already brightening foggy market days. There is much to look forward to in the coming months for those who cherish the fragrance, flavor and beauty of the fruit of the trees.

Fresh, raw and naked is the best way to enjoy summer stone fruits. Quality fruit is bred for flavor, not shelf life or cosmetic perfection. Smaller fruit with a few blemishes may be far superior in taste and nutritional value to oversized picture perfect commercial produce. Farmer's markets provide the opportunity to sample different varieties of fruit and to consult with the vendors about how to select, ripen and store it.

Transport your fruit home from the market with care. Separate very ripe or slightly bruised specimens immediately; fruit salads and smoothies can be made with them in minutes. Many stone fruits can be held at room temperature for a few days or more. Don't wash the fruit until you are ready to eat it. Place fruit on a clean dry surface, leaving a little space between each piece.

Check the fruit daily and set aside the ripest to be eaten that day. With proper handling, your collection of stone fruit can be savored all week at peak flavor. Simply wash and nosh! When the next market day arrives you will be eager to replenish your supply of some of nature's finest creations.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Spigariello? It's not an opera!

With the current proliferation of local farmer's markets across the country comes the opportunity to discover unusual varieties of produce which one would not find in commercial markets. A recent revelation is this lovely Spigariello, an heirloom Italian kale in the brassica family. Its full name as listed in seed catalogues is "Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglia Riccia".

Like Lacinato kale (above), Spigariello is tender and uniquely flavorful, with small dark blue-green leaves. It can be sauteed, steamed, eaten raw in salad and smoothies or added to soups and stews. Both varieties are subtle in taste with no hint of bitterness and are more delicate than the common curly kale which has become popular of late.

There is nothing mysterious or difficult about preparing leafy greens. Lightly sauteing them in olive oil creates a flavorful nutritious dish in minutes. The only tools needed are a knife, a cutting board and a skillet.

How to saute a dark leafy green vegetable in olive oil:

Rinse the greens and shake off or blot excess water. If the leaves have thick central stems, cut them away from the leaves. Chop the stems into small pieces. Then stack the leaves and slice; thin slices will cook more quickly than thick. Remember that the volume of the greens will reduce greatly during cooking, so judge the quantity you begin with accordingly.

Heat some olive oil in a heavy skillet-  just enough to cover the surface of the pan. Add the chopped stems first, since they are denser and need a little more cooking time. After a minute or two, add the leaves and continue to saute over a medium flame, stirring occasionally until just tender; this should take only three or four minutes. Taste the greens. If they are not tender enough, continue cooking another minute or so. Add a bit more olive oil if the greens are sticking to the pan.

Serve sauteed greens immediately in a preheated bowl, sprinkled with a little sea salt to taste and perhaps some freshly ground black pepper. 

Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglia Riccia


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Black Orca? Calypso? Vaquero? It's a bean.

Black Orca, Calypso, Vaquero, Yin Yang; these are all names for this attractive black and white speckled heirloom bean which is a member of the Phaseolus vulgaris family.  In recent years many varieties of heirloom beans have become widely available and are prized for their beauty, smooth texture and subtle flavor.

Humans have cultivated beans since the advent of agriculture millennia ago. For many cultures they are the primary source of protein and other essential nutrients and are eaten at almost every meal. In subsistence farming communities, beans are cooked daily under very rudimentary conditions, often over an open fire. To create richly flavorful beans, all that is needed is a pot with a lid, a source of heat and a few simple ingredients.

Home Cooked Heirloom Beans:
Soaking time: Overnight or 6-8 hours.
Assembly time: Less than five minutes.
Cooking time: About one hour.


2 cups dried heirloom beans, soaked and rinsed
5 cups fresh water
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste).


Sort through beans and remove any foreign matter.  Place beans in a heavy bottomed pot and add enough water to cover. While soaking they will absorb some of the liquid so there should at least one inch of water above the level of the beans.  Soak overnight or for 6-8 hours. (You can skip the soaking and plan on extra simmering time.)

Drain beans and add fresh water. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat, add bay leaves, garlic cloves and onion. (The garlic and onion can be peeled before or after cooking.) Simmer gently until the beans are tender but not mushy.  Stir occasionally and make sure beans are not sticking and are mostly covered in liquid; add a little water if necessary. Cooking time is roughly one hour depending on the freshness of the beans.

When beans are tender, turn off heat. Remove bay leaves and garlic cloves. Mash garlic cloves in a bowl with some beans and their broth, mix well and stir back into the pot. Add sea salt, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm beans in their savory broth, garnished with freshly cracked black pepper. Any steamed or braised leafy green will compliment this dish.