Fresh Lily Bulb Spring Salad

 

HK lily flakes

The calendar may designate three full months for the season of spring, but if you ask me, spring happens in a flash. Overnight, the barren winter world becomes ablaze in little buds and bursts of color: here’s a blur of blue bonnets! A dash of daffodils! A tumult of tulips! Then, just as quickly and efficiently, the buds and blooms get replaced with the hardy leaves of green that settle in for the slog of summer.

Spring is fleeting. And in the world of Chinese herbs, nothing represents ephemeral spring quite as perfectly as the fresh lily bulb. Lilies are the essence of spring, if you think about it. During Easter, lilies festoon church altars because they symbolize resurrection, renewal, new life, and purity. In Asia, the bulb of the lily is considered a gourmet delicacy and has long been a part of traditional cuisine in China, Japan, and Korea. In years past, only dried versions of the lily bulb were easy to find, but with the increase of demand, fresh lily bulbs can now be found during the spring and summer seasons, vacuum-sealed and clustered onto the corner shelves of Chinese supermarkets. Vacuum sealed, it’s like preserved spring time.

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Although there are many species of lily with edible bulbs, the ones most commonly grown for food in China are Lilium brownii, Lilium dauricum and Lilium pumilum. Specifically, bulbs from Lilium brownii, which has the classic white trumpet shaped flowers, are the ones usually found in the markets. The bulbs are grown throughout the northern and central regions of China. Arguably, the sweetest tasting bulbs are grown in the mountains of Lan Zhou in Gan Su Province in the north. You can find them vacuum packed in blue plastic with red characters designating it as the Lan Zhou Lily (兰州百合). I found mine at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

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In the Chinese language, lily bulbs are called Bai He (百合), which translates to “a hundred embraces” or “a hundred meetings” because each bulb contains a cluster of white “petals” overlapping one another. From a distance, the bulbs look like heads of garlic. But come close and you’ll find that they fall apart in a confetti of creamy white petals when they’re cut.

Lily bulb petals have a crunchy texture and a refreshingly light, sweet taste, making them perfect for salads and other warm weather fare. They can be eaten raw, stir-fried, or added into sweet or savory soups. If cooked for long, they’ll dissolve into the other foods, so keep the cooking time brief and add them in at the very end if you have a long cooking time.

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Dried lily bulb petals (pictured on the left) are gnarled, brown-ish and have more than just a faint resemblance to a cackling witch’s fingernails. Prep-wise, they’re not much fuss and just need a quick rinse before cooking. Like their fresh counterparts, they can be stir-fried, steamed or added in soups. Because “bai he” also sounds like the Chinese words for “a hundred years harmony”, the dried version is often used in traditional dessert wedding soups, simmered with red dates, lotus seeds and dried longan as a sweet ending to celebrations.

Traditional Chinese Medicine-wise, lily bulbs are well regarded for being sweet and slightly bitter, with a slightly cool energetic temperature. That makes lily bulbs well suited for nourishing yin and calming the spirit. Medicinally, they are great for soothing lung-related issues to relieve coughing, asthma, or lung congestion (by being a helpful expectorant). As for its calming nature, traditional texts show that lily bulbs are used to treat yin deficiency of the heart. These symptoms usually manifest as insomnia, heart palpitations, absent-mindedness, or irritability.

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For my lily bulb spring salad, I thought I would make a simple medley honoring the flavors and textures of of spring: grassy spears of asparagus, crunchy sugar snap peas, peppery slivers of radish, pungent shavings of salty Parmesan cheese, and of course, a generous scattering of sweet lily bulb petals. Toss with lemon juice, olive oil and a healthy twist of pepper and salt and you’ve got a salad that is equal parts sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent.

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Prepare the lily bulbs, by cutting off the dirty ends and gently separating the petals. Rinse off any soil and debris. While you’re at it, go ahead and rinse the asparagus, sugar snap peas, and radishes. Chop off the woody ends of the asparagus and de-string the pea pods, if needed. I pulled out my trusty mandoline to make paper-thin slices out of the radishes.

My favorite method of salad-making is by way of blanching. By submerging the veggies in boiling water and then plunging them into an ice cold bath, you get vibrant colored veggies that retain their crunch yet also manage to be tender and at their sweetest.

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Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil, then add in the asparagus stalks, sugar snap pea pods and lily bulb petals. Keep it in for approximately a minute, watching for the asparagus and pea pods to turn a vibrant shade of green, then automatically drain over a colander and plunge into a bath of ice water. This stops the ingredients from over-cooking and preserves the salad at their most saturated hue.

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Drain again, then toss with the radish slices, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add some shavings of Parmesan cheese for the finishing touch. Voila! Spring time in a mouthful.

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FRESH LILY BULB SPRING SALAD

Makes 3-4 servings

Ingredients
2 fresh lily bulbs
1 pound sugar snap peas
½ bundle thin or medium asparagus stalks
4-5 red radishes
Juice and zest from one
3 tablespoons olive oil
Parmesan, shaved, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Trim and clean the lily bulbs, separating the petals from the bulb in the process. Remove any soil or debris.
  2. Rinse off the asparagus, sugar snap pea pods and radishes.
  3. Slice off the woody ends of the asparagus stalks. You may need to peel the stalks if they are medium to thick. You can forgo this if they are thin. Cut the stalks in halves or thirds.
  4. De-string the sugar snap pea pods, if necessary.
  5. Using a mandoline slicer or knife, slice the radishes into paper thin discs.
  6. Bring a sauce pan of salted water to a boil. Blanche the lily bulb petals, sugar snap peas, and asparagus stalks for roughly a minute. Drain, then plunge in a bowl of ice water. Drain again and blot dry.
  7. In a salad bowl, toss together the petals, peas, and asparagus with the slices radishes. Toss in the lemon zest, olive oil and lemon juice.
  8. Shave slivers of Parmesan cheese over the salad and finish up with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Enjoy!

 

 

 

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Purslane for Breakfast

DSC_0084a“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast? said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.

What a smart bear. There have been mornings, especially the dark, cold, 5 am ones where the best place in the whole wide world is my bed and the tunnel of warm blankets I am burrowed under. And were it not save for the allure of something lip-smacking and delicious as my reward for bravely baring back those sheets, I’d have given up on dark, cold, 5 am mornings altogether. It is an honest statement to say that, over the years, breakfast has gotten me out of bed. For a while, there was homemade granola with almond milk, sour dough open sandwiches, overnight oats flecked with chia seeds and smashed fruit, and savory miso oatmeal porridge. Lately though, the most exciting flavors of the morning have been sour.

I’d like to introduce you to my latest breakfast crush. It’s green, leafy and looks like it should be showcased in a hipster plant terrarium. Purslane is a lemony and tart herb, but even at my favorite local grocery store, sighting it is rare. Much like a narwhal or the G train, it’s a pretty big deal when you can prove it exists. So when I found some suddenly sitting without much fanfare in a box at the back of the produce section, I quickly brought a bunch home. I’m aware that this may be the first time you’re hearing about purslane because it isn’t a common staple in most grocery stores, but truth be told, it’s common enough. You’ve probably passed some sprouting in the pavement cracks in the sidewalk or stepped on some in your local park.

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With their round, plump leaves, this garden variety weed is actually an edible succulent. In Chinese, it goes by ma chi xian, which translates to “horse-tooth amaranth”, evoking (in my head) the picture of Mr. Ed sporting a horsey grin and jade-colored grills. Ha. Officially, its Latin name is Portulaca oleracea, but you might also know it as pigweed, moss rose, pursley (I like that) and verdolaga, which is what it’s labeled at my grocery store.

Behold this humble pigweed. Just like the dandelion, purslane is more than what meets the eye. Packed with the same heart healthy omega-3 fatty acid found in salmon, purslane makes for a happy alternative when you’re not in a fishy mood. It’s also high in Vitamin A, C and dense in dietary fiber. In the Chinese medicine materia medica, purslane is recognized for its energetic properties of being sour, cold, and slippery. Its slipperiness comes from the fact that it’s full of mucilage, just like mountain yam, chia seeds, and okra. Mucilage (which is exactly what it sounds like) is a thick, gooey substance that acts as a natural laxative because it can slide through the intestinal tract and pick up accumulated waste along the way. So, it’s no wonder that Chinese texts say that purslane can affect and treat the large intestine. It’s also a natural balm for the liver.

In Chinese medicine, it is said that sour flavored foods go first to treat the liver and acts as a calming agent for liver activity. The sourness in purslane can be attributed to its oxalic acid content, an acid commonly found in foods high in antioxidants, like spinach, beets, and dandelion greens. In small amounts, oxalic acid doesn’t pose a problem, but because it’s associated with the formation of kidney stones, you’ll want to stay away from eating an excessive amount (we’re talking weeks of eating pounds upon pounds of this stuff) or if you’re already prone to kidney stones. Together, the effect of purslane being sour, cold and slippery makes it an especially wonderful herb to cool heat toxins in the blood (think painful pimples or swellings on the skin all the way to urinary tract infections and hemorrhoids).

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As powerful as it is as a medicine, purslane also makes for a lip-smackingly good meal. Pairing it with lemon juice brings out this herb’s tart, lemony edge and I’m all for showcasing what a zinger of an herb it can be. And because it’s also inherently a little salty and peppery, I found that purslane has a natural best friend in the mild, creamy, semi-nutty flavor of the new potato. The new potato is like a spring time version of a regular potato. Thin-skinned and diminutive, they’re capable of being both tooth-satisfyingly crispy on the outside and delicately creamy at the center.

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I fried these babies up. Into our trustworthy cast iron skillet went a pound of new potatoes that were halved for a greater surface area of crunch.

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After employing the herby husband’s cooking technique of letting whatever is cooking sit undisturbed (“just casually walk away”, he says) as the stovetop does its magic, these little beauties were toasted a beautiful golden brown after 5-7 minutes. When one side is golden, flip them over and allow the other size to brown.

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I made a quick vinaigrette with lemon juice, olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper.

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And with the always impressive-looking addition of a poached egg (instructions below) my little breakfast salad quickly came together. And it was a revelation…

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Hot, crispy and fried potatoes paired with the cool, slippery cucumber-like crunch of purslane. Sweet and creamy paired with the lemony and the peppery. And all of it gets luxuriously coated in a little flood of sunny egg yolk. This was a dish I happily went back to for seconds.

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It looks like sunshine in a bowl, no? Just make sure to get every component into each bite and you’ll already be winning at your day.

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LEMONY PURSLANE & CRISPY POTATOES WITH A POACHED EGG

Makes 2 hearty servings

Ingredients
1 bunch purslane
1 pound small new potatoes, rinsed
2 eggs, refrigerated and still cold
2 teaspoons of white distilled vinegar
1 lemon, squeezed
4 tablespoons olive oil + 2 tablespoons (for frying)
1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
pinch of salt and pepper

  1. Rinse and shake off the purslane, plucking off any old leaves. Separate the leaves from the stems and chop up the stems, if using. Place in a bowl.
  2. Scrub and rinse off the potatoes. There’s no need to peel off the skin. Chop into halves.
  3. Heat a cast iron skillet or frying pan over medium high heat and add olive oil (about 2 tablespoons). Arrange the potatoes so they are cut side down and allow them to cook undisturbed for 8-10 minutes until a golden brown crust forms on the bottom. Flip the potatoes and cook for another 5-7 minutes until golden on all sides.
  4. As the potatoes fry, prepare the dressing. Combine the 4 tablespoons of olive oil with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add the dried chili flakes, salt and pepper.
  5. Toss the lemony dressing into the bowl of purslane leaves and stems. Add in the crisp potatoes and coat with dressing.
  6. Time to poach the eggs. Add water to a sauce pan until it comes 1 inch up the side. Add vinegar and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  7. Crack each egg into a separate bowl or ramekin. When the water begins to gently simmer (not boil), use the handle of a spatula or spoon to swirl the water in one direction. As the water spins, slide in the eggs one at a time. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and allow the eggs to poach. After 5 minutes, use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs out and place on a paper towel lined plate to drain off the excess water.
  8. Spoon out the purslane and potatoes into smaller bowls. Gently add a poached egg to each bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Mung Bean and Carrot Salad

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If you walk the streets of Asia, the mung bean is the epitome of summer: suspended in syrup and ladled onto shaved ice, frozen into popsicles, boiled into sweet and pulpy soups, processed into translucent threads of vermicelli noodles, or pummeled into paste to stuff into pillows of mochi. But living in America, the mung bean, at its best, has a reputation of being stuck in the hippie realm of patchouli and birkenstocks, and at its worse, the mung bean is just dowdy: a healthful ingredient that we don’t know how to use well.

But I am here today to right this wrong. Let the naysayers call the mung bean bland, healthy and boring! There is so much versatility to these golden-green hued, minion-shaped legumes and it’s the reason why I’m excited about this recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, a Jerusalem-born, British-based chef whose vegetarian cookbook, Plenty More, has me salivating for more vegetables in my life.

Bolstered by a trio of aromatic seeds, complemented by the sweetness of carrots, and simmered to al dente perfection, this is the kind of dish that celebrates the summer but also calls forth the first hints of the fall.

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Fittingly, mung beans traditionally ripen in time for an autumn harvest, but its cooling properties make it the perfect summer food, which it has been for thousands of years. The name mung reveals its origin. Derived from the Hindi word, moong, which in turn stems from the Sanskrit mudga, the first known existence of the mung bean extends all the way back, over 4,500 years ago, to the Punjab and Haryana areas of India. In the Aryuvedic tradition, the mung bean is a cherished ingredient, recognized as tri-doshic, which makes it good for every body type. In China, the recognition of the mung bean is slightly more modern, showing up in the famous herbalist Li Shi Zhen’s pharmaceutical records in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In Mandarin, the mung bean is straightforwardly called lu dou or… green bean. Yup, what you see is what you get here. Li Shi Zhen praised this green bean for its dual richness as both a nutritious food and a medicine. And it’s true, mung beans are high in protein and dietary fiber and are full to the brim with potassium, magnesium, manganese, folate, copper, zinc and a medley of other B vitamins. But what makes it classically vital for the summer months is that the mung bean is a natural detoxifier that cleanses the stomach and heart meridians, as well as the liver, gallbladder and vascular system. In the months where the sweltering heat can linger on the edge of being pathogenic, the cold “yin” nature of mung beans offer a fantastic counter-punch.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the sweet and cold nature of the mung bean dispels internal heat in the body, clears toxins, promotes the flow of urination (in other words, it’s a natural diuretic) and soothes heat-induced rashes. These anti-inflammatory properties make mung beans great for the skin (taken either internally or as an external wash) to soothe pimples, boils, skin rashes and mouth ulcers. Even the water from boiled mung beans or mung bean sprouts, drunk as a tea, is a great soother for hot, sore, scratchy throats. And studies have shown that mung beans are useful in defending chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. On top of that, with a high fiber content, the mung bean also helps with digestion and in issues like constipation or IBS.

And if all of these wonderful reasons don’t get you to embrace the mung bean for all that it is, listen to this: the mung bean is a gas-free bean. With that knowledge, the pro-mung bean stance is the only horn I’ll toot (haha).

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Traditionally for the summer, mung beans are cooked to make a light, refreshing soup that detoxifies by clearing internal heat. It’s a simple recipe that I will feature soon in a future Herby Kitchen post. This time, however, I was excited about this toothsome preparation. About 140 grams (or roughly a 3/4 cup) of mung beans are simmered for 20 minutes until the beans are cooked but still retain a hearty, slightly chewy bite. In this state, the beans beautifully absorb the delicious oil-infused medley of fennel, caraway and cumin seeds, along with a light dressing of white wine vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar because it’s what I had on hand), finely chopped garlic and chili flakes.

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Who knew that carrots made the perfect match for mung beans? Sweet and bright, and cooked to the point of retaining the lightest crunch, these carrots make for a delectable complement both nutritionally and tastebud-wise. Li Shi Zhen’s pharmaceutical records note carrots as being an effective detoxifier for the intestines and the stomach and a natural energy booster for those experiencing poor appetites, weakness and indigestion. In the tastebud spectrum, I can’t get enough of the pairing of carrots and cumin – and with the addition of mung beans, the layering of interesting textures is out of this world.

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Slice up the carrots into batons and simmer them in a shallow pool of water, with 2 tablespoons of oil and a half teaspoon each of salt and sugar. As the water evaporates, the carrots will intensify in sweetness, caramelizing and softening. It should take about 8 minutes for the carrots to reach a level where they are flexible, but still retain the lightest crunch.

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This recipe requires a few things to happen at the same time. Boil the mung beans, then simmer the carrots. Just as the boiling mung beans are a few minutes from being ready to drain, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small pan and sprinkle in the trio of caraway, fennel and cumin seeds. It will take about 3 minutes for the seeds to sizzle and pop, and when that happens, the seed-infused oil will be ready to toss with the drained mung beans. The smell! It is oh so good.

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You’re almost done! Grate a little lemon zest for some citrusy-toned brightness.

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For the finishing touch, toss it all together and add a handful of crumbled feta cheese. You are now set to experience mung beans in an entirely different way.DSC_0216

As someone who is used to a mellower mung bean, this crunchier, chewier, nuttier version was a revelation. If the mung bean has gone in the way of the hippies, I’m all for another revolution.

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Mung Bean and Carrot Salad

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe in The Guardian

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients
140g (roughly 3/4 cup) dried mung beans, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 teaspoon salt
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped into sticks
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly grated lemon zest from one lemon
A handful of feta cheese, crumbled or broken into chunks

  1. Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring to a boil.
  2. Add the rinsed mung beans and simmer for 20-25 minutes.
  3. As the beans are cooking, shake the carrots out into a saucepan large enough that they form a single layer at the bottom. Pour roughly 150ml of water over the carrots, just enough to nearly submerge them. Add 2 tablespoons of oil as well as half a teaspoon each of salt and sugar. Bring to a boil and keep on high heat for about 8 minutes, or until the water is nearly evaporated. The carrots should be cooked, but still a retain a crunch. Drain the liquid, if needed.
  4. Back to the mung beans. After 20-25 minutes, the beans should be cooked but still firm to the bite. Drain the beans, saving the water for a tea, if you wish.** Fully shake the beans in a colander to release the excess water, then transfer them to a large bowl.
  5. Three minutes before the beans are done, pour two tablespoons of olive oil is a small skillet or frying pan and add the seeds, cooking them on medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until they begin to pop. Pour the hot oil and seeds straight into the large bowl with the beans and stir thoroughly.
  6. Add the white wine vinegar, cloves, chili flakes and half a teaspoon of salt to the beans.
  7. Add the carrots to the beans, stirring gently.
  8. Before serving, sprinkle on the lemon zest and crumbled feta. Serve with a gentle drizzle of olive oil.

** My mother would like to note that boiled mung bean water is a prized commodity for cooling the body, replenishing fluids and ridding sore throats. Save the water for a simple tea, which you can sweeten with a drizzle of honey, if you’d like.

Watermelon Rind Salad, Three Ways

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There are few things more iconic than watermelon in the summertime. I bet if I scoured through the mental film reels of my childhood, I would see watermelon in the backdrop, there at every family gathering, a sweet thirst-quenching finale to thousands of summer meals. And yet, my most vivid image of watermelon doesn’t come from the recesses of my own life, but from something I read once in a Reader’s Digest. All I can remember is that the writer was a farmer. He spoke about spending his summer days working the earth under the sweltering heat. One of his greatest joys, he said, came after a solid day of toiling and feeling hot, dusty and parched. He’d head into the watermelon patch and choose a plump specimen, hidden under the cool shade of the leaves. Cracking the watermelon open, he’d sink his face into that crisp, juicy flesh and let the juices hydrate and revive him. Even now, on especially hot days, I pretend that I’m the farmer and hack into my watermelon slices with glee. Somehow, it always tastes even better that way.

For the last week or so, the husband and I have been steadily making our way through a juicy 23 pounder that we’ve been storing in our fridge. For these hot, muggy days, watermelon truly has been the perfect dessert. Everything else feels too heavy and cloying in this humidity, but a chunk of watermelon to quote Goldilocks, feels just right. Chinese medicine knows this too and praises the watermelon for its ability to clear the malaise of dampness and “summer-heat” that can get us all into a funk when it gets too hot.

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As I chopped into the ruby red chunks of our first watermelon of the season, it occurred to me that we often bypass a hidden treasure. In Chinese medicine, it’s the watermelon rind that people covet. Cool and non-toxic in its therapeutic nature, watermelon rind is praised for its ability to clear heat, relieve thirst and is even known for its ability to promote the flow of urine. If you think about the last one, it makes sense. After all, watermelon is full of juice, but the key idea here is that these fluids help carry the build-up of heat (that gets internalized in our bodies in hot temperatures) out of the body through urine. Clearing out this excess heat leaves us feeling calmer, less irritable and better able to enjoy these halcyon days.

Western medicine agrees that watermelon is a natural diuretic. The active ingredient, which is found especially abundant in the rind, is citrulline, a chemical that converts to the amino acid arginine which raises urea and urine in the blood. This is turn helps dilate blood vessels and improves blood circulation, making citrulline vital for the heart, circulatory system and immune system. For those with high blood pressure, watermelon rind is an ideal snack. There’s a study out there in which obese study participants took citrulline and arginine supplements derived from watermelon extracts. They showed significant improvements both in blood pressure and cardiac stress during rest and while undergoing a stress-inducing cold-water test.

And by relaxing blood vessels, citrulline is also known as a…ahem, libido-booster and it plays a Viagara-like role in treating mild erectile dysfunction, although you’d have to eat an abundance of watermelons (about 30) to get the same concentration as the pill.

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With our 23 pound watermelon, I had an abundance of rind to play with, so I thought I’d experiment with multiple ways of preparing it. One of my first realizations as I chomped on the rind slices, was that the lightly sweet, watery rind is reminiscent both in texture and flavor to cucumbers. It’s less surprising when you realize they’re related and are both a part of the Cucurbitaceae family. I imagine watermelon rind and cucumbers would pair perfectly in a salad, but that’s for another day.

If your watermelon has black seeds, these can dried, boiled in water and drunk as a tea to used as another way to promote urination and lower high blood pressure.

I started by dicing my rind into miniature cubes, but rind is a little bit fibrous in texture, so I discovered that these longer, thinner slices gave them a crisper texture easier and were easier to eat and enjoy. Slice them thin enough to allow the flavors you add to soak in.

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Start by cutting off the outer green shell. You just want the white part of the rind, although including a little bit of the red isn’t a problem.

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There are an abundance of ways to use watermelon rind. Pickled, jellied, preserved, fried, souped. Google the nets for inspiration. For mine, I decided that simple salads would do and I got busy raiding our cabinets for inspiration. This is what I came up with.

DSC_0061My first experiment takes an Asian bend with splashes of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, a glug of sesame oil and a liberal sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. This one got a lot of hearty approvals from my taste testing guinea pigs. Only mildly sweet, watermelon rind is a fantastic canvas for both the savory and the sweet. You can add a little honey if you’d like, but I found the Marukan rice vinegar added just enough sweetness (and a satisfying tangy pucker) to make these a crisp appetizer to a meal.

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Toss them well then allow it to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.

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For my next version, I brought out our trusty bottle of sweet Thai chili sauce. Judging from the level of sauce in there, you can tell it’s well-loved. DSC_0125

A few glugs and a toss and that was it. This was crunchy, sweet and tangy with just a hint of heat. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice for an extra high note.

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This reminds me of Korean banchan, the little mini dishes of appetizers liberally served before a main meal. I’d order another.

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With the last version, I made use of some beautiful balsamic vinegar gifted by my cousins who were on a recent trip to Italy. Almost syrup-like, this delicious balsamic vinegar added a mellow base that was sweetened by a sprinkling of plump raisins and a garnish of mint.

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Delizioso!

DSC_0089Because watermelon rind is similar to cucumber, it’s mellow enough to make it amenable to all kinds of flavor profiles. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Add these salads to your next meal as a complement to the main dish. And for dessert, shall I suggest watermelon?

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Watermelon Rind Salad with Soy Sauce

Makes 2-4 servings

Ingredients
2 cups white watermelon rind, sliced into thin strips
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds (I used toasted seeds, but untoasted is also fine)

  1. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil.
  2. Place the watermelon rinds in a large bowl and pour the sauce mixture in. Toss well, making sure the sauce mixture is fully incorporated.
  3. Sprinkle on the sesame seeds.
  4. Chill the rinds in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours. Serve and enjoy.

Watermelon Rind Salad with Thai Sweet Chili Sauce

Makes 2-4 servings

Ingredients
2 cups white watermelon rind, sliced into thin strips
2 tablespoons Thai sweet chili sauce
Fresh lemon, optional
Salt to taste

  1. In a large bowl, add the Thai sweet chili sauce to the watermelon rinds.
  2. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, if desired.
  3. Toss together.
  4. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours. Serve!

Watermelon Rind Salad with Balsamic Vinegar

Makes 2-4 servings

Ingredients
2 cups white watermelon rind, sliced into thin strips
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons distilled vinegar
1 teaspoon honey, optional
1/4 cup golden raisins
a few sprigs of mint

  1. In a small bowl, combine the balsamic vinegar, distilled vinegar, and honey, if using. 
  2. Place the watermelon rinds in a large bowl and pour in the vinegar mixture. Mix well, making sure the mixture is fully tossed together.
  3. Add the golden raisins and toss.
  4. Chill in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours. Before serving, garnish with a few mint leaves. If you like, add a few more glugs of balsamic vinegar over the salad as a garnish and serve. Enjoy!

Papaya Pear Nectar

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The way Proust felt about his madeleines is how I feel about papayas. Papayas evoke hot summer days and desserts made by my dad. First, he would slice into a ripe papaya, halve it, and scoop out the black, caviar-like seeds. Into the hollow would go spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream. He’d hand me one of the papaya ice cream boats and he would take the other half, and we would sit on the deck, scooping into the mellow flesh and slurping up the pool of melting ice cream. I don’t know why exactly, but food always tastes better when the bowls are edible too.

We may be a bit more than a month away from the start of summer, but I’ve been thinking about papayas lately. It started with the hot, scratchy tickle in my throat, a constant reminder of my current scuffle with spring time allergies. I was craving something cool, sweet, and hydrating to take the edge off the dry heat at the back of my throat.

Papayas and pears make a happy duo because they’re both cooling and hydrating. Both lubricate the lungs and relieve a dry cough. Pears especially, are superstars when it comes to generating fluids and eliminating excess mucous that can stem from irritated lungs. Together with a few gelatinous fronds of snow fungus, this sweet nectar is a moisturizing balm for a dry, unhappy throat, and a drink mild enough that it can be enjoyed anytime.

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If you’re heard of papaya enzymes, then you’ll understand why Chinese Medicine says papayas are spleen and stomach strengtheners. After a big multi-course meal, my mother-in-law will sometimes steep a batch of ripening papayas into a sweet after-dinner soup. It’s a mild digestif that makes use of the papaya’s protein-digesting enzymes, chymopapain and papain, to ease the digestive process and break down meats and other proteins. Papayas are neutral in its therapeutic temperature, making it a versatile ingredient. Here, I coupled it with the pear’s cool therapeutic temperature to make my throat soothing drink.

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Sweet and mildly sour, pears directly effect the lungs as well as the stomach meridians. By increasing the yin fluids of the body and clearing heat, pears are natural moisturizers for both the lungs and the digestive organs of the body. I chose a nice green Anjou pear for the nectar. When cooked down, these crisp pears yield a creamy flesh with a slightly gritty texture that pairs nicely with the soft juiciness of papaya flesh.

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More than just a garnish, ruffly snow fungus is another lubricating power player that nourishes the lungs and the stomach. Jelly-like when soaked in water, these neutral-flavored wood ear mushrooms add another layer of texture to the nectar. Depending on how long they’re soaked and cooked, they can retain a slight crunch or leave a silky finish on the tongue. A tip to you and myself: snip them into smaller “flowers”. Snow fungus is fairly flavorless, adopting the flavors of whatever they’re in, so smaller pieces allow them to be more equally distributed so there’s never a moment when you get a big mouthful of gelatinous “nothing” in your mouth.

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Double double toil and trouble… you’ll want to simmer this melange of fleshy fruits for a good while. When the liquid is lightly amber colored, you’re ready.

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This nectar is wonderful served hot or cold, but I especially like it slightly chilled. There’s no need for additional sweeteners like honey. The sweet mellowness of the papaya and pears seep into the liquid. It’s refreshing and revitalizing. Hydration for the win!

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Papaya Pear Nectar

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients
Half a medium-sized papaya, roughly 2 cups of chopped papaya
1 pear, preferably Bosc or Anjou
1-2 pieces snow fungus
4-5 cups water

  1. Soak the snow fungus in water for 30 minutes.
  2. Rinse off the papaya, scoop out the seeds, and chop into roughly 1 inch chunks.
  3. Peel the pear and cut into 1 inch slices or chunks.
  4. Rinse off the softened snow fungus and cut into smaller pieces.
  5. In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the papaya, pears, and snow fungus.
  6. Pour enough water in to submerge the ingredients, roughly 4-5 cups, and bring to a boil.
  7. Once at a boil, lower to medium heat and simmer for 45 minutes, until the liquid takes on a light amber hue.
  8. Remove from heat. You can either serve it immediately while it’s hot or serve it chilled. If you do the latter, allow the nectar to cool, then refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Enjoy!

Dandelions, Part Deux: Pancakes and a Salad

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I scoured the produce section of our trusty local market this week hoping it wasn’t true. Just the week before, I had spotted something that lifted my heart. In a cardboard box, tucked in between a case of green tomatillos and a basket of cactus leaves, was a sight I rarely see outside of a garden patch: sweet little green bundles of purslane leaves. Purslane! I immediately knew it would be the focus of my next post. Purslane, a common garden plant (and an edible succulent variety) that many mistake for a throw-away weed, is a wonderfully useful herb that relieves heat signs in the Liver and Large Intestine channels. For many suffering through the heat signs of itchy, sneezy spring allergies, I thought it would be just the thing to feature. I already had my current posting ready, so I smiled at the bundles, told them I would be back, and moved on.

This week, I made my way back to the market with a singular focus. Honing in on the leafy bundles as my star ingredient, I rounded the back corner of the produce section ready to take my pick of the beauties, when to my horror, I realized that the box wasn’t there! It was just the green tomatillos and the cactus leaves sitting innocently next to each other, as if the purslane bundles never existed. I scanned the section a couple of times in the faint hope that the staff had just been doing a little produce rearranging. Nope. Not there at all. A staffer reassured me that the purslane would probably make an appearance again, but that I shouldn’t hold my breath. Disappointed, I meandered around the store wondering what I should make in its stead.

That’s when I noticed the fresh bundles of dandelion greens being touted for .99 cents a bundle. I know, I know, I’ve already featured a dandelion recipe in the short life of this blog, but I shrugged. Just as abundant as the dandelion itself are the recipes to feature it in. This week, I thought I would take a spin off an old classic. The flaky, crispy Chinese scallion pancake is a favorite in this household and it’s often a staple whenever the husband goes on extra long runs or bike rides and needs a little boost while on his treks. I’ll lightly fry up a pancake or two from a small stockpile in the freezer, then slice through them horizontally and fill them up with a little bit of meat, cheese or greens to make a sandwich. Wrapped up in aluminum foil (and stored in the back pocket of his bike shirt), they make a satisfying filler for that cavernous, gnawing feeling of hunger in the belly that comes from a strenuous workout. I stared at the bundles and made my decision. For my next batch of pancakes, instead of scallions, I’d use dandelions. Perfect!

While I was at it, I thought I’d cobble together a salad with the abundance of dandelions leaves I would have left over. Wilted in a bit of bacon fat with a generous dose of lemon juice and lemon zest, this salad is both a little bit decadent and a whole lot of satisfying. Like the dandelion, lemons cleanse the liver and harmonizes the stomach, aiding digestion. It cuts grease, cleanses the kidneys and urinary tract, and generates fluids. With an addition of golden raisins for a touch of sweetness, this salad works as a nice bitter-sweet-tart digestif to complement the flaky, doughy pancakes.

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This classic scallion pancake recipe doesn’t need much, in way of ingredients. There’s no yeast to rise in the dough; instead, with just all-purpose flour, salt and water, it’s the technique that yields the flaky, tender layers.

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Once you’ve poured in the water, use a fork or pastry cutter to break up the dough into pea-sized pieces. You’ll be adding boiling hot water first. Once the dough has cooled a bit, add a little bit of ice water in and start kneading.

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Knead the dough with your hands (or a stand mixer) until the dough starts shaping together smoothly. The texture should be soft but not terribly sticky. I suffered a running mishap with my hands this week, so the husband is dutifully being the hand model and chief dough kneader here.

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Once you have your ball of dough, set it in an oiled bowl and let it rest for an hour.

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Take this down time to finely dice up thick-cut strips of bacon. (Regular-cut bacon strips are fine too.) Fry them up and set them aside.

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Meanwhile, you can also wash the dandelion leaves and finely chop them. Since they’ll be going into the pancakes, the finer the chop, the better. I decided to keep the same chop size for the dandelion salad and really liked this finer dice for the way the leaves distributed themselves evenly through the salad.

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Once the hour is up, put the dough on a clean, lightly floured surface, or on parchment paper as I’ve done. Once you’ve divided the dough into equal-sized portions, roll out each piece as thinly as you can. The thiner the dough, the flakier it will be.

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Spread a little bit of oil, lard, or butter on the rolled out dough. Lard especially, will help create a flakier, tender dough.

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Sprinkle the chopped dandelion leaves and homemade bacon bits over the dough. Be generous but also be aware that you will be rolling this up!

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Roll it up as you would a cigar or sushi roll.

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Pinching the ends closed, coil the tube into a snail-like shape.

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Using your rolling pin or hands, flatten the dough, then roll out. It’s up to you how thin or thick you’d like your pancakes. Thinner dough yields a crispier pancake, while a thicker dough yields a chewier one. They’re both delicious in my opinion.

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Don’t worry if a little bit of dandelion or bacon peeks out. Simply press them back into the dough. Once you’re done, they’re ready to be fried or stored away in the freezer.

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With the salad, they make the perfect light lunch.

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My take-away from the day? It’s not a bad consolation prize when life denies you purslane but hands you dandelions and lemons.  DSC_0276

Scallion Dandelion Pancakes

Makes eight 5-6 inch pancakes
Adapted from this Momofuku scallion pancake recipe

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup boiling water
1/4 cup ice water
3 tablespoons lard, oil or another fat substitute
1 cup fresh dandelion greens, chopped finely
3-4 strips thick-cut bacon, diced into squares
oil for frying

  1. Sift the all-purpose flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Pour in the boiling water and stir with a fork until the water is absorbed into the flour and the dough breaks into pea-sized pieces. Allow the dough to cool for 5-7 minutes, then add the ice water. Knead with your hands or a stand mixer until the dough is smooth and easily forms into a ball. It should be soft but not too sticky.
  2. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rest for an hour.
  3. Take the dough out and place it on a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 8 equal-sized pieces.
  4. With a rolling pin, roll out one of the pieces as thinly as possible. It’s a matter of preference: a thinner dough yields more layers while a thicker dough yields a denser pancake.
  5. Spread or brush on a thin coat of lard, oil or butter onto the pancake. Then sprinkle on the chopped dandelion greens and bacon pieces.
  6. Roll the dough up in a tubular shape, like you would a cigar roll. Then coil the tube into itself, in a snail-like shape, pinching the end against the coil.
  7. Flatten the coil with the rolling pin or your hands. Press and roll out until you have a circular pancake shape.Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. The texture of the pancake is up to you. Roll the dough more thinly if you want a crispier pancake. Roll it thicker if you prefer a chewier pancake. It’s okay if bits of dandelion and bacon poke out, simply press them back into the dough.
  8. At this point, you can freeze the pancakes. Place squares of cut parchment paper between each pancake and stack them. Then wrap them securely in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 3 months.
  9. To fry, coat a frying pan (preferably cast iron) with oil. You’ll need just enough oil to coat the pan, but not enough to drown the pancakes. The oil is ready when it’s shimmering and hot. Fry the pancake on both sides until crispy and golden brown, about 4 minutes on each side.
  10. You can serve the pancakes whole, cut into wedges or sliced through horizontally and stuffed with your favorite fillings. Enjoy!

Dandelion Salad with Bacon and Golden Raisins

Makes four servings

Ingredients
2 cups dandelion greens, washed and finely chopped
3-4 strips thick cut bacon, diced into squares
Peel from one lemon
Juice from one lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Handful of golden raisins

  1. Fry up the diced bacon until crisp, then remove from the pan, saving the drippings.
  2. In the same frying pan with the drippings, put in the dandelion greens and toss quickly until the leaves are wilted and coated.
  3. Finely chop up the lemon peel or, alternatively, use a zester.
  4. In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
  5. In a bowl, toss the wilted dandelion greens with the lemon olive oil dressing.
  6. Add the bacon bits, lemon zest and golden raisins.
  7. Toss and serve.

Pork Rib Soup with Barley, Fox Nuts & Lotus Seeds

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It feels like spring took a blink of an eye to appear in New York. Just a week or so ago, it felt like we were still in the middle of a sleepy, quiet winter…and then, magic! The world awoke! Things are budding and blossoming quicker than my trigger finger can press my camera button. Spring is fleeting, and what is also fleeting is the momentary calm I am feeling before my spring allergies hit. Very soon, I’m expecting to feel that familiar itchy, scratchy feeling tickling the back of my throat. This will be followed by teary, itchy eyeballs, and a congested, drippy nose. While I haven’t fully kicked my body’s habit of reacting this way, especially when pollen production goes into overdrive, studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has taught me different ways to approach my allergies and it’s helped me cope a great deal.

I’m a firm believer that much of our body’s fortitude comes from what we eat and how we treat ourselves. With allergies, for instance, it’s common to think of pollen and other air-born particles as the enemy, but the truth is that it’s really about our immune system. If our bodies are balanced and healthy, pollen is just pollen, and the body pays no attention to it. But if the immune system is hypersensitive, it can start misidentifying typically harmless substances (like pollen), as threats and target the body against it quicker than Tina Fey’s mean girls got to Lindsay Lohan.

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Traditional Chinese Medicine is aligned with this view, but its approach is more metaphorical. Allergies are related to the element of wind. You know the saying, “spring is in the air”? Well, it’s taken pretty literally here. Pathogenic influences are carried in the wind, but it only affects people whose “defensive qi” is weak. Also known as wei qi, the defensive qi is the energy on the surface of the body that acts as a protective shield against the elements of nature and our environment. When the defensive qi is vibrant and strong, it staves off potential invaders. On the other hand, a weak defensive qi is like what happens at the end of a football game when the offensive linemen are tired and they just can’t provide the protection the quarterback needs. The barrier gets broken down and the opposing team invades.

Strong defensive qi is the result of healthy organs keeping energy flowing smoothly. Energy from the Lung, Spleen, and Kidneys are especially involved in creating an elite A team defense system. Lung energy helps out by overseeing the respiratory tract, which takes in the air of the environment. Kidney energy is in charge of bodily growth and is connected to hereditary conditions, like eczema and asthma, both of which are related to allergies. And Spleen energy is closely tied with metabolic functions, making sure that nutrients and fluids get transformed and transported properly throughout the body. If the Spleen energy isn’t functioning well, digestion becomes sluggish, fluids stagnate, dampness in the body grows and mucous forms, clogging up the lungs and breathing functions. If you feel foggy-headed and heavy-bodied during allergy season, you know what I’m talking about.

Knowing what goes into creating strong defensive qi means you can start building up protection long before the first gust of pollen hits the air. In other words, you can lessen or prevent allergies BEFORE they start. This year, I’ve taken some active measures to fill my mealtimes with dishes that nourish the energy of all three of these organs, and so far, the tickle down in my throat has been dormant. I’ll be talking about ways to clear itchiness and heat from allergies in another post soon, but today, I want to share a dish that’s been a familiar part of our rotation this past winter. If nothing else, this dish is a SPLEEN BOOSTER and it’s packed with ingredients that nourish the body’s digestive functions.

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This hearty meal-in-a-soup is all kinds of nourishing. It’s a medley of nutty and chewy textures with meat so tender it falls off the bone. Pair that with a flavorful broth and velvety spinach leaves and you have a winning dinner that is filling, comforting, and super spleen qi strengthening. Start with a pound of pork ribs, preferably organic. Add some fresh, sturdy spinach leaves. Then pull in the three power ingredients: barley, fox nuts, and lotus seeds.

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Barley, or yiyi ren, is the unsung hero in this dish. When my mom would make this soup when I was little, I would dip my spoon in and pile a heaping spoonful of soupy barley into my mouth. I always thought it was rice, but instead of mushy, bland rice dissolving on my tongue, I would instead be rewarded by the chewy bounce of barley. It’s a nice change of pace sometimes. Sweet and bland in nature, barley is actually an ingredient that goes to the Spleen, Lung, Kidney, and Stomach channels. It’s a fantastic spleen nourisher and is especially known to resolve dampness in the body by helping the spleen process and metabolize fluids.

I bought pearl barley here at our local grocery store because it was what was available. Pearl barley is especially shiny and smooth because the hull and bran have both been polished off. However, my preference is for the bran to stay intact. “Hulled barley” is the kind you can typically find in Asian supermarkets and it has a great, nutty texture. Barley takes a while to cook so I’ve taken the liberty here to give the barley a little extra cooking time by letting it simmer in its own pot for half an hour. It’s not necessary but quickens the overall cooking time a bit. I like my barley a bit “al dente” – cooked but with a nice chew.

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Fox nuts puff when cooked, invert its fluffy interior almost like a kernel of popcorn. The flavor is pleasant, mild and a little nutty. Also known as “qian shi”, these starchy white seeds are a staple in northern and western parts of India. They come from a type of water lily and are harvested in ponds and wetlands. Targeting the Spleen and Kidney channels, fox nuts are mildly sweet in nature and slightly astringent, which means they can bind up rogue fluids in the body (which is helpful in cases of a runny stomach). A spleen strengthener as well, these little beauties are probably my favorite ingredients in this soup.

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Creamy, with a hint of bitterness, lotus seeds are another important component. Texture-wise, these nutty orbs are both a little creamy and a little crunchy, as long as they aren’t overcooked. Also known as lian zi, these shelled and dried seeds stem from the head of the lotus plant. Like fox nuts, lotus seeds also have a hint of sweetness (that is to say, not sugary, but sweet as rice is sweet) and have astringent properties. They enter the Heart, Spleen, and Kidney channels and are especially good at nourishing the digestive system and supporting those with weak appetites.

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Add to this trio of seeds and grains, a pound of pork ribs, cut between the bones. Therapeutically, pork is neutral in temperature and is sweet and salty in its nature. This makes pork an ideal base for broths. Adding in pork ribs makes this an instant bone broth, giving this dish an extra dimension of flavorful depth and nutrition.

DSC_0015 Give the fox nuts and lotus seeds a good soak for at least half an hour before adding them to the soup. If you get the unhulled barley, it’s a smart idea to boil them separately for 15-20 minutes as they take a little longer to cook. Then add them into the soup as well.

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Let the flavors co-mingle with spoonfuls of soy sauce and rice wine. Simmer and allow the flavors to meld for 1-2 hours, until the meat begins to fall off the bone.

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At the very last minute, add a half bunch of rinsed spinach leaves. Allow the heat and broth to wilt it down into a dark green, velvety mass. Stir it into the broth – and there you have it, a happy meal for the spleen and belly.

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Pork Rib Soup with Barley, Fox Nuts & Lotus Seeds

Makes approximately 4-5 hearty bowls.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb pork spare ribs
  • 1 1/2 cups barley
  • 3/4 cup fox nuts
  • 1/2 cup lotus seeds
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Shao Xing Chinese rice wine, optional
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 bundle spinach, washed
  1. Soak the pearl barley in water for at least 30 minutes, then drain.
  2. Combine the fox nuts and lotus seeds in another bowl of water and soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  3. Fill a 5-quart soup pot halfway with water and set on high to boil. Place the pork spare ribs in and cook for 5-10 minutes, allowing the dregs to foam up to the surface. Drain the pot and rinse the ribs off. Trim away any excess fat.
  4. Rinse off the soup pot and refill halfway with fresh water. Place the parboiled spare ribs back in and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to medium heat. Add in the soy sauce, rice wine, salt, and pepper. Simmer for an hour.
  5. Fill a smaller pot with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the drained barley and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the barley is tender but still chewy. Drain the barley.
  6. After the spare ribs have been cooking for roughly an hour, add the cooked barley and drained fox nuts and lotus seeds. Simmer for another hour.
  7. Add the spinach and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.
  8. Soup’s up! Ladle into bowls and serve.

Red Dates Stuffed with Coconut Rice Balls

DSC_0009My relationship with dates… hasn’t been the greatest. And I’m not talking about the OKCupid variety. Out of all the Chinese herbs that make an appearance in your typical Asian kitchen, red jujube dates might be one of the most frequent. Asian moms love these shriveled red dried fruits for their mild sweetness, health benefits, and apparent versatility as a sweet or savory ingredient. I’ve seen them thrown into soups, teas, meat dishes, and desserts.

My mom kept her stash of red dates piled in the Chinese herb closet and they always came out smelling and looking medicinal. She would drop them into a savory soup and I would watch them bob around, but would never eat them. If they appeared in a meat dish, they got ostracized to the other end of my plate and were promptly ignored.

When I began studying Chinese medicine, and more specifically, Chinese herbs, I came face-to-face with my childhood dislikes. I confess that I’ve held many prejudices against Chinese herbs because of their strange flavors and propensity to look like dirt and twigs. I studied herbs reluctantly at first, but getting a bigger picture of their therapeutic qualities and their relationship to our bodies eventually unlocked a door for me. But studying herbs in a theoretical way is still very different from touching, cooking, and savoring them. I’m perfectly fine accepting many of these herbs in a medicinal formula, but as a food? I wondered about that.

That’s why I wanted to create this blog. So many ingredients that qualify as Chinese herbs in the traditional materia medica show up in common kitchens around the world. I thought I would approach these old enemies (frenemies?) with a culinary curiosity and a willingness to expand my love of cooking to include Chinese herbs. So far the experiment is going really well. Husband and I didn’t realize how much we’d love mountain yam, and how easy it would be to make Chinese herbs tasty.

DSC_0035Cue the red jujube date. It’s only been within the last five years that I’ve paid jujubes any attention. I’ve viewed them as a medicine for so long, that when I finally took a proper taste, I was surprised at how similar their flavor is to the medjool date. Interestingly, the red jujube has no virtual connection to the date family. Instead, it’s part of the buckthorn family and grows on a tree as a mottled green, apple-like fruit. As they dry, jujubes turn red and wrinkled and become spongy inside. When the dried jujube is moistened, they’re far more yielding and soft than chewy medjools. Dried jujubes also have a more intense sweetness and flavor than their fresh counterparts.

Therapeutically, jujubes are sweet in nature and  warm in temperature. They build up yang qi, which warms the body, and they aid in boosting the body’s digestive energy and in nourishing the blood. Scientifically, jujubes are immune system boosters. Studies show that jujubes stimulate the production of white blood cells and on top of that, they yield 20 times more vitamin C than citrus fruit, making them an ideal ingredient when you’re on the edge of getting sick or getting over a sickness. They’re power packed with Vitamin A, B1, B2, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and manganese, and they also contain anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties. Furthermore, the Chinese materia medica speaks of the jujube’s abilities to “calm the spirit”, a reference to its sedative properties, especially for those experiencing anxiety or insomnia due to blood deficiencies.

All of this makes the jujube a welcome part of the Asian diet, and it’s no surprise that a fruit that promotes health and longevity gets featured so prominently during Chinese New, a time when you wish everyone happiness and longevity. This particular dessert makes its rounds during the holidays, but in actuality, it’s perfect as a bite-sized snack anytime of the year. Dried red dates can be pretty soft when they’ve been plumped up by water, but when stuffed with a sticky rice ball, they become delightfully bouncy and chewy.

DSC_0042Glutinous rice flour is a common ingredient at Asian food stores. Therapeutically, glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice) is sweet in nature and neutral in temperature. While it’s also qi nourishing, having too much of this sticky stuff isn’t a good idea for the digestive system. Happily, we’re using it in bite-sized quantities here. The Vietnamese rice flour brands come in these clear plastic bags and are generally great for cooking, baking, steaming and, on top of it all, are inexpensive. This one cost 99 cents. I bought the light coconut milk at Trader Joe’s but any coconut milk (or water) will do. DSC_0061Soak the red dates in hot water for at least 30 minutes to allow them to soften and plump up. This will make taking out the pit a lot easier.

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Make a slit in the date (without cutting it all the way through). Using the knife, make small incisions around the pit to get it out more easily. DSC_0175Pit out! Now repeat x10.

DSC_0337This recipe uses very little coconut milk (just about 3 tablespoons) so this is a great recipe if you need to use up leftover coconut milk. Otherwise, water works just as well. Stir in a spoonful of brown or white sugar. I chose brown sugar to add a light caramel tone to the sticky rice, but white sugar works perfectly fine too.DSC_0179Pour slowly and stir as you pour. DSC_0191The consistency is almost there. You want the dough to be smooth, soft to the touch, and not too sticky. Add a little more rice flour or liquid as needed. Just be careful with the liquid, a little goes a long way!DSC_0198Rolled up coconut sticky rice balls in their little jujube jackets, all set for the steamer.

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They remind me of one of my favorite Indian sweets, the gulab jamun stuffed with khoyaDSC_0217The rice balls will expand slightly as they steam, so take that into account when stuffing the dates and arranging them in your steam-proof dish. Top the pot with a lid and steam for 10 minutes. DSC_0260Half the fun of this dessert is that these dates have an enjoyable bounce and chew. The brown sugar lends a light caramel tinge and adds a touch of sweetness to the mellow flavor of the coconut sticky rice. It’s a nice contrast to the sweet tartness of the date. DSC_0276

Red Dates Stuffed with Coconut Rice Balls

Makes 10 pieces

Ingredients

  • 10 dried red jujube dates
  • 1/4 cup glutinous rice flour
  • 3 tablespoons coconut milk or water
  • 1 teaspoon brown or white sugar
  1. Rinse off the red dates and soak them in a bowl of hot water for at least half an hour. This will soften the dates and make it easier to remove the pits.
  2. Dry off the dates and make a small incision along the side of the date to take out the pit. Be gentle as the dates will be quite soft. If the pits aren’t coming out easily, maneuver the knife around the pit, cutting small slits around the pit until it comes out. Try to avoid slicing through the entire date.
  3. Dissolve the sugar into the coconut milk or water.
  4. Sift the rice flour into a small bowl. Slowly pour the coconut milk or water mixture over the rice flour, stirring throughout.
  5. On a flat, clean working surface, knead the rice flour dough until it is smooth and has the consistency of playdough or modeling clay. It should be soft and smooth to the touch, and not too sticky. Add more rice flour or liquid as needed.
  6. Portion out the dough into 10 equal pieces. Using the palms of your hands, roll each dough piece back and forth to form a short rope or tube. Stuff each piece into a date and shape, as needed.
  7. Arrange the dates on a steam-proof dish. Keep them dough-side up so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the dish.
  8. Fill a stock pot halfway with water and place a steaming rack inside. Put the dates in and cover the pot.
  9. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat. Steam the dates for 10 minutes. The rice balls will expand slightly and should appear glossy.
  10. Uncover and serve while they’re still warm. Enjoy!

Goji Berry Granola

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When I was a kid, one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was The Gummi Bears. If you were to ask my 8 year old self, I would tell you that they were better than the Care Bears because they were more than just lovable and cuddly. Oh no, Gummi Bears had spunk and a secret to boot. For one, the Gummi Bears had the magical ability to bounce and all it took was a sip of their super special gummiberry juice to fuel them up and get them going. As a kid, I already loved food and cooking, and the idea that a berry could store a vast amount of power that could be unlocked when prepared the right way seemed like the coolest thing ever.

Goji berries aren’t gummiberries, but you could say they come pretty close. In Tibet, they’ve gone so far as to call the Goji berry the “key to eternal youth”. And on the ORAC scale, the Goji berry is a bit of an overachiever. Standing for “oxygen radical absorbance capacity”, the ORAC measures a food’s ability to absorb oxidant “free radicals” in the body. This is considered a big deal because oxidative stress in the body is linked not only to aging, but also to diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Goji berries rank high as a source of these antioxidants, making it a berry that does, in a way, preserve some bounce in the body.

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For that reason, Goji berries, over the last few years, have been touted as a trendy superfood. But in reality, these unassuming little berries have an over 3,000 year old history of being a medicinal favorite to Chinese herbal bigwigs throughout the ages. Sweet in flavor and neutral in its therapeutic temperature, Goji berries are believed to enrich the yin and act on the liver, kidney, and lung channels. As part of traditional Chinese medical theory, the liver is connected to eyesight, and issues with dry, tired, red or blurry eyes are often resolved by nourishing the culprit, a deficient liver. Goji berries are wonderful for boosting and brightening strained eyes, especially when steeped as a tea with a handful of dried chrysanthemum blossoms added in.

Chinese medicine also gets behind the claim that Goji berries have anti-aging properties, and that’s because of its ability to positively affect the kidneys. Kidney energy oversees maturation and growth. Symptoms of old age, like having an achy lower back, weak knees and joints, poor memory, and graying hair don’t just come because you’ve been living in New York City for too long (city dwellers, I think you know what I’m talking about), but because of weakened kidney energy, which could derive from a number of factors (lifestyle and crazy city living being one of them). Goji berries are a gentle nourisher of kidney energy, supporting the kidneys and helping preserve the body.

With its sweet, chewy nature, the Goji berry is a natural lung moistener too, just like so many other herbs mentioned in this blog. This versatility makes Goji berries a natural favorite both as a medicine and as a food. As a culinary ingredient, these dried morsels can be cooked, steamed, baked, or eaten as is.

In this granola recipe, these berries are the sweet star, adding a bit of herbal goodness to make this a truly delicious, hippie-ish, crunchy granola kind of experience.

DSC_0131Let’s talk more about this granola. For one, it’s ace. It’s mad delicious. It’s the one recipe I always get email requests for because this is the kind of granola you want to be sharing on holidays and special days, and just any ‘ol kind of days. Along with the goji berries, I like to stud my granola with juicy golden raisins and crunchy almonds.

DSC_0136Slivered almonds work just as well, but a quick pulse in the food processor gives these whole almonds a certain unevenness that adds to the crunch factor.

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Brown sugar and cinnamon. Need I say more?

DSC_0228This saucepan of liquid gold comes from melting honey into olive oil. Add in a teaspoon of vanilla, then drizzle and incorporate into the dry oats mixture.

DSC_0244Spread out the granola on a large baking sheet covered in parchment paper. I love my big 14x20x1 pan, but two smaller sized cookie sheets work just as well.

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Into the oven it goes for 30-40 minutes at 300 degrees F. To get a nice even toast, check the granola every 10 minutes, and give it a gentle stir.

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The granola is ready when the oats and almonds appear golden brown. Don’t worry if it still appears soft, it will harden as it cools. Now’s your chance to add the goji berries and the raisins and to allow them to soften with the heat.

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Add some fresh blueberries, strawberries or bananas and douse with your favorite milk or dollop of yogurt.

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Voila! You’ve got yourself a Saturday morning cartoon quality grade breakfast (or snack for anytime of the day).

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Goji Berry Granola

Makes approximately 8 cups

Ingredients

  • 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 1/2 cups whole almonds, roughly chopped (almond slivers work well too)
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup goji berries
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the oats, chopped almonds, brown sugar, salt and cinnamon. Stir until it’s nicely incorporated together.
  3. In a saucepan, warm the oil and honey. Trick: if you’re using the same 1/4 measuring cup for both the oil and honey, measure the oil first. There will be a coat of oil left in the cup. When you pour in the honey, this remaining residue will make sure the honey slips out easily with no fuss. Voila!
  4. Take the saucepan off the heat. Add the vanilla to the oil and honey mixture. Stir to combine.
  5. Carefully pour the liquid mixture over the oat mixture. Although it may not appear like a lot, the liquid will thoroughly cover the oats. Mix gently with a spatula, finishing up with your hands, if needed.
  6. Place parchment paper or a baking mat over a large aluminum cookie sheet (mine is 14 x 20 x 1).
  7. Spread the granola evenly in the pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring carefully every 10 minutes. The granola is ready when the oats and almonds appear lightly golden brown. My gas stove tends to run hot, so I’m usually done just before the 30 minute mark. You’ll want to watch carefully towards the end until you know how your stove handles things.
  8. Transfer the pan to a cooking rack. Stir in the goji berries and golden raisins while the granola is still hot. This will soften the berries and raisins. The oats will still appear soft, but they will harden as they cool. If you want large chunks of granola, refrain from mixing too much. This will allow the sugars to harden and form clumps.
  9. Once cool, break up the larger chunks and seal in an airtight container or plastic zip bags. Store at room temperature for 1 week (though seriously, it never lasts a week at our place) or in a freezer for 3 months.
  10. Serve with your favorite kind of milk or yogurt, and top with fresh fruit. It’s also delicious straight out of the container.