Friday, May 25, 2012

Summer Food & Cooking Tips

Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us that summer is the most yang time of the year -- a time of maximum expansion, activity and growth. The longer days and warmer weather tend to stir us into greater activity. However, if our internal energies are imbalanced, restlessness, insomnia and anxiety may be exacerbated at this time of year. Here are some tips from traditional Chinese nutritional theory that can help attune our bodies to summertime and keep us healthy the warm summer days and in seasons to follow.

1. Eating in Season / Colorful Abundance:
Eating local, seasonal produce is always one of the best ways to stay healthy. Summer is a particularly fun & easy time to do this. Go to your local farmers' market on a summer evening and you'll find a colorful abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The abundance of the natural world reaches its peak in summer. In plants, this energy is concentrated in flowers and fruits. Cherries, peaches, and berries provide superb nutrition at this time of year and help keep us cool and hydrated as the climate becomes warm and dry.

2. Eat Red:
The color red (think bright hues of red and orange) is associated with summer in Chinese medicine theory. This is a great time of year to incorporate red foods into your diet: berries, peaches, and as the season advances, tomatoes, chilies, and peppers. These foods are all cooling.

Berkeley-based nutritionist Nishanga Bliss writes, "Science is catching up with traditional medicine in identifying a few of the phytochemicals which are concentrated in the pigments of plants, and red foods are often particularly high in carotenes, such as lycopene, which are potent antioxidants, acting to protect us from cardiovascular disease (and cancer and other diseases). And when might we need an extra dose of antioxidants? How about when exposed to extra solar radiation, a source of oxidative stress, like in summer?"

3. Quick, high-heat cooking techniques:
The element associated with summer is fire. Fire is quick-acting and, obviously, high-heat. Our cooking techniques can reflect these qualities in summer. Traditional Chinese nutritional theory recommends high-heat sauteeing, stir-frying and steaming in the summer. Whereas in winter, we opt for slow, deeply-warming cooking techniqes like simmering, roasting and baking, the cooking techniques of summer should help us to keep cool by minimizing the time spent in the kitchen and the use of the oven. 

Nishanga Bliss writes, "It’s a great time to experiment with “hypercooking,” where you select dishes that require a minimum of heating time. If I’m using a cast-iron skillet, for example, I’ll turn off the heat before a braised dish is done, and use residual heat to finish cooking."

4. Keeping Cool, Keeping Moist:
We don't typically have to contend with very high temperatures during summer in the Bay Area. Nevertheless, the climate in summer tends toward heat and dryness.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, excessive activity and exposing ourselves to excess heat in summer can result in ill health in later seasons, as well as later in life. Heat can become entrapped as toxic heat in our body. Curiously, our bodies often respond to this entrapped heat by producing excess fat to insulate and guard our bodies and internal organs from damage by this toxic heat. Many Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physicians see modern chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease (which are correlated with excess body weight) as manifestations of toxic heat in the body. Along another line of thinking, fevers, colds, coughs and flus of autumn and early winter can sometimes be viewed, according to TCM, as the body's mechanism for ridding the body from entrapped summer heat pathogens.

In any case, it is important to think of keeping our bodies cool and amply lubricated to counteract summer heat and dryness. There are many ways of doing this:

  • Lighter foods are less heating. In winter, when there is less energy available from the environment, it can be beneficial to eat more nutrient-dense storage foods (animal proteins, nuts, seeds, beans, root vegetables, dairy products, whole grains). In summer, on the other hand, when we get energy from the sun, it's better to shift the balance to eating more vegetables and fruits. You don't have to cut out grains or meats, but eat them in small portions and less frequently. Fill at least half your plate with fresh, seasonal vegetables.
  • Foods with high fluid content help drain heat from the body via the urine. This includes juicy fruits and vegetables. Watermelon, cucumber and lightly-steamed bok choy are among the best for clearing heat on very hot days. Barley tea, mung beans and aduki beans also help drain heat from the body via the urine. You can get easy-to-use roasted barley bagged tea (or mugicha) at Asian markets. It tastes great as cold or warm. See image below.
  • Barbecue with Caution. Cooking meat over high heat for long periods of time tends to deplete the meat of its fluid content, render it less digestible and make it very heating. Meat is more digestible when it is braised and then stewed, eaten with its own fluids in the form of broth or stock.
  • Integrate raw foods. Integrating more raw foods into our diets during the summer days can be beneficial due to their cooling effect. Produce can be eaten raw or briefly steamed. Raw food can also include some animal foods like ceviche or sushi, which are high in vitamins and enzymes. Remember that raw foods can be hard on the digestive system, according to Chinese medicine theory. Those with strong digestion can eat lots of raw foods during the summer, but if you suffer from lots of gas, bloating, low energy or loose stools, think of eating warm cooked foods, soups, stews and integrating raw food in the form of fermented foods.
  • Fermented foods. Raw foods like raw sauerkraut and pickles, yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, creme fraiche, kombucha and miso are cooling and full of enzymes and immune-enhancing friendly bacteria.
  • Bitter foods. Bitter is the flavor associated with the summer season in Chinese medicine. Small amounts of bitter food support the heart through multiple actions, including helping to clear the physical heart and arteries of fatty deposits.  Bitter foods also help drain excess heat and toxins via the urine. Summer is a great time of year to integrate bitter leafy green vegetables into your diet (think kale, collards, dandelion, endive, watercress, cilantro etc.)
  • Spicy foods. In many cultures that emerged in hot regions of the world, spicy foods are used to cool the body by promoting a mild sweat. Consider integrating a small amount of spicy food (fresh ginger, horseradish, fresh red or green peppers, a pinch of cayenne powder) into your diet during summer. But keep in mind that excess hot spicy food can also be drying and overheating.

5. Flowers
As mentioned above, the abundant yang energy of summer is concentrated in flowers and fruits. Flowers are in bloom all around us. Bringing flowers into our diets can help us align our energies with summer. Flowers lighten us energetically and often help alleviate depression.

I have been enjoying making floral sun teas during the last few weeks. I use chrysanthemum, chamomile, hibiscus, peppermint and lemon balm -- a lot of which I can get from my garden. Red clover blossoms, a little lemon zest or orange zest, a sprig of rosemary or lavender can add  a nice accent too. Just put a few leaves and flowers in a one- or two-quart mason jar, add hot water and let it steep over night. On hot sunny days, you can also make sun tea by filling a jar with flowers/leaves and room temperature, filtered water, and letting the jar sit in sunlight all day.

Sipping floral tea throughout the day will keep you cool, light and cheerful.

Chrysanthemum flowers clear heat, calm the Liver (an organ that is easily aggravated by heat). They also relieve headache and dry eyes due to Wind-Heat.

Peppermint leaves, while not flowers, are cooling and refreshing, helping to clear surface heat and move circulate the energy of the Liver. They are easy to grow in Berkeley gardens.

Lemon balm leaves, also easy to grow in Berkeley, are also cooling and relaxing. They help break fevers by promoting sweat and are calming and relaxing to the nervous system.

Chamomile, which grows abundantly in Berkeley during the summer, is mildly bitter and spicy. It is high in calcium which makes it useful in soothing the nerves. Chamomile can help clear heat and fever; it soothes digestion. Lemon balm and chamomile tea are a great antidote for insomnia.
Hibiscus is cooling and has been shown in clinical trials to lower high blood pressure more effectively than placebo and as well as a common blood pressure medication. Red in color, it has an affinity for the heart and blood vessels, which are the anatomical structures associated with summer in Chinese medicine.

Stay cool & happy eating!!


Nishanga Bliss's blog.

Elson M. Haas, M.D. Staying Healthy with the Seasons.

Paul Pitchford. Healing with Whole Food: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.

Lesley Tierra, L.Ac. The Herbs of Life: Health & Healing Using Western & Chinese Techniques.