food as medicine

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At the farmer’s market this weekend I came across this year’s first batch of Stinging Nettles, or Urtica dioica. Nettles are one of those plants that remind me how miraculous the planet is. Just when everyone is suffering from allergic rhinitis (stuffy nose) the plant that treats that symptom is ready for harvest. Nettles have many uses, but allergic rhinitis is what they are famous for. In Chinese Medicine we say that Nettles clear heat and leach dampness, making them suitable for treating phlegm-damp obstructing the nasal passages. Dry them and add them to your Chrysanthemum infusion for a great allergy treatment. They should be used with caution, however, in those with a yin deficient presentation, as they are diuretic (make you pee) and can be quite drying. Another use of the herb is Wind-Damp Impediment, such as arthritis, and historically they were applied topically as a counter-irritant for this purpose. Taken internally, they also treat arthritic conditions or painful, stiff joints.

The whole arial parts can also be cooked as a delicious spring vegetable. They have a very high mineral content making them an ideal food for those with anemia or for those concerned about developing osteoporosis. Here is a recipe for sauteed stinging nettles that I found on

  • 1 pound stinging nettles
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large shallot, sliced lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Zest of 1 medium lemon
  • Juice of 1/2 medium lemon
  • Wearing thick rubber gloves, clean the nettles by soaking them several times under cold running water, then drain. (Do not touch raw nettles with your bare hands. If you do not have rubber gloves, use tongs to handle the nettles.) Separate the tender leaves from the tough stems, discarding the stems. (Use scissors for this process if you don’t have protective rubber gloves.)
  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until the shallots have softened, about 2 minutes more.
  • Using tongs, add half of the nettles and the water to the pan. Cook, stirring often, until the nettles have begun to wilt, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining nettles and cook, stirring often, until wilted, about 3 minutes more. (Add more water a tablespoon at a time if the pan becomes too dry.)
  • Remove the pan from heat. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve.

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My family spent some time on the Columbia River this weekend and were blessed with the opportunity to pick cherries at the amazing Hood River Organics CSA. It was a scary evening for the farmers though, thunderstorms raged the entire night, very unusual for the end of July. Rain water sitting on cherries ruins them, they absorb the moisture and then literally explode!! The farmers and their reliable friends got to picking very early that morning in an attempt to save the orchard. When we rolled in around 10am, the entire irrigated section of the orchard had been picked clean. With the crop fan humming away in the background, and the typical River Gorge wind nearly blowing us over, we took to picking at the handful of non-irrigated trees that are reserved for family and friends. Within minutes both of my children were covered in cherry juice from the super-sweet Lamberts. It didn’t take long for us to fill two enormous buckets, despite the number going straight into little bellies. We headed back to Seattle a few hours later with a trunk full of delicious, organic, tree-ripened purple Lamberts and golden-red Rainiers. What a treat!

As delicious as they are, cherries are a food that can also be classified medicinally. Remember, food is medicine too and should be at the very core of a healthy lifestyle.

According to Bob Flaws in The Tao of Healthy Eating, cherries are considered sweet, aromatic and warm, affecting the Spleen, Stomach, Lung, Heart and Kidney channels. Cherries supplement qi, nourish blood, engender fluids, move and transform blood stasis, and dispel wind dampness. They can be used to treat wind heat dry sore throats, qi and blood deficiency, wind damp impediment in the lower half of the body, and numbness and paralysis.

Rebecca Wood explains in The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia that sweet cherries are warming and increase vital energy, toning the Spleen, Liver and Kidneys. They remove excess body acids and blood stagnation when eaten often and can therefore treat gout, paralysis, numbness in the extremities, and rheumatic pain in the lower body.

Cherries are a great source of iron, which vaguely correlates to their status as a blood tonic. They do also contain some phosphorus, potassium, calcium and vitamin A.

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Silkie chickens are a special breed. They have lovely downey white feathers, but their skin and muscle tissue are a deep black. Another thing that makes them special is that they will nurture any eggs. Their own eggs, another chicken’s eggs, duck eggs, turkey eggs…. they are indiscriminate care-takers. In Chinese Medicine, the color black is associated with the kidneys, the deepest source of energy for our bodies, and black chickens are used for just that.

In Asia black chickens have been eaten for centuries to supplement and rejuvinate the body, particualarly after serious illness, or after childbirth. I find that last part very interesting considering how nurturing the black chicken is when it comes to taking care of any eggs they find. To nurture our bodies, we can elicit the help of a creature that naturally nurtures.

Practically speaking, the black chicken is used just like the classic chicken soup for serious illness and recovery. It is considered very nourishing to the body and soul. While black chicken is not very popular in the west, due to it’s more gamy texture and surprising color, it is quite good in soup and is becoming trendy in modern restaurants.

The following is a recipe for wu ji, or black chicken, soup. The ingredients aren’t too hard to come by in your local china town, and the herbal combination can also be purchased in the Queen Anne clinic. I highly recommend it to anyone needing extra energy, and to all women in the weeks following childbirth.

Black-Skinned Chicken Soup

From the New York Times, Jan 17, 2007

Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

2 1/2 -pound black-skinned chickens, head and feet discarded, cleaned and rinsed

18 dried white yam pieces, presoaked for 1 hour and drained

1/2 cup wolfberries, presoaked for 1 hour and drained

1 inch-square piece of dried orange peel, presoaked for 30 minutes and drained

2 1/2-inch thick slices fresh ginger, peeled and smashed

2 pieces Smithfield ham, each 2-inches by 1-inch, and 1/2- inch thick


1. Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil. Boil chickens for 2 minutes, then remove and set aside. Clean pot, add chickens with enough cold water to barely cover the birds.

2. Place pot over high heat and add yam, wolfberries, orange peel, ginger, and ham. Bring to a boil and skim off scum. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, occasionally skimming fat from the surface.

3. Remove and discard yam, wolfberries, orange peel, ginger and ham. Set aside chicken for other use or slice to serve in soup. Line a colander with cheesecloth or a paper towel, and place over a serving bowl. Pour broth through colander. Add salt to taste, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings (about 2 quarts).

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In Chinese Herbal Medicine, the small fruit of the Burdock plant is used. The root, however, is used in both Chinese Nutritional Therapy and Western Herbalism and this part of the plant can be used in cooking. Western Herbalists use Burdock root to treat skin conditions that are dry, such as dry eczema, psoriasis and dandruff. This root can be found in many asian grocery stores. It needs to be peeled, and soaked in a solution of vinegar or lemon juice to prevent discoloration (1 tea white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup water). Use this root chopped in stir frys, soups, or roasted with other root vegetables.


Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrot

from the book The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo

makes 4-6 servings as a side dish

2-3 Tb veggie oil

5 1/2 oz burdock, peeled, julienned in 2 1/2-in lengths (about 2 cups) and soaked in 1 c water and 1 tea vinegar

2 oz carrots, julienned in 2 1/2-in lengths (about 2/3 cups)

2 Tb sake (rice wine)

1 Tb mirin (sweet cooking wine)

1 Tb sugar

1 Tb shoyu (soy sauce)

1 tea tamari

2 Tb white sesame seeds, toasted

1/3 tea shichimi togarashi (seven spice powder) or red chili flakes

In a wok or skillet, heat the vegetable oil over high heat. Drain the burdock, and cook it, stirring, until it is well coated with oil. Add the carrot and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add 3 Tb water, the sake, mirin, and sugar. Cook the mixture until almost all the liquid is absorbed, stirring all the time. Add the shoyu, and cook for 30 seconds. Season the mixture to taste with tamari. Add 1 Tb of the sesame seeds, add the seven-spice powder or red chili flakes, and give several large stirs. Transfer the vegetables to a platter, and let them cool to room temperature. The dish tastes better after a few hours, and can be kept in the refrigerator, covered, for a day. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with the remaining 1 Tb white sesame seeds.

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