‘Bitter’ Spring Tonics – for Optimal Digestion

And spring soup that doesn’t taste at all bitter.

One of the practices that routinely helps us to continue in or return to health is to eat with the seasons. In the springtime, that means more super-green tasting and often slightly bitter greens. Traditionally, all cultures enjoyed bitter foods during their mealtime rituals, especially in the spring. In both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, particular attention is brought to the liver and gallbladder in spring. These are digestive organs that are important for storing bile to emulsify and breakdown fats, and to process metabolic wastes, environmental and food toxins, and to store and secrete vitamins and minerals.

In early spring, the new plant growth – if you’ve ever plucked greens from the wild or even from your backyard – is often bitter. But farming, and to a certain extent climate change, has actually changed the taste of many of our bitter greens so they’re milder, more sweet, and pleasing to modern eaters. 

The Bitter Taste is Critical for Healthy Digestion

Ideally, we include all six of the flavors in our meals in a balanced way, so no one flavor stands out.

The bitter taste is so important because it activates the liver and stimulates the release of digestive secretions which promote the digestion of food and help the body to absorb and use the nutrients in the foods you eat. 

The bitter flavor also promotes gentle movement in the gastrointestinal tract (GI), which reduces cramping, bloating, and sluggish or stagnant digestion. Ever feel particularly heavy and lethargic after a rich and decadent meal? That’s the feeling that the bitter flavor prevents or alleviates. 

The bitter flavor is especially helpful when digesting foods is problematic. 

While you may not particularly enjoy the bitter flavor, it works best when you taste it directly on your tongue. If you put a few drops of a bitter herbal tincture on your tongue, you just might have a brief whole body, chill-like, reaction. That’s a good thing. That’s the stimulating effect that bitters have on the digestive system. 

Just like other flavors, bitter foods and herbs range from mild to intensely bitter. Often, we don’t need to overdo a good thing. For this flavor, a small amount is helpful. And depending on you, starting with incorporating more mild bitters is plenty effective.

Fresh Burdock Root – a nice mild bitter to cook with

Burdock Root

Burdock is a tried and true liver and skin tonic. Often used in it’s dried form, in herbal teas, it’s also wonderful to use fresh. If you can get your hands on some (found in the produce section of a grocery store that carries local items) or from a local farmer, I highly encourage you to incorporate it into your spring meals. Chopping and cooking into soups, stews, stir-fries, and sautéed in a little oil and spices is where it really shines.

I consider burdock root to a be a mild but highly effective bitter that’s a little different than all the other bitter spring (green) foods. One, because it’s a root instead of a leaf, but also because it contains a high percentage of inulin. Inulin is a pre-biotic fiber that is food for the beneficial bacteria in our lower GI.

Looks can be deceiving. This is what burdock root that’s been stored for a while –but is still nice on the inside–looks like

Common bitter foods and spices to incorporate into meals

Bitter Spring Vegetables:
Arugula
Broccoli
Fresh Burdock Root
Cabbage
Dandelion Greens
Other Dark Leafy Greens
Kale
Radicchio + Chicories
Watercress

Bitter Spices:
Fenugreek Seeds
Sesame Seeds
Turmeric

Happy Liver Spring Green Soup, serves about 4

Spring is a good time to incorporate more fresh greens and bitter herbs—local if possible—into your routine. This soup is an example of how to balance flavors so there is a hefty dose of liver-supportive bitter herbs, but the end result is balanced and delicious. It tastes like a smooth bowl of comfort rather than a bitter stew. I had a busy day when I first made this and texted William to tell him about it so he could have dinner ahead of me. He’s one of the best recipe testers because he’s one of those supertasters that picks out anything strong flavored or off. When I got home and asked him about this soup, his response was “That’s A LOT better than I was imagining.” And an empty bowl. This is a true spring tonic. Enjoy! 

2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ginger, finely grated or minced
1 tsp. turmeric
Small pinch of ground black pepper
1 fresh burdock root, peeled and diced
1 pound sweet potatoes, (4 cups chopped)
4 cups mineral broth or water
1 Tbs. dried nettle leaves (or 1 handful of fresh nettles)
2 cups arugula or similar seasonal greens (watercress, spinach, chard, nettles, etc.)
4 cups kale
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
Fresh herbs to top
Cooked lentils to top (recipe below)

  1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Stir in the chopped onions and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic, salt, and ginger and cook a couple minutes more. Add the turmeric and black pepper and let it cook just until the aroma comes up. Then stir in the sweet potatoes, burdock root, broth and nettles. Bring to a boil.
  2. Once it boils, cover and turn down to simmer for 15 minutes or more, until the sweet potatoes and burdock are soft through. Then add arugula and kale to the top. Cover and allow them to steam soften for a couple minutes. Stir them in. 
  3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes before pureeing in batches until smooth.  Return to the pot and add the apple cider vinegar and taste to adjust seasoning. When it’s missing something, I find it often needs just a tiny bit more acid to balance – try adding a few more drops of vinegar.
  4. Serve topped with fresh herbs and cooked lentils. I chose lemon balm since that’s what is growing abundantly in my garden right now. Mint or parsley would be wonderful as well. For an active individual, pairing this with a slice or two of a nice whole grain sourdough or similar bread may round out the meal even more

A Good Pot of Lentils, serves 3-4
Portions to Serve 1: 1/2-3/4 cup lentils

1 cups green or brown lentils
1/2 tsp. salt
3 cups water

Optional Aromatics: Choose 1-2
1 tsp. coriander seeds; ½ carrot; fennel fronds; 1 sprig thyme; 2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley; ½ celery stick; 1 small bay leaf

  1. Place 3 cups water, lentils, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add 1 to 2 of the aromatics and return to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are tender and no longer chalky at their core, about 30-45 minutes. Let them cool slightly in their cooking liquid.  

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

All Healing Anti-Inflammatory Green Soup

This time of year with the dark days, cold mornings, and heavy clouds, my system desires to go internal even more than usual. If I had my way I’d stay home, work from home, and spend the winter in the remote countryside or forest to calibrate even more with what nature does in this season (i.e. rest) rather than partake in all the festivities.

This is not to say I don’t enjoy socializing, but too much noise, people, stimulus, clutter, travel, and food really compromises my wellbeing. I think a lot of us can relate.

This is especially true when it comes to how the holiday season can be havoc on the digestive system. For the last few years, I’ve taken to making the first couple months of the new year about resetting my system with healing anti-inflammatory meals because the time between mid-November and January can mean weeks of need for digestive ‘rest’ and healing, even when I try to be careful and deliberate about what foods I choose during these weeks. I believe a big part of this is because digestion is so much more that what we eat. It’s also how we eat, and in what environment.

It is very difficult to digest, absorb, and assimilate properly when the nervous system is not in rest and digest mode. And for those of us that are a bit extra sensitive, that state of relaxation can be challenging to achieve in these special, celebratory weeks.

I’ve spoken to a number of nutrition clients the last few weeks with similar dietary constraints as mine. They’ve all reflected how I’ve felt and dealt with the season: trying to simultaneously take care of themselves while not wanting to be too much of a bother to others or completely self-deprive from the feasting foods. Over time, I’ve been slowly advocating for myself more, speaking out about my needs and being an assertive houseguest by opting for my own meals rather than risk options that I know will lead to discomfort later. For some, this is especially important–but so too is taking a time out and getting into a state of relaxation as much as possible between or during the holiday gatherings.

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A few things I’ve taken to lately is adding Ayurvedic spices to many meals such as cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, cardamom, turmeric, and ginger, as well as loading up on lots of anti-inflammatory greens, warm soupy meals, and herbal tea to support my extra finicky digestion. This soup is a good base for this type of eating and it’s high on my list to make this week after Thanksgiving. I tend to cook the split mung beans or red lentils, and then puree the greens and remaining ingredients raw, gently warm them, and then serve. That way the nutrients and good bacteria from the miso that degrade with heat are still present, and food that is pureed makes eating even easier on compromised digestion.

Anti-Inflammatory Green Soup, serves 3-4

1 cup split mung dal or red lentils
2 ounces (2 handfuls) turnip greens, kale, or spinach, de-stemmed
1
 large celery stalk
1
 ounce parsley leaves (1 handful)
1
 ounce cilantro leaves (1 handful)
1
 clove garlic
3/4 tsp. ground coriander
3/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. ground fennel seeds
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. turmeric
1
 tablespoon white miso
2
 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1/4 cup whole-fat coconut milk (or 1 Tbs. coconut butter)
2 cups
 water
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt and black pepper
Optional Toppings: Sunflower + Brazil Nut Sprinkle (below), thinly sliced spring turnips or radishes, minced celery, parsley, or cilantro

  1. Combine the split mung dal and water in a medium pot. Bring to a boil and then turn town to low simmer and cook until they are soft. Cool slightly, and then transfer to a high speed blender along with the greens, celery, parsley, cilantro, garlic, spices, miso, nutritional yeast, and the water. Puree until smooth.
  2. Transfer back to the pot and add the coconut milk, apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper. Heat gently until hot but not simmering. Taste, and adjust with a bit of salt, vinegar, or more miso, if needed.
  3. Serve topped with whatever toppings you have on hand or prefer.

Sunflower + Brazil Nut Sprinkle
1/2 cup brazil nuts and sunflower seeds, toasted
1 1/2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste

  1. In a food processor, combine 1/2 cup of toasted nuts and seeds (in ratio you desire) with the nutritional yeast and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse until broken down into a ‘sprinkle’ texture, but not yet a paste. Add to the top of soups, salads, and other meals for a nutrient boost and texture contrast.