‘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.

roasted zucchini and crookneck squash with pumpkin seeds, oregano, and olives

I went out to harvest in the garden this morning and after using up about 20 crookneck squash in the last couple days, I harvested a dozen more. And a dozen cucumbers and three tomatoes. I trimmed the tomato plant back a bit so I can see several others are nearly ready, and William on corn duty tells me there are six or more ears that need to be used now. They’ll be as many or more of everything tomorrow.

I somewhat jokingly wrote in an instagram post several weeks back that I’ve found the best way to eat more vegetables is to grow a lot of vegetables. No jokes anymore since at this point in the season, it’s an incredible fact. For me anyways, this goes particularly because even though the romanticism of growing our own has long since worn off, there’s a huge sense of obligation to not waste what we’ve watched growing all season, to not waste the many hours William has spent watering and sifting compost, pulling weeds, and turning over beds.

Me? I mostly just harvest and cook and then take the glory. As is true for most gardeners and farmers, we tend to plant extra of everything because inevitably one or more crops fail– and people who grow things are slightly addicted to growing more things. (A slight problem when the backyard is producing so much). This year so far, nothing has failed. Literally nothing except a slow start and replanting of beets which thankfully won’t be ready until the summer squash, cucumbers, and corn are about done.

Anyhow, one thing I’ve been thinking about all summer is how very little has been stated publicly, in the mainstream US news anyway, about lifestyle factors that can help us through this pandemic season. Eating more vegetables, filling ourselves up on all the colors, nutrients, phytonutrients, and generally eating more whole, looks-like-it-came-directly-from-the-earth, foods can go a long way. I was asked to write a little more in-depth about this topic recently for Territory Run Co., so if you’d like more details on specific foods, nutrients, or lifestyle factors to help through this season (like mindfulness for stress relief), you can find the article here.

Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to figure out how to gift a few harvest extras this week, and chop, roast, sauté, etc. my way through the others. A little Italian flavor inspired, this combination of roasting zucchini and crookneck squash, and topping it with an herby, olive, garlic, and pumpkin seed topping is just one way to add some pizazz to eating your vegetables. If you have a grill basket and would like to take the cooking outside, grilling the squash instead of roasting will be a nice shift in methods.

Roasted Zucchini + Crookneck Squash with Pumpkin Seeds, Oregano, and Olives, serves 4 as a side
Use any type of summer squash you have available. The smaller, less seedy ones have the best texture.

4-8 small to medium summer squash, chopped (enough to fit a sheet pan or baking tray)
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/4 tsp. salt
20 fresh oregano leaves, finely minced (about two large sprigs)
15 small black olives (about 1/4 cup), rinsed, drained and sliced

  • Preheat your oven to 425 F. Line a baking pan with parchment and then spread the chopped squash evenly, so it’s mostly a single layer. Sprinkle with a little salt and roast until soft and borderline mushy, about 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, lightly toast the pumpkin seeds in a pan on the stovetop, and then remove them to a cutting board. Chop them until they’re in medium-small pieces, small enough to not be able to tell they’re pumpkin seeds, but not super-fine.
  • Mince the garlic and add it to a small dish, along with the pumpkin seeds, salt, minced oregano and olives.
  • When the squash is done roasting, slide it into a serving bowl, and then stir the herby pumpkin seed mixture throughout and serve.

Mushroom, Butternut + Butter Bean Stew

Mushroom, Butternut + Butter Bean Stew

As the year closes, I find myself going deep into the quiet of the year, resting more, sleeping more, reading books, writing, reflecting, baking, and listening to music. The few days between the end of Christmas socials and the return to routine come the new year are some of my annual favorites because I usually can truly go internal, shut down as much as I prefer to from the world, and clear my calendar of most obligations. This year (and decade actually) have brought much — struggle, challenge, growth, overcoming fears and accomplishing goals — but they’ve also taught me the importance of rest.

If you too have a day or more before the return to activity in 2020, you might consider resting more, drinking warming tea, eating comforting, nourishing soup or stew, and perhaps catching up on some good reading or reflecting. These are my favorites lately:

– My 2019 solstice reflection and my 2018 solstice reflection, which I’m lately pondering again
A few good things from 2019
Brigit Anna McNeill’s beautiful reflections
– This Ginger, Licorice and Chamomile Tea, the most popular recipe on my blog this year, and the drink I make nightly after dinner as I begin my evening wind-down.
– This Irish Vegetable Soup, also quite popular this year
Whole Grain Gluten-Free Sourdough Bread, a blog favorite
Brussels Sprouts done right
– and a Moroccan Quinoa Salad

Now for this stew.

Over on the Run Journal at Territory Run Co., I’ve shared this delicious recipe and tips for how to balance virtually any recipe to make it especially tasty.

When it’s cold and wintry outside, this is the stew to come in and warm up with after a long run. It’s also incredibly flavorful and wholesome, providing a balance to some of the treats and feasts of the season. Mushrooms of any type can be used, and are wonderful for eating in the winter. They are known to benefit the immune system through modulation of the inflammatory process.

Get the full article and recipe here.