photo credit Paul Morris

photo credit Paul Morris

I am a veggie snob.  All winter I suffer, forced to shop in the produce section of the grocery store, instead of the bounty of my backyard.  Greens, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, no matter what it is, lose flavor and appeal with every mile they travel.  To me they taste more like the cooler they were stored in, than anything like the outdoors where they were grown. Perhaps I shouldn’t gripe, since our selection and quality of winter vegetables has improved a great deal since I was a child, but I live on a produce farm, so I am genuinely veggie-spoiled.  

With spring’s arrival, and the greening of the fields, I can simply walk across a few acres and graze.  The cultivated lettuces, spinach, baby radishes and beet greens taste sweeter to me than a pan of brownies, but the real thrill comes in the flowering tops of the wild mustards, last year’s arugula, dandelions, violets and all manner of weeds, waiting to be foraged.  Within seconds of harvest, their nutrients hit my digestive tract and await assimilation.  Something deep and ancestral stirs in my bones when I engage in this “hunter-gatherer” ritual. The world around me right now reverberates the most intense golden green life and the tender succulence of the plant matter appeals to both palate and belly.

For at least 90% of the time that humans have walked the earth our ancestors foraged for plant matter.  Roots, greens, berries and seeds created a rich diverse source of fiber that sustained life, not only the human consumer but also the microbial residents of the human's digestive tract as well.  A special relationship between human and microbe evolved around the consumption of 80-150 grams of fiber/day. Gut microbes feast daily on our leftovers: the fibrous portion of our diet that we are unable to digest. These fibers travel through our small intestine and arrive in the large intestine as a bug’s smorgasbord. Bacterial digestion (aka fermentation) of these fibers release nutrients, such as short chain fatty acids (SCFA) that we would otherwise miss out on. SCFAs, notably butyrate, provide fuel for colon cells and protect these cells with it’s anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Roots such as burdock, dandelion, chicory and radish are rich in a soluble fiber called inulin that our beneficial microbial residents love.

Remember, gut microbes thrive on your leftovers.  Competition for bug food in the colon is stiff, and if fiber is scarce, they will turn to their second favorite food: your intestinal mucus. If that sounds gross and unappealing, you are right, it is. That mucous lining provides an important barrier between what’s in your gut and what’s in your blood stream. If bacteria are starving for nutrients, they will dine on what they can get their hands on, if they had hands, that is.

If you’re like me, you want to keep your mucous lining in tact. A vast array of supplements can support you in this endeavor, especially if you are already in trouble. Licorice, L-glutamine and zinc carnosine are some of the most popular supplements for symptoms of leaky gut. However, before you spend big bucks on magic pills, evaluate your fiber consumption.  A handy fiber calculator, available online  can give you a good idea if you are eating enough.  If you daily fiber total is less than 50 grams, consider boosting fiber, especially soluble fiber.  If you have access to fresh local produce, commit yourself to consuming more vegetables with every meal.  A search online will help you find creative ways to prepare vegetables so that your task becomes a delicious endeavor.  Joining a CSA is a fantastic way to encourage healthier eating: your box arrives each week, and you set a personal goal to eat the entire contents before the next one arrives.

As is often the case, the remedy is as simple as following your Mom’s advice: "Eat your vegetables!” 

Elder Magic

Look carefully as you drive along rural meadows next to wooded stream beds and you might spot the first of the elder blossoms.  Deb Soule insists that this plant is magical, and I have to agree withher. In fact, after a little digging I found plenty of lore surrounding the mystical qualities of this shrub. Planted near wells and the doors of just-married, much superstition surrounded this plant in European history.  Witches that spring out if you cut it down, were also warded off by the shrub itself. In Germanic societies elder became the symbol of life and death, as well as luck and protection.  

I couldn't resist publishing this close up of the elderflower umbel.  Each tiny flower has 5 tiny magic wands!

I couldn't resist publishing this close up of the elderflower umbel.  Each tiny flower has 5 tiny magic wands!

I had my own magical experience with elder many years ago.  The perfectly ripe flowers at my grandfather's farm were ready for harvest, but I was so exhausted I had trouble motivating myself to get them. Since flowers don't last long, I forced myself and soon was immersed in the tall spindly branches loaded with ivory flower clusters. Quite suddenly I felt the sensation of gentle hands on my back and shoulders and a great happiness filled me. By the time I had finished my task, my energy and spirit were restored. Perhaps just the act of getting outdoors and doing something I love helped me feel better, but I feel convinced there was a bit of magic in the air about those bushes. 

Traditionally the flowers of this plant have been used for nasal and sinus congestion. Steeping the fresh or dried blossoms makes a refreshing tea that helps alleviate inflamed mucus membranes.  This is my go-to tea for head colds and sinus infections. However the flowers have many wonderful culinary uses, originating in northern Europe.  From batter-fried umbels (that’s what the flower clusters are called) to cake imbued with a cordial of the blossoms, the taste is unique and possibly acquired.  These days I have less time to make medicine, or even forage for wild foods, but I never fail to pick the elder blossom and make my favorite Scandinavian specialty: Elderflower Salt.  This traditional recipe can be adapted to suit modern tastes.  I simply toss the separated flower clusters with celtic sea salt, garlic scapes, lemon rind and a bit of red pepper flakes.  After curing in the sun, I store this salt in pretty jars, perfect for spontaneous gifts to herbal friends. It makes a marvelous rub for grilled meat, fish or veggies. 

The berries of Sambucus nigra have also been used by herbalists for centuries to ward off flu.  All kinds of delicious concoctions can be created from the berries, but always they are cooked before ingesting, as the raw berries are somewhat toxic. Two of my favorite elderberry tonics are Elderberry Elixir by Avena Botanicals and Elderberry Syrup by Tooth of the Lion Apothecary.  While the first is sweet and delightful to the palate of a child, the second is an artful combination of yarrow, goldenrod, elderberry and ginger. It makes a delightful before-bed-aperitif. 

I am gathering a collection of recipes using elder flowers and berries and would love to feature yours.  Feel free to email me, or make a comment here, and toot your horn a little if you have a product to sell.  I will be posting all recipes on my online forum, GingerJuice.