Gingered Sweet Potato Dal + tips for better digestion

Every few months or when I notice a trend in increased GI upset, not digesting foods or absorbing nutrients properly, I strip my meals way back to simplicity so most of the hard work is done for me (in the cooking process). With the turn from late summer into fall, I noticed an uptick in the above symptoms, and since this tends to fall in a pattern each year, I decided to make the last last few weeks about eating primarily very simple, easy to digest meals. Conveniently, and also not so conveniently, these simple meals tend to be needed more as running mileage goes up – which also means less cooking time, planning and prep! If you’re busy and having trouble with digestion — or just enjoy easy, dreamy meals this time of year, the recipe below is one to add to your rotation.

Taking from Ayurvedic medicine, which has much to offer in terms of treating and preventing just the type of malabsorption and upset I tend to experience, I chose to make meal-in-a-pot dishes such as kitchari and lots of dal. Kitchari is a rice and lentil or split mung bean combination that’s perfect for these occasions. Dal, in my opinion may even be more so, as it often eliminates the grain component for even easier food break-down and assimilation.

Plus it’s incredibly delicious on a cold, blustery fall or winter day. And with the addition of sweet potato or other root vegetables, it’s still hearty and fulfilling like kitchari.

The classic dal that I make features red lentils, which I find to be the most digestible bean/legume there is, other than split mung beans, which can be difficult to track down. Red lentils break down and cook quickly, and they don’t usually need soaking or planning ahead. However, if one is already having tummy troubles, soaking is still a good idea. Here are a few more tips to help make lentils and beans more digestible:

– Soak and rinse in a big bowl of water, ideally for a few hours. Discard the soaking water before using the lentils in your recipe.

– If there is foam that rises to the top of the pot while cooking, skim it off. The foam contains a type of protein that is hard on our digestive system. When in nutrition school, my cooking instructor Eleonora constantly repeated, ‘skim your beans’ so often that that’s the one line I associate most with her!

– Make sure the lentils – or other beans – are cooked thoroughly. This means they are soft, not al dente. One of the biggest problems with canned beans, in my opinion, is that most of them are not actually cooked as well as they should be for proper digestion. Cooking until the lentils or beans begin to break apart, or in the case of red lentils, turn into mush completely, is the best way to know they’re done.

– Add spices! Carminative spices, meaning they boost the digestive capacity, is a long-held way in traditional cooking to make meals more digestible. This is why a big soup pot with beans and meat often contains a bay leaf. Other carminative spices include ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, and more. Virtually every cuisine of the world is ripe with carminatives in the traditional recipes for the exact purpose of not only adding flavor, but also boosting digestion!

– Add a squeeze of lemon, lime juice, or vinegar. Ideally every meal contains a slightly sour flavor addition, since sour helps to activate digestive enzymes. Most meals don’t need to taste outright sour, however. A little addition at the end of cooking goes a long way and often balances the recipe that’s missing ‘just a little something.’

– Lastly, eat your foods warm, especially this time of year. If you think of an ideal digestive scenario as a nice little cozy fire in the digestive system, eating cold foods is like throwing cold water on it. Not so great for turning food into nutrients and energy! In the summer months when we can be overheated, eating cold and raw meals makes much more sense and is seasonally appropriate. But this is rarely the case as we turn into fall and winter.


One other little tip that I find incredibly helpful is to reduce stimulus, particularly around meal time, but perhaps throughout the day too to help rebalance digestion. Constantly checking our phones and computers, keeping up with what everyone else is doing while they’re avoiding being present themselves, and eating in a loud, overstimulated environment or while upset or anxious is a recipe for continued GI problems. Our gut and brain are incredibly closely linked. We can go a long way to improve tolerance to the foods we eat just by eating slowly, chewing each bite upwards of 30 times (yes, really!), and not doing anything else while eating, other than eating. If you try these tips, you might also find you enjoy your food more, which is always an added bonus.

Now, onto the dal!


Gingered Sweet Potato Dal, serves 3-4
adapted from Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind by Kate O’Donnell

Use the larger amount of coconut oil if you tend to have dry skin, variable hunger, feel often bloated, gassy, or constipated, and less if you tend to accumulate extra congestion, have oily skin, and slow metabolism.

1-2 Tbs. coconut oil
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. cinnamon, optional but delicious
1/8 tsp. fennel seeds
1 3-inch piece of ginger, finely grated
1 cup red lentils
4-5 cups water
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced small
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
a squeeze or two of fresh lemon or lime juice

  • Warm the coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the spices including fresh grated ginger, and stir just until they start to smell.
  • Add the lentils and sauté for 1-2 minutes, making sure they’re nicely coated. Then add the water and diced sweet potato. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer until the mixture is creamy and soupy, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. The lentils will be broken down, making a nice porridge-like consistency. Add more water if you need to.
  • Near the end of the cooking time, add the salt and pepper, and a squeeze of citrus. Remove from heat and enjoy!

cacao super syrup + a simple cacao tea

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This one is for y’all that really like chocolate. Especially if you crave chocolate, particularly during stressful times.

Cacao Tea Co. recently launched a really delicious (herbal) tea that’s essentially the husks of roasted cacao beans. Brewed into a traditional cup with freshly boiled water, it’s delicious as an afternoon pick-me-up sipper without the caffeine, sugar rush, or cravings for more more more that comes with the otherwise delightful combination of sugar and chocolate.

 

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But after a few days of sipping, I got all sorts of inspired and took it to another level by making a superpower cacao, maca, and eleuthero syrup. I’ll get to those ingredients in a moment but this herbal syrup idea is essentially a tasty traditional way to take in herbs when one might otherwise not. It’s exactly the same method by which elderberry syrup (for cold and flu prevention) is made. Like other herbal syrups, it can be used in whatever way one desires, but I’ve been adding a spoonful or so to my mid-afternoon smoothie snacks lately.

 

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Now, about these ingredients: 
Cacao, 
Theobroma cacao // When we eat chocolate, it’s coming from cacao beans. As we can see, the plant name is derived from two words theos and broma, which are ancient Greek and translate to ‘the food of the gods’. Additionally, cacao is rich in a compound called theobromine, an antioxidant that has a mild stimulant effect, similar to caffeine. Studies show that the husks of cacao are rich in these antioxidants, just like the inside portion.

Maca, Lepidium meyenii // Maca is an herbal root that is often considered an adaptogen, meaning it will restore stress levels back to a balanced state, and it’s particularly helpful for adrenal stress (i.e. the fight or flight side of our nervous systems have been on high alert for too long). It increases energy (making it dually great for athletes) and has many antioxidant properties, as well as much research on its ability to regulate reproductive hormones (1). It is also rich in iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc–nutrients that many particularly female athletes are low in.

Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng), Eleutherococcus senticosus // Eleuthero has an exceptionally long history of use in traditional medicine. It is also known as an adaptogen, a tonic herb, a nervine (to help the nervous system) and is anti-inflammatory. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, eleuthero is used for treating people with wind (spasmodic) conditions, and is also helpful for weak tendons and ligaments, strengthening the qi, and Chinese spleen and kidneys; i.e. it can help extract nutrients from food and is an herb that is really good for “stressed out Type A people” (2). Eleuthero has long been in use in Korean and Russian folk medicine for increasing stamina and promoting overall health (3). Additionally, scientific studies show that it alters the levels of several neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the stress response, chiefly at the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (1). Further, eleuthero significantly suppresses nitric oxide production, which is a characteristic of inflammation, and has shown strong free-radical scavenging activity. In overworked individuals, it has been shown to reduce their response to stress, and in some studies with both trained and recreational endurance athletes, it has improved work capacity, increased endurance time, and elevated cardiovascular function (1). Overall, I like to think of it as a superpower herb for those that tend to have a lot of stress and fatigue that has accumulated over a long period of time, who wake tired and can’t really get their energy up throughout the day, and whose internal temperature tends to run cool or cold.

I chose to add maca and eleuthero to this cacao syrup specifically because many individuals I’ve worked with clinically present with similar situations in that they are highly driven, are often on the go mentally and physically, tend towards cravings for sweets and chocolate, and experience ongoing fatigue. Without discounting that this presentation can mean there are some truly relevant nutritional deficiencies to be addressed, adding an herbal support that happens to taste excellent can be a great way to return the body to balance a bit more quickly. That’s why I call it super syrup.

 

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Cacao Super Syrup, makes about 3 cups
I often source my powdered herbs such as maca and eleuthero from Mountain Rose Herbs since they are a trusted supplier. Additionally, I highly recommend starting with local, raw honey since it supports your local beekeeper, and contains beneficial enzymes no longer available in processed supermarket honey. If you’d like a ‘purer’ tasting herbal syrup, you can also use sugar in place of the honey.

6 Tbs. cacao tea
3 Tbs. maca root powder
3 Tbs. eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) powder
4 cups filtered water
1 cup honey

  • Combine the cacao tea and herbal powders with the water in a pot. Bring to a simmer and partially cover the pot with a lid. Let simmer until the liquid is reduced by half.
  • Remove from the heat  and strain out the herbs – you have now created a strong decoction for your syrup base. I strained mine a little ‘coarsely,’ so there were more herbs in the syrup, but a finer strain using a cheesecloth and/or a fine mesh strainer can also be done.
  • Return the liquid to the pan and add the honey. To retain the beneficial, naturally occurring enzymes in raw honey, gently heat it just until the honey dissolves, being careful not to boil the syrup.
  • Finish by pouring the syrup into clean, sterile bottles, and store in the fridge for up to 3 months.
  • A standard dosage of herbal syrup depends on the herbs used, the situation being addressed, as well as the age of the recipient. A general dosage is a ½ teaspoon to 1 tablespoon taken 1 to 3 times a day. Since we are using adaptogenic herbs that are better used long-term to re-balance, 1/2 to 1 Tbs. per day is a nice starting amount.

 

 
Cacao Tea, serves 1
freshly boiled water
2-3 tsp. cacao tea

  • To prepare a simple cacao infusion, add 2-3 tsp. of cacao tea to a tea ball or infusing basket and then pour freshly boiled water over the top. Cover and allow to infuse for 5-10 minutes before drinking.

 

References:
1. Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide, vol. 2 (4th ed.). Chatswood, NSW, Australia: Elsevier.
2. Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, VA: Healing Arts Press
3. Mountain Rose Herbs. (n.d.). Eleuthero Root Powder

Marshmallow Root Tea

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I won’t ever forget it. We were on the train towards the west of Ireland from Dublin for a weekend. It was the summer we worked on the farm, me amongst the berries, counting, weighing, squeezing juice and testing. Tasting. William at the main office, in accounting. We were away every weekend traveling and on this particular trip one of the train stations, and cities, was Mallow. We didn’t stop in, we were crossing a mid-land area of open fields similar in a lot of ways to home, but I remember seeing the name Mallow and immediately thinking marshmallow.

And then the years passed away. I found a doctor who helped me understand and overcome a lot of my health struggles, who introduced me to using herbs to support and return to health. Who introduced me to the medicine of Marshmallow. Her introduction was very clinical. Marshmallow was an herb I took amongst a blend to help heal my torn up and reactive gut. An herb amongst many who helped me feel better so I could find my way.

Beyond using in a blend for when gluten cross-contamination causes a negative reaction or during heavy run training, too much holiday stress or similar got in the way, I never thought much of marshmallow. Until one day last spring, about a year ago, when I found in the wetland just after the camas waned and the lupines were all in their purple: pale pink flowers rising up. They took my breath away. I stopped and just stared at them for a while before carrying on with my run. Within the next day or two, William, always bringing home new plants for our yard, had a few pots set out on the patio. One of them drew me immediately.

 

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That’s the plant from the wetland. And somehow, before I even looked at the tag, I knew it was mallow, though I didn’t before know the name of those dreamy marsh flowers.

If you listen and let them, plants can tell you all sorts of things.

 

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This spring I’ve been even more drawn to the mallows around us. William planted ours right outside the front door so I’ve watched it come up from the ground this year. Now in nearly full bloom, those little delicate pinky white flowers atop big leafy leaves. Within herbalism, there runs a theme called the Doctrine of Signatures. Herbs that resemble various parts of the body are often most effective in treating ailments of those body parts. A walnut, resembling a brain, is a classic example. A few weeks ago, I plucked a giant mallow leaf from its stem, placed it delicately in a bud vase, and then proceeded to look at it, to meditate on it if you will, for a number of days. Almost immediately the doctrine of signatures came to mind, because perhaps knowing quite a bit about this plant’s medicinal values, I saw all the surface area of the leaf, resembling so much the villi and microvilli of the small intestine. Villi are finger-like projections where nutrient absorption occurs, and flatten in varying degrees in cases of malabsorption, celiac disease, and some severe GI complaints.

 

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The roots of marsh and other mallows have a particularly slimy and mucilaginous quality, somewhat like oatmeal that’s set a while gets, and this quality makes it particularly useful for soothing internal tissues that are sore or irritated. Think how good a nice cup of warm substance on a sore throat, a somewhat bland liquidous soup on a sore tummy, or even an aloe vera on a burn. This herbal action is called a demulcent. Marshmallow root is a particularly lovely demulcent for those sore throats, achy lower abdomens, dry coughs, and even, and not surprising since it likes to sooth, irritated urinary tracts.

Every time I think of using marshmallow, I think of the gentlest medicine. Just like my morning oatmeal, which might provide some of the same actions given its constituency, marshmallow root infused into a tea is incredibly soothing, just a little sweet, and slightly earthy.

 

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According to herbalist Rosalee de la Forêt, marshmallow root is also what is a ‘yin tonic’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is useful for signs of deficient heat, including hot flashes and night sweats (1).

Unlike most herbs, marshmallow prefers a cold water infusion to extract the mucilaginous and soothing qualities from its ample polysaccharides and starches. So the best way to get its medicine is to put a little of the roots in a jar, pour over room temperature water, and then let it sit and infuse overnight or for a day. As time goes on, you’ll see it change color and become thicker. Strain out the roots, and sip on it hot or cold. It will immediately get to work soothing the tissues you need.

I like to keep it on hand and make a big jar if my throat has been sore or I’ve gotten into a troublesome pattern with foods causing lower intestine pain. And, this last winter and spring, I’ve gotten into the practice of making a jar a week or so to drink as preventative medicine for when running and training a lot, since we now know that a training cycle with lots of challenging running causes just the upset lower GI tissues that marshmallow can assist with.

 

Lastly, if you’re wondering about the name, yes marshmallow was the original plant used to make the white fluffy marshmallows for our summer smores or sweet treats. While no longer used, the candying process apparently results in a somewhat squishy sweet root that resembles modern marshmallows. Also, the plants in the wetland are actually more likely Malva sylvestris or similar rather than marshmallow (Althea oficinalis). Nevertheless, they’re all in the same plant family and can be used interchangeably. Of note: I don’t wildcraft from either public or private property, unless its my own, and I encourage you to be incredibly conscious before harvesting plants from the wild.

 

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Marshmallow Root Tea
In some of these photos, I combined marshmallow root with Slippery Elm Bark since the two have similar soothing properties and work well together. They both can be made separately as I outline below. 

1 quart jar
1-2 Tbs. dried marshmallow roots
4 cups filtered water

  • To make a cold infusion, put the dried herbs in the jar, pour in fresh room temperature water, and then allow to sit for at least 4 hours and up to 12 or so.
  • To drink, strain out the roots and sip either cold or warmed.

 

Reference:
1). de la Forêt, R. (n.d.). The Marshmallow Herb.