'The bitter element'

PaulNS(NS zone 6a)July 25, 2005

I'd like to get your ideas on this concept, and have lots of questions about particular bitters.

A few years ago the manager of a health food store told me something I've been pondering ever since. He was Lebanese and said the North American diet lacked 'the bitter element' - we're addicted to sweet and salty, mainly - and this led to a lot of ill health. He said that when he used lemon juice for a salad, for instance, he always included some pits, and ate these for their bitterness. What do you think?

This year I'm growing chicory, dandelions and radicchio in the garden and eating a couple of leaves every day (even the very bitter mature ones) for a tonic. Since I started eating the leaves I can 'feel' the bitterness somehow toning my liver, the way exercise tones muscles. This leads me to wonder whether adding 'bitter' to the diet could be the missing link in the cure for alcoholism?

Is there any reason not to eat the mature leaves - is too bitter a bad thing?

Is it best to let dandelions flower if you're going to use the roots for coffee? We already have hundreds we've let self-seed from last year, because we always dig some up, but enough is enough.

Do you wait until a frost has hit dandelions before digging them? Some sites say yes, some no.

Dandelion leaves are bitter but coffee made from the root isn't, yet it's the coffee that's recommended for liver tonic. Leaves are recommended as a good source of iron. Why is this?

When do you harvest chicory for coffee? Does frost help?

Does anybody have experience with Maria Treben's Swedish bitters? A friend of ours swears by them. They're supposed to help or cure every condition under the sun. She wants us to grow the herbs/roots, or as many as will grow in this zone, and sell them to her to make the tincture. Ideas?

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there's two takes on 'bitter'

in one sense, bitter means anything that's got a 'bite' to it we can't identify as 'hot' or 'sour'. escarole, watercress, dandelion, many of the 'accent' greens.

in a rest of the world, holistic health sense, it means 'alkaline' as in the opposite of acidic, which is something that tends to be lacking in the american diet.

cucumber is in this group. so's coconut. and parsley, as well as more common 'bitter herbs'.

I think that chicory and dandelion roots are used largely because nothing with taste buds could consume enough of the leafy greens to do them any good ;) but that's just ancedotal... there ARE reasons why leaves do one thing, and roots do another (similar to why lungs do one job, and intestines do another) but I'd need an harb manual out in front of me to even begin to remember what I learned 20 years ago.

uhm- your friend sounds like one of mine, who was whining about the cost of Everlasting absolute that she uses in her wound-heal poultices and floral waters for dealing with acne scarring- she wanted me to figure out how to make a fresh preparation of the plant that she could use- she'd pay me, of course...

but she sure wasn't going to pay me for the plants, or the research time, or the experiments, or the equiptment, or even the delivery to GET it to her.

the swedish bitters (or any other bitter) maker, or the monks who brew Chartreuse made a business out of it because it's a LOT of bother to get the herbs growing, the quality consistent, and all the rest.

especially if you've never grated fresh horseradish before- that's something you should do before you consider getting in to tinctures, much less complex blends ;)

    Bookmark   July 25, 2005 at 11:41AM
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PaulNS(NS zone 6a)

That's all very interesting, chinacat. So we can get some of that bitter/alkaline effect from foods that actually taste good? That's good news.

This friend who wants Swedish Bitters has good intentions - she doesn't have a garden, while we do and are always experimenting with new things. It's just that she's cheap - doesn't want to order plants - and doesn't realize (as you say) how difficult and time consuming growing from seed can be, esp. if you have to stratify them. And getting some kind of standardized result is almost impossible too, given we have no way of testing. I'm game, though, to grow the plants if she'll pay for them. Richter's Herbs has them all.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2005 at 9:08AM
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There's the folklore element too. 'If something tastes THAT awful, it MUST be good for you!'. The surprising thing is, that to a great extent this is true, so it isn't just an old wives' tale. A lot of the bitter herbs have considerable medicinal benefits - dandelion amongst them, of course. It's interesting that many of these 'bitter' herbs have historically been used as 'greens' (vegetables), called 'potherbs', and they include things like chickweed, nettles, docks, turnip tops, carrot tops etc, all of which have a bitter taste. However, they are extremely nutritious.

Today, we don't commonly use potherbs, but we still eat greens like spinach and kale and cabbage and lettuce, and these are just as good for you. Ask a lot of people what they don't like about Brussels Sprouts, and they'll tell you it's the bitterness!

So, yes, there's something in what your Lebonese friend said - too many people don't 'eat their greens'.

However, most people who cook for themselves (instead of relying on take-aways and pre-packaged meals), will include 'bitterness' in their recipes. Speaking only for myself, I use a lot of lemon - juice and rind - in recipes. In the Middle East, they often use Sumac instead, to provide the 'bitterness'. Like exercising the muscles, it's good to exercise all the different taste-buds by exposing them to the various tastes.

And there is also the medical view that 'bitterness' somehow helps in the digestive process.

In short, I think the old people had it right in this instance!

    Bookmark   July 26, 2005 at 6:37PM
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Good points in previous post, but one I don't see, and very indicative...

Salads are most often a *before* main meal course. Pre-Iceberg lettuce, there was a good reason for this; a salad composed of bitter herbs is conducive to digestion, the bitters stimulate digestive function. To best get that effect, don't smother with a heavy dressing. A light vinagrette helps to stimulate digestion.

As to the dandelions, the root is a wonderful liver tonic, harvested in fall, when the plant has gone dormant. Dry, and grind to use like coffee.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2005 at 11:02PM
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PaulNS(NS zone 6a)

We have sumac growing - will have to try it.

Here's something from the Dole website. I've been eating chicory leaves every day, supposed to be good for the eyes as well (the lutein). In Chinese medicine they say the liver and the eyes are connected - strengthening the liver strengthens the eyes. Will hunt up some sources to post.

Chicory: Too Good to Pass-over

With Passover upon us, it's worth noting that scholars believe chicory to have been among the bitter herbs used in the original Seder dinner. While horseradish is now commonly used -- to symbolize the bitterness of enslavement in Egypt -- don't "pass over" chicory when it comes to healthy greens. Modern science is discovering mighty powers in this ancient weed, thanks to its unusual concentration of a variety of essential nutrients and disease-fighting phytochemicals.

Chicory is one of the top vegetable sources of vitamins A, E and K, fiber, calcium, potassium, pantothenic acid, copper and folate. Loaded with beta-carotene and lutein/zeaxanthin, chicory also has carbohydrate compounds known as fructans, which research has found to boost immunity, fight harmful gastrointestinal bacteria, strengthen bones, keep arteries supple and reduce the risk of colon cancer.

How to incorporate chicory in your diet? While it's often found in dried form in coffee substitutes and herbal teas (my favorite is Celestial Seasonings' "English Toffee"), you could also try shredding some into your salad or wilting with other greens, seasoning them as a side with garlic and olive oil.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2005 at 9:34AM
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