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Friday, August 6, 2010

Seeing Red: the Summer Season

California’s heirloom tomato crop is lagging this year. As Michael Bauer just reported in the Chronicle food section e-dition, we’ve seen a few tomatoes but the season has yet to reach its peak. Why? It’s also been the coldest summer on record in our area. (No doubt you’ve noticed this further evidence of global weirding).

Tomatoes need heat to reach their peak, as we fog-shrouded Bay Area gardeners know. My crop reached its peak in November last year. But we shouldn’t really be eating tomatoes when the weather is cold anyway. Heirloom tomatoes have regained their place as the queen of summer produce because we are finally returning to seasonality, or rather Gastronicity: “eating the right food at the right time in the right place.” The nightshade family, particularly tomatoes, eggplants, chilies, and peppers, are very cooling vegetables and best eaten primarily when the weather, or your condition, is hot.

My trip to the farmer’s market this week felt like it was finally the first day of summer. I had finished my papers at last, so it was a leisurely stroll, and everywhere I was seeing red. The red of the Early Girl tomatoes, the shy red of the first Gravensteins (get ‘em now and fight grape monocropping in Sonoma county), the creeping red of the yellow peppers starting to turn, the red hearts of a few cut watermelons, the strawberries still singing on from spring, and dazzling bouquets of red dahlias and cosmos.

In the five element theory of Asian medicine, red is associated with the fire element, the summer season, the bitter taste, and the emotion of joy. Now is the time to attend to the health of the heart and small intestine organs. The energy of the natural world is peaking now, and in plants is concentrated in fruits and flowers, where we can find superb nutrition in this season. Science is catching up with traditional medicine in identifying a few of the phytochemicals which are concentrated in the pigments of plants, and red foods are often particularly high in carotenes, such as lycopene, which are potent antioxidants, acting to protect us from cardiovascular disease (and cancer and other diseases). And when might we need an extra dose of antioxidants? How about when exposed to extra solar radiation, a source of oxidative stress, like in summer? At least in most summers, or most summers outside of California.

A couple of recent studies showed that Hibiscus tea, helped lower blood pressure better than a placebo and as well as a common blood-pressure lowering medication (visit read the article and follow the links to the studies). I wasn’t surprised. Hibiscus is red! I use it in making my famous “red drink,” a lactofermented soda which I created as an alternative to red wine but that I found is just as popular with kids as adults. It’s a probiotic summer cooler and a refreshing thing to sip while you wait for the weather to get a bit warmer so you can make a pitcher of gazpacho or scare up some puff pastry made without hydrogenated oil to finally try one of those Provencal tomato tarts, as I have vowed to do as soon as the heirloom tomato crop peaks.

Hibiscus and Schizandra Soda
Adapted from Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice. Schizandra is a tonic herb known to act as liver cleanser, to strengthen the kidneys and lungs, and to support the body in adapting to stress. Hibiscus is high in vitamin C and lycopene and has been shown to help lower elevated blood pressure. Both can be found at herb stores and even your local Whole Foods.

2 quarts filtered water
¼ cup schizandra berries
¼ cup dried hibiscus flowers
½ cup evaporated cane juice, succanat, or Rapadura
½ cup yogurt whey (see NOTE)

Bring the water to a simmer, add the schizandra berries, and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Stir in the sweetener and turn off the heat. Let cool, and then pour into a 2 quart mason jar. Add the hibiscus and whey, and screw on the lid. Let sit in a warm place (like the top of your refrigerator) for 2 days, next strain into two 1 qt bottles (like those that may have housed mineral water) with screw caps and ferment, with the caps tightly closed, for 2 days more. Chill and open carefully (contents may be very fizzy). Enjoy!

NOTE: To make the whey, you need a quart of organic whole milk yogurt. Place a colander over a large bowl. Line it with a tea towel or fine cheesecloth and pour in the yogurt. Cover. Let drain 8-24 hours. When it has achieved a consistency you like, pour the whey into a small jar (you’ll have about a cup, enough for two batches of soda) and scrape the yogurt cheese off the towel into a container. Proceed with recipe. The yogurt cheese is great used like cream cheese—I mix it with sliced cucumbers, toasted cumin seeds and mint for a cooling summer salad.

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