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Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Praise of Pungent

A stroll through the farmers' market this week reminded me that chili season is in full swing.  While I enjoy a taste of spice at any time of year, only now can I find fresh hot chilies grown on local farms, and such delights as fully red, ripe jalapenos, singing to be slipped into that  big batch of Curtido I'm making this week to ward off fall's colds and flus. I'm also stocking up on local chilies to dry to help keep my spices local through the winter.

Chilies and most other spices are categorized as having a pungent flavor in Chinese medicine, and this taste is noted for its ability to keep energy moving in the body, easing digestion, strengthening the lungs, and stimulating the body out of stagnancy.  It the the basis of action the herbal carminatives, which reduce gas and aid digestion (think peppermint or fennel seed tea) and one reason why all culinary traditions use herbs and spices--they not only make food taste better but help us digest it smoothly.  The pungent flavor is said to benefit, open and stimulate the lungs--think of how wasabi opens your sinuses, or frying chiles in hot oil can make the whole house cough.  Pungents can support both digestion and immunity. Some vegetables are classed as having a pungent flavor, as well, and many of these are being harvested now: onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, turnips, and all types of radishes. 

Chinese nutritional energetics suggests incorporating more sour flavored foods, which have an astringent action, into your diet in the fall to support mental focus and ease the transition to darker days. Seasonal foods like tart apples, late plums, grapes, leeks, as well as lemons or limes in areas where they grow, and year-round foods like sourdough bread (both wheat and rye), pickles, vinegar, olives, and cultured dairy foods such as yogurt and cheese will help consolidate your body’s energy and encourage vitality in the cooler months ahead. Many of these foods are soured by fermentation, adding the further benefit of probiotics.

Traditional wisdom encourages the balancing of the contractive action of sour flavors with the expansive, stimulating effects of pungent and mildly spicy flavors. Mildly spicy foods and herbs will encourage circulation and keep the contraction of fall from becoming too restrictive. If you are having a hard time slowing from the busyness of summer, and need support for mental focus, choose sour flavored foods like those above. On the other hand, if you tend toward winter blues, or are feeling overly sluggish as the season progresses, incorporating more pungent foods can help.

Curtido
This is an immune-enhancing Salvadoran-inspired condiment, similar to sauerkraut that tastes great with dishes with a New World flavor profile.  Try it with scrambled eggs and black beans for breakfast.  Inspired by a recipe from http://vanessabarrington.com/.   Check out Vanessa's recent blog post featuring Harissa, a wonderful chili-based condiment she inspired me to add to my repetoire.
1 medium head green cabbage, sliced thinly
½ bunch scallions, sliced thinly
2-3 carrots, grated
1 bunch red radishes, thinly sliced or left whole if they are really small
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 jalapenos, cut in quarters lengthwise, seeded and sliced thinly
½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crushed, or 1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped

Place the cabbage, onion, and carrots in a large bowl.  Add the salt and massage the vegetables with your clean hands, squeezing and tossing until they begin to release their liquid.  Add the jalapenos and oregano and mix to distribute.  Pack the mixture tightly into a 1 quart, wide-mouthed Mason jar, pushing down the vegetables until the liquid rises above the level of the cabbage.  Put a smaller jar inside the mouth of the jar to keep the curtido submerged.  Cover with a clean tea towel and secure with a rubber band.  Leave out at room temperature for 3-5 days or more, tasting each day until it is sour enough for you.  Then fasten the lid on the jar and store in the fridge.  The curtido will keep for months.