Bitter and pungent-tasting foods are largely absent from the standard American (SAD) diet. Instead, the predominant flavors of a SAD diet oscillate between overly salty and hyper-sweet. Yet in the spring, bitter or pungent foods play an important role in preparing our bodies for warmer weather and lighter fare.
Certain pungent spring vegetables — dandelion greens, mustard greens, ramps (wild leeks) and other plants in the allium family (scallions, chives, cultivated leeks) — also have a cleansing effect, beneficial for our liver, our blood and our immune system.
In Chinese medicine, spring is a time of regeneration and rejuvenation — and many cleansing regimens target the liver, the main organ of detoxification. According to this tradition, the liver is responsible for qi (energy) flowing throughout the body. When the liver functions smoothly, so, too, will physical and emotional activity. Symptoms of an overburdened liver may manifest as dry skin, acne, constipation, gas, bloating and headaches.
Bitter foods also enhance digestion. By improving digestion, the body is better able to absorb nutrients and eliminate waste (including toxins).
Spring tonic greens
Spring foods that support the detoxification process include:
Allium (onion) family
Includes onions, garlic, shallots, chives, scallions and leeks (cultivated) and ramps (wild leeks)
Organosulfur compounds, specifically allyl sulfides, give allium vegetables their distinct pungent aroma and bite. Allyl sulfides can help lower blood pressure and inhibit tumor growth. Allium vegetables are also abundant in polyphenols (antioxidants) and rich in flavonoids, in particular quercetin, an antioxidant that helps reduce inflammation by preventing the oxidation of fatty acids in the body.
Because of its antihistamine properties, quercetin can also help mitigate allergic response. Regular consumption of allium can help boost the immune system, increase antioxidant levels, fight inflammation and help eliminate toxins. Studies suggest that allium vegetables, especially garlic, have a cholesterol-lowering effect; they have also been linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers, including breast, prostate, stomach and colon.
Among pungent spring vegetables, ramps stand out as the “stinkiest” in the onion family. The unabashedly pungent and aggressive flavor of ramps are a testament to an abundance of sulfur compounds. They are also a rich source of the trace mineral selenium, which studies have shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers such as colon, lung, liver, gastric and esophageal.
Cruciferae or Brassicaceae family
Includes broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, horseradish, bok choy, arugula and mustard greens
An excellent source of folate and chlorophyll, cruciferous vegetables are rich in glucosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds that can contribute to a bitter or “hot” (spicy) taste. Glucosinolate compounds contain cancer-fighting properties, which help increase the liver’s ability to detoxify carcinogens; they also may play a role in slowing the growth of already existing cancerous tumors. Regular consumption of brassica vegetables can help protect against rectal and colon cancer.
Among dark leafy cruciferous greens, mustard greens are distinctly hot and spicy. They have a very high glucosinolate content, second only to Brussels sprouts. When cooked (steamed), mustard greens will bind with bile acids (generated in the liver) in the digestive tract, enabling these acids to be excreted from the body, which has an overall cholesterol-lowering effect.
Dandelion (roots and leaves)
Those pesky dandelions that we try so hard to banish from suburban lawns are actually a nutrition-packed spring superfood. Long regarded as a “liver tonic,” dandelion has been used medicinally by many cultures to treat various gastric-related issues. American Indians used dandelion as a tonic for kidney disease, heartburn and upset stomach. Traditional Chinese medicine has used dandelion to treat breast problems such as lack of milk flow, appendicitis and stomach problems. Europeans took dandelion for fever, boils, diabetes and diarrhea.
The dandelion root contains taraxacin, a bitter crystalline compound that helps stimulate digestion, as well as inulin and levulin, starch-like substances that may help balance blood sugar. Because inulin is not digested or absorbed by the stomach, it heads to the bowels, where it encourages bacteria growth that improves bowel function.
Dandelion leaves are mineral-rich (iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, manganese, copper, choline, calcium, boron and silicon), and fresh dandelion leaves are an exceptional source of vitamin A as well as vitamins, C, K and B complex. Herbalists use dandelion root to detoxify the liver and gall bladder, and dandelion leaves to promote kidney function. Dandelion greens also have a diuretic effect, increasing urination, which can alleviate premenstrual fluid retention and lower blood pressure.
Where to find these spring greens
You can find many of these pungent spring greens or cruciferous vegetables at farmers’ markets. Allium, such as shallots, onions, garlic, leeks and scallions, are typically available year-round at the supermarket.
How to prepare them
- Mix young dandelion leaves or baby arugula in a salad or add to smoothies.
- Puree raw ramps (onions) into a creamy pesto. Braise or saute ramps in olive oil with plenty of garlic.
- Use olive oil or coconut oil to braise or saute dark leafy greens such mustard greens with garlic or ginger to tame their pungent bite.
- Add wild greens such as ramps or dandelion leaves to a fish stew.
- Toss lardons with dandelion greens sauteed with garlic in olive oil for a warm dandelion and bacon salad.