Lo­ca­vores ga­lore

Herbal­ist’s stu­dents learn foods grown close to home play nat­u­ral role in health

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - By Julie Bon­nin

You wouldn’t wear wool to go run­ning in 90-plus de­gree tem­per­a­tures. With heat and hu­mid­ity lev­els climb­ing, you’re prob­a­bly more in the mood for iced wa­ter­melon than an oven-baked ap­ple. And a crisp green salad is more likely to be on your plate than a heavy stew.

Even so, it might not have oc­curred to you that what you put on your ta­ble in July could af­fect your in­vin­ci­bil­ity against the mos­qui­toes buzzing around your back pa­tio. Or that the pro­duce you pick out could in­flu­ence the re­siliency of your skin should you stay an hour too long in the sun at Deep Eddy. Cer­ti­fied nu­tri­tion­ist and herbal­ist Kara Kroeger, who teaches the sea­sonal class “Cen­tral Texas Foods as Medicine” at the Amer­i­can Botan­i­cal Coun­cil head­quar­ters in East Austin, chooses in­gre­di­ents based on fresh­ness and taste. Like many peo­ple, she be­lieves it makes sense to buy lo­cal foods, in sea­son. But she takes the con­cept a step fur­ther, em­pha­siz­ing the ways our bod­ies can use sea­sonal, lo­cally grown foods as fuel for bet­ter health as the cal­en­dar changes.

High points from her June class cov­ered how to buf­fer your­self from the not so fun as­pects of sum­mer — bug bites, sun-dam­aged skin, over­heat­ing — by what you eat.

“All foods grow in dif­fer­ent sea­sons to help with the health as­pects that come up in those sea­sons,” Kroeger says.

Think of food as Mother Na­ture’s medicine cabi­net, and you’ve got the idea.

What fol­lows are some of her ideas about what to eat and why to eat it now, a guide to serv­ing sum­mer foods that are both in­ten­tional and de­li­cious.

cool­ing foods

“There are a lot of foods that are ex­tremely wa­ter-rich, that cool us from the in­side out and help our meta­bolic pro­cesses,” Kroeger says. “When we’re func­tion­ing more ef­fi­ciently, our body doesn’t have to work as hard to stay on top of our game.”

Foods in this cat­e­gory are toma­toes, zuc­chini, wa­ter­melon, can­taloupe and other mel­ons, cu­cum­ber and one you might not have thought of, okra. Some — wa­ter­melon, can­taloupe — also

Con­tin­ued from D con­tain sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of mag­ne­sium and potas­sium, which are an ad­di­tional aid in re­hy­drat­ing the body, says Kroeger.

Pep­pers, one of the few plants to thrive in the heat of sum­mer, also func­tion as a cool­ing food in a coun­ter­in­tu­itive way. “Chiles con­tain sub­stances that sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease ther­mo­ge­n­e­sis (heat pro­duc­tion) for more than 20 min­utes,” Kroeger says. The body per­spires in re­sponse, and the sweat cools the skin.

“Even though they make us hot, in the long run they cool us down.”

A bonus in bikini sea­son, Kroeger says, is that “the heat you feel af­ter eat­ing hot chile pep­pers takes en­ergy and calo­ries to pro­duce.”

And don’t over­look chile pe­quin, the na­tive pep­per plants grow­ing in many Austin-area yards as an or­na­men­tal plant or as food for birds. Steal a lit­tle for your­self, Kroeger says, keep­ing in mind that the heat level is re­ally high, al­most on par with a ha­banero.

One easy way to use chile pe­quin is to drop a few pep­pers, along with some gar­lic cloves, into a jar of vine­gar, then use the fla­vored vine­gar to splash onto foods. Or chop them up and make your own fiery hot Tabasco sauce to zap ev­ery­thing from eggs to greens.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate,” Kroeger says, “but a lot of na­tive foods get pushed to the way­side. Those na­tive foods are typ­i­cally the most nu­tri­ent­dense be­cause they’re ac­tu­ally what was grow­ing nat­u­rally in this re­gion rather than what was cul­ti­vated.”

Cool­ing herbs like pep­per­mint and spearmint can help take the body tem­per­a­ture down a notch when added to iced teas, fruit sal­ads and many other dishes. Their oils can also be com­bined with wa­ter for a re­fresh­ing spray to tote with you as needed.

Skin-pro­tect­ing foods

Skin can take a beat­ing from sun ex­po­sure in sum­mer, but one way to pro­tect yours that doesn’t in­volve pur­chas­ing ex­pen­sive creams has to do with get­ting lots of vi­ta­min A, Kroeger says.

Foods with a yel­low, orange or red­dish hue — sum­mer squash, can­taloupe, toma­toes, wa­ter­melon, peaches and oth­ers — are rich in beta carotene. Some green veg­eta­bles, such as broccoli, spinach and green pep­pers, also con­tain sig­nif­i­cant amounts. Like vi­ta­mins C and E, Kroeger says, vi­ta­min A is an an­tiox­i­dant that aids in skin pro­tec­tion, so it’s worth get­ting as much as you can into your sum­mer diet.

Cu­cum­ber and the juice from the aloe vera plant can be used both top­i­cally and in­ter­nally to help the cool­ing process, es­pe­cially if sun­burn is in­volved, Kroeger says.

She sug­gests adding an ounce of aloe juice to blended fruit juices such as agua fresca or other bev­er­ages once or twice a day.

In­sect re­pel­lents

There are plenty of food-based so­lu­tions for keep­ing bit­ing in­sects away. Though they might not have sci­ence be­hind them like com­mer­cially pre­pared prod­ucts, they’re rel­a­tively safe, and some say, ef­fec­tive. Among those Kroeger con­sid­ers worth try­ing: crushed basil leaves and lemon­grass stalks com­bined with wa­ter to make a spray.

Or take a hand­ful of rose­mary, crush in your hands and rub around the an­kles when go­ing out­side for the same de­ter­rent ef­fect. Foods rich in gar­lic and vi­ta­mins B1 and B12 are also thought to be ef­fec­tive.

Kroeger also be­lieves that the more health­ful the diet, “the less at­trac­tive we’re go­ing to be to mos­qui­toes than some­body with a diet that is high in re­fined sug­ars and flours.”

Al­lergy-pre­vent­ing foods

Okra, a south­ern sta­ple of­ten eaten in gum­bos or deep-fried, can ful­fill an­other func­tion when con­sumed in its more nat­u­ral state, Kroeger says.

“It’s one of the most medic­i­nal foods around,” she says, sug­gest­ing chop­ping it up and adding to sal­ads or sand­wiches, or pick­ling it in a nutri­ent-rich ap­ple cider vine­gar.

The fi­brous veg­etable helps keep the gas­troin­testi­nal tract func­tion­ing as it should, which is crit­i­cal for peo­ple who typ­i­cally suf­fer from fall al­ler­gies, she says.

“Okra fiber is ex­cel­lent for feed­ing the good bac­te­ria (pro­bi­otics) in our GI tract. This con­trib­utes to the health of the in­testi­nal tract. A healthy GI tract can im­prove en­vi­ron­men­tal al­ler­gies of all kinds,” Kroeger says.

Lo­cal honey and bee pollen — sold at farm­ers mar­kets and in stores — can also help pro­tect against pollen-re­lated fall al­ler­gies when con­sumed in the sum­mer months. The idea is that they al­low the body to build up im­mu­nity to rag­weed and other sea­sonal of­fend­ers. And lo­cal honey is a bet­ter choice as a sweet­ener than sugar for peo­ple who suf­fer from al­ler­gies, Kroeger says.

Kroeger’s fi­nal piece of ad­vice is to pur­chase the fresh­est prod­ucts you can buy — not just for taste but to gain the most medic­i­nal ben­e­fits.

“Re­cently har­vested foods con­tain more nu­tri­ents and en­zymes that help our body’s meta­bolic pro­cesses,” she says. “Lo­cal foods take less time to get to the mar­ket and have in­creased nu­tri­tional value.”

Jar­rad Hen­der­son pho­tos

Kara Kroeger, right, is a nu­tri­tion­ist and herbal­ist who teaches ‘Cen­tral Texas Foods as Medicine’ at the Amer­i­can Botan­i­cal Coun­cil. Her June class fo­cused on fight­ing sum­mer ail­ments like bug bites, sun dam­age and over­heat­ing with lo­cally grown fruits, veg­eta­bles and herbs. Toma­toes are cool­ing, okra and figs are good for di­ges­tion and can­taloupe helps with hy­dra­tion.

Har­rad Hen­der­son pho­tos

Stu­dents in the ‘Cen­tral Texas Food as Medicine’ class wait for a taste while Priya Kroeger helps plate her daugh­ter Kara’s cal­abac­i­tas rel­lenas at the Amer­i­can Botan­i­cal Coun­cil in June.

Re­becca Pe­tee, left, and Kara Kroeger pick fen­nel seeds at the Amer­i­can Botan­i­cal Coun­cil. ‘It tastes like black licorice,’ one stu­dent ex­claimed.

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