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Herb Appeal 

Exotic herbs bring unique flavors and soothing properties to a hearty sweet potato and mushroom dish

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RUSS LANE
  • Photo by Russ Lane

Boil herb combinations in five cups of water until it cooks down to one cup and drink it: Cooks call this both a reduction or hot infusion, and medical herbalists call it treatment. The only difference is context.

  "People call it 'tea,' but it's more like a concoction," says Dr. Kam Lam, who is licensed in both Eastern and Western medicine and owns Acupuncture and Herbal Centers in Metairie and Mandeville. "People have a different idea when you say 'tea.'"

  I experimented with a combination of the two, cooking a tasty dish using medicinal herbs, and found the best of both worlds: a great recipe and an excellent chill-out alternative to chamomile tea.

  A word of caution: Because federal law does not recognize herbs as medicine, herbalists cannot claim to "cure" anything, says Wendy Hounsel, a registered nurse at East Jefferson General Hospital who also is a trained herbalist.

  "As herbalists, we do not treat or diagnose," she says. "Those words are the domain of the medical world. And that's OK; that's not what we do. We support the structure and function of the entire body."

  Lam and Hounsel illustrate different approaches to herbalism. Traditional Chinese Medicine, which Lam practices, aims to strengthen the entire body as opposed to targeting a specific problem. Herbs are used for detoxification and to correct imbalances in body moisture and body heat. Hounsel has studied the largely folkloric herbal traditions in Western medicine, which is harder to document and track. She co-owns Maypop Community Herb Shop, which carries roughly 50 herbs ranging from conventional to those used in Indian and Chinese traditions; Lam's Metairie shop has more than 400 herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine but almost unheard of in any other context.

  The history, methods and herb selection of the Eastern and Western approaches differ, but there are similarities: Both use medicinal herbs in specific combinations to aid health problems. Both East and West believe in improving overall health to minimize specific health issues.

  Food's role in medical treatment is just as open to interpretation. Hounsel finds many similarities between a creative chef and a committed herbalist. "Herbalism is a lot like cooking," she says. "A little bit like food, not as strong as medicine — it's the best of both worlds."

  Some items, like the root San Qi, can be used singularly for pain relief, Lam says. I ground the root like a cinnamon stick, dusted it on goat cheese and baked it on roasted almonds and discovered a beautiful licorice note, along with some relief for my foot pain. However, Chinese medical herbs can prove toxic in improper amounts or without specific preparation, Lam says, so only the most knowledgeable or daring chefs should attempt this.

  Michael Doyle, executive chef of Maurepas Foods in the Bywater, is one such boundary-pusher. Almost every item on his rotating, bistro-style menu employs herbs to add surprising twists to dishes.

  Doyle generally follows a seasonal rule: If an herb and a produce are in season together, they usually yield a palate-pleasing effect when combined. That's how he came to pair cucumbers with chile-cured radish, shiso paste and a garlic vinaigrette on his most recent menu.

  You also can smell herbs to suss out which combinations are the best. This is usually a fail-secure cooking method, Doyle says.

  "Generally speaking, there's a really high correspondence between smell and taste, just like anything else," Doyle says. "You can trust it with a lot of herbs."

  Doyle's go-to methods for spotlighting herbal flavors include vinaigrettes, purees or fast infusions in oil — which brings us back to tea, an overlooked infusion method. I turned the idea of healing teas, health food and East-meets-West on its ear for the Slumbering Warrior recipe. Hounsel says the combination of ashwagandha root, linden and dried hawthorn berries aids insomniacs and those with high blood pressure, making this dish a natural sedative.

  Combined with diet soda and light beer instead of water, folded into a hearty mushroom pasta dish (emphasis on mushrooms, not noodles) and garnished with spiced sweet potato quenelles, this meal provides a cold fall night alternative to hot tea and offers flavors that are at once comforting and provocative.

Slumbering Warrior

1 medium sweet potato

1 tablespoon ashwaganda root*

1 tablespoon linden*

1 tablespoon hawthorne berry*

1/4 cup Diet Mountain Dew

1/2 cup light beer, divided

1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

Pinch cinnamon

Dash chili powder, plus more on a saucer

2 teaspoons granulated garlic

1 teaspoon onion powder

2 teaspoons thyme

1 teaspoons olive oil

2 packages sliced portabello mushrooms

1 yellow pepper, diced (optional)

1/2 package whole wheat spaghetti, wide buckwheat noodles or homemade whole wheat pasta

Salt and pepper to taste

* Available at Maypop Community Herb Shop (1034 Franklin Ave.)

Per 2-oz. serving of noodles (about 3-4 servings): calories 242, total fat 2.3 grams, cholesterol 0 milligrams, sodium 56.7 milligrams, potassium 652.5 milligrams, total carbohydrate 52.7 grams (dietary fiber 8.2 grams, sugars 3.4 grams), protein 9.4 grams.

 Prepare noodles according to package directions, but reduce cook time by 2 minutes. Drain, but do not rinse, and set aside.

  Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine ashwagandha root, linden and hawthorne berry with diet soda and 1/4 cup light beer. Bake sweet potato, uncovered, until skin becomes brittle and insides become tender, about 35 minutes. Allow herb mixture to steep while potato bakes.

Remove potato from oven and set aside.

  Pour herb mixture into a saucepan over medium heat until the liquid almost evaporates, about 15 minutes. Add broth, vinegar, cinnamon, chili powder, garlic and onion powder and thyme. Cook over low heat; add water if the mixture evaporates too quickly.

  In a separate saucepan, add olive oil and heat on medium-high until simmering and just smoking. Add mushrooms and toss to sear all sides. Reduce heat to low, add the remaining 1/4 cup beer, add yellow pepper and simmer.

  Pour herb sauce through a strainer. Add strained liquid to the mushrooms in the saucepan. Add pasta and toss to combine ingredients and allow sauce to adhere to pasta. If the mixture does not thicken, add a slurry of 1/8 teaspoon whole wheat flour and a teaspoon of water. The pasta will finish cooking at this time.

  Cut the sweet potato in half. Spoon out the sweet potatoe meat and form into balls almost the size of golf balls. Toss half the sweet potato balls with chili powder.

  To serve, divide pasta mixture onto plates and garnish with equal portions chili-dusted sweet potato and plain sweet potato.

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