Food for thought

An olive tree branch for your black bean soup

Root and cruciferous vegetables, deep-hued berries, fresh herbs and dried spices — all good for whatever ails you

Phyllis Glazer is an American-born food journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of several cookbooks that have been published in Hebrew, German, and Italian, and appears frequently on television and radio in Israel.

Jerusalem artichokes lack starch, and are a good addition to soups and stews (By Christian Guthier/CC-BY-Flickr)
Jerusalem artichokes lack starch, and are a good addition to soups and stews (By Christian Guthier/CC-BY-Flickr)

It seems like every second person I meet is sniffling, coughing or just getting over the flu, including my daughter, who came down with a cold last week. My dear mother, rest her soul, would tell me to make her a gogl mogl, a folk cure of foamy hot milk and honey with a raw egg yolk whisked in, but today natural health professionals proscribe dairy products as phlegm-producing, and caution against eating raw eggs, for fear of salmonella contamination.

One way to avoid colds is by boosting your immune system. You don’t have to go far to find foods that build the immune system; many, if not most can be found in your local supermarket, green grocer or health foods store. Broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, Swiss chard and other cruciferous vegetables are packed with antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory substances, as are root vegetables like onions, garlic, turnips, radishes, sweet potatoes and carrots.

In the fruit department, special mention goes to red grapes, which contain resveratrol, and to a compound called pterostilben found in blueberries, whether they’re fresh, frozen or dried. It’s also good to know that all berries are rich in antioxidants due to their deep, dark color. I have a friend who mixes dried cherries, blueberries, cranberries and gogi-berries*, then covers them with water and keeps the mixture in the refrigerator as a treat or topping for yogurt. Sometimes he’ll add frozen cherries or blackberries, and fresh strawberries in season.

There are some immune-builders that you might find more exotic, like miso, dried Persian lemons, black mustard seeds, horseradish, kaffir lime leaves, tofu and nutmeg. Just knowing they’re good for you may inspire you to find ways to use them.

Fresh herbs –- like basil, mint, sage, lemon grass, thyme, rocket and melissa are all considered to be helpful in enhancing the immune system. Their potency remains whether you use them in salads or brew your favorite combination of herbs into a soothing tea with raw (unheated) honey (also an immune booster). Dried herbs also have immune-building properties. In winter, I like to brew a mixture of dried sage, white savory (zuta levana) and a few fragrant dried roses*, sometimes with slices of fresh ginger, and sip it throughout the day.

Head to a spice store to stock up on dried spices (photo credit: Daniel Dreifuss/Flash 90)
Head to a spice store to stock up on dried spices (photo credit: Daniel Dreifuss/Flash 90)

Dried spices also hold their own magic qualities. According to renowned American doctor Andrew Weill, who introduced the anti-inflammatory way of eating to millions of Americans, science now understands that chronic inflammation in the body can be a precursor of a host of illnesses including cancer. To help against inflammation in the body, Weill suggests eating ginger (fresh or dried) and turmeric daily, or taking them as supplements. In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and other Asian medical disciplines, these two simple spices have been used for centuries for the prevention and treatment of various types of inflammation in the body.

Have an olive tree growing somewhere in the vicinity? It’s worth giving it a trim. Not only is olive oil is good for you, extracts of olive leaves and their oleuropein constituents can help boost the immune system with their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities, and help reduce blood sugar and blood pressure.

Throw some freshly harvested olive leaves in your pasta water or soup, to boost the immune system (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)
Throw some freshly harvested olive leaves in your pasta water or soup, to boost the immune system (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

According to Eyal Springer, head of the Alternative Medicine Cancer Treatment Center of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital), benefits can even be obtained by just boiling six olive tree leaves in a cup of water for several minutes, then straining and sipping it like a tea. Some people find the tea bitter – but my olive tree’s leaves taste just fine. Avoid bitterness by only boiling the leaves till the water is a medium amber-color. You can also make a liter’s worth, chill, and drink a glass or two during the day.

Since they’re so good for us, it’s worth finding other opportunities to use olive leaves. I’ll add a branch to soups, vegetable stews and even to the water I use to boil pasta. Always remove them at the end of cooking, as you would bay leaves. Note: those taking prescription blood pressure medicines should consult their doctor before using olive leaves.

Immune-boosting Black Bean Soup

This simple soup contains more than 11 different immune builders. If you can’t find Jerusalem artichokes (although they are in season now), substitute pumpkin or more sweet potatoes.

  • 1 cup black beans, soaked overnight
  • 7 cups water
  • 12 olive leaves, optional
  • 2 light-colored Persian lemons, cut in half*
  • 1 cup of each, cubed: sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke, onions
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) chopped tomatoes, or 3 peeled tomatoes, chopped with liquid
  • 1 teaspoon each oregano and turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, or ½ teaspoon dry ginger
  • 1 carrot, sliced into strips lengthwise, with a peeler
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Drain the soaked beans and place in a large pot with the water and olive leaves.
  2. Bring to a boil and cook over low heat, partially covered, or until the beans are tender but not mushy. Remove the olive leaves.
  3. Pierce a few holes in each of the Persian lemons and add to the pot with the rest of the ingredients except for the carrot. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are done.
  4. Add the thinly sliced carrots, salt and pepper and continue cooking about 5-10 minutes more before serving. Garnish with basil or fresh coriander, if desired.

(*Note: You can find dried roses and Persian lemons in spice stores, and gogi-berries in health food stores.)

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