The Deadly Nightshades…Or Are They?

February 11, 2014

I grew up in a big, culinarily inspiring Italian family. We cooked, ate, made and drank wine, cooked, ate, tended vegetable gardens, fought, cooked and ate. But I learned everything I know about nourishment from hanging out with these kitchen wizards. If only they knew how well they practiced macrobiotic ideals, they would laugh…and then cook and eat!

My grandfather and father had gardens that were the envy of the neighborhood. They were so committed to its health and beauty that they erected tall lights so that they could work at night, making sure every inch of their precious garden was tended. And the results? We had vegetables so succulent, so lively that we barely had to season them at all to coax amazing flavor from each and every one of them.

The most popular plant in this typical Italian garden was, of course…the tomato. They grew heavy on the vines, so lush with juice that my dad ate them like apples. We ate them in everything…salads, casseroles, in sauces, on burgers…and then at the end of the summer, we canned them so we had a taste of summer all winter long. Along with the eggplant and peppers, we were in nightshade heaven! But my mother always confused me when she cooked with tomatoes. She always marinated, dried, blanched or cooked them before we could eat them. I thought she was just trying to make more work for me, but she knew that some light ‘processing’ would make the tomatoes easier to digest.

I grew to adulthood and my love affair with these veggies and fruits continued…until I discovered and began to practice macrobiotics. In a life-threatening health crisis, I turned to this magnificent way of eating to make my way back to health and vitality. There were so many changes to the way I ate and lived, but none so dramatic as the exclusion of nightshades from my diet. The thought of living without my beloved tomatoes was almost more than I could bear…but I did it…for years, I ate the other abundant vegetables that Mother Nature offered, eschewing my lovely tomatoes (and eggplant, peppers and potatoes).

After many years of teaching and learning and discovering, I made the decision to bring these fruits back into my life and diet…much to the horror of many of my macrobiotic colleagues and friends…so let me explain.

I have lived a macrobiotic lifestyle for over thirty-five years now and I have learned a lot in that time. One of my most valuable lessons was to understand that everything changes. The more I live in the world, the more I am humbled by how little I understand about life’s twists and turns.

When I faced my health crisis, I changed my diet drastically in order to rebalance my body so that it could heal…and it did. I’m here all these years later as proof. My diet was monastic to say the least, but it helped me to return to the great health that I now enjoy. I maintained that very austere and restricted diet for more than fifteen years.

In 1998, I found myself, once again, in a life-threatening situation, suffering a brain aneurysm and was forced to examine my dietary choices once again. My crisis was the direct result of maintaining an extreme diet for too many years. A lack of vitamin B-12 had forced my homocysteine levels up and the burst was the result. I had to re-group and re-think how I lived my life, so that I could, in fact, live.

I was forced to change my thinking on many subjects, from the basics like the use of tomatoes and peppers to the amount of good quality fat needed to maintain a healthy life to the ratio of carbohydrates to other nutrients in my daily diet. For many years I had turned my back on my Italian culinary heritage, branding it as unhealthy, embracing only Asian-style cooking. I have come full circle, as we all do and while I still love Asian wisdom and cooking, I have re-discovered the wonders of natural balance within who I am, culturally, socially, spiritually and of course, physically. I have discovered that I love my Italian ancestry and have learned to marry the wisdom of East and West to create the style I live by and teach today.

I have come to the conclusion that there’s not a vegetable on earth that will kill us. Most of us don’t need to make a change or improve our health because we ate too many tomatoes…sure they contain ‘solanine’, an acidic alkaloid that has been linked to arthritis symptoms, as well as making our blood pH more acidic. They are also a great source of magnesium, vitamin C and lycopene. What’s to do? I went back to my family and asked. While they didn’t know from ‘solanine,’ they knew that tomatoes gave them “acida” (acid indigestion) unless cooked, marinated or dried. My own research shows that those processes neutralize this alkaloid as well as make the essential nutrients more available to us. So should we indulge when tomatoes are in season, lush with juices and fresh taste? You bet, (unless your health will not allow for them…), but marinated, cooked or dried. I even work with dear friends at the end of each summer, canning dozens of jars of tomatoes for use all winter long. This little bit of summer helps us to retain a light and fresh energy as well as enjoy the nutrients available to us in tomatoes.

Peppers (a fruit…) and eggplant (also a fruit, a berry, actually…) fall into the same category as tomatoes…the nightshade family…or as they are known in macrobiotics, ‘avoid’ vegetables. For reasons similar to that of tomatoes, acid-producing peppers and eggplant are often deleted from diets when people are healing…and with good reason. The more acidic your blood pH, the better host you are for disease. It’s a great theory and effective, too, when healing. But when you are healthy, these veggies can be a great source of…magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, vitamin c and folates, so don’t be too quick to discount them. But what about the acid, you say? Well, cultures that eat these veggies know how to process them to neutralize the acids and minimize any undesirable effects.

For instance, while roasting peppers gives them a nice smoky flavor, the real reason for roasting and peeling them is to rid them of acids just under the skin. Eggplant is salted and pressed before cooking for the same reason.

Which brings us to potatoes…unfortunately, these babies may need to take a back seat in your diet. Rich in simple carbohydrates by nature, they turn to sugar (and consequently acidic pH) rather quickly and there really is not a tip or trick to minimizing that. But if you can’t live without potatoes, go with the small purple ones or baby new potatoes. They each contain less sugar and more minerals. And I advise roasting them with olive oil, salt and rosemary to aid in digestion.

So can we enjoy these ‘deadly nightshades’ and still maintain our health? Take a look at Italy, Greece, France and any other Mediterranean country and you will see for yourself. The people are vibrant and healthy for the most part (although that is changing as they add more and more fast food to their diets). But those who eat traditionally enjoy good health and vitality, so yes, you can enjoy this family of vegetables and maintain vibrant health.

One disclaimer…if you are struggling with a condition and want to alter it with your food choices, you will need to examine any ingredient that is acid-producing in the body. You will want to minimize or avoid those until your health is restored.

In short, I have come to the conclusion that we have to understand food and how it works in our bodies. Right, wrong, rules, extremes, brown rice, daikon, tomatoes, peppers, chocolate or amasake…it’s really about making choices appropriate to human health. Living in harmony with nature around you, enjoying whole, unprocessed, seasonal, organic food that is simply and elegantly prepared are the keys to health and vitality. It’s really as simple as that.

Stuffed Roasted Red Peppers
Savory rice stuffing wrapped in the embrace of smoky roasted peppers is a delicious way to serve grain. With the stability that we get from brown rice, with a touch of fiery vitality from the peppers and spices and you create a dish that will make you oh, so strong.

Makes 4 main course servings or cut in half, 8 appetizer servings

extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
_ red onion, finely diced
sea salt
generous pinch red pepper flakes
1 carrot, finely diced
2-3 stalks celery, finely diced
1 cup fresh/frozen corn kernels
2-3 teaspoons mirin or white wine
1 _ cups cooked short grain brown rice

4 red bell peppers
extra virgin olive oil

Prepare the stuffing by placing a small amount of oil, the garlic and onion in a small skillet and turn the heat to medium. When the vegetables begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt, the red pepper flakes and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add carrot and celery, a pinch of salt and saute for 1-2 minutes more. Stir in corn, season lightly with salt and add mirin. Cover and cook over low heat for 3-4 minutes. Stir in cooked rice until ingredients are well combined.

Transfer to a mixing bowl to cool.

Lightly oil each pepper and place each over an open flame on the stove. Turn each pepper, charring the skins completely. When the peppers are blackened, transfer them to a paper sack and seal shut to steam the skins from the peppers. After 10 minutes, carefully remove the peppers and, with your fingers, gently remove the charred skin, taking care to keep the peppers intact. Once all the charred skin is removed, carefully pull the seeds out of the tops of the peppers, keeping the peppers intact. Clean any remaining seeds from the peppers.

Carefully spoon filling into each pepper, filling abundantly, but taking care not to split them open. Place stuffed peppers on a baking sheet and place in a 300o oven to warm through, about 10 minutes. Serve drizzled with a fruity olive oil.

This classic Mediterranean oven stew is one of my favorites to make when the veggies are in full season…summer! I know it means lighting the oven on a hot day, but when you sit down to this glorious, sensual stew, laden with the succulent flavors of the season, you’ll thank yourself for the effort.

Makes 4-5 servings

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 eggplant, _-inch cubes, soaked in salted water for 1 hour, rinsed and drained well
Sea salt
1 cup extra firm tofu, finely crumbled
2 teaspoons white miso
2 zucchini, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 large red onion, sliced into thin rings
2 cups thinly sliced cremini mushrooms
1 roasted red pepper, thinly sliced
2 large, ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350o and oil a 2 quart casserole dish with 1 tablespoon oil.

Place remaining oil, garlic and basil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté garlic until lightly browned. Stir in eggplant and sauté until eggplant is soft, about 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt and sauté for 1 more minute.

Spread eggplant evenly over the bottom of the casserole. Mix crumbled tofu and miso together. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of the tofu mixture over the eggplant. Layer zucchini over the tofu. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons of the tofu mixture. Continue layering in this fashion, onions, tofu mixture, mushrooms, tofu mixture, pepper, tofu and finally top with tomatoes.

Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving.