It's still August in New York but today's weather forecast calls for a high of 69 degrees. It already feels like a premature fall and thoughts of getting my cold weather crops out now feel more of a priority than basking in the glory of my few surviving tomato plants. The garden is now filled with expectant nightshade fruits: Tuscan and Japanese eggplant, Adirondack Blue and Nicola potatoes, purple, chocolate, orange and red bell peppers, green and purple jalapenos, thai red chili peppers and green and purple tomatillos. It's amazing how much of the summer diet is comprised of this family of vegetables also known as Solanaceae. The ominous sounding nightshades also include many poisonous plants such as nicotine (yes, I'd classify that one as a slow poison), belladonna, and jimson weed. The danger comes from the alkaloid content of these plants which can cause effects on the nervous system.
When I was a first year in medical school, one of the toxidromes commonly used to remember the side effects of the class of drugs called anti-cholinergics was "hot as a hare, dry as a bone, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, blind as a bat." These common drugs, all from belladonna, are used in small quantities: atropine (as eye drops used to dilate the pupils), scopolamine (for motion sickness), and Donnatal (gastointestinal spasms). The toxidrome translated to the classic overdose symptoms of this alkaloid - fever, urinary retention, flushing, delirium/hallucinations, and dilated pupils. Interestingly, the name belladonna means "beautiful lady" because it was historically and cosmetically used to dilate the pupils in women; apparently an attractive attribute at the time. I can imagine these women, "blind as a bat," suffering with their atropine-induced dilated pupils all in the name of beauty. Women have been subjected to some type of physical harm for beauty throughout the ages: bound feet in China, suffocating corsets a few centuries ago, and now the contemporary issue of eating disorders. Yes, I digress, back to food....
Although the alkaloid content found in the food nightshades are very minimal, there are the susceptible few that can react to the compound even with just faint traces of the substance. Though there are few studies that examine the relationship between nightshades and inflammation, there have been many anecdotal reports that the elimination of these foods can significantly improve inflammatory conditions, most notably arthritis. In my work with patients, a large component addresses nutritional and dietary aspects and their contribution to health and illness. I view food as the medicine that you put in your body 3-5 times per day and your symptoms may have a huge connection to what you may be feeling. There are few people who are willing to initially do this and would rather take pharmaceuticals to address symtomatology, but most people seeking my care have either failed that approach and are desperate or they are more interested in root causes for their symptoms and are extremely proactive in their health. One of things that I look for are an abundance of a specific type of food in the diet, or in this case, a family of foods. Anecdotally, I can say that there have been a few people who have reacted positively to the elimination of nighshades (much to their dismay). These specific patients had a significant and sometimes complete resolution of their arthritic symptoms and though one can argue that there is very little scientific data to support this theory connecting nightshades and inflammation, these happy patients are not complaining. It is also of interest to note that the compound found in chili peppers, also a nightshade, called capsaicin can be used topically for symptoms of arthritis. The mechanism seems to be related to capsaicin's affects on pain receptors and it is likely that there is very little, if any, significant absorption of this compound.
I am in no way advocating that one should eliminate the beautiful and tasty vegetables, I wholeheartedly endorse their use as they contain so many other beneficial compounds essential for good health. I leave you with 3 extremely tasty recipes using potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant.
Recipe 1 of 3: Tomato, Eggplant and Mint Salsa
1/2 cup olive oil plus 2 Tbs
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup onion, finely diced
2 tsp minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
4 cups medium-diced eggplant (leave skin on)
4 lbs tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
2 tsp smoked paprika or aleppo pepper
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
1. Make garlic oil: combine 1/2 cup of olive oil with chopped garlic and gently warm in saute pan until the oil just starts to rupple. Turn off heat and allow garlic to infuse the oil - aout an hour. Remove garlic.
2. Warm 2 Tbs olive oil in saute pan add onions and cook until tender and slightly carmelized. Add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant. Season with 1/2 tsp salt and the pepper.
3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss eggplant with remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil (or more) and 1 tsp salt. Spread onto a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet in a single layer and place in the oven. Gently and occasionally turn the eggplant with a spatula. Roast until tender, about 20 minutes.
4. Combine onions eggplant, tomatoes, paprika/aleppo pepper, vinegar and mint in a large bowl. Taste with salt and pepper, if desired.
5. Can be served with pita chips (brush slices of pita wedges with remaining garlic oil and bake at 350 for 10 minutes), tortilla chips or spooned over some warm rice and topped with feta cheese.
Adapted from Amy Goldman's 'The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table"
Recipe 2 of 3: Spicy Eggplant Spread with Thai Basil
Eggplant is notorious for requiring huge amounts of oil to cook with. This healthy version roasts japanese eggplant in the oven and combines it with the other ingredient thus eliminating the need for excess oil.
1 lb japanese eggplant
1 1/2 Tbs light brown sugar
2 Tbs rice wine vinegar
1 Tbs soy sauce
2-3 jalapeno peppers, finely minced
3 Tbs toasted peanut oil
3 galric cloves
3 Tbs chopped basil (can be a Thai, Holy and/or Cinnamon basil)
2 Tbs black sesame seeds, toasted
optional: fish sauce ( 2 tsp)
Roast eggplant by preheating oven to 425. Poke eggplant with a fork in several places and bake until the point of collapse. Let cool and peel off skin and coarsely chop flesh.
Mix the sugar, vinegar, soy and chilis together (and fish sauce if desired). Heat a wok or skillet over high heat and add oil. When it begins to haze, add garlic and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add eggplant and stir fry for about minutes then add sauce and fry for 1 minute more. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped basil.
Mound eggplant in a bowl and garnish with extra basil leaves and sesame seeds. Or spread on croutons or crackers and garnish each individually.
Adapted from Deborah Madison "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone"
Recipe 3 of 3: Roasted Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary
2 lbs new potatoes (I used Adirondack Blues and Russian Fingerlings in this picture) - 3/4" pieces
1 Sprig Rosemary, leaves roughly chopped
Olive oil, enough to just coat potatoes (approx 2-3 Tbs)
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
Salt to taste
This recipe couldn't be more simple. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Mix all ingredients and bake for 20 minutes turning it occasionally while roasting. Voila!