Spring has sprung, and here I am, back in Romania again. The apartment I’m staying at happens to be right next to Piata Obor, Bucharest’s biggest and best open air food market. Anytime I need to go food shopping, the best food and produce in Romania is only a stone’s throw away. In the springtime, Romanian piatas (pronounced piazza, similar to pizza) are full of lush greenery – verdeata (verdeazza), as Romanians call it, literally “greenery”. Eating a lot of green leafy vegetables in the springtime is the best way to purify your blood – the Sanguine humor, which is associated with this time of year – for a good “spring cleaning”. Romania has a number of distinctive, exotic vegetables and greens that I have seen nowhere else.
The first thing to catch my eye when I enter the marketplace is Loboda (Atriplex hortensis) whose leaves scream out at you in bright, electric shades of red and purple. Romanians typically put Loboda in ciorbas (hot soups or broths) or eat them in salads. This leafy vegetable is a nutritional powerhouse. First of all, it is very rich in protein for a vegetable, being 17% protein by weight – which makes it an essential item on the menu of those devout followers of Eastern Orthodox Christianity who are doing a vegetarian fast during lent. Being red or purple, it’s not surprising that Loboda is also rich in iron, like spinach, as well as the minerals potassium and magnesium for the health of the heart and muscles, as well as impressive amounts of calcium and beta carotene. Loboda is also rich in dietary fiber to promote bowel regularity and protect against diabetes and heart disease. Loboda s also rich in anthocyanins and phenols, powerful antioxidants that give the leaves their red and purple color, which protect against premature aging and memory loss, as well as urinary tract infections. Because Loboda, like spinach, contains large amounts of oxalic acid, those who tend to form kidney stones should not eat it. -1.
Next to the Loboda, whose leaves are a bright pea green is a strange green vegetable that Romanians call Leurda (Allium ursinum), which are the leaves of the Bear Garlic. Not surprisingly, these broad, pea green leaves have a strong garlic flavor and aroma. And they can be potent and powerful, sending their hot, garlicky aroma deep into every cell and pore of your body; don’t eat too many of them at one sitting, or you may well overdose, and bite off more than you can handle. The overall therapeutic uses and profile of Leurda is actually quite similar to that of Garlic, being used for hypertension and as a vasodilator to stimulate the heart, dilate the peripheral blood vessels and improve circulation, as well as to lower cholesterol. Being a powerful stimulator and modulator of the immune system, Leurda also has valuable antimicrobial properties that come in handy in respiratory infections. Because Leurda is so strong and potent, lactating mothers are advised to avoid it, and those with a delicate stomach and digestive tract should avoid consuming too much of it, as I cautioned earlier. -2
Next to the Loboda and the Leurda you will find a green, leafy vegetable that Romanians call Stevie (Rumex acetallosa). Stevie is the leafy, above ground portion of a Romanian variety of Yellow Dock, whose rootstock is used by American herbalists. Since Stevie, or Yellow Dock greens, is a close botanical relative of Rhubarb, which is also rich in oxalic acid, it too would probably be contraindicated for those with a tendency to form kidney stones. Stevie is quite similar to spinach in its overall taste and energetics, and probably rich in iron and blood building nutrients as well. Yellow Dock root, after all, is used by American herbalists as a blood tonic that improves the liver’s ability to store blood and hemoglobin. An interesting feature of Stevie is its soft fiber or mucilage content, which becomes quite apparent when you boil or steam the vegetable; this appears to have a soothing and lubricating mild emollient laxative effect on the bowels. When I was researching Stevie for this blog posting, what I found was that even Romanians confused it with Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana), the Paraguayan sweet leaf and antidiabetic sugar substitute.
But my absolute favorite exotic Romanian green is Leustean (Levisticum officinale), which is an aromatic green of the Parsley family. Perhaps the closest other vegetable you could compare it to would be European style celery greens, but the wonderful aroma of Leustean, or Lovage greens, is far more pungent and robust. The typical Romanian way of using Leustean is to add it to hot soups and broths, or ciorbas and let the wonderful aroma fill the whole pot, and enliven all the subtle flavors of the broth or soup. Care should be taken never to boil, or even to steam, Leustean greens for too long, otherwise the aromatic essential oils will dissipate. In terms of its therapeutic uses, Leustean is a great tonic and stimulator of the heart and blood circulation. In this, Leustean is quite similar to its botanical cousin Chuan Xiong, or the Szechuan Lovage root used in Chinese herbal medicine, and the exquisite flavors and aromas of both plants are quite similar. While fresh Leustean greens can be found at the open air food markets, dried Leustean leaves can be found in the Plafars or Romanian herb stores. Reading that I have done even leads me to believe that Leustean leaves were known to the ancient Romans, and were munched on as a refreshing snack at the Roman baths.
But by far the king of the healthy spring vegetables here in Romania is Urzici (Urtica dioica), which is the great Stinging Nettle. Nettles are quite famous and well used as a healthful vegetable and a medicinal tea throughout Europe, and in the springtime, when the fresh Nettle leaves are springing forth anew, European health enthusiasts, with gloves on and basket in hand, go out into the forest or meadows to pick Nettles. In the Romanian piatas, Nettles are often sold by the gypsies, and you buy them by the bag, as they are quite light; however, they cook down quite a bit. Those who accidentally brush up against Stinging Nettle leaves know full well how the plant got its descriptive name, but the itching sting quickly disappears as soon as the herb is cooked, or the leaves dried. Nettles are another medicinal plant that you can either buy in the markets and cook up as a vegetable, or get from the herb stores or Plafars and brew up as a tea. The uses and health benefits of Nettles are legion.
Nettles are a great green herbal superfood that is rich in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, and is recognized as a blood tonic par excellence, with an abundance of iron and vitamin C that is very beneficial for treating anemia. It is also an alterative or blood cleanser with mild diuretic properties that improve body fluid metabolism, which also optimizes the viscosity of the blood, improving its clotting properties. As a blood cleanser, Nettles are particularly recommended for those with arthritis and rheumatism, as well as allergies, including asthma and hay fever, if used on a regular basis. Nettles also have valuable anti-inflammatory properties. If you fancy yourself to be a great chef, you may want to try your culinary skills out on cooking up a batch of fresh Nettles; the herb itself doesn’t have that much flavor, but by combining it with other herbs and condiments to “sweeten up the pot”, so to speak, you can create a culinary masterpiece. Or, if teas are more your bag, steep a heaping tablespoon of dried Nettle leaves in a cup of boiling water for about five minutes, strain and drink, sweetening it with a little honey and lemon if desired. I often powder up dried Nettle leaves, combining them with dried Parsley leaves and other dried herbal superfoods to create a kind of green herbal superfood powder that I call Vitamix. Wash a spoonful of it back with water, or mix Vitamix into smoothies. -3.
To cook a batch of fresh Nettles up into a tantalizing vegetable dish, you first have to put the fresh Nettles you’re going to cook into a large sieve or colander and rinse all the residual dirt and sand out of them with flowing water. Then, chop them up fine, one handful at a time, until you’ve chopped up the whole batch. Then, chop up some garlic, green onions or leeks and put them in the pot with the Nettles, throwing in about ½ to one cup of water. To help with the digestion of the Nettles and to relieve gas, you may want to throw in a few pinches of Greek Oregano and a Bay Leaf or two. Also put in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Also highly desirable is to chop up some fresh Leustean leaves for their wonderful flavor and aroma, and throw them in only during the last few minutes of cooking. Steam the Nettles and other veggies slowly for about 45 minutes or so. Add a little soy sauce to taste, and eat. Yummy!