Eat for the Season

Our soul as well as our body is nourished when we eat according to nature's cycle, says Rosamund Burton

Our soul as well as our body is nourished when we eat according to nature's cycle, says Rosamund Burton

'Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.' - Henry David Thoreau

These words sum up what it means to be content - to live in tune with our environment. But how many of us follow the advice of the wise American poet and philosopher when it comes to following the seasons? It's so easy to keep on going at the same rapid pace, summer and winter; to work hard all year round, follow the same exercise regimen regardless of the weather, and also eat the same food.

It used to be that what people ate depended on what could be grown in the region where they lived, and also what could be stored and preserved in colder winter months. We may think it's wonderful that we can get whatever we like whenever we like, but what is the cost?

Fruit and vegetables eaten in season have been found to have a higher phytochemical content and contain more nutrients. If you buy produce which is not in season, it is likely to have been grown in artificial conditions, or picked prematurely and transported long distances either within Australia or from overseas. All these factors not only affect the taste, but also the nutrient content.

Research by the Austrian Consumers Association discovered that vegetables picked and frozen while in season are actually higher in nutrients than if they are transported out of season from overseas. And not only do imported fruit and vegetables affect our health, but also the health of the planet, because of the emission of greenhouse gases and the use of resources to transport them the long distances.

Autumn is a time of year when we become particularly aware of the change of seasons. The evenings are getting shorter and there's a nip in the air. Up until a few weeks ago, I couldn't imagine wearing anything more than a thin cotton dress, but now I'm pulling jumpers out of my cupboard and searching for socks! Just as we need to wear different clothes in each season, we also need to eat different foods.

Instinctively, we know that winter is about eating heavier, slow cooked warming foods like porridge and stews, whereas summer is about salads and juices and raw or quickly cooked foods.

Nutritionist and naturopath, Janella Purcell, author of Eating for the Seasons explains that for each season there are associated organs of the body and also emotions. She became aware that different foods had different energies - some bringing energy down and into the body, and others moving energy up and out - which led her to study Traditional Chinese Medicine. This ancient modality stresses the importance of eating food in season to support and nourish different organs at different times of the year.

The lungs and the colon are in the spotlight in autumn. Autumn is about letting go and both these organs are eliminatory. The emotions of autumn are grief and sadness, and unresolved emotions can present as physical symptoms such as coughs and gastrointestinal problems.

In winter, the kidneys and the bladder are the sensitive organs, which means we could experience anxiety, fearfulness and also feel isolated. Winter is seen as a time of death; it's a time to slow down, look inward and reflect on our lives, and to eat heavier, salty foods to take the energy down into the body.

But autumn is associated with letting go – eliminating - and pungent flavours like ginger, wasabi and coriander, and sour foods like lemon, lime and grapefruit are good for the system.

"We also need a bit more oil now to protect our skin," Janella explains. "You're likely to get dry lipped. People get constipated, dry scalps and coughs. The condition of your skin reflects the condition of your lungs, so if you've got dry skin you're going to have dry lungs." Oily foods like tahini and avocado and seafood are helpful in this regard.

Because of the dryness, we also need foods that will moisten the body; vegetables such as sweet potato, carrots, zucchini, leeks, spinach and fruits like apples, pears, grapes and figs, all of which are in season.

I'm interviewing Janella Purcell at her practice in Sydney's inner suburb of Surry Hills. Pots and pans are hanging in the kitchen where for 10 years she taught cooking classes, but recently she has turned her attention to larger audiences. In 2007, she starred in the first series of Good Chef Bad Chef, which has been sold to over 150 countries. Currently, she can be seen on the third series of the show airing daily on Channel 10.

She is passionate about teaching people how they can eat good healthy food and Eating for the Seasons is full of easy recipes using natural ingredients.

Janella grew up in a household in which nutritious home-cooked food was fundamental to life. Her mother and grandmother are both Lebanese. Her mother had eight brothers and sisters and Janella was one of four children, so she had a large extended family. At the age of 12, because her mother was working, Janella took over the role of family cook, and used to do the shopping and cook dinner every night.

"I loved it," she tells me. "I started reading recipe books like people read novels."

But for Janella as a young teenager food was also an issue because unlike her sisters and the rest of the family she was overweight. She was going to Weight Watchers at the age of 13, suffered digestive problems and was anxious and over emotional. When doctors suggested that Janella should have her gall bladder taken out her mother took her to a naturopath. The naturopath wasn't able to give her many solutions and she realised that she had to figure out the answers herself.

It was then she realised that when she had mince she vomited, that dairy made her feel bloated and really tired, and that she also found bread hard to digest. So she eliminated those foods from her diet. Then she started working in vegetarian and vegan restaurants on a mission to find out more about natural, healthy eating.

Today, 30 years later, she still doesn't eat meat or dairy and very little wheat. So the recipes in her book include fish and seafood, but are sugar, dairy and mostly gluten free.

It was Janella's quest to find out how to solve her own problems that led her to help other people. Qualified in Traditional Chinese Medicine and kinesiology, as well as nutrition and naturopathy, she helps people with a broad range of health issues. But she is adamant that people first need to look at what they are eating before exploring other healing modalities.

"It's the easiest thing to address and can make an enormous difference. It may not solve a bad job situation, or a difficult relationship, but if your diet is good, then you can look at the other problems."

So what are the basics of good eating? Most of our diet should be vegetables, Janella says. Her recipes include seafood, fish, legumes and tofu. She is not opposed to people eating meat but recommends eating organic and not too much. She also suggests a range of grains - organic brown rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth, barley and freekeh, an ancient wheat grain that's smoked over barley and picked very young. Natural sweeteners like raw honey, maple syrup and agave syrup are the best option. And if you don't eat dairy, substitute rice and almond milks, as well as a small amount of good quality soy. And also eat seasonal foods that are locally grown. "It's better for your body, but also for the local farmers," says Janella.

According to an article published in Choice Magazine in March 2010, in the past four years imports of vegetables to Australia have increased by more than 80%. We're eating frozen broccoli and cauliflower from China, canned asparagus from Peru and canned corn kernels from Thailand. Since the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement in 2005, US produce has also become increasingly prevalent. You can buy American grapes, when they're not in season in Australia, and sometimes in the supermarkets only American citrus fruits are for sale.

Some fruits and vegetables are in the shops all year round, which makes it hard to know when they are actually in season. Perhaps this is why more and more people are buying fresh produce from their local farmers' markets. The food is in season, it has not had to travel vast distances and it's also a great way to help farmers build a sustainable food industry.

Spring is a time of growth and new energy when we need to eat lighter foods cooked for a shorter time than the foods we ate through the winter, Janella continues. The liver and the gall bladder are sensitive in spring, and because the liver is the main organ in the body for detoxification, spring is often when people choose to go on a cleansing diet or cut down on alcohol and fats.

Then comes summer and time to let your energy flow out. It's the season to get outdoors and spend time with other people. In early summer, it's the spleen and the stomach that are centre stage, calling for simple, light meals and spicy foods that are cooked quickly. This is a time of joy, happiness and playfulness, but if people are out of balance, they can also experience depression, confused thoughts and poor memory, and physical conditions like weight gain and poor digestion.

The wheel of the year turns and it's autumn again. The seasons are a cycle of death and rebirth and we nourish and support ourselves by living in accordance with them. As Janella Purcell says, what we consume may not fix all our problems, but being aware of each changing season and eating the foods appropriate to it cannot help but bring us increasing levels of contentment.

One of Janella Purcell's favourite autumn recipes from Eating for the Seasons

Chinese eggplant with tofu and ginger

8 Asian/long eggplant (to yield four cups)3-4 Sachets dashi4 Tbsp olive oil1 Tsp sesame oil1 Large leek, halved and cleaned2 Tsp tamari2 Cloves garlic, crushed2 Pkt silken tofu, cut into large squares1 Green chilli, chopped4 Spring onions, sliced on the diagonal1 Tbsp ginger, finely chopped2 Tbsp coriander leaves1 Tbsp coriander stems, finely chopped

Serves 4

Slice the eggplants into wedges approximately 4 centimetres long. Lightly fry them in half the oil until they start to brown all over - eggplant soaks up oil so you may need to add more. If you want to avoid using too much, brush the eggplant with oil and grill or bake it. Remove from pan and place on a paper towel.

Slice leek into half moons and place in the same pan with the rest of the oil. Cook over medium heat, adding garlic, chilli, ginger and coriander stems and cook for a minute. Add the eggplant with enough water to cover, and then add the dashi, sesame oil and Tamari. Let simmer until the eggplant is soft and tender, about 15 minutes.

Gently add the tofu to the pan to warm through - do be gentle as silken tofu falls apart easily. Serve garnished with spring onions and coriander leaves.

This is nice served with quinoa or organic brown rice.