By Luke Wu 

“In winter, one should eat more bitter and cold foods to stay in harmony with the inward movement of the season.” — Master Herbalist, Lǐ Shízhēn (1518-1593)

Herb Your Way to Healthy During the Holidays

During my time as a cook, I had to show up to work no matter what. When the restaurant needed me, I had to be there — there was no concept of sick days. Most kitchen cultures even promote the idea of showing up to work sick, as a matter of pride. So getting sick meant working sick, which leads to decreased productivity and ultimately lost profit.

Since winter is usually the busiest season for a restaurant (and also when we’re most likely to get sick), I had to learn how to invigorate my immune system and build a stronger body. If I was to stay competitive and cook for some of the best chefs in New York, staying healthy took priority above all else. Even for non-chef civilians, the holidays are a time of family, celebration and lots of food. Consuming excess amounts of food, especially rich, fatty foods, can stress the gallbladder and liver. Cleansing is crucial for allowing the body to absorb food.

Apple cider vinegar and lemon juice with water every morning is one quick way to cleanse and stimulate the gallbladder, aiding digestion and liver function. But for those who want to take their cleansing a step further, herbs are especially helpful with balancing stress hormones so our bodies can focus on digestion and detoxification. Many of them can be easily incorporated into our typical recipes and routines. Before I get into the specific herbs, here’s an overview of herbal traditions.

harvesting hydroponic herbs

Eastern & Western Philosophies

As an herbalist, I believe it is important to consider all herbology traditions in forming your own beliefs and practices. I’ve noticed that Eastern and Western medicine study identical phenomena — both have their strengths but are in need of some refinement. Perhaps they could borrow lessons from one another. That’s why I rely on a combination of European herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and American eclectic medicine.

Matter of Perspective: Food or Drug?

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Father of Greek Medicine, Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC)

If, like Hippocrates, we consider food and drugs as serving the same function, we can incorporate concepts of medicine into our eating habits. For example, one concept that I borrowed from Chinese medicine is eating according to the seasons — when it’s cold outside, it is best to eat “cooling foods” such as borage. When it is warm, it’s best to eat “warming” foods like fennel. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when food is ingested, its temperature adjusts the temperature of the body. The weather, however, always remains external. By cooling the body with herbs and down-regulating our internal core temperature, we can diminish the temperature differential between us and our environment, decreasing effort needed to heat our bodies and preserving precious energy for harsh conditions.

During winter months, Qi (the vital energy that forms part of our material body) is said to reside at a deep level within the body. This is why traditionally winter is seen as a time of rejuvenation and rest. Nourishing energy reserves is especially important at this time.

Herbs That Nourish

In ICE’s indoor hydroponic garden, we’re able to adjust our environment and grow the plants of our choice year-round — including some deeply nourishing herbs. The goal is to mimic nature and consistently produce for high nutrient content. Here is a list of some of the plants we grow, along with their benefits and ideas for incorporating them into recipes:

Anise Hyssop

I was first introduced to anise hyssop while working for a neurologist chef from Spain. Anise hyssop is part of the mint family and a perennial native to North America. In herbal medicine, a shock or trauma causes a “Shen disturbance,” causing the Shen or “spirit” to flee the physical body. The Shen is seen as residing in the heart and following shock or trauma it must be restored to the heart in order for healing to occur. The earth-spirit medicine of Anise Hyssop does exactly this, and its flower essence also brings back sweetness.

The leaves and flowers are edible and may be baked in breads or added to salads. This herb smells like anise — notes of lemon, pine, sage, black pepper and camphor abound. Anise hyssop is the secret ingredient for many chefs when creating savory recipes that require a touch of sweetness or dessert dishes that benefit from sophisticated aromas.

anise hyssop flowers

anise hyssop flowers (Photo: Farm One)

Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot

While studying at Arbor Vitae School of Traditional Medicine in New York, I discovered this delicious herb deep in a Northeastern American forest. Many Native Americans consider bee balm a medicinal plant. It has been used to cure colds, frequently made as a tea. Bee balm is a part of American history; a popular tea substitute for the imported variety amongst the mid-Atlantic patriots in the wake of the Boston Tea Party. That period was probably the height of bee balm’s popularity.

My favorite way to prepare bee balm is as pesto. Its spicy aromatic oils echo marjoram, oregano, thyme and mint. The leaves are potent — the flowers in particular pack a punch. Bee balm is a great addition to any existing pesto recipe as it blends well with basil. Try as a gremolata with parsley or anywhere strong pungent herbs are needed.

Borage

Just about every high-end restaurant I’ve worked in has used this once-famous herb. The sight of borage flowers at the hydroponic garden brightens my day. I often eat one or two when no one is looking. This herb can be used to sedate and calm a deeply worn out nervous system. Rebuilder of the adrenals, borage is a deep-acting nervine suited to times of exhaustion and low spirits. Borage is a great addition to any diet — it’s a good source of thiamin, folate and Vitamin B6 and and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, riboflavin and trace minerals.

The leaves of borage have a fresh cucumber-like taste. Cook the leaves as a vegetable to avoid the prickly hairs. We grow baby borage as it is smoother and easy to eat as a raw salad green. Borage flowers taste like the leaves but can be much sweeter, with notes of fresh oyster.

borage flowers

borage flowers (Photo: Farm One)

Bronze Fennel

While learning French cuisine at one of Jean-Georges’ restaurants, I learned to appreciate fennel’s versatility and the number of possible cooking applications. Fennel was highly valued in the ancient world by Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and Indians. In Ayurveda, fennel is considered neutral to slightly warming energetically, balancing to all three of the constitutional body types (Vata, Pitta and Kapha). Fennel has been utilized to relieve gas and enhance digestion. Fennel is also said to be nourishing to the brain and eyes, calming to the spirit and stimulating to the libido. Due to fennel’s gentle nature, it is used to support digestion in infants and children and can be given to nursing mothers.

The baby bulbs are especially tender when grilled, braised or even raw as a salad. Use fronds as the finishing touch to any dish to add a hint of sweetness. Harvest flowers when pollen begins to develop.

Stinging Nettles

Working on a rooftop farm in Brooklyn exposed me to nettles. The stingers buried themselves into my skin like mini hypodermic needles — and I enjoyed it. Want gorgeous hair and strong nails? Drink Nettle soup. There are so many curative properties of stinging nettles. Though we try to work around the stingers to avoid the rashes they produce, nettles can be handled safely and have many anti-inflammatory benefits.

To get the full effects of nettles, brew the whole plant “low and slow” like a stock. Nettles work great in stews and braises — cook them just like you would with kale or mustard leaves.

Tulsi

I discovered this herb while visiting a tea shop recommended by a chef friend working at Atera.  At the hydroponic garden, we are lucky to have tulsi grown fresh all year-long. Tulsi is widely regarded as a preeminent herb in Ayurveda. Classified as a rasayana, tulsi is in an elite class of adaptogenic herbs that are prized for their ability to fundamentally restore harmony in the mind, body and spirit. Tulsi’s greatest benefit is the restorative effect it has on the nervous system. It’s a powerful corticosteroid modulator with the ability to reduce circulating stress hormones in the body — ideal for our hyper-stimulated digital age.

Brew fresh tulsi leaves in boiling water to make a powerful tea. Sipping on strong tulsi tea can pack a narcotic-like punch — chronic stress patterns are interrupted as warm feelings of peace and serenity envelop the body. I have also added fresh tulsi juice to my morning smoothies. The Krishna variety is especially powerful.

Yarrow

Herbalist Matthew Wood calls yarrow the “master of the blood” and the “master of fever.” Yarrow regulates the fluids in the body, cooling or heating as needed by moving blood toward, or away, from the skin’s surface. Consuming a warm cup of tea made with yarrow leaves will open the pores of the skin and release heat. Or, drink as cold tea to stimulate digestion and the kidneys, relieving fluid retention.

Yarrow is a relatively new herb to chefs, full of potential. It has a sweet, slight licorice scent. Sinuses flood with a perfume similar to cardamom. Being a soft herb similar to tarragon, high heat will destroy its flavor. Since yarrow is sweet, it has many applications in desserts. Sorbet, ice cream and fruit go well with yarrow.

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In this interview, ICE’s Director of Sustainability Bill Telepan speaks with Chef Evan Hanczor, owner of Williamsburg’s acclaimed brunch spot, Egg. Bill and Evan talk about Goatfell Farm, two acres of fertile Catskills land that founder and co-chef of Egg George Weld purchased to yield key produce and ingredients for the restaurant a decade ago. Since then, the duo has learned a tremendous amount about maintaining a successful farm-to-table operation. Bill and Evan chat about the conundrum of what comes first: the produce or the menu, as well as the potential edge that agricultural knowledge affords up-and-coming chefs.

Chef Evan Hanczor

Bill: When did you first start farming for Egg?

Evan: George and his wife Jennifer bought it a year or two after Egg opened, and started to develop it into a place where it grew produce for the restaurant. This is about the tenth year, and it’s been a really strong year for us. George is up there [on the farm] most weekends with his family, but we have a hired farmer as well — our third since the farm has been in operation. In the past we’ve had folks with a background and interest in farming who transitioned from working in the restaurant with us to running [the farm].

Bill: Has it always yielded a successful harvest?

Evan: In the beginning, we didn’t produce much. One year we tried to farm it by committee — which didn’t work out very well. It seemed like most years we were trying to grow as much food as we could, and not looking ahead to how that would affect the next two or five years — which is how you really need to think about farming. Then leading up to this past year we were busy with a number of projects at the restaurant, in addition to opening a space in Tokyo, so we made the decision to grow just a couple of things and more or less let the farm lie fallow for a year. We hired a farmer and made a plan towards long-term production. This year we have a full-time farmer named Chuck who has a bunch of experience in different kinds of farming. He really knows how to plot a field. He’s had quick rotations and set down beautiful produce even though he got a late start this year. It’s been super productive — especially over the past two months.

Evan HanczorBill: Do you grow exclusively for the restaurant?

Evan: We were really overwhelmed with tomatoes in the past two months, so we were calling people up to see if they would take them, giving them out to guests and friends. But otherwise, all of the produce comes into the restaurant, and we find ways to work with it. When we’re doing it well, the idea is to have good communication and planning in advance between the restaurant and the farm so that we can get things that we might want — but also knowing what makes sense to plant based on the soil, what was being grown before, how much labor it will take and how much time the farmer has. We’re trying to find ways to use what makes sense to grow instead of farm what we want, if that makes sense.

Bill: Did you grow up with any farming experience?

Evan: Not really. I lived in central Florida until I was about 10 and I do remember visiting a farm. When my family moved to Connecticut we lived near a small dairy farm and educational center that grew some produce — it was where we would get our milk and eggs. There were a few other small farms in the area, so I was exposed to a farm and some of the cycles of it, but I didn’t have any experience working on one or understanding what really went into running one. The only sort of vegetable production experience I had at the time was some raised backyard gardening that started with my parents at their house in 2008. We put in a couple of beds, so I had a few years of trying to grow stuff in the backyard, but certainly not on the scale of even a small farm. Ours is six acres total, but we only grow on an acre, maybe an acre and a half — which is productive, if you do it right.

Bill: Do you ever spend time on the farm?

Evan: This year I haven’t really, but in years past I’ve tried to go up every month or so. It’s nice to get out of the city and be in a different environment, and it feels good to do some work. I also try to get staff up there whenever possible. If a few employees have days off together and want to figure out a way to get up there, or if one of us is heading up we’ll get a server or two up to the farm and they’ll be able to get their hands in the ground and see the process. That was always one of the goals for us. We didn’t really know what we were doing or how to operate a farm in a way that made any economic sense for a restaurant, so we really wanted to learn and get the firsthand experiences of the challenges. When we go there with the staff they can see that when a farmer calls and says they’re out of something that they were expecting and they’re frustrated, this is why. It gives both parties more empathy and understanding, and it can make you a better and more creative cook.

Bill: Going into this with a farmer, how are you going to choose what to grow?

Evan: We thought we had a good understanding of what grew well after doing it for quite a few years. It turns out we were wrong about a few things. We thought we could never get cabbage or fennel to grow, but our farmer figured out how to get it to grow really beautifully, so we’re still learning about the soil. We had an idea in the beginning of the season that we’d love to have eggplant and kale. We go through so much kale at the restaurant, and if we could grow the bulk of what we use for a few months that could be really cool. But in addition to what we want to have, we also have to ask what makes sense. If you’re growing these ten things at the same time, what gives you enough time to do your harvest? What makes sense from a labor perspective? It doesn’t make sense to grow things that are super labor intensive or time specific, so we’re figuring out a middle ground but also responding to what is reasonable. Hopefully as the years go on we’ll continue to learn what grows well in certain parts of the field, and how to better adjust and respond to that.

Bill: Do you think chefs should learn about farming and what it takes to grow something?

Evan: I do think it gives you certain advantages and deepens your understanding of products, especially if you’re looking to work in a certain region and express particular qualities, rhythms or ideas of that area. If you’re cooking locally, understanding what farmers are dealing with and also having a good sense of what you’re going to have at certain times of year, when things are going to be at their peak and how to plan your menu that way can be helpful. I get to see ingredients at so many different stages of their development, and that often gives me new ideas about how I might use them or what parts of the plant I might use. A lot of people don’t know about nasturtium pods. They know the flowers and may know the leaves are useable, but don’t know that third use you can get out of the plant: nasturtium capers, which we harvested our first batch of last week. You’re exposed to really cool stuff when you learn about the farming process.

Interested in culinary training with an eye toward sustainability? Learn more about ICE’s career training programs.

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By Bill Telepan, Director of Sustainability

In this interview, ICE’s Director of Sustainability Bill Telepan speaks with Chef April Bloomfield, the British-born, NYC-based chef behind The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar. Bill and April talk about Coombeshead Farm, the farm in the heart of Cornwall, England that April owns and runs with Chef Tom Adams, chef-owner of the London restaurant, Pitt Cue. Don’t let the name mislead you — Coombeshead is more ecosystem than farm, or more precisely, a farm, guesthouse, restaurant and bakery that runs largely off the fat of the land, and animals raised on that land. Bill and April chat about her first brush with farming, the benefits of producing your own food and the importance of getting dirty sometimes.

Chefs Tom Adams and April Bloomfield

Chefs Tom Adams and April Bloomfield (photo courtesy of Coombeshead Farm)

Bill: Your food is so inspired by the seasons. When you came up with The Spotted Pig, what amazed me was how there were great ingredients in a casual setting and it felt so easy. I understand it was not easy, but it felt that way. I wanted to first ask you about growing up — did you have any experience with farming? What was food like at your home?

April: To be honest, we did get some stuff from farm stands, but mostly only when we were on holiday — we’d go pick peas and eat them raw while hiking. My mom used some fresh vegetables but as she got older and we got a bit more teenager-y, she wanted to cook things faster and more simply. So we did go through a phase of having a ton of frozen vegetables. I didn’t come from an affluent family. I came from a very humble, modest family, so it was based on price too.

My first experience with a farm was when I went to a farm in Devon, England called Nethercott Farm. It was basically a farm that was able to put up eight to 12-year-olds for a weeklong visit. It was children from the inner city who wouldn’t necessarily get to experience the countryside. I spent a week there and I remember it very fondly. I got to muck out cows and walk in the fields and feed the chickens and groom the horses. It felt very good and very healthy and hearty — to eat eggs and bacon and good products that were made on this farm.

Bill: That must have been a great experience as a kid.

April: That was my first experience with farms. My mom would take us strawberry picking, too. She would teach us to grab a strawberry, make sure there were no holes in it and give it a little squish. Sometimes my mom would grow spring onions and a few tomatoes and we’d have salads and sandwiches in the summer. It was very simple stuff, really.

Bill: Tell me about the farm you have today. 

April: A couple of years ago I met this great guy named Tom Adams. He was a young chef and he had his own restaurant called Pitt Cue in London and I was there for my book tour — I went back to England for a wee while, and we just hit it off. We stayed in touch for the next four years. We’d meet for a drink and talk about our lives and what our aspirations were. He really wanted to come and live in Cornwall. He was already producing Mangalitsa pigs for his restaurant. He was super focused and super honed in on products, as was I. I had been dreaming about having a farm. I had told him I was looking for a farm upstate and I couldn’t find anything. One day he called me and said he found a farm and asked if I’d like to come see it. I took a flight to meet him and we took the train and drove to see the farm. It was a pretty magical place.

I think the ultimate goal for having the farm was to be in control of the product — to dial in the things we like about each type of product. It’s the attention to detail — the flavors and the textures. There’s nothing better than grabbing a beet from the ground, gently washing it and throwing it straight in the oven. That beet’s at its peak. As chefs we’re always looking for that. We’re always looking for the best quality product. It’s what drives me for sure. I know it’s what drives Tom. When we don’t get product like that it’s depressing — it’s a bit soul crushing.

Bill: What were some of the highlights this year?

April: Definitely all of the fava beans. It’s great to plant a fava bean and be able to pick them in a couple months. Being able to walk out to the garden and pick herbs and leaves before service and not mask them too much and let them shine — that’s the highlight. You also get to be in the open. You’re out there with the wildlife, the birds and the bees. Sometimes it’s just pissing down with rain too. It’s not all butterflies and rabbits. The harvesting and tasting, and figuring out what you’re doing to do with the product is exciting.

Bill: How do you decide what you’re going to grow?

April: We’re still trying to experiment. We’ve planted corn this year that we didn’t plan last year. It was just a small amount, but it’s trial and error. I really loved it and want to grow corn again next year. I’m sure there will be many things that we’ll want to try — that’s the fun part.

Bill: Are you also doing livestock?

April: Yes, we have a couple of pigs that just went to slaughter. I wasn’t there unfortunately but Tom did this amazing pig slaughter with a bunch of chefs. He had two Mangalitsa that he slaughtered and he’s going to make charcuterie from them and fresh sausage for breakfast. We have a few sheep that are grazing. They’re not ours per se: we’re renting them and letting them graze on our land, so they cut the grass. They’re like nature’s lawnmowers.

Natures lawn mowers @coombesheadfarm

A post shared by aprilbloomfield (@aprilbloomfield) on

Bill: Obviously you have a passion for the connection to the earth. Can you teach someone to have that passion or does it only come through experience and exposure?

April: I think a lot of my learning came from my experience at the farm and getting dirty and feeling connected to the land. When I was 12 and went to [Nethercott Farm], it was a gentle way of learning. I still remember the things they taught us about looking after the countryside. I didn’t quite realize that was something I was drawn to until seven or eight years ago, even though I had already been buying from farmers’ markets for many years. I worked at Chez Panisse and we got lots of stuff from farmers who would deliver. Sometimes we’d go see the farm and meet the farmer. I remember meeting Bob Canard who supplied Chez Panisse — that was a very moving experience for me, him talking about the soil and how he tended to the soil and how he nurtured it and what he put in to make it great. He made me cry. That’s pretty amazing when you can move people like that. It was done in the gentlest way and I think when you do it like that, it’s more effective.

Bill: With ICE’s hydroponic garden, we want students to be able to plant something and watch it grow and harvest. Why do you think students should learn about farming, if it’s available to them?

April: It’s exciting for kids to be able to do something from start to finish and to see the progression. Even sprouting seeds — how amazing is it if they can sprout some seeds, like grains and lentils, and actually see them grow? And then you get to eat them. When I was young, I think I must have been in junior school, we sprinkled cress seeds on cotton wall and we watched the cress seeds grow. That’s super exciting. Kids are like sponges. They’re inquisitive and they ask questions. I think it’s a great age to capture their imagination. Even if it takes another 10 years for them to realize what they want to do, you’ve planted that seed early. Even me, it’s taken this long for me to realize that this is something I really want to do, and this is how I want to live my life. I’m older now and that seed was planted when I was 12. It takes time to nurture it.

Interested in culinary training with an eye toward sustainability? Learn more about ICE’s career training programs.

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By Bill Telepan — Director of Sustainability

As the world’s population continues to grow, urban, hydroponic farming seems an increasingly viable option for feeding the world well and nutritiously. With just light, water and few other little factors, you can grow a tremendous amount of food indoors vertically — meaning growing crops upward, rather than in the ground, which exponentially increases the available surface area for planting.

Providing nutritious food is important to me; not just for me personally, but also with respect to a program I work with called Wellness in the Schools, an organization dedicated to exposing school children to nutritious, better quality food. Some of our schools have “tower gardens,” which are 6- to 8-foot structures that we use as indoor teaching gardens. It makes sense to start teaching our future chefs about hydroponic farming, too — which is what we’re doing at ICE.

Bill Telepan hydroponic garden

When I was approached by the team at ICE about the opportunity to become the school’s Director of Sustainability, I was intrigued by the challenge of helping to bridge their hydroponic farm to the classroom. The school has an amazing indoor garden right in their facility. Culinary and pastry students have the ability to plant, grow and harvest food that they will cook and bake with in their class lessons. There are many reasons why this is a great learning opportunity for students.

The school can grow many varieties of one type of herb and students can go into the garden, harvest those herbs and taste the difference for themselves right then and there. This exercise develops students’ palates and teaches them how to explore and utilize a range of ingredients when creating a dish. The farm has grown an incredible 200-plus varieties of herbs and produce to date — exposure to so many new flavor profiles can help these future chefs to start thinking about taste, flavor pairing and being creative in the kitchen. Plus, they learn how to grow and harvest their own herbs and produce onsite — it doesn’t get more local and sustainable than that.

hydroponic garden at ICE

During my first session in the farm with the farm manager, David Goldstein, I spent the entire time learning about what has been grown before, what grows well and how fast things can grow in this environment. And he had me taste…and taste…and taste! It was quite a revelation. I tasted flowers that were sweet. I saw whole fennel plants, from bulb to foliage to seeds. I tasted kale in different stages of growth and noticed how the flavor developed at each stage. David also had me try lemon marigolds; I never thought about tasting the tiny leaves of this miniature variety. Tasting them for the first time, my mind immediately started thinking about what to pair them with (and hoping David would grow some for me for a dish at Oceana, where I am executive chef). I want the students to have these kinds of revelations that come from experience in the kitchen and exposure to flavors like the ones that ICE’s hydroponic farm provides.

hydroponic garden at ICE

The farm is a great asset for the instructors and the students. Yes, we need to teach culinary students technique. But we also want them to think creatively about cooking and flavors once they master the technique and are out in the field. I hope they’ll remember their time “on the farm,” tasting and learning about flavors and the endless possibilities of the plate.

Interested in studying at ICE? Learn more about ICE’s career programs.

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