Monthly Archives: September 2015

Week 33: Ginseng

American Ginseng

My daughter, Gretchen, and I were roaming around Chinatown in San Francisco recently and happened to enter Superior Trading Company. The store is filled with Chinese medicines and herbs – some in barrels, some in glass jars, and many inside glass front cabinets. Everything was fascinating to look at, but descriptions were written in Chinese characters and we had to ask questions about the products and their uses. Ginseng, in particular, was plentiful and was offered in many forms. We’d heard of ginseng before and of its magical restorative properties. But what was it really?

I have since learned that ginseng is a slow-growing perennial herb with fleshy roots, belonging to the genus Panax. The genus name Panax means “all heal” in Greek and refers to the herb as a panacea for many ailments. The aromatic root looks like a small parsnip that forks as it matures, resemblinga “Y” or the shape of a person. The plant grows 6″ to 18″  tall, usually bearing three leaves, each with three to five leaflets two to five inches long. The root of the plant is the part that is used. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) grows in North America (United States and Canada) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) grows in Asia (primarily in South Korea and China). Currently, Wisconsin produces nearly 95% of American ginseng. (The owners of Superior Trading Company were the first to export American Ginseng from Wisconsin to China in 1959.)

Ginseng root is red, white or wild and is most often available dried, whole, or sliced. Red ginseng has been peeled, heated through steaming at standard boiling temperatures of 100 °C (212 °F), and then dried or sun-dried. White ginseng, native to America, is fresh ginseng which has been dried without being heated. It is peeled and dried to reduce the water content to 12% or less. White ginseng air-dried in the sun may contain less of the therapeutic constituents. It is thought by some that enzymes contained in the root break down these constituents in the process of drying. Drying in the sun bleaches the root to a yellowish-white color. Wild ginseng grows naturally and is relatively rare due to its high demand in recent years. Wild ginseng can be either Asian or American, and can be processed to be red ginseng. There are ginseng growing programs in a number of states, including in Maine, where the ginseng certification program facilitates the export of American ginseng while meeting the requirements of the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).


Panax ginseng was discovered over 5000 years ago in the mountains of Manchuria, China. Although probably originally used as food, it quickly became revered for its strength-giving and rejuvenating powers and its human shape became a powerful symbol of divine harmony on earth. The benefits of ginseng were first documented during China’s Liang Dynasty (220 to 589 AD). Chinese legend has it that early emperors used to use it as a remedy for all illnesses and not only consumed it, but also used it in soaps, lotions and creams.

In 1716 a Jesuit priest, working among the Iroquois in Canada, heard of a root highly valued by the Chinese. Because he felt the environment of French Canada closely resembled that of Manchuria, he began searching for examples of this amazing herb growing in the Canadian hardwood forests and after three months of searching he discovered American ginseng growing near Montreal.

Medical Uses & Warnings

Ginseng root is used energy drinks and herbal tea as an aphrodisiac, stimulant, type II diabetes treatment, to boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress and cure sexual dysfunction in men.

The optimal dose of ginseng is two to three grams per day, or a slice of root about the size of an almond sliver, or if using powder, a capsule of powder. The root can be brewed and taken as tea, simmered for one hour in chicken soup to make a healing broth, aged for three months in a quart of liquor and consumed as a nightcap or it may be simply chewed.

Doctors do not recommend taking ginseng along with antidepressants which are called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), because it can cause manic episodes and tremors. Ginseng should also never be taken along with blood pressure medication, heart medications or with drugs that affect blood clotting (such as warfarin or aspirin.)

Symptoms of gross overdose with Panax ginseng may include nausea, vomiting, restlessness, urinary and bowel incontinence, fever, increased blood pressure, increased respiration, decreased sensitivity and reaction to light, decreased heart rate, cyanotic (blue) facial complexion, red facial complexion, seizures, convulsions, and delirium.


“As ginseng prices soar, diggers take to the backcountry”. Fox News. 2012-09-28.

Chen, John K., and Tina T. Chen. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology.

Red Potato, Leek & Corn Chowder



3 c. diced red potatoes (do not peel)

1 stick butter

1 large onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 leek (white part only) sliced

3 scallions, white and green parts, chopped

1/2 t. dry mustard

1/4 t. cayenne pepper

1 t. ground thyme

3 stalks celery, diced

4 cups fresh or frozen whole kernel corn

4 T. flour

4 cups (1 quart) half and half

¼ c. chopped parsley

2 t. honey

¼ t. black pepper

¼ t. salt

¼ t. nutmeg

1 bay leaf

2 cups vegetable stock


Parboil potatoes in water for 7-8 minutes until they can be pierced with a fork. Drain and reserve. In a large saucepan, melt 1/2 stick of butter and sauté onions, garlic, leeks, and scallions in remaining 10-15 minutes over medium heat until they are transparent. Season with mustard, cayenne, and thyme. Raise the heat and add celery and corn. Saute for 3-4 more minutes. Add vegetable stock and cook until heated through. Cover and remove from heat.

To make white sauce, in a heavy saucepan, melt the remaining ½ stick butter. Add flour and a pinch of salt. Whisk over low flame for 5 minutes until it is well-blended and forms a paste. Slowly add half and half, stirring constantly for 10 minutes or until thickened.  Stir in parsley, honey, bay leaf, pepper and nutmeg. Add white sauce and potatoes to onion mixture and reheat, if necessary over medium low heat. Adjust seasoning. Makes 3 quarts.

Week 32: Corn


Summer’s harvest wouldn’t be complete without golden ears of corn. Whether roasted on the grill or steamed on the stove, each bite of corn is like a hot, buttered burst of sunshine!

Corn is classified as a grain and was domesticated around 9,000 BC in Central America. It takes its name “maize” from the Spanish word “maiz.” Corn grows on stalks 8-12 ft high as “ears” (cobs covered with individual kernels about the size of peas) which are protected by corn silk and husks. Native Americans first planted maize in raised rows and used the stalks to support beans, which supplied nitrogen and nutrients to the soil. Varieties of squash provided ground cover to stop weeds and inhibit evaporation by providing shade over the soil. Today, corn in North America is planted in rows to allow easier cultivation and with a two-crop rotation, often with alfalfa planted every other year.

U.S. farmers grow about 40% of all corn produced worldwide today. An important region of the U.S. is still identified as the “Corn Belt.” This region is typically defined as including Iowa, Illinois, the eastern parts of Nebraska and Kansas as well as North and South Dakota, the southern part of Minnesota, and parts of northern Missouri as well as Ohio and Indiana. Introduced into Africa by the Portuguese in the 16th century, maize has become Africa’s most important staple food crop.

Most of us are familiar with yellow or white corn, but did you know it can also be blue, black, red, pink or purple? Some varieties of corn are bred to produce the “baby corn” used in Asian cuisine. Corn flour lacks the “gluten” of wheat and produces baked goods which do not rise.

Corn is eaten in a variety of ways and is used to make tortillas, polenta, cornbread, hominy, grits, cereals such as corn flakes, popcorn and chips. Corn is also used to produce high fructose corn syrup (a sugar substitute used in processed foods), corn oil, in fermentation and distilleries for making Bourbon Whiskey, for animal feed, biofuels, home heating and plastics.

Ethanol is being used in concentrations of 10% or less as an additive in gasoline for motor fuels to increase the octane rating, lower pollutants, and reduce petroleum use. Home-heating furnaces have been developed which use corn kernels as fuel. They feature a large hopper that feeds the uniformly sized maize kernels (or wood pellets) into the fire.

The resin polylactic acid (PLA), derived from corn starch, is formed into containers and packaging for food and consumer goods. For a few years, natural foods purveyors such as Newman’s Own Organics and Wild Oats have been quietly using some PLA products, but the material got its biggest boost when Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, announced in 2006 that it would sell some produce in PLA containers. Producing PLA uses 65 percent less energy than producing conventional plastics, it generates 68 percent fewer greenhouse gases, and contains no toxins.


Corn is high in antioxidants, but each variety of corn has a different combination of phytonutrients. Yellow corn has carotenoids and blue corn has anthocyanins. Corn is high in protein and is also a good source of fiber and contains vitamins B6, niacin, phosphorus and manganese. Corn supports the growth of healthy bacteria in our large intestines and helps lower the risk of colon cancer.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Forty percent of all processed, pre-packaged foods sold in U.S. groceries currently contain some processed component of corn, although this component is most often high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). There is significant concern that high fructose corn syrup contributes to obesity, diabetes, liver disease and heart disease. It is also been shown to have contaminants such as mercury. Because it is less expensive to produce than conventional sugar, it is used extensively in food products today. Did you know there is the equivalent of 17 teaspoons in one 20 oz soft drink?

Genetically Engineered Corn

Over 70% of all corn found in U.S. grocery stores has been genetically modified in the form of herbicide-tolerant, or HT corn, or the form of insect-resistant, or Bt corn. (Bt corn gets its name from the transfer of a gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn. A protein toxin produced by this bacterium helps to kill certain insects that might otherwise eat the corn.) While there is no large scale human research on genetically engineered corn and its health impact, there is concern about the introduction of novel proteins into food and their potential for increasing risk of adverse reactions, including food allergies. One way to avoid these potential risks is to select certified organic corn, since GE modifications are not allowed in certified organic food.


Mann, Charles. Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize.

“The casava transformation in Africa”. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).