Mystery Of The Milk Thistle

“I swear they grew here last year…like weeds!” Where on earth did they all go?

The milk thistle arrives each year around the same time that the poppies burst out. We grabbed a handful of those fragile red blooms, while still hunting for the greens that we swore we just saw.

We learned of the milk thistle’s magical medicinal properties online. Silybum marianum; that species alone holds the key, silymarin, a compound that apparently may increase the ability of liver cells to regenerate through a protein synthesis. I’d had it in a tea or a thousand at one time or another; S had recalled from somewhere in his memory, too, that it made a fine tonic.

The first spring we lived on this side of the mountain, thistle bristled up everywhere on our walks. A pup would stick a stray nose into it and come up chastened–not as badly stung as with the stinging nettles also abounding, but a painful moment nonetheless. Along verges and curbs, and taking over parks left to the overgrowth of the undergrowth, and throughout the meadow full of mint and blackberries–thistle spread its evergreen colored leaves threaded with milky white veins. Starbursts of it proliferated, with centers of the spikiest bits all balled up and threatening.

Virtually paging through articles in crunchy online tomes such as Mother Earth Living, I found the summary of milk thistle thus: “An herbal defense against everyday toxins.” Well, granted we now enjoyed Portugal’s low levels of air pollution and had since slashed our commutes into the city to one day a week–maybe our time had passed to reap its full benefit. However, one key point stood out: Thistle may restore and protect the liver from the toxins in alcohol as well!

And trust me, though our minds went straight to the tradition of daily wine consumption held dear by the Portuguese, we also sought to assuage years of minor but accumulated acetaminophen and ibuprofen use, along with the sundry other pills prescribed during modern life. With an herb so benign it’s “generally regarded as safe,” we felt it was certainly worth a shot.

So last spring we started collecting bags of it, carefully clipped with scissors using garden-gloved hands. We steeped up a cauldron of tea brewed on the stovetop. Cooled, strained, and stored in the fridge, the tea lasted several days when taken by a pint or a liter each day. I liked mine in the morning on an empty stomach: I imagined it going straight to my precious liver that way. The liver that’s done such fine work for me over the years deserved its now-daily milk thistle bath.

But the mystery? This spring we sought our thistle starting in March, but found our favorite patch a mere shadow of what it had been last year. Curse those who spray and weed-whack it away! Luckily we found another copse full of it, near the weekend street market where, coincidentally, we buy much of our produce. And this strain appears even more robust than that which we brewed before.

And so our annual spring cleaning continues…from the inside out!

To complement this cleansing inside, we’ve picked new greens from the market and our backyard, and in particular the fava beans now sprouting up in every farmer’s basket. For a light supper, I modified a traditional cacio e pepe recipe to enjoy them tossed into spaghetti.

Pasta With Favas And Pine Nuts

Massa com Favas e Pinhões

8 ounces spaghetti or other long pasta noodles

1 cup fava beans (measured after shelling, at least two dozen long seed pods)

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (split: 1/2 cup plus 1/4 cup)

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 tablespoon pink peppercorns, or 5 Pimentas, freshly ground

1 clove garlic, finely chopped (more to taste, if desired)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

salt and additional fresh ground pepper, to taste

fresh parsley, if desired

  1. Remove fava beans from pods and rinse well.
  2. Toast pine nuts in a dry skillet, just a couple of minutes. Watch them carefully! So many pine nuts have I burned… Set them aside.
  3. Prepare pasta according to package instructions. With two minutes left in cooking time, add the fava beans (still in their outer husks) to the pasta water.
  4. Remove 1/2 cup of the pasta water before draining it. Drain pasta and favas in colander.
  5. Remove favas from colander, and shell, reserving the now tender inner beans.
  6. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in medium (12-inch) saute pan.
  7. Bloom ground peppercorns and garlic in the butter/oil mixture for one minute until fragrant. Add favas and toss with pepper. Allow to heat through, then remove saute pan from the heat.
  8. Toss the pasta with the fava mixture in the saute pan, adding the 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese and a little bit of the pasta water to loosen it.
  9. Sprinkle on the pine nuts, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  10. Serve on warmed plates with the remainder of the cheese on top. You might also add some finely chopped fresh parsley if you like. Serves two people very well.