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Losangelitis: ‘Tis the season for tisanes

I didn’t want to be writing this post. I really didn’t. It’s 85 degrees outside, for crying out loud! And I have Losangelitis again anyway–the local sinus and cough misery that sometimes leads to laryngitis if you strain your voice yelling at your kid to practice piano while you have it. It’s got no agreed-on cause or cure, and absolutely no respect for sunshine and palm trees and tomato plants that are starting to bloom in my backyard (because Pasadena is weird, and for no better reason–I’m a purple thumb gardener at best, but if we get tomatoes out of this I’m good with it…)

I know the rest of the country is suffering worse than I am (and my husband; a coughing fit out of me at 3 a.m. is no joy for him either). I know it’s cold and snowy and icy and I don’t exactly miss it this time around.

But if you’re stuck at home with a cold and you want to lessen the misery a little without resorting to cold medicines and menthol-eucalyptus lozenges and other disorienting and/or sugary stuff, I actually have a few suggestions.

The first (if it’s definitely a cold virus and not a bacterial thing) is ibuprofen–helps shrink the sinus and upper airways inflammation so there’s less “production” to congest you. Also reduces pain–you might cough less and feel less sore and worn out. Always a plus.

The second is un- or very lightly sweetened (your option) tisanes, which you can make the regular boil-water-and-pour-over-herbs-etc-in-mug way or just microwave a mugful of water with the desired additions until hot (1-2 minutes depending on your microwave and mug of choice, make sure the handle doesn’t get too hot). You don’t have to pay for a box of exotic tea-like mixtures unless you happen to like them, in which case, go ahead.

Not everyone thinks tisanes should taste medicinal, and I’m with them generally. Why be weird for weirdness’ sake? But they give you the option of mixing reasonable flavors you might not otherwise consider.

Sweet-ish tisanes

I generally go for something aromatic and herbal and vaguely sweet  plus maybe something “hot”–either ginger or clove–and something mildly citrus–a little lemon or orange or lime juice. I don’t want too much sweet or acid when I’m sick; I want a combination of soothing plus heat.

Mint leaves–fresh is much better than dried–are an obvious choice for tea and tisanes, especially for when you have a cold. A good couple of stalks in a mug of boiling water and let steep a minute or so. A squeeze of lemon works fine. A quarter-to-half teaspoon of sugar will keep the leaves greener if you’re microwaving, but it’s optional. Moroccans and plenty of others require black tea and a lot more sugar (I’ve heard “three handfuls per pot” as a boast, and I’ve tasted it, and my teeth still haven’t forgiven me). If you’re skipping the caffeine or theophylline (the tea version of caffeine), leave it out.

Ginger (fresh shavings) plus lemon is always classic. I tend to skip the honey that’s considered traditional because it always seems too much to me, and with a chest cold I’m always in it for the slow heat of the ginger, not the sweet. Up to you.

Another tisane that seems good to me these days is a small pinch of clove mixed with cardamom in a mug of water, steeped until it turns brown and tealike. These are the spices for chai, but without the tea or milk. I sometimes pour in a dash of orange juice or cranberry juice to cool it down, but usually not.

On the subject of milk–I’ve heard arguments against milk products when you’re congested, that it makes the congestion worse. I don’t know; I suspect hot chocolate and hot coffee, perhaps with a pinch of cinnamon or cayenne, would be welcome to a lot of people with colds despite all the great advice against. But if you’re skipping caffeine (again) or trying to get to bed without your head racing, obviously skip these.

The next tisane is a little odd–basil tea. Moroccans and some others in North Africa drink tea with basil on occasion, and I wondered whether it would be too weird for me, but my basil plants are hanging in there and I had to pinch off the flowers anyway, so I dropped a couple of (washed) basil flowers into a mug–with a few ginger shavings and a squeeze of lemon, it was pretty good, balanced in flavor and effect on my cold. The combination was something I wouldn’t have expected, and to my palate it doesn’t need any sweet.

Aniseed or fennel is also one of those you either like or dislike. I like both of them, but your mileage may vary. Powdered, a pinch per mug would do if you let it steep a little, and it carries a suggestion of sweetness along with the slight numbing effect.

Egyptian licorice tea is easy to find in the grocery stores these days, and generally not too expensive, but in some cases it’s not actually anise or fennel–it’s “shiba”, a feathery silver-green shrub highly prized among Moroccan Jews as the winter alternative to mint in tea, and its flavor is a cross between mint, coconut, fennel fronds and figleaf. If I could find it fresh in Los Angeles, I’d use it happily because I miss it from my days in Israel, but the only place I’ve ever seen it growing in the US is in the biblical plants section of the arboretum in Golden Gate Park up in San Francisco, and I was too shy of breaking laws, legal or social, to pick any. Shiba, as far as I can figure, is actually “petit absinthe”, an artemisia variant that doesn’t contain the active drug compounds in the official “grand absinthe” artemisia but is used in absinthe for its flavor. If you’re an Angeleno, it looks a bit like the chaparral plant called “cowboy cologne”, but it isn’t.

Well—other than herbs and ginger, what? Cranberry jelly mixed into a mug of hot water is pretty soothing for a sore throat, but too much and your stomach may rebel. Same thing for a spoonful of orange marmalade in a mug of hot water.

Savory tisanes, broths and soups

Chicken soup is the classic, obviously, and loads of people swear by tomato soup with crackers, but if you’re vegetarian, or don’t like canned or boxed broth and don’t have 3 hours to make something fresh, you still have options. My mother’s favorite is just to order hot-and-sour soup from her local Chinese takeout, but that can backfire.They usually thicken their soups with cornstarch and it can all seem a little too much–spice, acid, thickness–when you have a cold and an iffy stomach at the same time.

The microwave comes to the rescue here. Bok choy broth (either plain bok choy and water, or with full-on hot and sour kinds of additions), takes about 5 minutes tops.

More instant (a minute or so per mugful): Shiitake broth–break a corner or so off a dried shiitake mushroom and microwave it in a mugful of water. Regular button mushroom broth–nuke a sliced mushroom in a mug of water or skim milk, depending on your taste and stomach tolerance, maybe add a spoonful of wine or a tiny bit of garlic. Or (really minimal) just microwave a dab of z’khug (chile/garlic/cilantro paste) in a mug of water, with or without a dash of low-sodium soy sauce. The chiles do what ginger does in the sweet tisanes (don’t get too spicy, rich or salty with your savory tisanes or you’ll probably be unhappy stomachwise).

Thicker soups: Red lentil dal can be good–dilute it to a consistency you can handle. Pumpkin or butternut squash with either ginger or hot pepper/garlic or sage and garlic…

One other bean soup of worth that’s ridiculously instant: a dollop of hummus thinned out to soup consistency is actually pretty good if a bit richer than most of the suggestions above (and obviously it’s not gonna be a clear soup). A squeeze of lemon or a little z’khug or other hot pepper sauce if you think it needs it and your stomach can take it. I wouldn’t drink gallons of this in a day but it’s good on the spot and quick.

…..If after all that, you have the spastic cough from hell but you’re avoiding cough syrups and cough drops and sick of drinking tisanes and soup but could still use a break and something to calm the coughing reflex, I have one final suggestion. Weird as it undoubtedly sounds, chewing sugarfree peppermint gum for a while has actually worked several times this week. Who knew?

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