Archive for November, 2007

Simmering: winter fun with stockpot and teapot.

This month’s herbal blog party is “Winter Recipes,” hosted by Dreamseeds.

Most of my winter herbal recipes involve long-simmering pots on the back of my woodstove. Tasty broths and teas that warm a person from the inside out, and make the house smell good too.

Winter is a time for concentrated, warm foods. Put away the leafy summer herbs, and get out the roots, seeds and spices. Valerian, licorice, sarsaparilla. Flaxseeds, cardamom, nutmeg. Cinnamon, ginger, cloves.

The best way to stay healthy in the winter is not to fight the fact that it’s winter. In winter, things move more slowly. We need to sleep more. We need richer, fattier foods. In winter, as mammals, we need to stay warm. (It’s quite common for people to forget to dress warmly enough for the season. It’s not unreasonable to wear a scarf indoors if you live in a drafty house.)

Good long-simmered bone broth is the best winter food I know. It’s rich in protein (gelatin) and minerals, and it warms you “to the bone.” Add some vegetables and call it soup. Use it to cook rice or beans. Or just drink it straight with a pinch of salt.

Here’s how to keep a stockpot:

1. Always save bones. (Yes, even bones that people have gnawed on. All that simmering will take care of any contamination.) Keep them in a jar or a bag in your freezer. You can separate them by animal if you like, or lump them all together for “mixed stock.”

2. When you’ve collected a good pile of bones, put them in a pot and cover them with cold water. (You can add a dash of vinegar if you like, to help draw minerals from the bones.) Put the pot over low heat. Let it come to a gentle simmer. If you’re using a gas or electric stove, turn the heat down as far as it will go. If you’ve got the stock on a woodstove, move it to a cool corner or put it up on a trivet. (I’m told you can make stock in a crockpot, too. But I’ve never used a crockpot, so I don’t know how that works.)

3. Leave the stock on gentle, low heat for 12-48 hours. (Yes, I know that’s a long time. It really does make the best stock, though.) Check on the stock every once in a while and add water if it needs it. If you’re using raw bones, there will likely be quite a bit of foamy scum that comes to the surface. Just skim it off — a little tea strainer works well for this. Try not to let the stock boil. Low heat is best for extracting gelatin. (Don’t kick yourself if it accidentally boils, though. Just turn it down. Your stock may be a little cloudy, but it will taste fine.)

4. When you can’t stand it any longer, strain out the bones. If there is a lot of fat on top, skim it off and save it for cooking (a little jar of fat in the fridge is a lovely thing). Now you have stock to play with! What will you make?

You can add warming winter spices to your stock if you like. But my favorite way to take warming spices is in tea. In winter, my “teas” are usually decoctions, simmered on the stove until they perfume the house.

Here are some of my favorite winter teas.

For people who get dry and cold in the winter: flaxseeds (Linum usitatissimum), cassia / cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).

For people who get a lot of sore throats and swollen lymph nodes in the winter: echinacea root (Echinacea angustifolia or Echinacea purpurea), red root (Ceanothus americanus), marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).

For people who feel drained in the winter: wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) (use only organic ginseng, “woods-grown” if possible).

For people who get cold hands and feet in the winter: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), wild ginger (Asarum canadense) (harvest wild ginger only if it’s locally abundant; “regular” ginger can be used instead).

Oh, yes, and for everyone, because it’s so tasty: pink ginger tea. (This is, of course, one of the best things to drink when you’re down with the flu.)

Happy simmering!

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Thanksgiving, season of schmaltz.

This morning I was re-reading the (very timely and very wise) discussion of bird-roasting in a cookbook I usually love. But this time I noticed something that made me gasp and smack the page. The sentence began: “Remove and discard the lump of fat…”

Discard the lump of fat?!?! Is she crazy? Schmaltz is the most wonderful stuff. To discard it is absolutely ridiculous. (How very American, really, to remove and discard the lump of fat. The most nutritious, energy-rich part. The most flavorful part. To throw away the fat of the land. Such a waste, such a waste!)

Okay, okay, I’m done channeling the Ashkenazi grandmas of the world.

I’m just here to remind you that poultry fat is lovely stuff. If you’re roasting a bird this Thanksgiving, you should save its fat in a little jar in your refrigerator. You can use it to sauté vegetables, to flavor beans, to enrich sauces, to enliven soups… anyplace that wants a bit of tasty poultry richness. (And who wouldn’t want that?)

Just pour the extra fat off the juices in your roasting pan. And save the fat from the broth you make with the bones. And that little lump of fat inside the bird? You can leave it on if you like, and it will melt as the bird roasts. Or you can cut it off and render it as you would any other fat. Just please don’t throw it away, okay?

Happy Thanksgiving!

In case you’re geeky about fatty-acids (like I am), here are the details on all kinds of schmaltz (USDA data for 1 tablespoon of each):

Chicken fat: 2.7g polyunsaturated; 5.7g monounsaturated; 3.8g saturated.

Duck fat: 1.7g polyunsaturated; 6.3g monounsaturated; 4.3g saturated.

Goose fat: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 7.3g monounsaturated; 3.5g saturated.

Turkey fat: 3g polyunsaturated; 5.5g monounsaturated; 3.8g saturated.

And for reference…

Olive oil: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 9.9g monounsaturated; 1.9g saturated.

Butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.

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Thinking blogger award.

Kevin over at Life has taught us… very sweetly gave me this:


As far as I can tell, this is how the “Thinking Blogger Award” works:

If someone gives you the award, you have the opportunity to name five blogs that “make you think.” In naming those five blogs, you are bestowing upon each of them a Thinking Blogger Award. And so on. (I don’t know much about memes. In fact, I’m a bit suspicious of such things. But I’m going to give this one a try.)

Here are five blogs that inspire me to look at things in new ways (as good a definition of “thinking” as any I know).

Ethicurean: new ways to look at food.

City Farmer: new ways to look at farming.

Pocahontas County Fare: new ways to look at the land I grew up on.

Henriette’s Herbal and Medicine Woman’s Roots: new ways to look at plants.

So that’s five. There are clearly more than that. But the rules of the game said five. There are more good blogs right over there —-> in my blogroll.

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Thank the Lard!

lardsmall.JPGLook what I got from the farmer down the road: gorgeous, creamy leaf lard!

What’s that? Did you whisper “Ew, lard!”?
Take a deep breath, it will be OK. The weird, illicit shiver Americans get when they hear someone say “lard” is rather new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of “lard” as an insult dates only from the 1940s.

See, chances are your great-grandmother cooked with lard. Likely your grandmother did too. (There’s a reason older people remember “grandma’s pie” and “grandma’s fried chicken” so fondly.) They probably only switched to poisonous hydrogenated vegetable shortening in the fifties or sixties, when “experts” started to warn about the dangers of saturated fats, and Procter & Gamble picked up on it in their Crisco* advertising. (“It’s all vegetable. It’s digestible!”)

Funny thing is, according to the USDA, lard contains more monounsaturated fatty acids (think olive oil) than saturated ones. Here’s the fatty acid breakdown for one tablespoon of lard: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 5.8g monounsaturated; 5g saturated. (For reference, a tablespoon of butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.) So even if you buy the “saturated fat is the devil” theory (and I don’t), lard is not unhealthy.

So how did we get to the point where the word “lard” must be said with a whisper and a giggle? It’s really rather strange. People sigh about indulging in “too much” butter. But if you suggest using butter in cooking, no one looks at you in horror. The word “butter” doesn’t evoke gasps or blushes.

Whatever the issue, I think it’s time we got over it. Lard is a wonderful cooking fat. There’s nothing in the world that can equal a leaf lard pie crust for flakiness.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy real lard in the grocery store. Grocery store lard is partially hydrogenated to give it a uniform texture and a longer shelf life. (It’s really just Crisco made from industrial pig fat instead of industrial soy and cottonseed oils.)

There are a couple of places online that sell pure rendered lard from happy (read: well-treated on small farms) pigs. Mother Linda’s is one, though she doesn’t always have enough to supply all her customers. And there’s at least one supplier on LocalHarvest that will ship.

It’s much easier to get lard from a local pig farmer or butcher in fresh, unrendered form. This means you need to melt it down yourself. But that’s not so hard. It’s really rather fun.

If you want to use your lard to make pie crusts, try to get leaf lard (the soft, creamy fat from around the pig’s kidneys). It has a unique crystalline structure that makes incredibly flaky pastry. Fatback is a harder fat from (you guessed it) along the back of the pig. It’s old time Appalachian food—the classic addition to a pot of greens. (Farmers sometimes also sell mixed fat from other parts of the pig, but the quality isn’t as good.)

To render lard, just chop it up the best you can (smaller pieces will render faster) and put it in a heavy pot with a bit of water on the bottom. Put the pot on low heat. Stir as often as you can remember. It will take hours to render. You can speed the process up a little by squishing the whole bit with a potato masher once it’s started to melt. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up. It will make the lard taste greasy and fried.

When the unmelted bits start to sink, strain off the nice, clear lard. This is the stuff for pie crusts. If it looks like there’s still a lot of fat on what’s left, put it back on the heat to render some more. This second batch will be stronger tasting than the first, but still useful for things like cornbread and greens—and frying, of course.

Strain your rendered lard through cheesecloth into clean jars. You can store the extra in the freezer.

Happy baking!

*Yes, I know there’s “zero trans-fat per serving” Crisco now. Turns out that may be even more poisonous than the original. Are you surprised?

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Old-fashioned flax hair gel.

Remember the flax seed tea?

It doubles as hair gel. Really.

A soothing, conditioning hair gel (not like drying, alcohol-based commercial gels).

This is what the flappers used to set their pin curls in the twenties.

Just make the tea,* strain out the seeds while it’s hot, and let it cool. Hair gel.

You can add a few drops of essential oil (I like lemongrass or grapefruit) to preserve it and make it smell nice. But that’s it.

I have very unruly hair. The flax gel keeps it in pleasant curls rather than unbearable frizz. I just rub it through my hair while it’s damp, and let it dry.

Easy, cheap, and fun.

* For hair gel, I simmer 1 tablespoon of flax seeds in 1 cup of water until the liquid is reduced by half. (I use only a teaspoon of the seeds if I want to drink the tea.)

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Local herbalism: using the plants in the dooryard.

When I told the gentleman who installed our satellite internet that I’m an herbalist, he started singing the praises of Tahitian Noni Juice. Right. I told him I was sure the Noni Juice was very nice, but there were ten different just-as-useful herbs growing right by his feet in my backyard, and he could have them all for free.

See, exotic herbs with hyped-up marketing campaigns just don’t excite me. Who knows exactly what’s in those bottles anyway? And why should I give my money to big, sketchy companies when my backyard supplies just about all the herbs I could ever need?

Today I decided to go outside and make a list of the useful herbs that are growing wild right now within 20 feet of my house. The list was even longer than I thought: more than thirty very useful plants.

Here they are, with a use or two for each to give you an idea of what they’re good for. Keep in mind that many blogposts (books, even!) could be written on every one of these plants, so there is necessarily a lot left out. I just wrote the first thing that came to my mind about each one.

All Heal (Prunella vulgaris): incredible wound-healer and alterative.
Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.): valuable diaphoretic, nervine.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra): alterative, thyroid support, skin fungus.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.): an astringent when you need it.
Burdock (Arctium lappa): liver and kidney soother, resolves scaly skin.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria): sleep for babies, stomach-calmer.
Celandine (Chelidonium majus): liver and lymphatic stimulant.
Cheeses (Malva rotundifolia): useful mucilage-laden mallow, soothes everything.
Chickweed (Stellaria media): gentle, soothing alterative and lymphatic.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus): classic bitter digestive.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): elimination balancer, alterative, minerals.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): good for sneezing allergies, digestive and urinary soother.
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea): alterative, depurative.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): another wonderful, soothing mallow.
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata): antispasmodic of the first order.
Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria): possible lymphatic.
Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum): respiratory stimulant.
Plantains (Plantago major & P. lanceolata): stings, wound healing (inside and out).
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana): strong lymphatic.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota): kidney stones, thyroid, and birth control too!
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): gentle lymphatic, alterative.
Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis): traditionally used for mania!
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella): traditional cancer herb, good vitamin c in salad.
Spiny Sow Thistle (Sonchus asper): cooling digestive tonic.
Strawberry (Fragaria spp.): gentle astringent, baby diarrhea.
Thistles (Cirsium spp.): liver and digestive tonic.
Violet (Viola sororia): so cooling, soothing, and comforting.
White Deadnettle (Lamium album): astringent, good for heavy menstrual bleeding.
White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia): bitter nervine.
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella): tasty source of vitamin c, heals old wounds.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): sharp cuts, internal healing, alterative.
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus): liver stimulant, laxative.

Well, not a bad materia medica, is it? Most of these plants grow in cities, too. Medicine all around, if you look for it. (Big herb companies don’t need your money anyway.)

A side note: I’m a space cadet. After I reminded everyone else about this blog party, I forgot about it myself until I saw Kiva’s post. Silly, I know.

What should our next blog party be? I promise to participate on time!

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Soothing flax seed tea.

flaxtea.JPGThe boy was sick this past weekend, and I was reminded about the lovely soothing properties of flax seed tea (Linum usitatissimum).

Flax is a classic demulcent. The seeds are rich in mucilage, like marshmallow or slippery elm. But flax isn’t so cooling as marshmallow or threatened in the wild like slippery elm.

Flax seed tea is amazing for soothing irritated mucous membranes. Think raw: sore throat; esophagus irritated from vomiting; “irritable bowel syndrome”; lungs irritated from coughing; kidneys and bladder irritated from passing stones.

Its neutral “temperature” makes flax tea good for all sorts of people, including those with constitutions on the cool side. It tastes especially nice with a pinch of warming cinnamon.

The way I make it, it’s really a decoction rather than a tea. Here’s what I do:

Put flax seeds in a small pot with 1 cup of water per teaspoon of seeds.

Simmer gently until the liquid is reduced by half.

Drink hot. (If you let it cool, it will be the texture of raw egg white.)

You can add honey if you like, or warming spices if they’re indicated. But I like the mildly nutty taste of the plain tea.

Next: flax tea as a beauty aid. (They don’t call it usitatissimum for nothing!)

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