Jun 272012
 

If you know me then you know I love food. And if you follow my blog or have ever met me you might know that I’m especially fond of wild food, and, if possible, even more fond of sharing it with others. There is something so magical, so primal and so deeply healing in going out to a wild place and foraging for food. Whether at a far away and remote mountain top or in a city park there is always something edible and delicious to be found growing freely (and free!), serving as a delicious reminder that food is all around us, constantly growing, shifting, changing and always offering a tantalizing taste of something once forgotten, possibly foreign but oh so natural all at once.

On Being a ‘Foodie’

My friends often describe me as a ‘foodie’, a title that makes me feel both fond and slightly disdainful to be associated with. The word ‘foodie’ often conjures up images of quasi-intellectual yuppie-hipster types with wannabe food critic tendencies, consuming pretentious foods with even more pretentious attitudes. And yes, maybe there is a bit of truth to this. But underneath the big shades and big words often lies the core of the foodie, a genuine lover of food. Someone who sees a meal as more than just fuel for continuing an already too fast paced day. While foodies are often associated with enjoying abstract and complex meals they are just as likely to enjoy simplicity as well; eating a whole apricot or a slice of melon, for example. For a foodie these ‘meals’ become symbols of something pure, wholesome and wholly good. Because the foodie often has an interest in where their food comes from and how it was produced it’s likely that the apricot is at the peak of ripeness or the melon is perfectly sweet and balanced. When these foods are at their peak, they need no fancy frills to make them better. The good foodie knows this and uses this knowledge effectively. When a peach is, perhaps, just a little under ripe, the knowledgeable foodie might split it in half and grill it to caramelize the developing sugars, maybe adding a drizzle of honey to further enhance the peachy goodness. Rather than view these tendencies as pretentious, one can view them as tools for connecting with something we do everyday: eat. They are powerful ways to transform what is too often an automated and thoughtless process into an enjoyable, sensuous and healing ritual.

On Accessibility

More often than not I think fear plays a big role in keeping people from enjoying wild foods. While there are certainly many factors that may keep one from enjoying wild and wonderful foods, the fear of things foreign seems to be a recurring theme. Being a foodie, it’s true that I’m more open to ‘different’ flavors; going past the usual salty and sweet I often cook with ingredients ranging from bitter to sour and everything in between. I think many people fear things that don’t taste like either chips or ice cream. There is so much involved here and on so many levels: genetic components, memories and emotions associated with certain tastes and foods, fear of change and of things that taste different. So much goes on when we eat that we don’t even realize. Which brings me to accessibility, making wild foods accessible for those that may not have ever had, or even thought of having, something from the wild. I believe, mostly because I’ve seen it happen countless times (including with myself!) that tastes can change. It may take time but after a time, what often may have once felt harsh begins to mellow out. Flavors that were once viewed as intense become intense cravings and one may begin to desire more, becoming more adventurous by the meal. Of course, we don’t just go from eating from a box to eating a diet of bitter summer dandelion greens in one fell swoop, at least not often. This is why, for those new to foraged goodies, I like to find wild foods that have some element of similarity to more modern-traditional foods. It’s approachable and respectful to both the person eating it and the plant, often resulting in a wild food convert and a lot less waste of unwanted and abstract wild foods.

Minty Things

For the month of June the Wild Things Round Up is featuring Mint and Mint family plants (Lamiaceae). I’ve pretty much been a lifelong foodie, so it might come as a surprise to you that I only recently learned to love Mint (Mentha x piperita). I was never one to love, or even like, minty things. You can take all my York peppermint patties and Life Savers, I’ll keep the chocolate, thank you. I started to enjoy mint slowly, mostly out of what I felt was a necessity. Many (including myself) found it odd that I was “the herbalist who doesn’t like mint”. The first mint that I really learned to enjoy was Spearmint, much less ‘cold’ and spicy than its close relative, I found the liveliness of Spearmint (Mentha x spicata) to enliven my mind and ease my often rumbly belly. As I delved into Mints I found that a sprig or two of fresh Peppermint went rather nicely with a tannin rich black tea, cutting away some of the bitter and adding a non-caffeinated and much needed pep to hot, humid days. Bit by bit my taste started to change and I found myself adding fresh mint to much more than tea. It was great with rich meats, cutting the fat and adding a sparkle of cool energy. It was great chopped fresh over summer berries, aiding their cool nature and playing delicately on their intense sweetness. Nowadays I can even drink straight up peppermint tea, but I, more often than not, prefer it as part of a mix in tea.

Cat Tales

Cucumbers are a funny little vegetable. I can’t count how often I hear how bland they taste and before I gardened, I couldn’t agree more. Cucumbers often tasted of little more than plain water and I always found myself adding intense flavors to them to make them taste like, well, something. Then I grew my own cucumbers and to my surprise I realized just how much flavor a good cucumber can have all on its own. Still, it’s rather rare to get those perfectly perfect cukes and more often than not they need just a little something to jazz them up. Not much mind you, just a little enhancement to emphasize that wonderful cooling and mildly sweet flavor. A little vinegar and oil with a touch of salt and pepper and maybe some fresh chopped mint makes a wonderfully simple and cooling salad on a sweltering day. In fact fresh mint is a near perfect addition to cucumber salad: aromatic and slightly spicy to balance the sweetness of the cuke and the richness of the oil. Patience! I can hear you now “but I thought this was about accessible wild foods?” And so it is. Let me tell you about nature’s cucumber.

Cattails (Typha sp.) are a common and easily recognizable plant by most people. A member of their own family, Typhaceae, they tend to grow in aquatic places, preferring to have their feel wet or at least moist. While there are a number of varying species, all Cattails can be used the same. Cattails are a great ‘beginner’ wild food not only because they are easily recognizable but also because they have many edible parts. The starchy roots can be boiled or baked to make a sweet, potato like food. If you have the time and energy, it can even be milled into a nutritious flower. The mature male flowers, producing the recognizable brown hotdog like appendage, produces a lovely deep golden pollen that can be added to breads, pancakes and the like. But my favorite part is the early spring shoot which is sweet and crunchy and most comparable to a flavorsome cucumber. Abundant and widely available across the country this wild vegetable can be eaten both raw and cooked and made into a number of delicious meals. During the summer months, when the cattails are gaining speed and gathering energy to flower the shoots can still be harvested, just remove the outer sheath to reveal the juicy, crunchy inside (hint: it should be easily crunchable and not be difficult to chop, if it is, continue to remove outer leaves until you hit a tender core).

Natural Pairings

 

Cucumber and mint seem to go together like peas in a pod. Aromatic, slightly spicy and deeply cooling mint leaves are the balancing act to sweet, cool and crisp cucumbers. It’s also a relatively known summer meal, easily recognizable by foodies and non-foodies alike (read approachable). And just as these well known culinary delights are made for one another, so too it seems are their wild counterparts. Often found growing together, wild mint complements the sweet crunch of young cattail shoots quite perfectly. Add a dash of vinegar and a bit of oil and you have a wonderful cooling salad to accompany grilled fish or chicken. Most any vinegar will do though I am particularly fond of violet and rose petal vinegars as they add just an extra touch of coolness and flavor. The only vinegar I don’t recommend using is balsamic as it tends to overpower the delicate taste of the cattails (trust me, I’m a foodie). Add a little chopped fresh mint and voilà!

 

Minted Cattail Salad

4 cups cattail shoots, de-sheathed and chopped

4 Tb rose vinegar (or other vinegar)

5 TB Olive oil

¾ tsp Salt

¼ tsp. pepper

2-3 TB chopped fresh mint

Add all ingredients together and mix. Let marinate a few hours before serving with grilled fish or chicken.

Apr 152012
 

I love early Spring. Cool days mingle with warmer ones, light breezes tickle your body while bright perfumes flirt with your senses. Days are variable as are moods, full sun mixes evenly (or not so) with gentle rains that nourish the ground and coax it back to life. If there was a color to associate with spring it would likely be green. But those that know Spring, really know it, know that there is a beautiful spectrum of greens, from the deep dark greens of vinca to the light greens of budding maples to the mixed shades of green found on the native honeysuckles. I love green. It speaks of potential, of birth and rebirth. It speaks of desire coming to life, of newness, innocence and the continuation of a cycle that never dies, only sleeps for a time gathering its energies to release them all in full force. And just as I love the green of my surroundings so too do I love the green of my food. Traditional Spring foods evoke images of tender fresh peas, sweet and succulent and lightly dressed asparagus so full of flavor it hardly needs to be dressed at all. Perhaps a touch of lemon to balance the flavor, a splash of oil for richness and a sparkle of salt or just a plain old raw stalk so tender it almost melts in your mouth. Less traditional but equally delicious dock greens, with their slightly sour aftertaste and deeply nourishing nettles fill my kitchen with their wild green selves.

I love soups, they are infinitely versatile, nourishing and satisfying. They make a delicious first course for a fancy dinner but served with a wild salad and a hunk of sourdough (or a few hunks in my case) can make the centerpiece of a comforting meal. Spring soups are some of my favorites. Highlighting the greenness of Spring, they speak of nourishment and health. They are often more versatile than winter soups being delicious served both hot and cold. They live in a kind of in between world, one that whispers gently of life and vitality but contains remnants of a coldness not far in the past. They serve as a reminder of Springs fleeting nature and encourage you to take full advantage of what’s around you and for April’s Wild Things Round Up that’s exactly what I did.

One of my favorite soups is split pea with ham. Warming and filling it is a perfect mix of thick building energy and enlivening freshness. This year, however, I decided to try something new: a sort of wild pseudo split pea soup. The soup is a fusion of two distinct recipes. Recently I received a beautiful new cookbook (oh man do I NOT need anymore, but I love them!). It’s called Around My French Table by Dorrie Greenspan and I highly recommend it. As I was thumbing through the soups section I came across this interesting and unique take on a traditional French Spring recipe, peas and lettuce. Usually made with fresh spring peas and sautéed with onions and fresh young lettuce Mmme Greenspan turned this traditional recipe into a flavorful and unique soup. Hmm thought I. The beginning of something wonderful and unique and that I could call my own. So I thought about it and it came to me to try using Redbud flowers as a substitute for the peas and using a leftover ham hock and a few handfuls of dock to give it that nice Spring green color, Ham and Redbud soup was born.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is an early Spring flowering tree in the Fabaceae family. Related to the more common garden pea Redbud has delicious slightly aromatic and sweet flavor with a decisive bean-y taste. The buds taste quite different in different stages so I strongly encourage you to taste them and find out what you like best. Personally I like the open flowers the best but since there are few that are fully open at this point, I used a combination of both open and unopened buds. It’s extra work but if you have time it’s worth taking off the brown part that connects the various flower stalk of the flowers together, it has a strong bitter flavor. This soup is very mildly seasoned comprising mainly of pork stock with a little chopped preserved lemon, a touch of clove and lots of black pepper. Sweet and bean-y with an edge of bitter and a lot of wild energy I think you’ll really enjoy it. Best when served drizzled with a little fresh cream or a spoonful of crème fraîche. Make, share and enjoy!

Ham and Redbud soup—with dock!

1 onion

1 Tb. lard

2 qts. Water or broth

1 ham hock with a little meat if possible

3-4 handfuls of dock leaves (Rumex sp.)

3 small potatoes

1 clove

1 tsp. fresh black pepper

1 tsp. preserved lemon

Salt to taste

Slice the onion and sauté in the lard until soft and the pungency no longer makes you want to cry. Add the water or broth and the ham hock and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer with a lid for anywhere from 1-3 hours (the longer the more flavorful it will get). Add 2 cups of Redbud buds and the chopped dock leaves and continue to cook until the dock turns a bit dull in color. Remove the bone and the meat still attached, reserve in a bowl. Puree the soup with the preserved lemon and the clove and add salt and pepper. Remove as much meat as possible from the bone and put it in the soup. Serve hot or cold.

Mar 222012
 

I just finished reading this magical journey of a book: A Year in the Village of Eternity.

It chronicles the life of the author, Tracey Lawson, during her three years living in this beautiful mountain town in the heart of Italy. In Campodimele, the town of eternity and the place where the author made her three year home, the residents seemingly live naturally long lives with an average age of 95. Scientists, journalists and others have researched this town, trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that contributes to the residents long lifespans. Lawson, after reading about the town and doing her own research decided she too wanted to know. She moved from her home of land and set up life in this little town of only 671 people. During her extended stay she learned much about the people, the culture and lifestyle of Campodimele. Indeed, instead of finding a single reason for the amazing longevity of the Campomelani, she discovered a beautiful, seasonal and natural way of living which all together contributes to the deep and real health of its citizens.

The book is divided into months in which Lawson describes the various seasonal and food related activities that occur during that time. Whether it’s the pig slaughter of January or the harvest of the little sour-sweet amarene cherries of July Lawson describes every facet of seasonal living in Campodimele in earthy, living detail.

Each month also contains recipes. Yes, real tried and true—authentic—Campodimele recipes. Many of them All of them sound delicious. Particularly delicious sounding to me was a recipe in the month of February called Tagne. When I first read about Tagne and then conceived of writing this post I had grand dreams of researching Tagne and getting all the history behind it to share with you lovely readers…well life doesn’t always work out that way. My several hour-long research into Tagne turned up nothing. So all information about this traditional dish is taken directly from Ms. Lawson and the residents she learned from in Campodimele. We just have to trust them.

So what is Tagne? Essentially it is a frittata with the eggs. Frittata without eggs? Yes, in Campodimele in a time of great poverty, eggs were reserved for special occasions and so the Campomelani devised this version of an eggless frittata. In Campodimele, Tagne is a species of Clematis (Clematis vitalba) that is chopped, boiled and mixed with a bit of flour, olive oil and salt. Where I live we don’t have Clematis vitalba nor do we have any Clematis in February (or March!) and so I thought to myself ‘why not Tagne with dock leaves?’ Dock leaves also called Yellowdock (Rumex crispus and obtusifolium) are a delicious, slightly sour green vegetable. Because of their high oxalic acid content I tend to eat them cooked only. So I tried it and voila…crisp but soft in the center, warm and green tasting with just the barest hint of sour from the oxalic acid all beautifully wrapped up in silky olive oil. I made mine with Hemlock needle oil but you can make yours with any conifer oil or even plain old olive oil (but trust me the dock goes really well with the woody flavor of conifers). So without further ado, my recipe for Dock tagne.

Dock Tagne

Five large handfuls of dock leaves

Few splashes of Hemlock or other conifer oil

Pinch of Salt, grind of pepper

3 tsp flour (I used a locally ground ‘half wheat’ but I imagine any would work, even gluten free flours. It’s just there to bind things a little).

Chop and then boil the dock for 5-10 minutes and drain in a colander. Run cold water over them to prevent further cooking and to refresh them, then squeeze out as much water as you can. In a bowl toss the dock with the olive oil, salt, pepper and flour. In a round frying pan on med-low heat form the tagne into a disc and fry gently until crispy on one side, then flip and fry the other. Makes a great first course or paired with a few slices of home cured meat or bacon and a piece of fruit, a lovely simple lunch. Enjoy!

Feb 232012
 

Mmmm the warm smell of nourishing bone broth fills my home with its rich scent and heady perfume. The combination of roasted bones and aromatic vegetables mingle for hours, and I mean hours, slowly extracting every last bit of yummy goodness. Can mere writing extol the virtues of something so primal, so deeply nourishing and satisfying? I don’t know, but I feel bone broth is such an important thing to share that I’m going to attempt it. Here we go!

Introduction to broth

Bone broth has been made for thousands and thousands of years, transcending cultural bounds and is found amongst nearly all traditional cultures the world over. Strictly speaking bone broth can be defined by a combination of simple ingredients, boiled together with water for anywhere from an hour to days at a time. While some may associate beef with bone broth, and indeed it is common, bone broth can be made from chicken bones, wild animal bones and even fish bones! Most often bone broths have some element of vegetable which not only enhances flavor but adds even more crucial minerals. Every culture will have their way of making bone broth, largely influenced by the animals and vegetables available to them and every modern cook will have their own way as well. That said following a few simple guidelines can enhance both the taste and nutritional content of your broth. In general it is recommended to add a splash of vinegar to bone broths, aiding the water to pull out minerals from the hard and dense bones (do not despair; you won’t taste it in the end!). Bones other than chicken and fish do well by browning them in an oven before making stock. While not necessary for nutrition, this action caramelizes some of the sugars and will go a long way in enhancing the final taste of your stock. As mentioned above, the addition of some vegetables and/or scraps will further enhance both flavor and nutrition. These can include carrots, onions and their skins, celery and other aromatic or root vegetables. Aromatic herbs can also make a delicious addition to stocks and can include thyme, sage or more exotic flavored herbs like monarda or wild thyme.

Benefits

Ok so we’ve espoused the flavors of bone broth and talked a bit about how to enhance the flavor even more but what about the health benefits? Bone broth is a nutritional powerhouse full of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and trace minerals. While calcium, magnesium and other minerals may be obtained from other dietary sources (and should be) bone broth provides them for your body in a very easily digestible and absorbable form. Minerals are especially important to our health as they are responsible for not only structural formations, maintenance and repair of our bodies but are also crucial elements to many enzymatic reactions. Broth is also a rich source of collagen, a necessary component for the development and maintenance of various tissues including bones, ligaments, tendons, skin and cartilage. Collagen, known as gelatin in its food form, is a rich source of chondroitin sulfate. Yes, chondroitin sulfate, that overly priced and well-touted supplement that you are purchasing from the store. Chondroitin sulfate is a structural component of cartilage and has been shown to help with arthritis, degenerative joint disease, inflammatory bowel disease and lowered immune function. My opinion…ditch the supplement and drink more broth. Gelatin is rich in the amino acids proline and glycine which are integral to many functions of our body. Glycine supports proper digestion by enhancing gastric secretion, supports the liver’s natural detoxifying abilities and acts as a precursor to glutathione, the body’s number one endogenous antioxidant. Proline is an essential part of the structure of collagen and therefore enhances the health and nutrition of our bones, skins, tendons and joints.

See that spoon practically standing up? Beautiful gelatin!

Adequate nutrition is vital to our health. Unfortunately, subclinical deficiencies left untreated often fail to express themselves as pathologies until it is too late. In the US, true clinical nutritional deficiencies are rare. Syndromes such as rickets and scurvy have largely been eliminated due to the fortification of foods and better nutritional intake. However, while many people will survive and live “healthy” lives without developing pathologies or clinical disease many of the subclinical illnesses such as poor digestion can later morph into more serious problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Ensuring adequate nutrition early on in life and maintaining it throughout can go a long way in preventing these diseases and drinking bone broth daily or weekly is a great way to get these vital nutrients and components into your body. Of course, should these diseases develop bone broth can be a vital (and tasty) part of their treatment.

Bone broth is also extremely economical and can be made for mere cents. I buy them 15 lbs at a time for about 15 dollars. That boils down to about $1 a quart, a savings of over 80% if bought at a store (not to mention the nutritional inferiority of store bought broth). If that’s not incentive, what is?

 

The Sticks

Being an herbalist I have to mention a bit about herbs or sticks (right?). Sticks, here referring to rooty herbs and mushrooms can be a wonderful and healing addition to broths. Occasionally I find I want a little extra punch in my broth, so to speak. Adding roots and mushrooms can be a great way to tailor broths for more specific needs. For example, to enhance the immune boosting effects of bone broth add a bit of astragalus. Or, to enhance the gut healing action add some licorice or for a more neutral flavor, hemp seeds. Many mushrooms have wonderful immune enhancing effects and are also tasty. Try maitake or shiitake for flavor. More bold mushrooms like Reishi have strong immune regulating effects but also an accompanying strong flavor. Keep in mind many herbs come with strong flavors and thus will affect the final flavor of your broth. I encourage experimentation, in small batches.

The broth

Every cook will have their own special recipe and way of making broth and I encourage you to develop your own. Instead of a specific recipe, I want to share with you a loose guide that I hope you will adapt and make your own. General rules of thumb: fish, due to their small frames and strong flavor need only 1-2 hours to make good broth. Chicken, beef and game benefit from a longer cooking period, sometimes as long as 24 hours. Beef and game should be roasted at 425 degrees for 15-25 minutes or until browned.

5lbs bones (roasted or unroasted)

A good handful of vegetable scraps- onion skins, carrot peels, celery ends etc.

5 quarts of water

A splash of vinegar

Salt to taste

Herbs if using-half a handful

Roots and mushrooms if using- to taste or as desired for medicinal effect.

Place all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. During the first half an hour impurities will rise to the surface, referred to as scum in cooking terminology. Using a spoon, skim off the scum until it stops forming. Turn heat to low and cover, simmer for hours. Enjoy the smell as it fills your home with its yummy goodness.

Once done, you can let it cool and refrigerate it. Remove the fat layer from the top and save it if desired. Put the broth into jars or other containers and either refrigerate or freeze.

Boiling broth. On the left side of the photo is 'scum'

 

Broth after refrigeration. Note the (beautiful) layer of hardened fat on top. This can be skimmed off and saved for cooking or discarded.

 

 

 

Dec 282011
 

December’s Wild Things Round Up is all about our favorite wild food recipes. This is definitely one of my favorites, especially in the month of December.

Whenever I come home for the holidays I inevitably end up eating things I don’t really want to eat. I’m not complaining; I’m not perfect and no one is. Often I eat the main meal with everyone but the rest of the time I end up cooking my own meals for myself; a bit isolating but it’s what I need to do to nourish and honor my body. But this year I wanted to do something different. Sure I still ate the myriad of pastries and cookies that float around my parents’ house this time of year but I also decided that after the holiday craziness I was going to make a nourishing meal for my entire family. After lugging 20lbs of frozen venison from New York to Maryland this is the result (and well worth it, I might add).

I love meat, especially wild meat. There is something indescribably nourishing about it. Wild meat is naturally grass-fed and is truly free-range making it some of the healthiest meat available. But more than just nutritionally speaking there is something just different about it. When my mother finished eating she said “I can’t find the words to describe it, I want to say rich but that’s not quite right…Deep. Deep feels like the right word, yeah deep”. And truly that is one of the best words to describe it. It fills you up inside, it satiates to the core and fills you with energy both rich and invigorating and somehow simultaneously centering. Nutritionally it is a wonderful source of protein and Iron and is a good source of Zinc, B vitamins and some trace minerals such as phosphorous and selenium.

Venison is one of my favorite wild meats; it’s plentiful, nutritious and the flavor is not overly gamey (read can be served to those hesitant to eat wild meat). This recipe is largely based on one by Guy Grieve and Thomasina Miers in their fantastic book The Wild Gourmets with a few adaptations from me. As wild currants aren’t very plentiful around me I replaced them with the much more available autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and used wild juniper berries (Juniperus virginianus) in place of store bought ones. Of course, any fruit jam would do but there is something to be said for pairing wild fruits and berries with wild meat. Autumn olives are a rich source of the antioxidant carotenoid lycopene (up to 16x as much as tomatoes!) and have a wonderful sweet tartness that matches well to rich dark chocolate. The chili adds fire to an already full flavored dish, providing an extra bit of warmth when the weather is causing bones to chill. Finally, the juniper berries provide a wild aromatic note lifting the whole dish to nirvana.

Bubbling stew

Venison braised with chili, chocolate and wine

For the marinade:

1 bottle red wine

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 fresh red chilis, deseeded and minced

3 Tb. Olive oil

15 juniper berries, crushed

Salt and pepper

For the stew:

4.5 lbs venison (shoulder or haunch)

1 large onion

2 carrots, diced

5 celery stalks, diced

3 parsnips, diced

5 garlic cloves, minced

2 dried chilis, crumbled

2 cups stock

2 cups red wine

3 oz dark chocolate

1 Tb. Autumn olive jelly

 

Cut venison into cubes, removing large bits of fat and gristle. Place in a bowl covering with marinade ingredients and let marinate in refrigerator for several hours to overnight.

When ready to cook, remove meat from marinade and save marinade for later. Heat a large casserole or dutch oven on high heat; add a tablespoon of olive oil and sear the meat, a few pieces at a time, on all sides until browned. Set aside.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and sweat onions for 5 minutes. Then add other vegetables and cook a further ten minutes. Add the garlic and cook another five minutes.

Return venison to casserole along with reserved marinade and the rest of the ingredients. Bring up to a simmer and stir to melt the chocolate. Cook in a preheated oven at 375 for 1.5 hours. If the chocolate is too heavy or gritty feeling bring it back to a boil on top of the stove with the lid off and add a splash of wine or vinegar. If desired, add a slurry of flour and water to thicken and let cook a minute or so more, adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a bed of whipped mashed potatoes.

Venison stew atop whipped potatoes with butter and cream

Dec 162011
 

Kukicha is a true tea; that is to say it comes from Camelia sinensis or the tea plant. It comes from the same plant that gives us black tea, yellow tea, white tea and green tea. Kukicha is actually classified as a green tea but it differs from most in that instead of being made from the leaves it is actually made from various twig parts of the tea bush. Green tea has gotten much press in the last few years and its virtues are well known if not exaggerated. Whether or not green tea is a miracle drink remains to be seen but it is no less true that it is a rich source of antioxidants such as EGCG and other polyphenols that have been shown to be cell protective. Regardless, it is a delicious drink that is often uplifting and energizing—without that shaky caffeine high often experienced with other caffeinated beverages. Theories abound as to why this is and like others I am apt to believe that its relatively large quantity of L-Theanine, an amino acid with ‘calming’ effects counteracts the small amount of caffeine in a cup of the tea.

Typically I drink green tea in late spring and summer. Though the flavor profile varies greatly amongst types and styles of the tea, green tea is almost invariably light and clean and usually requires no added flavorings. The exception is Kukicha, whether roasted or unroasted it has a deeper flavor suggesting more elements of earth and soil, perhaps due to being made of the twigs and not the leaves. Unlike ‘normal’ green tea I like Kukicha with a dash of honey and a bit of cream. Those of you who follow my blog (or worse, my facebook) might be aware that I have a certain love (read: obsession) for cream. You might think this is just another excuse to add cream to something, but in this case at least I can truly say that Kukicha’s robust flavor stands well and is even enhanced by the addition.

Lately I’ve been drinking a lot of this too oft neglected green tea and, because it’s winter (and I love spices) I’ve been spicing it up. Below is a recipe for a nourishing and opening morning beverage. Filled with both warming and cooling aromatics it is a delicious way to say hello to the morning.

Spiced Kukicha Tea

For 1 cup

1 tsp Kukicha

½ tsp whole coriander

3-4 cardamom pods

Good pinch of rose petals

Grind the cardamom pods and coriander seeds together and fill a vessel with the kukicha and the herbs. Pour over water just under the boiling point and let steep a good 4 minutes. Strain the herbs and add a bit of ginger (or regular) honey and a splash of cream if desired. Enjoy!

Dec 082011
 

On cold, frosty mornings nothing starts my day better than a rich decoction of dandelion and burdock with maybe a little something warming, like ginger or cinnamon. It’s a time of roots and seeds, of deeper energies and heavier foods. It’s a time of cooler winds and frost in the air and a time to prepare for the long, dark and introspective months ahead. Roots are said to have the ability to get to the root of a problem. How true this is I can’t say but they do often make superb tonics and they can help connect one to the colder seasons. They often work on the liver and as such can help with many systemic problems such as arthritis, excess estrogens, underproduction of bile, digestive malabsorption, etc.

As I mentioned in my last post, now is a good time for gentle cleansing. The season’s many roots and seeds, which often have gentle tonic cleansing effects, can be included in the diet as both food and beverage. They help prepare your body for the seasonally appropriate heavier foods that one needs for a cold, dark winter (and I’m not just talking cookies here, folks!). As we switch from eating lighter raw foods, fish and lighter meats and we begin to incorporate more starchy tubers, roots and heavier, darker meats into our diet it can be beneficial to include some bitter tonics. Bitters are traditional for prepping and improving digestion, especially fat digestion. When the bitter flavor hits corresponding taste buds on the tongue a myriad of reactions is set off by the body. First, your mouth begins to secrete more amylase, an enzyme essential for carbohydrate digestion. Soon after your stomach secretes HCL, your pancreas releases yet more digestive enzymes and your gallbladder releases stored and concentrated bile. These actions work together to prepare your GI tract for food. Combined, they help nutrients to be better assimilated, peristalsis to be more rhythmic and can tonify overall digestion. Bitters also stimulate bile production in the liver as well as increasing the livers detoxification abilities.

Especially seasonally appropriate are two of my favorite gentle liver tonics: dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa and sp.) sometimes called gobo. Both of these herbs are gentle enough and tonic enough that they rarely cause any side effects and can be safely used by most constitutions. On the scale of food vs. medicine, both dandelion and burdock sit just right of food. In fact, burdock is commonly consumed in Japan, usually as a part of a stir-fry.

Dandelion is perhaps the archetypal liver remedy. Cooling and nourishing with a slightly bitter burnt caramel flavor, it is wonderful for chronically inflamed livers or just as a tonic for those wanting to gently increase digestive power. Dandelion takes well to being roasted; the heat caramelizes the sugars and adds a silky malt flavor compounding its already complex earthy flavor, but it’s equally good unroasted. It is indicated in weak digestion, liver stagnation and constipation. In TCM, the liver is said to control the smooth flow of Qi. What does this beautiful and accurate metaphor mean? Essentially, when the liver is congested, emotions get ‘stuck’ and build up resulting in feelings of irritability, lack of joy and quick anger. Regular use of dandelion root, whether as tea or food, can improve the flow of bile, improve digestion and help emotional rollercoasters to be, well, less of a rollercoaster. Dandelion is also a rich source of inulin, a pre-biotic or food source, for the myriad bacteria in your gut. By feeding your gut flora you allow them to better perform their many jobs such as converting B12 into usable forms, manufacturing vitamin K and boosting your immune system.

Burdock is another favorite liver remedy and as mentioned above is almost closer to food than medicine. It is delicious in soups, stews and stir-fries as well as just a simple decoction, alone or combined with dandelion and other ‘rooty’ herbs. Like dandelion, Burdock is rich in inulin, perhaps even more so and makes a great tonic not only for the liver but for feeding one’s gut flora as well. It is a gentle diuretic (meaning you won’t have to pee every other minute, just a notch more than normal) and consequently can help the kidneys to more effectively flush out the waste they so want to be rid of. Burdock is also said to have an affinity for the skin, helping to clear up eczema, acne and various rashes and even playing a role in the more complex psoriasis. Remember, it’s more tonic than overt medicine and results with burdock may take time.

Daily use of these wonderful, gentle cleansing herbs can tune-up our systems and prepare us for the long and often too cold winter ahead. As you cook your fragrant stews, rich with root vegetables and silky meats and as you consume more healthful fats (grass-fed butter, pastured lard, coconut oil) try drinking a nourishing root decoction a couple times a week. Your body will better handle the increased caloric load and you won’t feel heavy and lethargic; rather you will feel energized as your body uses the essential nutrients needed at this time for the thousands of functions it performs on a daily basis. Below is a recipe I love this time of year. It’s rooty with notes of bitter, slightly sweet and aromatic which combine to not only get my digestion going but to reduce post-meal bloating and gas as well. The base is Chaga, a delicious medicinal mushroom with no overtly strong flavor. Instead, it gives good body and color to the decoction. The recipe is in parts so you can easily adapt it to make a lot or a little as needed.

Nourishing Root Decoction:

3 pt. Chaga

1 pt. Dandelion root

1/2 pt. Licorice root

1/2 pt. Ginger root

1/2 pt. Cinnamon bark

¼ pt. each Black pepper, Cardamom, Allspice and Clove

1-2 good Tb. per cup of water. Add herbs to cold water, bring to a boil and simmer 20-45 minutes. Serve warm with fresh cream, if desired.

Nov 032011
 

Nourishing infusions have got to be one of my favorite ways to ingest plants.

Nettle about to be infused overnight (photo by Andrea Salzman)

They are often loaded with vitamins and minerals and are a rich source of phytochemicals. So what is a nourishing infusion you ask? First let’s define what an infusion is. An infusion is basically any plant matter that is covered with boiling water and steeped for anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. A nourishing infusion tends to be an infusion that is made from gentle, nourishing, mineral rich plants and are steeped for several hours or even overnight. This allows for maximum diffusion of the various chemicals from the plant to flow into the water.

I particularly like nourishing infusions because not only do they pack a nutritional punch, they are also easy to make and relatively convenient. I have found the best way to do them is prepare them just before turning in for the night. In this way, I can go to sleep and wake up with a lovely, deep and nourishing drink that I can carry with me throughout the day. In the morning you can strain off the herbs and then either drink it as is or reheat it. Typically I drink them room temperature in the spring and summer and heat them in the fall and winter. Most of these infusions are going to be tonics (read as slow acting) and should be used over a long period of time for best results.

The process: It’s simple. Get a clean quart jar and fill it with anywhere from a ¼ cup to a full cup of plant material and fill the jar with boiling water. Screw on a lid and let it sit. Done. The greatest thing about these, perhaps, is their versatility. Feel free to experiment: try them with honey, herbal honeys, mix and match and have fun. Below are listed some of my favorite plants for these overnight infusions and a little blurb on what they may help with.

Catnip Oatstraw infusion ready to be strained (Photo by Andrea Salzman)

Nettles-(Urtica dioica)- Often hailed as the king of mineral rich plants, nettles are indeed a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. They are a great tonic to worn out adrenals and can help build up nutritionally deficient constitutions. Here’s a little tidbit I picked up from herbalist and friend Kiva Rose, if you find that drinking nettles is causing you to need to visit the bathroom more than usual (and believe me, I do) try adding a bit of Marshmallow (althea/malva spp.) leaves and/or roots or a bit of licorice. Their moistening nature can counteract some of nettles dryness.

Hawthorn-(Crataegus spp.)- Well known for being a functional heart tonic, Hawthorn also has a place in the emotional realm. For functional heart problems (mild CHF, arrhythmia, palpitations, etc.), Hawthorn needs to be drunk regularly and in large quantities and a nourishing infusion is a great way to get in all that flavonoid-rich goodness. Emotionally, I have found hawthorn to act quicker and find it cheers me up when I’ve had a long, stressful and emotion filled day. It is used to ease heartbreak and can have a place in treating emotional trauma.

Oats-(Avena Sativa)- If Nettles is the King of mineral rich plants than Oats is his Queen. Oats are also a rich source of vitamins and minerals (and yes, it is the same plant you get your oatmeal from). Oats are useful for building up energy and stamina to a depleted nervous system. They are also useful as tonics to those of us who don’t get enough vitamins/minerals in our diets (you know who you are). Oats are also useful in building up energy after being sick. Combine them with nettles to kick things up a bit.

Tulsi-(Ocimum tenuiflorum)- Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, is a sacred herb in India with a long history of use. It is aromatic and warming and just all around wonderful; I like to call it a hug in a mug. One of its constituents (eugenol) is the same chemical responsible for giving cloves their earthy warm taste which, unlike regular basil (Ocimum basilicum), places it on the more warm end of the spectrum making it an ideal fall beverage.Often cited as helping to lower elevated cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) Ocimum is wonderful for calming an overexcited nervous system. Conversely, its aromatic nature also gives it a place in treating stagnant depression by helping to move things along. I like it combined with nettle or on its own.

Chamomile-(Matricaria recutita)- Chamomile. It’s an herb that almost everyone knows, even those that don’t ascribe to herbal medicine will often be heard telling people to drink chamomile. Chamomile is probably the archetypal remedy for all things involving digestion and indeed it is quite useful. It’s bitter and aromatic and can help ease gas, chronic digestive upset and symptoms of GERD. It is also useful for mild anxiety and stress, particularly when they involve GI upset. An herbalist friend who uses chamomile for insomnia says it works best with a bit of honey added. Try it and let me know.

Catnip-(Nepeta cataria)- Catnip is an underrated and underused herb in my opinion. I have to admit I’ve always thought of it as, well, weak. However during a period of intense anxiety I found a strong cup of catnip to calm me down so well I could hardly believe it. When I combined it with a little Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) it nearly knocked me out! It is great for digestive trouble that moves up (i.e. vomiting, burping, gas) and like chamomile, great for anxiety that causes GI symptoms (though I find Nepeta a bit stronger). It definitely works acutely but it is still mild enough that it can be taken long term for more chronic issues.

Raspberry-(Rubus spp.)- Like both Nettles and Oats, Raspberry leaves are a rich source of vitamins and minerals. They tend to have an affinity for the female reproductive system and make a wonderful, nourishing tonic for female-bodied folks to drink on the regular. They are slightly astringent and can help tone loose, lax tissues (as in excess bleeding, etc.) and consumed regularly and as part of a larger protocol may help many functional female disorders. Like Nettles, they are a rich source of Iron and are especially beneficial when drunk during menses.

Meadowsweet-(Filipendula ulmaria)- Meadowsweet is best known as a gut anti-inflammatory. Like a few other plants, it contains salicylates (specifically methylsalicylates) which are in part responsible for its anti-inflammatory action. Methylsalicylates is the taste of Wintergreen and at one time was a part of what gave root beer it’s creamy, aromatic flavor. Meadowsweet is a great nourishing infusion when you have chronic GI problems from simple gastritis to more complex Crohn’s. It won’t solve everything but it’s a great start and it tastes good. What could be better?

There are many more herbs that can be made into nourishing infusions, these are just a few of my favorites. When thinking of herbs to use remember to keep it simple, safe and nourishing and it will make a great nourishing infusion.

Sep 272011
 

Walnuts, who doesn’t love them? How about Black Walnuts? I can’t believe I’ve spent so much of my life not enjoying this delicious wild (and free!) edible. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is a robust tree in the Hickory family, Juglandaceae, with alternate pinnately compound leaves and grey-black bark. In older trees the grey-black bark is deeply furrowed and the tree can reach heights of 138 ft making this tree both magnificent and beautiful. It is bisexual, meaning it has separate male and female flowers. This time of year the female flowers develop into its fruit: a walnut surrounded by a hard shell and a beautiful light green hull.

Juglans nigra fruits

Black Walnut as used in medicine can be traced back to at least the 17th century where it was employed in Russian folk medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine states that eating Black Walnuts builds strength. Juglans is an abundant and useful medicine that is still in use today. Modern herbalists employ the hulls and leaves (more precisely the leaflets) for digestive issues, low thyroid function and sometimes to kill parasites. This post, however, will focus on a too oft overlooked part of this incredible and versatile tree: the fruit.

As I mentioned above, the fruit which ripens around now, is covered by a hard outer shell (and I do mean hard!) which in turn is covered by a somewhat soft-fleshy husk. The husks are easy enough to remove and can be covered by oil, isopropyl alcohol or ethanol and used for medicine (more on that in a future post). Once the husks are removed many people suggest to let the nuts sit in their shell for a few days which matures the fruit and deepens the flavor. I have not yet done this but I intend to try it, let me know if you do!

So if this fruit is so spectacular, why is it so often overlooked? Perhaps it’s due to that hard shell I keep mentioning. In this microwave savvy fast-food society it’s east to see that it might be just a bit too much work for people. But listen up folks! The effort pays off, promise. Nothing can compare to the delicate and yet complex flavor that this nut offers. Somewhere between intoxicating perfume and deep earth this nut is the perfect accompaniment to, well, everything.

 So how best to crack open this  nut? I think there are as many  answers as there are people  who are willing to do it. One  popular method is to place  the hulled nuts in a sack and  run them over with a car.  Haven’t tried it but it sounds  promising. At this point I have  just done the slow and steady  method of beating them with a  hammer. As we begin to shed our leaves with the trees and begin our descent into warmer, richer and deeper foods that will nourish and sustain us in the coming cold months I particularly like it in this adaptation of a walnut cake. The original recipe was adapted from Gourmet magazine and I have further adapted it from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve adapted it to make it lower in the sugar and gluten department and of course we’re using wild walnuts in this recipe. Rich in protein and fat plus trace minerals like manganese, phosphorous and zinc this walnut cake is nourishing and even a little bit healthy. The jam can be anything but this time of year I especially like elderberry jam,
and if you’re lucky fig jam.

Cake 

1 1/4 cups walnut, toasted

1/2 cup honey

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Topping
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (optional)
1/2 cup elderberry or fig jam

2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

 

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan, best if it has one of the cool, removable bottoms.

Pulse cooled walnuts and in a food processor until finely chopped. Cream butter and honey, then add eggs and vanilla. Add to walnuts and process until combined. Add flour, baking powder, and salt and pulse just until incorporated. Spread batter in cake pan.

Bake until cake is just firm to the touch and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes in pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

Whisk lemon juice (if using) into jam. Spoon jam over cake.

Beat heavy cream with sour cream and vanilla until it holds soft peaks, then spoon over jam. Try not to eat the whole thing all at once.

Aug 292011
 

One of my favorite wild foods to eat are grapes and their leaves (vitis spp.) The grapes themselves are delicious, especially as a sauce for wild meats. I could do a whole write up on the grapes themselves (and will soon!) but for now the focus of this post is on the leaves. Wild Grape is a flowering dioecious (separate male and female fowers) vine in the Vitaceae family, found throughout the Northern hemisphere. Grape leaves have been eaten by many people throughout the world and are still consumed to this day. One of their most famous incarnations is as dolmas: preserved grape leaves stuffed with various vegetables and/or meats and served with sauces, often yogurt.

On their own, grape leaves have a kind of sourness to them that pairs well with bright citrus flavors as well as aromatic and spicy flavors. They are abundant and versatile and as such I love to find new ways to use them. Of course, old standards are sometimes just the thing you need and as we transition to a more cool autum I find myself desiring one of my favorite incarnations of grape leaves. That is to say stuffed, with a spiced meat mixture and cooked in a mushroomy-tomato sauce. Below is the recipe.

 

Stuffed wild grape leaves in tomato sauce

1 large onion

1 cup mushrooms

2 cups tomato puree

1 lb ground beef

1 egg

1 tsp salt

2 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp coriander

1 tsp chopped preserved lemon (optional, but yummy!)

½ tsp black pepper

1 Tb lard, butter or olive oil

10-20 grape leaves depending on size

Pre-heat oven to 375. Halve the onion and chop it into slices, then dice the other half. In a skillet over medium-low heat sauté the onions in fat for about ten minutes, sprinkled with a little salt. Chop mushrooms and add, cook another five or so minutes. Then add 2 cups of tomato puree. Meanwhile, mix the ground beef in a bowl with the diced onion, salt, spices and an egg and the optional chopped lemons. Spoon some of the beef mixture into the center of each grape leaf and fold the sides and then the bottom and top towards the middle, forming a little package. Sometimes they stay together better than other times so if need be brush them with a little egg white mixed with water to make them stick. When all the  leaves are stuffed place them into the pan and spoon a little sauce over them. Throw the skillet in the oven and let cook for 30-45 minutes (depending on the size of the leaves).

(pictures soon!)