Monthly Archives: February 2012

smoked hot chocolate

Crying over smoked milk

This post is being submitted to the Wild Things roundup over at Hunger and Thirst. If you [still] haven’t checked it out, please do!

Few things are as evocative as smoke. It’s primal. We humans have been using smoke since we started using fire. Which, if you think about it, was a long long time ago. It’s magic stuff– stuff that gets into your lungs and into your hair, and imparts its flavour to anything it touches. Smoke can be therapeutic (kills germies and such) or it can be magical (alters minds and such) or it can be comforting (hot fire on a cold day, and such). It can also fling you into memories, unawares, as if time exists so fluidly as to not really exist at all. One minute you can be standing in your kitchen attempting to light some branches on fire, and the next you are standing on a sea wall on the west coast of Scotland, with frozen fingers and a frozen red nose.

We’d spend our summers in a cottage in a little village called Craobh Haven. My days were spent scouring the rocky beaches (looking for treasure), and roaming the fields (looking for adventure). Such is the life of someone who grows up reading Enid Blyton books. On days when I didn’t get to roam, we’d go off on adventures, on boats to explore the Hebrides, out to see real live whirlpools, to explore old caves with stone formations that stretch all the way to Ireland. They were the best summers of my life. I’m sure at the time, in the way that kids do, I was jealous of those friends who got to go to Disney World, eat big hamburgers and get flourescent clothes to bring back to school. Florida was glamorous, where staying in rainy Scotland, well, wasn’t. However, until those comparisons arose (much like one can love ones outfit until one sees someone with a nicer outfit and then all of a sudden one begins to notice a frayed hem and a rubbed away elbow– as if for some reason we are built to compare), I was ecstatically happy. The first time I saw the Atlantic ocean was during one of those summers. We’d just emerged from a glass blowing workshop, and I had a little glass statue in the pocket of my wax jacket, flecked with pink and yellow, as if the artist had captured a nebula in a little glass ball. On the other side of the road was the Atlantic. I stood up on a wall with my fingers clenched tight around the cold metal railing, in the rain, trying to wrap my head around the vastness of it all. This might not feel abnormal to you if you are used to seeing ocean. But to a nine year old mind that had only ever sailed in a sea, this was an ineffable experience. One that shaped my life to such a degree that I still go to the ocean to get that feeling, even though its only 6 miles away now, and to this day my insides still dance with excitement at all that lies out there just beyond my reach.

After these long cold days, often roaming in the rain and cold (because lets face it, summer in Scotland doesn’t mean summer like it does in other places where the sun shines), we’d go back to the cottage and make hot chocolate. Mum often had a lively bunch of friends visiting. We’d light a fire, and the smell of smoke interlaced itself with the smell of sea and of happiness. The smell of smoke indoors, from a fire, on a cold day, is forever entangled with these memories. Not even like it happened yesterday, but like it’s happening simultaneously.

Of course the whole purpose for the smoke filled kitchen was hot chocolate. Smoky, sweet, evocative hot chocolate. With a hint of whiskey. And old leather. And tobacco. You smoke the milk, then pop the whole lot on the stove with chocolate and sugar and vanilla, then add a good splosh of whisky at the end. It’s perfect for these remaining cold wintery nights. A grown up, old fashioned, sexy hot chocolate. The kind of thing that you’d see served in Silverlake in a bar with fake old wood floors and waiters with heavy mustaches and waistcoats on. The kind of thing you’d pay $15 for and wonder how they made it, and wonder if you’re pretentious by osmosis for liking it. It’s a variation of a recipe that I saw on Tim Ferris’ site. His looked awfully labour intensive, and used a cigar. I don’t want cigar smoke hanging in my house for weeks on end, plus, I’m kinda fond of the smell of conifer. This, my friends, is crazy delicious– please give it a try.

Ponderosa smoked hot chocolate

serves 2

For the smoking: 

1 charcoal brickette

about 1/2 tsp conifer wood (preferably ponderosa pine, but anything delicious smelling will do), broken into little pieces

2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup heavy cream

tin foil

For the rest:  

3.5oz dark chocolate, chopped into small bits

1/4 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

2 tb nice whisky

To smoke the milk:

Place the milk, cream and sugar in a bowl, in a shallow dish of some kind. Place this shallow dish in a larger, deeper dish. Light the charcoal brickette, place it on a piece of tin foil, and set that alongside the shallow dish in the larger dish. Then place the bits of conifer atop the charcoal. It should start smoking. When it does, cover the whole thing with tin foil, tightly, and leave it for 20 minutes, checking periodically to see that the wood is still smoking (if not, re-light the charcoal or rearrange the wood).

Taste it. It should be smoky.

Put this milk mixture, plus the rest of the ingredients except the whisky in a saucepan over low heat. Heat gently until the chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat, stir in the whisky (more or less to your taste) and serve. Preferably with a good book and a fireplace and a cold winter’s evening.


pinus quadrifolia


[conifer sirup for expectorance and yum]

Last week Los Angeles was blessed with the presence of the herbalist Matthew Wood. Surprisingly humble for someone who’s spent longer than I’ve been alive dedicated to the study of herbal medicine, being around him is always fun. At one point, we were sitting in my mum’s kitchen while he read my pulse and tongue. He wrote the names of a couple of herbs on pieces of paper, while explaining that what he was about to do was an ancient rabbinical technique, and then he put them in between my fingers while he listened to my pulse. I couldn’t quite believe it, but my pulse changed. Quickly. And noticeably. I say this as an objective observer and pulse-owner who had no idea what was going to happen, but that where before my fingers and toes had very little circulation, they had circulation. Where before I had not been aware of certain areas, I was aware. Where before I felt cold, I felt warm. And my heart rate slowed down. From a couple of pieces of paper with plant names written on them.

I thought a bit about this technique, and it made sense– I mean, the word is at the very core of Jewish mysticism. And if I’m not mistaken, in Hindu cosmology the universe was created with the exhalation of one single word. Words, my friends, hold great power. Look to those water experiments that Matsuro Emoto did years ago, or even more personally, think of something that was said to you as a kid that you’ve never ever forgotten. And last week, written on a piece of paper and thrust haphazardly in between my fingers, these words got me thinking about intention.

Because what is a word or an action if not an expression of intention. For us, as humans, to claim that we’re separate from our words or our actions is (in my opinion) to stop taking responsibility for ourselves and our lives. It can be something as big as ‘I do’ or something as little as ‘here, have a cup of tea’, but the intention is expressed THROUGH the words. If I wanted to get a bit more woo-woo, I’d say that each of us is, in some way, an expression of an intention, of sorts. Just like each plant is, and each colour, and each number, and each music note. Our purpose in life, as these intentions, might be to exist and be the most pure expression of that ‘us-ness’ we can possibly be. And when I look at plants, with regards to making food or medicine, I think about the same thing- that is, how to draw out the very essence of that thing.

I think most herbalists are hyper aware of how this works. We spend our days crafting creations for one purpose or another. Herbs have so many different properties, that we often coax out those properties that we want to use, whether it be through combining with other plants, the way we prepare them, or sometimes, simply, through asking.

Intention, in herbalism, starts before you even touch a plant. It starts with the observation of how and where things grow, with the intention to create abundance in the plant world, not to destroy a population but to encourage it. It starts with observation of the planet and the cycles of weather and season. It starts with slight changes in soil. And it starts with relationship. You, the ground, the sky, and the plants you’re working with. With that, you can start picking flowers, whispering intention with every movement of your fingers. Stroking, whispering, urging flowers to open, scent to release, roots to spread, vines to grow, and from there, harvest intact, they’re brought inside, picked through, urged, nudged, gathered together into something cohesive. Then a medium is added, in this case hot syrup, to bring out the scent and flavour. And with that medium, you can coax out the ‘it-ness’ of whatever it is you’re playing with. The name of a plant ties it to its very essence, and in using that name, combined with focus and magic, there’s very little that you can’t affect with a few simple leaves and plant bits.

I don’t think it matters what you’re making either, be it a cup of tea or a syrup or a complex formula or a cake. It’s what you put into it, and how you put it there. It’s taking a moment to set the space beforehand, and having a singleminded focus while you’re doing it. That’s something you can do with a glass of water or a twenty five course meal. When I start to make something, things get really quiet. My feet sprout roots that sink into the earth, the top of my head gets a bit fluffy feeling and my body expands beyond its bounds and my mind stops spinning in the way it usually does. This afternoon, I lit some  juniper white sage incense, allowing the smoke to fill my workspace. Then I gently broke up the branches of white fir, douglas fir, and pinyon pine, dropping the needles one by one into a saucepan. At this point, my mind was quiet; I became hyper aware of my actions and words; my fingers eking out the properties of the various trees to soothe, expectorate, heal, and open lungs, picturing these actions while I’m stirring. Some of the finished syrup (sirup!) went directly into a tea for a feverish, coughing Hedgehog sleeping upstairs, and the rest went into a bottle where it sits, practically aglow with magic.

Conifer syrup is versatile. It’s great as a cough syrup, promoting expectoration, opening the lungs up a bit, and helping to soothe irritated bronchial passages. But it’s also delicious on pancakes, or in cocktails, adding flavour and sweetness to tea, over ice cream, or even [gluttonously] by the spoonful. It’s green. Which makes it pretty, especially during these winter months when the majority of the country is still covered in white and brown. And it’s interesting but tasty, which makes it really easy to give to those who are usually suspicious. Being able to administer cough syrup disguised as a cocktail is also really helpful when it comes to stubborn grown ups.

Conifer syrup

1 cup mixed conifer needles

1 1/2 cup water

1 1/2 cups sugar

If you have a blender, blend up the mixed conifer needles as much as you can. Bring the water and sugar to a boil, reduce to simmer, and sprinkle in the blended up needles. Steep for an hour, simmering REALLY gently (don’t let it boil), then taste, strain, and bottle.



Moroccan mallow salad

If I were to have a robot self, I would describe it something like this:

A satellite dish, with roots, and a nuclear reactor in the middle, plus two hands and a body with which to express the product of said reaction. And when it comes to writing, I feel like one has to have a satellite dish. If I’m not out there, wide open, taking in new stuff every day, then everything I create takes on a stagnancy that feels like a shrunken sweater. Like a record on repeat. During times when I don’t feel like going out into the world, I find that my creativity grinds to a halt too. It’s this strange balance of having to experience and give as much energy as possible in order to receive. To empty the vessel before it can be filled.

The past week I’ve been over tired, slightly grouchy, achy, fighting off this respiratory infection that’s been circulating around (and had hit everyone BUT me) and not really in the mood to go out and do anything. Even more than that, I’ll admit, I’m envious of all you folks who have a winter. Butter emailed me photos of her truck blanketed in snow and I felt a twinge of despair that we don’t really have that here. Last week it was eighty degrees, and while, come March I’ll be out hiking and  y’all snow-dwellers will be cursing me, right now, it’s Winter, and I want it to feel like it. Winter is the time to rest, relax, recharge, and curl up on the couch with hot chocolate and a good book, and when it’s 80 degrees and sunny, it really doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to be resting much.

LA is dry at the best of times. We’re on the edge between a big desert and a big salty ocean, and on my side of town it gets hot and dusty quite quickly. Respiratory infections that come around will lodge deep in the lungs but never really graduate past a dry splutter. We don’t get thick wet cold mucus here, we get green and yellow and bright eyes and red tongues and hard to hack up. Everything gets dried up. Like the cogs in my robot mechanics aren’t working properly. Last night I was staring forlornly at a blinking cursor on a blank screen, and then I made this sad little dry cough. I thought it was just a bit of dust or something but a minute later it happened again. And then another one. And then the sneezing started. And before I knew it, within the space of a couple of hours, I had graduated from grouchy and tired to sick.

To be honest, I was relieved. There’s nothing worse than being a creative robot and feeling like your cogs and mechanics aren’t working properly. To have hands that are supposed to be weaving and creating that just barely splutter to life and then die down. To be sick, after all the horrible terrible thoughts of it being gone forever (melodrama is my middle name) was a welcome relief. I’ll take achy coughy dried out stuck sinuses over gone forever any day.

When I first moved into this house, I did a few things that my neighbours found strange. The first was that I pulled out all the ornamental plants beside my kitchen door. The second was that I scattered the plot with seeds and forgot about it. The third was that, when the seeds started sprouting into weeds, I refused to do anything about it except eat them from time to time. One of the weeds that proliferates out back is hollyhock. Pretty big purple flowers in the summer, and pretty big leaves the rest of the year, you can’t pick plants in the mallow family without knowing immediately how they work in the body, because they’re slimy. Seriously slimy. They moisten things like nobody’s business, from dried out lungs to dried out intestines to burning urinary tracts. I went out last night, under the rising moon, and started picking mallow leaves, and as I did, I realised that they, too, have big satellite dishes that wave around in the night sky like they’re searching for transmission of some kind.

I thought about these big satellite leaves with their faces turned to the stars and I looked up to see this big moon rising into the sky. Funny, you know, that in such a yang-y city, here are these little plants with their faces turned up, soaking in the night and it occurred to me that this moment was as yin as it might get in LA. Yin of the darkness and contraction and moistness and death. Yin of the feminine figure and the earthy texture and the hand that gives life and the other hand that takes it. Yin of the stillness that gives birth to movement and the deep dark forests that have been there for thousands of years. In the middle of a city that is focused on youth and movement, and where (to mirror this) we don’t even have a proper winter (our plants don’t even get old- they just keep flowering and producing) I’ll take my yin moments as I can get them, especially when it’s sitting in the mud surrounded by big hollyhock leaves with the full moon shining down onto our big satellite dish faces. Smiles reflecting the sunlight, absorbing all that we can.

I bring in my haul of leaves and set about to making a dish I read about in Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco. If you’re ever going to get a Moroccan cookery book, let it be this one. The pictures alone will make you want to sell your children in exchange for plane tickets to Tangiers. The moistening effect of mallow plants is immediately noticeable. Within a few minutes of eating it everything feels looser, less painful and dried out. Within a few minutes of eating it, hot, achy restlessness is replaced by cool moon-struck rest. I had the same again for lunch today.

A note on this dish: it’s not attractive. You’ll have to pawn it off on people at first, insisting that they try it and then because of good manners they will feel forced to do so even though words like ‘weed’ and ‘wild’ might scare them a bit. But it’s ok because after that first bite they won’t be able to stop eating it and you will be happy.

A note on mallows: I don’t think you can find them in grocery stores, but come spring, you can find them in gardens and along roadsides. You can use hollyhock (alcea), or mallow (malva). They’re all used pretty much interchangeably in herbalism, so I don’t see why they’d be different in cooking.

Moroccan mallow salad

Adapted from The Food of Morocco

1lb wild greens

1 cup parsley

3 garlic cloves (peeled, but not chopped)

1/2 cup cilantro

1/4 tsp salt (or to taste)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne

1/2 tsp ground cumin

juice of 1 lemon

1 blender

Steam the greens, garlic, parsley and cilantro for ten minutes, until they’re definitely cooked but still bright green. Then, put them in the blender with the rest of the ingredients, and blend on high until they’re a thick green paste similar to the texture of ‘whipped potatoes’ as Paula says. Taste, add more salt if necessary. Refrigerate until cool and serve.