As I write this, I have my back turned on my office and kitchen, both of which have been completely devastated by my tornado-like working methods, which go something like this: ‘start one thing then another then another then another then forget what you were doing, make a snack, then decide to write a blog post and if you don’t look behind you then the mess doesn’t exist, right?’. I might not be the most efficient person in the world, but I don’t think that was ever a question.
Drivers in Morocco aren’t quite like drivers here in California. Our driver on the 3 hour drive from Tangier to Chefchaouen drove in the middle of the road the majority of the way, swerving into the right lane at the last minute for oncoming traffic. He stopped at a Mosque to pray for 20 minutes, and pulled over again, half an hour later, to hack up a lung and spit it onto the shoulder. When the road turned steeply up into the mountains, the old diesel engine slowed to little over 15mph, and we chugged higher and higher, while cars whizzed by too close for comfort. And then the driver coughed for a minute, pointed up ahead and said, through a toothless smile, ‘Chaouen’.
And sometimes life is both normal and exciting:
1. From the couch in my living room where I write, looking out the window, the flower stalks of my big white sage plant can be seen shooting up towards the sky, waving in the wind. Every morning I run outside to see how many new flowers have appeared. It is often the highlight of my morning until something else appears in the garden. I am easily amused, it seems.
2. My plant collection is growing. With each new arrival, I place them on the dining room table, and arrange a meeting, during which I shout ‘Welcome, Friends!’ and introduce them to each other. Then I show them around and show them where they will be living and ask if these accommodations work for them. I think this is an unnecessary step but it is now a part of the routine and so it stays.
3. Things are happening. I’m teaching two classes coming up: one with my friend Emily on May 5th (that’s next weekend, folks!) and one on May 25th at the Roots of Healing Herb Fest in Topanga Canyon. The first is on elderflowers and it will be spectacular; the second is on five local herbs that I use a lot, and I am trying not to panic at the thought of speaking in front of people. I figure 31 is as good as any age to rid myself of the residue of trauma caused by having to do an impromptu speech in Mrs. Leisk’s primary six classroom, and the humiliation of standing there for the full three minutes almost completely silent while people sniggered.*
4. Its been hot. Surprisingly hot. Ridiculously hot. Sit on the floor in your underwear eating ice cubes hot. Finally around 5:45 this evening the air cooled down enough for me to open the windows and throw the curtains back. A couple of hours of light and air streaming into the house, while the fires burn around LA, while the earth shakes (earthquakes and fires… is this the end of the world?), while the scent of smoke fills the air, and while Jam’s first day of directing (A real movie! His own movie!) is blessed with the flipside of the air-quality coin: perfect hazy light. While us Angelenos (yes I have finally called myself an Angeleno) sniff and scratch our irritated eyes and wonder about the fragility of this delicate balance that is life (at least I am). In our dry, parched state, gasping for water, gasping for air, with emotions on edge and the metallic clang of air conditioner units and screechy voices shouting at each other in the Friday afternoon traffic. That’s what today felt like to me: metallic, clangy, irritated. *coughs*
5. It was with great relief this evening that I slammed the front door and shut out the rest of the world. With greater relief that I threw open the windows to let some cool air in. Even smoky evening air, as it is. And even more so to make a strong cup of tea and open up the container of my new favourite cookies. The white sage seeds were sent to me by my friend Ginia who lives in Northern California and is a plant whisperer if ever I’ve met one. I’ve been holding onto them trying to decide what to do. In something sweet their flavour is delightfully delicate. I made one batch with those alone and another with one white sage leaf to enhance the taste a little. I recommend the latter and that is the version I am sharing below. If you don’t have white sage plants, then you can use any type of aromatic plant. I think these would be delicious with any form of sage, or bee balm, or even lavender. But for this evening the sage was perfect: grounding and calming, and soothing to my dried out and cranky self.
*why do British teachers feel the need to torture children so, and does this still happen nowadays?
Acorn shortbread with a white sage icing.
1 cup acorn flour
3/4 cup sweet white rice flour
3/4 cup potato starch
2/3 cup sugar minus 1 tablespoon
1/4 teaspoon salt
8oz (2 sticks) butter at room temperature
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tb white sage seeds
1 white sage leaf
Preheat the oven to 325.
In a pan on the stove, place the water, sage seeds and sage leaf. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer until the water is reduced by half.
Mix all the flours together. In a bowl or stand mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar, then reduce the speed. Add the flours in two batches until well incorporated.
Grease the bottom of a 9 x 9 square pan, and dust with rice flour, then press the shortbread mixture into the bottom of the pan. It should be about 3/4″ thick all the way around. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven and keep the oven on. Carefully cut the baked shortbread into slices, about 4″ long. Like shortbread fingers. Then wait for it to cool. Once cool, you can very carefully lift them out (apologies in advance– the first two might crumble into nothingness until you have that space for leverage… I haven’t been able to pry them out without causing shortbread damage) and place them on a baking sheet. Bake again, for another 15 minutes, until they’re golden brown.
In the meantime, in a separate bowl, sieve in the icing sugar and pour in 2 tablespoons of the sage water, seeds included. Mix it all together- it should be a paste and if you take a spoonful of it and drop it, it’ll pour off the spoon like thick paint. If its too thick, add a teaspoon of the sage water at a time. If too thin, add a little more sugar. When you remove the shortbread from the oven, drizzle the icing over the top. Allow to cool before eating.
(in which I gather a lot of things, get a few bug bites, and try to stay connected to the earth)
There’s one hand and it contains relaxation, and everything I’ve ever mentioned about moving through space at one’s own pace. And then there’s the other hand which holds a to-do list a mile long, there’s the frenetic pace of spring, there’s gathering twenty million different things, and processing them, and buying more booze in a 2-month space than the entire other Bev Mo customers combined. In between the two hands there are stolen moments.
My stolen moments look like this: Up a tree, with a jar of something herbal, infused and delicious, gazing up at the canopy of leaves, listening to the sounds of city-nature, which is very different to country-nature. And it works. Its grounding and calming. And then I go back indoors to work some more.
When I look at the city, it reminds me of a big scab, over something living. One continuous slab of concrete with spaces in between it on occasion. Concrete does its best to cover up what’s underneath it (BB cream for the planet), and finding that earthiness is much harder when walking on a layer of foundation, but its not impossible. The thing is that the earth is everywhere and just because it seems that its more THERE when out in the wild, its actually that there’s less interference. Out in the wild its like tuning a radio directly to the station (do people still tune their own radios or are they all digital?). In the city there’s a bunch of white noise making it really hard to hear the music. But you can, especially if you know the song already– you know what to listen for and where to pick it up, then you can shut out the white noise and just hear that song. I think there are movements about this, called ‘Earthing’ and such, where the earth is touted as some new scientific new-age discovery. I can’t help but think that we’ve come so far from where we were, quite literally, our roots, that it takes a giant scientific discovery and technology to make us look down. Of course, thats not all of us.
I walk a block away for my coffee every morning. Lately, in spring-filled excitement, there are plants growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. I’m sure that the City of Los Angeles people will come and spray something nasty on them soon– for some reason wild plants are an atrocity whereas the feat of construction being two buildings that are being hammered into place as I type is a triumph of man, even if they are hideous and noisy and had to cut down a big old tree to put them in. But in the meantime, there are feathery plants pushing up through the sidewalk, mushrooms growing on peoples’ lawns, resilient little plants thrusting their way up towards the sunlight that streams between buildings. I notice them because I notice the earth, and I notice that they find whatever cracks they can. Its resilient, and it reminds me of all nature, human nature, animal nature, earth nature. That nature is survival and self-expression, and I think all of us try to find our cracks to slip through regardless of what is painted over the top.
Most of the herbs I gather are resilient like that: many of us herbalists think the wild weeds make the strongest medicine. I’ve been collecting them like a madwoman lately, in full spring fervor. In the last few weeks or so, I have gathered California poppy, peach leaves, apricot leaves, alder leaves and bark, yerba santa, sweet clover, elderflowers, white sage, black sage, ocotillo bark and flowers, chaparral, desert lavender, mugwort, pine pollen. I’ve accrued a series of bug bites so big and so itchy and red and swollen that my super effective Bug Bite Balm had to be applied 3 times to make it go away (which is a big deal because it usually works in 1 or 2). The frenetic pace of spring starts slow and reaches its climax between now and the end of May. Most of these I bring home and immediately process for medicine- stripping bark, pulling leaves, scrubbing dirt off things, immersing in oils or vinegars or alcohol or honey. My storage cabinet is nearing full again. Of all these, there’s one thing I actually bring home for food first, even if its damn good medicine: elderflowers.
I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve been in the northern hemisphere. Even in the middle of a city in India. I assume they grow in the south too, though I’ve never been south of the equator so I don’t know for sure. Their flavour is floral and fragrant and distinctly one of its own, and since ours in Southern California have been out for a few weeks, they’ll start blooming spreading north from here, and I’d start looking sooner or later depending on where you are. Once you spot them, you’ll spot them everywhere. And I make food with them before I make medicine partly because they’re so abundant and partly because by the time spring has arrived I MISS them like you wouldn’t believe.
First thing I made was cordial. And the second thing I made was this cake. Its gluten free, though you couldn’t tell apart from the slightly crumbly texture. Its light and fluffy and it tastes of spring. And I highly recommend that you make some as soon as your elderflowers start to blossom.
Elderflower and blackberry cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
For the syrup:
1 cup elderflowers
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
For the cake:
12 tb salted butter (or unsalted but add about 1/2 tsp salt to the batter with the flour)
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sweet white rice flour
1/3 cup potato starch
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup almond flour
2 tb ground flax or chia seeds
2 tsp baking powder
2 tb milk
8oz (about 2 cups) blackberries- either fresh or frozen
First things first, get the elderflower syrup on- put the elderflowers, water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat immediately, and leave to sit for up to an hour. Taste it. Does it taste strongly of elderflowers and spring? Then you can strain out the liquid and set it aside.
Next, preheat the oven to 350.
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer until they’re light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are incorporated fully. Then, add the milk, and two tablespoons of the elderflower syrup. Mix together all the flours, and the baking powder, and, with the mixer on very slow, add the flour in 3 batches. Once its fully incorporated, stir in the blackberries by hand. They might start to stain the batter, and that’s ok, but do it lightly and not too much so that you don’t end up with purple cake (not that there’s anything wrong with purple cake, we are not purplist here at C&C).
Oil up a 9″ round springform pan. Quite honestly, I am lazy and I use olive oil for this, but you can be non-lazy and use butter. Just, olive oil works too. Use something oily. Then, scrape in the cake batter. Bake at 350 for an hour. At 50 minutes, pull it out and press the top slightly, if it feels firm then check it with a skewer or sharp knife- when it comes out clean the cake is done. It should be around an hour though.
Remove from the oven, and prick the top of it with a sharp knife, about 10 times, in 10 different places. Then pour over the elderflower syrup you made earlier. Pour it so that it gets every inch of the top of the cake. It should sink in quite quickly. Leave until cool in the pan, then run a knife around the edges. You can try and slide it off the base, but I found it safer to just leave it there and pretend it’s meant to be presented like that. Decorate with powdered sugar, blackberries and elderflowers. Serve with fresh cream.
It’ll be quite crumbly until its cool. This shouldn’t matter too much though.
(in which I dole out an anatomy lesson, provide pictures of my recent adventures, and reward you with a recipe for the best cookie in the entire world)
I’ve been thinking about time lately. Of course there’s city time, or world-clock time, or employer time. I think they’re one and the same. The kind of time that means you have to be at X by X time. The kind of time that has you clutching your coffee in one hand, briefcase in the other, and hurtling towards a target somewhere in the distance along a straight and narrow line.
But there are other times. There’s sea time, for example. Sea time operates according to its own clock. In fact there’s a saying to ‘never sail on a schedule’, because if you sail on a schedule then you end up in less than ideal conditions, and less than ideal conditions out on the ocean are a matter of life and death.
There’s self-employment time. Self-employment time can mean a number of things to a number of people. To some it means up at dawn and work till midnight. For others it means wake when you like and work till midnight (there’s a theme here). It used to, for me, be something much closer to city time. But lately, that’s been changing.
There’s earth time, that slow, moist, circular time, that moves in cycles and doesn’t give a whit about what you, me or Greenwich think. Earth time and body time in my mind are one and the same. That is, our bodies aren’t built for city time but for the slow, for the cyclic, for the reverent. Our bodies are built to eat when hungry, sleep when tired, to move around a lot, and contrary to popular belief, to heal themselves.
For the most part, we’re all raised on city time. Children are taught to read their watches at an early age and we learn to step to a rhythm that someone else has decided. That’s fine. As far as employment, meetings, existing in the ‘real world’ (I hate that term), its necessary. But when home alone, when walking along a scarcely trodden path in the mountains, when cooking, when reading, when hanging out with friends and with family, its nice to be able to switch back to earth time, or body time, which, as I’ve mentioned, are one and the same.
I discovered my body time purely by accident. It was the result of doing a psoas workshop from my new biomechanics guru*. The psoas muscle. You know, that giant band of muscle that runs from the back of your body, at the bottom of your ribs, through to the front of your body, at the top of your thighs… I know, I know, you came here for plant matter and food and are getting sucker punched with an anatomy lesson. But there is a point; hear me out.
Our bodies register stress before our minds do. Because as much as we think our minds are the cleverest things in the world, they aren’t cleverer than gut feelings. They aren’t cleverer than hair standing on end for no reason, for refusal to walk a certain way home even though you always go that way, or for just not liking somebody even though they smile and seem nice on the surface. Bodies know things that minds can’t comprehend. And bodies know stress before minds do. For me, and I think for most of us, that stress manifests in one place first: in the psoas. And for most of us, it manifests there so early in life that we don’t notice its there. I think it has something to do with being pointed on that linear time path with our chins jutting fiercely into the future, to where we’re supposed to be instead of where we are. The second our focus gets out ahead of us like that, our ribs jut out ahead of us too, and then we’re done for**.
I’ve been noticing it for the past couple of weeks. Wind up the body like you wind up an alarm clock and it hurtles forward in space and time towards its goal. Relax the body, and time flows in a different way. Easily. Flowily. The flow doesn’t just happen all around me but inside too. The second that relaxation happens, blood, lymph, nervous system and energy all band together and start moving around in the middle of my trunk. Its circular and its movement and it feels as good as lying down on a comfy bed after twelve hours on my feet. Tense up and it goes away. Relax and it returns. Its a feedback mechanism that lets me know the second I’m starting to get stressed out.
In order to keep my psoas relaxed and that flowy sensation moving, I have to do things slower. Dramatically slower. Annoyingly slower. But to be annoyed is to tense up, and so, taking walking as an example, to walk at a pace that keeps me relaxed is to settle my mind down somewhere into the pit of my belly and go at the speed my body enjoys. I have come to refer to this speed as ‘Rebecca pace’. I’m sure you will have your own pace too if you don’t already (do you? If so, how could you not tell me about this? If not, please relax your own psoas and get back to me.). Rebecca pace and earth time work together well, as evidenced by the relaxed smile and lack of wrinkles on my forehead. Yes, its true. Earth time is a beauty treatment.
In honor of doing things slowly, I’ve been making these cookies lately. Yes, they’re labour-intensive. Yes, they’re probably the most unhealthy thing I’ve ever made (if you count the sheer amount of sugar in them). Yes, they use acorn flour which is hard to find unless you have oak trees around you or a Korean market nearby. But I promise you, if you can find acorn flour and plum jam and forget about how much sugar you’re about to ear, you’ll be the happiest squid in the world when you sink your teeth into one.
Plum and acorn custard sandwich cookies
Note: these cookies are a variation on my favourite two British cookies: Jammy Dodgers and Custard Creams. If you’re familiar with either then you’ll see the resemblance. Also, the acorn custard cream filling is even better than the original and you might want to eat it all on a spoon.
1 portion buckwheat shortbread dough
1 portion acorn custard (see below)
About 1/2 cup plum jam (storebought works fine too. You might be tempted to use another flavour but we did do a taste test of every jam in the cupboard and it was decided that my original brilliant vision was best in the end.)
Preheat the oven to 350, and roll out the shortbread dough. Cut it into an even number of cookie shapes, and then, using a small round thing (I used an apple corer; have never been so happy to find an apple corer in my drawer, and also, for the record, I have no idea where it came from) cut holes in the centre of half the cookies. Sprinkle those holey (holy?) cookies with granulated sugar and bake the whole lot at 350 for 18-20 minutes. They should be golden brown and not remotely burned.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool before putting this magical little parcel together.
Take a solid cookie, and upon it place about a teaspoon of the acorn custard. Spread this out, then on top of that, a dollop (maybe 1/2 teaspoon) of plum jam. Put a holy cookie on top and press it down to make a sandwich. Repeat for all of them. Pour self a cup of tea or big glass of milk and try to only eat one. Really…
FOR THE ACORN CUSTARD:
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup acorn flour
8 tbsps corn starch
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Beat the butter in a bowl until slightly fluffy, then add the vanilla and then the dry ingredients one at a time. Keep mixing until its all incorporated. It should be thick but not powdery, tacky but not liquid. Enough that you can take off a lump between your fingers and press it onto a cookie base and not fight to have it stay where you put it (ie. no buttery mess left on your hands). But soft enough that its not like biting into chalk. I know, my descriptions are exact beyond belief. Apologies there…
*there’s a reason her blog is called ‘Katy Says’ and its because I say ‘Katy says…’ about five times a day. Also, did I mention that I become obsessed with things and then get very annoying about them?
**this is called rib thrust. Look for it in yourself– feel under your ribcage and if they’re not flush with your rippled abdomen then there’s a rib thrust. And now look for it in everyone around you and you, too, can be as annoying as I am and say ‘RIB THRUST’ really loudly every time you see it.
(in which I once again get a little philosophical, think about the nature of things, and eat some [more] biscuits)
My friend Carly said something the other night that kind of blew my mind: she no longer gives people exact arrival times, but instead gives a half hour window. She’s been getting crap about being late for years; it was the perfect solution. And it got me thinking…
I don’t do well with ‘time’. Once, I was in charge of determining what time we had to leave for the airport, and I missed my flight to Korea. I might have a piece of my brain missing, or I might just be a woman, but either way, time is not my strong point (as those of you who receive my CSA have probably come to realise).
One day when I was taking my daily walk up the street for coffee, I stopped to smell a rose, and had one of those un-caffeinated realisations (you know the ones that are glaringly obvious but seem brilliant because your brain isn’t totally switched on?): plants are just themselves. No dandelion grows up thinking ‘man, I wish I were pretty like a rose’ and no rose complains because its not weedy enough, and no wild grape wishes it were a tree peony. No. Rose is rose, grape is grape, peony is peony, and that’s the way it is. It seems characteristic of modern humanity to be constantly striving for more, to be more, to be different, to look different, to wish we were something else. From my earliest days I can remember looking at my curly-haired friends wishing I had those curls instead of poker straight hair that wouldn’t hold a curl for more than five minutes. And it turns out they were thinking the same about my hair. My boy-shaped friends envy my boobs and bottom and since puberty I’ve felt my body to be a complete betrayal of my tomboyish nature. I’ve wished I were more organized, more business-oriented, better with money, better at remembering things, better at being consistent, better at structure, but really, at some point one has to look at oneself and realize that one is either a rose or a dandelion, and just deal with the hand one has been dealt.
Trying to be something else is stressful. More stressful than life should be. And while I’m not suggesting that laziness is the way to go, or to use the idea of being oneself as a means to never ever change, I think at some point you do have to look at what your nature is and roll with it a bit. Because there’s a difference between trying to change, and trying to be the best one can be, and shoving oneself into a box to fit a mold of some ideal. Which is why I thought Carly’s idea was so brilliant in the first place. She’s not saying ‘I’m always late, just deal with it’ she’s just making allowances for the fact that things always take longer than she assumes they will.
I thought about the plants again, and how they exist in a community, not in a vacuum. Rose doesn’t need to be anything else because it grows under the oaks and alongside the mugwort and honeysuckle and potentilla. If we started thinking of ourselves as parts of ecosystems instead of islands who need to perform every function perfectly, it relieves a helluva lot of stress. I can just worry about being on time when its something REALLY important. Plus, I have friends who are organised, friends who are on top of everything, friends who are always on time, and friends who are outgoing. In my personal ecosystem, there’s a great balance (and I know who to call if I need help organising my apothecary).
Which brings me (AWKWARD TRANSITION ALERT) to buckwheat. Because these shortbreads are pretty much buckwheaty as it gets. I was going to turn them into something exotic with rosemary or thyme but you know what… the batter tasted so good as is that I couldn’t adulterate them at all. So these are plain buckwheat shortbreads, but please don’t let their plain-ness fool you. Because they are so perfectly themselves that after one bite you’ll realize that plain and boring are two very different things indeed, and these are not boring at all. No siree.
If you aren’t avoiding gluten, you can sub the starch and rice flour for regular flour, but honestly, if you have the ingredients around, give them a try as-is, because they are fantastic…
(adapted from 101 cookbooks)
1 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup sweet white rice flour
1/2 cup potato starch
2/3 cup vanilla-infused sugar (or 2/3 cup sugar plus 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract)- recipe below
1/4 teaspoon salt
8oz (2 sticks) butter at room temperature
Another note: I did this whole thing by hand in a big bowl. And while my shoulder hurt like hell afterwards, I felt very very proud of myself and so, you know, you could try it too.
Beat the butter. Keeping in mind that I did this by hand, it doesn’t need to be a whole lot. But if you’re doing it by hand too, beat it until your shoulder has a slight burn going. Add the sugar, beat until fully incorporated. Then, in a feat of flying flour, add all the flour, all at once, and the salt too. Try and stir it in without it going everywhere; maybe you can succeed where I failed. Incorporate it fully and it should form a neat ball quite easily. If it still sticks to the sides, add more flour, bit by bit. If it feels a little dry, don’t worry, start mixing with your hands and it’ll come together, promise.
Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least a few hours, then roll out and cut into cookie shapes. Prick the tops with a fork gently, sprinkle with vanilla sugar, and bake at 350 for about 18 minutes, until they are golden brown on the edges.
Vanilla infused sugar
(Easiest recipe ever?)
1 vanilla bean
A pretty jar (essential)
Put the vanilla bean in the pretty jar, and then cover with sugar. Give it a shake every couple of days, and in about 4 days you’ll have vanilla sugar, which you will be hard-pressed to walk past without opening for a sniff…
On being run down: sometimes us folks who spend all our time making potions for others are the ABSOLUTE WORST at actually taking our own advice. Over the last week, I started feeling more tired than usual, and my throat started hurting a little. Did I think ‘oh, Self, you’ve seen a helluvalot of people with a terrible flu in the last few weeks, maybe you’re fighting it and should, you know, rest more, take your own medicine, and cancel all obligations for a couple of days’? Noooooh, I thought ‘that’s funny, I’m never tired like that, why is my body being so annoying right now? I’m going to ignore it.’ And it takes a handsome husband to come home and take one look at me sitting on the couch, surrounded by clean but not folded laundry, tea towel in hands and staring into space, to point upstairs and say ‘bed. now.’ and to add insult to the own-advice injury, demand that I put warm socks on and take elderberry elixir and vitamin D. For the record, my own advice had me in bed for a day and then fine, which, if I hadn’t done I’d likely be still in bed with a horrible fever and a whine as long as a traffic jam on the 405 on a Friday afternoon with a popularity level to match. Own advice is good stuff.
On reading in a random aside: I saw a silly meme on the interweb talking about how one can pretend to have insomnia but one is really just staying up all night reading. That happens to me frequently.
On Winter: I have heard a similar thing from quite a few people in the last few weeks: ‘Why am I so tired? I want more energy? Can you give me something for energy?’ My answer is always the same: It is winter. Look at the trees outside, and the ground up in the hills. Look at the cold weather and all those images of wintery things. We forget because our lives are so out of tune with the cycles of nature. We forget because we idolize youth and perpetual energy and the sun and all things outgoing and yang. But Winter is yin time. Winter is rest time. Winter is time to go deep and take stock and drink hot cocoa and snuggle in bed for hours and to take it slow time. No, I won’t give out an energy potion. That would be going against nature, which is the exact opposite of what a folk herbalist does.
On taking your own advice: see above.
On quiet things: Pine nuts could, if one were in an ‘I GOTTA GET IT DONE ASAP’ mood, be considered a pain in the ass. However this is winter, and so when faced with a big bowl of wild pinyon pine nuts and a few hours to spare, I put on some River Cottage (available on Amazon instant streaming), grabbed a bowl and a big mason jar (for the shells which can then be covered in vodka and used for exciting things), and got to work. The afternoon could only have been more enjoyable had I had some other people around to chat with while we shelled things. These instincts run primal, which is what I think any time I have a couple of girlfriends and a bowl of things to shell, and I can picture us doing this a thousand or even ten thousand years ago, gossiping about the same old things: boys, body adornments, plenty of giggles. Because amid all the technological advancements, people don’t really change very much at all.
On pine nuts: Yes, you can buy them in the store. They’re expensive and often come from China where there’s a big risk of getting pine nut mouth and not being able to taste things properly for a couple of weeks. You can also, if you live in the Southwest, gather your own. Most pines have nuts, some nicer than others. Pinyon pines have the best nuts (in the world, in my opinion) but there are plenty of other edibles. Do a search for what’s in your area, and then curse me for posting this five months too late.
On biscotti: Because sometimes the best medicine is an obligation-free afternoon in which you can anoint yourself with a friend’s botanical perfume, light some home made incense, put on some thick socks, curl up with a hot latte and tune in with the quiet thrum of the slow pace of the earth. A good tree to hang out with, a good book to read, a good earth to sit on, a good blanket to snuggle in, and, like the still point in a turning world, a good biscuit to plunk into it all.
Pinyon pine nut biscotti. (gluten free)
On flour mixes: there are a couple of ways you can do this, and if you don’t care about eating gluten, just sub the flours with 1/2 cup cornmeal flour and 1 cup regular flour, then half the baking powder and leave out the xanthan gum entirely.
1/2 cup cornmeal flour
1 cup gluten free flour mix (or 1/4 cup sorghum flour, 1/4 cup brown rice flour, 1/4 cup potato starch, 1/4 cup sweet white rice flour, 1/4 tsp xanthan gum)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup wild pine nuts, roasted for 10 minutes and then shelled
1 tsp ground pine needles
1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate
Preheat the oven to 350.
Beat the butter until its light and fluffy, then add the sugar, and beat some more till its a pale creamy colour. Add the eggs, one at a time, then all the dry ingredients in two batches. Stir in the pine needles, pine nuts and chocolate chips.
Shape into two log shapes on a baking sheet, and bake for about 15 minutes, until very light golden brown and still mostly soft.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes. After they’re cool to the touch, slice them into biscotti- about half an inch thick. Separate them all and lay them out still standing, and bake for another 20 minutes or so, until they are a beautiful dark golden colour and you can’t stand the good smells anymore. Remove from oven and allow to cool a bit (this is the perfect time to make a good cup of tea or coffee). They’re best on the first day but will last for a few weeks in an airtight container. They won’t last that long though.
(Spiced conifer infused apple tart with a bonus tea recipe to boot!)
As I write this, Los Angeles is [relatively] quiet, the afternoon winter sunlight is streaming through the windows, through the incense smoke that clouds the air, onto my legs which are half covered by a very fat cat (actual fat cat, not metaphoric rich person fat cat). As I write this there is a tart in the oven, which will be left to cool and sliced up and wrapped in foil and hiked deep into the mountains early tomorrow morning, while Jam and I hunt for mushrooms and picnic.
In my morning stoop sessions, lately I’ve been thinking about arbitrary dates, and what an arbitrary date our ‘new year’ is. As we were falling asleep last night Jam and I decided that in future our new year will fall on the solstice, as that makes the most sense. A [sweet, lovely, beautiful and insightful] friend pointed out to me this morning that the fiscal new year starts in January and so between the solstice and the fiscal new year is a kind of free-fall; a timeless zone, where presents are given and puddings are eaten and wine is drunk and merry is made. And I like it that way. The last couple of weeks have been timeless in a good way. I’ve taken long walks in the desert. I’ve watched storms round the top my favourite mountain, and snow coat the peak over a couple of hours. I’ve gone searching for chanterelles on an almost daily basis, climbing and resting in my favourite tree, wandering out in the now green rolling hills, following deer tracks, picking up hawk feathers and animal bones and other earthly treasures. I’ve woken up before dawn and done yoga practice in a cold living room as the light slowly creeps back into the world, and I leave you with that picture: of the world waking up from a dream. Freefall is about to end. Happy arbitrary fiscal new year even though the real new year (as I’ve decided) actually happened on the solstice. More importantly, thank you. For existing. Thank you for reading and commenting on this little corner of the interweb. For providing constant conversation and inspiration and support. I hope the next year is bigger, better, more nourishing, more exciting, more adventurous, more prosperous and more restful than ever before. I’ll be back with recipes and adventures in a few days. Until then, here’s a tart.
Spiced conifer infused apple tart
**edit** Have recently remade this putting half a bag of frozen blackberries over the middle of the tart before drizzling the caramel. Inspired decision; you must. try. it.
Spiced conifer brew:
1 cup conifer needles (I use a combination of white fir, pinyon pine and jeffrey pine. You can use what you have around, which might even be a Christmas tree)
1/4 cup juniper berries
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
pinch ground ginger
Mix all the ingredients together. To serve as tea, for a tablespoon of tea, pour over 1 1/2 cups boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. Strain and add honey and cream. Serve hot.
Spiced conifer caramel:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 tb conifer tea
5 tb butter
5 tb heavy cream
big pinch salt
Bring all the ingredients to a slow simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the plant matter and return to the stove. Bring to a boil and reduce to a thick syrup- about 20 minutes. Add the salt. It’ll be a rolling boil and quite thick at this point. Throw in the butter, let it melt, then remove from the heat and stir in the cream.
Conifer-spiced apple tart.
1 portion sweet tart crust
apples. Forgive me I don’t know how many you’ll need. Let’s say 3 big granny smiths to start; that’s about what it took for my 9-inch tart pan.
Peel the apples, and cut the flesh into thin half-moon slices. Roll out the tart crust and lay it over a 9-inch tart pan, and prick the bottom with a fork. Lay out the apple pieces in a pretty pattern, I do concentric circles. Pour about 3/4 cup of the caramel sauce over the top, then put the whole thing in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Heat the oven to 350, and bake the tart for 30 minutes, or until the apples are golden and soft and the tart crust has taken on a golden brown colour. Serve hot or cold, drizzled with heavy cream.
There are two thymes in the world. There’s the thyme that that carries on a warm summer breeze, flowers waving in the wind. It’s the thyme that hangs in bunches from rafters, and that scents chowders and stews. It’s the thyme that intoxicates you when you least expect it. The other thyme– thyme number two– sits in a bottle with a corked top on my shelf, surrounded by other bottles with corked tops, with masking tape labels that have lots of latin on them. This thymus. spp. bottle contains a pretty strong elixir, extracted in everclear and honey, and it sits around in all its potential, waiting for someone to start coughing.
For the record, they are *actually* the same thing. Thyme is good food, good smell and good medicine alike. Like all the aromatics, it has oils that kill bugs, stimulate digestion, and affect your nervous system in one way or another. Like all the culinary aromatics you buy at the grocery store, it has its roots in some other country’s food tradition (unless you’re reading this from France or England). And like all the culinary aromatics, it’s easy to get hold of and therefore great to know how to use as medicine. Because unless you’re like me, and actually enjoy traipsing mountain sides, pulling up roots, and building an apothecary, being able to pop to the grocery store and buy something useful is probably an important thing (amIrite?).
When someone is having lung grunge issues–racking cough, tons of gunk– I reach for the second thyme: the bottle on my shelf. I mix it with mullein and yerba santa and mallow or cherry bark. If they’re having clogged sinus issues, I mix it with horseradish or yerba manza, because its a medicine, and a potent one at that. For getting rid of grunge in general (let’s call it ‘spiritual grunge’) I’m likely to use the first thyme. The wild, fragrant, spirited thyme that hasn’t yet been bottled. Bunches of it are always hanging to dry in my kitchen, for good reason- just as the wind tickles its face and carries that scent upon the air outside, it does the same inside, and that scent contains the oils, and those oils get rid of stuck stuff, of stagnant stuff and of heavy, cold, wet stuff. A sprig in a cup of rose petal tea is as welcome for a grieving guest, and I am firmly convinced that absolution can be found in a mug of thyme tea or two.
Use it in tincture form for the lungs, or a steam for lungs and sinuses, or, if its the magic you’re after, drop the flowers in a bowl of water and leave that by a window on a moony night. Use that water, for drinking, for sprinkling, for dousing people as they come through your door*.
Or just keep a bunch of it hanging in your kitchen at all times, and do random things like adding it to crunchy crumbly oaty flapjacks.
The British flapjack is an oat bar that is at the same time crumbly, crunchy and gooey. Its perfection is in its simplicity, though I did get a bit crazy and throw thyme in and melt chocolate over the top. For the record, a flapjack is NOT a granola bar. Granola bars are crunchy; flapjacks are perfect. Granola bars are a substitute for breakfast or real meals; flapjacks are an actual breakfast or afternoon snack or post-dinner snack or a hiking snack. Flapjacks you can serve to people as they walk into your house on a rainy afternoon; if you serve granola bars to people as they walk into your house on a rainy afternoon they will think you’ve not been to the store all week. See, different!
That said, give them a try. They’re ridiculously easy, and most of us have the ingredients lying around already. From idea to eating in about an hour, 50 minutes of which is waiting time. You’ll go up a pant size from eating so many and then I’ll start receiving hate mail to which I’ll reply that I’m just the messenger and throw some thyme water in your direction. Worse things have happened…
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is the following:
1tb thyme syrup
2/3 cup sugar
2 cups rolled oats (ground up a bit)
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp thyme
7 oz chocolate (optional, but recommended)
3 tb cream
Make the thyme syrup: take one cup sugar and one cup water, bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and add a cup of fresh thyme (half cup of dried). Steep for an hour, until strongly flavoured. Strain out the thyme and bottle. You can use this for cooking or for adding to things or for coughs, or just bottle it prettily and give it away for the holidays.
Heat the oven to 350, meanwhile, in a pot on the stove, melt the butter. Add the syrup, sugar, vanilla, thyme and salt. Incorporate well, then remove from the heat and dump in the oats. Stir it all together, then pour into a 9×9 square dish. It’s buttery enough that you shouldn’t need to pre-grease it or anything.
Put this in the oven and cook for 23 minutes. It won’t be set when you pull it out, but it should be a golden brown colour.
Remove from heat and leave to sit at room temperature until completely cool. It should be quite firm. Now, melt the chocolate in a double boiler with the cream, and as soon as its all runny and melted, spread it over the top of the hardened flapjacks with a spatula. Refrigerate until its firm, then cut it into squares and serve.
*With regards to dumping water on people as they walk through your door, I do not exactly recommend this practice as it is often met with shock and/or anger and such people will be unlikely to cross your threshold again. If that is your intended result, however, then douse away!
(adventures in Granada, in the mountains, gathering conifers, and an arduous process)
It all started in Granada, at the end of last summer. Jam, so sick of being stuck on a small boat for weeks on end, booked us into a fancy hotel somewhere away from the sea. I, quite desperate for a nights sleep in something under 100 degree temperatures on ground that didn’t rock back and forth, was happy to oblige. We stayed in the old Moorish part of town, with windy cobbled streets that wound their way up a hill that faced the Alhambra. We explored the Alhambra, and wandered around the markets, and went to the Hammam, and slept soundly for the first time in weeks. One day, while walking around the old markets, we passed a tiny little shop front with rows of baklava in the window. Hungry, and curious, we stopped in. The woman, hair covered in a Hijab, spoke broken Spanish. The walls were lined with teas and oils with labels all in Arabic. We pointed at things and she handed them to us. We bit into them and made noises. She smiled and handed us more. On the day we left, to drive to Madrid, I ran down to the shop, waited 45 minutes for it to open, and bought every single pistachio baklava she had. Our drive to Madrid was sugar-fueled but happy. Of the many things that make me with teleportation were possible, those baklava are near the top of the list.
Last week Jam and I went for a hike in the San Bernadino mountains. We gathered and munched on a bag full of fir tips, and wild roses for Wild Rose Elixir. We hiked a few miles, to a bubbling stream, where we wet our overheated heads and splashed our feet around. We picnicked, on fresh apricots and sharp cheddar and roast chicken and fir tips, and then we played around for a bit, while I took photos of plants and Jam threw his new tomahawk at dead trees. Later, on our walk back to the car in that perfect late afternoon light, I gathered a few Jeffrey pine branches. For those of you who don’t live in Jeffrey pine territory, they are like Ponderosas on crack. For those of you who don’t live in Ponderosa pine territory, just picture a pine tree that, in the heat of summer, radiates the smell of butterscotch, vanilla, pineapple, and resin, so that the air around you is full and fragrant and resinous and warm. Picture a smell so delicious that you are incapable of passing a tree without burying your nose in it and inhaling.
Upon arriving home, I started processing everything: the roses into jars for elixir making; the fir tips infused in vodka, and the rest laid out to dry for tea; mullein leaves in a jar for tincture then some out to dry. The Jeffrey pine twigs sat there on the table, and I kept picking them up to smell. In a stroke of inspiration, I chopped them up and covered them with honey, then set the jar on top of the oven to stay warm for a few days. 3 days later, what was delicious honey had been transformed into something spectacular. And as Jam and I were standing in the kitchen dipping our fingers into a dish of it, he said something inspired:
“what if you made baklava with this?”
<insert long and arduous process>
So. 3 attempts later, plus some happy dinner guests, here’s a recipe.
Jeffrey Pine Infused Baklava
Infuse some honey. If you have access to Jeffrey Pine (pinus Jeffreyi) then use that. If Ponderosa, then use that. If not then find the most fragrant conifer you can. Douglas fir is gorgeous, as is white fir and Ananda sent me some delicious fir from the East coast earlier in the year… Redwood is delicious. Spruce is yummy. Get creative. Get out there. Bury your nose in trees and taste needles.
When you get it home, chop it up and cover it with honey. For this recipe you’ll need about 1 1/2 cups. The rest is yours to do what you want with. Drizzle it over toast, into tea, onto fingers. Whip it up with cream, use it in hot chocolate. Try and keep it around for more than a month (you won’t be able to, promise).
Make the warqa. For ease, here’s the recipe I used. Because I have gluten issues, I *may* have sprouted, dehydrated and ground my own wheat. I also *may* have soaked the batter for an extra long time and added some raw milk to break down the gluten molecules even more. If you have slight gluten issues and desperately want to eat these, I recommend doing this too… if you want specific instructions just let me know and I’ll type them up.
Things I found that helped with making the warqa:
1. Add more water than the recipe says. When its thick it doesnt spread on the pan properly. A thin watery batter spreads on really nicely.
2. The pastry brush is really really necessary. Any kind of brush will work. A paintbrush would work. Just as long as its brush-y.
3. Don’t accidentally dislodge your pan. Steam burns hurt.
4. If I weren’t gluten intolerant I’d buy filo dough in a heartbeat.
This is the fun part. Here’s what you need:
1 lb piscachios
1 tsp mixed spice (in this case, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg)
2 tb orange blossom water
3/4 cup pine infused honey
1/4 tsp salt
about 18 sheets warqa, or filo dough
1/2 cup butter, melted
Grind up the pistachios till the largest pieces are lentil-sized and there are lots of smaller ones. Take out a handful (for decoration, then throw the rest in a bowl, along with the spice, orange blossom water, honey, and salt. Mix it all together thoroughly. It should be a thick paste that holds together and doesn’t spread out too much. If it is too runny, add more pistachios (or in dire straits, strain out some of the excess honey).
Brush a baking sheet with melted butter, then set out 3 of the warqa sheets, so that they overlap, in a row. The edge of the first and the edge of the last will be pretty close to each other. Then, about 6 inches in, dollop a row of the pistachio mixture along the warqa. Start rolling the warqua over the pistachio mixture, buttering it at each turn. When the whole thing is rolled up, place on another oiled baking tray, slice it, then repeat with the remaining pistachio/pastry. Here’s a video of someone doing the same thing, with filo sheets (because this process is difficult to explain). Start at 3:30.
Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. Until they’re golden brown on top. In the meantime, in your butter pan, throw another 1/2 cup of honey, and the remaining butter. Heat a little, till they’re mixed and runny, then, when removing the baklava from the oven, brush them all with the mixture. Finish it. The more honey and butter drizzled on these things the better. Sprinkle pistachio on top and wait for them to cool before eating…