Category Archives: herbs

salt2

Connection

(on connection, immersion, being an artist regardless of medium, and salt)

“Who is the person that you call an artist? A man who is momentarily creative? To me he is not an artist. The man who merely at rare moments has this creative impulse and expresses that creativeness through perfection of technique, surely you would not call him an artist. To me, the true artist is one who lives completely, harmoniously, who does not divide his art from living, whose very life is that expression, whether it be a picture, music, or his behaviour; who has not divorced his expression on a canvas or in music or in stone from his daily conduct, daily living. That demands the highest intelligence, highest harmony. To me the true artist is the man who has that harmony. He may express it on canvas, or he may talk, or he may paint; or he may not express it at all, he may feel it. But all this demands that exquisite poise, that intensity of awareness, and therefore his expression is not divorced from the daily continuity of living.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

salt2Herbalism, to me is just another form of art. A design starts with a few general ideas and solidifies into something solid and perfect and a formula starts as the same thing. Each design, each piece of art, each product, each formula is a message, and each message starts out as a series of separate things that in combination become something different entirely. When it all fits into place, I feel a *click* and for a brief second all is right in the world, until the cycle starts again.

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Soothe.

(On summer heat, prickly pear, and cooling drinks)

nopal2Let’s set the scene: its 100 degrees outside, and the air in your house is still, stifling, stuck. Opening the windows doesn’t help, because the air that comes in is hot. So you keep the curtains closed, the windows closed, and stay still. Sweating. There’s stuff to do, but its too hot. Things to write, but its too hot. Beds to make, but that involves movement, and who wants to move because its hot. At some point the cat walks over and collapses on the tile floor nearby and stares at you, beseechingly, wondering why you can’t make it stop. It doesn’t stop. This is what summer looks like from my perspective.  Continue reading

pinon liqueur

How to catch the light.

(or, what to do with your Christmas tree)

I liken chasing time to hanging out with cats. You cat people out there will understand this scenario:

You want a cuddle, and you want it bad. Little fur ball is doing her thing, looking fluffy and cute. If you’re a normal, non-cat person, you pick her up and clutch her to your chest tightly. She might make a low mewing noise or she might go very still. Now you are happy because you have the kitteh, and this is good. Give it about 15 seconds before she starts wriggling. And then maybe if you’re lucky she can escape without scratching your face off. Every cat person knows that the best way to get a cat to cuddle you is to ignore it, or to develop a cat allergy, or to put on clean black clothes that are freshly ironed. In other words, to let go.

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oven fries 2

Root.

(on grounding, stress relief, and being a still point in a turning world)

Two hours drive from here, out in the desert, about 1/4 mile off one of my favourite hiking trails there’s a small hole cut out of a hillside. I used to tuck myself away there on a daily basis, for what I’d consider to be therapy sessions. For someone so often stuck up in my head, I hurtle forwards at a pace that tries to outrun my thoughts, very much like that hare in that story where the tortoise emerges victorious. Buried in the earth, in my little therapy hole, everything slows down and something clicks open and my body starts to, well, for lack of better words, drink it in. It drinks in the earth and it drinks in the slowness and it drinks in the darkness and for the first time in a long time I feel calm. And if I stay there for long enough then I would feel like I’d been plugged into a recharger. Now that I live nowhere near that little hole, I try to forge that connection wherever I can. Its not impossible, even surrounded by concrete.

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On teaching…

Its a Tuesday morning and I have returned to my stoop. The goldenrod beside me is still in full bloom, and, in true Los Angeles fashion, the white sage leaves are starting to get thick and sticky again– they’ll be ready to harvest by the time the rains come. If the rains come. Mornings have cooled down to sweater weather, and the pavement and grass around me is littered with leaves. The air in this neighbourhood smells like the poplar trees up the street, which have started to drop their leaves, leaving that fermented salicylic smell hanging in the air. I, for one, spend all year waiting for this time.

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Just add water

(things to do with nettle seeds)

In the beginning, there was a seed. A small, unassuming thing, that contained all of the potential in the world. A seed of knowledge, a seed of intention, a seed of change.

I often picture the web of life as a series of movements and pauses– potentials, probabilities, things reaching their pinnacle and then starting all over again. With seasons, Fall and Spring are seasons of intense movement, whereas Summer and Winter are seasons of pause. There is movement towards the dark, and movement away from the dark, and then there is darkness and the absence of it. Or light and the absence of that; I’m not particular about how you choose to look at it. Then there are plant parts. Roots and seeds contain the movement, the potential, the change. They contain the sex, the creativity, the expression before its been expressed. By the time something is in flower, its potential is being expressed and there is a pause. And then the flower turns to seed, and seed bursts out and settles in the dark earth, and seed meets water, and seed meets sun and then, given the perfect conditions, something extraordinary can happen. The seed as the still point, the seed burning at the centre of the world, the seed that provides everything that is to come. Continue reading

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We went to Morocco

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’.

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saffron rice title

A few more things

(in which I dish out a recipe for the best rice in the world, talk about teaching, and hawk my herb blend)

As I write this, a big pot of elderflower champagne is fermenting away in the corner. Its bubbling noises permeate the quiet of my living room. Its a familiar kind of thing, comfortable, like having an old friend snoring in a chair. Tomorrow I’ll put it in a carboy and let it ferment for a bit longer, and then I’ll bottle it in champagne bottles and painstakingly wait. More about this process soon, most likely nest week. In the meantime, lots of things are happening. That class that I was so nervous about? It went well. Spiffingly well. Heart-soaringly well. Jump-up-and-down squealing kind of well. I think that public speaking terror can be overcome entirely by making sure one is speaking on a topic that one is well and truly infatuated with. In this case, I was talking about elderflowers, in an outdoor fort created by a big willow tree. And there’s another class this coming weekend, at the Roots of Healing Herb Fest. If you’re in Los Angeles, please come– it’ll be a wonderful day chock a block full of interesting classes. Mine? Mine is on five local plants that I use in my practice, with a little intro about why I think its so important to use local flavours. You know, stuff I could talk about for hours…

And speaking of local flavours, I’ve been playing around with a few things lately:

  1. Herbes De Californie is being re-stocked as we speak (as I type?). A frantic spring of gathering white sage, black sage, rose petals, bay leaves, and sagebrush. This is my stronghold, my go-to-best-friend of a spice mix. The thing that makes it onto every roast and every pizza and every side. Because of this, I’m usually out by November, and needless to say, the finishing of it usually results in minor tears. I am so happy to have it back.
  2. California sweet everlasting, one of my all time favourite smells, is working its way into an experimental mead. Am excited and nervous to see how this one goes. Wish me luck?
  3. Currants. Its such a simple little thing, but when I was leafing through Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I realised that one of the staples of Middle Eastern cooking is dried fruit. All of these cuisines that have such rich, exotic and frankly delicious histories utilise a combination of flavours, and I like that dried fruit provide the sweetness or the tang in the Middle East. A couple of days later I was out wandering in the wilderness as I’m often prone to do and stumbled upon this season’s first wild currants. Usually I bake with them because, well, I’m me, and I like anything sweet, but with the dried fruit thing in mind, I brought them home and set them out in the sun to dry. Once they were dry I put them in a jar and labelled them, and they sat there next to my gathered pine nuts and gathered acorns and store bought dates and apricots. I know that drying fruit is not remotely a novel concept, but  to me, in that moment, it was a revelation. After said revelation I promptly cooked them all into my favourite rice dish. Rice, saffron, mixed herbs, sun dried berries, its perfect, and pretty simple to make.

I’ve been eating this rice in a multitude of different ways. My favourite is with chicken, hot off the barbecue, its flesh infused with that hot charcoal smoke flavour, drizzled with a yogurt and garlic sauce. My second favourite is on its own, with more of that yogurt sauce, and a handful of whatever fresh vegetables I can find in the fridge– usually right now its a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. Its also perfect with lamb, and flank steaks with a grape leaf chimichurri sauce.

Ottolenghi’s book has some steps that I’ve eliminated because I just didn’t notice such a dramatic difference as to warrant, say, mixing in the saffron at the end into half the rice, so that its a pretty blend of white and yellow. I happen to like the colour yellow and so I mix it in at the beginning, where I can forget about it. Other than that, its pretty similar. No foraged currants that you painstakingly sundried on your own? The original recipe calls for barberries, which I have stocked in the pantry at all timof es anyway. You can get them at a Persian market or online at Mountain Rose Herbs. You can also use dried oregon grape berries which I have done and found delicious. And if you have none of these and desperately need to make this now, use dried currants, though I do warn you that they won’t be as tangy, wild tasting or exotic.

 

Herbed saffron rice with sun dried local currants.
Adapted loosely from Jerusalem

2 tb butter
2 cups basmati rice
2 1/3 cups boiling water
1 tsp saffron soaked in 3 tbsp boiling water for about 30 mins
1/4 cup dried currants or barberries
small handfuls of herbs: bee balm, tarragon, cilantro, parsley– about a cup total, all chopped finely.
salt and pepper
1/2 cup crushed pistachios (optional– I’ve both used and not-used them and both ways are good)

Melt the butter, in a saucepan and throw in the rice. Stir to make sure they’re all coated with butter, then add the saffron water, and about 15 seconds later, the rest of the water. Add salt and pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon of each), cover tightly and reduce the heat to a very slow simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes then remove from the heat, stir in the currants or barberries, and cover with a towel and then the lid again. Leave off the heat, like this, steaming for another ten minutes, then take off the lid and stir in the chopped herbs. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper as need be. Transfer to a serving dish, and sprinkle with pistachios. Serve either hot or at room temperature.

acorn shortbread

A biscuit and a cup of tea

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.

Shortbread:
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

Icing:
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.

elderflower blackberry 1

Elderflowers and blackberries.

(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.