Category Archives: conifers

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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plantmatterwater

The elegance of water.

Water both scares and excites me. Unlike my husband who can’t stay away from the stuff, I have a healthy respect for it due to a. being a not-so-strong swimmer and b. two almost drowning incidents on the sea shore. I grew up on the water, some of my earliest memories are of the smell of boat, of the sound of water lapping against the hull as I drift off to sleep, of the sounds of halyards tinking against masts and seagulls squawking as the wind picks up. Of sea spray, and of the terror that overwhelms me when land disappears from sight. Even now, when the depth radar goes to ‘too bloody deep’ and there’s no land, I start thinking about being swallowed. Of things like the Marianas Trench with its crushing darkness. Of what exactly is and could be down there, and of the crushing fluidity of it all. Out on the sea, one is truly and absolutely subject to the elements. Water and air, colliding on a surface, and us, tiny people, on the frontier.

Water is in us and water is outside of us. Water that seeps through our skin and water that we drink to quench thirst. Water, life provider, water as the primordial ooze that we emerged from billions of years ago. Water as our great ancestral mother and water as the soothing coolness that fills our bodies from the inside. Water heals. Water is sacred. Water is one primitive drive that we all have both towards and away from, in longing and in fear. Water is gentle, water can kill in no time at all, and water can heal. From the salt that dissolves in it to the blood in our veins, to the healing springs that bubble forth from deep below the earths crust, to a handful of herbs sprinkled over a hot pot and left to infuse as the water ekes out the goodness, and then there it is, the beauty of the elements: they are as powerful as the hand that wields them.

And water can be medicine. Alone, its hydrotherapy: the use of hot and cold water to draw circulation to and from places. Got an injury? Jump in the shower and blast the area with water as hot as you can bear for a couple of minutes, and follow that with 30 seconds of cold. Repeat, a couple of times, and you’ll stimulate circulation to the area. I’d almost guarantee swifter recovery (especially if you use Busted Joint Ointment at the same time ;)).

There’s the cold sock treatment, and the cold wet rag on throat treatment*. There’s hot springs and cold springs and plunging oneself into an ice cold lake after a hot sauna. And then there’s my favourite: the bath.

My old apartment lacked a bath tub. I would curl up on my side onto the floor of the shower, blasting the hot water, pretending. It didn’t work. One of the reasons I moved in with Jam was that he had a bathtub. True story. In our bathroom, we have a few big buckets: Epsom salt (available in bulk here); Mustard salt bath. And then we have a shelf with bath scrubs– I like to take a big scoop, scrub myself down and then let the oils float to the top of the bath. My all-time favourite, however, is the herbal bath. With a big pot of water on the stove and a handful of herbs simmered until the water is dark and fragrant. There is magic in these baths, deep and powerful.

Skin is absorbent, and its our biggest organ. Like a giant waterproof lung creating a permeable barrier between our bodies and the world. Everything you put on your skin is absorbed into your blood stream. Absolutely everything. Sitting back into a hot kava bath, for example, and within minutes the effects of the kava have penetrated your skin. You feel relaxed, you feel slightly woo-woo, and you feel, well, good. I add meadowsweet, and do the two in combination. The kava relaxes and unwinds your mimd, while the meadowsweet eases aches and pains, and the result is a pretty darn relaxed, social and all around good-feeling night.

Conifer baths are a glorious thing- simmer fir, spruce or pine needles until they’ve made a strong brew, and add to your bath for a fragrant, anti-inflammatory and somewhat expectorant bath (really, if there’s grunge in your lungs, after bathing in the stuff you’ll hack it up). Lavender baths relax the liver, until you’re so comfortable with the present moment that you don’t remember what you were worrying about in the first place. Ginger and mustard baths warm and stimulate the circulation making your fingers tingle and your toes feel on fire which, in the middle of the winter, can be a beautiful thing. Chapparal baths smell like the desert, especially with a sprinkling of desert lavender in there. Its anti-fungal and kills anything it comes into contact with (jock itch, athlete’s foot, you name it), and I’m not sure how it’d smell to a non-desert lover but to me its glorious. Rosemary stimulates circulation and smells good to boot (though careful if you tend towards high blood pressure because it can give you a nasty headache), Bladderwrack is pain-relieving, slimy, good for the skin and chock full of iodine (and bathing in it is a lot more pleasurable than drinking it, in my opinion). Eucalyptus for your respiratory tract, Arnica for joint pain, linden because its sweet, relaxing, heart-opening and beautiful, and mugwort, for the aromatics, for the blood-moving, for the crazy dreams you’ll have afterwards and for the ache-easing of both body and heart.

Favourite combinations include kava+meadowsweet for either joint pain or stress relief or both (and if the pain is really bad a dropper of arnica tincture); Eucalptus+Rosemary for feeling like you’re full of grunge; Douglas fir + pine for inflamed and sluggish and desperately in need of some fresh air; Chapparal + Desert lavender for missing the desert so much my heart hurts; Bladderwrack for sore joints and wanting to play Siren for the night (it is, however, required to lie in the bath and sing); Ginger + mustard for the kind of cold that seeps to your bones and makes you think that you’re never going to be able to move properly again; Linden + lavender, for the kind of sweet relaxation that makes you smile dreamily all evening; and mugwort + motherwort for achy moon time when you just want to sink into the earth and close your eyes and bite the head off anybody who tries to disturb you.

Simmer the herbs in a big pot on the stove for at least 20 minutes. I do about 2 cups of herbs per 2 gallons of water; you can find your own amount as you might like more or less. Then strain through a sieve and add to the bath.

Candles and a dark room are, of course, a must.

Almost all the above are available from Mountain Rose Herbs; I recommend buying equal quantities of whatever you’re using, putting them all together with big labels in big jars in whatever blends you so desire.

And in April, for my Monthly Herbal Surprise Box I’ll be sending out a herbal bath infusion, so if you’d like to receive a special bath, you can sign up.

And if you’ve made it this far, tell me please, what are your favourite herbal baths?

*For flu: wet socks, covered with dry wool socks, to stimulate fever. For sore throat: cold wet rag over the throat until it warms: stimulates circulation to the area; works wonders.

biscotti1

Pinyon Pine Nut Biscotti

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.

Rest day.

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

2 eggs

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.

apple conifer tart

Happy happy.

(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 clove

pinch mace

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.

Conifer-spiced caramel

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.

 

photo

Fire Cider, and other stories.

The other morning I wandered out onto the stoop and the entire city was enshrouded in a blanket of fog. I ran inside to grab the essentials: slippers, hat, coffee and blanket, and then I sat on the edge of my stoop, on the edge of the world, watching the mysterious shapes appear and re-appear, until the sun had come up a bit more, and the fog had burned off, and everything was returned to normal.

Such mornings remind me of my childhood, in a place that had major seasons. Southern California has seasons too: if you were to take a walk up into the hills, sycamore leaves would be all over the paths, the skeletons of milk thistles and goldenrod would stand out against the brown grass tinged with a slight frost, and the earth is that deep, dark, sodden brown that only happens after a few good rains. There are seasons in the hills. Its just that, being from the UK, I want more. And at this time of year, when friends are sending me pictures of first, second and third snows. When leaves are frosting over and wood fires are being burned, I start to feel a little ungrateful towards the constant sunlight. There are, however, solutions to self-imposed misery over something so silly. Namely, booking a trip north for me and Jam. And while it won’t be to the snow this time, it will at least be to somewhere cold, incredibly beautiful, and very stormy (Big Sur). And I’m excited. I’m also excited about being out in the desert for Christmas. There will be trips up to the snow, and trips to gather some of my favourite plants, and trips to hang out in my favourite canyons, and it will be action-packed and very exciting.

In the mean time, a few things have been happening. The first being that I have been inundated with business for the holiday season (I am slightly overwhelmed with joy and gratefulness about said inundation). The second being that chanterelle season has hit Northern California so my foraging friends and I are getting out into the mountains at every possible moment because its not long before they come up here. A few heavy rains are a good sign, as are dropping temperatures and heavy marine layers. My searches take me further and further afield, setting off into the wilderness at a ninety-degree angle from my usual trails. Herbalist Paul Bergner talked once about how we expand when we leave the trails in our lives, and I can’t help but think of him as I set off, big stick in hand, into the tall grasses and undergrowth. The third is that people are getting sick. This herbal elf has been making house calls, with a basket of elderberry elixir, lung grunge elixir, diaphoretic tea and, my new favourite, Fire Cider. Fire Cider is basically just spicy-stuff-infused apple cider vinegar. But man, let me tell you, if you have a blocked nose, or congested sinuses, of if you feel like you’re starting to come down with something, it’ll clear you up right away, while making you go ‘WOOOOOOOHOOOO!’ after you’ve swallowed.

The recipe is simple, and you can also alter it as you see fit: Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine makes a roselle-hibiscus one that looks divine. If you hate horseradish leave it out, if you love horseradish, add more. If you want it super spicy, add more habaneros. If you’re a vampire, leave out the garlic. Really, this is a basic structure and you’re welcome to do with it what you will. And as for what to do with it… by the spoonful works well if you’re coming down with something. I leave it on the counter and take a swig when I pass by.

Fire Cider

1 big bottle apple cider vinegar

8 cloves garlic

1 onion

20 sprigs thyme

1/2 cup chopped horseradish root

5 chopped habanero (or jalapeno) peppers

2 tb turmeric (dried works fine)

1/4 cup chopped ginger
1 cup honey (I used echinacea-infused honey, but you can use any type of honey you like)

 

Other things I used which you might or might not have access to:

calamus root (1/4 cup)

white fir needles (1/2 cup) (you can sub pine, spruce or any kind of fir)

yarrow flowers (handful)

 

Using a 1/2 gallon mason jar or something equivalent, chop up and throw in all the ingredients except the honey (using any additions or leave-outs you want), then cover with vinegar. Shake well, then leave somewhere prominent for a month. Prominent so that you notice it, and shake it when you notice it. After a month, strain out all the solids, then taste it. Is it spicy enough? Garlicy enough? Flavourful enough? If so, stir in the honey and bottle it. If not, tinker with it as you see fit, then add the honey when its ready.

 

WELCOME TO CONIFER 101

Gathering and processing conifers

(an information-heavy post)

Hello kids, welcome to conifer 101. In which we discuss the identifying, nibbling, gathering and processing of conifer bits for food purposes. During the last few months of my obsession and your patient listening, on Facebook I suggested a conifer gathering post and it was met with THUNDEROUS applause and approval (glares at people to nod in agreement). So here goes. Conifer 101………

Identifying

To identify your local conifer species, the best thing I can say is to type in ‘yourstate or country’ plus ‘conifer species’ on a google search. You’ll likely find something. If that comes up blank, then try ‘yourstate’ plus ‘pine species’ or ‘fir species’ or ‘spruce species’. For example, I just searched for North Carolina conifer species and got not much, but a search for North Carolina PINE species brought up THIS page: http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/ which lists all trees in North Carolina*. The scientific name for fir is ‘abies’, for spruce it’s ‘picea’ and for pine it’s ‘pinus’. On this NC list there’s 1 abies, 1 picea and 8 pinus. That’s a baseline of what to look for.

This particular website is great because it tells you exactly where to look, for example, if we’re looking for abies fraseri, it grows on high mountain peaks and occurs in 9 counties in NC. Reading further we can see that most of the population has been killed off because of air pollution, acid rain, and an introduced bug. And this is probably a good time to bring up the most important aspect of wildcrafting (soapbox alert): responsibility.

Addendum: According to the beautiful and knowledgeable Stephany Hoffett, there’s a Virginia Tech Tree app that is really good.

Lovely readers, when we interact with the natural world, we take on responsibility for our actions. If we harvest too much, too vigorously, it can do more harm than good. If we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, we won’t notice the changes we’re making. There is infinite joy to be found in the feeling of being CONNECTED with something. With our area. With the plants that grow from the same soil we do. In connecting our food and our medicine with specific moments in time, like sitting on top of a mountain breathing crisp cool windy air, or with running through a sudden rainstorm sheltering a bag of acorns with your body. There is, in this, I think something so many of us city folk have been missing, and I really encourage you to get out there and give it a try. Conifers are a great place to start because they’re abundant and easy to ID. But in a situation where the majority of the population has been ravaged, I’d suggest exercising what is probably the hardest thing to exercise: patience. The natural world knows what its doing; it’s best to leave them be. If you feel like going and finding one that is flourishing amid a declining population, and sitting at its base and saying hello will help (I’m odd like that, and often do these things) then by all means do so. If while you’re there you find branches that have recently fallen on the ground then by all means gather them. But let that be all. Go back to your search online and find a species that is common and healthy. Back in North Carolina, after reading all of the descriptions, let’s say we decide upon the eastern white pine. Now we get to go and walk around and find them. Do an online search to find out where they like to grow and see if anybody in your area has seen them. Go and explore. Take a picnic. Bring with you either photos or notes with you so that you know how to ID it when you get there. The good news is that, for long-needled pines, there aren’t really any possibly toxic lookalikes. Where you have to be careful is with fir and redwood species, as those flat needles could be mistaken for yew, which IS actually toxic. If you’re unsure, just snip off a sample, bring it home, look up numerous pictures, and make sure, like, for sure. If it’s a pine, or if you’re certain, you can just proceed to the nibbling part. Which is, of course, the fun part.

Sniffing and Nibbling.

Nibbling, my friends, is a very important part of wildcrafting. Once you’ve identified your species, know where they are, know that they’re abundant and healthy, and that you might be interested in working with them, find a section of bark or branch, bury your nose in it, and give it a good long smell. Does it smell good? Does it smell sweet? Coniferous? Sharp? Resinous? If there are more of them around, smell each one. Doing this on a warm afternoon helps as that’s when the sap will be running more. Find the one that smells nicest to you, pick off a needle and give it a nibble. Nibble with your eyes closed and your heart open. Nibble like a rabbit who has just discovered taste buds. Nibble like a child who has just discovered something edible in the back garden. Like it? While you’re at it, take a deep breath and see how it affects you- most of the conifers have some kind of effect on the lungs (firs are especially good at this; in fact we nibble on the needles when hiking at altitude just to help our lungs open more). Do a body check to see if it affects you anywhere else.

Gathering.

To gather you’ll need a couple of things:

A sharp pair of scissors or secateurs

A receptacle of some kind

I’m a fan of secateurs because they’re ergonomic and really good at chopping off plant parts (as that’s what they’re designed to do). But if all you have is scissors, then by all means, use those. As far as receptacles go, you can take a pretty basket, a backpack, paper shopping bags, canvas shopping bags, a pink fluffy purse, a black leather studded purse, or a cardboard box. It doesn’t really matter. A pretty basket will make you feel like little red riding hood skipping through the woods, whereas a backpack or canvas bag is easy to close up and move swiftly out of a location. Up to you. I’d love to use a pretty basket but its not condusive to multi-mile hikes, whereas a backpack is. A friend of mine keeps cardboard boxes in the back of her truck just in case she sees things when she’s out driving. I keep canvas shopping bags and secateurs in my trunk for the same purpose.

Have in mind what you want to do with them. Few things feel worse than plant material that you’ve gathered going to waste. I usually gather enough for oils, honeys, elixirs (esp. in the case of fir species which are really useful come lung grunge season), drying (for tea), and a batch of incense. Say you’re going to make a honey and an oil, then have in mind the amount you’ll need, and gather that.

The best time of year to gather conifer material is in the spring, when the tree is in its natural growth period. In doing this, you’ll basically be giving the tree a nice pruning, encouraging it to grow out bushier and healthier. I haven’t noticed any negative effects from gathering little bits from trees throughout the year, but it’s something to keep in mind and keep an eye on- you want this patch to get healthier and more vibrant over the time you interact with it, not the opposite! I move around from tree to tree, usually taking a few snippings, about 11 inches down a branch, from each. If in doubt, a quick Youtube search for ‘pruning a pine tree’ will come up with numerous results :). If you find bigger branches on the ground, then by all means, take those.
A couple of quick notes:

First: all conifers exude resins that help them heal wounds. You’ll notice it oozing out immediately after you cut them. The only tree that DOESN’T produce enough of this is Douglas Fir, so, if gathering that it’s quite important not to take big old branches. I usually go out looking for it after a storm and there’s plenty on the ground then…

Second: never ever snip the top off a tree. It leaves it open to disease, fungus and rot. You’re basically leaving it open to die.

Processing

Now you’re at home with a bag full of conifer material.

We’re going to make a conifer infused honey and a conifer infused olive oil. Both are easy. Here’s what you need:

CONIFER INFUSED HONEY OR OIL

Quart-sized mason jars.

Conifer material to fill as many jars as you want.

Honey and olive oil to fill these jars too.

Chop your conifer material up into smaller pieces and stuff inside the jars. Fill to 3/4 full. Then fill the jars with either honey or olive oil. You can do as many or as few as you like… Put the lids on, then put them in a warm place for a week or so. I keep them on top of the oven as our oven is always warm. Inside a crock pot works, as does in the oven if its warm in there (just leave yourself a note as a reminder that there’s stuff in there).

After a week, strain and bottle both honey and olive oil. Make a pretty label (or a not pretty label- it’s up to you), and put it somewhere prominent so you remember to use it.

Using

The fun part. You can drizzle the oil on roasted vegetables, on roasted meats, on avocados sprinkled with salt. Drizzle it on soups before serving or on fruits for an interesting twist. On bread, hot out the oven with a chunk of cheese and some pickles for lunch. On pita bread with some leftover lamb and a splash of yogurt. Drizzle it on everything. And when you find a favourite combination, please let me know what it is…

As for the honey, you can mix it with yogurt for an after-dinner snack, or on fresh fruit, or on baked apples (‘tis the season). You can make baklava, or a local twist on tarte tatin, or to flavour vanilla ice cream with something magical. And of course there’s hot milk and local conifer honey, for when it’s approaching bedtime and you’re a little hungry…

So, I hope that helps. If you have any questions, leave a comment, shoot me an email, or ask on Facebook.

*Sidenote: if you live in North Carolina, I had no idea how many hawthorns and birches you had and I *might* be slightly jealous.

acorn pancakes

And then the rains came

“And as he drove on, the rain clouds dragged down the sky after him for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him and to water him.”

-So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

There’s a funny thing about rain and perspective. Expose yourself to the stuff every day by, oh, say, growing up in Glasgow, and you start to resent it. Bitterly. Its constant drone permeates your skin and your dreams and pretty soon any glimpse of the sun is an excuse to put on a bikini and celebrate. In California, it’s a bit different. The sun gets taken for granted in a way that never happens on the British Isles. We take the sun for granted so much that we have a very small gradient of acceptable temperature ranges. You know, sixty degrees farenheit is too cold; ninety degrees farenheit is too hot. We talk about the weather like people who actually experience weather patterns, although our variations are minor.

Until the rain comes.

It did, the other day, when Emily and I were up in the mountains gathering fir. The heavens opened no sooner than we’d left the car, and, like southern Californian rain-deprived people (in our summer hiking gear with no waterproofs and nothing remotely warm) we grinned at each other and headed off up a trail. Thunder clamoured overhead. Lightning struck across the sky. The rain came down in big gobs of juicy wetness and we kept grinning, and kept walking.

And that’s how the day went. Surrounded by water, up high in the mountains, with a cool breeze and the dehydrated world around us sighing in relief. We gathered fir. We gathered Jeffrey pine. We even gathered some goldenrod. We trapsed through bushes and overturned mushrooms and (well Em did) took pictures of every single patch of moss along the way. It was a good day. A relief of a day. Punctuation in the dusty heat wave that drives on despite the change in seasons.

A note on this recipe:

Even if you don’t have acorn flour to try the pancakes, please try and make the syrup with whatever conifers you can find. Christmas trees planted in front yards work. Spruces, firs, pines and redwoods all work. If you’re unsure about whether you can use it, email me; I’m happy to help. You can also post a picture on the Cauldrons and Crockpots Facebook page and then other people can have a say too- we’ve got a good discussion going on what conifers grow where, and if you don’t know what grows around you, just ask. There is such a wonderful pleasure to be found in eating flavours that come from your area. I also used apricot jam that I had lying around (I made a bunch of it this spring), but use what you have. Plum would be really nice too, as would blackberry.

Rustic acorn pancakes with white fir and apricot syrup. 

Note: here’s the best article ever on gathering and processing acorns

For the pancakes: 

2/3 cup flour (I used gluten free)

2/3 cup acorn flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cup buttermilk

2 eggs

4tb melted butter

Combine the wet ingredients, and combine the dry ingredients. Give them a good whisk each, then slowly add the wet to the dry, whisking to get out any lumps.

Conversely you can just put the whole lot in a blender and blend away. I do this method- less clean up.

Cook as you would any pancake- on a skillet or pan or griddle, oil it up nicely (I used coconut oil; you can use whatever you like but keep in mind that coconut oil is a. very safe to cook with and b. gives things a lovely crisp edge), then pour a good 7 inch round pancake onto the pan. Let it bubble, as pancakes do, until the whole thing is covered in bubbles. Then flip it. Cook until golden, transfer to a plate kept warm in the oven with the pilot on or on its lowest setting. Repeat for all pancakes. Serve with butter and syrup.

For the white fir and apricot syrup: 

1 cup white fir, loosely packed ends of branches, chopped. If you don’t have white fir, please see aforementioned paragraph about getting in touch- I can almost guarantee you’ll have something tasty nearby.

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 tb apricot jam

Bring the water and sugar to a boil, add the conifer bits, and then remove from heat. Allow to sit for an hour, then strain and bring back to boil. Reduce by 1/4, then stir in the apricot jam. Taste- if its too bitter (conifers can do that) add more jam.

IMG_5072_2

Jeffrey Pine infused baklava

(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?”

Right.

Genius.

<insert long and arduous process>

So. 3 attempts later, plus some happy dinner guests, here’s a recipe.

Jeffrey Pine Infused Baklava

 Part 1. 

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).

Part 2. 

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.

Part 3. 

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…

 

juniper white sage incense

Holy smoke

Lately, I’ve been too restless to get anything useful done. In my mind there are these lists of things to do. Newsletters and website updates and blog posts and dealing with traffic tickets (*cough*) and parking tickets (*cough*) and returning phonecalls. I think it’s the coming spring; I want to be outside so much that all this other stuff makes my brain short-circuit. The words all swim together and stop making sense. Cursors blink on white pages and minute hands tick by and become hour hands and I’ll type a sentence and delete it then go to the kitchen for another snack and a cup of tea. On Wednesday, instead of repeating the process, I went to the Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica with Carly. Early. While it was still cold, and while the day was still yawning awake. I’m giving her cooking lessons, so each week she’s armed with a list, and each Thursday night we get together and I unleash my inner dictator while she does exactly as I say*.

As we were picking some very handsome carrots, she mentions that she wants to buy some white sage to ‘cleanse’ her apartment, and asks if I believe in that stuff. And it got me thinking. Because although there are plenty of people who see these things the way I do, my opinions aren’t necessarily the most popular in a city where people talk about ‘energy’ like everybody should understand what it is. But Carly was obviously asking me because of my superior intellect and rational thought process. So I did what any normal human being would do with an opinion that might counter that of others: I’m putting it on the internet. So, a bit more about smoke, smudging, incense, clearing bad energy, and all that stuff…

Smoke is sacred. Look at the way smoke from incense curls through the air, fluid, like water or fire, shapeshifting and changing and bringing that scent with it. It’s hypnotic, it reaches into stagnant corners, it can alter minds and intoxicate senses. But when it comes to ‘clearing bad energy’ as an isolated function, I think this is a belief that has rolled over into our time from the dark ages**.

To understand this, we have to know a bit more about what this ‘bad energy’ is, what needs to be cleared in the first place. Back when pathogens were unheard of, sickness was often thought to come from ‘evil spirits’. Great ceremonies were made to get rid of said ‘evil spirits’ and herbs were often burned to aid in the process. Fast forward 2 thousand years and people are burning herbs to ‘clear energy’ in houses and such or to perform appropriations of Native American ceremonies without fully understanding what’s going on. Evil spirits, back then, were airborne pathogens. Burning aromatic plants is fantastic for killing these airborne pathogens. If you’ve got a bunch of people in close quarters, smoke is great to have around- burning frankincense in a church, for example, or hinoki wood in a temple. Palo santo, that treasured Ecuadorian wood, myrrh, white sage, juniper, mugwort. The list is long, and effective. Having these herbs around to burn when someone’s coming down with something is really useful. Having them just to burn in general because they smell good and because smoke is pretty is fine as well. And yes, you can use them in ceremonies to ‘clean’ the energy of a space, but it doesn’t need to be a specific type of herb, or something that someone else has deemed ‘sacred’, and it doesn’t even need to be smoke in the first place, if that is your purpose.

Ever walked into a place and it just felt weird? Ever had something horrible happen in your house and you just want to clear the walls of those memories or the space of lingering horrible-ness? When it comes to getting rid of that kind of thing, few things beat salt. Plain old fashioned salt, a little sprinkled in the corners, will get ‘bad energy’ out of a place quicker than you can say BOO. Open all the windows and chase out the stuff you don’t want with a broom or by clapping your hands but most of all with your intention to get rid of it. Then, close the windows and sprinkle salt in each corner, intentionally (whatever your intention is). Let me be clear- I did say that you can use smoke, but the smoke in itself isn’t what’s going to chase out the stuff you don’t want. YOU are. The smoke isn’t powerful, the person guiding the smoke is powerful. Clearing a space is an active endeavour, not something that happens by default because stuff is burning.

White sage is overused. Even in this area where it actually grows it’s overused. Walk down Hollywood boulevard or the Venice boardwalk and you’ll see stoners selling piles of smudge sticks for people to buy, bring home, clear the energy of their houses, and do their own ceremonies with. White sage itself IS sacred to one tribe in our area (it has a very small growing range) and its so sacred that they burn one leaf at a time, not massive smudge sticks. Sacredness, with plants, is something that happens, not because someone else deems it so, but because of the connection you have to that plant. The fact of the matter is that any plant can be sacred, any ceremony can be meaningful. You can burn rose petals and have an effect on your space just as much as you would with sage leaves.

When it comes to a sick room, however, smoke excels. On its own. As a force in itself. Those compounds that smell so good are often antiviral and antibacterial and in inhaling them, you breathe them directly into your respiratory tract, which then goes directly into your blood stream, and before you know if you have all these little fighter compounds in your blood and in your lungs. When one of us is sick at home, we’ll burn a combination of things- my favourite is white sage and juniper (which grow around here and thus are easier to come by, cheaper, and more sustainable), but frankincense smells pretty darn amazing too. There are tons of other burnable resins available commercially, and other things you can try with what you have around. My recipe for sage and juniper incense is ridiculously simple- it’s not a complex scent or kyphi, but a simple mix of herbs with medicinal properties for the purpose of killing airborne pathogens and keeping folks healthy. But, as I’ve mentioned before, medicinal doesn’t need to mean gross, or single-purposed. You can burn it anytime, for any purpose, it’s all about the intention.

Also, for more information about sacred smoke and making your own incense, please see Kiva’s recent article. I’ve been lucky enough to try her hand-made incense and it’s mind-alteringly intoxicating. That right there, is sacred stuff…


 White Sage-juniper incense

charcoal discs

1 part juniper berries

2 parts white sage leaves

1 part pine resin (I get mine from the tree in my front yard which is an araucaria not actually a pinus)

 

In a pestle and mortar, grins up the juniper berries. Add the sage leaves and pine resin, and grind it all until it’s a pretty even consistency.

Light a charcoal disc and wait for it to be hot, then sprinkle your incense over the top. Inhale. Walk around the house letting the smoke get into the corners. If someone is sick, let them inhale the smoke, brush it through sick person’s hair, then leave it for the smoke to fill the space.

 

 

*I think I missed my calling. I’m a very good dictator. You can refer to me as The Chairman from now on.

** Speaking of which, did you know there’s a flat earth society?

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.