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Blackberry and elderflower mojitos

I’ve been getting into this whole ‘drinking’ thing lately. I’m not a big drinker in general, usually- I mean, 4oz beer is enough to make me start acting very silly. Last time I had 2 beers I think I danced on a table. And the last time I had 3 beers I actually threw up for about 2 hours. Plus then there’s the foggy head and all the new friends that you make and I think that in general, I am better just having my quarter-glass of wine and let be at that.

But that was before I went to my friend’s wedding, where I had what can only be described as a ‘fuck it’ moment, and tried something that was called a mojito (which for the record is not pronounced ‘moh-jeye-toh’).

My lord.

Mohjeyetos are good.

I mean, regardless of the fact that I put on mouse ears and stole somebody’s bow-tie and danced for about 6 hours straight. Regardless of the fact that I ended up at a wedding afterparty. Me (and Jam) who kept looking at each other saying things like “WE’RE AT AN AFTERPARTY- WE’RE SO COOL!”, which, I know, negates any coolness. It was still delicious. It was minty and sweet (but not too sweet) and fizzy and made me think that I was sitting on a beach in Cuba, where they pronounce it right, and that I could actually speak Spanish (which I’d really like).

And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

So when Friday was swelteringly hot, I decided that I could think of nothing that I wanted more than to try making my own mojitos. Fancy flavoured mojitos at that. With elderflower and blackberry syrup.

By the way, this is easy.
And it turns out that I am quite lame, because when Lu came over to try my invention she said it tasted more like a delicious soda with a splash of rum. I had thought that was what a cocktail was but it turns out you’re supposed to be able to taste the alcohol. So she made her own. Which tasted like rum and made me feel sick. You can make whichever version you like.

Elder-blackberry syrup.

1 cup elder flowers

1 cup blackberries

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

 

Bring the water and sugar to a boil, add the blackberries and elderflowers. Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and add the elderflowers. Steep until cool, then strain and bottle. It’ll keep in the fridge for months.

 

Elder-blackberry mojito

Makes 4, 16-oz glasses

4 tb elder-blackberry syrup

light rum- add to taste. For my lightweight version I used about a tablespoon. Lu used about 1/3 cup.

4 tsp light brown sugar

fresh mint leaves (about 8 fresh leaves for each drink)

4 limes, quartered

soda water

crushed ice

 

In the bottom of the glass, add a teaspoon of sugar, 4 quarters of lime, and the mint leaves. Using something sticky and poundy- I used my wooden thing for my juicer. The end of a spatula would do, as would the end of a thin rolling pin- start mashing it all together. You want most of the juice out of the lime, and the mint to be pretty beaten up so you get the flavour out. Then add the syrup. Fill the glass with ice, then add the rum, and top up with soda. Garnish with a straw and a warm evening.

 

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Infusions.

When I was 9 or so, my mum had a friend, who we’ll call P, who became quite ill and started seeing a Chinese doctor. Well after that, every time she’d come and stay, she’d brew these big pots of the most DISGUSTING smelling herbs on the stove. And she’d stay for quite a while, and the smell would always be there, and, being the brat that I was, it got to the point where I was so angry about the olfactory assault that I just refused to even acknowledge the poor woman’s existence. Because it felt personal, as all bad smells do. I still actually take bad smells as a personal insult- I only JUST started talking to Jamie’s friend who forgot to brush his teeth one morning before we all went on a drive up into the mountains, and that was 4 years ago.

The smell of P’s herbs on the stove plagued me. And for years, even after I became fascinated with herbalism (which, now that I think about it, is no short miracle), I wouldn’t go the infusion route. Nor decoctions. The connotations were all wrong- too woo-woo. Too stinky. Too weird.

Tinctures felt clinical. Salves felt sensual. Teas, well I am Scottish- it may have even been my first word. But stovetop stuff- I might as well start wearing patchouli and throwing peace signs. And I’m not quite sure what it was that changed for me. Maybe it was one of those books that I read on the beach. They all seem to blend together now, so I’ll make it up:

The heroine grew up in a family that used herbs as medicine. It wasn’t weird or stinky. She was pretty and wore dresses. Maybe she was from Costa Rica and had long wavy black hair and would be played by Penelope Cruz with a flower behind her ear. She lives in America now and she brews potions for people and acts as the local medicine woman with her little quirky community of people who all have an interesting story. Then something happens- let’s say the local government wants to knock down the shop that has been in her family for, well, not that long because I forgot she’s from Costa Rica. And then a handsome stranger steps in as her lawyer or something. And he saves the day. And they fall in love. This story is kinda boring actually. Maybe instead of it being a legal thing, she gets KIDNAPPED by some crazy outlaw (because she’s not in America at all- she’s in Colombia, where she grew up, and she was kidnapped because of her herbal skills, to cure this prisoner because he is needed to be alive to hold him ransom because… um… because he’s rich. Super rich. Oh no, because he’s in intelligence and they need his information. Yeah, I like that better. So he’s an intelligence agent (one of the best, of course) and she’s needed to heal him so that he can talk. Did I mention that he’s gorgeous? But you can’t tell at first because he’s too thin and weak. And they slowly fall in love and when he’s got his strength back he KICKS EVERYONES ASS AND they move to America and live happily ever after. Uhm. Well the whole point is that she makes these infusions that aren’t gross smelling, they’re sensual and pretty. Because she’s got a flower behind her ear and is played by Penelope Cruz.

That’s what changed. Infusions stopped being weird stinky P, and started being Penelope Cruz. And now I make them all the time.

The cool thing about infusions is that they can be medicinal, or they can be delicious, and sometimes they can be both. So, for example, if you have people coming over for dinner- you could make a rose and hibiscus infusion and throw some ice in there and put it on the table and it’ll look really pretty. Or if you’re feeling exhausted you can do medicinal infusions and add things that taste good. You can make them really strong like real medicinal infusions, or you can make them weak, more like a tea, and sip them chilled on a summer afternoon. You can pour them into a water bottle and carry them around with you all day (which is what I do. People look at my water bottle funny.). Or you can leave it in a big jar in the fridge and have it by the glassful like you would any other iced tea. But if you know what certain things do, then you can play around a bit.

 

HERBAL INFUSIONS

The principle is really easy:

Take a container than can hold boiling water. I use either a biiig half gallon mason jar, or a french press. The french press is great because it’s got a filter already built in…

(You can also make great teas in a drip coffee maker)

Fill it about an eighth of the way to a quarter of the way with dried herbs.

Fill the container with boiling water and sit for desired length of time (the longer you leave it, the stronger it gets. Which is great for medicinal properties but often bad for taste. Unless it’s nettles, oatstraw or a root, I leave it for about 15 minutes usually).

Commonly found medicinal things you can make an infusion with:

Rose petals: Cooling and drying. For summer heat issues. For tension in chest and nervous irritability. Add honey and cream and it’s quite lovely.

Chamomile: Quite bitter in large quantities. Calming, relaxing, good for digestion.

Red clover blossoms: According to Susun Weed, these are great for fertility. When taken over long periods of time they’ve been said to have an effect on tumours. Gentle and nourishing lymph mover. Quite delicious too.

Rosemary: good for concentration, and that gross stagnant moody PMS feeling. Aids digestion. Don’t steep for too long, trust me on that one :).

Sage: For oncoming colds, sore throats. For ungroundedness, feeling spacey. Helps concentration. For concentration, combine with rosemary and basil.

Lemon balm: For anxiety. Aids digestion. Calms the heart.

Lavender tops: Tension, PMS, tight overheated anger. Nice combines with rosemary and a bit of honey.

Basil: According to Matthew Wood, it’s used in the morning for alertness, and in the evening to aid sleep. I like to use it for concentration. Interestingly, it’s been used for years in India to aid marijuana detoxification.

Thyme: For colds and flu and mucus congestion in the chest. Really nice with sage, mint and honey.

Nettles: Deeply nourishing, especially for those with iron deficiency. Taste is somewhat vulgur (to me) so add mint and all is forgotten. I think nettle infusions made the biggest difference to me with helping restore my energy after adrenal burnout.

Oatstraw: For exhaustion, low sex drive, weak and frazzled nerves. Great in combination with nettles. Taste is slightly sweet and grassy and nice.

Mint: aids digestion, stimulates sweating when there’s a fever.

Bee balm flowers: aids digestion. Calming. Helps body fight infection- GREAT for UTI, candida and general malaise. Also good as a wash for burns.

 

Other great things to infuse are:

hibiscus flowers, lemon verbena, apple blossoms, orange blossoms, peach blossoms (HEAVEN).

 

What about you- anything you like to make teas or infusions with that I didn’t mention?

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the proof

My first school in London was called St. Helen’s School for Girls. It was a Catholic school, where we learned things like how to hold a knife and fork properly, and how to eat like civilised human beings. Our lunches were different every day of the week, and we’d all walk to the cafeteria together, holding hands, and sit at long tables, where we’d be served, and expected to finish everything on our plates.

Which was great on mashed potato day. And awful on chicken-pineapple casserole day. In fact, that I still despise cooked pineapple to this day is entirely the fault of the St. Helens’ cafeteria staff, and the torture of being forced to finish every single bite on the plate. It wasn’t till years later that I realised I could throw things under the table, and that was long after the St. Helen’s days, and when I was sitting at a restaurant in the hills of southern Spain with my dad who was in a bad mood and insisting that I finish the quail on the plate in front of me. But, as a 6-year old, I was relatively free of these kind of clever things, and so I ploughed though, week after week. The worst part about those pineapple casserole days was the dessert. Bread and butter pudding, or bread pudding as it’s called in the States, was the bane of my existence. That smell of curdled eggs, the little wrinkled raisins, the thick slices of crap white bread. It made my stomach turn. It STILL makes my stomach turn.

And so imagine my surprise last night when I got back from a long sunset hike, and the thought crossed my mind that “I want bread pudding”. Where this came from, I have no idea. I hate bread pudding. I’ve been given the ‘best bread pudding in the world’ and refused to try it because the trauma runs so deep. But last night I wanted it, and I’m not one to ever ignore these urges.

This is a bare-bones pudding. I hate raisins in anything except fudge and christmas pud and Cadbury’s chocolate, so there are none. I also hate cinnamon in anything other than coffee. I mean, really hate it. Cinnamon has no place in desserts as far as I’m concerned, and I haven’t eaten an apple pie that I liked since moving to the states, except for the ones at French restaurants that are tarts, with no cinnamon. So there’s no cinnamon. No cardamom. No raisins. It’s basically bread and custard, which are two of my favourite things in the world, so it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

Bread is important- I use this soft fluffy sourdough that’s the only glutinous thing I can safely eat. If you have challah lying around, or a brioche, then I can’t believe you haven’t eaten it all yet and I’m slightly disappointed in you. But you can use those, they’ll probably be even better.

Oh, and one more thing. Start to munchum, the entire process took 35 minutes. 5 minutes of which is prep, 30 of which is sitting around, playing on twitter, and running back and forth to the oven to check to see if it’s ready. Or, you can throw it all in a bowl and put it in the fridge overnight, then bake them up in the morning for breakfast…

The proof is in the  [Bread] Pudding

4 ramekins or wee mason jars

3 thick slices of bread

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup cream

3 tb butter, melted

5 tb sugar

1 tsp vanilla

 

Preheat oven to 350.

Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl. Cut the bread up into 1″ chunks and drop in the bowl of liquid stuffs. At this point you can refrigerate overnight, or just leave to soak for a few minutes. Spoon an equal amount of the mixture into the ramekins, and pour the remaining liquid equally over each one.

Cook for 25-30 minutes, until when pressed gently on top, no liquid comes out to burn your fingers. Serve with cream.

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Chocolate mousse

When I was growing up, we got chocolate mousse in yogurt pots. Creme caramel too, though we’re not talking about that today. I don’t think I had real chocolate mousse until long after I’d moved to the US. Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time. I only realised this morning, upon waking up with a chocolate hangover, that my first real chocolate mousse had been had at the age of 28 (at Hugo’s on Santa Monica Boulevard), and how sad that was. And that maybe I’d better make up for lost time by having it for breakfast as well.

Chocolate. Cream. Butter. Eggs. You cannot go wrong with a combination like that. And it might look fancy, but it’s not- the chocolate mousse is a humble dessert that can be whipped up in 20 minutes or so while your duck is finishing roasting (I speak from experience).

I decorated each little pot with a strawberry, but honestly, I might next time just chill it in a big bowl, then dollop it in each dish with a handful of little sweet berries. Because it’s delicious like that.

 

Chocolate Mousse

From the Bouchon cookbook. Kinda adapted.

3.5 oz dark chocolate.

3.5 oz milk chocolate (I use Green and Blacks for both and they’ve never failed me).

1 1/2 cup heavy cream.

3 tb butter

3 eggs, separated

2 tb coffee

3 tb sugar

 

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the butter, sugar, chocolate and coffee. If you’re at risk of burning it, use a double boiler. Remove from heat, and whip the cream to stiff peaks. Do the same for the egg whites. Refrigerate both until the chocolate mix is slightly cooler- like cool enough to dab on your bottom lip without uttering obscenities. Then mix in the egg yolks, one by one.

Gently fold in a third of the cream. Then half the egg whites. Then another third of cream. Then the other half of egg whites. Then the rest of the cream. Pour into individual ramekins or one big bowl. Chill for at least 2 hours- preferably 8. If you’re impatient like me you can eat it as fluffy pudding, but it’s not quite the same.

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Nettle pesto

This story isn’t about me. It is about Jam, and a patch of nettles.

When he was nine or so, Jam got the reputation for being a bit of a wild boy. A group of older boys in school wanted to show him who was boss, and so they attacked him, throwing him into a patch of nettles. Which would be fine if you were fully clothed, but English schoolboys had to wear those little shorts (and a little cap too) which meant that his legs were exposed, and quickly covered in painful welts. He went home, crying to his dad that it hurt and he was embarrassed and that he didn’t know how to get them back.

I think most parents nowadays would do their best to encourage their kids to take the route of moral superiority. But Jam’s dad had raised him doing martial arts, reading him gory ninja stories before bed every night. So he explained to him that the next time this happens, all he needs to do is pick the smallest one and kick the absolute crap out of him. It’ll scare the others so much that they won’t come near him again. But in the mean time, what he needed to do was to stalk the group, one by one, and beat them into oblivion.

So he did. He stalked each one of them, and beat them up, until he’d exacted revenge for their brutality. They tried to bully him one more time, surrounding him in the school playground. So he did exactly what he’d been taught- he picked the smallest one, and kicked him in the face so hard that his nose broke and bled everywhere.

The playground of Dane’s Hill school for boys was a safer place after that.

And all because of a little patch of nettles.

I didn’t know this story until I planted a patch of nettles in the back garden, and Jam was incredulous that I’d actually want them around. I guess if I’d been traumatised by them in my youth, I might feel the same way.

This recipe is super easy, if you have a blender of some kind. I have one of those hand-held stick blenders, and the bottom detaches and re-attaches to a miniature food processor. This thing is one of my favourite things in the entire world, and it’s really inexpensive. If not then you can use a food processor, blender, or even a knife to chop everything really fine. Just watch out for those nettles.

I made my own pasta- using a gluten free flour mix and my regular old pasta recipe. If you’re doing GF pasta, watch out- the dough dries really fast and it is difficult to come together. Instead of doing fettucini as originally planned, I ended up doing ‘random shapes at the thinnest this dough will go’. Which was still delicious, but not necessarily pretty.

Nettle pesto

2 cups nettle leaves

1 chunk gouda

3 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

salt

nettle seeds

pepper

juice and rind of 1/2 lemon

 

Put it all in a blender, and blend for about 15 seconds. Easy peasy :).

 

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Wild things in June: Stinging Nettle

Well it’s June, and Butter and I have a new Wild Thing for you. One that I’m very excited about: stinging nettle.

Stinging nettle might be the first plant I ever learned to identify. The second was the dock leaf that grows next door, which alleviates the pain of the sting. These two plants, hand in hand, in many ways initiated me into the world of plants. And because of that, nettle holds a very special place in my heart. In fact, when I moved into this little house, the first thing I did was plant some nettles out by the kitchen door. They’ve now grown into a huge patch that is constantly sending out leaves and seeds, much to the chagrin of unassuming neighbours and workmen.

The flavour of nettles is often compared to spinach, but I disagree- I think it’s much more meaty tasting than spinach, and much more like lambs quarters in flavour. However if you like green things and haven’t tasted them before, I say give it a try, as they’re delicious. The sting, which can be oh-so brutal, is neutralised in cooking, and I’ve had no problem with being stung after blending them raw, or when drying them.

Sting-ability varies. My back garden nettle will leave welts on my arms for about 2 days, whereas I’ve picked some local varieties that only sting for a couple of hours (but then also had numb fingers for a day or so from other local ones). The sting is harmless, albeit annoying, slightly painful, and often ugly. And it’s often useful, as I’ll explain shortly.

The medicinal properties of nettle are numerous and varied. To make things easier, I’ll split it into three parts- the leaf, seed and root.

Urtica spp: Nettle leaf

bitter, cold, dry, salty, astringent

Nettle leaf has been used as medicine for millenia. The most useful thing to remember about it is its high mineral content- according to Paul Bergner, “An ounce of nettles contains more than the minimum daily requirement of calcium, two-thirds of the requirement for magnesium,

and more than a third of the requirement for potassium.” Because of this it is unbelievably nutritious, and invaluable for deficient people, ex-vegetarians, current vegetarians, anemics, those experiencing adrenal fatigue, and a whole host of weakness-related issues. Think of how a deficient person would look- weak, pale and tired- and you have a pretty good picture for nettle infusions

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Other symptoms that fit this deficient picture are low blood pressure, chronic diarrhea (I’ve had no success using them for acute, and no opportunity to use them for chronic cases, so I cannot say whether I know this to be true or not), concentration issues, foggy head, hair loss, thin hair, lax tissues, swollen tongue and general tiredness and the feeling that one is dragging ones feet through life.

It it through this nutritive effect that nettle also acts as an alterative, and so is often used for ‘detoxification’. I like the appalachian description of ‘bad blood’, even though it technically has nothing to do with the blood- but bad blood is basically an accumulation of toxins in the extracellular fluids of the body. I picture the waterways of the body as being bogged down with crap: this is the kind of picture that alteratives are good for. Symptoms of bad blood can range from simple sluggishness to eczema, allergies, acne, constipation, swollen glands, tumours, foul discharges, arthritis, chronic fatigue, psychological imbalances.

Nettle acts on this extracellular fluid, helping the body remove waste products. Because of this it is also highly effective for gout- something I have had a few opportunities to try on people quite successfully (often combined with dandelion). And it’s also used frequently for asthma (I have not tried this yet though).

Another thing that nettle is great for is the hair. Rinsing the hair with nettle infusions strengthens the hair, and makes it thick and shiny. I’m too lazy to keep up with this on a regular basis but I do notice a nice difference when I do it for more than a week at a time, and have heard stories of amazing hair growth from nettle rinses.

Nettle seed

Nettle seeds are great for restoring worn out adrenals and kidneys. Many people find the fresh seeds too ‘speedy’. I don’t- I do find they give me an almost immediate energy boost though, and I can often plough through my afternoon required nap time if I’ve eaten a teaspoon or so of nettle seeds. Dried, they do not have this effect, and are a fantastic tonic. According to Kiva Rose, they promote “a sense of clarity, wellness, heightened energy levels, reduced stress and seemingly increased lung capacity” when eaten.

Nettle root

Nettle root has been used for edema, kidney and bladder infections, and recently has started to be used for BPH (swollen prostate). I haven’t had opportunity to try this, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Nettle sting

Flogging oneself with nettle leaves reportedly relieves arthritis pains. Nobody will try it- maybe if you get arthritis you can, and then let me know?

I’ve used the sting on burns, after cleverly searing my lower arm on hot oil, I’d just been reading about using urtica homeopathic for burns, so I ran out and flogged my arm with nettle leaves. I don’t necessarily recommend this at home- I think a vinegar compress would be less painful and heroic looking, but I tell ya. I was blistering, it looked bad, and after being covered in stings and welts, the blistering went away and the arm was just red for about an hour, and then that went away too. The welts stuck around for 2 days though…


Preparation and dosage:

Leaf: For the nutritive effects, nettle leaves are best eaten or taken in an infusion, though a tincture will work in a pinch. To make an infusion, put one cup of dried leaves in a quart jar. Top it up with boiling water and let it steep for at least 4 hours, then drink it over the course of a couple of days.  They need to be drank on a regular basis- so drinking it once won’t have the desired effect. Make drinking infusions a part of your daily routine (I often brew mine at night, and in the morning decant it into a giant water bottle that I tote around with me. People sometimes ask me what the hell is in my bottle. And sometimes I reply that it’s urine and walk off. Then they avoid me and I wonder why I have no friends *sigh*), and you’ll start to notice a difference in your energy levels. It could take a few days or a few weeks, everybody is different. By the way, if you hate the taste like I do, you can add some mint or ginger. I find that a tablespoon of mint makes them much more palatable.

Seed: You can make a seed tincture and it will work, but they’re really best just eaten plain. I really like the taste of them, especially fresh (picture a nut and a green thing had a baby), but many people don’t. I read a great way to get around that on The Herbwife’s Kitchen blog: grind up your nettle seeds with some salt, and throw the whole lot in a salt shaker. I keep my nettle salt on top of the stove and add them to almost everything I cook now. Dosage can be anything from a pinch to a tablespoon per day.

 

Cautions and contraindications:

Nettle leaf is a diuretic and can be highly drying, especially to those folks living in the Southwest deserty areas. Exercise caution if taking diuretic drugs. If you find them too drying you can add a pinch of licorice or mallow to your infusions.

Nettle seed can be too speedy for some. Start slow- with a tiny pinch- and work your way up to a dosage that suits you.

 

Sources:

Kiva Rose’s lovely monograph on urtica

Matthew Wood: The Earthwise Herbal (497)

The Herbwife’s Kitchen blog

Paul Bergner lecture notes

 

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Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

I have a thing for wild mushrooms. I’m pretty sure that everyone who is into foraging does. See, at least for me, they’re elusive. Earlier this year, I was out looking for chanterelles every day. I’d found them in this spot last year, so as far as I was concerned it was a no-brainer. Well, let me tell you. I found a whole bunch of plants that were very interesting (lemon balm gone feral- yes please!) but not a single chanterelle. For weeks.

And it can be treacherous business, shuffling through the trees like that. Jamie had brought me home this cat hat that I was completely in love with. I’d been wearing it everywhere. So I’m snuffling in the undergrowth with this cat hat on and the next thing I know there is a very big, very unleashed dog barking and running at me at full speed. I panicked. My feet wouldn’t move. When it was about 3 feet from me I yelled “DON’T BITE ME!” and it’s owner called it off, having not realised that there was a person in the woods. I don’t think my heart settled back down for about an hour. But I did find a mushroom that day.

And we have weird weather down here, and a weird climate, and so I just don’t know if we get the same mushrooms everyone else talks about. I’ve heard of a random patch of morels in a vacant lot in Culver City. I’ve heard of white boletes growing in the Sierras (a 4-5 hour drive), but wild mushrooms, save chanterelles when I can actually find them, evade me.

So I bought them at the market instead. A whole bag of mixed wild mushrooms. Jam gawked at the price. I gawked at the price. But we bought them anyway. And I’m so glad we did.

Mushroom soup, made with wild mushrooms, is unbelievable. It’s nothing like canned mushroom soup, and everything like a group of mushrooms are having a party on your tastebuds.

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

2 tb olive oil

2 tb butter

3 cloves garlic

2 cups various mushrooms (mine were a combo of hedgehogs, morels, black somethings and a few others I didn’t recognise), chopped. I used about 1 1/2 plus 1/2 cup rehydrated dried mushrooms.

2 tb herbs de provence (or a local herb mix of your choice :D)

2 cups chicken stock

1 tb arrowroot powder

1/2 cup white wine

1 cup water

1 cup heavy cream

chopped parsley

salt, pepper to taste

 

 

In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the butter and olive oil, and add the garlic. Add the mushrooms, salt, peper and herbs, and cover for five minutes or so, reduce the heat, and allow to ‘sweat’. Stir in the arrowroot and then the white wine. Simmer for a couple of minutes more, then add the stock and water. Cook for 15 minutes, until all the mushrooms are tender. Remove from heat and stir in the cream.

Using an immersion blender, blend until the mushrooms are in small pieces. Stir in the parsley, and serve.

 

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Blackberry-Elderflower Galettes

I will not complain about this weather.

I won’t. A month ago I wrote something on Facebook about how I hated the heat. How I was eating a watermelon in my underwear and sweating and was in a very very bad mood about the whole thing. Then a friend on the East coast said that she’d just had yet another snow storm. And I realised that I was being a brat. So I went out into the garden and lay out in my bikini and fell asleep at a weird angle and ended up with a red stripe down one half of the front of my body that looked more like a chemical burn than anything that could happen to someone who fell asleep in their garden. And then I went and got my hair cut and Casey brushed all the tiny bits of hair off my neck and I thought I was going to punch him in the face (raw neck + rough towel= pain). Hot weather puts me in a bad mood.

So I prayed for a cold front. And the cold front came. It’s been raining on and off ever since, and we’ve put the heating on three times. And my bones feel cold. And I will not complain.

Did you ever play those games when you were a kid. The ‘would you rather’ games. Where you’d ask yourself if you’d rather be too hot or too cold for the rest of your life? Someone once asked me if I’d rather go to the toilet out of my mouth or have my mouth look like a dog’s bottom. Really. I still think about it sometimes, and then, thankfully, remember that we don’t ACTUALLY have to make these decisions in life. Anyway, I choose cold. You can always turn the heating on or put on an extra layer of clothes. You can’t remove your skin to cool off. I’m sure that there are arguments for both sides, but I’ve always been a winter girl. I love the silence of it all, the solitude, the darkness and the depth. I love to ski. I love to look out over a white-washed landscape. I love snow days, even though grown-ups don’t get them. And in Southern California, I love standing on an empty, rainy beach, looking out to the stormy sea, while my skin is pink with cold and the water feels warm in comparison. Salt water splashing into my face never tastes so good as those winter days.

And maybe it’s because I moved to Southern California, where it’s summer that feels like death. Where the heat makes everything wither and die, but I dread the summer. Everything grinds to a halt, and the air hovers in that almost mirage-like cloud and the pavement feels like it’s going to crack to pieces like a dried up river bed. These last few days of spring, rain and freezing cold included, I want to savour for as long as possible. To sink into my sweaters and keep that extra blanket on the bed for as long as I can. Because I know what’s coming, and that I’ll hate it, and complain about it. Be warned, dear reader, the next few months of watermelon recipes will be accompanied by a subtle undertone of “whyyyy”, and you might start thinking me a little annoying. I promise I’ll come up with some good recipes to compensate.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe to help hold on to the spring.

Elderflower and Blackberry Galettes

1 portion tart crust

1 cup fresh elder flowers

1 cup heavy cream

3 tb sugar

1 egg

2 egg yolks

1/2 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp cornstarch

blackberries

 

Make the pastry and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours. Meanwhile, make the custard. Put the elderflowers in the cream, and heat to just below boiling. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Reheat, strain out the flowers, and pour the cream back in the pan. Add the sugar and vanilla. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl, then add a cup or so of the hot cream mixture and whisk it all together- then add the eggs back to the cream. Turn the heat on to medium, add the cornstarch, and heat the mixture gently, stirring constantly with a spatula so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom. When it starts to bubble, heat and stir for another minute or so, then remove from the heat. If it’s lumpy you can strain it, but I usually skip that step (More clean up? No thanks.). Allow to cool.

Roll out the pastry into a few large circles. Into the centre of each pastry circle, place about two tablespoons of the custard, then a handful of berries on top. Fold up the pastry around the mixture and transfer to a baking sheet. Do this with the remainder of the ingredients, then cook at 350 for about 30 minutes- or until the crust is golden brown and you cannot restrain yourself any longer. Serve with cream.

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Salted chocolate cake

It was Simon’s birthday. But when I found out that it was actually on Monday and not next month like Jamie said, I went into panic mode because I couldn’t find what I wanted to get him anywhere.

And it would have been a really cool present. He spends most of his life traveling around. Every summer he usually decides that he’s moving to LA for good, and by December he is sick of LA and moving back to Europe. Every time he moves back to LA, he stays with us until he can find an apartment. And this was when I discovered that he likes girly smelly stuff. Because I walked into the bathroom one day and the air smelled like Origins ‘Jump Start’ shower gel. I mean, it’s not weird. Just because it smells like flowers, it’s not like it’s women’s UNDERWEAR or anything. But he’s such a manly guy that I was confused. I called Alysa who was my boss at Origins when I worked there. “Oh yeah,” she said, “the guys loved that stuff– they’d find something they like and wouldn’t care if it was for chicks, they would buy it every month for years on end. Girls are way more fickle than that.”

I went to Origins to buy some for him. But it turns out they’ve stopped making it. I scoured Ebay to no avail and, while I was sitting in a dejected state, Simon mentioned the best chocolate cake he’d ever had, in New York. A salty chocolate cake, he said. One that he’s thought about for years since first having it. The best cake in the entire world.

And then I thought that maybe a salty chocolate cake would be cheaper and easier to find than a discontinued product. Plus, if I made it good enough then I could replace the ‘best cake in the world’ (*snort*) with MY cake and then I’d be the best cake-maker in the world and then maybe I could sleep at night in complete contentment.

The recipe is barely adapted from Saveur (maybe they are the best cake-makers in the world instead). It’s a chocolate cake that only has 2 tb of flour, so it’s dense, like a baked chocolate mousse. I made a salted caramel custard to pour over the top, but I’m sure cream would be almost as fine if you’re feeling lazy.

Please excuse my atrocious photos- I couldn’t think of a single way to make brown cake and brown sauce look good late at night after a beer and a half. I regret it now. But you can pretend that it’s gorgeous, for me, please.

 

Chocolate cake with salted caramel custard

For the cake:

14 1/2 tb high fat butter (I use Kerrygold)

3 tb flour (I use 3 tb gluten free flour blend + 1/2 tsp baking powder)

7oz bittersweet chocolate

2/3 cup sugar

5 eggs, separated

1/2 tsp vanilla

black salt (or any rock salt) for sprinkling on top

 

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9″ cake pan, and dust with flour.

In a heavy-bottomed pan, over low heat, melt the butter and chocolate together. When melted, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, sugar and egg yolks.

Whisk the egg whites to stiff-peaks, and then gently fold into the chocolate mixture. Pour into the cake pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

Remove from the oven, and put on a rack to cool. Sprinkle with salt while it’s still warm, if you’re going to do that.

 

For the custard (which can be made while the cake is baking):

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

3 tb butter

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups cream

1/2 tb salt

 

In a saucepan, heat the sugar until it melts. This could take up to ten minutes. Stir frequently and keep heating until it turns golden caramel colour, and starts to smoke slightly. Immediately turn off the heat, add the salt and butter. It’ll bubble like crazy. Don’t worry, keep stirring. Add the cream. The caramel might harden, it’s ok- keep stirring. If the caramel stays hard, then turn the heat back on and heat gently until it’s melted.

Next, beat the eggs and egg yolks in a separate bowl, and add a cup or so of the caramel mixture, mix it together, then pour it all back into the saucepan together. Turn the heat back on, and heat gently, stirring constantly, until it forms a custard consistency. If not using immediately, it can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

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Wild things in May: Elder Flowers

Our Wild Thing for the month of May is the lovely, faerie-like elder flower. Now, I’ve never actually cooked with them, so this is going to be a fun adventure…

Look on almost any roadside in the late Spring, and you’re sure to see an elder bush. They’re ubiquitous in the US and in Europe, and when I was wandering around India I saw them everywhere too. Medicinally, they’re one of the most useful plants to have around, so it’s probably a good thing that they’re everywhere. Of the plant, Culpepper says “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder”, but he wrote that a few hundred years ago, and although I’d love to assume that everyone knows what elder looks like, if you don’t, hop on over to Hunger and Thirst where the lovely and talented Butter has given a great guide to finding and identifying it.

Although elder grows everywhere in the UK (and is a mythical plant that is very much tied to British folklore) I wasn’t really introduced to it until I started studying with Kiva (who is more than a bit infatuated with it). Once I started looking for it, I saw it everywhere. On roadsides, in the woods, hanging on the edges of cliffs, and across the street from the beach all the way through Malibu. In fact elder berries were the first medicinal thing that I harvested from the wild. It introduced me to a new world. And so it’s kinda fitting that elder is steeped in mythology about being on the border of different worlds…

Medicinally, this plant is an entire pharmacopeia in itself. The flowers, berries, leaves and bark are all usable, though I have the most experience with the first two.

Note: use black elder. I have never seen or used red elder, but it is toxic. I think that the only difference is the colour of the berries, so if you’re not sure, wait until it fruits.

Sambucus nigra spp.  (here we use S. Mexicana).

Energetics: Cooling. Drying.

Elder flowers always make me think of the skin. I think this is because they are such a good diaphoretic, bringing circulation and moisture to the surface of the skin, but also because they have many uses in folk medicine as a skin or eye wash. According to Matthew Wood, the flowers are a diaphoretic that bring “the blood to the surface, strengthening the periphery, and bringing forth a sweat in pale, bluish persons with weak peripheral circulation.”

And indeed you can see that blueish tinge on some peoples’ skin- especially on the inner arms and legs, but when it’s really pronounced it shows on the face too. Wood goes so far as to say that when you see a mottled blue effect on the skin it’s an indication for elder berries, no matter what the symptoms are.

But back to the flowers.

It is a relaxing diaphoretic- relaxing the surface tension to open the pores of the skin, to cause sweating and release of heat. Think of it like venting a house that is too hot- you need to open the windows. This relaxing aspect of it also makes it suitable in situations where there are muscle spasms and coughs, especially as it has a slight expectorant effect too. So it’s perfect for use in fevers that have respiratory or sinus issues.

For the immune system, elder is fantastic- both as an immunomodulator and as an anti-viral.

Elder flowers clear heat and soothe inflammation- especially in those with fever and hot-type skin rashes who don’t sweat very easily. It’s also great externally on skin issues like rashes and acne, and also on hot dry irritated eyes as an eye wash.

 

Personal experience:

Like most people who use elder for colds and flus, I’ve seen it reduce the length of these things dramatically. It’s usually the first thing I reach for whenever I see somebody with a compromised immune system for that reason.

I’ve given elderflower to people for skin issues before, but the most dramatic experience I’ve had was actually with myself. I get these weird heat rashes on the front of my arms from time to time when I get really hot or stressed out. A few months ago it started to look like eczema or something- flaky and dry, but an angry fiery red. It was itchy, and it sure looked nasty. I was chatting to a naturopath friend who took a look at it and said “that’s ringworm, for sure, you need to go and get anti-fungals or it’ll spread everywhere”. I wasn’t 100% convinced. Not because it was unlikely– I mean I have a cat who I sleep with every night, and nap with in the afternoons– but because it just didn’t strike me as fungal. That and I share a bed with someone who is rash-less, and do yoga with it 6 days a week and it still hadn’t spread. But I figured that a naturopath probably knows better, and so I tried a herbal anti-fungal mix. By day 2 the rash looked even more red and angry, and started weeping and getting crusty. I know that it’s really common in heroic circles to say “it’s going to get better before it gets worse” and refer to healing crises and such. But this wasn’t getting better, it was being aggravated. So I changed tactics, figuring that I was burning up inside and didn’t have any real outlet for that heat, since I don’t sweat too much. I took a combination of elder flower (2 parts), sage (1 part) and burdock seed (1/2 part), and bathed it in cold elder flower tea. It was gone in 4 days.

 

Formulas:

For use as a diaphoretic, I’ll combine it with either stimulating or relaxing diaphoretics depending on what’s needed. If the patient is chilly and the fever hasn’t quite gotten going yet then they need warming up in the middle (stimulation) so throw in a bit of  ginger, garlic honey, thyme, cinnamon, or orange peel, to get the body to heat up some more. If there is already a strong fever, I’ll use relaxing diaphoretics to cause the pores to open to let sweat out. Mint, sage, yarrow, and bee balm all work great.

For the immune system in general, I make an elixir of elder flowers and berries, throwing in other herbs depending on what’s most prevalent- for example this year there’s tons of respiratory stuff going around, so my last few batches have had mullein and licorice, but really it all depends on where you are and what’s going on. If I lived in the north East and had more moist boggy cold stuff going on, I’d use more ginger and thyme. I’m out on the edge of a desert, so I usually have cooling and moistening things like marshmallow and licorice. Play around, or just use elder flowers and berries- you really can’t go wrong with these two on their own as they’re so powerful (and yet gentle enough for kiddies).

For hot, dry skin issues, you can make a strong infusion of the dried flowers (I use 1:2 volume), either on their own or with some rose petals or leaves, wait for it to cool, then strain and just sponge it on, or put it in a spray bottle and use as a mist. Same goes for the eye wash, though I find it easier to just soak a cotton ball in the infusion and drip it into my eye, than mess around with eye cups or droppers.

 

Sources:

Kiva Rose’s fantastic monograph on elder

Jim McDonald’s fantastic monograph on elder

Matthew Wood’s “The Earthwise Herbal”