pomegranate molasses

Pomegranate Molasses

I’ve been thinking a lot about synergy lately. You know, how an apple is fantastic on its own but then you combine it with blackberries and a crumble topping and all of a sudden its elevated to new heights. Or turmeric, on its own is a fantastic anti-inflammatory and liver repairing herb but then if you add black pepper then all kinds of magical things happen and your body uses more of the turmeric. Or in people– I’m pretty cool on my own, but when I’m with Jam I’m slightly more adventurous and less stubborn. This is a good thing. Synergy. In some cases, things or people are fine as they are, but every now and then something comes along that helps it reach its potential.

Take pomegranates, for example. On Wednesday I was handed a big bag of pomegranates. I ate one right there, peeling off the thick skin with my fingers, and burying my face in it, pulling out the fruity seeds with my teeth. I walked around with a red mouth and nose and chin for hours before seeing myself in a mirror. And that was about it for pomegranates, for me– they’re not really the kinds of things I go out of my way to eat a million of when they’re in season (unlike peaches or apples or lemons).

I’ve been reading Ken Albala‘s new book The Lost Arts of Hearth & Home: The Happy Luddite’s Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency. It’s a good, solid book. One that you can open to any chapter and read for a bit and have something to think about or to want to experiment with, which is what happened when I turned to the Pomegranate Molasses section. He doesn’t write recipes so much as guides, which is good because that’s generally how I interpret recipes anyway. And this guide was pretty simple: peel the pomegranate, put all the seeds in a pot, add some vanilla, some sugar, then boil down for a few hours, straining the seeds out somewhere in the middle.

The most tedious part of this process is the peeling of the pomegranates, something which, if facing a big bag full, can be somewhat daunting. I have advice: put on a movie, take pot, bag of pomegranates and a bowl for the peels to the floor in front of TV (or computer in my case), take your time. I have another piece of advice: save the peels. Chop them up into small pieces, lay them out on paper or basket until they’re totally dry, then put them in a jar with a label: POMEGRANATE PEELS: MAKE TEA FOR DIARRHEA. Because these things happen, and it’s good to be prepared…

After 3 hours you’ll have a thick, gooey, dark dark red syrup. It’s tangy and sweet and fruity and everything a pomegranate should be. You can use it in Moroccan foods, in stews as a tangy flavouring, on meats (chicken= good), drizzled over yogurt or ice cream. Endless possibilities. As far as I’m concerned, this is synergy at its best: fire, vanilla and a bit of sugar have brought out the best possible qualities of the pomegranate. It may have reached its potential. And isn’t that all any of us could ever wish for?

A note on the sheer inconvenience of peeling so many pomegranates to get so little molasses at the end and why can’t you just use bottled pomegranate juice from the store: If you are gifted a big bag of pomegranates, it’d be cruel to let them go to waste. If you’re going to go and buy pomegranates to make this, I’d just skip the peeling part entirely and use bottled juice. Try 1 tb sugar to each cup of juice.

Pomegranate Molasses

Keep in mind that these measurements are approximate- thus, if you only end up with 3/4 quart of pomegranate seeds, just go with it, reduce the amount of sugar slightly.

1 quart pomegranate seeds

2 tb sugar

1/2 vanilla bean

Put everything in a pot and bring to low heat. In a while there’ll be some liquid there. Keep cooking it till there’s lots of liquid, and then, using a food mill or a sieve and a wooden spoon, strain out all the juice, extracting as much of the flesh as you can from the seeds. Extract the vanilla bean and throw it in with the liquid. Return to the heat. There’ll be a dramatic reduction in volume and you’ll want to cry after spending so long peeling the damn things. Its ok- you don’t use very much of it at a time. Keep on very low heat for 2-3 hours, until its reduced to a thick thick syrup. Taste it. Tangy and delicious? You has molasses. Put in a jar and keep in the fridge.

Hawthornrose

Hawthorn & Rose Turkish Delights

I find this time of year to be a bit like a wave: if you fight it, you go down, most uncomfortably.

Everything is shifting. The air has started to fall. The euphoria of summer has been replaced by what, to some can feel like a vague discomfort, and to others outright melancholia.

Some people don’t have time to feel funny. These are usually the people who get their taxes paid long in advance, who know exactly how they feel about any given issue, and feel comfort in that position. They are the types who, on walking from point A to point B, will actually make it to point B at a predictable time. I’m not one of these people (though I often wish I were), and if you’re feeling funny at this time of year, I’d venture a guess that you’re not one of these people either. We oddballs, on walking from point A to point B will feel a change in the air and stop to observe it. We are the types who notice the way light hits things and the sound of the wind running through things. Honestly, all people have aspects of both, and I think we should be capable of both (and my very odd, point A->B brother would likely argue that paying taxes on time and being odd are not remotely connected), but we often tend towards one or another and, well, for the record I have never done my taxes long in advance. Which brings me back to the fall, and the air, and this time of year in general.

Some people like to say that the ‘veil is thinning’. I think that’s a beautiful and poetic way to describe it. I see it as what is hidden becoming un-hidden; some people talk about the spirit world at this time of year and yes, that has a lot to do with it, but it’s much much more than that too. This is the time of year that we become aware of what’s under the surface. Of what lies just outside our reach and our understanding. And that can be deeply, deeply unsettling. Combine that with the sudden and dramatic reduction of daylight hours, cloudcover, rain and chill. Combine that still with the falling of leaves, the rotting of leaves, and the general direction of everything heading into the ground: everything in the world points towards the one thing we never ever want to think of (death). Yes, those of us who are marching from point A (summer) to point B (the holiday season) are stopping and noticing that orange-yellow light and that slight waviness in the air and thinking ‘wait, what IS that?’. Like a wisp, just beyond our reach, there is a world of mystery out there- things far beyond our comprehension. Not knowing is scary. Not understanding is scary. And like normal human beings we dig our feet in.

Which brings me back to waves. Ride it, my friends, just ride it. Understand that it’s strange, and that everything is falling and that leaves are rotting. Understand what this means for us, too, and everything and everyone we know. Understand that its a part of a cycle, and that we are a very very small part of it. And understand that all we can do as tiny tiny pieces of a big and beautiful picture is to marvel at its intricate and delicate beauty, and if we’re lucky, maybe get to point B.

And as for the journey, hawthorn can help, pretty dramatically. It’s that fear of the unknown combined with a vague sense of melancholy that makes it spectacular. Long heralded as an aid for journeys into faerie land (you know, back in the times when people *ahem* actually believed in these things), it’s that dreaminess that makes it so spectacular during this time of year. You see its already there anyway. It’s like getting to an otherworld party a few hours late and everybody already knows each other and you just feel like standing at the edge of the room smiling at strangers who are all dressed a bit strangely and hoping that somebody comes to talk to you (or maybe hoping that nobody at all comes to talk to you), until a beautiful woman in a red dress and striped stockings separates herself from a large laughing group, sashays over with a mysterious smile, grabs your hand and says ‘come on, I’ll introduce you to everyone.’ Friends, meet Hawthorn.

A note on Turkish delights: There must have been an advert some time before I was born that depicted Turkish delights as something exotic and glamourous. I discovered this one day while hiking with my sister in law, when we found that our mothers both made the exact same facial expression when discussing them. Eyes half closed, gaze somewhere else, posture all of a sudden remniscent of somebody in a genie-costume laying on a chaise-lounge. For some reason this made me ridiculously happy. If anybody knows what this advert is, I’d love to know :).

Hawthorn & Rose Turkish Delights

Makes, well, a lot… any leftovers will be great gifts.

4 cups sugar

4.5 cups strained hawthorn decoction (boil about a cup of hawthorn berries in 5.5 cups water for 20 minutes, until the water is dark- strain. If too much, drink the rest; if not enough just add a bit more water)

2 tsp lemon juice

1 cup cornstarch

1tsp cream of tartar

2 tb rosewater

(2 tsp hawthorn (leaf berry or flower) elixir, if you have it)

(2 tsp rose elixir, if you have it)

extra cornstarch combined with icing/confectioners sugar, for sprinkling and dusting

 

Combine half the decoction (you can eyeball it) with the sugar and lemon juice, and heat them up in a bit pot, until its at a rolling boil. Boil it continuously for about 3 minutes. If you have a candy thermometer, look for 240, but if not then 3 minutes should suffice nicely.

Meanwhile, add the cornstarch and cream of tartar to the rest of the hawthorn decoction. Whisk it all together until the cornstarch mixture has no lumps left, then heat it up until its boiling. It’ll bubble away and get quite thick.

When the cornstarch mixture is thick like custard, remove from the heat and slowly, steadily, carefully pour the sugar mixture into the cornstarch mixture, whisking continuously (having a helper is good, as is a Kitchen Aid or something similar, so that you can whisk it steadily. If you can’t, no biggie- you might get lumps. And if you get lumps, no biggie- throw it all in the blender for a minute or so). Now you have everything but the rosewater combined in one pot. Put it back on a low heat for an hour, giving it a stir every ten minutes or so. It’ll bubble and get thick. This is good.

Meanwhile, get your molds going. Any kind of square container will do- I used square jar lids (I store rice and polenta in them), but you can use square tupperwares if they’ve a flat bottom or a square baking dish, or, get creative). You can line the dish with plastic wrap, which will make removal much easier (for the record, I did not, as I am lazy, and I had no problems whatsoever). Using a sieve, dust the bottoms and sides of your containers with the cornstarch-icing sugar combination, then leave them to wait.

After an hour, remove your Turkish delights from the heat and stir in the rosewater. Taste it (careful, it’s very hot). It should be very rosy, with a hint of hawthorn. If you have the medicinal elixirs, at this point, add them and stir in- they’ll contribute to the flavour but also ramp up the medicinal quotient to make these sweets very dreamy indeed. If you don’t, it’s not a big deal, they’ll still be delicious and the hawthorn and rose combination will still be there. Pour the hot mixture into the molds, about 3/4 inch high. Smooth the surfaces, then place them in the fridge, uncovered, to cool.

When cool, turn them out onto a cornstarch/icing sugared countertop, and slice into cubes. Or rectangles. Dust them all with the cornstarch/icing sugar. They’ll keep in airtight containers for weeks, but I bet they won’t last that long…

(I’ve shared this post at the Wild Things Roundup over at Hunger and Thirst. Check it out here.)

applerosemary

Apple-rosemary coffee cake

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” (Hamlet, iv. 5.)

Rosemary divides people. Not quite like cilantro does (word on the street is that some peoples’ taste buds are *different* and that cilantro tastes like soap to them), but still, if you say the word ‘rosemary’ there is a group of people (I call them, originally enough, ‘rosemary people’) who’s eyes will light up and they’ll say ‘oh I LOVE rosemary!’ Rosemary people. Often sweet of voice and soft of face. Often dreamy-eyed, and slightly sluggish. Look for a slightly grey tinge in the skin (this is often more of an intuitive thing), or a general feeling of ‘blah’ and lack of movement. Or look for signs of bad circulation and coldness combined with liver stagnation- moodiness, crampiness, bursting into tears for no apparent reason, blueish fingers and toes, trouble digesting meats and fats, hardness, coldness, being overwhelmed by inertia easily and often.

Rosemary people love rosemary because it gets things moving. I like to liken it to a little old Italian grandma with her hair pulled back tight and a broom in her hand. She’ll smack you on the butt then sweep out the cobwebs in all the corners before you knew what hit you. There’s also the common phrase ‘rosemary for remembrance’ and, while it’s actually referring to remembrance of the dead, there’s actually something to rosemary’s ability to help folks remember anything. Think of that little old broom-wielding Italian lady, and now think of your foggy, sluggish brain, and how much better it’d function if someone beat out all the dust and crud. Yep. Rosemary for remembrance, indeed.

I’ve made this cake three times now. Twice at home, then once when I arrived in Palm Desert this last weekend to stay at my friend Alysa’s house- I thought it’d be a nice thing for her to come home to after a long day at work. The flavour, my friends, will woo you from the get-go. The sprigs on top are important- as the cake cooks, the aromatic oils from the rosemary will seep into the crust.

A note about using gluten free flour: depending on what mix you use, this cake could end up very dense. I used a boxed cake flour for my third version and, while it was springy enough fresh out the oven, by the next night it was like a brick. My recommendation (as discovered by the genius Alysa) is to toast slices of this day old brick-cake, and slather it with butter. Not only will you get your butter rations for the week in one dose (hooray for healthy fats!) but the rosemary in the cake will help you digest it!

Rosemary Apple cake

Adapted loosely from Nigella’s Rosemary Remembrance Cake recipe

For the apple mush:

2 apples, peeled, cored, chopped into wee chunks

2 sprigs rosemary for flavour, plus another bunch for decoration

1 tsp sugar

 For the cake: 

2 sticks butter

3/4 cup sugar (I use sucanat)

2 cups flour (I use gluten free all purpose plus 1 tsp extra baking powder)

1 tsp vanilla

3 eggs

2 tsp baking powder

 

Method:

Preheat the oven to 325F.

In a pot on the stove, simmer one chopped apple with a teaspoon of sugar, the rosemary, and about 1/4 cup water, with the lid on, for about 8 minutes. The apple will become mush. This is good.

Meanwhile, in a mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Throw in the sugar, and keep beating, then the eggs, one by one. Next add the vanilla, and then the apple mush mixture. Then, in three parts, on a slow setting, add the flour and baking powder. When its incorporated, spoon into either individual muffin tins or a loaf pan, or, in my case, a cast iron pan. Make sure this pan is well-greased with butter.

Before cooking, decorate the top with sprigs of rosemary. In the case of the muffins, I found it easier to de-stem the rosemary and just sprinkle it on top.

Cook for 35 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean, and the tops are golden brown. Tastes best on the first day.

 

 

 

 

opuntia texan

Prickly Pear Margarita

(a guest post for the Wild Things Roundup)

Greetings, readers! Today we have a guest post, from the lovely Katelyn Bradwell in Dallas, Texas. We were chatting on Facebook and she mentioned that she was sipping a prickly pear margarita. Of course I was so excited that I demanded she write a guest post on the subject immediately. I figured it’d also be nice to get a perspective from somewhere other than Southern California for once. Which brings me to my next point: if you’d like to write a guest post about something wild and wonderful from your area, shoot me an email. I’d love to hear more about the flavours that mark your little corner of the world.  And now, here’s Katelyn:

Prickly Pear Margaritas

I was sipping a prickly pear margarita on the front porch, listening to the pouring rain beat out a quick rhythm on the roof. It was one of those evenings– suspended between the details of today, and the worries of tomorrow, and also suspended between Summer and Autumn, on the cusp of a few things at once. You could feel it. And you could tell the summer was ending. Here in Texas, with the onset of the monsoons, the tunas (the fruits of the prickly pear) begin growing. By the time the last ones ripen into that deep red and purple color, it is Fall.  Their ripening heralds the season change, and also my very favorite time of year– impromptu porch party time– when it is still warm, but cool enough to enjoy the evenings. When the plants return to life, springing from their summer dormancy with vigor and joy, and when new resident plants are welcomed into my garden. And also when the humans begin to step out of their air-conditioned hibernation to enjoy nature and neighbors once more. Friends show up unannounced and welcome, and I just happen to have enough margarita left over in my makeshift cocktail shaker to share. We stay up chatting, and laughing, and enjoying the perfect night, until way too late. Because where most of the Northern hemisphere is beginning to bunk down for a long winter, in Texas, Fall is our Spring; the rush of life is renewed. Plants grow, ripen, and set seed, in a chaotic rush before Winter arrives. The excitement is tangible, and these little exuberant fruits embody that completely.

You can’t help but notice prickly pear fruits. They beckon from locations as varied as the median of a massive highway in central Dallas, to front yards, parks and empty abandoned fields. Every time I slice one of the fruits open I’m struck by the depth of colour– it reminds me of stained glass windows in a cathedral. When cooking with tunas, I like to make things that highlight that color. And prickly pear infused margaritas do just that. They are also perfect for impromptu porch parties.  The flavor is light, and reminiscent of a floral, citrussy cucumber; combined with lime and tequila tunas are really at their best.

I always play a bit with proportions of this recipe at the end, adding a bit more of this or that, to taste. It is a fairly basic margarita; tequila, triple sec, lime juice, and simple syrup. I infuse the tunas into both the tequila and simple syrup to make sure the flavor really comes through.

A word of warning: try not to get so distracted by the splendor of the fruit that you are caught by the invisible glochid monster (the tiny, ever-present prickly and painful hairs on the skin of the fruit). Harvest with tongs and a knife, handle with tongs or gloves, and even after you think the glochids are gone, still handle with care. I personally have had too many run-ins with evil glochids already. They hurt and are annoyingly difficult to retrieve from your fingers. A plantain (plantago spp.) spit poultice can help if you do get stuck.

Prickly Pear Margarita

Adapted from Emeril Lagasse

2 ounces Prickly Pear Infused Tequila

2 ounces Prickly Pear Syrup

1 ½ ounces Fresh Lime Juice

½ ounce Triple Sec

Turbinado Sugar (for making the syrup and garnishing glasses)

 

To make the infused tequila:

Burn the glochids (invisible, evil, painful, tiny spine-like hairs of the prickly pear) off by holding the fruit over a flame on the stove-top, rotating to expose all sides to the flame. This doesn’t take long, and you can hear them sizzle and occasionally see one explode in a little mini-flash, which will keep you entertained during the process. Cut your tunas in quarters and fill a glass jar loosely (any size jar will do, depending on how much tequila you want), leaving a bit of space at the top, and then fill again with a fine tequila of your choosing (use 100% agave tequila). Infuse for 2-5 days, shaking occasionally. I find longer than that isn’t necessary: the fruit begins to fall apart and has lost most of it’s color by day 5.

If you need it quicker than that, no problem. Cut very ripe tunas in half lengthwise, and scoop the fruit out of the skin with a spoon or knife. Chop roughly. Fill your jar about 70% full with the chopped, skinned tunas, and then fill with tequila. Shake it up a bunch. Smash the fruit up with the spoon a bit a few times. Your tequila will be ready in 12-24 hours. Shake whenever you think of it.

When finished strain through a sieve or cheesecloth.

 

To make the simple syrup:

Cut 4 large tunas in half lengthwise and scoop the fruit from the skins with a spoon or knife. Cut each tuna into a few pieces. Then combine the fruits with 2 cups water and 1 cup turbinado sugar in a medium pan. Stir well and simmer over low-medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Strain fruit through a sieve and press the fruit well through the screen, leaving seeds behind. I use more water than a traditional simple syrup calls for because the tunas are quite mucilaginous, and this thickens the syrup a bit, and also because too much sweetness can overpower the unique tart flavors that are the signature of this drink.

 

To make the margarita:

If you have a cocktail shaker, use it. I just toss it all in a clean mason jar, and shake away. Lightly dust a plate with turbinado sugar (with a pinch of cayenne, if you’re adventurous), and put some lime juice in a saucer. Dip the rim of your glass in the lime juice, and then the sugar. Add ice, and pour your margarita from the shaker to the glass. Garnish with a lime. And cheers to the fall-spring!

hawthorn rose syrup

Spiced Hawthorn-rose syrup

Photos by Marcia Coppess

Two wonderful things happened in the last month, and they both occurred over the same weekend. The first was the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference. I’m sure if you’re up to date with my ramblings on Facebook you got sick of reading about it. A 3-day weekend gathering of Herbalists from all over the country (and beyond) in the mountains of Arizona. You might be picturing a bunch of long flowy-tie dye dresses and long hugs, but let me tell you folks, herbalists really know how to party. After days of classes, plant walks, interesting conversation, night descends and the bands roll in and the dancing starts. Herbalists, so used to being looked at strangely anyway (really, who else would stop and pet a tree in the middle of a city?), often lack the inhibitory function that prevents people from trying to embarrass themselves in public. In other words, when it comes to dancing, we just do it however we want to. Which turns out to be really fun, especially when people are handing around their home made infused concoctions. We danced late into the night, then woke up early for more classes. Classes on things like the Greek system, on Seizure disorders, on drug-herb interactions, on the chakra-endocrine link, on specific medicines, on aphrodesiacs.

Photo by Rosalee De La Foret

There was a marketplace where those of us vending set up our wares, where I met a bunch of really amazing people doing truly original things: Mountain Rose Herbs (which, if you don’t know about, you really should as their prices and quality are amazing); Learning Herbs (which, if you want to learn about herbalism this is surely the place to go. And also, I *may* have been interviewed for Herb Mentor Radio next month in the first ever interview done over a drink.); Blue Turtle Botanicals (which, if you don’t know Darcey and her fine creations then you are surely missing out); Super Salve Co (I may have spent a small fortune on face creams and masks); Winter Sun Trading Co (Turquoise earrings, juniper beads, magical Arizona herbalist who’s been in practice forEVER). I was hawking my wares- some hand made incense blends, some local flower elixirs and pine pitch salves and various things that are Southwest-ish. I may have sold out of almost everything within 24 hours (A few things back up in my Poppyswap shop HERE). It was wonderful to get to hang out with friends (like Rosalee, and Holly and Stephany and Kiva and Renee), learn as much as one can stuff in a rusty brain as possible, and dance, and dance, and dance…

Photos by Stephany Hoffett

The second good thing that happened to me was Lisa Rose Starner and her answering of a ‘hawthorn’ cry that went out on the interwebs. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and gathered a coupla bags of hawthorn berries for me before she flew out. Friends, when you’re as obsessed with these little faerie plants as I am, and someone you don’t get to hang out with nearly often enough brings you a bag of them, you might get a little teary. I’m not saying its, like, a requirement, but am warning you that it could happen.

And when it does happen (because, come on, we all get overwhelmed with joy about some things), the best thing to do is to sit and stare at them for hours, trying to decide what to do with them. And then upon realising that if you don’t use them they’ll just dry up and become like all the other hawthorn berries you have, you’ll leap into action, becoming a whir of flailing arms and cinnamon dust and droplets of spiced rum.

And when you’re done, and the smoke clears and the limbs settle, you’ll be left with this. Which, when it comes down to it, is as pretty darn perfect as a summer-fall syrup can get. Spicy, from the rum, sweet from the sugar and the hawthorn, tangy from the rosehips and lemon. As for what to do with it: drizzle it over pound cake, or add it to sparkling water with a dollop of cream (what I was drinking all day yesterday), over late-season peaches, or in a heart-healthy cocktail. In a cup of hot tea for a crying friend, or in your mouth directly for a broken heart. And what it does? Oh you guys… there are a million things one could say about hawthorn. Check out those links, and let it suffice for me to say right now that, when I describe it to clients, I describe it as a strong hand at the back of your ribcage, right behind where your heart sits in your chest cavity. Physically, it strengthens the heart and circulation, but emotionally, it provides that strength that one needs to face the world open-eyed, open-hearted and a little more awe-struck than usual.

Hawthorn-rose spiced syrup. 

2 cups hawthorn berries

1/2 cup rosehips

4 cups water

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp cardamom

2 cups sugar

1 cup spiced rum

juice of one lemon

Put everything but the rum, lemon and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for an hour, then leave to stand for another 2 hours. Remove from the heat, strain out all the plant bits, stir in the sugar and lemon. You might need to heat it again to dissolve it- that’s ok. Taste. It should be sweet, slightly tangy, a bit thick. Stir in the rum. Bottle and label (seriously- label it, otherwise in a month you’ll be like ‘what the hell is this again?’ and it’ll never get used).

 

PS. For another great write up of the conference, check out Stephany’s blog here.

 

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.

Neruda Ode to enchanted light

Ode to enchanted light

(A recipe for acorn scones to welcome, nay, hurry the turn of the seasons)

A few days ago, I was sitting watching the light change when it struck me that the seasons are turning. The weather doesn’t agree: it’s still in the 80′s, I’m still sleeping with the covers cast off to the side, and my shoulders haven’t seen a sweater in weeks. But the air, you guys, the air is saying something different. I imagine sometimes that the air is filled with tiny little light particles, and that they all dance in a certain direction. In spring, they start to wiggle, moving up, slowly at first, as if they are taking a while to wake up, and then quicker and quicker, as summer approaches. By summer, everything is in full fervent swing. The bugs mirror the pace: frantic, ecstatic. The leaves reach skyward with such power and speed (as they were born to reach these great heights and they know what’s coming). For a second they hover in the air, suspended, weightless, and then, one by one, the particles start to fall. Slowly. Like feathers, in space. Slowly, like slipping into a dream.

I live for this time of year. Without a doubt. The light looks different during the summer. I await those 30 seconds of perfect hued morning light as the sun comes up and hits the tree in the front garden. But its coming, you guys, it’s coming. Soon the air will grow thin. Soon the acorns will be ripe. Soon the leaves will fall. Soon everything will be suspended halfway between waking and dreaming.

Of course, its still hot. Weather hasn’t caught the memo. Nature is bureaucratic, it seems, and these changes take a while to implement.

But looking at the light changing. Looking at the dust falling. Feeling that downward pull beginning, I can tell you that it’s not long off. Savour the summer while you can; though I couldn’t be more delighted.

Acorn scones.

These are really easy and quick to make. No fancy equipment needed. If you don’t have access to acorn flour (I bought mine at the Korean market because my supplies are done until Autumn), then try chestnut, almond, hazelnut, or just use regular flour.

makes 12

2 1/2 cups gluten free flour (or regular if you don’t need gluten free, just halve the amount of baking powder and remove the xanthan gum)

4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp xanthan gum

1 cup acorn flour

1 stick butter

1/2 cup sugar (scant)

1/2-1 cup buttermilk (start with 1/2 and keep adding till its the right consistency)

Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut the butter into chunks, and mix in with your hands, pinching it together, as you would with pastry, until the whole lot has a kinda course sandy consistency. Slowly add the buttermilk, a quarter cup at a time, mixing it all together with your hands until it forms a smooth dough.

Press the dough into an inch-high disk, and cut out scone shapes (I used a small mason jar, you can use whatever you like). Brush the top with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

They’re best eaten warm out the oven but will last a few days until they just don’t have a good consistency anymore.

Cut in half, spread with butter, then a dollop of clotted cream (which is really hard to find in the US- I use creme fraiche or whipped cream) and jam.

basil 2

Santa Rosa Plum and Basil Jam

(…on basil. and India. and opening.)

Lots of things are sacred in India. Cows are sacred, milk is sacred, moments are sacred, life is sacred, and basil, most definitely, is considered sacred. The most potent varieties are referred to as ‘holy basil’, and a Hindu household is considered incomplete without a little plant somewhere. I cannot speak to the historical reasons for such a thing, but if the overall personality of the plant is anything to go by, it’s understandable. Basil is, simply put, opening and uplifting. It blasts things open, air passages, neurons, muscle fibers, digestive tracts, blockages. While all herbs by nature have more than just a physical effect, basil is one of those herbs that affects the higher reaches of the nervous system. In plain English, it can light up the synapses in your brain. In plainer English, basil opens passages you didn’t even know were stuck, and over time you will start to feel lighter, more connected to the world around you, and unreasonably content about it all. The Indian varieties (though technically basil is all native to India) are strong indeed, but garden basil opens things too, and it’s easy to come by.

A hot cup of basil tea can dispel the winter blues, or help you focus to study. It can wake you up in the morning, and help you sleep at night. Let the cup warm your hands and inhale the steam and it’ll wake up your senses. Throw in rose petals and a sprig of lavender for more happy, or mint and sage to aid digestion. The steam rising up out of a pot bubbling with basil leaves will do the same if you close your eyes and breathe deeply. It’s a subtle thing, these plants. You won’t get hit over the head by them (often), but they do work, gently and carefully, in a way that you won’t notice until its happened. Basil in a foot bath will warm your extremities and make you happy for no apparent reason. Throw in some rosemary to increase circulation and wake you up, or some lavender to make you relax a bit more. Its a good thing to have around. I make sure to always have some in the garden*.

Throwing it in with a batch of plum jam wasn’t an accident, but in the case of most happy experiments, it was just something I did because I had too much and it was passing its prime therefore I didn’t want to tincture it or put it in salads. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had plum and basil jam before, but, quite honestly, I don’t know why it isn’t done always. I used santa rosa plums because they were there, you can use the most delicious tasting variety you can find. And basil. Whatever basil you can come across. If you have Indian variety tulsi then use that, if you have Thai basil then use that, and if you have big-leaved Italian basil from a box at the grocery store, then use that. When you’ve used enough in jam, throw the rest in a mason jar and cover it with cheap brandy or vodka and, voila, your very own basil tincture to lift you up in times of need, or to slip in your miserable friend’s water when she’s not looking.

Or just cook it into things. Like jams and sauces. And when you dish it out you know its in there, and you can wink at it, conspiratorially, because you know what went in there and what its capable of.

*Tip: if you don’t have it in the garden, and buy a big bunch, keep it in a glass of water on the countertop, much like you would a bunch of flowers. It lasts longer and scents the air around it.

Santa Rosa Plum and Basil Jam

9 lbs plums, halved and pitted
15 cups sugar
juice of 2 lemons
15 basil leaves (fragrant ones)

De-pit all the plums. I’ve done this two ways- the first being the ‘proper’ way with a knife and abig bowl in front of me on the stoop. The second way is on teh kichen floor late at night with some plums nearing over-ripeness and a stonr set of hands, squeeezing oug the pits as I go. This way is messier. But its fun. And when you can’t be bothered with a knife it works.

Put them all in a big old pot. Add the sugar and lemon juice, then bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the basil leaves, and simmer for another 10.

Can them as you would any jam- in clean, sterilised jars. Process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes. They’re good for a year.

A new American food culture

Here is an article I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine last year, about food and culture. I was going to post about something similar, but realised I’d already said it in a succinct a way as possible here.

Also, if you’re remotely interested in herbal medicine and feral foods, PHM is the way to go. Check it out.

A New American Food Culture 

I have a little jar on my kitchen counter. On the front is scrawled “Herbes de Californie” and inside is a mixture of dried and ground herbs: white sage, black sage, rose petals and sugarbush berries. I use it on lamb, chicken and duck. I put it in pate, sprinkle it on salads, and use it to brew teas. It tastes aromatic- similar to Herbes de Provence (hence the name) but completely different too. Where Herbes de Provence tastes of the French countryside, my herb mix tastes of the mountains I roam and the air I breathe. It tastes of Southern California.

I think there’s something magical about eating foods from our immediate area. Think of a world before globalisation. Before planes and cars and steam engines, where traders walked a silk road and spices from elsewhere were exotic. Where people healed themselves with herbs from their immediate areas, and where food and medicine were intimately connected.

I think that culture arises from the land it’s born on. That those plants that people use for medicine start to become infused into foods, and that our societies, and our art, and the way we live are built around these foods. People in most progressive societies today are big on ‘knowing their farmers’ or even ‘being their own farmers’ and living in a slightly more traditional fashion than the average Kraft foods devotee. People are becoming obsessed with ‘local’– indeed, ‘local’ is the new ‘organic’, springing up all over the place. We are fighting the homogenization of food tooth and nail. But I’d argue that it’s not enough. Herbalism is becoming homogenized too.

America is a melting pot. We learn this in American history 101– we have a country full of people from all different cultures. And each group comes here, and brings their memories of home, and goes to tremendous lengths to recreate that here. And while America does have a strong culture, our cultural roots are not connected to our land. American culture, for the most part, has become a reflection of this lack of roots: television, movies, fast food, big bouncy boobs on big busy beaches, plastic. A disposable culture. And while these things are fun, and can be found everywhere, they are not the things we associate with the cultures of other countries. The things I remember from my travels are fleeting moments– the mood of a place, the associations that come along with it: A cup of chai before sunrise, while the sound of monks chanting carry through the gloaming. The coral-coloured light as the sun sets over a beach cafe, with my toes pressing into the sand and a jug of sangria shared between friends. Cajeta-sweetened coffee on a rooftop patio looking out over terra cotta and blue buildings, while bougainvillea wave around in the breeze of a warm afternoon. And more than that, even. Name a country, and you can name its flavour:

Mexico: cilantro and jalapeno. France: lavender and thyme. Italy: basil and oregano. Thailand: chili and basil. Greece: oregano and lemon. America: hamburgers and milkshakes and some delicious French, Italian and Thai food.

Of course these borders are false: bioregions don’t end where a border stops and neither does a food culture. Each area of a country has its own unique flavours. And the same goes for America. My herbs in Southern California are very different to those in Maine. A new American food culture would incorporate these flavours and these medicines into practice, so that a trip around the country would provide a variety of flavours, all marked by the differences in our bioregions.

This melting pot of ours has essentially cut us off from our roots, and I don’t think that usng locally grown Italian herbs is enough.  There was a culture here before us, and food traditions here before us, and while I’m not suggesting we start appropriating Native American cultures (that would be somewhat absurd), we do need to understand that this is now OUR geographic history, and that to grow roots we need to look to the land we live on. This is easy for all of us to do. Libraries are fantastic resources for ethnobotanical information. Take a walk with a local plant guide in hand and taste things that are not poisonous. In my area, buying garden sage is pointless- we have so many different species, all with slightly different flavours. Some pair nicely with savoury things, and some with sweet. Local medicinal plants can be incorporated into all kinds of dishes. These new flavours can be a source of wonder, but even more than that they create a richness- a connection to the land we live on.

For too long we have been looking outside ourselves for the answers. The plants in our areas deal with the same pathogens and environmental stresses that we do- the knowledge they hold is much more valuable than something shipped from halfway around the world. During a brief stint at Chinese medical school I was dismayed to have a teacher insist that Chinese herbs were better and more powerful. I’d argue the complete opposite: we are intimately connected to where we live, whether we are aware of it or not. All the tools we need are right in front of us, under our feet.