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.

 

 

cheesecake2

Acorn, mesquite, pine cheesecake.

Apologies for my absence, friends, but I have been looking at things after getting LASIK, and not much else, simultaneously awe-struck and wonder-filled.

The LASIK procedure was uncomfortable, spent in a blind panic trying to control my breathing and therefore my reaction because there was a laser pointing at my eye. The aftermath was painful, as the numbing drops wore off and I wore dark goggles and tried to sleep. The rest of the day was spent watching a blurry television and drinking tea and complaining about the taste of antibiotic eye drops because, as it turns out, they drip into your sinuses through your tear ducts. And then I went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up and looked out the window and could see every single leaf on the nearest tree with such clarity and intensity that it felt as though I had never actually SEEN it before.

And I started crying. Big sobs of relief and reverence. The rest of the day, I spent looking at things. Colours! Leaves! Birds in the sky! The pores on peoples’ faces! Individual hairs! Green grass! Purple flowers! The night sky! It felt as though not only my eyes had been opened but all of my senses in turn. Food had never tasted so good, smells had never been that smelly before, and at this middle of all this sensory overload was me, just walking, staring, smelling, feeling.

During this week, with my new (better than 20/20!) eyes, I discovered, at the back of a dark cupboard, a little jar of roasted acorn flour. I remember putting it there- much like one stashes a spare $20 under a pair of underwear just in case, and then forgets about it, so that, upon finding it six months later it’s become free money. Well this was free acorn flour. At a time of year that I’m usually bereft of acorn flour. Joy, my friends, doesn’t even describe the emotional response to finding such things.

I’ve been so in love with the mountains lately- that smell of pine tree and sweetness. High desert, where mesquite turns to oak, and then to pine belt. I’ve been spending as much time as possible up there lately, to gather mountain roses, and to enjoy the crisp air, the smells, the staggering beauty. I pulled out the last of my mesquite pods from last year, and the jeffrey pine honey I made a few weeks ago, thinking to combine them all to make something that spoke of Southwestern mountains. The combination of acorn and mesquite flour is both sweet and wild-tasting. Different enough that you think ‘what IS that?’ but not so different that you want to stop eating it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So I made cheesecake, using the flours as a crust, and the honey to sweeten the cheese mixture. Using a combination of Dorie Greenspan’s recipe in Baking, From My Home To Yours, and Kiva’s recipe from the Wild Things acorn roundup last year, and a few modifications of my own.

A note on ingredients: Come autumn, it should be pretty easy to get hold of acorns. I’ll remind you; there will be talk of them for weeks. If not, then try a Korean market- you can usually get acorn flour there, and if not, try it with chestnut flour, which you can definitely get there. Mesquite flour can be found at health food stores, though, if you’re in the Southwest, I really recommend harvesting your own. If you don’t have access to Jeffrey pines (or ponderosa) then try a local pine species, or fir, or even Douglas fir…

Acorn, pine and mesquite cheesecake. 

3/4 c acorn flour

1/2 cup mesquite flour

1 cup oat flour

11tb butter, melted

1/2 tsp salt

grate of nutmeg

2 packs cream cheese

3/4 cup sour cream

2 eggs

1/2 cup pine infused honey

1 tsp vanilla

2 tb spiced rum

 

First, make the crust- combine the flours, salt and nutmeg in a bowl, and stir in the melted butter. Press into the bottom of a pan (I used a cast iron pan, but you can use a springform pan- the crust holds together really well), and bake for 15 minutes at 325.

While that’s in the oven, beat the cream cheese and sour cream until really light and smooth- about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one by one, and beat until combined, then the honey, and the rum.

 

When smooth, pour into the crust, and bake, still at 325 for 45 minutes to an hour. Start checking it after 45- it should still be slightly jiggly in the centre, and nicely bronzed on top.

IMG_5072_2

Jeffrey Pine infused baklava

(adventures in Granada, in the mountains, gathering conifers, and an arduous process)

It all started in Granada, at the end of last summer. Jam, so sick of being stuck on a small boat for weeks on end, booked us into a fancy hotel somewhere away from the sea. I, quite desperate for a nights sleep in something under 100 degree temperatures on ground that didn’t rock back and forth, was happy to oblige. We stayed in the old Moorish part of town, with windy cobbled streets that wound their way up a hill that faced the Alhambra. We explored the Alhambra, and wandered around the markets, and went to the Hammam, and slept soundly for the first time in weeks. One day, while walking around the old markets, we passed a tiny little shop front with rows of baklava in the window. Hungry, and curious, we stopped in. The woman, hair covered in a Hijab, spoke broken Spanish. The walls were lined with teas and oils with labels all in Arabic. We pointed at things and she handed them to us. We bit into them and made noises. She smiled and handed us more. On the day we left, to drive to Madrid, I ran down to the shop, waited 45 minutes for it to open, and bought every single pistachio baklava she had. Our drive to Madrid was sugar-fueled but happy. Of the many things that make me with teleportation were possible, those baklava are near the top of the list.

Last week Jam and I went for a hike in the San Bernadino mountains. We gathered and munched on a bag full of fir tips, and wild roses for Wild Rose Elixir. We hiked a few miles, to a bubbling stream, where we wet our overheated heads and splashed our feet around. We picnicked, on fresh apricots and sharp cheddar and roast chicken and fir tips, and then we played around for a bit, while I took photos of plants and Jam threw his new tomahawk at dead trees. Later, on our walk back to the car in that perfect late afternoon light, I gathered a few Jeffrey pine branches. For those of you who don’t live in Jeffrey pine territory, they are like Ponderosas on crack. For those of you who don’t live in Ponderosa pine territory, just picture a pine tree that, in the heat of summer, radiates the smell of butterscotch, vanilla, pineapple, and resin, so that the air around you is full and fragrant and resinous and warm. Picture a smell so delicious that you are incapable of passing a tree without burying your nose in it and inhaling.

Upon arriving home, I started processing everything: the roses into jars for elixir making; the fir tips infused in vodka, and the rest laid out to dry for tea; mullein leaves in a jar for tincture then some out to dry. The Jeffrey pine twigs sat there on the table, and I kept picking them up to smell. In a stroke of inspiration, I chopped them up and covered them with honey, then set the jar on top of the oven to stay warm for a few days. 3 days later, what was delicious honey had been transformed into something spectacular. And as Jam and I were standing in the kitchen dipping our fingers into a dish of it, he said something inspired:

“what if you made baklava with this?”

Right.

Genius.

<insert long and arduous process>

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

Jeffrey Pine Infused Baklava

 Part 1. 

Infuse some honey. If you have access to Jeffrey Pine (pinus Jeffreyi) then use that. If Ponderosa, then use that. If not then find the most fragrant conifer you can. Douglas fir is gorgeous, as is white fir and Ananda sent me some delicious fir from the East coast earlier in the year… Redwood is delicious. Spruce is yummy. Get creative. Get out there. Bury your nose in trees and taste needles.

When you get it home, chop it up and cover it with honey. For this recipe you’ll need about 1 1/2 cups. The rest is yours to do what you want with. Drizzle it over toast, into tea, onto fingers. Whip it up with cream, use it in hot chocolate. Try and keep it around for more than a month (you won’t be able to, promise).

Part 2. 

Make the warqa. For ease, here’s the recipe I used. Because I have gluten issues, I *may* have sprouted, dehydrated and ground my own wheat. I also *may* have soaked the batter for an extra long time and added some raw milk to break down the gluten molecules even more. If you have slight gluten issues and desperately want to eat these, I recommend doing this too… if you want specific instructions just let me know and I’ll type them up.

Things I found that helped with making the warqa:

1. Add more water than the recipe says. When its thick it doesnt spread on the pan properly. A thin watery batter spreads on really nicely.

2. The pastry brush is really really necessary. Any kind of brush will work. A paintbrush would work. Just as long as its brush-y.

3. Don’t accidentally dislodge your pan. Steam burns hurt.

4. If I weren’t gluten intolerant I’d buy filo dough in a heartbeat.

Part 3. 

This is the fun part. Here’s what you need:

1 lb piscachios

1 tsp mixed spice (in this case, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg)

2 tb orange blossom water

3/4 cup pine infused honey

1/4 tsp salt

about 18 sheets warqa, or filo dough

1/2 cup butter, melted

 

Grind up the pistachios till the largest pieces are lentil-sized and there are lots of smaller ones. Take out a handful (for decoration, then throw the rest in a bowl, along with the spice, orange blossom water, honey, and salt. Mix it all together thoroughly. It should be a thick paste that holds together and doesn’t spread out too much. If it is too runny, add more pistachios (or in dire straits, strain out some of the excess honey).

Brush a baking sheet with melted butter, then set out 3 of the warqa sheets, so that they overlap, in a row. The edge of the first and the edge of the last will be pretty close to each other. Then, about 6 inches in, dollop a row of the pistachio mixture along the warqa. Start rolling the warqua over the pistachio mixture, buttering it at each turn. When the whole thing is rolled up, place on another oiled baking tray, slice it, then repeat with the remaining pistachio/pastry. Here’s a video of someone doing the same thing, with filo sheets (because this process is difficult to explain). Start at 3:30.

Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. Until they’re golden brown on top. In the meantime, in your butter pan, throw another 1/2 cup of honey, and the remaining butter. Heat a little, till they’re mixed and runny, then, when removing the baklava from the oven, brush them all with the mixture. Finish it. The more honey and butter drizzled on these things the better. Sprinkle pistachio on top and wait for them to cool before eating…

 

elderberry 2

Elderberry Chutney

(in which I get a bit bossy)

Gathering with friends is only fun if its an enhancement of gathering alone. Because alone, gathering is a holy experience. You sink into a rhythm, a quiet calm. Snip, pluck, drop, move, repeat. That rhythm becomes a background humm, that turns into a moving meditation. By the time you emerge from it, your bag is full, and problems have resolved themselves in the recesses of your mind, and, most likely, your eyes are a shade brighter than they were before*. I do this so often that I had forgotten how nice it was to have company. Especially company that gets as excited about happening upon a bounty as I do. Like when Emily and I were out looking for currants a couple of weeks ago and just happened upon a big, heavy mama elder tree so laden with berries that the branches hung low to the ground.

By the time we left, my backpack was so full and heavy that the ones on top started crushing the ones on the bottom and the juice started seeping out the bottom of my backpack, down my back, onto my pants. The top of my pants, by the time our walk was over, were stained blue. I think this would go into the category of ‘forager and herbalist problems’. And I’d guess that, if you see someone out in the world and the back of their pants, from waistband to butt, have a slight purplish tinge, then you know what happened, and you can throw them a high five and say ‘what’s up, elderbutt!’.

But back to those berries. There are lots of reasons to go out and find some elderberries this year. The first is, of course, elderberry elixir (or syrup). You MUST make a batch (if you cant, then you should probably buy some, as a medicine cabinet devoid of elderberry preparations is like a fortress devoid of a wall). Your immune system will thank you, as will the rest of your family when they never get sick again. As will your cabinet, for finally feeling complete (cabinets are known to be very insecure).

The second is this chutney. There are plenty of other things you CAN do with a big batch of elderberries, from jams to wines, to pies, to juices, but as far as I’m concerned, this chutney is the business. Its best application is on top of something bread-like, like oat cakes, alongside something tangy, like goat cheese. It makes lovely hors d’ouvres when you have people over, but it’s even nicer for a summer lunch, with a bottle of something crisp and cold (Ginger beer. Definitely ginger beer.) and a nice shady spot outside. Bring some crackers, bring some cheese, and a knife, and a little container of chutney. Take a cracker, then a slice of cheese, then a dollop of chutney, and munch on it while you survey what’s around you and listen to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. And then lie back and relax, and let all those little elderberries go to work strengthening your immune system, improving your circulation, tonifying your blood, and generally making you stronger and more resilient. And reflect, with a full belly and a full heart, on how you are ingesting something from the land around you, and what that means for your soul, as a whole, to be connected to the earth, and a part of the life cycle. And if you feel like it, maybe even do all of this with a friend.

Elderberry Chutney

5 cups elderberries

1 cup elderberry juice

2 onions

1 cup raisins

1 apple, peeled and chopped into small cubes

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 tsp coriander

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 inch ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp mustard seed

2 tsp salt

2 cups sugar

1 1/3 cup sucanat

In a big pot, put all of the ingredients, then turn on the heat and bring it to a boil. Reduce to simmer immediately, and do so for about 3 hours. Once the liquid has reduced dramatically (you still want SOME, but not a soup), and the whole thing looks like a big mushy mess, sterilize your mason jars. Spoon the hot chutney into your hot jars, leaving a half inch space at the top. Seal with fresh lids, and process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath. They’ll keep for a year. Refrigerate once opened.

 

*Not to give too much of an impression that wildcrafting is an idyllic experience- it’s not. You get stratched up, scuff knees, ruin favourite skirts, break nails, get sharp things under nails, get whacked in the face by branches, bitten by ants and spiders and bugs and scared by rattlesnakes. You come home with dirt in places you didn’t think it could reach, and twigs in your hair. In other words, it’s really fun.

White sage oatcakes 3

White Sage Oatcakes

(powerful and gentle: a trait shared by fantastic herbs and humans alike)

My favourite white sage patch is a long way away. A 40 minute drive from civilisation, and then a 2 hour hike through yerba santa, juniper and pinyon forests, a couple of stream crossings, through some scratchy bushes, until finally you emerge into a clearing with a big old grandmother plant, surrounded by her little babies. And their babies too. In the late spring their stalks mark their presence up and down the hillsides like little beacons beckoning you forwards.  I’ll spend the day visiting each plant, pruning off a few pieces of the fresh, thick-leaved growth, filling my bag as the day goes on. Later, I’ll pick a rock, or a tree to sit up on, and unpack my lunch and sit back and watch the world around me as I eat. Somewhere along the way, on my journey out and back, I find that I’ve become as affected by the plant I’m gathering as if I’d been taking it myself. My thoughts are clear, my circulation is strong, and I’m moving more efficiently. And I think, if I were to try and define what sage does in a few words, ‘efficiency’ would definitely be one of them. ‘Clarity’ might be another. And the last would likely be ‘deep water’, since that’s what it seems to act on, and it’s often good at getting you out of it…

I use white sage, because it’s native here, because it’s abundant, and because I have been tending the same couple of patches since I moved to LA (and the same few out in the desert for longer than that): spreading seeds, pinching off tips, and making sure they are growing more abundant not less. Also, I have a plant in my garden, just in case. But you can use any species of salvia- from garden sage (which most of the Western herbal literature is written about) to whatever your local species might be (if you have them). You can also pick up garden sage at the supermarket, if you can’t find any local species.

Every year I make big batches of oil, tincture and elixir, then dry a whole bunch more. The oil I use both in cooking and in salves (sage, yarrow and chapparal is my current best-seller for both wounds and fungal infections); the tincture and elixir I use for medicine, for myself and clients; and then the dried sage gets put in teas, food, and burned as incense or to disinfect a sick room.

While we’re on the topic of sick rooms and burning sage, I was aghast, the other day, to read an article on the subject by a woman claiming to have learned of salvia apiana’s ‘energy clearing’ properties from a Cherokee man, as it was his tribe’s sacred plant. Sorry, but no. Salvia apiana doesn’t grow in Cherokee country. It is a Southern California native with an extremely small growing range, and while it IS the sacred plant of the Chumash people, it isn’t sacred to all Native American tribes. White sage is toted as a new age panacea for any kind of ‘negative energy’ and while that’s a really nice idea, it’s stripping Southern California’s hillsides to supply the world with ‘negative ions’. If it’s bad energy you’re worried about, try salt- abundant in negative ions, and much better at ‘clearing the energy’ of a space than any plant. If its the medicinal effects you’re after (of which there are many) try either garden sage, or a sage species local to you. And if its a nice smelling smudge you’re after, try any number of the gorgeous aromatic smoking plants out there in the world. If you are desperate for white sage, and white sage alone (I don’t blame you, its a gorgeous plant and I find it to be the stronger in medicinal action than garden sage) then try growing it, or make friends with a friendly wildcrafter who lives within its growing range and do a trade. Just don’t buy it in big swollen smudge sticks from new age shops: the likelihood of it being an ethical harvest is pretty slim: there’s money involved, and people are just grabbing the entire plant and yanking it out of the ground to harvest it. Plus its incredibly wasteful to burn a big old stick when a leaf or two do quite nicely, either for incense or to disinfect the air.

And it’s fantastic at disinfecting the air- all salvia species are- it kills germs, bugs, bacteria and viruses leaving your respiratory tract happy and healthy. Wondering what else you can do with sage medicinally? Here’s a nifty list:

For a flu-ridden feverish sick person, make a hot sage, mint, yarrow, elderflower and bee balm tea. To be drunk hot. While wrapping up warm. Burn a sage leaf, to fill the air with that anti-bacterial smoke, and sweat it all out.

Slice yourself while out in the garden? Slap a sage leaf on it. I was out hiking once, years ago, and sliced my thumb up pretty badly. I’d been harvesting sage, so I wrapped the wound with a big sticky leaf, and by the time I got back to the car, it had formed a perfect little line of a scab, and was totally healed within a week.

For a wiry, frazzled, exhausted person with a strung out nervous system and a tendency towards the shakes, a few drops of sage elixir (maybe combined with oats and rose) can work wonders, grounding, calming, soothing and restoring a worn out fried system. Or drop a couple of sage leaves in a mug, with some rose petals and a peach twig, cover with hot water, and then add a dollop of cream and honey. Sip slowly.

After a big heavy fatty meal, brew a sage and mint tea. Stir in a dollop of honey and serve it to your guests before they fall asleep at the table: it’ll help them digest, and wake them up enough to drive home!

When in need of focus (which is quite a lot), combine it with basil in a strong tea, for a great concentration-aid (if you have gotu kola, add some of that too).

And for a hungry person, in the middle of the afternoon, who is looking for something to munch on with some fresh jam and a cup of tea, look no further than sagey oatcakes. The crumbly crispyness of the oatcakes combined with the bite of the sage is perfect for a combination of cheese and sweet things. Goat cheese and apricot jam is my current favourite, but I’m not too picky right now…

 

White Sage Oatcakes

1 cup steel cut oats

1 1/2 cup rolled oats

4 nice dry white sage (or whatever sage you have) leaves

1 tsp pepper

1 tsp salt

1/3 cup sage infused olive oil*

1 egg yolk

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp honey

Preheat oven to 350.

Put the oats in a blender, and blend until they’re smaller- the rolled oats will get mealy, and the steel cut oats will reduce in size. Probably about 15-20 seconds. Then mix all the ingredients in a big bowl. It might be a bit dry. Very slowly, start pouring in boiling water from the kettle, in teaspoon size increments, mixing it until it’s doughy but only slightly sticky.

Roll them out, and cut out individual little oateycakes. I use Jam’s favourite Stella glass, but you can use whatever you have on hand.

Bake for 20 minutes. Eat when cool.

*No sage infused olive oil? Take a small handful of sage leaves, cover in a pan with olive oil and heat up gently for about 40 minutes. Don’t boil.

I’m sending this post into the Wild Things Roundup- this month’s topic is the mint family!

nocino1

Things to do with baby black walnuts

I have a thing. A colour thing. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before. It’s a visceral reaction to all things pigmented. Much like when around someone you love you want to shower them with hugs and pet their hair (if I’ve ever petted your hair absent-mindedly now you know why), with colours I want to roll around in them. You know, like a dog does with mud, or a cat does with catnip or like the poet Rumi did with God. It’s usually red and majorelle blue. Occasionally it’s terracotta and magenta. The other day it was something green.

My friend Emily and I had made nocino. It was a fun afternoon inspired by chancing upon some early baby black walnuts (which, for the record, are no longer early, and if you act swiftly you might still catch them). She’d tasted it and loved it; I had not. But given their abundance, my undying love of cooking with wild things, and despite my skepticism over something so vile smelling could eventually taste good, we jumped in. Which is where the green comes in.

Lovely readers, this stuff is stunning. Within a few hours of mixing the ingredients together, the jars, if set along a window sill, will cast a shade of green so unearthly upon your space that you too will want to roll around in it until all that’s left is an alien-coloured splotch on the tablecloth. I restrained myself and stared instead, for hours on end.

We’re supposed to wait at least 6 months to taste it, so I’ll be sure to come back and tell you guys how it is (possibly tugging along a hangover while I’m at it). But in the meantime, if you’d like to make it too, here’s what to do:

Go and find some black walnut trees, and gather as many of the little baby fruits as you can. (for information on how to find and ID black walnuts see Butter’s lovely post on it HERE)

Pick up a big bottle of vodka, some sugar, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla.

Clean out some big mason jars.

And then in 6 months, when the nights are drawing long, and a chill has set in, we can all gather in a big interweb living room by an ifire and have a nocino party. Sound good? Thought so…

NOCINO

From David Lebovitz

Per every 30 green walnuts, quartered

1 litre vodka

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 sticks cinnamon

10 cloves

1/2 vanilla bean

1 lemon zest (use a potato peeler)

Put all the dry ingredients in a big jar, and pour the vodka over the top. Shake (once the lid is on), then set aside. You’re supposed to shake it every day, but according to Emily, it’s nicer if you only shake it every few days. And you don’t have to twist my arm to remember to do less. Leave it in a cool dark place for 2 months, then strain and bottle. It’ll be ready to drink after 6 months, though I’ve heard that the older it gets, the nicer it gets… 

rhubarb custard elderflower tart

Rhubarb and Elderflower-Infused Custard Tart

(on perfect pairings)

Lets talk about first world problems for a minute. There are some that I am ill-equipped to help with: things like ‘oh no, my new smart phone has a glitch’ or ‘I have too many computers’ or ‘my shiny car is sooohoooo last season’. But then there are areas where I can be quite useful. Things like ‘I don’t know what to wear’ or, in this case, ‘oh no, I have too much rhubarb’. Yes, friends, too much rhubarb is an area where I can be useful indeed. You see in the last two weeks alone, I have made rhubarb syrup, rhubarb compote and rhubarb fool (then all of these with rhubarb and strawberries combined, though I will admit to preferring rhubarb alone where you can taste all of its rhubarby glory, unadulterated with the sweetness of the strawberry). All of these I could gladly share.

But my crowning glory, the barb on my rhu, would have to be rhubarb, elderflower and custard tart. For what two things go better together than rhubarb and custard? Apples and blackberries? Lysander and Hermia (which would be the worst name ever, given its similarity to hernia)? Barbecues and beer? No, rhubarb and custard is one of those matches that, in my opinion, is star-crossed from the beginning. Were I the type of person who thought that the natural world existed solely for our disposal, I’d be inclined to also believe that rhubarb exists solely for the purpose of being paired with custard. But that’s like saying that a woman who is a good cook exists solely for the purpose of feeding her husband. As in, outrageous.

Over the past couple of years, my friend Butter and I must have sent each other close to a thousand emails. Some short, some long, the majority discussing food, herbs and foraging. It was a fated friendship- both of us were looking to broaden our horizons a bit- she to learn about how to her use foraged food for medicine, and me just starting to realise that wildcrafted herbs could also be edible. It spawned a Wild Things roundup, that Butter still does monthly, and countless ideas being tossed back and forth, of interesting and delicious ways to use wild foods and herbs, and a friendship of immeasurable value. Where Butter knows food, I know medicine. Where Butter is reliable and steady, I’m like a bouncy ball (ie. not very steady). Where Butter has almost unlimited stamina (like a turtle), I need a nap after a sprint (like a hare). We, in my opinion, make a really good pair. In one of those many emails last week, we discovered that we were both making a similar dessert (please re-read treatise on perfection of rhubarb and custardy things for explanation of how such things happened) and decided to post them together. A reunification of forces. Which makes me extremely happy. So here’s to friendship, and good ideas, and perfect pairings. Here’s Butter’s Rhubarb Elderflower Sour Cream Pie .<3

ps. If you do anything this week, make this tart. Your stomach and all your neighbours will thank you. Promise.

 

Rhubarb and Elderflower-Infused Custard Tart. 

1 portion basic sweet tart crust

1 lb rhubarb
1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup fresh elderflowers, or 1/4 cup dry
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1/4 cup tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla or a pinch of vanilla powder

 

Make up the tart crust in advance, placing it in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours before you roll it out. Roll it out and drape it over a 9″ tart pan, poke little holes in the bottom with a fork, then bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and beautiful.

Meanwhile, start the custard. Put the milk and elderflowers in a saucepan, and heat up the milk gently until it’s hot to the touch. Switch off and leave to steep for 30 minutes to an hour. The flavour of the elderflowers will infuse in the milk. Strain out the flowers, and return the milk to the pan. Add the sugar, vanilla, and salt, then start to heat again, until the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and the eggs until smooth. Add a couple of big spoonfuls of the warm milk to the egg mixture, give it a stir, then add back to the saucepan and return to the heat. Bring to a boil, slowly, stirring or whisking constantly- don’t let anything stick to the bottom. It’ll start to thicken. Once boiling, stir vigorously for about a minute, then remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Put it in a bowl, cover with cling film, and allow to cool completely.

Cut the ends off the rhubarb, and cut each piece so that its about 5″ long. More or less. Put all the rhubarb in a big pan, dust with the sugar, and sprinkle with water- about 1/3 cup for the whole lot. Put in the oven at 400 for about 20 minutes, until the water is gone and the sugar has gone caramelly and the rhubarb is looking cooked but not mushy yet (if you have a distaster and it goes mushy completely, it doesn’t matter, just make a different design). Allow to cool.

With all your pre-cooked and cooled ingredients, assemble the tart. Spread the custard in a thick layer over the bottom of the tart, then decorate the top with rhubarb. You can serve it immediately, though I think it tastes better after a few hours.