smoked hot chocolate

Crying over smoked milk

This post is being submitted to the Wild Things roundup over at Hunger and Thirst. If you [still] haven’t checked it out, please do!

Few things are as evocative as smoke. It’s primal. We humans have been using smoke since we started using fire. Which, if you think about it, was a long long time ago. It’s magic stuff– stuff that gets into your lungs and into your hair, and imparts its flavour to anything it touches. Smoke can be therapeutic (kills germies and such) or it can be magical (alters minds and such) or it can be comforting (hot fire on a cold day, and such). It can also fling you into memories, unawares, as if time exists so fluidly as to not really exist at all. One minute you can be standing in your kitchen attempting to light some branches on fire, and the next you are standing on a sea wall on the west coast of Scotland, with frozen fingers and a frozen red nose.

We’d spend our summers in a cottage in a little village called Craobh Haven. My days were spent scouring the rocky beaches (looking for treasure), and roaming the fields (looking for adventure). Such is the life of someone who grows up reading Enid Blyton books. On days when I didn’t get to roam, we’d go off on adventures, on boats to explore the Hebrides, out to see real live whirlpools, to explore old caves with stone formations that stretch all the way to Ireland. They were the best summers of my life. I’m sure at the time, in the way that kids do, I was jealous of those friends who got to go to Disney World, eat big hamburgers and get flourescent clothes to bring back to school. Florida was glamorous, where staying in rainy Scotland, well, wasn’t. However, until those comparisons arose (much like one can love ones outfit until one sees someone with a nicer outfit and then all of a sudden one begins to notice a frayed hem and a rubbed away elbow– as if for some reason we are built to compare), I was ecstatically happy. The first time I saw the Atlantic ocean was during one of those summers. We’d just emerged from a glass blowing workshop, and I had a little glass statue in the pocket of my wax jacket, flecked with pink and yellow, as if the artist had captured a nebula in a little glass ball. On the other side of the road was the Atlantic. I stood up on a wall with my fingers clenched tight around the cold metal railing, in the rain, trying to wrap my head around the vastness of it all. This might not feel abnormal to you if you are used to seeing ocean. But to a nine year old mind that had only ever sailed in a sea, this was an ineffable experience. One that shaped my life to such a degree that I still go to the ocean to get that feeling, even though its only 6 miles away now, and to this day my insides still dance with excitement at all that lies out there just beyond my reach.

After these long cold days, often roaming in the rain and cold (because lets face it, summer in Scotland doesn’t mean summer like it does in other places where the sun shines), we’d go back to the cottage and make hot chocolate. Mum often had a lively bunch of friends visiting. We’d light a fire, and the smell of smoke interlaced itself with the smell of sea and of happiness. The smell of smoke indoors, from a fire, on a cold day, is forever entangled with these memories. Not even like it happened yesterday, but like it’s happening simultaneously.

Of course the whole purpose for the smoke filled kitchen was hot chocolate. Smoky, sweet, evocative hot chocolate. With a hint of whiskey. And old leather. And tobacco. You smoke the milk, then pop the whole lot on the stove with chocolate and sugar and vanilla, then add a good splosh of whisky at the end. It’s perfect for these remaining cold wintery nights. A grown up, old fashioned, sexy hot chocolate. The kind of thing that you’d see served in Silverlake in a bar with fake old wood floors and waiters with heavy mustaches and waistcoats on. The kind of thing you’d pay $15 for and wonder how they made it, and wonder if you’re pretentious by osmosis for liking it. It’s a variation of a recipe that I saw on Tim Ferris’ site. His looked awfully labour intensive, and used a cigar. I don’t want cigar smoke hanging in my house for weeks on end, plus, I’m kinda fond of the smell of conifer. This, my friends, is crazy delicious– please give it a try.

Ponderosa smoked hot chocolate

serves 2

For the smoking: 

1 charcoal brickette

about 1/2 tsp conifer wood (preferably ponderosa pine, but anything delicious smelling will do), broken into little pieces

2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup heavy cream

tin foil

For the rest:  

3.5oz dark chocolate, chopped into small bits

1/4 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

2 tb nice whisky

To smoke the milk:

Place the milk, cream and sugar in a bowl, in a shallow dish of some kind. Place this shallow dish in a larger, deeper dish. Light the charcoal brickette, place it on a piece of tin foil, and set that alongside the shallow dish in the larger dish. Then place the bits of conifer atop the charcoal. It should start smoking. When it does, cover the whole thing with tin foil, tightly, and leave it for 20 minutes, checking periodically to see that the wood is still smoking (if not, re-light the charcoal or rearrange the wood).

Taste it. It should be smoky.

Put this milk mixture, plus the rest of the ingredients except the whisky in a saucepan over low heat. Heat gently until the chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat, stir in the whisky (more or less to your taste) and serve. Preferably with a good book and a fireplace and a cold winter’s evening.

 

pinus quadrifolia

Intention

[conifer sirup for expectorance and yum]

Last week Los Angeles was blessed with the presence of the herbalist Matthew Wood. Surprisingly humble for someone who’s spent longer than I’ve been alive dedicated to the study of herbal medicine, being around him is always fun. At one point, we were sitting in my mum’s kitchen while he read my pulse and tongue. He wrote the names of a couple of herbs on pieces of paper, while explaining that what he was about to do was an ancient rabbinical technique, and then he put them in between my fingers while he listened to my pulse. I couldn’t quite believe it, but my pulse changed. Quickly. And noticeably. I say this as an objective observer and pulse-owner who had no idea what was going to happen, but that where before my fingers and toes had very little circulation, they had circulation. Where before I had not been aware of certain areas, I was aware. Where before I felt cold, I felt warm. And my heart rate slowed down. From a couple of pieces of paper with plant names written on them.

I thought a bit about this technique, and it made sense– I mean, the word is at the very core of Jewish mysticism. And if I’m not mistaken, in Hindu cosmology the universe was created with the exhalation of one single word. Words, my friends, hold great power. Look to those water experiments that Matsuro Emoto did years ago, or even more personally, think of something that was said to you as a kid that you’ve never ever forgotten. And last week, written on a piece of paper and thrust haphazardly in between my fingers, these words got me thinking about intention.

Because what is a word or an action if not an expression of intention. For us, as humans, to claim that we’re separate from our words or our actions is (in my opinion) to stop taking responsibility for ourselves and our lives. It can be something as big as ‘I do’ or something as little as ‘here, have a cup of tea’, but the intention is expressed THROUGH the words. If I wanted to get a bit more woo-woo, I’d say that each of us is, in some way, an expression of an intention, of sorts. Just like each plant is, and each colour, and each number, and each music note. Our purpose in life, as these intentions, might be to exist and be the most pure expression of that ‘us-ness’ we can possibly be. And when I look at plants, with regards to making food or medicine, I think about the same thing- that is, how to draw out the very essence of that thing.

I think most herbalists are hyper aware of how this works. We spend our days crafting creations for one purpose or another. Herbs have so many different properties, that we often coax out those properties that we want to use, whether it be through combining with other plants, the way we prepare them, or sometimes, simply, through asking.

Intention, in herbalism, starts before you even touch a plant. It starts with the observation of how and where things grow, with the intention to create abundance in the plant world, not to destroy a population but to encourage it. It starts with observation of the planet and the cycles of weather and season. It starts with slight changes in soil. And it starts with relationship. You, the ground, the sky, and the plants you’re working with. With that, you can start picking flowers, whispering intention with every movement of your fingers. Stroking, whispering, urging flowers to open, scent to release, roots to spread, vines to grow, and from there, harvest intact, they’re brought inside, picked through, urged, nudged, gathered together into something cohesive. Then a medium is added, in this case hot syrup, to bring out the scent and flavour. And with that medium, you can coax out the ‘it-ness’ of whatever it is you’re playing with. The name of a plant ties it to its very essence, and in using that name, combined with focus and magic, there’s very little that you can’t affect with a few simple leaves and plant bits.

I don’t think it matters what you’re making either, be it a cup of tea or a syrup or a complex formula or a cake. It’s what you put into it, and how you put it there. It’s taking a moment to set the space beforehand, and having a singleminded focus while you’re doing it. That’s something you can do with a glass of water or a twenty five course meal. When I start to make something, things get really quiet. My feet sprout roots that sink into the earth, the top of my head gets a bit fluffy feeling and my body expands beyond its bounds and my mind stops spinning in the way it usually does. This afternoon, I lit some  juniper white sage incense, allowing the smoke to fill my workspace. Then I gently broke up the branches of white fir, douglas fir, and pinyon pine, dropping the needles one by one into a saucepan. At this point, my mind was quiet; I became hyper aware of my actions and words; my fingers eking out the properties of the various trees to soothe, expectorate, heal, and open lungs, picturing these actions while I’m stirring. Some of the finished syrup (sirup!) went directly into a tea for a feverish, coughing Hedgehog sleeping upstairs, and the rest went into a bottle where it sits, practically aglow with magic.

Conifer syrup is versatile. It’s great as a cough syrup, promoting expectoration, opening the lungs up a bit, and helping to soothe irritated bronchial passages. But it’s also delicious on pancakes, or in cocktails, adding flavour and sweetness to tea, over ice cream, or even [gluttonously] by the spoonful. It’s green. Which makes it pretty, especially during these winter months when the majority of the country is still covered in white and brown. And it’s interesting but tasty, which makes it really easy to give to those who are usually suspicious. Being able to administer cough syrup disguised as a cocktail is also really helpful when it comes to stubborn grown ups.

Conifer syrup

1 cup mixed conifer needles

1 1/2 cup water

1 1/2 cups sugar

If you have a blender, blend up the mixed conifer needles as much as you can. Bring the water and sugar to a boil, reduce to simmer, and sprinkle in the blended up needles. Steep for an hour, simmering REALLY gently (don’t let it boil), then taste, strain, and bottle.

 

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Moroccan mallow salad

If I were to have a robot self, I would describe it something like this:

A satellite dish, with roots, and a nuclear reactor in the middle, plus two hands and a body with which to express the product of said reaction. And when it comes to writing, I feel like one has to have a satellite dish. If I’m not out there, wide open, taking in new stuff every day, then everything I create takes on a stagnancy that feels like a shrunken sweater. Like a record on repeat. During times when I don’t feel like going out into the world, I find that my creativity grinds to a halt too. It’s this strange balance of having to experience and give as much energy as possible in order to receive. To empty the vessel before it can be filled.

The past week I’ve been over tired, slightly grouchy, achy, fighting off this respiratory infection that’s been circulating around (and had hit everyone BUT me) and not really in the mood to go out and do anything. Even more than that, I’ll admit, I’m envious of all you folks who have a winter. Butter emailed me photos of her truck blanketed in snow and I felt a twinge of despair that we don’t really have that here. Last week it was eighty degrees, and while, come March I’ll be out hiking and  y’all snow-dwellers will be cursing me, right now, it’s Winter, and I want it to feel like it. Winter is the time to rest, relax, recharge, and curl up on the couch with hot chocolate and a good book, and when it’s 80 degrees and sunny, it really doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to be resting much.

LA is dry at the best of times. We’re on the edge between a big desert and a big salty ocean, and on my side of town it gets hot and dusty quite quickly. Respiratory infections that come around will lodge deep in the lungs but never really graduate past a dry splutter. We don’t get thick wet cold mucus here, we get green and yellow and bright eyes and red tongues and hard to hack up. Everything gets dried up. Like the cogs in my robot mechanics aren’t working properly. Last night I was staring forlornly at a blinking cursor on a blank screen, and then I made this sad little dry cough. I thought it was just a bit of dust or something but a minute later it happened again. And then another one. And then the sneezing started. And before I knew it, within the space of a couple of hours, I had graduated from grouchy and tired to sick.

To be honest, I was relieved. There’s nothing worse than being a creative robot and feeling like your cogs and mechanics aren’t working properly. To have hands that are supposed to be weaving and creating that just barely splutter to life and then die down. To be sick, after all the horrible terrible thoughts of it being gone forever (melodrama is my middle name) was a welcome relief. I’ll take achy coughy dried out stuck sinuses over gone forever any day.

When I first moved into this house, I did a few things that my neighbours found strange. The first was that I pulled out all the ornamental plants beside my kitchen door. The second was that I scattered the plot with seeds and forgot about it. The third was that, when the seeds started sprouting into weeds, I refused to do anything about it except eat them from time to time. One of the weeds that proliferates out back is hollyhock. Pretty big purple flowers in the summer, and pretty big leaves the rest of the year, you can’t pick plants in the mallow family without knowing immediately how they work in the body, because they’re slimy. Seriously slimy. They moisten things like nobody’s business, from dried out lungs to dried out intestines to burning urinary tracts. I went out last night, under the rising moon, and started picking mallow leaves, and as I did, I realised that they, too, have big satellite dishes that wave around in the night sky like they’re searching for transmission of some kind.

I thought about these big satellite leaves with their faces turned to the stars and I looked up to see this big moon rising into the sky. Funny, you know, that in such a yang-y city, here are these little plants with their faces turned up, soaking in the night and it occurred to me that this moment was as yin as it might get in LA. Yin of the darkness and contraction and moistness and death. Yin of the feminine figure and the earthy texture and the hand that gives life and the other hand that takes it. Yin of the stillness that gives birth to movement and the deep dark forests that have been there for thousands of years. In the middle of a city that is focused on youth and movement, and where (to mirror this) we don’t even have a proper winter (our plants don’t even get old- they just keep flowering and producing) I’ll take my yin moments as I can get them, especially when it’s sitting in the mud surrounded by big hollyhock leaves with the full moon shining down onto our big satellite dish faces. Smiles reflecting the sunlight, absorbing all that we can.

I bring in my haul of leaves and set about to making a dish I read about in Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco. If you’re ever going to get a Moroccan cookery book, let it be this one. The pictures alone will make you want to sell your children in exchange for plane tickets to Tangiers. The moistening effect of mallow plants is immediately noticeable. Within a few minutes of eating it everything feels looser, less painful and dried out. Within a few minutes of eating it, hot, achy restlessness is replaced by cool moon-struck rest. I had the same again for lunch today.

A note on this dish: it’s not attractive. You’ll have to pawn it off on people at first, insisting that they try it and then because of good manners they will feel forced to do so even though words like ‘weed’ and ‘wild’ might scare them a bit. But it’s ok because after that first bite they won’t be able to stop eating it and you will be happy.

A note on mallows: I don’t think you can find them in grocery stores, but come spring, you can find them in gardens and along roadsides. You can use hollyhock (alcea), or mallow (malva). They’re all used pretty much interchangeably in herbalism, so I don’t see why they’d be different in cooking.

Moroccan mallow salad

Adapted from The Food of Morocco

1lb wild greens

1 cup parsley

3 garlic cloves (peeled, but not chopped)

1/2 cup cilantro

1/4 tsp salt (or to taste)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne

1/2 tsp ground cumin

juice of 1 lemon

1 blender

Steam the greens, garlic, parsley and cilantro for ten minutes, until they’re definitely cooked but still bright green. Then, put them in the blender with the rest of the ingredients, and blend on high until they’re a thick green paste similar to the texture of ‘whipped potatoes’ as Paula says. Taste, add more salt if necessary. Refrigerate until cool and serve.

lemon lavender polenta cake

Lemon Lavender polenta cake

(on livers, and letting go a bit)

I was standing in my friend Alysa’s back yard smelling the desert air– with snow falling up in the mountains, and rain clouds billowing their way across the valley, the smell was electric, and cold, and wet. She’d gone to work already. I was packing up, getting ready to head back to LA, and I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia.

This nostalgia, I’m used to it. I fall in love with places and then move away, leaving communities and friends and patches of earth that I’ve grown very fond of. I miss the streets of London and the hills of Scotland and the desert mountains and the Mediterranean sea and not just the places but everything that comes along with them. No matter how clean a break I try to make, there’s always a part of me that will miss wherever I was. Sometimes it feels like I’m even missing where I AM, because I know that it won’t stay there forever.

Alysa has a Meyer lemon tree. The boughs were so heavy with fruit that they were bent over with the weight, almost touching the ground. I picked a few. And then a few more. And before I knew it I had a bag full, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t just gathering fruit from a tree, but gathering a moment in time, and a specific place in that moment. I thought about how being connected to our food source isn’t just about knowing who our farmers are or what chemicals are sprayed, but on being connected to a place on the earth. And that each time you eat food from a specific place you’re taking that part of the earth into your body too- the raw minerals of it, but also the more subtle things about it like the wind and the light and the smells and the general mood of a place. I wondered about what happens to us on a subtle level if we eat fruit from Chile and meat from Wisconsin and Avocados from Mexico…

But immediately after that, it occurred to me that if you can unintentionally eat lots of different places, you can also intentionally put a place into your food, just as you can put your emotions or intentions into food. Maybe somehow eating food of a place means a part of you will be there always*. And then maybe, if there’s a place you have a special connection to, then eating of that place can connect you to it, regardless of where you are. I’ve had this happen, you know– a few weeks ago, when, I was gathering branches from one of my favourite trees, up in the Santa Rosa mountains. When I got home, I set about to process them, remove the needles, steep some in olive oil, others in honey, and by the time I was done, I was in such a dream-like state that I could have sworn half of me was back under the tree I’d harvested from, sitting against its trunk, feeling the cool breeze in my hair, smelling that mountain air.

Sometimes the weight of missing things is quite heavy. I see it primarily taking hold in the liver; it’s an inability to let go completely. Sometimes it’s as though it’s all of time that is being clung onto, and then sometimes it just feels as though it’s moments and places. Sometimes a liver will let go and relax a bit and allow things to move on, and then like a frightened cat, it will seize up again. ‘Liver, my friend, you’re not fooling anyone’, I say to myself, absent-mindedly. Time carries on. Movement carries on. Change, it happens. As does sadness, and missing things, and death, and age. But liver reacts to emotions, not to rational thinking. A tense liver can’t perform its functions properly- to filter things and break things down and make sure everything is running smoothly. A tense liver gives you headaches. A tense liver isn’t really something to strive for.

I arrived home in the late afternoon. The light had started to go orange again, and as I flung open the doors and windows to let in all that light, the afternoon breeze picked up and I was struck in the head by a cloud of the scent of lavender.

It’s one of the first plants I put in when I move places. Because, as far as I’m concerned, having a lavender plant by the front door is excellent luck. Having a sage plant right next to the lavender makes for protection, good health and delicious tea. But that afternoon, the lavender was licking my senses. And I smiled; nobody can be a nostalgic grouch when there’s lavender on the table. This, my friends, is a little known fact of kitchen witchery. Because lavender tickles things. Not just things, but livers. Your liver. My liver. It’s like rosemary’s playful younger cousin- where rosemary is a little old Italian lady who smacks you on the bottom with her broom, lavender has purple hair and colourful skirts and a sparkle in her eye and just when you think you’re going to explode a blood vessel because you’re holding onto things too tightly, she reaches out and tickles you, and you start to forget why you were holding on to it all in the first place. It’s not the weight of the world in worry and sadness- there are different herbs for that. No, it’s the weight of the world in tension. It’s a clenching on the right side of the body. It’s fear of loss of control, and nerves that are tightly wound because of it. Sound familiar? Maybe you need a tickle too…

What happened next was a bit magical. I picked a few lavender sprigs, and they found their way into the drizzly sauce of the lemon cake entirely (ok maybe not entirely) of their own accord. Lemon juice and lavender bubbling away in a saucepan, while a lemony polenta cake cooks in the oven. It smells of the past, of the Southwest, and of distant hills somewhere in the future. It confounds your senses, and tickles your smile reflex, and although you’re supposed to wait for it to cool to eat it, if you can manage such a thing then you’re stronger than me, and stronger than Jam, because we devoured a quarter of it standing up, at the stove, before dinner. And what occurred to me, as I was standing up at the stove eating things from one of my favourite places and from the spot right outside my front door, was that clutching on to everything for dear life might be missing the point entirely. Maybe it isn’t possible or preferable to have a clean break.Maybe the whole point isn’t to not miss places, but to experience them with every fiber of your being, and then when (if) you move on it will be without regrets. Maybe the pain doesn’t come from being away, but from trying to hold on to what is no longer there. From the tension created by trying to be everywhere at once instead of exactly where you are, wherever that might be. And with that in mind, with the nuances of my garden hanging out with the lemons from the desert, I understood: you can be somewhere and let go at the same time. Love it without holding onto it. And each time you do, you get just a little bit bigger. Maybe even a little bit wiser. And that, to me, right now, is what it’s all about.

Lemon-lavender polenta cake

(not adapted at all from Nigella Lawson’s recipe except for the addition of an extra lemon and the lavender)

200g soft unsalted butter

200g sugar

200g almond flour

100g fine corn flour (masa)

1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2  tsp salt

3 eggs

zest of 3 meyer lemons

For the drizzle:

juice of 3 lemons

125g sugar

2 tsp chopped fresh lavender (or 3 tsp dried lavender)

 

Preheat the oven to 350.  Mix together the flours, salt and baking powder. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lemon zest. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, mixing thoroughly, then one egg. Repeat until all the flour and eggs are gone, then scrape the batter into a 9′ pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes. It might not look entirely set in the centre, but the edges will have started to pull away from the sides of the pan.

In a pan on the stovetop, bring the lemon juice, lavender and sugar gently to a boil. Remove from heat immediately. Prick tiny little holes over the top of the cake with the point of a sharp knife, and drizzle the syrup over the cake (strain it first if you don’t want lavender bits everywhere). Try to allow it to cool before eating….

 

*Which reminds me of the stories you hear about the land of faerie: never, ever eat anything while you’re there, or you’ll never be able to leave.

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A New Day’s resolution, and abhyanga.

As I said, these last couple of posts went up the wrong way around. Nonetheless, Happy New Year, lovely readers. Here are some photos from our Christmas week out in the desert.

I’m not really one for New Years resolutions- for the past year or so I’ve been practicing something I’ve come to dub ‘New Day’s resolutions’. As in, why the hell wait until January 1st to start something you’ve always wanted to start, or change something you’ve always wanted to change. Also, there’s the overwhelming-ness of having a list of things to start doing. New Day’s resolutions (NDR from here on, because typing it repeatedly gets annoying) are only allowed to be implemented one at a time, and only when the previous one is such a part of daily life that you don’t need to berate yourself into doing it, can you start a new one. As you can see, I’ve gotten pretty specific with the rules of these things…

As it so happens, I started a NDR that happened to coincide with the end of the year, and it has to do with nourishment. In brief, I am going to sleep more, worry about things less, and eat more fatty nourishing things (those of you who know me are going ‘what the hell? Rebecca needs to sleep MORE and eat MORE fatty things?’). I think it’s just something that we nurturing healing folks forget quite often- to rest, recharge, and make sure you are nourished before putting all your energy into helping others. Selfish? I don’t think so. A burned out, stressed out healer isn’t really worth much…

One of the things I’ve been doing lately to nourish myself better is a hot oil bath. It’s an ayurvedic thing that I first heard about while I was in India. Oil baths are reported to heal or ease a number of ailments, including stress issues, inflammation, joint pain, dry skin, and sleep disturbances. I’ve done it on occasion in the past, and have been doing it regularly for a few weeks now, and so far I’ve noticed a significant difference in my sore joints (a number of injuries), dry skin (it’s Winter), and sleep issues (the more stressed I am, the less deeply I sleep- I think this is common for most of us, no?).

You can do it with castor oil. This is my favourite, but I don’t recommend this to be honest- the first (and last) time I did it, it took me about 3 weeks to get the oil off the bath, let alone out of my hair. If you’ve got a drainage system that can handle using soap nut powder, then that’s the best way to get it out. But I live in a house that was built in the 20′s, and soap nuts ain’t going down my drain. I’ve tried using Dr. Bronner’s to wash it out, but it didn’t work. I was greasy for days. And don’t get me started on the shower. But sesame oil works really nicely, as does coconut oil. Both of which come out with regular old castille soap. You can also use infused oils- I love the ones from Banyan Botanicals, though they do get a little pricey, and regular oil works really well on its own.

Here’s what you do:

Abhyanga: Oil bath

You’ll need

1 old towel that you don’t mind being greasy and gross forever

about 16oz oil of your choice- I recommend castor (see above warning) or sesame

(optional: candles to light in the bathroom, you know, to make it more relaxing and pretty and stuff)

 

1. Warm the bottle of oil by submerging it in a pan of very hot (not boiling) water, for about 15 minutes.

2. Lay out a towel, remove all bath mats that you actually like from immediate area.

3. Starting at your head (and making sure that the oil is quite warm but not too hot), pour some of the oil onto the top of your head and hair. Massage it in, over your face and scalp, concentrating on sore, tense areas. Do this for about five minutes.

4. Add more oil, and brush it down over your body. Spend a few minutes massaging it into each area, then add more warm oil, and repeat. Eventually your entire body will be covered with oil (including the soles of your feet and in between your toes).

5. Lie down on your towel, relax for 15 minutes.

6. Shower it all off. I recommend Dr. Bronner’s soap.

7. Make a hot cup of tea, and relax for the rest of the evening. You’ll FEEL super relaxed, so it won’t be hard.

 

DISCLAIMER: If you have a physical practice of some kind, please take it easy the next day. I blew out my LCL the morning after an oil bath because I was so much more flexible than before!

Also, this process can be addictive.

 

So. Here’s to a New Year, a new day, and taking better care of ourselves. How about you guys? Any resolutions for the New Year? Any for the new day? Please share!

 

 

ponderosa pot de creme

Ponderosa pot de creme

(Because sometimes the herbalist needs some nourishment)

Around 330am on Thursday morning, I was awoken by a commotion in my neighbours’ apartment. Ten seconds later, to the sound of footsteps thundering down their stairs and their front door flinging open, I sat up in bed and said “Jamie, there’s a fire.” Then came the banging on the front door, and Pam shouting “YOUR CAR’S ON FIRE”. Jam leaped out of bed and vaulted down the stairs and out the door. I grabbed clothes first and followed suit. Turns out the extra minute didn’t really make a difference- my car was engulfed in flames. I watched, in shock, as Jam helped the neighbours move their cars out of our shared driveway (very quickly, and very carefully, as there’s nothing like approaching a flaming car that is going through a number of small explosions), away from the burning mass.

The crowd on the sidewalk grew larger.

I whispered to Jam to go and put some clothes on. He looked down and realised he was only wearing boxers and was shivering.

I pulled my sweater more tightly around my neck.

It took twenty minutes for the fire department to arrive, as there had been fifteen similar fires that night, and resources were stretched thin. When the fire was finally out, the smell of burnt rubber and acrid smoke hung in the air, on our clothes and in our mouths. Some of us (Jam) went back to sleep after a few hours. I sat awake, staring out the window at the light changing, thinking of all the possible ways that events could have unfolded differently.


The few days that followed (until the arsonist was caught, really) were a blur. Not because of the car- it’s just a car, albeit a car that I really really liked- but because of the shock and how poorly I handle stress. An arsonist firebombing your car is a high stress situation. And high stress events send me into a tailspin of Piglet-like behaviour. Sympathetic overdrive could be my middle name (though luckily my parents were much more tasteful than that). Luckily, I’ve been here, on the Piglet feedback loop, before, and so I know how to handle it.

Extreme stress, for me, calls for my own version of Martial Law. Sleep, sleep, more sleep, take nourishing herbs, and do things that make me feel relaxed and happy, while eliminating all unnecessary commitments. Thus, I haven’t been on the computer much, and I haven’t gone out much, choosing to be asleep, up the tree in the back garden, doing yoga, or in the kitchen baking.

Two days ago, I made candied ginger, ginger snaps, and these little pots de creme, all in one afternoon. It was a great afternoon. By evening the dishes were piled high in the sink and I put on some music and did them without stressing about it, and then I went and sat on the stoop and ate a pot du creme, savouring every single indulgent bite. It was good. And it was nourishing- all those egg yolks and the cream are so good for rebuilding a worn out body, and the flavour of ponderosa forest is grounding in ways that delicious smelling forests always are.


I had meant to come back here on the first, wish you all a happy new year, and show you some pictures from the time I’d spent in the desert last week. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to do that tomorrow. And in the meantime, here’s the most delicious thing to grace my lips since I met mr. Ponderosa while visiting Butter in Colorado. Do you have access to Pinus Ponderosa? If not then Pinus Jeffryii bark (since I can’t tell the bloody difference anyway) would make an equally delicious elixir… and if you have neither then maybe just add one tb. of brandy and some vanilla extract instead.


Ponderosa elixir

You’ll need a few big chunks of Ponderosa pine, or Jeffrey pine bark.

Brandy

Honey

Break the bark up into smaller pieces, and then stuff them into a jar. Fill the jar, half with brandy, then top up with honey. Leave it to sit and stew for about 4 weeks, though it will start to taste delicious after a week or so. Strain, and bottle. It’s also delicious in hot chocolate…

 

 

Ponderosa-butterscotch pot de creme

6 egg yolks

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup whole milk

2 tb ponderosa pine bark elixir

 

Preheat the oven to 325, and put about 6 ramekins, or oven-proof cups of some kind, in a roasting dish. Pour boiling water into the roasting dish (but not the ramekins) up to about an inch high on the little dishes.

Melt the sugar, butter, vanilla and salt. Cook over a low heat until the mixture gets really bubbly, and turns a caramel colour. Carefully, stir in the milk and cream. The mixture will bubble and look like it’s very very angry, but keep at it, it’ll smooth out. Add the ponderosa elixir.

Whisk the egg yolks together, in a bowl, and add a ladle full of the sugary cream mixture, whisking constantly. Add another ladle full, then pour the whole lot back into the pan and whisk it all together. Strain through a sieve, and pour into the individual ramekins, in the roasting tray.

Now, put the whole lot in the oven for about 35 minutes. Until you can jiggle a ramekin and the whole custard is solid.

Remove from oven, and allow to cool. They’ll be ready to eat in about an hour and a half. You can decorate them with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, or just eat them as-is.

black tea white fir cake

Black [tea] and white [fir] cake

Today marks the shortest day of the year, where the sun, our source of warmth and light, is furthest from us. Living in a city, in the modern world, with electricity and lights and all kinds of noises blocking out the silence, it’s easy to forget that we still live in bodies that have cycles, on a planet that has cycles. Years ago, before all of that stuff existed, as the nights grew longer, and the cold grew deeper, imagine what a blessing that marker would have been: a turning point! The beginning of winter!! I imagine how, even though the coldest months are still to come, that little bit of light that’s growing in the sky is not just a marker of the passing of time but a beacon urging us forward when the darkness and cold might cause us to despair.

Winter is a time for nourishment. For relaxing and sleeping and taking care of yourself. For walks in the cold with a hot drink in our hands and for the smells of things baking to fill our houses. Winter is time to get back to our roots. Literally. To feel our feet on the earth and follow them underground and maybe even curl up for a nap, right there, wherever we are.

This morning I went for a walk before dawn. The poplar trees across the street are shedding their leaves- every minute one does its little death dance, falling to the concrete. I pressed my face against their bark, and inhaled a deep breath, and felt like I was being pulled into the earth by their roots, and the falling of leaves. It was intensely nourishing, like my body was drinking in the earth, and by the time I was ready to leave, the sun had emerged, casting orange light over the world around me. I wandered back inside and made myself a coffee, then leafed through cook books for a while, trying to decide what to make today.

Which brings me to fir. Kiva had sent me some of her white fir needles, and I had a bunch of Douglas fir branches sitting around being lovely and delicious, and I was desperate to bake something with the two combined. Since today is the most dense day of the year, and marks the first day of winter, I figured something dense and coniferous tasting would be perfect. A sweet stodgy elf bread that one could wrap up and take on a long hike if needed. I’m happy to say that it turned out just as I’d hoped. Dense, not too sweet, with a coniferous flavour that isn’t entirely overpowering, but is most definitely pronounced.

Where can you get your own fir needles? Look around you. Check on the internet to see what grows in your area. If you don’t have white and Douglas fir, try spruce (also delicious!) or pine. Taste the needles: each tree has a different flavour, and this flavour varies throughout the year too. Not only that, but if you gather extra, you can grind them up to make tea, which is one of my favourite things to sip on all winter. It’s really high in vitamin C, as bright and beautiful as (and even better tasting than) green tea, and each citrusy sip connects you to a forest out there. With each sip, you’re drinking in the nourishment that you get from resting your weary bones against a tree for a while, or curling up against a big gnarled root to take a nap. With each sip, and each deep breath, you’re connecting to a cycle that is older than we can possibly fathom. The darkest of days can be lit by the brightness in each cup. And that, to me (and you?), is a comforting thought to take into my wintery slumber.

Black (tea) and White (fir) Cake

Adapted from Home Made

4 tb butter

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/3 cups flour

1/4 cup really super finely chopped conifers (I dry them first, then give em a whiz in the blender or coffee grinder)

1 1/2 cups strong black tea

1 1/2 cups dried fruit (I used half sultanas, and half candied citrus peel)

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 egg

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

 

Icing drizzle:

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/8 cup finely chopped conifer needles

1/4 cup water

 

In a saucepan, heat up the black tea. Add the dried fruit, and half of the chopped conifers. Simmer on the stove until most of the tea is absorbed, and the fruit is nice and plump (about 1 hour). Remove from the heat, strain the raisins, and set aside the tea.

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a bowl, beat the butter, then add the sugar, then the egg, plus about 1/4 cup of the remaining cooking liquid. Stir in the raisins, then add the rest of the chopped conifers, the baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Then add the flour. It should be quite a thick batter.

Pour into a greased loaf pan, and bake for 1 1/4 hours, until a knife inserted comes out clean.

While the loaf is cooling, prepare the drizzle. Mix the ingredients together in a saucepan, and heat until the sugar is melted. Remove from heat, and allow to cool for a few minutes, then, using a spoon, drizzle it over the cake.

Can be served slightly warm, in slices, with a pat of butter. Can also be wrapped up and taken on long winter walks, to be eaten under a tree.

eggnog

Eggnog. In a mug.

(on the warming magic & merits of cinnamon)

For a week we experimented with keeping the heating on all the time. It was nearing 40 degrees in Los Angeles and living in Southern California for any length of time does something to your temperature tolerance. That is, it destroys it. But having the heating on all the time didn’t work. Not one bit. We’d both wake up every morning with dry skin and sore throats and stuffy noses. So after that week, we went back to putting it on for a few hours in the morning. While the rest of the world is still asleep, I’ll wake up, and shiver my way downstairs to throw the heating on then run back upstairs and jump under the covers until the house is a little warmer. When it’s an acceptable temperature I’ll resume my morning activities which include hot drinks, fluffy blankets and cold doorsteps.

At times like these, spices comes in really handy. Because having something bubbling away on the stove sending the scent of cinnamon and spice and sweetness into the air is a really nice way to warm up a space without getting dried out. Not only that, but it makes it feel like winter when it’s sunny outside and doesn’t look like winter at all.

I was chatting on Skype with my teenage sister in law the other day. She was asking about cinnamon and what it does medicinally, as it’s her favorite smell. I told her about how cinnamon warms the body. How it helps with circulation issues like cold fingers and toes. How it helps with the ups and downs of too much caffeine and too much sugar. And how it’s astringent– it stops bleeding, stops leaking, balances out imbalance. She laughed and said that it sounded like exactly what she needed, and I pointed out that people often gravitate towards what they need…

Sometimes with cinnamon, I feel like having it in the air, it works this way on spaces too. Mulled wine bubbling away on the stove warms up the cold corners, and halts the cool breeze from sneaking in under the door. A dash of cinnamon in your coffee in the morning both helps you respond to the caffeine better, and also helps with the mucus-y feeling people often get from too much dairy. A sprinkle of cinnamon on your blueberries and cream help to balance out your blood sugar. Considering the big creamy lattes I like to drink and my nervy-body, I’m really grateful for cinnamon most mornings…

And in the evenings lately, I’ve been making a quick-nog. Admittedly, until about a week ago, I’d never had eggnog before. I didn’t know until a few days later that most people drink it cold. I can’t fathom the idea of drinking something creamy and iced when it’s so cold outside, so I carried on making mine warm. Eggnog, my friends, is my new favourite thing. Between the creaminess and the spices and that dash of rum, it feels like sipping on a thick milky delicious cloud. I said ‘dash’ of rum, because my alcohol tolerance is like that of a child, and I don’t like being drunk, I just like the taste of it. The first night I added what was more like a glug, and I woke up with a headache the next morning. Now, I remind myself that it might LOOK like a warm milkshake but it is an alcoholic drink and that if I keep drinking them with a glug every night people might start getting worried, especially if I end up on Facebook telling everyone how much I love them (this happens, pretty much every time).

One more thing. It’s very nutritious. If this information will ruin it for you, stop reading here and just go make it (or wait till 5pm and make it?). But between the milk and cream, the egg yolks and the spices, you’ve got yourself a nutritional powerhouse, made from superfoods that you don’t need to import from Brazil or a small Pacific Island. Considering how worn out, stressed and exhausted most of us are at this time of year, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s medicinal :). So go and take your medicine please, and then get on Facebook and tell me how much you love it.

Eggnog. 

Serves 1. Multiply quantities for more.

1 egg yolk

1 cup milk

1/2 cup cream

1/4 tsp of grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp cinnamon and cardamom combined

1 tb sugar (I use sucanat- it adds more flavour I think, but you can use regular sugar in a pinch)

2 tb spiced rum (if you’re like me make it 1-2 tsp)- see below, or just buy it

Warm the milk and cream on the stove. Don’t bring it to a boil or anything, just very hot. Remove from the stove, add the spices, the sugar and the booze. With a whisk, whipping it steadily, add the egg yolk, then put it back on low heat until it thickens just a tiny bit.

Serve in a big mug with a fluffy blanket and maybe even an elf hat.

 

Make your own spiced rum: 

1 bottle of golden rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 vanilla beans

1 tsp black pepper corns

2 tsp cardamom

peel of 1/2 orange

Throw the lot together in a jar of some kind. Leave it for 2-5 days, shaking when you remember. Strain. Easy peasy!!!

 

Rosemary lavender black pepper polenta cookies

Rosemary- lavender- black pepper polenta cookies

(the magic of rosemary)

During the winter, I cook with rosemary a lot. Partly because there’s a big bush outside the front door, and partly because I think it’s the perfect remedy for the winter blues. Its presence alone can light up a space and get things moving again, when it feels like the cold has ground it to a stagnant halt. Sometimes I picture it as if it weren’t a plant at all, but a little person, created out of mist. And when I do, I see a little old lady who has more energy than most teenagers. She wears her hair pulled back tightly, has knobbly fingers and sharp black eyes and usually dresses really simply. She keeps a meticulously tidy house, and is ready to smack you with her broom (which she always ALWAYS has) at any time. I think she speaks with an Italian accent and might be someone’s nonna… Except the house that she keeps isn’t her house, it’s your body, and when you take a sip of rosemary tea, she gets to work sweeping out all the crud, getting the circulation going, clearing out all the stagnant stuff. I mean, picture how your eyes open wide when you take a deep whiff of a rosemary bush, and imagine that action going on in your whole body. In getting all that crud out, it does things like strengthen the heart and stimulate digestion. Rudolph Steiner went so far as to say it strengthens the sense of self in a person, which I think translates well to ‘clearing out all the crap’ and also making you stand up straight the way a strict old knobbly-fingered lady would, lest you get spanked with a broom on your way out the door.

In my steamy little kitchen, I’ll brew up some rosemary tea if I’m having trouble concentrating or getting stuff done, especially if its because I feel sluggish. I’ll put it in a pot and let it bubble away when I want to clear the air a bit- when things are a little too dusty and the heating’s been on for days and the windows have been closed and it’s suffocatingly still. Rosemary goes on the stove in a pot of water, while I dust and vacum and throw all the windows and doors open. And then I throw the water away, because I’m convinced that’s where all the stuck-ness goes. When people stop by and have that downtrodden look, a kind of pastiness and dullness to their complexion, and that ‘everything is sliding down towards the floor’ thing going on, accompanied by slow movement and general sluggishness, they get a sprig of rosemary and a squirt of sunlight in their tea. Because the two to me are never far away from each other. Rosemary grows in sunny places, and the warmth of sunlight makes it resinous and sticky. Rosemary, as far as I’m concerned, carries the sun in its pocket.

For slow circulation, try a rosemary footbath. Or if you’re feeling really brave and don’t mind smelling like a lamb roast, make a strong rosemary infusion and add it to your bath, and you’ll feel all tingly and like dancing afterwards.

Or if you don’t feel like drinking it in tea or bathing in it, then maybe try just cooking with it.

Rosemary cookies. More specifically, rosemary, lavender and black pepper polenta cookies. These, for the record, are now PRIZE winning cookies as it was voted by the people at a party the other night. And I make them gluten free, though if you’re not gluten intolerant then by all means use regular old white flour. I combined the rosemary with lavender because they’re a perfect pair- complementary in so many ways. And they grow right next door to each other. Both of them clear stagnation really quickly, but while rosemary is heating, lavender is cooling.

Which brings me to one more quick point: If you have labile blood pressure or high blood pressure, rosemary tea is not your friend (as Kiva Rose kindly pointed out to me). You’ll end up with roaring pulse in your ears and a headache and cursing the day you ever set foot in my cyber space. Which I would hate to be responsible for. If you’re not sure, give the leaves a rub and a smell first, and listen to yourself: does it smell and feel good? If not, then maybe try lavender instead: it’s very similar, but won’t make your head feel like it’s being hit with a sledgehammer…

Rosemary, lavender and black pepper polenta cookies

3 sticks room temperature butter
1 cup sugar
1 tb minced rosemary
1 tb minced lavender
1 tb black pepper

2 cups gluten free flour plus 1/2 cup sweet rice flour
1 cup ground cornmeal (polenta)
½ teaspoon salt

In a mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the herbs, then add the dry ingredients in three batches. As soon as they’re incorporated, turn off the mixer, pull it all together into a ball, wrap it up and refrigerate it for 24 hours if you have time- it’ll pull all the flavours together really nicely. If you don’t have time, you can just roll them out and cut them out into cookie shapes.

Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes. They’ll be softer when you pull them out, and firm up within ten minutes or so. And they’re good in an airtight container for up to a month.

 

apple blossom

Kitchen herbalism

(a little bit of magic goes a long way)

Waking up before dawn makes me happy. Lately, I’ll put some fuzzy socks on because it’s cold, and will pad downstairs quietly, while the cat weaves her way around my feet. I’ll brew a cup of California Mountain Tea (a blend of rose petals, white sage, black sage and wild mint), add some cream and honey, and then wrap myself in a blanket and sit on the front steps thinking about things and watching the light change.

I spent this morning thinking about creativity. My whole life has been, in some ways, a jump from one creative pursuit to another, be it writing or drawing or dancing or cooking or herbalism. And while the side effects of herbalism might be that people get healthier and happier and more connected to the earth and the universe, to say that’s my primary goal would be lying. I do it because I need to create. To weave a bit of magic into the every day. To make things that affect the world around me. And herbs are a beautiful outlet for that: a little bit of this, a dash of that, a sprinkle of something else. Depending on the person you can add things to make a heart light up or to make roots set deep in the earth, or to make lungs open or simply just make someone go to the bathroom. What is it exactly that makes it work? I don’t quite know. There are chemical constituents and there’s the whole plant and its place is in the biosphere, and then there the intention of the person GIVING the herbs, and then there’s that little bit extra. That little bit extra, I like to call it magic.

When I’m in my kitchen, mixing up a tea or a salve, or pouring brandy and honey over some recently gathered plant matter to make an elixir, or stirring a pot of soup, or putting a few leaves in a cup to make tea for a friend who’s having a bad day, I feel like I’m doing the same thing- weaving, creating, and making things happen. Sometimes I’ll whisper things over a cup of tea or a tincture, things like ‘it’s going to be ok’ or ‘this is a liquid hug’. Sometimes I can even see basil as if basil was a cute little creature made of foggy air, and basil jumps into action, rearranging himself into ‘it’s all going to be ok’. And while it might seem silly, it still works: people realise that it’s going to be ok, or smile as though they’ve been given a hug. There is magic in the world, even in a tiny kitchen in the middle of Los Angeles.

One of the things I love about herbs is that a lot of them taste good. This seems pretty elementary, but people often cook with herbs (like basil, rosemary, sage, parsley) and people pass the herbal aisle at the Health Food store, but I think that the vast majority of people don’t realise that when they’re cooking, they’re using plant medicine. One might assume that, because we use them so often, culinary herbs are weak, but that’s not true at all. Some of the herbs I use most often medicinally are boring old culinary herbs, like garlic, basil, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Sometimes I feel like things are a little disjointed around here. One day I’m writing about cookies and another I’m writing about herbal medicine. The two are not really that separate. So if you guys don’t mind, in the coming weeks I’d like to start talking about herbs that we all have access to. Things you can find at the grocery store or in your back garden or in your neighbour’s back garden in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping. Things that you can tincture yourself or hang to dry and make tea with yourself and then maybe next time you add basil to a stew you’ll smile mischievously because you know that you too are putting a little magic in there.

In the mean time, my recipe for you today is something you can pick for yourself. We’ll call it ‘Herb Garden Tea’.

Herb Garden Tea

What herbs do you have lying around in pots or outside or in a bag in your fridge? Basil? Rosemary? Thyme? Sage? Mint? Rose petals? Peach leaves? Pick a few leaves (or a variety of them!) and drop them into the bottom of a mug. Top with hot water, steep for ten minutes, then stir in a little bit of honey. Add cream if you like. There. You made magic too.