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.

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Elf Bread

I used to like complicated recipes. I don’t know why. Maybe because they gave me a sense of achievement, or maybe because I liked being kept busy by intricate details, or maybe simply because taking complicated things and turning them into things that make sense in my head and are easy to execute is something that I actually enjoy. Because underneath it all, I’m an organiser of thoughts and theories. Like a robot, only squidgier.

One of these complicated recipes that I used to like was this dense nutty sourdough rye bread with a flavour remniscent of grape nuts. I found it on the Weston Price website, long before I got sick in Mexico and stopped being able to eat gluten, and long before I decided to start a business and stopped having time for complicated recipes. Jam brought it up the other day, and I thought that maybe the extra long fermentation would make it more easily digestible for my wrecked GI tract. So far, no major reactions, which is a good sign. This bread recipe takes 4 days to make. That’s after you’ve got a good sourdough starter bubbling away. Yes, you read that right. By the time it’s finished cooking, you have to start another batch straight away because you’ll have polished all of it off in 4 days, and if there’s not another one on the way, you might cry.

Not only that, but you might start to plan social events around your bread. Like ‘well we’ve been invited to a party on Sunday night at 7 but I have to feed the starter around 7 so we’ll have to just go late’. Or ‘We can’t go away this weekend! What about the BABY [starter]?!’

But it’s ok. If you do proceed, then you’ll be rewarded with something so complex and nutty and sour and strangely delicious that you will want to give it a name. Which brings me to the whole ‘elf bread’ thing. It wasn’t originally elf bread. It was originally somebody’s family recipe that had been handed down over the years and ended up on the internet. But in our house it has no family history, and when it comes to bread that is heavier than a rock and tastes like a complete meal and is the kind of thing you want in your bag on a long journey, it looks and tastes more like something you’d imagine elves making and eating* than humans.

Elf bread. 

For the flour: I do a mixture of about 2/3 rye and 1/3 spelt or kamut. If you’re not allergic to wheat, then by all means use that.
The starter should be bubbly and strong.

 

Day one. Morning. 

24og sourdough starter

300g flour

300g water

Mix the whole lot together in a bowl. Cover with a towel and leave somewhere at room temperature for 24 hours.

 

Day two. Morning. 

400g water

600g flour

Add the two to the flour mix from the previous day. Stir it all together, cover, and leave for another 24 hours.

 

Day three. Morning. 

30g sea salt

1 tb ground coriander seed

2 tsp ground black pepper

260g water

700g flour

Mix the salt, pepper and coriander seed in with the water, then pour the lot over the doughy mass you’ve had fermenting. Add the rest of the flour. At this point you can either put it in a machine to knead (for 1 minute), or knead it by hand for a couple of minutes. Let the dough rest for 30 mins, then knead it again for another few minutes. Place the massive ball of dough in a greased bowl, and cover for 12 hours.

 

Day three, evening. 

Rice flour, for dusting the counter and sprinkling in your bannetons or makeshift bannetons.

Remove 240g of the dough from the big mass you now have. This will be your starter for next time. If you’re not going to do it immediately, then you can do as I do, make up the whole lot, and just get another good starter going when I want to make it again.

Divide the ball into 3. If you have bannetons, use those, if not, I line three big-ish bowls with tea towels, and sprinkle the towel with rice flour. With each ball of dough, stretch it out to a square, then fold it, like you’d fold a piece of paper to fit into an envelope, into thirds, then do the same lengthwise so that you’re left with a compact ball of dough. Pat it together nicely so that there are no seams visible, then plop it, smoothest side down, into the prepared bowls. Cover with plastic wrap and put into the fridge overnight.

 

Day four, morning. 

Cornmeal, for sprinkling.

If you have a dutch oven: 

Remove the bowls from the fridge. Place your dutch oven in the cold oven, then turn the heat up to 500. When the dutch oven is hot, remove it, sprinkle cornmeal. Tip the dough out of its banneton, and place it, with the side that was facing down in the bowl now facing up, into the dutch oven. Score it a few times along the top (about an inch and a half deep), put the lid on the pan, then place it in the oven. Turn the heat up as high as it’ll go for 10 minutes, then reduce to 450 for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and pull the loaf out- give it a knock with your knuckles on the bottom of the loaf. If it’s hard and makes a hollow sound, then your loaf is ready. If it’s not hard, then put it back in and test every five minutes until it IS ready. Then… remove from the oven, place on a rack, and try not to eat it till it’s cool (it’ll be gummy if you cut into it before it’s cooled down).

If you don’t have a dutch oven: 

Remove the bowls from the fridge. Preheat the oven to as high as it’ll go. Turn the first loaf out onto a baking sheet. Score it three times, and then place it into the hot oven. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 450. After another 15 minutes reduce to 350. After another 10 minutes, pull the loaf out and give it a knock on the bottom. If it’s hard and makes a hollow sound then your loaf is ready. If it doesn’t then put it back in for 5 mins at a time until it’s ready. As above, try not to cut into it until it’s cool or it’ll go gummy!

*For the record I DID bake it with my pointy elf hat on, and I’ve eaten a couple of slices like that too.

white sage and pine nut biscotti

White sage and pine nut biscotti

Southern California has a smell. It smells of the sea, and of desert rains and of redroot blooms and mesquite blossoms. It has a certain quality of light that is slightly dusty and slightly orange, unlike the light in San Francisco which is blue and in Tuscany which is yellow-er and in Britain which is silver. And it has a flavour. Of dust and of rose petals and sages and mugwort and cottonwood leaves and sweet everlasting.

And I love using those flavours in the things I cook. It should never be overwhelming- in the way that rosemary on your lamb shouldn’t be overwhelming. More like a subtle hint, a reminder of place. Italian and Provencal cookery books are great for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a Mediterranean climate. These people have been doing it for a really long time, using the herbs that grow near them, and in a similar climate, it’s really easy to make substitutions.

I’d been eyeing these pine nut and rosemary biscotti from the American Academy in Rome Biscotti book for ages. One of those books that I’ll flip through, bookmark another recipe, and then forget about for another few weeks. I’ve never been the type who finds the recipes and then goes out for the ingredients; rather I’ll be inspired by something I have, and then want to make something that’s a little bit like a recipe I saw somewhere. Then ensues the process of pulling out all the cookbooks I have trying to remember where exactly I saw it, and by the time Jam makes it downstairs to see what’s going on, it looks like a tornado has ripped its way through my office, into the kitchen. The other day, as I came in with a big crop of white sage and dropped it on my desk, the aroma wafted up around my head, as aromas do, and the first thing I thought about was biscotti.

These biscotti are delicious. Perfectly crunchy and the sage cuts through the sweetness ever so slightly without overwhelming. If you have white sage on hand, I encourage you to try it. But if you don’t, it’s ok. The original recipe calls for rosemary. You could also try regular garden sage, or lavender, or another aromatic herb of your choosing.

White Sage and Pine Nut Biscotti

Adapted from “Biscotti

 

3/4 cup pine nuts

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour (I used my own all purpose gluten free flour blend, substituting white rice flour for 1/4 cup)

2 tb fine cornmeal

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp vanilla

1 tb white sage, minced (or aromatic herb of your choice- the original calls for rosemary, I think it’d be amazing with lavender too)

5 tb butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup + 2 tb granulated sugar

1 tsp lemon zest

1 egg

2 tsp marsala

 

Preheat the oven to 300. Spread the pine nuts out on a baking sheet, and roast for 10 minutes or so, until they’re golden brown.

Meanwhile, cream the butter and sugar in a mixer on high speed, until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, and beat for another 30 seconds or so. Slow down the mixer, add the marsala, sage and lemon zest, then stop mixing.

In a blender, pulse the roasted pine nuts a few times until they’re about a quarter of their original size. Combine with the rest of the dry ingredients, and add to the batter in two batches, mixing at slow speed to incorporate. As soon as the flour is mixed in, stop mixing and turn it out onto the counter (by the way, if you’re using gluten free flour you don’t need to worry so much about this, but using a regular wheat flour, don’t overmix or the texture will be weird).

Press the mixture together, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Raise oven temperature to 350.

After 15 minutes, split the dough into two chunks, and press each one into a long log-shape- about 1 1/2″ high in the middle, tapering out towards the edges.

Bake them for 20-25 minutes, then remove them from the oven and allow to cool completely. Then, slice each log into biscotti-shaped pieces, about 1″ wide. Standing them upright, bake them again for 6-10 minutes, until they’re slightly golden brown. They’ll harden up as they cool.

Will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 months.

 

 

 

cheese polenta

Polenta

(a trip to San Francisco in which I cook for my brother and his roommates)

I drove up to San Francisco last week. I’d never actually been for more than a few hours, passing through, so I was excited to spend some time exploring. And luckily, there’s a Twitter-verse, in which you can do things like say ‘hey folks, where should I go in San Fran” and folks will reply with things like ‘Tartine, you fool!” or “Incanto” or “GO TO THE HEATH CERAMICS SALE” and you will do these things (except Incanto which was closed) and be grateful that you didn’t end up somewhere less than perfect…

It’s the perfect city for wandering. After I got home from yoga in the mornings (I was there to visit one of my favourite people who is teaching here until December), I’d set off on exploration adventures. I went to the Haight, and walked through the park (Golden Gate park is bigger than Central Park!), and explored the Sunset area, and went to little cafes, and had the best chocolate ice cream with smoked sea salt, and wandered around Bi-Rite grocery store wishing that all grocery stores in my area were like this (I mean it’s a canola-free establishment and they have a massive cheese collection. Hellooooo.), and went to Tartine 2 times even though there’s not actually a single thing I can eat on the menu (and the owner’s wife is gluten intolerant!)*.

I also drove over the Golden Gate bridge. Twice. And it’s huge, and orange, and very very exciting. I actually screamed and bounced up and down the entire drive over. The way back was less exciting, I didn’t bounce around as much, though I did squeal a couple of times… and on the other side of that big orange (not gold) bridge was the Heath Ceramics sale and my friend Gina (and her son Bennet who has the biggest bluest eyes I’ve ever seen). We drank hot chocolate and looked at pretty ceramics and I bought the most perfect coffee mugs which I swear make my coffee taste better just by the power of looks alone…

(Check out ma new coffee mug! And the cat and Ganesha, viciously guarding it…)

Later, I went for a walk in the park, and gathered some herbs along the way: redwood leaves, juniper leaves, lavender blossoms, black sage leaves. By the time I got back to Alex’s house, I had taught five hippies (who were trying to sell me pot) how to ID juniper, and had a pocket full of plant matter. I made this roast lamb recipe, using the herbs I’d gathered and a quarter bottle of rose that I found in their fridge (Alex, if you’re wondering where the wine went, you ate it on lamb). All atop some cheesy polenta.

I don’t know why people get freaked out about polenta. I’m a careless cook. I never use double boilers (I hate having extra things to clean), and get so distracted that I forget about things (sometimes the kitchen sink overflows and floods downstairs because I forget I’m filling it with water), and yet I can make polenta. Believe me, if I can do it, then you can too.

And I make a lot. Because having leftover cheesy polenta is a true joy. You can have it for breakfast with poached eggs on top. You can slice it into squares and stick it under the grill and make it go all crispy on the outside and cheesy-polenta-y in the middle. And you can have it by the spoonful out of the fridge, just like a savoury corn and cheese flavoured ice cream. Ok, nobody else really seems into the latter like I am…

By the way, can anybody tell me what the difference is between polenta and grits? I had grits for the first time when I was in Tulsa earlier this year, and it was just like polenta. What’s the difference?

(This looks lumpy because it is lumpy. That’s because it’s my ‘quickly reheat for breakfast’ version not the ‘fresh out the pot for dinner’ version. The latter is smoooth, promise.)

Cheesy polenta

serves 4

6 cups water

2 cups polenta

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 1/2 cups mixed cheeses (I used parmesan, fontina, asiago)

1 stick butter

 

Bring the water and salt to a boil in a heavy bottomed pan. Throw in the polenta and stir until all clumps are gone. Turn down to a simmer, and simmer, stirring every 5-10 minutes, for 35 minutes**. If it gets too dry, add more water. For some reason sometimes it seems way thirstier than others… Then after 35 mins, taste for consistency and salt (you might need more). Are there hard grains still? Cook a bit longer. Is it all soft and lovely? Then remove from the heat, stir in the butter, cheese and pepper. You can make it in advance then heat it up later (just add a bit more water). Voila. Easy cheesy.

(Shoes, waiting patiently for feet.)

*Note, if you find yourself meeting someone there and can’t have gluten either, there are 3 options: 1. muesli which contains spelt but no wheat- it’s still gluten but depending on why you can’t eat it it might be ok. 2. A sandwich without the sandwich. Not available until 11am. 3. Go next door to Bi-Rite and get crackers and cheese and an apple.

** You might get a crust on the pan. It’s worth it to me to not have to stand over it constantly. For said crusty pan, I cannot recommend Barkeeper’s Helper enough. It’s one of those things that I won’t even look at the ingredients for because I can’t imagine how I’d live without it and seeing how toxic it all is would make me feel like I should give it up…


Acorn cookies

acorn chocolate chip cookies

Gathering acorns is dangerous business. Upon finally finding a tree that actually HAS acorns on it, I started gathering un-holey ones off the ground. After a few minutes I felt something whiz past my head. I looked around, couldn’t see anything, went back to collecting. Another thing whizzed past my head. I looked up. A squirrel was throwing things at me. We made eye contact and he threw a tree branch. A TREE BRANCH. It missed my head by a few inches. Luckily, I made it out unscathed. Be warned: any person with visions of gathering plant matter being like Snow White dancing through a forest with birds and squirrels dancing in your wake will have their fantasies smashed to pieces really fast. You fight squirrels for their bounty, get whacked in the face by tree branches, scuff hands and knees and generally emerge looking like a scratched up tree-urchin more than a Disney princess.

A funny thing happened when I was preparing to make these cookies. Hank posted something on Facebook about how all acorns need to be leached and I said, “no, no, our local quercus lobata is sweet as can be”. He responded with a variation of “are you on crack?” and I thought the same thing about him and carried on shelling a big bag of acorns. As I popped them in the oven to roast, I thought back to what he’d said, and popped one in my mouth for a taste.

And emitted a loud YEUGH right before I spat it out. Really. Seriously. Bitter. I guess the tree I was using before had sweet acorns, which, according to Hank, are extremely rare. I lucked out in it being the first acorn tree I ever used!

Now, until I hike back to the sweet tree I, like everyone else, have to leach my acorns. *sob*

Acorns are labour intensive. It takes a couple of hours to shell a big bag, and then you have to grind and leach them and then I dehydrate them in the oven making it a whole ordeal that I wouldn’t dream about repeating every year if it wasn’t well worth it. But it is worth it. The nutty, sweet flavour is something you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s heavenly. Last year I made acorn gnocchi and almost cried when I ran out. This year I gathered more, and started out with cookies. Because, if you hadn’t yet noticed, I have a sweet tooth.

Acorn chocolate chip cookies

1/2 cup + 4 tb all purpose flour

1/2 cup acorn flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

4 tb sucanat or sugar

6 tb butter at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla

1 large egg

1/2 tsp salt

2 oz chocolate, chopped into chunks

 

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Then mix in the flours, baking powder and salt. Don’t overbeat- when it’s all incorporated, stir in the chocolate chunks then set the whole lot aside overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350. Scoop out little balls (I use a tablespoon measure, or a mini-ice cream scoop) onto a baking sheet. Flatten them slightly with the palm of your hand, and bake for 12-15 minutes. They’ll be soft when they come out the oven but will firm up as they cool.

 

For more information about using acorns for cooking, here’s Butter’s post on the matter.

And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth it to try cooking with acorns, believe me, it is. Check back at the end of the month for our Round Up of acorn recipes.

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Dia de los muertos

 

I turned 30 last week. If you haven’t had a big birthday roll around in the middle of the week, I highly recommend you try it: you get a party the weekend before, a dinner out the day of, and then those who couldn’t make it to the party will take you out the weekend after, making it a birth-week instead of a birth-day!

Almost fifteen years ago, I went to Nogales for an interview at immigration. Driving through the desert in Tuscon was pretty, then there was a little town with a McDonalds, Ralph’s, Bank of America, you know- the same stuff you see in pretty much every town from San Diego to Maine. Yawnsville, USA. And then we crossed the border into Mexico and instantly there was COLOUR and NOISE. There were taxis blaring mariachi music and people shouting at each other, and murals on the walls, and people selling fruit by the side of the road. I know that Nogales isn’t the nicest place in Mexico, and that in recent years it’s gotten even worse because of the drug wars, but I tell you, that day, it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I started to become a little obsessed with Mexican culture. Finding out that the entire country has a party on my birthday was the final nail in the coffin (no pun intended). We had a bunch of Day of the Dead cut-outs that I dragged back from Mexico last year, and I built an 8′ tall Catrina statue to stand at the back of the garden. Then we went to the flower market downtown and picked up 40 bunches of marigolds. Add some candles, a kick-ass playlist (Kinky and Mariachi El Bronx; try listening to this song without smiling) , awesome company, and 100 tacos, and it’s an instant party. An instant party that took about a week to prepare for because 8′ tall paper mache effigies take some effort…

Other things that made it brilliant included a gluten free skull-shaped birthday cake made by BFF and sister in law extraordinaire . An air sex show. No seriously; I think they heard our laughter in Hawaii. Almost all the people I love the most in one place. The scent of datura blossoms and marigolds filling our small garden. And not having to drive anywhere after drinking an obscene number (for me: 3) of watermelon-basil coolers.

My brother, Alex, lover of all things alcoholic, came up with a cocktail recipe for me to make. It was his contribution since he couldn’t come down from the Bay area. It involves watermelon, which you can still find at markets around here (can you still find it where you are?), and basil, which is plentiful in my garden as it’s one of my favourite medicinal herbs, and ginger, which you can get at any grocery store. I was going to try and come up with something cool made with wild ingredients, like a prickly pear cactus cooler or something fun, but my attempts at cocktail recipes in the past have been described as non-alcoholic sodas by others, so I figured I’d go with what the semi-pro has to say…

 

 

Of course I forgot to take pictures of the actual drink. But let it suffice to say that I ran out, twice, because it was so delicious.

Alex Altman’s Watermelon-basil Cooler.

2 oz vodka
3 basil leaves
1 2″ chunk of watermelon
1 .25×2″ piece of ginger (peeled)
.5 oz simple syrup
.5 oz lime juice (about half a lime)
Ginger Ale

Muddle together the basil, watermelon, ginger, and simple syrup. Add the lime juice and vodka. Shake it all together a la Tom Cruise. Top up with ginger ale to taste.

To make larger quantities, just multiply the numbers. I used a whole big watermelon and a box of basil and about a quart of simple syrup and a loooot of vodka.

 

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Herbs for athletes. Part 2.

Following up from last week, where I wrote about herbs for athletic performance, this week I want to talk about injuries. Because they happen to the best of us.

I’ve seen some seriously gnarly injuries over the years, from my own torn LCL, to a separated AC joint with an inch separating the acromion and the clavicle (I almost threw up when I stuck my finger in there) to a full on broken back. Some of these things needed surgery (like the AC joint) and some didn’t (like the broken back and my LCL). Injuries are often complex, and can be debilitating. Not only that but they bring up a whole range of emotions, from anger to depression, because let’s face it, for those of us who love being active, the thought of having to rest, lose strength, lose flexibility and sit still for days on end can be miserable. From my own personal practice, and talking to people who have been in practice for a lot longer than me (either as herbalists or instructors) here are some of the things that work best.

HERBS FOR PAIN AND TISSUE REPAIR

Solomon’s seal. This is, hands down, my favourite herb for musculoskeletal injuries. I put my 2 month LCL recovery down to this herb alone (well that and hydrotherapy and the other stuff I list here). It is the best thing I’ve ever used for ligament and tendon issues, will help heal torn muscles and repair broken bones. For bad injuries, I’ll use a tincture internally and a salve (with goldenrod and cottonwood and alder too) externally. Remember that guy I told you about with the separated AC joint? Well although he wasn’t fully healed without surgery, using solomon’s seal restored some sort of function to his left arm, and he carried on training up until the day before his surgery.

Goldenrod. For those aches that keep you up at night, goldenrod infused oil is downright amazing, topically. There were some nights when my torn LCL would ache so badly I was writhing, and goldenrod reduced the pain enough to let me sleep. It also helps repair torn muscles.

Teasel. For torn muscles. I’ve used a salve with teasel, goldenrod and cottonwood for a really badly torn gastrocnemius and other minor tears with great success.

St. John’s wort. St. John’s wort is seriously brilliant for agonizing nerve pain. It also helps repair damaged tissues with a quickness. I use it both externally (oil) and internally (tincture).

Comfrey leaf. For breaks and tearsthere’s a reason it’s called ‘knit bone’. I do tincture internally and salve externally*.

Cottonwood. Oil or liniment. Topically, for pain. Amazing.

Tobacco leaf. Oil. To be honest, using tobacco topically makes me feel nauseous, but plenty of other people seem to do fine with it, and it’s definitely numbing.

NUTRITION

The most important thing while injured is to get enough protein and fat so that your body is adequately nourished to repair itself. Eat high quality wild or grass-fed meats, high quality animal fats and butter fats, with lots of vegetables. Also, bone broth- it’s delicious to sip on, and provides lots of amino acids and collagen and building blocks for your body to heal itself faster.

 

ABOUT INFLAMMATION

I’m not a fan of taking anti-inflammatories, be them herbal or pharmaceutical. Here’s why:

A certain amount of inflammation helps your body heal faster. Inflammatory cells (macrophages) produce a large amount of insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) which in turn repair injuries faster. I am fully convinced that the body knows best how to handle things like injuries, and inflammation seems to be its way of having resources sent to the areas that need them. Instead of reducing the inflammation, you can do things that HELP the body’s natural healing processes like the following:

Hydrotherapy. The basic principle of hydrotherapy is simple: Blast the area for 2 minutes with water as hot as you can handle, and then a 30-second blast with freezing cold water. Do this as many times a day as you can. It stimulates circulation to the area, speeding healing and reducing pain. You wouldn’t think that a simple bit of water would help, but I’ve seen it work over and over again, and really shortens recovery time.

Movement. When injured, after the initial inflammation has gone down, gentle movement can really help. I’m not talking about flinging oneself back into full practice-mode (or full workout mode), but adjusting ones practice and really using the time to listen to the body and move at a snail’s pace. With myself that meant doing a yoga practice with some serious modifications (my knee couldn’t support my weight at some angles, and any kind of lateral motion would re-tear), paying really close attention to what I was doing and how it was feeling. I got to the point where I could feel when inflammation was starting, and that was when I knew to stop. You don’t want to reinjure yourself or set yourself back, but having your body send more resources to the area is a good thing.

Rest. Chances are, if you’re type-A like me, the thought of sitting still makes you frustrated, especially when you’ve got a to-do list the length of Santa’s gift list. Guess what? You won’t heal if you don’t rest. Use this time to ask people for help. It’s humbling and it sucks, but the majority of people will be glad to. Use this time to watch movies and write lists and plan for how you’re going to LAUNCH into action when you’re back on your feet. But for now, take it easy dude.

 

A LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

Being injured doesn’t always mean being set back. It can mean having to change some things. This isn’t always a bad thing. For example: tearing my LCL was, at the time, debilitating. I hadn’t realised beforehand that half of the hip-opening poses I’d been doing by actually cranking my knee joint. My hips, which I thought were getting more flexible over the years, weren’t much more open than they were when I started. My knees, however, were getting stretched in the wrong direction every single day. Pain can be a wake-up call that you’re not doing something right. It can be really easy to get mad at the area that’s hurting, but there’s a bigger picture here- you’re the one USING that area, and maybe there’s a more efficient way to do so. Within a few months of being back on the mat properly, my practice was infinitely stronger, more stable and more open than it had been before. What had started out as a huge inconvenience was actually an eye-opener, and I’m so grateful that it happened!

 

PRODUCT SOURCES

For the bulk herbs mentioned, Mountain Rose Herbs pretty much carries all of them.

To get Solomon’s Seal tincture, go HERE.

To get my Busted Joint Ointment, which provides healing and pain relief (and contains a lot of the ingredients listed), go HERE. 

My favourite book on chronic musculo-skeletal issues and repetitive use injuries. I can’t recommend this book enough, really truly. It’s changed my life, and those of SO many friends and clients.

 

 

*There’s a lot of information out there about comfrey root causing liver failure. I recommend people read up on it themselves and decide whether they want to take the leaf internally or not. I do it, but that’s me.

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Rhubarb-almond tart

We’ve been busy round here. Next Wednesday is my 30th birthday, and we’re throwing a Dia De Los Muertos party in the back yard. I basically wanted to recreate the graveyard in San Miguel De Allende that we spent my birthday in last year, and I’m one of those annoying people who will try and make everything myself, so we’ve been building Katrina statues and gravestones and hanging paper cut outs and gathering flowers. No mariachi bands or actual dead people, but the former we can simulate and the latter I don’t ACTUALLY want at my birthday party…

And it’s been cold. Cold enough for central heating and for steaming mugs of coffee and wrapping up in blankets. Cold enough for the light to get crisp and bright. Cold enough for tarts that are piping hot and fresh out the oven after a roast dinner.

I call things like this mid-week tarts. Because they’re delicious and rustic and the kind of thing that’s nice to have around in the fridge for snacking on or in case guests come over. It could be diner party food, or leftovers-for-breakfast food, or lunch, or afternoon tea break, or anything you want really. And, yeah, I know, it’s fall. And that rhubarb and fall go together like beer and liqueur. But I live in Southern California, where I can get rhubarb at the farmers market. And rhubarb pretty much always excites me. There are tons of things that ARE available that would be delicious in a galette- pears (drizzles with brandy!), apples, persimmons…

What are you guys doing for Halloween or Day of the Dead? Dressing up? Parties? Switching all the lights off and hiding?

Rhubarb galette with an almond crust.

This crust recipe comes from Sarabeth’s cook book. I modified it a bit, switched in gluten free flour, changed the quantities a touch, but that’s it. 

For the almond crust:

1/2 cup sliced almonds (or 1/4 cup almond meal)

1 cup plus 1 tb all purpose flour (or gluten free flour)

1/4 cup sugar

1/8 tsp salt

8 tb butter

1 egg yolk, beaten

1 tb very cold heavy cream

For the tart:

1 lb rhubarb

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 cup sugar

 

To make the dough:

Grind the almonds in a blender until like a coarse meal. In a big bowl, dump the flour, ground almonds, sugar and salt. Break the butter (very cold butter) into chunks, and start to mix through with your fingers. Start pinching the butter into the flour, quickly and regularly, until the butter is in pea-sized chunks, and the flour is looking quite grainy. Then, mix together the egg yolk and cream, then pour over the mixture. Using your fingers, quickly bring the mixture together, without working it too much. If it’s too dry, add a tiny bit more cream. It should barely hold together. Roll into a ball. Flatten with the palm of your hand until it’s a disc, then wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 30 mins.

To make the tart: 

Roll out the pastry dough into a big round on a Silpat or similar. Chop the rhubarb into appropriate size- I laid them out over the round and made little marks where I was going to cut each one. Then lay them out. Mix the sugar and vanilla together, sprinkle liberally over the rhubarb, and fold the edges over. If you’re not going to bake it immediately, stick it on a solid board of some kind in the freezer- mine often hangs out there for a few hours till I’m ready to cook it, that way I’m not frantically making dessert while dinner’s cooking. A chef friend once explained this to me- something about the water in the butter not getting the dough all soggy, and when it cooks it expands quickly, or, er, something. There’s a chemical reason for this. I also like that it’s out of the way. And it does seem to make the crust deliciously flaky. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350. Plop 4 dabs of butter (about 1 tsp each) over the rhubarb, and slide into the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the rhubarb is very tender.

Cut with a sharp knife- that rhubarb has lots of stringy bits.


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Herbs for athletes. Part 1.

I’ve been practicing ashtanga yoga for 5 years now. Which isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, but as far as a daily practice goes, it feels like forever. Or almost forever. There’s a running (not very funny) joke in the ashtanga community: daily classes are called ‘Mysore style’ based on the part of India from which ashtanga originates. So people say things like ‘Mysore back’ or ‘Mysore knee’. It’s *kinda* funny the first time, the reason being that it’s true. Yogis get injured a lot. Most of the time it’s just a nagging pain here or there that isn’t enough to actually call it an injury. Sometimes it’s a bigger deal. Over the last 5 years, there are certain things that come up time and again with most of the yogis I talk to. Issues with strength and endurance, issues with injuries and weak spots, issues with recovery time and with joints. I don’t think this applies to yoga alone, and most of these could apply to anybody with any kind of physical practice, be it running, jujitsu or dance. I’m splitting this article into three parts because it’s kinda long. Today I’ll post about strength and endurance. Next week, about injuries, and the week after, about recovery.

 

HERBS AND THERAPEUTICS FOR STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE:

Some people build muscle easily. I am not one of those people. As someone who tends towards estrogenic excess, I really have to work hard to build strength. These aren’t herbs that I’d recommend to people who build muscle easily on their own- as far as I’m concerned, herbs don’t work like that. I get seriously irritated when I see people taking herbs for energy when they have enough energy, or herbs to build muscle when they don’t have an imbalance there- it might help in the short term, but it’ll throw your body out of balance, and probably cause more problems in the long run. That said, I’ve noticed a huge difference in my endurance and ability to build muscle from taking a few different herbs and supplements:

Ashwaghanda.  I have a serious love affair going on with this little plant. It’s an adaptogen, which basically means it helps the body respond to stress better, but it also helps with androgen imbalance, which in turn helps you build muscle. I can always tell when I’m starting to get over-exhausted because things that shouldn’t stress me out all of a sudden start making me cry. You too? Get some ashwaghanda and give it a try. One of the things I like best about ashwaghanda is that it’s slightly sedative in action- it really calms you down, and if you take it before bed, it’ll help you sleep more deeply. I start to notice a difference after a couple of doses, but, like all tonic herbs, it needs to be taken long-term to get the full effects. The one I get is from Zack Woods Herb Farm, but Mountain Rose and Pacific Botanicals both sell it as well.

Maca. I’ve just started experimenting with this herb as a friend brought some back from Peru. The thing I notice first is a burst of energy, which seems to fade over the next couple of hours. It supposedly balances sex hormones, and is often used as an aphrodesiac though, once again, it only works when it’s constitutionally called for- it’s not like taking a herbal viagra because herbs don’t work like that. If somebody tells you that they do, or that something is one-size fits all then they’re likely selling snake oil :). With regards to maca, I’ve noticed a minor increase in my strength after taking this for a week or so; not quite as much as when I take…

Eleuthero. Like ashwaghanda and maca, eleuthero is a strong tonic herb with pretty quick results. I notice an immediate energy boost from taking a dropper of the tincture (I use the one made by HerbPharm). It helps with muscle building pretty quickly, and I noticed the most significant strength increase from taking eleuthero. Matthew Wood says that you can even watch dark circles fading away, which I think is a neat trick. There are different types of dark circles, of course. It ain’t gonna work for all of them, but if you have black shadows under your eyes from severe exhaustion, the right tonic herbs will really help.

Nettle seed. Fresh nettle seeds can be slightly speedy, which come in handy first thing in the morning if you’re adverse to drinking coffee before yoga practice but still have trouble gathering the energy to do it. Dried nettle seeds provide a slow and sustained energy that can still be too much for some before bed, but for most, it’s ok. They also help to rebuild worn out adrenals, and help with endurance.

Argenine. Argenine is fantastic if you’re not opposed to taking amino acids. It helps with recovery (cuts sore muscle time in half, seriously), helps build strength and muscle. You can get a fancy version called NO2, but it’s very expensive and I haven’t noticed any difference between that and regular old pharmaceutical grade argenine which you can buy online in powder form. Warning: the powder form tastes beyond foul, and if you’re already a testosteroney person, your sex drive will be out of control and nobody will want to talk to you because of your aggression issues.

 

Other things…

Other things that help with strength and endurance are:

Sleep. I’m not kidding. Your body can’t run on empty, and the majority of America is experiencing some kind of sleep debt or another. Most people need 8+ hours a night. If you haven’t been getting that and you feel tired a lot then you’re likely not going to achieve optimum levels of strength or endurance.

Calories. I’m not talking about carb-loading. I hate carb-loading. But getting adequate amounts of protein and fat is absolutely necessary if you’re putting your body through the wringer. And if you’re an athlete and counting calories at the same time but don’t have to weigh in tomorrow then you’re doing yourself a disservice- our bodies know best. Really, truly. I meet with too many people who say things like ‘but you don’t understand- if I listened to my body then I’d eat nothing but butter!’. This isn’t a bad thing! Stop counting calories and add an extra pat of butter to your sweet potato- your body will thank you, promise.

Weight lifting. I’m not talking about full on gym sessions, but quick bursts of activity. These quick bursts (say, leaving your desk for 4 minutes to do some Tabata sprints around the building, or doing kettle bell swings, or push ups)  jump start HGH production in your body, burn fat and give you a little energy boost. Really quick bursts like this make a bigger difference than doing long sessions on the side, in my opinion.