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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.

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Pickled Watermelon Rinds

I like watching people test for good watermelons, because it makes them look crazy. I know this, because I do it, and people look at me like I’m crazy. I learned the knocking technique from an Israeli woman who claimed to be the ‘queen of vegetables’, who would bustle around the grocery store, knocking on watermelons until she’d delightedly find the right one (about which she’d then shout across the store in her loudest voice, deafening those around her and embarrassing those who were with her).

I started doing it tentatively, and then enthusiastically, and now I end up teaching a couple of people how to do it each time.

It’s easy. All you do is put the watermelon to your ear, and knock on it like you’re knocking on somebody’s door. Knock like it’s a business meeting, not your sleeping neighbour. And listen for a dull throb, not a high pitched ding. The dullest throb you find is the watermelon for you. And then teach somebody else how to do it, because they’ll be looking at  you like you’re crazy. Conversely, you could just start replying to said watermelon, and you might clear a space for yourself in the line…

Pickled watermelon rinds have caught my curiosity for a couple of years, but I was always too lazy to make them. Then, when I was visiting Butter in Boulder, we went to The Pinyon- one of the restaurants she forages for, and on their {gorgeous} menu were pickled watermelon rinds. So we ordered them, and I ate the entire jar, and fell asleep thinking about them. Most recipes for pickled rinds use just the white part, but at The Pinyon, they leave some of the flesh attached. And I tell ya, I’ll never do it any other way- having that little bit of deliciousness is crazy good, and it means you don’t need to specifically find a watermelon with big white rinds.

They’re easy to make. Ridiculously easy. And delicious. Ridiculously delicious. Crisp, tart, sweet, wateremelony. Great served with a rare steak and a glass of wine. Great in a sandwich with chicken and arugula. Great on their own or with cheddar when you’re wandering aimlessly into the kitchen in the afternoon trying to figure out what to do next.

Pickled Watermelon Rinds

1 large watermelon

2 cups cider vinegar

2 cups water

1 cup sugar

 

Using a vegetable peeler, peel the watermelon as best as you can. Cut it in half first (so it doesn’t roll all over the place) and go at it. For hard to peel parts you can use a paring knife, but try to use a peeler as much as possible so you get as much rind as possible.

Cut the half in half. Then, delicately, cut out the flesh, leaving about an inch of red flesh attached to the white rind. Then, slice the flesh-deprived quarters into 2-inch-wide strips. You’ll have a little triangle left over. Slice each of those strips into thin strips that are 2-inches long. I made all of mine about 2 milimeters wide, but you can go thinner than that if you prefer them less crunchy.

Now you have a pile of strips of watermelon rinds, stuff them into jars, however you want. You can be pretty about it or quick about it- I did some of both. The pretty ones have been given away, the quick ones are being devoured by the day…

Bring the water, cider and sugar to a boil. Remove from the heat, and start ladling the liquid into the jars filled with watermelon. The liquid must be boiling hot. Put the lids on- they should seal (if not, eat those ones first). Wait for them to cool, then refrigerate.

I’m sure you can pressure can these so that they’re shelf-stable but I figured we’d go through them all so fast it wasn’t entirely necessary. If giving them away as gifts, a little ‘please keep refrigerated’ label probably wouldn’t go amiss though.

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Wilderness

One of the things I love about Los Angeles is how close everything is. Within 5 ours of my house we have skiing, white water rafting, deserts, mountains (including the highest mountain in the continental US), ocean, lake, hot springs and goodness knows what else. Around LA alone there’s over 4,000,000 acres of hikeable wilderness, which gives me a lot of choice when it comes to picking where I want to go. Even better is that the majority of Angelenos seem to stick to two hiking trails- Runyon Canyon on the East side, and the Pali loop on the West. Which means that on quite a lot of days, even though I live in one of the biggest cities in the world, I have a place entirely to myself.

If you stay in the city, you’d have to look really hard to see that the seasons are changing, especially when we’re hit with 98 degree days in the middle of October. But if you get out, even a few miles out, you can’t help but notice the effect the hot, dry summer has had on everything, and notice that the ground is covered in leaves and acorns, and that the sun is lower, the light longer and the air has a bite to it that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. It’s much more subtle than the East coast fall colours. But I love that about deserty places- the subtlety of everything except the landscape itself.

Adorable little face poking through the branches!

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Palestinian Mousakhan: chicken with sumac, onions and pine nuts.

There’s something distinctly thrilling to me about coming home with a bag of things that I’ve gathered, and using them all the time. Maybe because it’s a throwback to something more primal? Maybe because it makes you feel more connected with nature? Maybe all of the above.

A few days ago, the weather finally cooled down enough to turn the oven on. After a taste of fall, a few days of rain, and a day with the heater on, the temperatures soared to 98 degrees with no breeze. Days were spent sitting around eating watermelon and ice cream, and complaining. There was lots of complaining. Finally the temperatures dropped and a cool breeze blew through LA. I hope this is it, but you can never tell around here.

With the temperatures lower, I finally made it out to gather some sumac. Commonly used as a kitchen spice in many parts of the Middle East, it’s relatively unused here. There seems to be a bit of misinformation about what types can be used- in one book I read last week it said to always use the stuff you can buy from Middle Eastern shops because American sumac is poisonous and tasteless- and this is false on both counts. Of course you can use store-bought stuff in a pinch, but I highly recommend going out for a walk and finding some wild American sumac. Not only do you know where it comes from, but it is seriously delicious stuff. Our local sumac gets all drippy with sour juices. I’ll nibble on them while I’m hiking- it helps so much with the dehydration that is common to us summer-heat-hikers.

This sumac chicken recipe is a major adaptation on something I read in The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan. I was slightly nervous about the combination of sumac and cloves, but it’s actually beautiful. It tastes like I remember Israel tasting. The spices aren’t overwhelming, and the flavours mingle perfectly. I served it with yogurt (a raita-type thing with cucumbers chopped through it) and rice. It’d be delicious with couscous, or flatbreads or pita (which is what the original recipe said to serve it with).

If you’re interested, I’ve written about the medicinal properties of sumac (and other astringents) here.

 

Palestinian Mousakhan: Chicken with sumac, onions and pine nuts. 

serves 4

1/2 cup olive oil

2 large onions

3 cloves garlic

I chicken, in 4 pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighsandlegs)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tb pine nuts

2 1/2 tb ground sumac

1/8 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp ground coriander

stems of 1 bunch cilantro, tied with string

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/2 tsp salt

 

Method:

Place the onions, garlic and olive oil in a blender, and blend until a thick paste. Add the spices, then pour over the chicken, and leave to marinade for up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a tagine, or casserole dish, heat with a couple of tb of olive oil. Add the chicken, sauce and chicken stock. Pop the lid on and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes. Then remove the lid, sprinkle with pine nuts, and put in the oven for 15 minutes until the chicken is done. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve over rice or with pita bread.

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Mexico memories

I am dead set on turning my back yard into a Mexican graveyard for my birthday party this year, so Jam and I went downtown to Olivera Street to find decorations. Called ‘El Pueblo de Los Angeles’, Olivera St is the OG LA. For a while, it WAS Los Angeles. Now it’s more like a mini Mexico tourist market with a whole bunch of imports. Except they’re really expensive imports. It might not seem so at first, but after going to Mexico City for some of this stuff, I was horrified at how expensive it all was! It’s kinda the same as how I feel whenever I see cheap imported Indian skirts. I’ve actually stormed out of a few shops shouting “I COULD’VE BOUGHT THIS FOR 200 RUPEES!” while bobbing my head ferociously. Honestly guys, world travel turns you into a hostile and fierce shopper…

 

Things that remind me of Mexico (and therefore make me happy): 

Coffee with cinnamon, cardamom and cream. 

Flan

Street tacos 

corn on the cob sprinkled with cayenne, lime juice, butter and salt

pineapple sprinkled with cayenne

Mexican hot chocolate

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Lobster Mushroom Spaghetti

These chanterelle pictures- they’re from last year. From one of my favourite spots that, after a few days of scoring great mushrooms was obviously someone elses’ spot too, as from that day on, no amount of searching would find me anything except overturned non-chanterelles. This year, I’ll be looking for a new spot. But that won’t be for another month or so. And until then, I was getting really jealous of everyone elses’ mushroom stories.

So I cheated. I went to WTF* and bought some lobsters. Lobster mushrooms are actually a mushroom that’s been eaten by a fungus. It’s weird and kinda awesome. If you eat it before the fungus takes it over then it’ll taste like ass (technical term). But afterwards, it turns bright orangey red** and tastes like lobster. Really truly, lobster. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t really want too many flavours to get in the way of. Two nights ago I did a simple sautee with garlic and apple cider, and last night I did the same thing but then added cream and stirred the whole lot into brown rice spaghetti.

Then I went and sat on the stoop, listened to Indian music, and watched the moody sun set over Los Angeles. The smell or rain on warm asphalt was still in the air from this afternoon. The clouds were electric against a bright purple sky. Tumultuous weather makes me happy.


Lobster mushroom spaghetti (which works for any fancy mushroom, really, including chanterelles (pictured))

1/2 lb mushrooms

2 tb olive oil

2 tb butter

1/4 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup apple cider (the alcoholic kind; the good kind)

1/4 cup cream

3 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp salt

 

Get a big pot of water boiling for the spaghetti. Once at a rolling boil, add 1/2 tb of salt and a bit of olive oil. Throw in the spaghetti and set the timer.

Chop the mushrooms into bite-sized chunks. In a heavy sauteeing pan, on medium heat, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the mushrooms and, after about 30 seconds, the chicken stock. Turn the heat to high. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring kinda regularly, until the chicken stock is almost all evaporated, then pour in the cider. It’ll bubble and make nice smells through the kitchen. The mushrooms will be getting kinda soft. When the timer goes for the spaghetti, dump it all into a collander then turn the heat on the mushrooms down to medium again. When the cider is almost all evaporated, stir in the cream, then add the spaghetti. Stir, to coat everything, then serve.

 

*Whole Foods. Somehow it has become ‘whatthefuck’ in our household. Even the cat calls it that.

**I actually had a bit of a fit looking at this colour first hand. It’s the kind of colour that makes me want to rub whatever is that colour all over my face and roll around in it like some dogs roll around in poo.

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Black walnut pear tart

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it took me days to recover from my road trip. Driving for a long time is irrationally exhausting. I  expected to get home, and get back to work. For about 4 of the 19 hours it took to get home from Colorado, I was writing lists in my head of all the things I’d do when I got home. Of course, the more bored and agitated I got sitting in the car, the more extravagant my lists got. By the time I got home, I had lists of things to make (black walnut crust, black walnut cream liqueur, black walnut henna, black walnut crusted somethingorother, black walnut soup), lists of things to do (write a book, buy a trailer to make future awesome road trips more fun, find funding to open a shop, move to Big Sur, beg my friends and family to send me to Nicaragua for the clinical training course thing that I want to do), lists of things to organise (my office. I won’t even show you pictures because it’s too embarrassing), lists of people to email, lists of… well you get the picture.

And you know, by the time I got home, I was so tired that I just hid my suitcase somewhere near the washing machine, took a shower, and crawled into bed. And didn’t emerge until Tuesday. When I promptly started at the top of my list: black walnut crust.

I’m beginning to think that the crust gene skips a generation. Of course, my evidence is limited to my own family, and I have jumped to grander conclusions based on less. But my grandma makes a damn good tart crust, and I, if I can say this about myself, do too. Mum, on the other hand, bakes the best challah this side of the Nile but is self-admittedly not the best pastry person.

You see, my theories are well researched. When somebody discovers the pastry gene in the future and there’s a Nobel prize in the running, I want it noted here and now that I THOUGHT OF IT FIRST.

And I really love a good tart. Fruit tarts, creamy tarts, savoury tarts, I really don’t care, as long as it has a stodgy crust and something to complement that stodgy crust. Enter black walnut.

The walnutty yet more complex and delicious than a walnut flavour is perfect in a crust. It’s firm, not as oily as a bag of rancid old nuts that you get at the store, and just different enough that it makes you pause while chewing to figure out what that extra deliciousness is. Don’t worry, nobody will be able to figure it out and you’ll be deemed the master of mystery ingredients for years to come.

I filled the crust with pear slices because it was what I had on hand (still to tired to actually leave the house; not too tired to bake). But really, given a chance I’d probably do something amazing like a goat cheesecake filling with balsamic glazed figs on top. Yeah, I think that’d be really nice. Though pears were really good, especially with a bit of custard underneath them.

On a side note, how sexy are these late summer/ early fall fruits? Pears (they look like a Nikki De Saint Phalle sculpture). Figs (I took a photo of a fig last year that looked exactly like a boob). Sharon fruit (or persimmons as you Americanos like to call them) just look vibrant and luscious and sexy. And apples, well isn’t that Eve’s fruit? I wanted to use a cross section of an apple as my KRA logo but all the feedback I got said it looked like a vagina and people might get the wrong impression. Hmph.

So… another question: What’s the sexiest fruit, in your opinion?

Black Walnut and Pear Tart

Crust:

Adapted from the Bouchon cookbook

2 cups black walnut pieces (you can substitute another nut if you’re unadventurous :P)

1/3 cup sugar

3 cups flour

8oz butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

 

Creme anglaise:

1 cup cream

1 cup whole milk

1/3 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

3 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

 

and:

1/2 pear per mini tart.

 

Make the crust:

In a food processor, pulse the nuts until they’re in small pieces, then add the flour, salt, and sugar. Add the butter, cut into a few pieces, and pulse until it’s broken up into pea-sized pieces. Then add the egg and pulse in ten-second bursts until the sound changes and it thickens into one cohesive pastry-like lump. Turn out onto a floured surface, mold into a disc, wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Peel the pears. Cut in half, cut the core out, and then slice lengthwise so that each half is sliced about 6 times.

Roll out the tart crust and press into mini tart pans. Lay the pears in each tart pan, about half a pear per tart. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for about 35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the pears look wilted.

 

Meanwhile make the creme anglaise:

Combine cream, milk, sugar and vanilla in a heavy bottomed saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat once the sugar is melted. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs together. Then spoon about 1 cup of the hot milk into the eggs, whisking fast. Repeat, then pour the egg mixture back into the pan. Turn on a low heat, and, stirring constantly, heat up for about 10 minutes, or until the custard has thickened. Don’t overheat or it’ll curdle!

Pour it into a serving dish of some kind. When the tarts are ready, remove from the oven, plate and then drizzle with the custard.

 

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Traditions

When I started to write this post, I was sitting in Butter’s kitchen, with the smell of wild plums and sugar infusing the air. I was visiting her as part of a road trip that led me through New Mexico, to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, then up to Northern Colorado for some mountain and foraging time, then back across the mountains and the desert to Los Angeles. 2355 miles in ten days or so. A zillion plants. Some of the most wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to meet.

Driving through the Southwest is no great chore to me. I remember, a few years ago, when a Costa Rican friend came to visit and we went to Joshua Tree national park, and she was horrified. She said that everything looked so dead. That life, to her, is green and brightly coloured, and that the starkness of the desert made her feel funny. And quite honestly, after doing the drive from Utah to Vegas in late summer, I’d be inclined to agree if I didn’t have such a love of all places stark and craggy. I think about putting myself in the jungle and it makes me crazy. Like Rochester when he got to the Caribbean*. All that green, all that moisture, all that colour. I start slapping my arms imagining ghost insects and (not to be melodramatic or anything) I am pretty sure I’d die of some kind of exotic fever if I weren’t allowed to leave.

The conference was at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. A state described as the ‘Land of Enchantment’. It’s a good name for it. The second you cross the border from Arizona the scenery starts to change. Big dramatic mesas intersected by moody rivers rise up into startling blue skies. Then the late summer storms cut in, and what was bright blue five minutes before can be heaving with pent up energy. I drove through one storm that scared the crap out of me. The rain was coming down so hard, and the lightning striking so often that if I hadn’t been on a freeway with lots of other moving cars I’d have stopped right where I was to wait it out. But I couldn’t see the shoulder and couldn’t be sure that nobody would hit me (because they couldn’t see either) so I kept my eyes focused on the barest outline of the white stripe to my left and kept going.

I passed the continental divide. Which kind of blew my mind a little bit. Things like that often do. I stood there staring at the sign for a minute trying to figure out why there are no waterways that start East of there that flow to the Pacific but it was all too much for me so I ate some chocolate instead**.

I got to Ghost Ranch after dark. Made the mistake of trying to read for five minutes (*cough* I’m reading the Twilight series. This is embarrassing. What is more embarrassing is that I stomped around the house yesterday in a bad mood because Edward had the audacity to leave Bella and kept glaring at Jam like he’d done something seriously wrong.), finished my book, and then slept for 12 hours.

Ghost Ranch is stunningly beautiful. Crazy beautiful. Even more stunning than the scenery are the herb conference attendees. There’s something really nice about being surrounded by people who think absolutely nothing of you stopping to look at every shrub or munch things as you pick them off trees. About being around a group of people who, for better or worse, are following their calling (because, let’s face it, nobody gets into herbalism for the money). Some people are trying to make the world a better place, some are trying to help people, and some are (as Matt Wood so eloquently put it last year) ‘just in it for the plants’. It’s a non-pretentious group too. I can’t imagine many big conferences of any profession where the bigshot presenters are just as humble as the newbie learner. I think some of that has to do with the way it’s organised- Kiva and Wolf (the directors) made a choice to not let anyone put any letters after their names. They aren’t even allowed to use powerpoint. Not to devalue their experience, but to show that experience is what counts, not letters, or degrees or social status. And that’s the thing I like the most about it. Some of the teachers are licenced in some form or another, and some are proudly unlicensed. Some have been practicing for 30 odd years with no license at all. Taking away all the extraneous stuff makes the lectures more about experience and information, and it’s, in my opinion, a really great idea.

My favourite lecture turned out to be by Paul Bergner, on Herbs for the Spiritual Heart. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it. I hate the word ‘spiritual’ and any reference to it. But in talking about formulas to enlighten the heart, to protect it, to centre it, Paul passed around formulas that we all tried. And I tell ya, looking at the 50-odd people in that classroom change a bit after taking each formula made me want to cry a little bit. I left that class feeling like I loved everyone and everything. Luckily it only lasted an hour.

Other great classes that I attended were 7song teaching how to put together a good formula. CoreyPine Shane on herbs for pain (GREAT class!). Ryan Drum went over some case studies from his 30 odd years as the sole healthcare practitioner on his little island. Case studies make me happy; they’re never boring and there’s always something interesting and new to learn from another person’s experience.

But there were so many other classes I wish I’d gone to. Kiva Rose taught on Southwest folk herbalism. Lisa Ganora taught on plant constituents. Linda Garcia did first aid courses for herbalists. Sean Donahue taught on asthma. Todd Caldecott (who has an excellent new book out) taught on ayurveda. I’d list them all but I fear I already lost most of you about four paragraphs ago so let it suffice to say that if you’re remotely interested in herbalism- not just as a clinical herbalist but as a person with a kitchen who wants to be able to help out friends and family when they come down with something- check out the TWHC website***.

I left with a heavy heart. It didn’t help that (I can’t believe I didn’t know this) one half of Colorado is flat, and that’s the half I was driving up. Did I ever mention that flat places scare me? They do. They make me panic right in the middle of my belly, it’s horrible. Take away the big craggy rocks and mountains and my palms start to itch and sweat and I keep looking for an exit that isn’t there. Anyway, going to stay with Butter was a really nice way to wind down. We spent every day out foraging. Picking wild plums and apples and black walnuts and more herbs than I can list in one paragraph. We went to Rocky National Park and listened to the elks bugle while a storm rolled in. We ate at one of the restaurants that she forages for and were treated like royalty. We had a cheesy picnic up on top of a mountain in what quickly became a snow storm. The rockies are stunning. Heartbreakingly so. And they smell of clean air and ponderosa pine.

And we made wine. Wild plums grow everywhere around where Butter lives, and we had gathered enough to fill a couple of boxes. I’ve been really into making boozy things lately- from liqueurs to beers (complete failure), but had never tried wine. But plum wine sounded good. And really, it’s not complicated. It sounds complicated because thinking of wine people with their bouquets and fancy meters reading levels of things and all kinds of chemical processes are just scary. But wine for home consumption isn’t scary at all.

Plum Wine: 

1 quart plums

1 1/2 cups sugar

yeast (if the plums aren’t covered in that white wild yeasty stuff)

water

 

Put the plums in a big bowl, and using your hands, start to squish the hell out of them. Think nice thoughts. When making boozes you can’t ever go wrong with fermenting nice thoughts. When thoroughly squished, add the sugar, then pour the lot into a jar that would be left half empty. Fill up the other half with filtered water.

Cover with a cloth and rubber band and allow to ferment in a dark corner for 22 days. Then strain, bottle, and leave it for a year, after which it’ll be ready to drink.
By the way, if you’ve made it this far, do you guys get like that about places? Some places that you love and feel great in and some places repel you like two magnets held the wrong way? I’m curious- what kind of places do you love? 

 

ps. I put more photos on facebook

*Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Jean Rhys wrote it in response to Jane Eyre- it’s a fascinating character study and makes you see a whole lot more about Bertha than originally meets the eye. And I much prefer it to gothic romance :).

**Really, I don’t get it. Does this go all the way to the equator? South of the equator to Tierra Del Fuego? Is this why the waves down there are so scary to sail in? Is there not a single stream that goes the other way? If I pour a big bucket of water down at the divide will half of it go one way and half another (I should’ve tried that)?

***I didn’t even mention the music: 3 fantastic bands. We danced all night on Saturday. See, it’s a weight loss conference too.