3 Herb Mamas

Seasonal Living: RED RASPBERRY

Red Raspberry
(Rubus idaeus, R. spp.)

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It may seem like an odd time of the year to be writing about Raspberries but since this is my very favorite fruit of the wonderful fruits of the Earth I find some reason to think about, use, and appreciate Red Raspberry in every season. If you grow Raspberry canes in your garden, and I certainly hope you do, then February is the time to begin fertilizing for the year. I am a little behind schedule this year because we keep having snow and ice cover on the ground. It may actually be the first week of March before I can begin side-dressing my canes but I am hoping for a window of opportunity this weekend. Here is a recipe from an old Amish “receipt book” for Fruit Cane Fertilizer:

1 gallon well-sifted wood ash
1 gallon white lime
1 handful sulphur powder
1 handful epsom salts
Mix well and put one large handful around each plant February, March, April, and again in fall.
Make sure to sift out any chunks of wood from your ashes or they will lock up nitrogen as they break down and prevent your plants from benefiting from the nutrient.

Another reason I am thinking of Red Raspberries right now is because this is the time of year when I take stock of what is in the freezer and pantry. I like to make plans to use up anything that has been overlooked and it helps me make plans for the coming gardening season by letting me know what I need to plant more of and what we had in excess. I was delighted to find that we still had about 20 quarts of Red Raspberries in our freezer. Probably half of that will be made into Raspberry Jam to use, along with other flavors, as favors at our oldest daughter’s upcoming wedding this summer. I also made Raspberry Vinegar by simply filling a half gallon canning jar halfway full with frozen berries, then filling it to the top with raw Apple Cider Vinegar. Labeled and capped, this will be ready in plenty of time for making Raspberry Vinaigrette Dressing for our spring salads. I can hardly wait!

Red Raspberry Vinegar

I also made Red Raspberry Butter by combing 1/2 cup Raspberry puree with 1 cup softened butter and a generous tablespoon of local Honey. I whipped this well using a stick blender and stored it in the refrigerator to serve to top pancakes, waffles, toast, biscuits, or scone. Heavenly!

Raspberry Butter

I will also simply add thawed Raspberries to my morning homemade yogurt for a nutritious and delicious breakfast. Raspberries are rich in flavonoids, namely quercetin (along with others). Flavonoids are plant pigments with a plant metabolic function that benefits us, when we consume them, by signaling cell pathways and antioxidant activity. Quercetin is one of a group of flavonoids that reduces allergic responses and boosts immunity. Other good food sources of quercetin include red wine, onions, green tea, apples, buckwheat,and most berries. Other good herb sources include St. John’s Wort, Ginkgo, and Elder.

Raspberries and Yogurt Raspberry Yogurt

Several years ago I began eating 1 cup of berries, usually Red Raspberries or Blueberries, every day. A recent eye exam revealed that my vision had improved slightly and that the partially detached retina had healed and re-attached, although this only very rarely happens according to my eye doctor. This is only anecdotal information and hardly conclusive, but I think I will continue eating my daily cup of berries just the same. Red Raspberry is a “medicine” that does not need “a spoonful of sugar” to go down. Yummm…

Red Raspberry (or any of the other bramble species such as Black Raspberry, Wineberry, or Blackberry) leaves make a delicious tea that has an astringent toning effect on female reproductive organs and has a long tradition of use during late pregnancy and after giving birth. It is also effective for treating diarrhea and dysentery. Raspberry leaves are a rich source of minerals, especially calcium, iron, phosphorous, and potassium, as well as vitamins B, C, and E. I include this important herb in my own Herban Iron & Minerals syrup as well as in herbal vinegars that I use to boost nutrition in my salad dressings and marinades.

~Leenie

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SEASONAL LIVING: Wheat

Wheat Berries

Organic Wheat Berries (Triticum spp., probably Triticum Aesativum)

Winter is a good time to focus on hearty whole grains, root crops, and dark leafy greens along with some high-quality proteins for the bulk of the diet. These are nutrient dense, warming foods that are sustaining. Over the course of the next few weeks I will take a close look at a variety of grains including Oats and Rice. This week, let’s take a closer look at Wheat.

Wheat is getting a lot of bad press these days. I notice that there is so much media hype that equates wheat with gluten in a blanket way, similar to the way Atkins type diets a decade ago equated fruits and many vegetables with simple carbohydrates. Although gluten-intolerance may be a very legitimate condition, I expect that when the dust settles over this it will prove to be yet another dietary fad. That people following a standard American diet (a.k.a. SAD) consume far too much gluten in the form of processed, denatured white flours is undeniable. However, I am not yet convinced that this means all gluten needs to be eradicated from all diets. This smacks of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Those with colitis, celiac, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohne’s disease, and such certainly know the triggers for their condition beyond a shadow of a doubt and I am not suggesting that they do not need to follow non-standard diets any more than I would suggest a diabetic does not need to take care with what they consume. This blog post will be looking at organic whole grain Wheat as part of a well-balanced and varied diet appropriate for the general population.

Before I explore the benefits and delights of Wheat, another important consideration that may have contributed to its negative impression for many is serving size and quantity. Although male teens and active men have  9-11 servings suggested by the USDA food pyramid, women and children under 6 years old should consume only 6 servings per day. A serving size is ONE slice of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked grains, pasta, or rice. Measure your spaghetti the next time you make this dish. Hopefully you will not discover, as I did,  that you are eating about 4 servings. Add a couple of slices of French bread. Having rice or a sandwich at lunch time as well as toast or a bagel for breakfast? I could easily be eating twice the daily recommended allowance for grains. I believe this is very common in our busy, over-scheduled modern lives. Sandwiches, wraps, and pasta dishes are readily available, quick and satisfying to eat. But consuming in excess consistently is bound to lead to problems. So, if you do not have any dietary restrictions for health reasons, a first consideration might be trying to eat fewer grains while making certain they are high quality, organic, and whole.

Although theoretically “whole” grain products and recipes are available readily today at fast-food drive-thru windows, big box and grocery stores these bear little resemblance to what our earthier ancestors consumed. We sometimes forget that even whole wheat flour is a processed food. Once grains of Wheat are ground into flour, often “enriched” with synthetic vitamins and other preservatives and conditioners as in bromated flours, they begin to oxidize and decrease in nutritional value. If not properly stored the natural oils can become rancid. Traditionally, truly whole grains were soaked and/or fermented often for days before being cooked or prepared as breads, porridges, or simply cooked. Traditional European bakers not only used fermented starters for their doughs before the rise of modern commercial rapid-rise yeasts, but they would also allow for a long, cool rise often lasting several days. Faster does not always equal better.

Why is this soaking/fermenting of grains important? In simple terms, all grains are coated in the outer bran layer with an organic acid in which phosphorus is bound called phytic acid. In its natural state phytic acid combines with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and most importantly, zinc in the intestinal tract and blocks the absorption of these important minerals. In fact, a diet high in unfermented whole grains can actually lead to mineral deficiencies and bone loss. Soaking whole grains allows enzymes, lactobacilli, and other helpful organisms to neutralize phytic acid. Even soaking grains overnight in warm water before cooking reduces and neutralizes phytic acid and other enzyme inhibitors dramatically and improves their nutritional benefits. It actually encourages the production of beneficial enzymes that aid digestion and increases the amounts of many vitamins, especially B vitamins.

Wheat protein, including gluten, are difficult to digest and a diet high in unfermented whole grains stresses and slows the whole digestive process. However, during the process of soaking and fermenting, gluten along with other proteins are partially broken down, making them more readily available for absorption. Grains can be sorted into categories according to whether they contain gluten or not (or possibly only a trace). Oats, Rye, Barley, and Wheat all contain gluten and therefore should always be soaked/fermented. Whole Buckwheat, Rice and Millet do not contain gluten. However, they still benefit us more nutritionally by being cooked slowly in a mineral-rich broth.

Soaking Wheat Berries

Soaking whole Wheat berries in water overnight improves digestibility and nutrition. This is the first step in our family’s favorite Sprouted Wheat Berry Cakes.

In what I consider to be the beauty and wisdom of Nature, all seeds are coated with enzyme inhibitors that protect the seed during the time when it needs to remain dormant because growing conditions are not optimum. This is an important, essential even, feature of all seeds. However, they are out of place in the human body. Modern agricultural practices further speed harvest and storage so that natural exposure to moisture and sun cannot begin the work of partial germination and healthy enzyme activation that traditional hand harvesting and aging before threshing allowed. Lacking the four stomachs of the ruminants who feed almost exclusively on grain grasses, we need to be certain that we do not skip steps that provide a means of removing or disabling these enzyme inhibitors before we consume the grains. Soaking and sprouting (germinating) is an easy way to accomplish this while boosting nutrition. Sprouting seeds produce a whole range of substances, vitamins, and enzymes that are either completely absent or only present in tiny amounts in the unsprouted seed.

Sprouting Wheat “berries” (actually just the seed or grain of Wheat, also known as kernels) is very simple. I soak 3 cups of Wheat berries overnight in a stone crockery bowl along with 3 cups of cool water, covered with a large dinner plate. In the morning I drain these in a large colander, rinse with cool water, and allow them to drain well. You can use any sieve or arrangement you like based on the tools you have at hand. I spread the grains out to an even thickness, set it over a bowl to drain completely, and cover the colander filled with soaked Wheat kernels with a tea towel to block out light. I rinse these in the same manner 2-3 times per day for the next 2-3 days. When the Wheat berries have little 1/4 inch “tails” or sprouts they are ready to be ground into dough for baking. I rinse them one last time before grinding.

Sprouted Wheat

Sprouted Wheat Berries ready for grinding.

I used my electric food processor with the chopping blade to grind my sprouted Wheat into a fairly uniform dough. Sometimes I use a hand-cranked grain mill for this step. Both do the job well although the food processor is quicker. You can add nothing at all to this or sprinkle in a bit of your favorite sea or earth salt. Note that you can certainly sprout other grains or beans and grind them along with the Wheat to create a variety of nutritious breads, popularly known as Essene Bread. I “knead” my dough slightly for a few minutes using a spatula and my hands but it is really pretty much ready for baking once it has been ground and shaped.

Sprouted Wheat Ground Dough

Sprouted Wheat dough ready to be shaped into loaves or “cakes” and baked. No rising needed. 

I place my sprouted Wheat dough into stoneware bowls that I have prepared by oiling them and then dusting them with cornmeal. These are set down in a roasting pan with about a half inch of hot water added to the pan. I will put a lid on the roasting pan (my homemade version of a baking cloche) before placing it in the oven and it will slowly steam the loaves in a low to moderate oven. Traditionally these cakes may have been slowly “baked”/dried in the sun on hot stones but I have found the oven steamed method to give excellent results. I place the covered roasting pan with the stoneware bowls of dough into an oven preheated to 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Then I reduce the temperature to 325 degrees for 2 hours and 15 minutes. Some people use an even cooler oven and a longer baking time. I am happy with the results and quality of these settings but feel free to experiment. Once baked, I remove the roasting pan from the oven and lift the stoneware bowls of Sprouted Wheat Berry Cakes onto a cooling rack and allow them to cool down for 20 minutes or more before removing them. I like to run a knife blade around the edges of the bowls and then lift sliced wedges of them out with a pie spatula to serve.

Essene loaves ready for baking

Two medium sized Sprouted Wheat “Cakes” in stoneware bowls that have been oiled and dusted with cornmeal.

Baked Essene Cakes

Warm Sprouted Wheat Berry Cakes fresh from the oven

Wheat Berry Cake 1 Wheat Berry Cakes 2

Slices of fresh Wheat Berry bread, or “cakes”, are naturally sweet, light and delicious with or without the addition of butter, jam or syrup.

Essene bread meal

A nutritious, hearty winter meal: Cuban Black Beans over heritage Golden Rice with steamed Carrots and Broccoli and Sprouted Wheat Berry Bread.

 Happy “Goes-Within” Season! ~Leenie

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THE EDUCATION OF AN HERBALIST (Part I)

Echinacea sprout

Getting an herbal education, or perhaps any type of education for that matter, implies that there is a starting point and an ending point. It suggests that a time will come when one will graduate, so to speak, and will have become a master of the subject. I’ve been studying herbs in one form or another for well over three decades now and I can still honestly say that I would classify myself as a rank beginner. The difference between me now and that green 20 year-old is that I find it exciting, rather than overwhelming, to consider all that lies ahead for me to learn, explore, and discover about the fascinating universe of Plants.

I’ve wanted to write about my own journey and process of “getting an herbal education” for the past year but I have had great difficulty finding the right words to convey all that these years have encompassed. It is still a huge challenge for me but I have decided that it has steeped long enough in my brain and, for better or for worse, it is time to pour out the infusion and give you the opportunity to “drink up” (or at least give it a cursory sniff). There are, naturally, as many ways to learn about the world of plants/herbs as there are individuals. My path has been just right for me but I am hardly saying it is the only way.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is, “How did you get started? I am interested in herbs but I have no idea where to begin!” That is a great question. Each person starts from a different place, background, life experience. Learning about herbs, at least initially, is best approached within the framework of a person’s daily life and what matters most to them. If you love cooking, then learning to tend a small culinary herb garden, harvest, and preserve would be an excellent place to start. If you have a chronic health issue, diving into intensive research about natural and botanical options for supporting optimum health might prove useful. (One caveat: Beware googling and internet surfing! There is A LOT of information out there available at the click of a mouse but quantity does not in any way equate with quality.) Maybe you are a crafter or textile artisan; growing fiber plants and plants that can be used as natural dyes, gourds, everlasting flowers for drying, or some other botanical crafter’s garden would be an intriguing place to start. There are many, many places to start but to be sure that it is a passion that will last, you should begin with your own driving interest. Or, perhaps like me, explore the discontent with some area of your life. It may motivate you to find out what herbs have to offer. It’s a little crooked and off-the-beaten-path, like most good stories, but I will share my own beginnings in herbalism by way of description, rather the prescription.

Dandy

Maybe my herbal education began with the simple question, “What is wrong?” I was 19 years old, if I remember correctly, or maybe I was 20. I had just come out of the hospital after a very costly 3-day stay for yet another urinary tract infection (UTI) that had escalated quickly and had me doubled over in extreme pain. My mother told me that I had my first UTI at the age of 10 months, and recurrent ones throughout my young life, worsening as I entered puberty. I had come to know tetracycline (and other antibiotics) intimately… and to know that they did not confer lasting health for me. There was a family history of kidney disease on my mother’s side. In fact, two women in the family would die from complications of kidney disease in the coming years, although I did not know that then. During my hospital stay I had had nothing to eat or drink and basically simply spent the 3 days in bed with a glucose drip. Perhaps there were antibiotics in that IV as well. I’m not sure. At any rate, I checked out of the hospital with a determination that it would be my last UTI. Ever!

I made a bee-line for a little health food store in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and headed back to the book shelves. They had both a research area and books for sale. After perusing the titles, skimming indexes, and trusting my intuition (Finally!) I gathered up a small stack of books and sat down on the wooden bench nearby to read as I breathed in the wonderful scents emanating from the glass jars of bulk herbs that surrounded me. I can still smell that delicious place in my memory. After a little while I’d decided which books I would buy (HERBS & THINGS:Jeanne Rose’s Herbal by Jeanne Rose and HYGIEIA: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati Baker) and which herbs (Dandelion, Red Raspberry, Comfrey, and Spearmint). I didn’t know it then but my life was about to take a turn for the better and I would one day be blessed to learn from both of these amazing women. Those books still have pride of place both on my, admittedly crowded, herbal book shelf as well as in my heart.

I’ve had four children and plenty of adventures in the 33 years since I found those books but I have never had another UTI. I not only found empowering information and herbal allies but I also found my passion in life. I couldn’t seem to read enough about herbs. I squeezed an old metal bookshelf from a flea market into my tiny city apartment kitchen and started filling it with jars of dried herbs, which I began to use daily for teas as well as cooking. It would be many years before I learned to prepare syrups, tinctures, vinegars, or encapsulated herbs but I certainly brewed and consumed hundreds of pots of tea. It is still a favorite daily ritual all these years later.

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I think I consulted those two books for some purpose every single day over the ensuing 5 or 6 years and they are still in use today. That was the main way I learned back then: reading and brewing pots of tea, drinking them and noticing how I felt and how they affected my health. When I married the love of my life at 24 I had a whole new reason to dig deeper into the rich, earthy world of botanical blessings as we learned more about cyclical fertility and natural family planning.

When we conceived our first child I became a correspondence (although she called it a correspon-DANCE) student of Jeannine Parvati Baker’s Hygieia College, an unconventional school taught in the “Mautic” (or way of a woman) tradition. It was a very unique approach, a mystery school as she called it. All work was turned in and responded to but not returned. Upon completion I also returned all the course materials so there is no tangible residue from the process. However, it was a transformative experience and all that I learned is still being lived out in my daily life. It certainly impacted our choice to home birth and home educate our children. It affected how and where we wanted to live and raise our family. And I was still brewing daily pots of tea.

Autumn Country Road

Over the years that magically spiraled out into decades before I knew it, I had embraced the opportunities that came along to take classes and workshops with a number of well-known herbalists, sometimes just for a day or a weekend, sometimes as long as a week at a time. Rosemary Gladstar, Doug Elliot, Phyllis D. Light, Mimi Hernandez, Paul Strauss, David Hoffman, Matthew Wood, 7Song, Deb Soule, and I’ve probably forgotten others. Additionally, I’ve benefited from the written teachings of many other herbalists who have walked this earth before me and am so thankful for the books they took the time to write. I know how hard it is for an herbalist to come in from that beautiful green world and apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair long enough to get a book (or books!) written. I am so grateful for the work of each and every one of you in the world.

Jeanne and other teachers

 Left to Right: Leah Maggie Garfield, Rosemary Gladstar, Nan Koehler Soloman, Jeanne Rose, and Jeannine Parvati Baker

I’ve saved talking about my most significant and enduring herbal teacher for last. Remember that first book I mentioned purchasing on what I now think of as a fate-filled day in the health food store? HERBS & THINGS? I would eventually begin my studies with Jeanne Rose via her correspondence courses. And that, as poet Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference. Jeanne Rose has graduate studies in Marine Biology and her thoroughness and attention to details is reflected not only in her teaching methods and assignments but in all that she does professionally, and I suspect privately as well. Many call her the Grande Dame of Herbalism and I consider her the foremost expert on Aromatherapy. Choosing to study with Jeanne Rose has meant raising the bar in my own life, demanding that same thoroughness and organization that she displays in her 25+ published books. Like me, she loves the natural world, but is never lax about research, record-keeping, and academic discipline. And she expects the same from her students.

In this day and age no herbalist can expect to retain every fact, every Latin binomial, every contraindication. We are, after all, living in the Information Age. Jeanne Rose is masterful at organizing information into a plethora of tables and charts that, once I learned to use them, helped me to be less vulnerable to the whims of my brain’s information retrieval system. If you are young you may not fully appreciate the value of this yet, but I assure you that one day you will. My textbooks for the Herbal Studies and Aromatherapy courses range from herbals to anatomy and physiology tomes, poetry to botanical keys. I might be reading historical works hundreds of years old or one hot off the press but I can assure you I will not be consulting the almighty Google search in its hit-or-miss fashion for reliable information.

One habit I have developed from studying with Jeanne Rose is keeping a daily Herbal Experiments Diary. Some of my experiments might be as simple as tasting a leaf and noticing the effects. Some might be as elaborate as stratifying herb seeds for months, planting, tending and waiting 3 years to harvest and prepare. Although it was a challenge for me at first, this one habit has probably been the most important overall in my process of becoming an herbalist. It is not so much an assignment, as an approach to life-long learning. It nurtures my sense of curiosity and trains me to be observant and to write down my results so the experience has enduring benefit. These experiments revealed to me that even the everyday things that I do can be educational, that learning is not something that only happens in a classroom or by using textbooks. I like to think of my recording of these experiences as a sort of Botanical Playbook. Even adding a dash of Cayenne to a store-bought jar of pasta sauce and noting that everyone in the family thought the spaghetti sauce was especially good is an application of the scientific method. Hypothesis: A dash of Cayenne might boost the flavor of our hum-drum sauce. Experiment: Add a pinch of Cayenne to said sauce. Results: Although I didn’t mention the experiment to the test subjects 5 out 6 participants said the sauce was extra special. (I liked it, too!)

Studying

Herbal Experiments Diaries

I am heading into the season when my academic studies are most intense. During the winter months I love to dive deeply into botany, anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry as it all relates to herbalism. Jeanne Rose’s Aromatherapy & Herbal Studies Course is intensive, taking 2-3 years to complete, and is organized into three sections, a Seasonal Herbal (12 chapters), a Medicinal Herbal (12 chapters), and Reference Herbal (12 chapters). In addition to my Herbal Experiments Diary, I must keep an herbarium (either real or photographic). I actually have a photographic one already but carrying it to so many weed walks and herb talks for years has taken its toll. I’ve also decided I would like to have an actual herbarium with real plant specimens so I’ve pulled out the old plant press and have begun filling it. There are case studies to prepare and document as well, and I have access to my teacher via telephone 4 days per week during her student hours when I can ask questions.

For me, this course of study along with the ongoing education provided from both gardening and wildcrafting (gathering where no man, or woman, has sown) herbs for food and healing is a perfect fit. I also attend hands-on botanical identification and herbal preparation classes as time and opportunity allow. I like to visit farms, especially ones practicing organic and sustainable methods, botanical gardens, and the homes and gardens of my herbalist friends. There is no area of my life that is separate from my love of plants now.

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This morning before it was barely daylight I had packaged up Elderberry syrup that I had prepared and allowed to cool overnight so that my husband could deliver it when he went to work this morning, brewed two pots of tea, made vanilla bean yogurt, gathered Rose hips and prepared a vitamin C-rich syrup, did several loads of laundry using my own homemade, natural soap, fed my Nubian goats their grain with chopped Apples, Carrots, Kelp, and Garlic/Ginger paste and a splash of Fire Cider (Yes, they are definitely herban goats!), and gathered up the recycling for drop off today (For me, keeping the Earth clean and green is part of herbalism). These things have become as natural as breathing and gradually and subtly over more than 3 decades I realize that I have become an herbalist.

Aromatherapy Certificate

Recently I completed the Aromatherapy Course — Home & Family through Jeanne Rose and I can tell you that the certificate of completion means more to me than a diploma from Harvard could. I will frame and hang it up in my study area as a reminder of the joy as well as challenge of these studies. I look forward to the day when others will be hung alongside it. I feel extremely fortunate to be walking this Earth at a time when I can study directly with such a knowledgeable teacher and benefit from her 40+ years of teaching experience.

Jeanne Rose

My teacher, Jeanne Rose. Simply the best!

http://www.jeannerose.net/courses.html

http://www.jeannerose.net/books.html

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Seasonal Living: Facing Colds & Flu Season

Pantry Blessings

Be Prepared! is a good motto for herbal homemakers as well as  boy scouts.

My Feeling-Under-the-Weather First Aid Kit

Along with being Autumn, and Back-to-School, it is also the season for colds and flu “bugs” to start making their appearance. I like to be pro-active so my herbal medicine chest is well-stocked by now. I know that an ounce of prevention is absolutely worth at least a pound of cure so I do all I can to make sure we are eating nutritious whole foods in wide variety, staying well-hydrated with plenty of pure water, herbal teas, and warming soups and broths. Since we heat our home with wood stoves I like to make sure the air stays moist with humidifiers (water pots on the wood stoves) to which I add a variety of essential oils particularly supportive of the respiratory system, like Eucalyptus, Lemon, and especially Rosemary.

For the times when I do feel something coming on…like right now…I turn to these tried and true natural allies:

*Pots of Herbal Teas. Yes, as pictured, I often use a canning jar for my “teapot”. That clear glass jar catches my eye and reminds me I still have more tea and I find that I remember to drink more throughout the day. Today I am drinking a blend of Nettles, Red Clover, Comfrey, Horsetail, and Dandelion leaf but I custom blend for current needs on a daily basis. A quart a day is fairly normal for me but I will double or triple this if I feel a cold coming on. Brewing in a thermos is a good way to not only keep your tea warm but also carry it along if you have to be away from home.

*YEGG(-ish) capsules I make using freshly dried and powdered roots of Yellowdock (Rumex crispis), Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and E. angustifolia see my note), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) based on a formula of the same name that I learned from my herb teacher, Jeanne Rose. I actually like to take Echinacea in the form of a fresh root tincture so I leave that out of the capsules now and take it alongside the dried herbs.

Encapsulating herbs Tinctures & Fire Cider

I like to have a variety of encapsulated freshly powdered herbs like YEGG, tinctured herbs like Echinacea, and vinegars like Fire Cider on hand at all times.

*Neti Pot. I use a neti pot to keep sinus passages clear and healthy. Once a day is fine but if I feel a cold coming on or am stuffed up I have used it as often as hourly to keep breathing easily.

*Hydrogen peroxide. My ears are often the first place I can feel a virus trying to gain a food hold. They may feel dry and itchy. I place a few drops of peroxide in each ear, doing one at a time, and allow it to bubble and foam, then tilt my head back up to let it drain out, and repeat on the other side.

*Garlic (Allium sativum)…and lots of it in whatever form. Our favorites are probably delicious Garlic Soup with a slice or two of toasted bread slathered with freshly whipped Garlic butter. Roasted Garlic, raw, or any way I can ingest it, I eat as much Garlic as possible for its immune strengthening, anti-microbial talents.

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Mugs of delicious Garlic Soup are warming and healing.

*Quercetin & Fresh Nettles Tincture. These two in combination are an invaluable resource for promoting clear nasal passages. They probably need a whole blog post to themselves so I will write that on the calendar for a Spring Allergy Tactics article. For now, I’ll include the Reader’s Digest version and say that Quercetin is a flavonoid extracted from fruits and vegetables and often combined with Bromelain (a Pineapple stem extract enzyme) to enhance absorption and effectiveness. It is available encapsulated at health food, vitamin, and some grocery or drug stores. Although research indicates uses as an antioxidant and in lowering cholesterol, the main purpose I have for using it is its antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) is a traditional respiratory health and hay-fever remedy. In my experience, it must be used fresh or tinctured using fresh plant material for maximum effectiveness.

*Hot Ginger Baths (and tea). If I have chills or just can’t seem to stay warm, I chop up a nice sized fresh Ginger root and simmer it in at least a quart of water for 20 minutes or more. Then I strain and add the “tea” to a hot bath. I like to pour some of the Ginger tea into a mug along with some raw honey and a squeeze of lemon to sip while relaxing in the tub as well. Very warming! Keep the room warm and dry off quickly, dressing in warm pajamas and a robe. I like to cuddle up in bed under warm quilts and get a good night’s rest to assure a healthier tomorrow.

*”Flu Shots” as some call them. I like to use Fire Cider, which is a blend of Horseradish, Onion, Garlic, Ginger roots, and Cayenne in an apple cider vinegar base and sweetened with just a touch of local, raw Honey. As a prevention, I take a tablespoon in a couple of ounces of water once a day during fall and winter, but if I feel a “bug” coming on I take that much hourly until symptoms begin to subside. For those who don’t care for the kick-in-the-pants variety of hot shot remedies that Fire Cider provides, there is always the sweetly warming tonic, Elderberry Syrup. It can be taken in exactly the same ways and amounts as Fire Cider.

Elderberry Syrup

Happy, healthy Autumn to All! ~Leenie

Edited and updated 12/30/2014  This information is shared descriptively as opposed to prescriptively. Always research thoroughly anything you plan to ingest and consider its potential benefits vs. possible risks in light of your own unique health condition.

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Seasonal Living: Life is a Bowl of Cherries

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It has been said that life is a bowl of cherries. And it is…at least if you live in our area right now. It looks like the local orchards and farms will be enjoying as good a year for cherries as it has been a bad one for strawberries. A late cold snap and heavy frost with a freeze at a vulnerable time when the strawberries were blooming resulted a dismal harvest for most farmers and gardeners. It was time to renew our strawberry bed so last fall I removed all of the older, depleted plants to the compost pile and started with fresh disease-free roots this spring. As many of you may know, you cannot harvest strawberries the first year from June-bearing types, which are my favorite kind. Instead, it is necessary to remove all of the blossoms the first year as they come on so that the energy will go into building strong root systems for a heavy second year crop of delicious berries. That task was made easier for me given the severe late weather. I wasn’t expecting to harvest this year so the loss was not as acute as it was for many area farmers. Although I was able to procure a small amount of strawberries to make a couple of scanty batches of jam, the 2014-2015 culinary year promises to have very few strawberry themed dishes.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the cherries are on now and crowding center stage as only those lovely, sweet (and tart!) luscious fruits can.

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All of this, coupled with daily meanderings through our gardens, left me pondering seasonal eating. It seemed like a perfect time to kick off this facet of the 3 herb mamas blog. Grocery stores, modern food preservation methods, media and advertising have led most of us to assume that we can and should have access to everything from melons and berries to fresh cream and eggs (Yes, these do have seasons!) anytime we wish to indulge a whim for them, be it during a blizzard in February or the sultry dog days of summer. I would be the last person to suggest that we eschew all forms of food preservation for enjoying the bounty after their peak fresh eating season has passed. My pantry and freezers are always well-stocked before the first snows fly.

However, there are many good reasons to follow the seasons for the bulk of our diet as much as it is possible for each of us. These include:

*Optimum nutritional value 

*Optimum flavor and texture

*Reacquainting ourselves with natural rhythms and cycles of nature

*Either growing our own favorite vegetables and fruits or supporting others who do so locally

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Until I had tasted a literally fresh-picked pea and shelled it directly into my mouth a second or two after it came off the vine, I never understood the term sweet peas. I quickly learned that my young children preferred these over candy and found that I needed to harvest alone if I wanted any shell peas to make it into the gathering basket. Both sweet corn and peas begin to convert their natural sugars into starch as soon as they are picked. I cherish the memories of my grandfather who refused to go pick the corn for our evening meal until the water in which it was going to be cooked was almost boiling. He would run back from the garden with his arms loaded with fresh ears of corn and my cousins and I would “shuck like the wind” and rush them over to the big pot of boiling water. A meal would be enjoyed that no king’s table could surpass!

It may take time and a whole new perspective to begin to eat and live seasonally, given our current temperature controlled, monotonous daily environments and schedules, but it is well worth the effort. I promise. If you don’t have time or space or inclination to garden, then frequent your local farms and farmer’s markets. This is a great site for finding pick-your-own farms (in the U.S.) near you: http://www.pickyourown.org . Also check you phone directory for area farms. Buying direct from the grower at the peak of season is often a rock bottom bargain that no couponing or sales can match. In my area right now there are still a wide variety of greens, cherries, squash, onions, garlic, broccoli and other cole crops available.

In our own garden the spinach and cilantro are bolting but the kale is still holding on, sweet peas are maturing and producing even with our family picking every evening. The blueberries are just starting to ripen although the crop does not look as heavy as it has been some years. Radishes are done but I have left some in the ground in some of the beds after reading that this repels pests that are attracted to cucumbers and squash. The Basil is getting serious now with the warmer days and I do believe it is officially Pesto Season! The Mint and Parsley are lush and fragrant, which means there is no holding back with a family favorite, Tabbouleh. (I just love ethnic recipes that would laugh at the more typical ingredient lists for herbs and spices that measure in teaspoons and tablespoons. My Tabbouleh recipe requires me to gather a big basket of Parsley and Mint. Delicious, refreshing, and satisfying!)

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TABBOULEH

2 cups Bulgur (cracked wheat)

2 cups boiling water

3 cups Parsley, finely minced

1/2 cup Mint, finely minced

3 green Onions, chopped

1/4 tsp. freshly ground Black Pepper

1/4 tsp. ground Cumin seed

1/2 tsp. sea salt

2 medium Tomatoes, diced

2 Cucumbers, diced

3 Tbsp. fresh Lemon juice

3 Tbsp. Olive oil

Romaine Lettuce

Presoak the Bulgur by covering with the boiling water and allowing to stand for 1 hour. Combine all of the other ingredients except for the lemon juice and olive oil in a large bowl. When the Bulgur is ready add it to the large bowl along with the lemon juice and olive oil. Toss all to combine well. Chill for at least one hour before serving. Works fine to make it a day ahead. I love summer time foods like Tabbouleh because they are filling and satisfying while also being refreshing and light. Plus, there is no need to heat up the kitchen on a hot summer day. Serve rolled up in fresh, crispy Romaine leaves along with some fresh fruits or veggies from the garden.

Seasonal Living blog posts will appear the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month at least, although sometimes more often if an impending harvest warrants.

Happy Summer to All! ~Leenie

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MAKING MAPLE SYRUP…AND MUSING

Back before Thanksgiving 2013 a chance meeting of a couple we have since become friends with led to an impromptu and animated discussion about maple sugaring. That is, gathering the sap from maple trees and cooking it down into syrup. It turned out that Larry and Christa have experience tapping maple trees and sugaring and they offered to return with the late winter sugar snows and show us how. True to their word, they came on a clear, relatively warm day in February and helped us get started. We didn’t want to invest in a lot in equipment until we found out if it was something that we would want to do again and again in the future. As you can see, our taps are hardly high-tech.

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My husband cut lengths of copper tubing (about 4 inches long) to use as spiles. Then he used a drill bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the tubing to drill a couple of inches into the tree. These are not deeply drilled, no more than 2 inches at a slightly upward angle 2-4 feet from the ground on the south facing side of the tree. As long as all the spiles are removed at the end of the season the tree will heal itself and form a little scar at the site of the tap. This spot or another above it should not be used again in subsequent years. We tapped two trees that were more than 12 inches in diameter. One was a soft maple and the other a hard, Sugar Maple. The Sugar Maple was much older and bigger and we were able to place three taps on this tree while placing only one on the soft maple.

Ideally, you want cold nights with freezing followed by relatively warm (above freezing but not much above 40 degrees), sunny days to promote the flow of sap. The amount of sap gathered daily varied widely ranging from half a gallon on the slowest, coldest day to 4 gallons on our best day so far. This is what we collected on that day:

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Once we had a total of 10 gallons of sap we decided to begin boiling it down to make syrup. We did end up drinking some sap along the way (YUMM!), brewing some dark, French roast coffee with sap (DOUBLE YUMM!), and, as you will see, I used some to make an herbal mineral preparation. So we actually only started out with 9 gallons of sap for cooking down. We built up the fires in our two wood stoves in our home. We were told that sugaring is a steamy affair, which is why it is most often not done inside the home. (I just re-read that sentence and it does sound a bit sordid, doesn’t it?) But since we were starting with a relatively small amount of sap and there was a deep freeze and winter storm predicted for that evening we thought it would be a good day to get the house really warm while cooking down our sap. Since the sap was icy cold, some even frozen, I opted to bring it to a boil on our electric stove in a soup pot 2 gallons at a time and then pour it all into two large roasting pans set on the wood stove on the main floor. We ended up not needing to use the second wood stove in the basement and I was thankful because I had not been looking forward to schlepping hot sap and syrup up and down the stairs.

Boiling sap foams a little. This was skimmed off and discarded.

The goal in cooking down your sap is to keep it boiling and create as much surface area as possible to aid evaporation. Commercial operations often have pans that are 4 feet wide and 6 feet long or larger, although they may only be about 4 inches deep. These large roasting pans were all I had on hand so we made do. I will be scouring flea markets and second hand shops for suitable receptacles for future sugaring. We ended up evaporating more than 8.5 gallons of water into the air during the 10 hours of cooking down. Yes, our home was moist and warm but that felt pretty nice on a cold, winter day and a refreshing change from the dry air we’ve become accustomed to.

While the sap was boiling down I did a little experimenting with some of it. First, I brewed a small French press pot using freshly ground French roast coffee and hot maple sap. It made, hands-down, the best cup of coffee I have ever had. Just a splash of real cream and it was unbeatable by even the finest coffee bar. I did a little research on the nutritional value and benefits of maple syrup and decided it was a shoe-in for my Herban Iron & Mineral Syrup. Maple syrup is high in iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, and potassium. I thought this would perfectly complement the mineral rich herbs like Yellowdock, Dandelion, Red Clover, Nettles, Red Raspberry leaf, Alfalfa, Hawthorn berries, and Eleuthero root that I use for my daily mineral supplement.

     

In a medium sized, deep sauce pan I placed 4 oz. of my Herban Iron Syrup dry herb blend along with half a gallon of Maple sap. I brought this to a boil, covered, and then set the lid askew and simmered until it was reduced to about 1 quart. In case you are wondering just how amazing our house was smelling at this point, I can sum it up in one word: SWEET! All the sap was bubbling along so I turned my attention to finishing the syrup. I strained the cooked down decoction of Herban Iron herbs through a cloth lined sieve into a glass measuring cup and indeed discovered I had just over a quart of strong tea. To this I added 2 cups of raw, local honey and stirred to dissolve thoroughly. I allowed it to cool a little more before pouring it into labeled glass bottles, which I store in the refrigerator. These will keep for several months but we generally use them up long before any possible expiration. My teen-aged daughter and I use these as a daily mineral supplement, taking from 2-6 oz. throughout the day as needed. This keeps our iron and calcium levels high and helps regulate healthy menstrual cycles and keep us on an even keel emotionally.

Back to our maple sap, which had been boiling down for 9 hours, it was time to pay a little more attention. We were down  to about a gallon so my husband poured it all back into the soup pot to monitor more closely on the top of the kitchen stove. I stayed close by and kept it at a rolling boil. A drop of pure cream on the surface ensured that it would not boil over and when the pot was reduced by half I began monitoring the temperature. At this stage we were not so exact. I kept finding conflicting guidelines for the correct temperature at which the syrup should be when it is ready. We tested the temperature at which water boiled on this low barometric pressure day (207 degrees F) and added 7 degrees to that. It took another hour but it finally hit 214 degrees F briefly and we removed it from the heat, strained it, and poured it into hot, sterilized jars almost to the rims, capped with hot, sterilized lids and  turned them upside down to seal. We had a little extra that we poured into a bottle and reserved for our next pancake breakfast.

FUN MAPLE SYRUP FACTS:

Maple syrup in rich in iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and potassium.

Maple syrup, like honey, has natural anti-oxidants, which fight cancer-causing free radicals and slow aging. 

Maple syrup is a healthier sugar because it is complex and has less fructose than honey. (A diet high in fructose is detrimental to heart and liver health.)

MAPLE MUSINGS

There is plenty of time for pondering while making maple syrup…hours and hours of it. We took our time each day as we went out to check the tapped trees, noticing little details like the hawk we saw each time and named Herc Hawkins, or the owl pellets, or the fat groundhog scurrying around. After a week of tromping back and forth from our trees to the house to collect sap, we finally had enough to make a little syrup. Then it was a full day of tending fires, watching boiling sap so it didn’t boil over, the final temperature taking and syrup testing, and the nerve-wracking (for newbies like us) decision making about whether or not it was ready, the straining, and the final canning. I was awed by the way I had always considered real maple syrup to be crazy expensive. After one week of sugaring I am awed by how cheaply it is sold.

I love making real things with my own hands. It doesn’t have to be something we will always do. Nor does it have to be the only way we procure the things we have in our lives. But it is enlightening to participate in the process and come to a fuller understanding of what is involved. Making an article of clothing from gathering fiber to weaving cloth to finished garment or a piece of furniture from a harvested tree all the way to completed table or chair… anything, really…is a humbling process. I will never forget the first quilt I ever completed on my own. It was a scrap quilt called Flying Geese and it was fashioned from scraps and bits of fabric and old clothing. The batting was a well worn wool blanket. It took over 300 hours to complete over the first year of our first-born’s life. I remember placing him for naps on blankets under the quilt frame and I would stitch until he woke up. I have sweet memories of him playing under my quilt frame, which he called his “apart-a-ment”, over the years. One day shortly after I had finished this quilt I walked into a big box store in a neighboring city and saw “handmade quilts” on sale for $35. I looked closely and they were indeed hand-stitched, even if poorly, and the fabric was of a poor quality as well that would probably not stand up to many washings. I stood for awhile pondering the conditions under which someone would hand sew large blankets for even a fraction of the number of hours that I had spent on my first quilt and then have it shipped to our country and sold for this pittance. I felt like I was peeking into a slave hut and glimpsing misery at its worst. Tears began to stream down my face and, of course, I had to leave. That day was an important turning point for me as a young mother and homemaker. I realized it was essential to me to understand the real cost and value of the things in my life, to participate enough in their making to never miss the deep appreciation that transcends themes and color schemes and fashions that come and go.

All these thoughts came to me over the course of that week of sugaring. As I visited these trees and thought about all the hidden work they do during a season that we often consider “dead” and “lifeless”, I began to notice variations in bark and the swaying of the branches in the wind. I loved their sounds and scents. I thought about the needs of the tree and was careful not to take too much sap. I thought about the Little House in the Big Woods stories of their sugar snows and sugar camps and how this and a little sorghum they grew were their only sources for sweetening. The average person today consumes 150 pounds of sugar per year compared to just 7-1/2 pounds in 1700.  Why is sugar so easy and cheap? How would my life be different if I consumed only the sugar or sweetener that I could produce?

We took 9 gallons of sap gathered over the course of a week and cooked it down for 10 hours to make 5.5 cups of maple syrup. I would estimate that we spent a total of close to 20 hours on all aspects of making this maple syrup. How much would you expect to earn for 20 hours of work? Even at a minimum wage rate of $7.25 that would be $145 and make my syrup cost over $26 per cup. We had almost no up-front investment in equipment, and although we did use our electric stove for parts of the process, we could have done it all on an outdoor wood fire. Still, wood must be either cut, split, and stacked or purchased so it is an expense in one way or another that would need to be factored in. I have no intention of selling maple syrup the same as I would not hand make quilts for sale. I understand too much about the process now. Instead I will practice daily gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy and try harder not to waste.

Sugar Maple Glory

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