Friday, November 27, 2009

Come, Ye Thankful People

It's the tradition of the season to enumerate the things we are thankful for and look back reflectively over the year. And Breatharian, we have so much to be thankful for. The garden wasn't what I had hoped for, but we had abundance in other areas. The fields and friends provided us with the herbs and medicines that we would need for this sickly season. There's been enough of what I foraged and put by to meet our needs, as well as share. While we were sick, there was elderberry and elecampane and ginger and such enough to take care of everyone. Even Tool Guy submitted to my ministrations, though he was much more...erm..."vocal" about the taste of the tinctures than the Hobbits. Inured and acquiescent to the things I demand of them, they merely produce delicate shudders, chase it with something yummy, and then get on with their day. When the cough started to settle into his lungs and remind him of The Plague, he asked me to start lining him up for the noxious nostrums with which I badger the Hobbits. He affirms that angelica is probably the nastiest medicament that has ever crossed his lips, albeit the most effective. The coughing is almost gone. The Flu Fairy came and went and we are recovered, unscathed by the visit. Much to be thankful for.

This year was the year I dedicated myself to the pursuit of herbs. An opportunity for formalized instruction and experience opened up a floodgate of information and exploration. I've never known seven months to fly by so quickly. My 25th wedding anniversary gift. Thankful for the apprenticeship. And the twenty-five years.

The Hobbits thrive and mature and astonish us with the amazing things they think of and say. As I scroll back through previous years, the years we spent in The Abyss, it comes home to me how normal our life has become, even if perhaps other people don't look in on us and see normality there. Only when there are stray infractions do we have to deal with extended sturm and drang dramas over the way a pair of socks fit--or don't. Or the way a pair of shoes fit--or don't. Or any other instance in where the planet seems inappropriately aligned with the universe. Things we used to deal with daily, even hourly. There's very little that I wouldn't do to achieve this level of serenity. So very much to be thankful for.

Bug continues to explore his enthusiasm for art. His current focus is on perspective drawing. He was barely satisfied with the sixteen books that I schlepped home from the library on the subject. The librarian and I agreed that our family needs a dedicated shelf on the reserve stacks. Princess has become an avid reader, which adds to the groaning weight on those stacks. We're getting ready to invent a bogus family member or five so that we can add more cards to our collection. Twelve holds and fifty books per card times five for three weeks at a time is hardly enough for a house full of bibliophiles. I remember a day when I worried about Bug ever being able to read fluently, let alone for enjoyment. I remember the anxious trips to the speech therapist and the inch-by-inch grasp of phonics. Now he reads as voraciously as the rest of us. Dog and I are plowing through the list of required reading for his Literature class this year and it raises the opportunities for some interesting discussions. Ever so thankful for these blessings.

There are pickles in the fridge because a friend shared the abundance of her garden, which flourished in a state of benign neglect this summer. She also shared the abundance of some pear trees within her stewardship. Since we still have a bounty of canned pears in our basement which still come up to visit us in the form of pear butter muffins, I decided to do something different with these. Mom and I were talking about how the Hobbits had enjoyed the cherry pie I'd made, when she suggested an idea from my grandmother, who made these as a great treat for the family.

Fry Pie

Gluten-free pie crust
Approximately 4 cups pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
1/2 cup water
4 T maple syrup, vegetable glycerin, or sweetener of choice
2 t cinnamon
3 T tapioca starch
1 lb lard or palm shortening

In heavy sauce pan, cook pears with cinnamon and sweeteners until soft. Dissolve tapioca starch into water and pour over cooked pears, heating until tapioca starch is thoroughly cooked and is opaque and thickened. Allow to cool. (The crust tends to be harder to handle and disintegrate when filling is warm.) Assemble pie crust ingredients. With a ball slightly smaller than a fist, roll out crust between two sheets of wax paper to about the size of a small plate. Removing the top sheet of paper, place a dollop of pear filling (1-2 T) in the center and fold the bottom sheet of wax paper over in order to close the crust. Pulling away the bottom sheet from half of the crust, bring the edges of the top and bottom crust together and gently roll up until edges come into contact with the filling. Gently flute edges with fingers or fork.

Heat lard or shortening sufficiently for deep frying. Picking up the pie still in the sheet, roll it onto a spatula large enough to support it. Very. Carefully. To. Avoid. Splashing. Roll the pie on the spatula into the heated oil. Fry for three minutes or until crust is brown. Remove from oil and allow to drain for a minute before placing in plate. Can be sprinkled with powdered sugar or maple sugar while still warm.

The Hobbits were ever so grateful for these! Even Dog, who swears he doesn't care for pears and originally didn't want to eat any. It was fortunate that I'd made "extra" because after he caught the tendrils of steam rising from the plate, he decided they might be worth trying. By the way, "worth trying" = instantaneous evaporation. Bug and Princess inhaled theirs. They might have tasted it somewhere in the process, but I'm not sure. Heh.

Doing without foods certainly makes one thankful for their return. This year, we reintroduced walnuts and--except for Princess--all manner of beans successfully. I think that in all of these Breatharian years, the thing that I've gained that is so precious, but so unexpected, is an attitude of thanksgiving. Struggling through this journey has changed me in ways that I never anticipated and even now cannot fully articulate. But as I sit and ponder it, the most compelling emotion I feel is gratitude. Gratitude for relentless generosity, support, for mercy, and for grace. As much as it has harrowed and winnowed me, I'm thankful to have gone through it all and wouldn't have missed it for the world.

I'm thankful.

Friday, November 13, 2009

La Grippe or "Postcards From the Hankie's Edge"

It had to happen, right? It is, after all, an epidemic. We now consider ourselves officially epidemicked. Princess led the way, as is appropriate for royalty. It was heralded with a barking cough, quickly followed by a fever of 104.6. Bug, always a camp follower, wasn't far behind. Dog remained the stubborn outlier for a while, but eventually succumbed to peer pressure and decided to follow suit.

Once again, I'm hanging out our "plague" sign and quarantining us. The kitchen has gone into overdrive, making cough syrup, elderberry syrup, bone broth, and other such stuffs to soothe, satisfy, and otherwise stimulate the unwell. I'm pillaging my stores of elderberry, barberry, rosehips and assorted herbal matter. Tool Guy continually sniffs the air when he comes home, not sure if he is smelling dinner or medicine. The neighbors wonder at my frequent trips to the white pines in the yard as I jump for ever-higher branches, to strip off needles. What do I live for, but to be entertainment, no? Tool Guy is making sly comments about Marie Laveau and gris-gris. Philistine.

It is exceedingly hard to doctor by proxy and most of my dosing the Hobbits has been based on reading and the feedback they give me, both symptomatically and descriptively. Princess has gotten impatient with my queries about exactly where the irritation inspiring that cough is coming from. "I don't know how to explain it to you," she stated truculently. Sigh. I'm sure that this will be fuel for therapy down the road someday.

Happy day. I get to try all of this out on myself. The Flu Fairy came to visit yet again and I've been blessed. I haven't been ill-prepared, but I'm not best-prepared either; there were quite a few other things I'd wanted to have ready before coming to this. Still I've got enough tricks in my repertoire to at least do something besides lay there in a stupor.

So here's what I've found that works:

Elderberry is definitely wonderful. Something about the glistening liquid jewel tones pouring from the bottle is as reassuring as the thick sweet taste that coats the throat going down.

Andrographis continues to shine as an immune support. Gotta be right there in the cabinet next to the echinachea and astragalus.

Elecampane tincture helps to keep the congestion from building. Toward the end of our confinement, I dipped into the angelica that was maturing, to help ease the coughs. I think this one is going to be a staple in my cabinet, too.

Clary Sage and Red Thyme essential oils are definitely useful in damping down night time coughs.

Ginger continues to shine as my new favorite herb. Just prior to the onset of La Grippe, I decanted the herbs that I'd been researching while Dog was sick as a dog and had begun maturing. Ginger tincture was among the lot and, blessedly, I'd put up quite a lot of it, which freed me to use it without regard for supply.

I found that I wanted ginger tincture at my bedside so that when I woke up coughing in the night, a couple of droppers (approximately 30 ml) eased things sufficiently for me to return to sleep. This, paired with the essential oils, allowed me a reasonably restful night. Princess is right, though. It does burn all the way down. Heh.

And all of this has accelerated another bout of experimentation. My herbal mentor quoted Rosemary Gladstar as telling a story about going overseas to study with an herbal guru. The first two weeks of the study required absolute silence after which she would be allowed to ask one question. She spent the two weeks wondering what she would ask. What popped out of her mouth isn't what she had anticipated, but I'm glad it was the question she asked: "What is your favorite thing for lungs?" The answer? Juice up ginger, bury it for three months and let it ferment.

While the herbal class discussed this remedy, I began to envision what this project would look like. I immediately decided that an unglazed earthenware vessel was the container of choice. Why bury something unless it was to share the biota of the soil with the ferment? Like traditional kimchi. The Herbalist suggested that if I were going to do this, try one in a glass jar and one in the earthenware and see if the resulting ferments were appreciably different. Sounds like a plan.

Juicing ginger is a bit more of a muscular activity than juicing, say, grapes, but pretty soon, I was watching a chartreuse river flow from the mouth of the juicer into the jar. I divvied the yield up between the glass jar and the pottery. Given that ferments produce expanding gasses, I endeavored to keep the glass jar's lid as loose as possible to prevent subterranean explosions. I contemplated sealing the pottery with bee's wax, but opted out.

I dug up a likely spot in our woods--"likely" being any place that is more earth than rock--and buried the experiments. I put a rock marker on the spot, knowing that ginko might not help me remember the place on my own. The neighbors probably thought I was burying a pet. Oh, the things that they don't know...

Next postcard in three months.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Nitty-Gritty Cooking

Have I mentioned how much I love our homeschooling group? It's pretty impressive. A carefully balanced blend of the academic, enrichment, practical, and social. In years past, I'll admit that we were more attracted to the social aspect of it. As the Hobbits have aged, I'm appreciating the academic and enrichment. Dog is in a format writing class that assists me with another pair of eyes to critique his burgeoning writing skills. And as a child who has always loved an audience, Drama is quite acceptable to him. Bug is exploring his creative bents under the tutelage of a local professional artist. It's rather exciting to watch this part of him unfurl and his self-confidence blossom. His struggling reading skills have been rocketed ahead by the patient assistance of Party Planner's phonics class. Princess has similarly benefited from this class, even though it was a couple of years ahead of her age level when she first began last year. With a bit of scaffolding, she participated and is now an independent reader. At six. The other day, she looked at a brown bottle on the table and asked me what a "supplement fact" was. See why I love these people?

Geeks of a feather. One of the moms decided that Home Ec classes teaching "a box of this and a can of that" just weren't cutting it. Not good nutrition and not good economics. When our class planning session met, she announced that, pending interest, she planned on teaching a "Nitty-Gritty Cooking Class" with the idea that the students would learn basic recipes that a home manager would be able to produce from memory as a staple dish in the diet. Her syllabus was logical, comprehensive, formed a good foundation for these young men and women in the class. Dog mourned his inability to participate in the class, since, of course, it would be rife with wheat flour and other contact reactives.

Over the weeks, we've watched simple and delicious--if the damp, curling aromas that drifted past our noses were any indication--recipes roll out of the kitchen. She even organized this to such a degree that the products of the class each week will, at the end of the afternoon and after the completion of the organized activities, go on a communal table where we loosely congregate to socialize. See? We do manage to socialize our children...and ourselves, as well. Each serving is $1 and almost nothing has been left over.

This past week, I twitted her that I "had aught against her." As buying club coordinator, upon request, I purchase organic junk food for a snack box from which people can purchase such healthy things as zbars and Barb's cheese puffs, washed down with Spritzers. Since the advent of her class, the disappearance of these tepid offerings have come to a screeching halt. Heh. We homeschoolers are raising no fools.

With the entrance of cold weather--cha', it's already snowed here in the Shire--soups, stews, and casseroules are more on our minds. Last week's Nitty Gritty Cooking class was potato soup. That was my mother-in-love's favorite. I happened to be free that hour and watched as the teenagers peeled and chopped potatoes, onions, et al while the Hostess discoursed on the advantages of scratch food--such as the flexibility to make it your way each time--the importance of tasting as you go, and how changing the timing of adding ingredients will change the nuances of the dish. I whipped out a napkin--the only piece of paper I had to hand--and began jotting down all of the ingredients the class was tossing in. They listened as she and I discussed between us the merits, advantages, and disadvantages of various fats and flours that could be juggled to create the roux. My napkin became quite a crowded scribble of ideas.

At the end of the afternoon, the five quart brimming pot hit the table with the stack of bowls and spoons beside the contribution basket. In less than five minutes the pot was empty. I kid you not. Eat your heart out, Barb.

The next day was shopping day and I came home with forty pounds of potatoes. When I cleared a path through the kitchen to start chopping, Dog pulled up a knife and cutting board and began assisting. The Klondikes were buttery soft. We chatted while chopping, discussing flour options for the roux. I was leaning toward millet, but gf flours tend toward grainy textures. Tapioca makes pretty good sauces, but tends toward too much viscosity. My eyes landed on my potato starch container. Potato soup. Potato starch. Score.

This is what Dog and I came up with. More or less.

Everything Free Potato Soup

6 medium sized potatoes, diced
1 bunch of green onions, sliced
1 quart bone broth
1 bay leaf (opt)
1 sheet of kombu (opt...I'm always looking for ways to guerrilla in seaweed!)
4 T ghee or favorite oil
1/2 cup potato starch flour
1/2 cup coconut milk

In soup pot, simmer onions, bay leaf, and kombu while chopping potatoes and making roux. To make the roux, melt ghee or pour oil into cast iron skillet on medium low heat. Add potato starch flour and stir. This is going to be a "blonde roux," so cook it for about 12 minutes or so, stirring continually. Dog particularly enjoyed this part, which was fine with me, since making roux isn't my favorite kitchen project. After the bay and kombu has been well hydrated and has shared their goodness with the broth, cook potatoes until almost done. Add roux and coconut milk to soup and stir until fully incorporated, but not so much that the potatoes lose their integrity. Turn off heat and allow ambient temperature to finish cooking potatoes.

All of the Hobbits agreed that this was one spectacular batch of soup. Tool Guy pronounced it better than the chicken soup. And better than his mom's potato soup. High praise, indeed! Bug was a bit cool in his evaluation, but politely ate it. We're working on the "eat what's in front of you without complaint" thing. He's getting there. Princess couldn't eat enough, though, coming back for thirds and fourths. She told me later, "You never have to ask if I want potato soup." That works.

Dog is now particularly partial to this soup, having had a large hand in not only cooking it, but in creating it. When we were finished, I looked at him and announced, "Well. You just had your Nitty-Gritty Cooking Class!" He grinned. After we did the taste test, he said to me, "I think this one is better than Mrs. Hostess' soup." Lowering his voice conspiratorially, he assured me that he wouldn't repeat that within her hearing. Heh. It is fortunate that he feels this way about the soup, since this is, perforce, our road.

I repeated his ingenuous comment to her, knowing it would make her laugh. It did.

Friday, October 2, 2009

His Bark is Worse

Coughing appears to have become a seasonal sport. Dog has applied for Olympic consideration in the activity. Bug, as younger siblings are wont to do, has shown a reluctance to be left behind and has joined in the bark-fest. As I was dialing our doctor's number, I looked at the date on the inhaler in my hand and realized that it was exactly a year ago that we'd been in this exact same fix, looking for the exact same solution. Clearly this isn't going to be a one-off situation. When I asked our doctor what to do to avoid these respiratory infections, he glanced at Dog's chart and shrugged, "He has seasonal allergies, doesn't he?" as if that explained and dismissed it all in one fell swoop.

I realized that once again I was reading the menu at McDonald's and hoping to find Chinese food there. I walked out of the office with a handful of prescriptions--that included steroids this time--and a deeper resolve to find a way to avoid doing this again every year. I was bemoaning to Tool Guy that I appear to be constitutionally incapable of being satisfied with mainstream solutions, but upon reflection, I concluded that I wasn't necessarily a wild-eyed, radical, jerk-knee reactor. Regular dosing of antihistamines such as diphenhydramine and cromolyn sodium have reduced the difficulty, but not eliminated it and didn't help us avoid the ultimate infection anyway. Even loratadine was momentarily helpful, but eventually disappointing.

Limbering up my Google-fu, I dove into the internet to gather a consensus of what would be effective treatments for this kind of infection and what would prevent it from occurring in the first place. My first big gun suggestion came from someone who was asthma-free for the first time in years. She'd taken andrographis upon a CAM doctor's recommendation of it as an alternative to echinachea for colds and found that she was so asthma-free that she's not needed to use any of her conventional asthma medications this year. Turns out that andrographis is much more than just an option for ameliorating colds:

  • Scientific Name: Andrographis paniculata (Burm.f) Nees
  • Family: Acanthaceae
  • Other Common Name: Andrographis, Chuan Xin Lian, Kalmegh (Bengali, Hindi), King of Bitters.
  • Andrographis, is a shrub that is found throughout India and other Asian countries. It is sometimes referred to as “Indian echinacea”.
  • Andrographis contains, as its primary chemical constituents, diterpenoid lactones (andrographolides), paniculides, farnesols and flavonoids
  • Andrographis was used historically in the Indian flu epidemic in 1919, during which it was credited with reversing the spread of the disease.

Impressive, no? I made it my business to get my hands on some. It's going to be a "must have" herb for my garden in the spring, I can tell you. And not only is it good for respiratory stuff, as a bitter, it's good for digestive things, too.

At this point, I knew that my windfall of elderberry was not for nothing and poked around for applications. Kami McBride offered an obliging recipe. I tweaked it for the items that I had on hand, namely elderberry, pine needles, and rose hips. My neighbor had happened to notice me low-crawling around my yard and the neighborhood for plant matter and approached me with an offer: "Would you be interested in rose hips?" he asked. Would I! Here I'd thought that he had a persimmon bush that bristled with all of those little orange fruits. Nope. Rose hips. Does it get any better than that? The white pine in my back yard didn't mind yielding a few of their needles and I had just stocked up on a large jar of local honey. (Yes, Virginia, there do exist beekeepers who don't feed their hives with high fructose corn syrup!) The rest of Kami's ingredients I just ignored and set about making up the syrup.

Elderberry Syrup

  • 6 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons elderberry
  • 2 tablespoons pine needles (Okay, I'm not gonna lie to you. I grabbed a handful off of the tree and threw it in because I'm too lazy to snip up a bunch of pine needles and measure them out by the spoonful, all right?)
  • 2 tablespoons of rose hips (Ditto on the rose hips. A handful.)
  • 2 tablespoons of raw honey, added to the syrup after it is cooled. (Don't want to lose all of the raw honey goodness, right?)

In a stainless steel or glass saucepan, add all ingredients, except the honey and simmer for fifteen minutes. Turn off heat and cover, letting the ingredients infuse for a few hours. Later, strain out plant matter and return liquid to saucepan. On simmer burner or with a diffuser, allow liquid to simmer without boiling until the amount is reduced to half. Let cool and add honey. Two tablespoons, three times a day.

My next big gun herbal idea was ginger. Ginger, upon closer examination, yields some very promising potential for lung support. "Ginger also decreases the activity of plate-activating factor (PAF), a clotting agent that creates the clot that can result in heart attack of stroke. Ginger's ability to reduce PAF activity also makes the herb effective against allergies and asthma." There was a bag at the local HFS waiting for me to pick up from the previous vegetable co-op order and I kept forgetting to go and get it. What can I say? I've been forgetting to take my gingko. I had earmarked these for pickling for kimbop, but this was more timely.

Ginger Syrup

1 ounce fresh ginger, sliced
1 pint water

Similarly to Kami's instructions, I put the ginger into boiling water and simmered for about 20 minutes. Turning off the heat, I then covered the pot and let it steep overnight, since roots and bark are sturdier plant materials than berries. After steeping, I strained out the root and reduced the liquid by half, adding raw honey when cooled. Two tablespoons, three times a day or when they started coughing.

Fenugreek and anise seeds came up frequently in searches as effective against coughs. As those were also readily on hand, I added them to my arsenal, preparing them in the same ratios as the ginger. Seeds are more delicate than roots or leaves and so are not simmered, but merely steeped for 20 minutes before straining out. Decoct the liquid as usual and add honey when cooled.

If honey is off the menu, these can be sweetened for the palate with whatever is acceptable, whether glycerin or stevia or the like. Syrups such as these will last a week in the fridge with honey. An alcohol, such as vodka or brandy, will preserve it longer. If freezing is necessary, separate it into smaller amounts so that these can be thawed in more usable batches.

Anise and fenugreek didn't disturb the Hobbit tranquility much, but the elderberry syrup didn't match commercial varieties for comestibility in their opinion. Quelle domage. They took it anyway. Heh. Ginger was decidedly no contender for favorite status, since it "burned all the way down." Hmmm...must be that PAF activity thing. Nonetheless, coughs are almost gone and breathing is decidedly improved. Even Doctor McDonald would be happy with that outcome.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Sent You a Patrol Car, a Boat, and a Helicopter

The Summer That Wasn't is losing even that specious hold it barely possessed on the season and leaves begin to slip from the trees. These leaves were already beginning to turn their coats at the end of July. Makes you wonder what kind of winter it will be.

Tool Guy has been planning a road trip for a few weeks now. His mother is feeling poorly and he'd like to jaunt down to see her. Logistically, it works better if he goes alone. Prior to now, the single vehicle family factor has been a hurdle. Since he got his new set of wheels, which he calls "ambrosia for the back," he has begun to imagine that he could do this on his Harley. Not a few machinations have been in the works to finesse this possibility into a plan. Biking buddies have offered and then rescinded. Planning routes, plotting possibilities, preparing the bike.

I decided to send a care package to my mother-in-love, Claudia, along with him. In my herbal apprenticeship, one of our projects was assembling herbal eye-pillows. The combination that The Herbalist had collated was dried roses, lavender (calming), sassafras bark (earthiness), rosemary (remembrance), and mugwort (sweetens dreams) that we harvested, weighted down with rice or flax seeds. She brought out a selection of shimmery silks and I settled on the pink one. Princess pink. Guess who sleeps with that one? And reports that her frequent nightmares have gone! As we sat, stitching up the fabric envelopes, one of the other apprentices shared that during her chemo recovery, she had been gifted with a similar sort of pillow and it was the most comforting thing she possessed. On days when she was totally wasted by the treatments, she said she would curl up on the couch around this pillow. Sounded like something for Claudia.

Herbal Eye Pillow

2 T dried lavender
2 T dried roses
1 T dried rosemary
1/2 t sassafras bark
2 stem's of mugwort, dried, destemmed, and crushed
1 cup white rice

Pick a tactilely satisfying fabric cut into rectangle per personal measurements: Measure the distance from one temple to the other. This will be the length. Measure from the bridge of the nose to just above the browridge. This will be the width. Mark these measurements on a piece of fabric, doubled over and cut out. With right sides, together, stitch the open sides, leaving an end open for filling.

Mix together the herbals and pour into the open end. A canning funnel is particularly useful in this application, especially if you're mass-producing these. Close the end, tucking the raw edges under and stitch closed. Sweet dreams! I decided that my sister-in-love needed one, too.

A co-worker approached Tool Guy with an offer to use a spare car. He felt a bit nervous about the idea of Tool Guy tooling across the country on a bike by himself, Harley and all notwithstanding. Tool Guy was appreciative of the offer, but declined. He was a bit nervous about the whole road-trip-bike prospect, but determined. Mostly just keeping an eye on the weather.

Well, he was a bit nervous about the weather, too. Rainy as it has been, he wasn't elated at the prospect of three days on the road in the rain. The forecast has been less than auspicious. Growing up in Louisiana, there's more rain than sunshine and hurricanes and floods are as humdrum there as earthquakes are in Los Angeles. Ho-hum. I remember that old joke I'd heard growing up:

After a frenetic week of hysterical meteorological predictions for a Category Three hurricane, the first of the dreaded raindrops began. The police sent out patrol cars stop house by house and encourage people to leave. One good old boy greeted the officer with sanguine optimism. "Mais, no. Ah grew up here. Mah daddy grew up here. His daddy grew up here. Dah Lord's gonna take care o' me. I done ax Him." Nothing the officer could say would dissuade him.

As torrential rains fell, the bayous began to rise and lap at the steps of people's homes. Police patrols in boats went around collecting the previously reluctant and assisting them to shelter. Once again, the insistent good old boy maintained that he was going to stay put and that God was going to save him.

The water levels grew higher and higher, so before long, the persistent hold-out had taken to his roof to wait. At this point, a rescue helicopter came around, throwing down a rope ladder and bull-horning to him to climb up. He shook his head and insisted that God would save him, thank you very much.

Sadly, the man succumbed to the forces of nature and found himself in Heaven. He gazed reproachfully at God and ask why He had not saved him. God levelly returned his gaze and said, "I sent a patrol car, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?"

A week before the trip, Tool Guy was chatting and sharing his plans for his trip with our pastor. The next day, he got a phone call from the pastor, who indicated that he'd not felt at peace with the idea of Tool Guy harleying across country and knew of a car that would be available to use if he was interested.

Not for nothing have we been married twenty-five years, because when Tool Guy called me to report this development, we had an immediate brain-share. We each shouted out the punch line of the aforementioned joke together and laughed. "I'm not waiting for the helicopter," he said. "I'm taking the car."

Halfway through his trip, Tool Guy called home on his spanking new Tracfone. When he got into Georgia, the sky opened up and it rained bullets. Nope. Not waiting for that helicopter.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When Your Hand Finds to Do Hard Things

It hasn't been a gardening year, but it certainly has been a foraging year. I'm learning that when something is available in abundance, lay some by, because next year may not be so extravagant. Last year, it was impossible to see the horizon for the poles of mullein obtruding themselves upon the vista. I dehydrated leaves and gathered the flowers, until I felt absolutely obsessive. This year, there has been only sporatic, lonely plants claiming the occasional attention in the occasional meadow. I'm not despairing, though, knowing I'm covered on that front because of last year's surplus.

One of this year's foraging finds was blackberries. What a blast from my past! As I was pouring the fruits of our collective labors into the baking dish, the aroma of hot blackberries dragged me back into my childhood and I started to the Hobbits about what blackberry pickings were like where I grew up.

I come from a make-it-do family. My grandparents survived the Depression on a farm in the South and, even afterwards, a farm isn't a place of affluence. My own childhood was hedged by strict economy and sweat equity. A foraging friend and I were discussing hunting (which my Dad did annually) and fishing and the potential for local game in these areas. It reminded me of summer Louisiana afternoons, when we would load up into our Buick Century, with buckets, nets, and, um, scrap chicken parts. How's that for an idyllic summer interlude? Ah, but wait. Not far down the road, the Intercoastal Canal brought tides inland and even the roadside ditches were home to countless blue crab. When I was Princess' age, I was adept at dangling a chicken neck on a string to entice a crab's attention, only to swoop it up with the net. Many a dish of crab etouffee over many a summer. Gourmet cuisine on a shoestring. Literally.

Blackberry foraging was another summer outing. My hometown was host to a then-defunct military base, that, at the time, had left miles of runway to crumble, surrounding by miles of waste fields. Fields quickly overrun with blackberry brambles. Being public property, the blackberries were finders-keepers to any intrepid individual who was willing to wade out and collect them. I have memories of enamel canning bath pots and every imaginable container from our kitchen collected into the back of that Century, while we piled in with long sleeves and pants, ready to bring home that black gold and not stopping until every monstrous container overflowed. We reckoned the stickers...and the week-long recovery from be a small price to pay for a year's supply of blackberries, canned or frozen.

This year, a dear friend, constitutionally unable to keep such an embarrassment of riches to herself, called me up to make a date to show me where she had found an incredible score of blackberries...which was also where she "thought" there were some elderberry bushes. She was right on both counts. We spent the next two months tag-teaming on tripping out to the field and collecting whatever was ripe of both types of berries.

This was a new experience for the Hobbits. They've become somewhat accustomed to my tendency to come to a screeching halt on the shoulder of the road, because I spotted some stand of plants that I've just developed an affinity for, the fact that I now always carry a backpack with two field guides, a pair of snips, gardening gloves, and a jeweler's loupe (for more exacting plant identification, doncha know?), and my total addiction to the smell of freshly harvested mugwort. But most of my passions don't require much in the way of physical discomfort for them. So when my friend and I waded into the briar patch to reach the more shy and recalcitrant of the berries, all three of them were rather disaffected with the process. The Hobbits are used to suffering of a sort, but it's more of mental endurance than a physical one. My friend encouraged them that it was good to do hard things. Dog had a harder time considering that the blackberries were worth the purchase price, but Bug threw himself into the task...if not into the brambles themselves.

Sourdough "Bisquick" Mom used to make...well, almost. (Thanks for the inspiration, Mom, and not just with the recipe, either!)

Berry Filling:

3/4 cup water
2 T tapioca starch
1 quart berries
3/8 cup (6 T) maple syrup
2 T vegetable glycerin (if you want to bump up the sweet without bumping up the sugar)

Dissolve tapioca in water. In large saucepan, bring to a boil and cook until thickened. Add berries and sweeteners, then heat through. Pour into 10x10 baking dish.


1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup dehydrated potato flakes
2 T tapioca starch
2 T potato starch
1/2 t salt
1 t guar gum
1 T maple syrup
1/2 t baking soda
1 T vinegar
1 egg
2 T oil
Enough coconut milk for all of the liquid ingredients to equal 1 cup

Measure out liquids into a bowl, add starter, then mix. Add remaining ingredients, except for the baking soda and vinegar and stir. Allow to sit while the oven is preheating to 425* to give the potato flakes time to rehydrate. When oven is heated, mix in baking soda and vinegar, and pour over the blackberry mixture. Place in oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until crust is brown and crispy.

After their first firey baptism into foraging til it hurts, the Hobbits took to the task with equanimity. Some days were rainy and we got wet. Some days were sunny and we were hot and thirsty. (Hint: This year, the rainy, wet days were more numerous than the hot and thirsty days!) We always got scratched. Good thing that last year was a bumper year for plantain, because this year hasn't been, but we've got enough salve to see us through another season and still managed to sooth the welts left by the briars. We didn't get any chiggers. I'm going to give the credit for that to my rockin' bug spray that I cobbled together from essential oils. At least, that was one less hard thing that we had to do while we foraged with our might...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Whatsover Your Hand Finds to Do

Anyone got tomatoes? Yeah? Lucky dogs. This stretch of the Shire didn't fare well for tomatoes this year. Between the cool--did I say "cool"...nay, I meant to say "cold"--temperatures all spring and summer, the rain and early late blight, not much is pinking up. Sigh. You know that you haven't had much in the way of sunshine when even your squash and cucumbers aren't plotting world domination. But, hey, mark it on your calendars...I harvested my first cuke today! There's so much rain that there's mold growing on the metal items out in the yard. See why I call this the Pacific North East? All summer I planned to do the "wardrobe flip" thing where I clamber up to the attic and schlepp all of the warm weather clothes down and toss the winter stuff up there until we need it again. Didn't happen until August and almost didn't happen at all. I guess this has been a "summer optional" year?

Tool Guy is equally frustrated. He bought a Harley Davidson Sportster "to go back and forth to work." If your Tool Guy comes home with this persuasive argument, run. Run like the wind. He does have the advantage in the argument that the extra "running around" he is doing is cheaper on gas. That has the virtue of being the truth. Fortunate for him. The frustration point is that in the eight years that we've lived here, this is the absolute wettest summer we've had. So he doesn't get to ride as often as he would wish. Pauvre petit cha'... So on the near-mythical sunny day, he's generally to be found at the leading edge of a blur, leaving behind nothing but the rumble.

I'm learning some valuable gardening lessons this year. I had planned for a "snap-back" year. Last year, I inadvertently sabotaged my garden. Then my greenhouse collapsed. I expected that I'd be able to sail into this spring and replenish my empty tomato sauce jars. Tool Guy even trekked up to the greenhouse manufacturer to pick up the replacement for me. I rubbed my hands together with glee and planned for great things.

Alas, cheri, it was not meant to be. The cauliflower never sprouted. The broccoli took two tries before the starts came up. Ditto on most of the tomatoes. Only one of my pepper plants came up. The beans and cucumbers took three tries before they came up. I bent my head lower and persisted.

We did get the greenhouse up and my starts did survive. But that's about all. I think I'm going to manage to harvest enough from each kind of vegetable that I planted to have seeds to plant next year. I unbent and visited the local farmer's market where I acquired twenty pounds of tomatoes. The newly minted jars of ketchup are cooling in my basement now. An expected blessing arrived in the form of a phone call from a friend inviting me to share in the bounty of her garden. Cucumbers and beans galore! For the three days following our thankful swoop through her garden, Bug hovered over the ripening pickle jars on the table, persistently asking if they were ready to eat. When I decanted those pickles, gratitude added an extra bit of flavor to the relish.

She also called me to share--recklessly generous friend that she is--the location of an untapped berry range. And buried in the midst of the blackberry brambles peeked several persistent elderberry bushes. We tag teamed during the weeks of the ripening berries. This was the Hobbits first excursion in berrying and it was quite the lesson in persistence, endurance, fortitude, and delayed gratification. But they were troupers and endured the belated sunshine that finally decided to make August feel like August. Not having a garden to demand our time and energy, we were freed to forage and immerse ourselves in this unexpected boon. "Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might."*

Neither my friend nor I having dealt with storing berries before, we discussed possible plans of attack. Syrup preparations appear to have a storage life of about six months and there was much more bounty than six months of the worst colds and flues would require. The next idea was to dry them. In the absence of detailed directions on line, I launched into a new episode of Dehydrating Dangerously. While I juggled racks in the oven, the impatient clusters that my overstuffed oven could not accommodate hung heavy like grapes from my pot rack, waiting their turns. I set the oven to 115* and made sure that there were trays under the dehydrating racks. Normally, I'm not that scrupulous, but elderberries will shrivel down to the dimensions of a flea. And with all this work, I begrudge any flea that escapes this circus!

And, of course, berries aren't about to be so obliging as to all dry at equal rates and equal degrees. Of course. And I harbor a horrifying vision of investing all of this work into drying all of this abundance, only later to find it riddled with pockets of mold because of an undetected imperfectly-dried berry. (I'm also hedging my bets by storing them in very small batches, paired up with silica packets.)

Sorting through the dried berries fingerful by careful fingerful for the semi-dried is much like panning for gold and equally tedious. I'd recommend an audio book for this process, but the quality of the sound plunking on the bottom of the china bowl became a part of the diagnostic process. A plink is dry, but a plunk goes back into the oven.

So this process does give the mind wide scope for finding subjects of meditation. When doing this, come prepared to think. One of the things I mediated on is that $16 a pound average rate for dried elderberries isn't really as dear as it first seems. Heh. It does, however, provide fodder for discussion with Hobbits about the concept of "sweat equity." I remember Sally Jesse Raphael, when she only had a radio program, sharing her evaluation process: what do you have more of? Time or money? Mostly the answer has been "time," though I have come to the conclusion that, these days, it may be running neck and neck. Still, the idea that I'm putting up food and medicine that I can reach back to even as far out as a few years from now gives me the motivation to press on and bury my hands deeply and enthusiastically in whatsoever they find to do. Even the unexpected. On second thought, particularly the unexpected.

*Ecclesiastes 9:10

Friday, August 7, 2009

...Back Again

The vacations of my childhood always began in the mystical, pre-dawn hours of the morning. To this day, setting out on the road before sunrise lends a nascent thrill to even the must mundane chore. This has rubbed off onto the Hobbits. Bug, my dawdler, will even put some steam into his morning routine if he thinks that doing so will get us on the road before the sky begins to lighten.

I remember rolling out of bed very shortly after pulling up the covers to sleep. It wasn't that we had such a tight schedule to meet that we would leave so early, but that my parents--my mother in particular--couldn't sleep for the excitement of the outing. This sort of thing seems to be generationally contagious. We had no difficulty wrangling everyone--a task I frequently refer to as "herding cats"--into their seat and we were off.

Too Guy was our cruise director, having planned this entire outing. I nestled into my pillows and promptly went back to sleep, the familiar profiles of this neck of the Shire having exhausted its charms for me. The Hobbits dove into some backseat vidoes, breaking a long, parentally-imposed media fast. No "are we there yets?" here. Heh.

Everyone was suitably impressed when we drove up to our accommodations. The Hobbits swarmed the playscape while I donned decontam gear and tackled the kitchenette. The toaster was the first prisoner of war to be confined to the upper reaches of the cabinetry and I sandblasted the counter top. I washed all of the remaining contents of the cabinets and hung up the Certificate of Inspection. We were in business. A quick pot of pasta and a bottle top opener voila...dinner is served!

Is there any vacation attraction that can rival the lure of a swimming pool? All of Bar Harbor spread before us--or at least a nice chunk of shoreline--and these Philistines want to swim in the pool. What can I tell you? I try. I really do. While they were distracted by the possibilities of cannonballs, Tool Guy played lifeguard and shooed me away to indulge in some "me" time. I slunk away to the Jack Russell Steakhouse, beckoning me from across the street. They never missed me.

Dining out alone can be like slow dancing by yourself: a bit awkward and self-concious. So I brought my own dinner companion. A book. I presented myself to the hostess, anticipating "a booth, in the back, in the corner, in the dark." What I got was the garret at the top of the stairs. All to myself. Is there any felicity in the world equal to this? I admired the original woodwork, the eyebrow windows, authentic glazing and interior plaster work finished in a singular shade of glistening orange. Funky, but it worked.

Not much on the menu was gluten free, but hey, does one come to Bar Harbor for aught other reason than to eat lobster? So I ordered fries as an appetizer--and didn't ask what they were fried in--followed by grilled asparagus and lobster with butter. And solitude. Sheer bliss.

Back at the room, Tool Guy and I tag teamed. While he went to the Jack Russell and duplicated my order, much to the amusement of Adam, our server, I took the Hobbits on an expedition to scale the not-insubstantial shoreline rocks. We scrambled over monstrous boulders, foraged for mussel shells and vacated crab exo-skeletons, and examined the bladderwrack that ebb tide had exposed. Too cool.

The next two days were crammed with a sailing cruise, window shopping, and hiking in Acadia National Park. The Hobbits tumbled into bed, sun-pinked and satiated. At night, when the fog would roll in, we would briefly rouse at the low tones of an incoming fog horn. Yep. We're in Maine.

My farewell dinner at the Jack Russell felt as if it needed a crowning finish. The only gluten free item for dessert was creme brulee. Mmmmm. Don't mind if I do. The first bite infused me with the inspiration for my next the inspiration for my next expedition into Cooking Dangerously.

Casein Free Creme Brulee

8 egg yolks
1 cup thick coconut milk/coconut cream
3 tsp. maple sugar sugar
2 T vanilla extract
Maple sugar for sprinkling

Heat sugar and coconut milk/cream to boiling in heavy sauce pan. Add vanilla extract to eggs and gently incorporate. When the coconut cream is boiling, pour a small amount into the eggs to "temper" them, stirring continually. When the eggs have mixed with the coconut milk/cream, pour the rest of the hot milk into the mixture. Now pour into ramekins or molds and place in a chaffing dish or, for those on a Lobelia Baggins budget, a cake pan. Since my life is lacking in the politer refinements of polished society such as ramekins, I opted to use silicone muffin forms as the container in which to make the creme brulee. Fill the dish or pan with boiling water to about halfway up the mold/ramekin. Place the entire assembly into a 325* oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until center is almost set. When cooked, remove to a clear surface and sprinkle maple sugar over the tops. Return to the oven, now set on broil at 500*. Keeping a close eye for carmelizing--in my kitchen that would be called "smoking"--let broil for 5-7 minutes or until desired degree of lava has been achieved. Brace yourself for the oooooohs and aaaaaaahs.

As a vacation, it was, as all vacations are, too short. The Hobbits brought home from sand from Ogunquit's beach; I refrained from doing any foraging in Acadia, a feat that I want recognition for. The wild roses were extraordinarily tempting. (Does anyone know of a commercial source for these?) Lots of memories. Princess declared it to be her best vacation. Fortunate, that, especially being her only one.

Here's to the next one!

Friday, July 24, 2009

There and...

Tool Guy and I used to have itchy feet. We moved all of the time and when there was nothing else pressing, between moves, we hopped into the Plymouth Fury we'd christened "Polly" and explored the back roads. Indiana certainly has plenty of those. We'd head off on vacations that included mountain biking in Colorado and white water rafting in North Carolina. "Paddle or die."

Post-Hobbit, the scenery has been less varied. Just after settling in the Shire, we popped up to see what the rave over Maine was about and dipped our toes into what Ogunquit had to offer...which, in October, was rather modest, but it was a nice outing. After the food pyramid collapsed on us and Princess sent notice that she'd be inviting herself into our family, we stuck much closer to home. Actually, I crawled down the Hobbit hole and slammed the door behind me, Bilbo/Peter Jackson-fashion, shrieking, "No, thank you! We don't want any more visitors, well-wishers, or distant family relations!" Contemplating the prospect of traveling under our limitations made my mind slam shut with similar force. Doubtless there are folks who have mastered such limitations and traveled successfully, but I must admit that the knack of it has heretofore escaped me.

So instead of birthday parties, Tool Guy planned individual outings for each of the Hobbits on their birthday...things that would appeal to their unique personalities and interests. Dog took a plane ride--and piloted it for a while, he will be quick to inform you--and a cruise on an oceanographic vessel where the visitors assisted in collecting data. Bug took a historic train ride, a quick cruise around the bay on a sloop, and a visit to a coal mine. We're trying to get Princess to expand her interests outside of Build-a-Bear, but so far, her passion for animals is theoretical. In real life, they terrify her. We're working on it. Each birthday, the celebrated pair would head out the door to the intended expedition, armed with food stuffs such as chicken strips and shoestring fries, which have been favorites in our kitchen for longer than I would have imagined possible, and would dive into the day with relish.

As the Hobbits have gotten older and our food choices expanded, we began to contemplate the possibility of more distant horizons. This year, Tool Guy decided to lump all of the birthday outings into one vacation. A small one, but an official vacation nonetheless. I began to imagine that this might just be do-able. Proximity and prospect made Maine again an appealing choice. A room with a kitchen made it a possible one. After he'd made the reservations, I began my meditations.

Jerky was the obvious choice for travel food, but Hobbits do not live by jerky alone and need other food stuff to "fill in the corners." I considered our options, how to transport, how to prepare, and what was portable and possible. For months before our trip, I kept a weather eye out for sales on beef, snatching up the good buys on roasts and other cuts that would slice nicely, dividing them up into handy portions and freezing. I also started ramping up my supply of kombucha down in the basement. About a month before departure date, I began the marinading and dehydrating process. Knowing that the flavor goes a bit stale after a week or so even if the meat itself is still good, I decided to vacuum seal the finished jerky into mason jars and freeze them until the departure date. This worked out rather satisfactorily. I planned that this would be the bulk of our road food coming back home. For traveling out, I decided fry up the ever-faithful chicken strips and have a handy loaf of bread with Hormel Natural roast beef, the only lunch meat that I've found corn-free. (The roast beef is the only Hormel Natural that is corn-free.) Slowly, I started constructing a plan to cover my bases.

Tool Guy was of a mind that we should go shopping after arrival and make up meals in the room. It initially sounded reasonable, but as I meditated, I became increasingly uncomfortable with that plan. Too many uncontrolled variables. And, yeah, I'm a control freak. That sound you hear is my mind, once again, slamming shut. His perspective was that he didn't want to make any "extra work" for me. Heh. Naive lad. I opted for Plan B, which was to pick foods that would be can-able and reheat them upon arrival. No worries about ingredients, temperature and portability there. It isn't optimal food, but at least it is food food and can sustain us in a tight spot. Besides, I'd rather do my work upfront and not spend precious vacation time sussing out safe food sources and cooking.

Now one would think that Hobbits of such constricted food choices would celebrate over whatever is available to them. Unfortunately, that is not our reality. All of the stuff I blog about is stuff that gets eaten here; the rub is that there is very little that all three of them want to eat universally. At the same time. That I can transport. We narrowed down our very narrow choices to two: chili and chicken noodle soup. Dog and Tool Guy are always up for a bowl of chili and the rest of us feel the same way about chicken noodle soup. Which is just enough for a two-day trip.

The only nervous-making prospect of the whole canning expedition is that I've never canned meat before. It was rather a leap of faith. I pored over the canner manufacturer's instructions, Stocking Up, and The Ball Blue Book on canning. Repeatedly. Tool Guy rolled up his sleeves and made a couple of huge batches of chili, which canned up to perfection. We were all hovering over the bubbling jars, wiping the steam from our glasses, and listening for the metallic pops. I think I was holding my breath. All of them sealed beautifully. The Canning Gurus would've been proud.

The chicken noodle soup took a bit more thought, since I'm not a huge fan of canned vegetables. That's actually a major understatement. It was quite easy to sell me on the principles of fermented vegetables, since I don't think it is possible to convince me to voluntarily eat canned vegetables. The few experiments I made in that direction, with the exception of tomato sauce, ended up being stealthed into chili. Keep that under your hat, one here is aware of this little tidbit and the less said on that, the better. In the end, I decided to keep the canned ingredients to a minimum: just the meat and veggies. The pasta came along with us in the bag, boiling up fresh pasta with each meal and adding it to the reheated soup at the last minute. I seasoned and boiled the chicken as usual, keeping the cut vegetables aside. After the meat was cooked, I deboned the chicken, returning it to the broth with the uncooked vegetables. I canned both the chili and the soup according the the manufacturer's canning instructions for meat. I was a bit disappointed that two of my chicken soup jars never popped, but that did give us the chance to see how our final successful product turned out before we were past the point of no return. Amazingly, the vegetables weren't mushy and there was surprisingly little savor lost. However, if I do this again, Philistine that I am, I probably would add a touch more salt.

When we packed up the trunk of our Malibu, we had only two suitcases--and I promised Tool Guy that I wouldn't mention that one was his while the other held everything else for everyone else...he's admonished me in the past that I tend to overpack...ahem--and the rest was, you'll not be surprised, food. The jerky, chili, and soup filled two boxes, while the rest of our dry food stuff and cooking paraphernalia consumed the remaining space. We were able--just--to close the trunk and cram ourselves into the intimate quarters of our little car, while my very own Mr. Sulu plugged in his spanking new Garmin and programmed the coordinates.

On the road again.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Things That Go Cough In the Night

Elecampagne Plant

He never has been a cooperative child. Even before he was born, Dog refused to change his presentation to accommodate me and the OB. In a stubborn transverse position the entire final trimester, the best compromise he would yield was a single footling breech. He's been digging his heels in ever since.

We've been fighting Dog's cough off and on for over a year now. Tried lots of stuff, including pulling the passionately favorite ghee, thinking that the dairy was a contributing factor. For once, though, it wasn't a food issue. Go figure. Getting rid of that musty-smelling mattress did improve breathing conditions for the remainder of the winter. Bug and Tool Guy are sequestered in the shop, cranking out a bunk bed set reminiscent of Stone Henge to replace the former sleeping arrangements.

However, we are now in the height of pollen season. My email inbox is daily peppered with pollen reports of maximum measures of oak, hickory, birch, grass and other delectables which have left their yellow evidence sprinkled over every conceivable surface. When pollen counts aren't spiking, this very chilly, damp...I believe the season might be considered "summer" yielding sky high mold counts. So I'm breaking out all of my big guns to deal.

Our first line of defense is a neti pot. This cute little pot hasn't been welcomed as a best friend among the Hobbits, but application three times a day has certainly reduced the nightly wheezing and coughing. For such an intransigent child, Dog is really pretty good about putting up with my whack-job remedies.

This is the season to forage and what I'm looking for grows in abundance where we live. A few plants that are historically used for coughs are mullein, elecampagne, and coltsfoot. The Herbalist says these are her "go-to" plants for lung complaint.


Foraging can be a relaxing outing, but when one is on a mission and there's mileage to be covered, many hands make light work. One sunny (rare, this year) afternoon, the four of us set off with totes in one hand and clippers in another in search of some off-road infestations of coltsfoot and mullein. A bit of land that fell to the ax of tax arrears has just opened up to public access for fishing in our neighborhood "kill" (shirespeak for "creek"). Rich pickings there, not only in coltsfoot, but also mullein. Off the road yet. It's always recommended to try to harvest plants that live at least eight feet off of any roadway, in order to avoid any toxins that the plants may absorb from proximity to passing vehicles. Score! I'll be watching for these mullein plants to be flowering soon. Earache season will be here before we know it and it never hurts to plan ahead.


As we clipped, Bug began to unpack his own personal recollections of herb lore, surprising me with the amount of information he'd retained. Things I either didn't remember telling him or assumed he never processed. Astonishing, since this is the child whose lowest scoring domains are in listening skills. Guess it requires the right motivator.

Eager and enthusiastic hands make light work of filling our bags. The dehydration process didn't finish quite so quickly, but at the end of three days, the yield was such that I felt we'd collected enough.

Elecampagne Flower

Elecampagne is another big gun for respiratory difficulties. It rocks for things like pneumonia, bronchitis, and this coughing that is plaguing Dog. It certainly helps to clear up the gunk that clogs his lungs. This is one that has to be harvested in the fall after the second hard frost, since the tincture is made from the roots.

Every day, we check the pollen and mold counts the way some folks check their stock portfolios. So far, no single remedy is the silver bullet for us, but a combination of applications...and some cooperation from the "participant" and all of us, Dog not the least, are breathing easier and sleeping better at night.

*Peterson's Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs has this to say about coltsfoot:
"Contains traces of liver-affecting pyrrolizidine alkaloids; potentially toxic in large doses. In Germany, use is limited to 4 to 6 weeks per year, except under advice of a physician." p. 147

Friday, June 26, 2009

Chickens Coming Home To Roost

Well, tie it up with a bow. The school year has ended. Whew. This has been the most mad six weeks that I can remember for any stretch of time. An extra co-op delivery sandwiched in between the Stanford for the older Hobbits, as well as a research paper/Science Fair project for Dog. But when your child tells you that he wants to volunteer to do extra work, one can hardly refuse, no? Actually, it was the display that he had really volunteered to do...or at least volunteered Tool Guy's help on it. By the time, I realized what had happened, they were quite committed to the accomplishing the of display and so Dog, by default, was committed to the research paper. He knuckled down with surprising cooperation--repaying the cost of display supplies looming over his head--to the completion of the paper. His first. With very little involvement in the actual writing of the paper from me. I just held his hand during the research portion of the project and helped him conform to the assigned format. The rest, he did himself. And brought home the Gold for his age group. Attaboy!

Bug's Stanford shows that he has taken tremendous strides forward in his reading and language skills...areas in which he has struggled in the past. Woohoo! I guess Raymond Moore is right. Better late than early. Some boys do advance better at eight years of age than before. I'm hoping the same applies to math word problem skills, because that's this year's area of greatest challenge. We've been using Singapore math, but if anyone has any suggestions or resources for beefing up word problem skills, holler at me! I'll also entertain feedback from anyone who wants to feed my internal mantra that this will come with time, like the reading did. Tool Guy thinks more time in the shop is the answer. Heh.

Princess began the year as a kindergartener who had a rudimentary grasp of the initial phonics rules and ended the year as a first grader who is also a reader and writer. We continually find little love notes tucked in out of the way corners around the house. Cute beyond words.

In the past, I have noticed the propensity of peer-mothers to, upon the entrance of their youngest into first grade, cast about for someone/thing new to mother. If they have decided that they are past the age of continual conception, most turn to the option of mothering something even shorter and furrier than Hobbits. A dog. Or a cat. Something I swore I'd never do. Now that the Hobbits are reasonably house-broken--having successfully broken the house--I swore I'd enjoy the languorous, sybaritic luxury afforded by my surfeit of spare time. Yeah. Right. Good luck with that plan.

Well, to my credit, it isn't a dog. Or a cat. I got chickens. That was my twenty-fifth anniversary gift, remember...a chicken tractor. Tool Guy brought them home to me from where they had been boarding at a friend's house until we were ready to receive them. They were more or less agreeable about coming. Except for one. Tool Guy said when they caught her, she'd "screamed like a woman." He's still trying to explain away that comment. Trust me.

The girls settled into the routine of our yard, trundling about the property in the tractor and nesting in their roost quite naturally. The Hobbits decided to name each of them, which I allowed, since these are going to be egg birds and not soup birds. The Wyondottes are called, respectively, Polka and Dot. We haven't been able to differentiate which is which. The other two are white, with one of them having neck and tail markings. The white one was christened "Snow" by the Hobbits, but I still refer to her as "Luci-" due to wiles.

Luci has decided that she's the alpha bird. Having already expressed her aforementioned reluctance to relocate, she has concluded that as opportunity presents itself, she plans to avail herself of the relative roominess of our acreage, irrespective of anyone else's thoughts or wishes on the matter. The first time she flew the coop, I think she startled herself and so stuck close enough to her flock mates that after an hour or so, she was nestled next to the tractor, clawing wistfully at the wire. Her bid for independence, when I pursued her, was rather half-hearted and I was quickly able to recapture her.

Her second excursion revealed a more footloose and fancy-free Luci. Her hour of liberty was about ten o'clock in the morning and she planned to make the most of her day. None of the usual coaxings, baitings, pleadings, or corrallings could persuade her. I can only image what the neighbors were thinking, as they must have been watching. It was a popcorn-worthy event. Or sorghum for the corn-sensitive. She successfully avoided the team of Hobbits and adults trying to secure her. Scoffed at any food offerings. Distained to flee to the box trap someone so cunningly devised. Tool Guy thought a blanket as a net would work, but that spooked even the more docile hens who had decided to stay at home. Dad thought a bamboo garden rake would work to pin her down, but she skittered away with raucous and reproachful cackles that echoed off of the hemlocks that make up our woods. Eventually, I threw up my hands and announced that we'd wait for sunset time when she would naturally decide that she needed to be in her roost.

Nothing wrong here that a batch of cookies wouldn't cure, no? With patient and continual doses of "a tincture of time," the Hobbits continue to gradually gain lost ground. Beans have been unequivocally reintroduced. This addition to the diet was strangely not met with the same cries of delight that accompanied chocolate. I can hear what you're saying. Go figure. Being the untrustworthy and deceitful parent that I am, I never shirk at an opportunity to engage in guerrilla nutrition. Hence, bean flour cookies.

Chocolate Chip Bean Flour Cookies

1/2 cup palm shortening
1 tsp salt
1/2-1 cup maple syrup
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
1 tsp. guar gum
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/4 cup potato starch
1 1/2 - 2 cups cup bean flour
1 cup Enjoy Life chocolate chips

Garbanzo beans usually figure largely in my bean flour blends, but I've abandoned the favored fava beans of Bette Hagman's "garfava flour" fame for my own combination of adzuki beans and garbanzo which I call "gadzuki flour." Yeah, I know. As Mrs. Weston put it, "all...people will have their little whims." So humor me, okay?

Cream shortening together with the syrup, vanilla, and eggs, mixing in the remaining ingredients, except the chocolate chips, which are best incorporated with hand stirring. Roll into balls and flatten with a plate or cup bottom. (I find that sandwiching between baking parchment or silicone mats assist in this process.) Bake at 350* for 10-12 minutes or until desire consistency.

As the sun started setting, I ventured out into the yard to see if Luci could be persuaded to submit. She'd spent most of the previous hour looking for her own way into the tractor. (By the way, leaving an opening for her to access at her own leisure only allowed Polka to emerge, giving us yet another refugee to regain. Fortunately, she did it with a better grace than Luci.) When Luci started fluttering and poking around the elevated hutch of the tractor, I judged it might be time. I circled the tractor while she walked the ridgepole of the roof, Anne Shirley-style. She wanted nothing to do with my help, silly git. I waited until she turned her back to scope out another angle before I reached up, finally grabbing one of her legs with success. I'll leave the shrieks of indignation and wounded dignity to your imagination. Not much that you could conjure up would fall short of the reality. But she'd come home to roost at last.

I spent the first couple of years of our food journey chasing the intolerances around, hoping to pin them down and to be able to put them where I wanted them. That wasn't any more successful than chasing Luci. We had unnecessary setbacks because I'd not yet learned to wait. But it's happening, though. All the chickens are coming home to roost.

I'm stalking bananas next.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Redeeming the Bread

Bug's favorite excuse is "I got distracted." While he's a highly distractible sort of Hobbit, it does get old after a bit. It's sort of a contagious variety of excuse, since I'm hearing it from other members of the clan besides Bug. Tool Guy trots it out from time to time, to my cynical sneers. Oh, the hubris...

Sunday mornings are not an oasis of quiet and reflection in the midst of a hurly-burly week. As much as it pains me and as it is humbling to admit, Sunday mornings = stress in this Hobbit hole. Two hours is barely sufficient time to organize and corral five people out of the house in a tranquil and pacifistic manner. That's what the commute is for...regrouping and refocusing after the mad dash out the door. It's like herding cats.

I really should know better than to try and squeeze in any other activity than the ones required to get us out the door for the morning. I really should. It should be enough to feed and dress everyone, organize snacks, collect up textbooks, music materials, and sermon notes. Watching us leave must look like a troupe of Hobbits breaking bivouac. But for some reason or another, it seemed like a reasonable, rational, nay, even possible goal to get a loaf of bread going in the morning before we left. The theory was that if I set the bread to rising--my starter is sluggish of late and needs more rise time than previous--when I first got up, I could set the timer for the rest of the rise, the oven would turn on, bake the bread, then turn off, patiently waiting for our return home a few hours later. It makes a nice theory, doesn't it?

Half way down the road, it came to me that I'd never set the timer. Nothing for it but to sit in the passenger's seat and fume over the wasted product. Okay. Breathe deep. The rest of the drive involved my mind furiously shifting through ways to salvage the situation.

Redemption Muffins

2 cups of flopped bread dough
1 cup pear butter or apple sauce
1 cup dry quinoa flakes
2 t cinnamon
1 T vinegar
1 t baking soda

When I got home the dough, nestled in its 100* oven, had risen and fallen with a lovely layer of froth over the top. It was quite liquid, too. Hence, the addition of dry quinoa flakes. This may appear an arbitrary ingredient to add and, indeed, it is. The theory was that the dry flakes would soak up the extra moisture. Besides, the flakes were part of a cereal that the Hobbits swore that they loved, but really what they loved was to pick the dried mangoes and strawberries out and leave the hideously expensive quinoa flakes behind with a sneer. Soooo. One cup of dry quinoa flakes it is.

I think that I now passionately adore vinegar and baking soda as a rising agent, since stumbling across a cake recipe recently that called for this combination. Betty Crocker look out. So I now use it instead of the much pricier cream of tartar. But just to keep things interesting, I've taken to using cane vinegar, courtesy of our local international grocery store, since it has a sweeter and more mild taste than other vinegars and is a more palatable addition to dessert breads.

Mix ingredients and pour into muffin molds, baking at 350* for 30 minutes.

Dog, who has of late turned his nose up at such humble offerings as pear butter muffins, inhaled these and declared them the best he's ever tried. Figures. Now I have to go and engineer a deliberate mistake...

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Unkind Cut

One of the Herbalist's favorite axioms is "herbs grow most where they are needed most." And it is an interesting proposition. I mentioned earlier that I've identified a large stand of blue bugle in my back yard and smaller clumps scattered across the rest of our property. I even poked Tool Guy about it, since it has been labeled the "carpenter's herb," being hemostyptic in nature. This was simply whistling in the dark on my part, because in the seven years since he has resumed wood working, he's never. ever. cut himself. Now, me on the other hand...well, I do talk about cooking dangerously, don't I?

Less than a week after identifying bugle and discovering its purpose, I had the quintessential opportunity to field test its efficacy. There I was. In the kitchen. A banded bunch of green onions in my hand. A very sharp knife. Let me say in my defense that at least I had the blade pointing upward and I was cutting away from myself. Alright, alright, but at least I feel slightly less stupid, okay?

As I wrapped up the cut and watched it rapidly soak the bandage without any indication of abating, I dizzily chanted to myself that I didn't want to go to Urgent Care at that particular moment. Somewhere in my scattered wits, the remembrance of bugle floated to the surface and I dashed out of the back door and onto the lawn to snatch up a couple of leaves. I stuffed them in my mouth, munched them into a macerated paste and peeled open the bandage, plastering the pulp in place and resealing the bandage. Two minutes later, the bleeding had stopped completely. It wasn't even hurting. Cross my heart and hope to die. That night, I applied a couple of plantain leaves to the cut for the astringent and antiseptic properties. In the morning, I was able to abandon the bandage altogether.

It was rather interesting that within a few days of this experience, I was settled in the bedroom, doing some studying when Tool Guy called to me with a strained note in his voice. When I answered, he told me that he needed me to drive him to Urgent Care. I darted into the bathroom where he was sluicing out a vicious cut where he'd been momentarily distracted and lost an argument with his miter saw. Fortunately, it wasn't his band saw or he would have lost more than the argument. Once again, I made a mad dash for the bugle patch, followed closely by Hobbits who were eager to assist me in the collection. Once again, it performed as previously, though his cut was much worse than mine. Whew.

I've certainly decided that, since cuts are not a seasonal hazard, bugle needs to have a place in our medicine cabinet. Toward this end, I gathered up runners of it with the leaves still attached rather than snipping off individual leaves. These I dried on racks in my oven, set on 100*. After drying, I store the leaves in a mason jar, vacuum sealed with a packet of desiccate inside.

Both of our war wounds are healing up nicely. Tool Guy is still accommodating himself to the green stores that are filling our medicine cabinet these days. After the bugle application, he insisted on scrubbing out his wound with commercial antiseptics and plaster on antibiotic-impregnated bandages. I'm trying not to be smug about the fact that his cut isn't healing quiiiiiite as cleanly as mine. When I pointed this out to him, he told me to talk to the hand. The uncut one. Heh.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The World In My Own Back Yard Redux

I think that it has finally decided to be Spring. Every year, the cusp between Winter and Spring feels like it drags out interminably. Although old-timers auger a hard, dry summer from the signs they see before them, it doesn't look that way from my back deck. I've had to bring my soggy, struggling starts in more often from the rain than from the frost. This spring has afforded me ample opportunity to confirm that veteran remedy for soil fungus: cinnamon. I think that after watching me grab the cinnamon shaker and billow fragrant brown clouds over my sickening starts that the Hobbits shall be surprised at nothing I do. My starts are thriving, though. So there.

I'm always amazed at what powerful solutions we have at hand to us, should we choose to avail ourselves of them. At least, as long as we have knowledge of them. Which is why I've so avidly wanted to take an herbal class.

Yes, I have plantain oil, which does marvelous things for diaper-rashy bottoms...or for the tweener who somehow must tangle with poison ivy every year. The property's administration practically razed the area around Dog's favorite haunt in an attempt to eradicate it. Dog still found some. The dried mullein leaves found use this winter and I think I have found renewed confidence toward putting the coltsfoot I harvested to use. We even had an ear infection or two that felt the gratitude of mullein oil and a heated rice bag. Comfort herbs, if you will. But I'm coming to the end of my own personal resources.

So when Tool Guy and I were discussing twenty-fifth wedding anniversary plans, he was a little taken aback by my wishes. He had a weekend in The City planned. I had a chicken tractor in mind. He was thinking ritzy dinners in hotels with hyphenated names. I was thinking about herbal classes. I guess his willingness toward extravagant romantic gestures, poor guy, is wasted on me, the eternal pragmatist. Still, he's happy to make me happy, so when green things started elbowing their way to the surface, I set off on a Saturday with my notebook, backpack, and a tray of kimbop. The first class of the season.

We sat in the grass under a fitfully sunny sky that tried to ward off the chill from the wind and opened our Newcomb's Guides. The Herbalist had selected a plant that grew proliferately among the grass for us to cut our teeth on identifying. She even passed out magnifying glasses and a jeweler's loupe for us to get up close and personal. I felt a disproportionate and ridiculous sense of accomplishment when I was able to identify the blue bugle. Clearly, I need to get out more.

Word is that bugle is called the "carpenter's herb" for its ability to stem bleeding. I guess there's some wisdom in the doctrine that herbs grow where they are, Tool Guy?

One of my classmates identified the ground ivy or gill-over-the-ground, a plant which carries the reputation as being helpful with lead paint exposures. That's certainly a plant idea to keep on the back burner in these days of heavy metal toxicity, no?

I brought a few runners home with me and looked for a likely spot in my own yard in which to encourage them. After scratching out a place in a location that looked similar to the place where they were thriving in The Herbalist's yard, I started examining the leaves of surrounding hopefuls pushing up and--guess what?--I had transplanted some ground ivy in amongst...ground ivy. While that doesn't speak well for my identification skills, I can at least console myself that I have good instincts for where something may grow. I guess... Heh.

Each class has a lecture--this one was on the digestive system and, thankfully, she glossed through it very quickly in deference to those of us who have an intimate acquaintance with that particular system--as well as a project. One of our projects of the day was taking an infusion of burdock, decocting it and then making a syrup with it. Burdock is a good tonic-all and is a traditional herb for spring cleansing along with others like dandelion.

Burdock Tonic

1 oz. burdock
1 pint water
Stainless steel, glass, or enamel pot

Add water and burdock to the pot and bring to a boil, then simmering on low for 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover to prevent any essential oils from escaping and allow to steep overnight. Strain product from the liquid and return liquid to pot. Gently simmer until the amount of liquid is reduced by half. This decoction can then be stored in the refrigerator for a week when sweetened with honey. A splash of brandy (haven't yet vetted brandy out for corn-safety) will preserve it longer. For longer term storage, separate it into halves and freeze the unused portion.

I came home that day with a pinker face, thanks to the sun, a fuller notebook, a sense of exhilaration and empowerment. And two lemon balm plants and a valerian root plant. I've got a spot selected in the yard that I'm going to lasagna into an herb garden next year. I'm already looking forward to the next class and plotting what dish I'm bringing to the class pot luck. We're talking about doing a recipe book of our collected contributions at the end of the year. Cool deal. Talking food and herbs. Does it get any better than that?

Oh, and about that recurrent poison ivy? The Herbalist posits that poison ivy proliferates in disturbed areas...kind of a defense mechanism that says "Keep Out." That eradication attempt? Just made things worse. Given Dog's record, that makes it time to hit the yard for more stock-up stuff!