Thursday, January 28, 2010

Herb Infused Vinegar!

Tonight I was treated to a delicious husband-prepared meal.  Part of the meal was a bowl licking good beet and kohlrabi dish, including the greens.  Though they are amazing on their own, I always run for the perfect green and bean topper, vinegar.  How can that get better?  Make it an herbal vinegar!

Nothing could be simpler than making your own.  All you need is a glass jar, some wax paper, some raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar (no white distilled stuff please) and some herbs, preferably fresh.  I have made vinegars from plants many and varied: plantain, purple dead nettle, woodland nettle, elder flower, goldenrod flower, dandelion leaf, dandy or burdock root various culinary herbs and my very favorite cold and flu vinegar of horseradish, garlic, onion and ginger!  Right now, here in Tennessee, you can go outside and find plantain, dandelion, and if you have a kitchen herb garden, thyme and rosemary.

The method is simple: fill a glass jar the size of your choosing with plant material (this is called the 'marc') and then fill the jar with vinegar (the 'menstrum') to the top.  Cover with wax paper and put the lid on.  The wax paper keeps the vinegar from corroding any metal on the lid.  Let this macerate, or steep, for 6 wks or more.  I have jars of goldenrod and elder still steeping from midsummer.  There are no hard and fast rules here, but 6 months is excessive ;)  At whatever point you choose, strain the vinegar and refrigerate.  Compost the marc, or in the case of garlic and onions, eat it with potatoes, greens, or beans. 

Why use vinegar?  Not only do the flavors infuse into the vinegar, but so do some of the nutrients, especially minerals.  So you are really making a medicine here, not just a fancy vinegar.  The vinegar does double duty, not just pulling the minerals out of the plant material you give it, but when used on food its acidity will help break the bonds of the minerals in your food.  This is something that is very difficult for the body to do, requiring strong stomach acid that the majority of people do not have.  (an aside: if you have frequent heartburn or acid reflux, you do NOT have strong stomach acid, it is in fact just the opposite and vinegar with your meals will help you).  Taking vinegar with meals "stokes the digestive fire" making all digestion more efficient.  And it tastes sooooo good.

Medicinal qualities are also carried in vinegar.  For example, a garlic and thyme infused vinegar would be excellent for chest congestion because both herbs are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory for the upper respiratory and vinegar has a special affinity for clearing the lungs.  I think vinegar was made for winter.  It is cold outside, our bodies get cold and our digestion gets "cold", while our friend vinegar is warming and stimulating.

My favorite recipe:
1 qt jar
1/2 c horseradish root
1/2 c ginger
1/2 c garlic
1/2 c onion
1/2 c parsley

Chop everything up, fine but not too fine, and follow the directions above.  Now be careful with the horseradish.  If you think onions are strong, just wait.  I don't bother with peeling the ginger, what's the point?  You could add a cayenne or other hot chili to make it even zestier.  This particular recipe is great for so many reasons.  Not only is the taste superb, but it has lots of anti-everything herbs to ward off any unwanted invaders in the body, almost all of these herbs enhance digestion, and it is mineral rich.  I highly suggest this for pregnant women, too.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mucilaginous Deliciousness

So we have been mixing up some delicious herbal candy balls around here lately.  It is one of the best ways to get herbs into children, and well, adults too.  Why should it feel like duty when it can be pure pleasure?  The basic recipe comes from Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes For Vibrant Health and more recently we have been very much inspired by Rosalee de la Foret's Stress Support Ball recipe available at Herbmentor.  So, after much tweaking we have our gut healing, allergen free version for the kids and an adaptogenic chocolate concoction for my adrenal health.  Mix up a batch, substitute for your own needs, and enjoy at least 3 a day!

Basic Candy Balls:

3/4 cup tahini
1/2 c sunflower butter (or almond if nuts are not an issue)
a generous 1/2 c raw honey
1 t cinnamon (we omit this and use more of the other two spices)
1 t nutmeg (find nutmeg boring?  grate your own!  the rich, heady flavor is superior to pre-ground)
1 t ground cardamom (sometimes we add ginger as well)
1 T coconut oil (sneak in a little good fat wherever you can!)
a little less than a 1/4 c of carob (you could use cocoa)
1 1/2 c powdered herbs
nuts, seeds, or ground dried fruit can also be added as you like

Our herb choices for this particular recipe were intended to sooth and heal mucous membranes, intestines specifically, and aid immunity for those with food allergies.  I do not use exact amounts, but I will try to estimate...

1/4c spirulina
1/2 c slippery elm
1/2 c astragalus root
1/4 c finely ground flax seeds

My herb blend is more for energy and supporting my adrenals.
1/2 c ashwagandha
1/2 c shatavari (a great choice for lactating moms)
1/2 c spirulina

Place tahini, nut butter, honey, coconut oil, and spices in a 2qt saucepan.  Warm gently, just enough to soften the ingredients so they can be mixed.  Remove from heat and add all other ingredients, stirring until well mixed.  Use a tsp size portion to roll into a ball, and then roll in shredded coconut, cocoa, or crushed walnuts.

Most of these herbs have bitter/sweet flavor profiles so they blend well with the nut butters and spices.  The point is not to completely mask the flavor of the herbs (we want to taste them) but compliment them and make it fun.  Roots like burdock and dandelion work well and are exceptional when mixed in a "Chai Ball".  I think a straight spirulina ball is delicious, too.

This is a great project to do with kids (herbal clay!) to get them involved in their health and herbalism, not to mention it is much more fun to eat something you have made yourself.  So scavenge the pantry and get some herbs, and get rollin'!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chamomile and Peppermint: Two For the Toolkit

It seems that every time I search the herbal shelves lately I find myself reaching for chamomile and peppermint.  I have used the two as simples (alone) for years, but they are really quite a dynamic duo.  Either way, if you have a young family at home these herbs are safe and their uses infinite.

Chamomile and peppermint make excellent remedies for our earliest ailments, teething and digestive upsets.  For teething chamomile eases pain, gum inflammation, and soothes frazzled and irritated babies (and moms), as well as providing protection against infection.  It can also ease the upper respiratory symptoms and digestive disturbance that often accompany teething.  I like to add in peppermint for its cooling effect, antimicrobial action and flavor.  There are a few convenient ways to prepare these for treatment...

A simple infusion can be made, steeped for two hours and dosed directly to baby and through mom as well.  With gentle herbs, truly I prefer to give them directly to the child and not just through breast milk, especially when intended to ease teething pain.  With teas one half to one teaspoon as needed.  Frequency of dosage is essential when using herbs, be mindful.  When blending the herbs be sparing with peppermint.  It is in a supporting role here, not the "star".  Besides, peppermint has a strong flavor and a baby's palate is very sensitive.  For every tablespoon of chamomile I think one leaf of peppermint will do.

Another application is to soak a cloth or cloth chew toy (you know the ones with knots in the ends?) in the infusion and offer to baby.  We took it a step further and filled a reusable cotton teabag with herbs, dampened it slightly and refrigerated or froze it.  This was offered for chewing and sucking on.  The saliva "infuses" the herbs.

Unfortunately, these days colic is used as a catch all term for digestive disturbance in infants.  The causes are many and should be discovered.  Though common, it is not normal or healthy.  Here chamomile and peppermint are not really "cures", but essentials for comfort and symptom management.  (I must interject that with any digestive problem in a child or adult I first and foremost recommend probiotics in supplement or food form.)  Dosed as above, the herbal duo can assist in relaxing a fussy baby, enhancing digestion, and soothing acidity. 

Enhancing digestion is definitely something we are into around here.  All three of my kids have food allergies, manifesting themselves in various ways and to varying degrees in each child.  Chamomile and peppermint cover them all!  Especially dried, chamomile is a gentle, yet powerful, digestive bitter.  Bitters are just that, bitter.  Just the taste of bitter on the tongue stimulates digestive secretions from the liver and pancreas.  Just the taste!  You could spit it out and still get the strong argument for tasting your herbs (in my opinion, capsules are an inferior delivery of herbal medicine, bypassing two of our most precious digestive functions, taste and salivation).  Surprisingly, chamomile is very mild tasting in this regard so of all available bitters it is least likely to be shunned by the littles.  A few sips of tea or drops of tincture before a meal make digestion in the stomach stronger, something much needed by those with impaired capabilities.  And here enters our friend peppermint, tasty and soothing, it helps ease an unsettled stomach, acidity, and intestinal discomfort.  Our all star team is effective in treating stomach "bugs" of the diarrhea and vomiting persuasion as well as any other viral invader.

Chamomile has pronounced antiviral and anti-inflammatory actions so it is one of the main herbs I go to for colds and flu.  Effective as tea or tincture, always serve warm.  I really like to sweeten it with a bit of local raw honey and keep a pot on the stove all day, drinking a cup every hour or just as much as a little one will accept.  As for peppermint, it is a great prophylactic antimicrobial herb, and has its place in upper respiratory protocol, but its use during illness needs a bit more discretion.

Peppermint is a strongly cooling herb and in most cases, one would want to use warming herbs, served warm as well.  Warmth keeps everything flowing and moving outward.  One indication might be a steady high fever you would like to lower*, or after the initial infection, if there is lingering, stagnant mucous in the head or lungs, I do like to employ peppermint.  A tea, tincture, or a little essential oil inhaled as steam or in a chest rub is useful in helping clear that congestion as well as being an excellent antimicrobial for preventing secondary infection. 

Did I mention that chamomile and peppermint are also known, collectively, as Bedtime Magic?  MAGIC.  For some reason chamomile alone does not compare.  Though Matthew Wood states that chamomile's relaxant properties are mostly in fresh preparations like tinctures, not the dried herb, I find that an infusion of the combo is amazing!  Sophie and Emma, my 4 year old daughters, are very high energy children that can not unwind.  Bedtime, no matter the routine or its length has always been difficult to say the least.  On the nights that I remember to prepare tea ahead of time (steep at least an hour) slipping into sleep is much easier for them.  There are days that we sip it all day.  I am not sedating my kids all day, do not worry it does not work that way.

Chamomile is nourishing to the body, especially the nerves, because of its high mineral content.  For these same reasons it is excellent nourishment for any body.  Pregnant women can benefit from its calming effect, digestive aid, and mineral content.  Again, combine with peppermint (oh heartburn!) and maybe some other nourishing tonic herbs like nettle.  Those menstruating can combine our favorite team with skullcap for relief from cramping.  Serve warm when needing to calm and soothe, but they are cooling by nature, so in summer go ahead and ice 'em up for a refreshing and replenishing beverage. 

I have really just touched on all the wonderful ways of using these herbs.  Once you become familiar with how they affect you and your family use your intuition to guide you into other uses.  These are exceptionally safe herbs, so feel free to experiment.  That is the best way to learn about plants.  Books are great, and there are some incredible herbals out there, but nothing stands in for experience.  Never fear, plants are our friends and guides. 

The dark month of flu season is yet to come, so brew up some chamomile and peppermint (maybe a little elder flower in there too) and drink daily as a great antiviral.  Get out in the fresh air and sun while this mild weather lasts, it will work wonders for your mood and immunity!

With love,

*A word of caution, rarely lower a fever.  Fever has a place in healing, it is a function of the immune response and we must allow for that.  Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all.  Here is a great site for monitoring fevers.  Print it out and put it on the fridge to refer to in those middle of the night panics ;)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Not a Blog About Food Allergies

When my eldest, Sophia and Emma, were born nearly 5 years ago(!) I had a book-learned knowledge of herbs without a lot of real experience.  I had been working in the herb & supplement dept of  Greenlife for quite sometime spewing all kinds of recommendations on a daily basis (I shudder to think what I might have suggested way back when).  The thing is, you recommend and send someone home with an herb never to hear from them again.  With a family you see the results...or not.  Oh the learning curve of putting theory into practice! 

The trials came early on.  After the homebirth of my twins (7 lbs each, thank you Brewer's diet) I was left weak and sick for the first month due to various postpartum complications.  This as well as other, more avoidable problems, led to my needing supplemental milk at only 9 weeks.  Though my babes screamed at my empty breasts in the evenings I remained in denial of this fact until my midwife herself told me to go get the scrawny little girls some formula.  Horrified, I headed to the store for the organic formula of course.

Emma's tummy couldn't cope.  I tried various options and none could be tolerated besides the dreaded Nestle Good Start with its "enzyme digested proteins".  I will spare you the tirade over the evils of this company for there is plenty of info at, as well as a list of products to boycott.  Though still breastfeeding (which I continued for nearly 3 years) I was not happy, for with each formula feeding a prickly red rash would erupt around her mouth and a red ring was on perpetual display in her diaper; the textbook sign of dairy intolerance.  She finally gained weight and became a poster child for chub, but wouldn't that happen to anyone her size drinking 6-8oz of high fructose corn syrup two or three times a day?  I know that many children suffer no obvious consequences from drinking formula, but there are a great many children who do.  Sometimes it manifests as food allergies, others insulin resistance or maybe something seemingly unrelated like constant ear infections or other frequent secondary infections after colds and flu.  For us this was the obvious beginning.  There are many intricacies to the story of mine and my daughters health and dietary history that I can not go into in one post.  Many of them will surface later as pieces of a whole picture.

As a single mom I went back to work fairly early and was soon introduced to Wise Traditions, a quarterly publication from The Weston A. Price Foundation as well as a wonderful woman with a lot of raw goat milk on her hands.  So after 6+ months of formula junk food we switched to the raw goat's milk formula outlined by the WAPF, but the damage was done. 

I was in denial for a long while, but at 18 months I had to face the truth.  We were now dealing with many food allergies and their repercussions.  We still are.  The list is long, going beyond the main offenders gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nightshades, nuts to every somewhat common allergen you have heard of (except eggs) to seemingly benign foods like bananas and cinnamon.  Believe me, there are two things not taken for granted in this house, food and mood.  These allergies bring us not only digestive disturbance and gut erosion but behavioral and mood issues as well.  Ah, the learning curve steepens!

So I spend this post telling you the back story to our current state because it will inevitably shape this blog.   It has shaped our lives for sure.  At times it has carved deep sorrowful grooves into my heart and many tears of frustration, but in others brought me moments of revelation and thankfulness for the inspiration to learn, heal, and help. This is not a blog about food allergies, but this lifestyle has been a catalyst for my herbal education and given me more hands on experience in the last 5 years than I ever thought possible. 

So what we are learning is how to overhaul our diet excluding every allergy imaginable and how to truly nourish our bodies with what is left, how to heal our guts, strengthen our digestive capabilities, re-establish our flora, regulate and retrain our immune system, soothe the nervous system, nourish our fabulously delicate endocrine system and come back from mommy's adrenal exhaustion (this last one is a family effort I assure you), blood sugar difficulties and so much more about our bodies, herbs, and what we value in life.

There are some great links in this post so check 'em out!  May your hearts and minds stay open :)


Friday, January 15, 2010

The Daily Minimum

Today was a joy!  We flew out the door before 10am this morning to relish this blessed day of sunshine!!!  Home for a quick lunch and out again for an afternoon of fun at our favorite wooden park.  Even on days like this we take time to prepare at least an infusion or two.  It is still winter after all and our bodies often need support for the challenges of the season.

I am just finishing up the supply of Laportea canandensis, or our native Woodland Nettle, that I harvested Spring 08.  I usually stick to using herbs of the last season's harvest, but I had an abundance of this still in fine shape thanks to the spring and summer our family spent living in a tipi in the Sequatchie Valley (thanks to the generous folks at SVI).  We selected our sight in late winter, and come spring realized that we were right in the middle of an incredibly expansive nettle patch!  (Yes, our tipi was in a wet woodland setting, we now see the error in that.)  I was very pregnant at the time, our babe was to be born there in August, so I busily harvested, ate, and dried nettle as long as it allowed, which surprisingly was well into June.

This plant is so prolific I could not even tell where I had harvested the day before.  It is much friendlier than its english cousin, Stinging Nettle, though still tingly, and seems to hold off on blooming a little longer too.  Most say it is interchangeable with Urtica dioica though I have noticed a few slight differences.  In taste, it is almost malty, reminiscent of a root like burdock, and it doesn't have the seaweedy flavor of the english nettle (though I love that flavor).  Most notably though is the mucilage.  The spent leaves after infusion are slippery and when pressed release a gelatinous liquid more pronounced than in any Stinging Nettle I have used.   To me this indicates that it may be even more beneficial to the urinary tract & kidneys.

As well as supporting urinary tract health, nettle is an amazing source of easily assimilated vitamins and minerals.  It is a supreme tonic for nearly all.  Men, women in all stages of life, infants and children can benefit from what it offers.  In an infusion or used as a potherb, nettle is superb.  If you incorporate one herb or many into your life, let nettle be first.  A quart of nettle infusion daily will nourish you through any season or discontent, providing an excellent base for whatever herbal protocol is needed.  Personally, I find it grounding and relaxing as well.  If you really want to learn about the benefits of nettle, check out Susan Weed's book Healing Wise or her website, for I have greatly understated its virtue.

As always, I love and prefer the plants that live alongside me here in the Tennessee Valley.  They nourish us, giving us air to breathe, providing food for our eyes and souls in the sights of our amazing woodland mountainsides, and generally enrich our lives. I encourage you to plan for early spring nettle harvesting.  It is not far away.  If this isn't possible, Stinging Nettle is widely available online and in local stores from great sources like Mountain Rose.

Do yourself a favor and drink some nettle soon!


Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Birth of a Blog

Like a child, this blog has been gestating in my consciousness for sometime.  Purpose?  Direction?

I have decided that I can not write a straight up herbal blog.  Plants are indeed amazing sources of nourishment and healing and should not be marginalized, but alone they do not constitute the health of a family.  A supportive lifestyle is necessary, and so it is that I will be sharing much more here.  Food, activities, philosophies, media, and other lifestyle choices will make their appearance just as frequently, all within the context of herbalism.

As we all know there is a health care crisis in this country.  I define it a bit differently than most.  In my opinion the crisis is not so much centered around insurance and the cost of care, but personal responsibility.  Education about food and herbs is essential to taking back personal power concerning care of our families.    So this blog was born in the spirit of sharing knowledge and experience, to help the mother (or father) be the family "doctor" like so many generations before.

I hope to share and inspire with information concerning clean traditional foods, using herbs with the youngest and oldest among us, and looking at what is under our feet, whether it be food or medicine.  We can use just what we have to nourish and transform our bodies/lives into examples of abundant health.  I too, am on this journey.

I want to help those in the Chattanooga area connect with local, organic food sources and the herbs in their yards.  We live in a wonderfully diverse and abundant pocket of the world.  May we use these blessings wisely and wildly. 

Personally, I am using this blog to help me refocus my eye on my family, to see the magic in everyday moments, and keep perspective on the beautiful little beings that have come to be in my care.  What do we need today, right now?  Are these needs being met by our lifestyle?  How can we simplify?  Purify?  And finally, to try after years of avoidance to find a voice as a writer, and learn to organize and edit my thoughts in preparation for bigger projects.   So thanks for joining me as I flounder around (joyously) in awkwardness.

Hopefully I will be able to coerce the occasional guest blogger, like the above mentioned yogi dad or some other local herbalists I know and love :)  I'll be back soon with something or the other...

With love,