The Teacup Chronicles

Month: July, 2010

Inspiration Short #1: Fresh cut flowers

Sometimes, honoring our health requires expanding our knowledge, integrating new ideas into our lives or challenging our old habits. But more often than not, health is less about change or discovery than it is about rediscovering the simple truths we already know – reminding ourselves to make time for those things that really nurture us on a deep level and bring sweetness and beauty into our lives. Often, these are the very things we push to the back of our lists because they seem unimportant, we simply don’t have time or we get preoccupied by more pressing matters. But in the end, those little moments of beauty and stillness  are  the substance of our lives – the things that provide color and meaning to our existence. And wouldn’t it be a great travesty to go through life denying yourself the things that make you feel truly alive?

So, while I find great joy in bringing you the more informative or philosophical articles on health, I also want to bring you something that celebrates the more simple and immediately graspable –  that sparks that small flame of inspiration in your spirit and empowers you to try something for no other purpose than creating beauty or joy in your life.  Thus, the inspiration shorts are born – a weekly suggestion for rediscovering the simple beauty of your life.

This week’s idea:

Go out and bring some of summer’s splendor into your home with a bouquet of fresh cut flowers.

Whether wild or from your garden, the act of selecting and arranging flowers is a simple way to bring a little of the beauty and abundance of the world into your life, if not to notice that those things are already there!  Flowers are also an excellent way to honor your home.  As the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa says, “You may live in a dirt hut with no floor and one one window, but if you regard that space as sacred, if you care for it with your heart and mind, then it will be a palace.” There seems no more appropriate way to bless your home (or yourself) than with flowers you gathered yourself in the summer sunshine.

Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out values all the utilities of the world.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Delicious Dinner for a Summer Evening


Lemon verbena tea with tonic water and elder cordial ice

Beet and Carrot Trimmings Salad

Tart with beet greens, tomato, spring onions and thyme

Summer berries and cream with maple syrup

It seems like the best dinners seem to come together on a whim. I try to plan ahead, search through cookbooks and scrupulously design menu ideas – but those preplanned concoctions never seem to be as exciting as those nights where the things I find hiding in the fridge or ripening in the garden just seem to whisper to me what they want done with them. Call it a creative burst inspired by beautiful ingredients, or the amazing power of last minute pressure on the indecisive / perfectionist mind – but whatever it is, the muse of gastronomic pleasure has found me tonight.

An unplanned meal always begins with me rummaging through the fridge, taking a mental inventory of things that spark the flame of inspiration, and things that just need to be used and soon. Tonight, my inventory of potential dinner ingredients includes:

  • blueberries I picked yesterday
  • a bunch of cilantro
  • a carton of eggs from the little honesty box down the road (a charming little painted box where  you slip in a few dollar bills into a rusty tin can in exchange for beautiful fresh eggs – quintessentially Vermont)
  • a very ripe tomato
  • some baby onions
  • a bunch of baby beets with their greens still attached from the Kingsbury Farm Market.

Next, I head up the garden and see what sort of treasures are to be found. The thunderstorms of yesterday have given way to a beautiful breezy evening, bathing the world in a lovely golden light that makes the garden look almost surreal – almost as though I have entered into some other enchanted world full of magic and unknown splendor. After a few minutes of rummaging around, prodding this plant and digging around that one, I end up heading back towards the house with a fistful of carrot thinnings and a handful of flowering thyme – gray clouds whizzing by over head.

Back at the kitchen table, I plop myself down and thumb through two of my most recent additions to the old cookbook collection: Tender by Nigel Slater – an amazing tome picked up on our trip in England;  and Breakfast, Lunch, and Tea, the cookbook of The Rose Bakery in Paris, a much treasured gift that has quickly become a new favorite.

Beet and Carrot Trimmings Salad

Tender is a cookbook devoted to the author’s vegetable patch – each section extolling the culinary and gardening wonders of his most treasured vegetables. His recipes are straightforward and simple, relying mostly on the amazing flavor that comes from freshly harvested, lovingly tended produce. In the carrot chapter, I find a simple salad that utilizes the beautiful appeal of whole carrot and beet thinnings – simply steamed until just tender, and tossed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, chopped garlic, a squeeze of lemon juice and a handful of torn cilantro leaves. Twenty minutes and it’s done, and delicious. Have a look:

Tart with Beet Greens, Spring Onions, Tomato and Thyme

While the vegetables for the salad we’re steaming away on the stove, I sat back down with Breakfast, Lunch, and Tea. This cookbook is the creation of a very special bakery in Paris, run by an English woman married to a French man. The combination of English cuisine with French flair results in something quite spectacular – a perfect balance of comfort and sophistication. Nearly 4 pages of the book are dedicated to savory tarts made with fresh vegetables, and I flip right to that section, thinking a tart may be just the destination for my leftover beet greens from the salad, perhaps paired with some spring onions, tomato slices and thyme…?

Tart crusts are fairly simple, they just require time and patience. My sweetheart makes delicious pastry that always comes out amazingly better than mine ever does, so I delegate to pastry making to him. Here is the recipe that he followed from B,L, and T:

Short Crust Pastry:

Combine 3 1/3 cups flour, 1 cup butter and 1/2 tsp salt in a food processor.

Pulse for 6-8 seconds, until the mixture is crumbly and the butter is fairly well incorporated.

(Note: You can also do this by hand by working cut pieces of butter in with your fingertips)

Place the mixture into a bowl.

Make a well in the center, and add 1 egg yolk and 1/2 cup cold water to the well.

Stir quickly with a fork and bring together the wet and dry ingredients, adding more water if needed.

When the fork can’t do it’s job anymore, use your hands to bring the dough together into a ball.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes.

While the pastry is resting in the fridge, I prep the ingredients for the tart. I roughly chop the beet greens (1 bunch worth), thinly slice the onions with their attached greens (4 spring onions or 1 cup), thinly slice a tomato, and grate 1/2 cup cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan.

For the filling:

combine 2 cups cream, 4 eggs and 1 egg yolk, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg in a bowl and beat until well mixed.

Now the time comes for the tart crust making:

Divide the dough into 3 large pieces. Save 2 pieces for another day in a glass Tupperware in the fridge.

Take 1 piece and roll it out on a well-floured surface, lifting and turning often to prevent sticking.

When the thickness reaches about 1/2 inch or less, use it to line your tart tin.

Be sure not the stretch the dough because the crust will shrink slightly as it bakes. You want a little extra to spare.

Chill for another 30 minutes (or skip if you are very hungry like we we’re!)

Line the pastry with tin foil and fill with beans, then bake for about 20-30 minutes, or until just golden and dry.

To assemble the tart:

Remove the tinfoil filled with beans, and save for your next tart endeavor.

Sprinkle the crust evenly with the cheese, then layer the beet greens and onions over the cheese.

Pour the filling over the tart, to about 1/8 inch from the top.

Layer the tomatoes over the top, and sprinkle with fresh thyme.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is set and golden.

Summer berries and Cream with maple:

While the tart is baking, I whip some cream (about 1 cup) with a 2-3 tablespoons maple syrup and a dash of vanilla extract. This goes in the fridge to chill. After dinner, add a large dollop of whipped cream to a bowl, smother this in a good handful of fresh berries, then repeat. Drizzle the top with maple syrup and eat with a spoon…or your fingers.

Lemon Verbena Tea with Tonic Water and Elderflower Cordial Ice

When the tart is out of the oven and cooling, I whip up the drinks. Lemon verbena tea was my chilled tea of the day ( made by infusing 1 cup of dried leaf into a 1/2 gallon jar of hot water, then refrigerating till cool). I’ve been trying to make lots of chilled herbal teas on these hot days, and lemon verbena is a favorite, with nettle and peppermint coming in a close second. In wine glasses, I add equal parts sparkling water and tea, then pour an 1/8 part elderflower cordial. Each glass gets 1 very special rosemary elderflower cordial ice cube.

Now, time to eat!

A whimsical dinner for a summer’s eve filled with golden light, the sound of wind blowing the leaves, and delicious, vibrant ingredients just waiting to whisper in your ear…

Treasures from the Hedgerow: Elderflower cordial

Happy summertime to you all!  I hope that you  have many wild and delicious things blooming in your lives in these long days of blue skies and sun.  I apologize for my lack of writing these last few weeks, but I hope you all will forgive me, for I have a pretty good excuse! My sweetheart of nine years and I had a beautiful wedding ceremony in our homeland of Northern Michigan, and then we spent two wonderful weeks meandering around rural England and Wales, exploring the ancient and sacred wonders to be found there.

One thing we spent a good deal of time doing was walking along lanes lined with tall hedgerows. In case the concept of the hedgerow is new to you – the hedgerow is basically a living fence or border created by hedges (shrubs and small trees), used to shoulder roadsides in the British Isles, and to divide land and fields into parcels where livestock can be contained (giving the land that characteristic green patchwork look).   Many are ancient and began their growth many many generations before your or my birth ( some are 700 years or older and others date as far back as the Bronze age).

But the hedegrow is much more than a simple fence or road border. Over time, the shrubs and trees that we’re initially planted become intermingled with a cornucopia of native plant species, until the hedge develops into a diversified ecosystem of plants which becomes home for a variety of animal, bird and insect species. One estimate states that hedgerows in England house around 1500 insects, 65 birds,  20 mammalian species and over 600 species of flowering plants! John, the owner of Ty Mynydd farm that we stayed at on our travels, has been restoring old hedgerows on his property. “When we first came here,” he told us, “it was dead quiet. Not a bird call around. Now we’re surrounded by song all year long, the bee population is thriving. It really is amazing.”

While the hedgerow peaks a variety of interests depending on the person – ornithology, archeology, etymology –  for me it was of course the plants. For a person who loves gathering wild foods and collecting plants for medicine, the hedgerow is nothing short of heaven! All of my dearest and most well known plants, right there living together in one place!  Hawthorns, rowans, hazels, and willows; brambles and wild roses; valerian, meadowsweet, nettle, cleavers and St. Johnswort among others, and of course, the beautiful elder, one of my most favorite plants.

All throughout my journey, I saw the lacy blossoms of the elder shimmering white in the bright summer sun. Each of those lacy sprays is made of up the tiniest, most precious flowers that each look like little stars (perfect for scattering over a dessert of summer fruits with creme anglaise!). The elder has often been associated with the moon, and you can easily see why when you look closely at the flowers. They remind one of stardust and that beautiful white light that bathes the earth when the moon is full. Kate Gilday, herbalist and creator of woodland essence flower essences calls elder, “the essence of starlight”.

The flowers have a lovely floral scent in the morning, that can turn somewhat overly musky and foetid in the afternoon, which is just one manifestation of the magical duality of this plant. For the elder has always been considered on the realm of magical, a plant of contradictions – of lightness and darkness both. For though the lacy flowers of June give off an angelic appeal of delicacy, innocence and purity – gazing upward at the sky; the black berries formed in late summer are nothing other than witchy, drooped downwards and steeped in a sort of shadowy malevolence.  And while elder is the plant of choice for witches and evil spirits – the form taken by witches who wish to disguise themselves,  it was also planted to ward off evil spirits and witches!

True to its dual nature, it seems that for every folk legend on how elder  invokes evil, death and curses, there is another suggesting its use to protect against evil and heal.  If one reads further into the mythology, this duality seems to take on a clearer light.  Elder was believed by many Northern European cultures to exist at that boundary between this world and the otherworld, where it was thought of as a guardian – a protector of the inhabitance of this world from the often malevolent intentions of those in the underworld. (This is why its said never to fall asleep beneath an elder – for you may see both magnificent and terrifying things!).  In other legends, the elder was considered as a personification of the great Goddess (known as Hyldemoer “elder mother” in Scandinavia, or Frau Holle “mistress elder” in Germany), giving medicine and protection  to her people in return for their respect and devotion.

In both beliefs, to injure the wood of the elder or cut it down was believed to invite disaster and even death upon the doer – whether seen as invoking the wrath of the Goddess, or releasing the dark energy of the underworld restrained by the elder. In either version, these legends seem to nod at the existence of elder as a hedgerow plant – a plant on the border separating the familiar from the unknown –  whether of one’s land from the wilderness of the outside world, the strange magic of the otherworld from the world we know, or the wildness and magic of the feminine from the logical nature of masculine.  And, as a border plant, elder takes on that border feel – dabbling some in this world in the next, being both familiar and wild, magical and mundane, and  full of moonlight and stars and June sunshine as I passed by it on my walks.

And along this very same theme, elder is a medicine and a food, but also somewhat poisonous. While the flowers and berries are perfectly edible, the leaves and stems are concentrated in cyanogenic glycosides, which when eaten in excess, can potentially cause cyanide toxicity. They also have a purgative effect due to the alkaloid sambucine. However, prepared as a salve or medicated oil, the leaves make an excellent remedy for sprains and bruises.The berries and flowers have negligible amounts of the cyanogenic glycosides and do not cause any concern – they are safe even in pregnancy and for small children.

Along similar lines, elder is delicious when prepared and picked correctly, but can be horrible otherwise! The flowers, as I’ve stated above, can go from a delicate floral aroma to an unpleasant mustiness depending on the time of day and age of the flower. It’s best to pick in the morning, and favor young blossoms that don’t lose too many flowers when you shake the heads. Leave the older ones to go to berry. The berries are not so tasty raw – somewhat bitter and acrid tasting, but mellow into a delightfully characteristic flavor when cooked – slightly musky and thick – like a strange and secret grape.

Medicinally, I could go on for pages about elder! Everyone knows that elder berry syrup is a wonderful remedy for cold and flu season – having strong anti-viral properties (particularly against the influenza virus), containing high amounts of vitamin C and anti-inflammatory bioflavanoids, stimulating immune function and promoting diaphoresis (sweating) to bring down fevers and cool the body.  Studies have confirmed that elderberry extract can significantly reduce the severity and length of influenza infections.

Elder flowers are a wonderful decongestant, perfect for colds but also for allergies and sinus congestion. I tend to include both flowers and berries in nearly any remedy I make for the colds or flus. They also possess the diaphoretic effects of the berries, and have been used to this effect as a blood cleanser for eczema and skin rashes by opening the periphery and normalizing sweat gland activity, as well as promoting elimination through the kidneys.

But medicine aside, elder is such a fun plant to play with in the kitchen! At a bed and breakfast we stayed at in Devon, we we’re offered the most delicious elderflower cordial made by Jennifer, our host. We sat in the garden overlooking Welcombe Mouth bay, and sipped cordial mixed with bubbly spring water and garnished with a sprig of mint and a slice of lemon, watching the sun go down and the light turn a beautiful twinkly lavender while the resident chickens clucked at our feet. What a wonderful evening that was…

Well, as soon as I arrived home, I crossed my fingers that I hadn’t missed the elder blooms of Vermont. I went venturing out to my favorite elder spot (which is top secret, mind you!), and there they we’re! Beautiful and sparkling white, like finely crocheted lace. I filled up my basket and raced home to try my own hand at making elderflower cordial, and I am quite delighted with the results. Here is the recipe I followed:

Elder Flower Cordial

  • 25 freshly picked elder flower heads, not overly ripe (look for heads that don’t lose many blossoms when you shake them)
  • 1.25 kg organic sugar (about 2.2 lbs)
  • 1 litre of water
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 orange
  • 55g of citric or tartaric acid

Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring frequently until all the sugar dissolves. While  you wait for the sugar to dissolve, strip the zest off the lemons and orange using a vegetable peeler or paring knife into wide strips, avoiding the white pithy part which has a bitter flavor. Once the zest is removed, slice the lemons and oranges into thin segments. Combine the lemons and orange, the zest and the elderflowers into a large bowl, and then pour the prepared sugar-water syrup over everything. Cover the bowl with a towel and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.  The next day, strain everything through a large colander lined with cheesecloth and bottle in sterilized glass bottles. (Note: Better to use several smaller bottles so you can use them up quickly once opened). Store in the fridge, or freezer.

Now, how to use your cordial:

  • Combine 1 part cordial with 8 to 10 parts sparkling water or, to be fancy, chilled lemon verbena tea. Garnish with a lemon wedge, sprig of mint and a fresh elder flower head, and sip in the evenings with friends. Add a splash of vodka to jazz things up.
  • Use as a syrup over spongecake (lemon would be good), pancakes,  ice cream, or the traditional English use of garnishing a gooseberry fool or fresh summer berries with cream.
  • Dilute 1/2 and 1/2 with water and freeze in your ice cream maker to make into sorbet, adding a little thyme and/or some blended frozen strawberries
  • Freeze into ice-cubes with a sprig of thyme or rosemary in the center or each to add to cool water or tea