The Teacup Chronicles

Month: October, 2010

Samhain, Snow and Chai with Gingerbread

Saturday morning I awoke to a wet and heavy snowfall. Though it only lightly blanketed the ground  and bits of grass poked through here and there – it was the first real snow of the year. It just had that feel.  Though we’ve had a few flurries before this –  brief moments of delicate snowflakes floating around in the breeze in a sort of capricious way –  this snow was the first to have any sense of determination and resolve about it.  I spent a good part of the morning transfixed at the window.

The scene was familiar – the same curves to the landscape, the same scraggly branches of apple trees and smooth white birch trunks –  but it was foreign too – like looking at the world with a curtain drawn up. Even the cats seem mesmerized, their little faces glued to the windows, leaving tiny cat sized nose prints in their wake. And though the snow had melted by noon, replaced by a cold and drizzly rain, there was still a sense that something had shifted in the world. The Canadian Geese seem to sense it too – their calls have been a frequent sound in the cold air as they pass over the house in droves, headed to warmer locations in the South.

For the Ancient Celtic Peoples of the British Isles, the transition happening at this time of year was known as Samhain, an event marked with three days of festivities that began the last days of October and continued through the first of November. The celebration marked the ending of the harvest season, and the transition from the light half of the year into the dark half (the name itself comes from old Gaelic and means “summer’s end” or “summer’s sunset.”) It also signified the beginning of a new year to the Celts, who based their yearly calendar upon the agricultural cycles they were dependent upon. One year ended when the last of the harvest was brought in and the plant life shriveled and returned to the earth. And just as the last of the vegetation began to die away, the new cycle was beginning: the earth was impregnated with the seeds of next year’s life, safely gestating in the warmth and darkness of her soils.

Samhain was also a time for honoring ancestors and friends who had passed into the next life. There was the sense that for a brief time, existing between the ending of one year and the beginning of the next, the curtain between this world and the other worlds became thin. Spirits of those who had passed could venture into the world of the living, as could mischievous fairies. You might be curious where the strange antics of Halloween came from: why children dress up in scary costumes or frightening faces are carved into pumpkins and placed on our doorsteps, all lit up with candles. All of it has roots in ancient Samhain rituals – attempting to frighten off malicious spirits and prevent fairies from wreaking havoc.  (When the Catholic Church came to the British Isles, they tried in vain to put an end to all this pagan revelry, but instead gave up and tried to re-contextualize the festivities by  placing  All Saints Day on the date of Samhain.  The night before became known as “hallowed evening”, later corrupted to Hallow e’en as we know it today. The Church could never completely get rid of the old rituals, but did succeed eventually in making people forget their significance.)

“A Fairy” by Arthur Rackham, courtesy rackham.artpassions.net

We might not be living in Ancient Ireland these days, but I think that most us can still sense the shift happening in the world around us as the seasons turn. And at this time of year, with it’s penchant for death and decay, I think we can use as many excuses to celebrate as we can get. So in whatever way that suits you, find some small ritual to honor another bountiful season of harvest and of your life, while moving ahead into that dark, inwards energy of the  winter months where roots are nourished, dreams are dreamed, and visions are spun for the year ahead.

For my celebration,  I decided to make up a nice spicy chai – the kind that warms you to the bone and is just the thing for a snow storm (even if the snow does switch to rain by the afternoon).   This chai is full of the same delicious, warming spices as most chais are – cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper –  but it is also packed full of nurturing and tonifying roots and berries of the fall  to embrace the inwards, rooty energy of the season. It will keep your blood moving, your digestive fire roaring, and your immune system and inner vitality strong and vibrant as the days get colder and darker: in short, the perfect thing to embrace the winter months.

And I had to make gingerbread too, because it just seemed like a good thing to do.   After enjoying some with a hot cup of chai after dinner, we set out a heaping slice on the front porch along with a candle (in the traditional Celtic fashion)  to appease any wayward spirits or fairies that happened to be passing by. I don’t know if the spirits got any, but I do know there is a very happy mouse somewhere.

Kitchen Sink Chai

I call it “kitchen sink chai” because it really has a little of everything thrown in there.  It’s based off of a chai recipe made by Karyn Schwartz, a good friend of mine from Seattle who is a wonderful herbalist and amazing woman. When I make it, I always think of her.

Blend the following in a large bowl, mixing well to evenly distribute the ingredients. Place in a tightly sealed jar, and store in a dark, cool place.

  • 1/2 cup Astragalus root
  • 1/2 cup Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) root
  • 1/2 cup Cinnamon chips (cassia)
  • 1/3 cup goji berries (lychee)
  • 1/3 cup ginger root
  • 1/3 cup Burdock root
  • 1/4 cup Hawthorn berries
  • 1/4 cup Cardamom pods
  • 1/4 cup Pippali (long pepper)
  • 2 tbl Star anise, broken up
  • 2 tbl Black peppercorns
  • 2 tbl clove buds
  • 1 tbl Mace (whole), broken up

To make chai, place 1-2 heaping tablespoons per cup of water in a saucepan. Simmer on low for 30 minutes, then strain out the herbs and sweeten with milk and honey as desired.

Makes about 1 quart of blend, which will go faster than you think! Herbs can be gotten from your local apothecary of ordered from an online herb retailer such as mountainroseherbs.com

Really Gingery Gingerbread

While you are waiting for your chai to simmer on the stove, you might as well whip up some nice spicy gingerbread to go with it, and really fill your house with some delicious scents. This recipe is from the Rose Bakery Cookbook, and is a seriously gingery gingerbread – not for the faint of heart. It is, however, exquisitely tender and perfectly crumbly when still warm,  just as gingerbread should be.

  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 2 tbl ground ginger
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon each cardamom, cloves and allspice
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbs honey
  • 2 tbs grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tbl molasses
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 2 eggs beaten

1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 10 inch loaf tin and line the base with parchment.

2. In a bowl, sift together the dry ingredients: both flours, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, spices, cayenne and salt.

3. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar, and then mix in the honey and fresh ginger.

4. In a third bowl, combine the molasses with 1/2 tsp of baking soda and add this to the sugar and butter mixture.

5. Combine the remaining 1/4 tsp of baking soda with 3/4 cup of boiling water, and add this to the butter mixture as well.

6. Add the dry ingredients and fold in well, then stir in the eggs.

7. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

8. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before trying to remove from the pan (or you will break your loaf in 2 like I did to mine!).

Makes a 10 inch loaf, which serves 8.

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Inspiration short #9: Clean out your space

Cleaning may not seem particularly inspiring at first glance. The idea of it registers emotionally anywhere from a sort of begrudging resignation all the way to pure and utter dread – but rarely does it illicit anything near inspiration.  Far too mundane and utilitarian to posses the extravagant abandon of being poetic or romantic,  and lacking the relaxing and enjoyable qualities of say, a hot bath or glass of wine, cleaning is just…well… a necessary and unavoidable part of daily life. And yet, there is something so deeply satisfying about cleaning.

Whenever I start feeling overwhelmed – you know those days, when all those little responsibilities and conflicts begin to merge together into this huge and terrifying monstrosity that makes you seriously consider buying the first available ticket to Ireland, exchanging your house for a jalopy caravan and joining a pack of gypsies (or is it just me?)  – I do the dishes. I might not be able to control the chaos of the world out there, but I can provide myself with, at the least, an illusion of creating order in my world. It slows me down, pulls me out of my head, and makes me realize the step-wise fashion of sorting through my life.

Because, no matter how chaotic and out of your grasp the course of life may feel, you can always clean the dishes. You can’t make your boss appreciate you more or the stock market rise, but you can take a cloth to a window and make it sparkle. You can, however fragile and futile it may sometimes seem, create a temporary sense of order in a world that seems destined for entropy. And in so doing, you infuse your own little corner of the world with a sense of being loved and cared for – a sense that your corner of the world is somehow important enough to tend.

There is a Buddhist proverb that goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”  The idea, I think, is that those few moments of profound clarity, those brief and cherished experiences when our souls feel on fire and the world feels just just as it should – those moments may direct our lives –  but the simple acts of tending for our surroundings and our selves provide the rhythm and simple purpose that define our days. These very trivial moments we spend sweeping up dust bunnies or unclogging the drain – moments that seem to keep us from doing something really important – these are the tiny threads that hold the tapestry of our life together, and whose combined efforts determine the quality of our experience of living.

Zen nun Karen Maezen Miller, author of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, says it best. “Your own attention is what spiritualizes things. Attention is love. And that’s transformative.” By paying attention to your life, by taking care of your surroundings and tending to the minutest details, you enfold your life with a sense of sacredness, of reverence, a sense of love. You transform a house into a home.

And so, in the spirit of autumn – letting go of what isn’t needed, of tending and caring for our inner worlds – I think a few hours spent cleaning might be just the thing. De-clutter, let go, and through polishing and tidying up, show love and appreciation for the space that holds your life. With the cold weather, you’ll be spending almost all of your time indoors – so why not make your home as inviting, comfortable and cozy as possible?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Get rid of 5 objects that you don’t use or need. Everyone has a hot pink sweater that they never wear, a collection of notebooks from college that they will never look at, or a sentimental figurine from some long past trip that collects dust in a corner. Be brutal with yourself – if you haven’t used it/worn it/ looked it in the past 6 months – there is no reason to expect that you will any time soon. To complete the spirit of autumn’s transformative energies, take those objects to Good Will, give them to someone you know would use them or recycle.
  • Tackle a neglected area. Maybe you have a closet that explodes with snow pants and ski poles whenever you open it, or a 2 year collection of recyclables piled up in the basement that you haven’t “had time” to take. Pick one area of your home that is in dire need of your attention, and spend a day organizing and de-cluttering,  cleaning cobwebs and dust and putting things into order. In some strange way, I find that dealing with those tangible areas of neglect in my life give me the courage to start sorting out the less tangible ones.
  • Re-organize areas of chronic clutter. Does the kitchen table tend to get lost under piles of bills and papers? Get a file box to store everything in. Think of ways you can better organize and utilize your space to save yourself time and energy in the future.
  • Wash the dishes first. Start with a simple, doable and necessary task to get yourself into the spirit of cleaning. Ease into things. If you start off with the intention of re-organizing your entire attic, you’ll probably end up checking your email and researching the origin of chickens instead (if you’re anything like me anyways!). Get yourself into the cleaning spirit first, and then tackle the beast.

Happy cleaning!

Medicinal Chicken Soup

This weekend I finally succumbed to the latest cold going around, which has been plaguing me all week with that icky pre-sick feeling one gets deep in their throat. I thought I had conquered it after several days of regimental echinacea doses and religious avoidance of sugar. But after walking around all day Friday in the freezing wind with no hat,  plus an indulgent lunch at my favorite Montpelier restaurant (Kismet) followed by an even more indulgent desert, I startled sniffling and sneezing.  By the next morning, I was done for.

I wandered around the house most of the morning in my pajamas with a tissue box in near proximity at all times, trying to muster up enough energy and wit to be semi-functioning and get some work done. I finally gave up on that idea, and decided to brave the world and go to the farmer’s market in search of a chicken. Mission: Make Chicken Soup. I bundled up in a ridiculous amount of layers and headed out.

I procured the said bird, fighting through cues of tourists with cameras and Whole Foods bags, and even managed to get some carrots and parsnips. It was COLD, and windy, so I felt like quite the adventurer, suffering great hardships to seek out the secret ingredients for my life-saving medicine.

Now, the greatest thing about this soup is that it is extremely low maintenance. You don’t really have to chop anything if you don’t feel like it:  just put everything in the pot, put the lid on, and let it simmer happily away while you cozy up on the couch to watch re-runs of Seinfeld and sip tea. And, as well as nourishing vegetables and spices, you can throw all manner of medicinal roots, fungi and herbs to simmer in the delicious broth and infuse it with their medicine. This is the one pot stop – a nourishing meal and a medicinal decoction all in one with barely any effort.

Here’s what you might add to your pot:

  • 1 organic, free-range chicken
  • Onion family members: garlic, leeks, onions, shallots
  • Carrot family members: celery, fennel, parsnips, carrots
  • Root vegetables of choice: potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, etc
  • Squash
  • Greens: spinach, cabbage, kale, collards, etc. (add at the very end of the cooking time)
  • Medicinal mushrooms: shiitake, oyster mushrooms, maitake, etc
  • Immune tonifying herbs: astragalus, codonopsis, american ginseng, burdock root
  • Herbs and Spices: parsley, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, oregano, ginger, cayenne, etc

Simply heat a little olive oil in a big stock pot, add your vegetables and sauté for a few minutes, then place the chicken in the pan with enough water to cover well (about 14 cups), and let the pot simmer away. Typically the soup will take about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the size of your chicken. When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan and let cool. Use a fork to shred the meat off of the bone and add it back to the soup.Once everything is seasoned to your liking,  ladle a good selection of veggies and chicken into a large bowl (or mug with a handle), and a good serving of broth.

There is really nothing like a good homemade chicken soup for when you feel under the weather, it’ll have you feeling right as rain in no time at all. After two days on chicken soup, I’m feeling nearly back to myself. Of course, you don’t have to be sick to make this soup: you can eat it when you’re well and it’ll turn you into a super-human…