The Teacup Chronicles

Month: April, 2011

Really rooty root beer and some thoughts on blood cleansing

If I could send smells across the ethers of the internet, the first smell I’d send you would be sassafras. How can one even begin to describe how fantastic it is?  Deeply spicy with a sweet earthyness and that characteristic undertone of camphor and wintergreen…there is just nothing else like it. I love the smell of it so very much, that I would even venture so far  to say that if I could smell just one thing for the rest of my life, sassafras would be it. In other words, I am a big sassafras fan.

Of course, when one thinks of sassafras, the first thing that comes to mind is root beer. But  you would be mistaken in believing that the smell and taste associated with modern versions of this old rooty beverage is still derived from sassafras. Indeed, since 1976, sassafras and any extracts there-of have been banned from food and cosmetic use in the US,  based upon a study showing that mice practically drowned in safrole, an aromatic constituent found in sassafras, showed increased incidences of liver cancer (go figure). Even though the toxic metabolite produced in the mouse’s metabolism is not produced by humans, and there is no reason to think that sassafras poses anymore risk to our health than say, orange juice –  we are forced to put up with sassafras free root-beer, filled with a slew of artificial flavors designed to imitate sassafras that are probably a good deal more harmful to our health than sassafras itself ever could be.

Ok, I’m taking a deep breath and stepping down off my soap box now. But I like sassafras, and I miss the old style root beers – the kind that really were made of “roots” (not just sugar and artificial color) and the kind that had a medicinal as well as enjoyable purpose. Because, once upon a time, root beer was (I’m pounding my fist on the table here for effect) made from actual roots   – spicy, pungent and bitter-tasting roots –  roots that were called wonderful things like “blood cleansers” and “tonics.” That is the kind of root beer that I’d like to drink!  So, I’m protesting against sassafras-free root beer and I’m protesting against root-free root beer and I’m making my very own – which is (you guessed it) packed full of both – a really rooty root beer.

Now before I share my recipe with you, I want to  take a moment to talk about roots, that old concept of “blood cleansing” and spring – and how they all relate, because I think they each come together in a really fascinating way. You see, I am a firm believer that a large part of the medicine found in plants is their ability to help us adapt to our environment. Plants, unlike ourselves, base their life cycles entirely upon seasonal and environmental influences, responding to changes in light and temperature, moisture, etc. By consuming the plants that grow around us, we give ourselves exactly the type of support we need for adapting to our own environment.

Roots are a great example of this concept, because their medicinal effects are quite different from one season to the next. In the fall, for example, when the plant’s resources are being directed to the root for storage, roots tend to have a more nourishing and building effect. Indeed, studies suggest that dandelion and burdock roots harvested in the fall contain far more inulin – the starchy component of the plant, than do the spring roots. Spring roots, however, are adapted for the spring – encompassing that upwards/outwards movement of energy happening in the plant (and in us) at that time. As the plant’s food storage is utilized for growth, bitter and aromatic compounds tend to become more concentrated, giving the root a more bitter or pungent flavor and a more stimulating effect – helping to direct our own energy outwards in preparation for warmer, more active days.

So how does this all relate back to “blood cleansing”?  Well, cleansing the blood was seen as a necessary spring ritual in many herbal folk traditions. Impure blood would give rise to symptoms of “heat” – things like rheumatic joint complaints, allergies, rashes, boils and skin eruptions, fevers, etc. Cleansing the blood was really about clearing heat –  thought to derive from “toxins” – from the blood, and thereby helping to prevent many of the common maladies induced by the change of seasons and warmer weather. Bitter and pungent tasting roots were enlisted for this task because they stimulate eliminative function – promoting detoxification and elimination of heat-producing “toxins” (ie free radicals, excess hormones, pro-inflammatory compounds, etc) from the body via the feces, urine or sweat – thereby reducing the inflammatory load and clearing away “heat.”.

So let me just really drive my point home and tie this all together: using “blood cleansing” roots to clear heat from the body is all about that spring process of directing our body’s vital energy back outwards – like the roots moving the energy up and into the plant. In winter, we want our blood to be warm. We want to heat our core and, like the plants, direct all our resources – blood and otherwise towards our internal organs so that we can remain vital and withstand the cold temperatures. This is exactly the opposite of what spring requires: spring is warm, the weather is mild and the days require action rather than storage. All that energy and warmth going to the core needs to move back out again. Blood needs to move to the surface where it can be cooled and reduce our core temperature so we can adapt to the warmer weather – just like when we exercise, our skin flushes red with blood which is being cooled at the surface of the body via evaporation of sweat to reduce our temperature. (Interestingly, many roots like sassafras, burdock and sarsaparilla found in traditional root bears are diaphoretics – stimulating blood flow to the skin and enhancing sweat production.) Also,  reserves need to be broken down to support the increased activity level, and bitter roots like dandelion and burdock found in root beer stimulate metabolism and digestive function. Lastly, as we move from a storage to an activity phase, we can let go of unnecessary resources (I like to think of all that protective snow melting away) – – and spring roots stimulate detoxification and elimination via the kidneys, lymphatics, liver and skin. Make sense?

So root beer – real root beer made from actual roots –  is just the thing for spring. Here’s a delicious recipe that is extremely easy to make at home which uses lacto-fermentation (or fermentation via beneficial lactobacillus bacteria) to produce carbonation – adding an entirely new dimension of health promoting properties to this yummy traditional beverage in the form of probiotics.

Really Rooty Root Beer

Makes 4 quartz. You will need some kind of sealable bottle for this recipe – I use old swing top beer bottles, but screw top mineral water bottles would also work fine. 

Ingredients:

For the herb mixture:

  • 3 tablespoons (0.40 oz) dried sassafras root
  • 2 tablespoons (0.20 oz) dried sarsaparilla root
  • 1 thumb sized American ginseng root (organically grown) (0.15 oz)
  • 1 tablespoon (0.20 oz) dried dandelion root
  • 1 tablespoon (0.30 oz) dried burdock root
  • 1 tablespoon (0.10 oz) dried birch bark
  • 1 teaspoon (0.02 oz) dried licorice root

Other ingredients:

  • 1 gallon filtered water
  • 2/3 cup maple syrup or birch syrup
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 cups yogurt whey (obtained by straining yogurt through a cheesecloth lined strainer into a bowl overnight. The whey collects in the bowl, and you are left with a delicious yogurt curd cheese in the strainer, which you can enjoy like cream cheese!)

Directions:

  1. Place the herb mixture into a large pot with the gallon of water.
  2. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and let simmer with a cover on for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered for an additional 30 minutes. Check the temperature after 30 minutes with a thermometer. If it has fallen below 100 degrees F, return to heat until the temperature reads 100 degrees.
  3. Place the maple syrup and molasses into a gallon container (or divide equally between to half-gallon mason jars) and strain the herb mixture into the jar. Stir or cap and shake to dissolve the sugar into the liquid.
  4. Add the whey to the mixture, seal the jars and place in a warm spot for 2-4 days.
  5. Strain the mixture into 4 quart sized or 8 pint-sized sealable bottles. The bottles should be quite full, so add water to fill if any of your bottles come up short. Return to a warm place for another 2-3 days.
  6. Transfer your bottles to the fridge and enjoy at leisure. Do be cautious when you open the bottles, as they likely will have built up a good amount of carbonation, and may bubble over.  For this reason, I tend to open mine outdoors, with a glass ready to catch the overflow so that I don’t lose the bottle to its carbonation.

Cheers!
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April’s Blog Party: Spring foraging and gardening

This month’s blog party is being hosted by the lovely Leslie over at Comfrey Cottages. She has chosen the theme of Spring wild foraging and herbal gardening (both things so very close to my heart!). She says,

I realize that not everywhere in the world is it feeling very spring like yet, and some of you might even still have snow, so if it isn’t quite time for you to garden or forage yet, still feel free to post about past adventures or ones you have plans for. The same applies to gardening. I look forward to any new tips, recipes or other ideas you come up with to share!

I immediately decided that I was going to make a deliciously bitter and pungent salad for the occasion out of a few of my favorite wild edibles. Venturing out to gather Spring’s wild spring greens has been a tradition for nearly all cultures living in the Northern Hemisphere – not only because the act in itself seems to reinvigorate us with the sight of fresh growth and new life, but also because the exotic pungent and bitter flavors of these greens stimulate and revitalize our systems after the stagnancy created by dark days and heavy foods. Their strong and exotic flavors help to stimulate digestive and detoxification processes throughout the body – while the high nutrient levels they contain nourish us deeply and provide a boost to our entire system.

But sadly, the week of the blog party has come, and there still isn’t much going on here  in terms of foraging. Aside from the tiniest, most adorable little dandelions:

and a few mud strewn wild strawberry leaves, the wild goodness of spring has a week or two more before it begins to show itself. But that is no bother at all, as there are plenty of delicious little shoots appearing in the herb garden.

Along with all those glorious weeds and wild edibles of the forest, perennial herbs are the stars of the early spring table. Pale and delicate shoots of culinary herbs such as oregano and thyme are revealed from their hiding places under the snow, offering up milder tasting and tenderer counterparts to their summer harvest.  Indeed, all throughout the garden one finds tiny, richly colored and deeply crinkled leaves appearing around the bases of the dried out stalks signalling the presence of last year’s growth – (as well as some delicious eating!).

Oregano

Valerian

Catnip

All of our cultivated medicinals can be enlisted for the same type of medicinal food offered by our beloved spring greens – and are especially lovely when mixed with them. Tiny shoots of lemon balm, fuzzy fronds of yarrow,  or the first, tenderest growth of meadowsweet. The leaves are tender, the flavors somewhat muted but still exotic and enticing – our beloved medicines from later in the season provide the the most bizarre and delicious of spring salads.

To create your own spring salad, you want a nice blend of flavors, shapes and textures. Go for herbs and wild greens from each category if you can, to create a truly spectacular explosion of flavors:

  • Citrusy/tart lemon balm, sorrel or dock leaves;
  •  Bitter dandelion and chicory greens, yarrow fronds, and tiniest motherwort, lady’s mantle or catnip leaves;
  • Pungent oregano and marjoram shoots, garlic mustard, very young horseradish shoots, any cress (bitter-cress, watercress, etc), violet leaves
  • Garlicky chives, ramps (wild leeks), ramsons (wild garlic);
  • Cucumberish borage flowers or young leaves, meadowsweet shoots;
  • Anise-like or Celery: chervil, sweet cecily, fennel shoots, young angelica leaves, parsley, lovage;
To assemble the salad, I like to combine any sort of variety of greens available from my garden and backyard, trying to touch on at least a few different flavors for complexities sake – and being sure to add in a few milder tasting greens like chickweed, plantain leaves, or wild strawberry leaves to mute things out just a bit. The flavors are so vibrant that the salad really needs little more than a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of a nutty oil like hazelnut or walnut, and a hint of sea salt and cracked pepper.

My spring salad of yarrow fronds, youngest dandelions, oregano shoots, and wild strawberry leaves

These are the types of salads that make you feel truly invigorated after you eat them – supercharged on pure spring energy. They are my simple yet also my favorite way to enjoy the splendor of spring’s wild plants and the first growth of my garden.

Be sure to check out Comfrey Cottages tomorrow, where you will surely find lots of foraging and spring gardening inspiration when Leslie posts the links to all of the blog party entries.

Apple trees in April: thunderstorms, raindrops and moss

Last night, that very special sort of warm breeze blew in – you know the one. It is the breeze of movement, of force, of transformation – its identity as unmistakable as the voice of a dear friend.  The air it blew was heavy and warm and charged with energy – I could feel it. As it’s force began picking up speed, a sort of thick trance fell over everything: the prelude of a thunderstorm.

It always startles me – how for a moment you forget that such weather was ever absent – as though winter was just a long dream and you’ve awoken again to find all the familiarity of warm sunshine, thunderstorms and crickets. But then the magnitude of it all sinks in – this is a Spring wind!  This is the feeling of Spring beginning! Winter, though it may stage another hopeless attack or two, has lost the battle at last.

Today the thunder storms rolled in one after another. I was just ecstatic. The light dimmed, the rain poured on the roof until I couldn’t hear a thing, the thunder rolled through and the lightning flashed brilliantly. I peered out the window and literally saw the snow disappearing before my eyes in the flashes of lightning as the little stream next to the house grew wilder and wilder, nearly bursting its banks.

After a few glorious hours, the last of the system passed, the earth seemed to breathe a sigh of release and a hazy light reappeared behind layers of steel grey clouds. Birds started singing again and flitting around so I rendered it safe enough to head out and explore. The ground was so saturated that the water was actually forming little rivers atop the grass, and every step slushed under my boots with a glorious release of earthy perfume. I was drinking it all in like a parched explorer come upon an oasis in a desert. Oh how I have missed seeing the grass! (Although I must say, the rest of my exploration party did not half so much enjoy the squish of water under their paws…)

When my eyes came upon the apple trees, I stopped dead in my tracks. They are mossy like most aged apple trees tend to be, but the moss was absolutely glowing in the hazy light – as though illuminated of its own light. It was magnificent and unreal.

 

And it wasn’t just that there was moss, there were so many kinds of moss – moss and lichen of every color, texture and shape you could imagine:

The rain had also polished the wood, bringing out its curves, textures and palette of swirling browns in the most beautiful of ways:

I thought this patch of smoothness on the trunk, where the bark had been stripped away, looked rather like a sad bear or maybe a pig, not quite sure which:

And then the sun came out for a moment, and caught all the glittering raindrops hanging along the branches like delicate glass beads:

It seemed as though those apples had bedecked themselves in their finest attire to greet the coming of spring in fullest splendor, do you not agree?

I remember a teacher once telling me how very generous the apple tree is – they give the beauty of the their flowers in the spring, their shade in the summer, their apples in the fall. But even when they stop producing fruit, they still provide a home to a myriad of creatures – moss, lichen, worms, birds, insects, and of course, little white cats:

Happy spring to you all!