The Teacup Chronicles

Month: June, 2011

Inspiration short #18: Nourish yourself

This past weekend, I had the great fortune to attend the International Herb Symposium – a gathering of people from all over the world devoted to the green world. What a fabulous experience if any of you ever have the chance to go! So much wisdom, inspiration and hope was shared over those 3 days, and I came home feeling rich with stories to pass on and information left to trickle down into my being and become a part of me.  A great teacher, I think, is one who can open up a new window in your mind through which to view the world, and I came home with many new windows.

There was one window in particular, however, that really has shifted something for me, and I want to pass on what I learned to you all – because I think the message is so important, and so pertinent in our current lives. I attended a class taught by herbalist Caroline Gagnon, who lives and teaches in Quebec. The class was “The Feminine Cycle Through the Yin and Yang,” and explored how like all things in life, our menstrual cycle is divided into a yang phase – a time of outwards energy, action, movement – and a yin phase – a time of inwards movement, introspection, rest.

Of course, we all feel pretty good during the yang part of our cycles, the time from menses to ovulation when our estrogen is high and we have that yang, more masculine sort of energy that our society values so highly. We feel productive, energized and capable. But many of us have problems when we enter the yin phase, when the time comes for us to rest, to move inwards and to value what is inherently feminine. Many of us experience emotional upheaval at that time – sadness, anger, anxiety – and we can’t seem to hold the same amount of responsibility as we could when we were in the yang part of the cycle.  Society has labeled this “PMS” – a syndrome, a state of symptoms that indicate something is wrong or our of balance, and many women seek help to find control over their emotions, control over their hormones so that they can stay level, constant and “yang,” as our society expects us to be.

But we are not constant; as women, we are given the gift of transformation – of always changing and shifting between the two aspects of being. We are less capable and energetic in our yin phase because we need to rest during this time, we need to go inwards. When we don’t go inwards, our body asks for our attention by sending us emotions.  As Caroline said, “Emotions are a jewel sent from our psyche to notify us of a need unmet.”  When we feel angry, sad, anxious or overwhelmed – that is energy our body created to ask for our attention.

Therefore, this emotional upheaval is a good thing! It is your body being alive and vital and asking you to do what needs to be done for you to remain in balance. So what is the body asking for when we experience these emotions? Well, the answer is simple. Our body is telling us to embrace the yin – to go inwards – to rest – to nourish ourselves. Society does not value yin, and so we are taught that to give ourselves this time to meet our own needs is selfish! As women, we feel we must care for everyone else – our partners, our children, our parents, our friends, our animals, our earth, our society – but who will care for us?  The answer is that no one will, unless we care for ourselves.

So Caroline sent us all away with a message: to embrace the yin aspect of our lives by finding ways to nourish ourselves , not just in the yin part of our cycle, but every day. How do you nourish yourself? What do you do to replenish, to rest, to meet the needs of your psyche? The answer will be different for everyone, but I think we all must take time – men and women – to give back to ourselves each day. This is not selfish, but part of being grateful for being alive. You care for yourself, and you tell yourself and the world that you are thankful for your body and your life – and the universe hears that. But most importantly, you hear it.

So take some time, and think of how to nourish yourself in your own way, and spend at least 20 minutes each and every day nourishing yourself. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Drink a nourishing infusion full of minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients made of nutritive herbs like nettles and milky oats to replenish and support your body.
  • Go for a long walk in the woods to nourish your spirit.
  • Spend 10 minutes in meditation or quiet contemplation, allowing your brain to shut off and your spirit to just be.
  • Journal about your life, your experiences, your desires, your dreams; go inwards and explore your inner terrain.
  • Do something you love that relaxes you – read a book, lay on the beach, sit in the garden.
  • Spend 5 minutes deep breathing, nourishing your body with breath.
  • Eat a meal made with nourishing whole food ingredients and savor every bite.
  • Spend some time in a place filled with beauty; beauty nourishes the spirit
  • Exercise: many people look at physical activity as work, but in fact it is a way of relaxing the body; of moving out of a stressful “fight and flight” stage by using up the energy liberated by our stress hormones.  People who are very fatigued are often surprised at how greatly their energy increases and how truly rested they feel when they incorporate physical activity into their day.
  • Eat something wild: wild foods provide the body with all manner of beneficial phytochemicals that we are not normally exposed to in our diet and nourish us very deeply.

So the message is, we are not constant, there is yin and yang in everything: inhalation and exhalation, masculine and feminine, activity and rest. Many of the imbalances of our culture come from our inability to equally respect both aspects of existence – from trying stay yang all the time. Solving these problems does not involve silencing the messages of our body, but changing the way we look at things so that we can listen and give ourselves what we need to be vibrant.

Happy nourishment to you all!

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Two ways with Radishes

The radish has been a relatively recent addition to my table. For a long time, I wanted to like them. I really did. Their bright colors and fun shapes – torpedo breakfast radishes or fat jolly globes –  the way they pop up out of the soil and just beg to be plucked out – how could you not want to like them? But time after time, I’d bring them home from the store or the farmer’s market to find them weeks later, at the bottom of the vegetable drawer, in a horribly dejected state of shriveledness. Needless to say, my compost heap has enjoyed a good number of radishes.

But in the curious way these things happen, my taste buds suddenly shifted. It was a bunch of perfectly round Easter egg radishes that did it,  pearlescent skin in shades of purple, red, white and pink that sparkled under the grocery store lighting like little jewels. Under normal conditions, I might not have been so susceptible, but it was late winter, at the point when anything besides a carrot or head of cabbage feels decadent and exciting. I got my prize purchase home and placed them in a bowl, a tiny dish of sea salt next to them and the end of a stick of butter wrapped up in foil besides that. Each radish was spread with butter, flecked in coarse grains of salt, and then eaten.  Maybe it was that I had read the recipe in French cookbook, and therefore felt quite sophisticated as I was eating them, or maybe it was the way that the peppery punch of each crisp radish bite was mellowed with the sweetness of butter and brought alive by the salt. Either way, I ate the entire bunch myself. Never since that day has a bunch of radishes been neglected in my fridge.

In fact, I became so enamored with the radish, that I’ve even planted them in the garden. And what satisfaction, I will tell you, to watch their bright crimson heads pop out of the soil to signify their readiness. Plucking a radish is like popping bubble wrap – a simple act that seems to satisfy some deep and in-explainable desire – but unlike bubble wrap, there is another wave of pleasure to come from eating them. Even better is that they are simplicity itself to grow, and appear without fail or fuss in 3-4 weeks after planting, providing something to harvest proudly in late spring along with your early lettuces, spinach and arugula.

I’ve played with the radish quite a bit since my transformation – adding them thinly sliced to Mexican style slaws dressed up with lime juice and chile, or mixing them with early peas, mint and thick slices of fresh Mozzarella. I’ve minced them into butter to be spread on crusty baguette,  I’ve pickled them with thinly sliced onions, I’ve blended them into soups. But to be honest, I have found nothing that truly tops the simple elegance and sophistication of eating them like the French.

Pungent radishes stimulate digestion, and thus rare great served as a digestive stimulating “appetizer” before a meal. Here are two recipes you might try, aside from the “French” style of course!

Radish Butter

Adapted from Deborah Madison’s recipe in Local Flavors. Makes 1/2 cup.

  • 6 Radishes and their greens
  • 4 tablespoons organic butter
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
  • one pinch of high quality sea salt, such as fleur de sel
  • freshly grated pepper

Wash the radishes and trim off the long roots and leaves, setting the leaves aside. Slice the radishes into thin rounds, then slice the rounds cross-wise into narrow strips, so that each strip is tipped with color. Chop up the leaves so that you have about 1/2 cup.

Mix the butter with the lemon zest until its softened, and then stir in the radishes, radish leaves, mint, salt and pepper until well combined. Serve spread on slices of crusty baguette or on a dark pumpernickel bread.

Easy Onion and Radish Pickle

This is a beautifully simple recipe that makes a great topping for salads, sandwiches or even to dress up a burger.  Slicing the vegetables as thinly as you can will make the pickle really shine. 

  • 1 small or 1/2 large onion, sliced very thinly
  • 10 radishes, sliced into thin rounds
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sliced red chili or chili flakes (optional)

Combine everything in a bowl and mix well. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes before eating, which will soften the onion and get the juices really running.

Jewelweed for your bites, stings and rashes

In winter when I dream of  summer days, I’m quite sure those dreams don’t contain biting insects, rash inducing plants or sunburns.  It’s the nature of memory, isn’t it, to just edit out all the little unpleasantries that might detract from the expectation of future bliss.  But despite what my memory tells me about the lovely summer days to come –  insects there are, sunburns there are, and occasionally – even a most unfortunate outbreak of poison ivy or poison oak  – to keep our summer revelry in some sort of check.

Thankfully, however, nature, while providing things to irritate, has also provided things to soothe, and one of my most recently discovered tools for dealing with all manner of summer induced skin irritations is the beautiful and much under-appreciated jewelweed.

Jewelweed is a member of the Impatiens family, and grows as a common weed in most Northern temperate regions of the world, preferring moist, rich soils. The common name derives from the way that water droplets bead on the water-repellent leaves into brilliant, silvery jewels that shimmer in the light:

The flowers, much beloved of hummingbirds, are yellow or spotted with orange and have long spurs, which make the entire flower look like a delicate fairy slipper. It gains its latin name Impatiens, and common name, “touch-me-not”, from the explosive manner in which the dried out seed pods disperse their seeds at just the lightest touch.

Jewelweed was used extensively by Native American for treating various skin irritations, from burns and hives to poison ivy, either as a poultice made from fresh aerial parts, or a wash made from a decoction of the leaves and stems.  While most European herbalists don’t make much mention of this herb,  Maude Grieve does state that the tannin rich leaves have been used for piles and the fresh herb, “relieves cutaneous irritation of various kinds, especially that due to Rhus poisoning (poison ivy).”

Many people assert that jewelweed not only treats poison ivy, but can actually prevent the rash from occurring when used immediately upon exposure.  As jewelweed often grows in the same area as poison ivy, applying a bit of crushed up herb is often possible, and Native Americans viewed this as a direct act of the Great Spirit to set the remedy next to the poison.  One study conducted in the 1950s (Lipton, RA)  demonstrated that of 115 patients treated with jewelweed, 108 showed dramatic response to an application of jewelweed aqueous extract and were relieved of their symptoms of poison ivy within 2-3 days. However, research since then has been fairly consistent in demonstrating that jewelweed is ineffective in reducing the actual rash, though several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness for reducing itchiness and irritation.

Say what research will, my own experience with Jewelweed and that of others must testify to its usefulness. The aerial parts contain a variety of medicinally active constituents. Flavanoids such as apigenin, quercitin and kaempferol may contribute to the anti-inflammatory property and anti-allergic qualities demonstrated by the plant, while molecules known as napthoquinones, especially lawsone, may help to prevent poison ivy by competing with the chemical urushiol (the molecule responsible for triggering the poison ivy rash) for receptor sites on the skin (Duke, J).  Lawsone is also the active ingredient of Preperation-H and has demonstrated anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory activities by inhibiting the enzyme COX-2, as well as anti-tumor action on certain human cancer cell lines.   Compounds known as balasaminones have also been found in animal studies to demonstrate anti-pruritic action.

Jewelweed can be prepared in various ways, though most attest that it works best applied directly to the skin as a fresh plant poultice.  When exposed to poison ivy, one should apply the plant immediately to the effected area, and thus may prevent the development of the rash from ever occurring. It can also be used for pre-existing outbreaks of poison ivy, bug bites, stings, hives and other skin irritations, by placing a poultice of mashed up plant material directly onto the affected area several times daily to reduce irritation and speed healing (note: for poison ivy, fresh plant material should be used for each new application to prevent spread.) The aerial parts of the plant can also be made into a tea which one can soak a cloth in to use as a compress, or use as a wash for irritated skin.

Since fresh plant material isn’t always available to us when it should be, jewelweed can also be prepared in various other ways to have on hand for when we need it.  One of my favorite preparations is to freeze the tea into ice cube trays. An ice-cube can then be used as needed on bites, stings or rashes to cool irritation and provide quick relief.  Jewelweed can also be extracted into witch-hazel extract, whose astringent properties synergize quite well with Jewelweed for swollen, weeping rashes and skin irritations.

Jewelweed juice has also been a favorite traditional preparation for topical use, but as it spoils quite fast on its own,  I like to prepare a succus of the fresh plant juice to have on hand.  A succus is made by putting fresh plant material through a juicer  (or blending the material and then pressing it through a weighted press) and adding a volume of grain alcohol (180 proof) equal to a third of the total volume of juice (ie if you have 300 ml of juice, add 100 ml grain alcohol). You can also use a regular liquor such as vodka or brandy, but then increase the amount to 2/3 of the total volume of juice so that your finished succus ends up having around a 25% alcohol content to ensure preservation.  After three days, filter out the succus by pouring it through a paper filter or cheesecloth, and bottle and store. It can be applied directly to skin irritations or added as combined with other herbs such as aloe, witch-hazel, plantain or calendula extracts. The succus of jewelweed is quite fun to make because it turns from forest green to red upon the addition of alcohol! Herbal alchemy in action!

Jewelweed is an important addition to the summer toolbox of home remedies, and an even greater one because it is abundant and local.  As many say, the herbs we need the most are those that grow most prolifically and closest to the back door. And at least if summer gives us the nuisance of bugs and rash inducing plants to contend with, it gives us the pleasure of preparing our own remedies to soothe the summer’s ills.