The Teacup Chronicles

Category: Eleuthero

Mulled Cider

When the leaves begin to turn and the air turns chill, when the fields are full of pumpkins and browning cornstalks, then it is time for cider. It should be the official drink of autumn, if you ask me. When I see it arrive on the shelves at the store, then I know, beyond any conceivable doubt, that summer days are now behind me.

Last night we had our first frost warning, and the air turned brisk with the hint of winter on its breath. The wood-stove was lit for the first time, and to celebrate we put a pan of cider filled with spice on top to bubble away and fill the house with its comforting sweetness and warmth. I must say, the scent of wood smoke, the feel of a warm blazing fire, and the scent of apple marrying with cloves and cinnamon is one of the real pleasures of life. It almost (and I say almost) makes one excited about the cold.

While plain ol’ cider is wonderful, mulled cider is a thing perfectly suited in all ways for a chilly day. To hold the warm mug in your hands, inhale steam laced with notes of apple and orange peel, taste sweetness and feel the spice in your belly – is warming in a deeply comforting way. We make it often on those brisk autumn evenings, sipping it huddled next the stove and listening the crackling of wood and wind howling down the chimney.  It is a yearly tradition, a ritual.

Aside from the usual warming spices, I like to throw in a handful of some rooty goodness as well: a little astragalus and Siberian ginseng, two roots that bolster the immune system and help the body adapt to the stress of seasonal changes. Both taste slightly sweet and mostly bland, so they lend little in flavor, but lots in goodness. Paired with all those blood moving, digestive fire kindling and antioxidant packed spices, mulled cider is not only delicious but a health-tonic as well!

A variety of spices can go into mulled cider, and it’s really up to personal preference (or for me, fishing around the spice cabinet and seeing what calls) what you will put in.  While the ingredients vary from night to night in our house, they most often include the following: a few thin slices of fresh ginger;  the zest of an orange; a few cinnamon sticks; a few cloves and star-anise pods; a bit of mace; a few juniper and allspice berries; a vanilla pod and a handful of astragalus and Siberian ginseng roots.  I’ve also been known to throw in some hawthorn berries, a few cardamom pods or even a bay leaf when the mood takes me.

All the ingredients are put into a pan with a half-gallon of cider, and left to simmer on very low heat (or perched atop the wood-stove) for a good 20-30 minutes with a cover on.  Once it’s mulled to your liking, strain it into mugs and top off with a bit of rum if it’s an extra cold night.

Cheers to the beginning of autumn!

Surviving the holiday stress

Brigitte over at My Herb Corner is hosting an herbal blog party this month called “No Time for Stress”, and I just couldn’t resist joining in. I admit, my reasons might be slightly selfish – I have been a bit stressed lately with all the hustle and bustle of holiday parties, travel plans, and classes to teach – and in writing this blog I am hoping to remind myself of all the strategies I should be using to cope with the added stress. In other words, I need a great big dose of my own medicine.

It’s just such a conundrum this time of year. The darkness beckons us inwards, begs us to rest and dream as the earth herself is doing, and yet, our social and work lives seem to ask just the opposite. While the sense of festivity and the bringing together of friends and family is a wonderful thing to warm our spirits during the darkest part of the year – I do find myself getting worn thin by resisting that call for rest and introspection.

Of course, the obvious answer to this problem is to seek a balance.  Make time for resting and putting the feet up by the ol’ fire by letting some of the party obligations go, maybe even deciding to spend a bit less on holiday presents this year so you can spend more time with your family and yourself. But I know that is easier said than done, so I am sharing a few tips with you for remaining sane throughout the holiday chaos, if (and only if)  you promise that you will at least try to find some down time. Do you really promise? (I’ll know if you’re crossing your fingers….). Ok, if you promise, then read on:

Tip #1: Have a nice cup of tea

I’m not sure if my grandmother ever actually made me a cup of tea, but for some reason I always imagine her offering me one when I’m in a tizzy. Her voice, tinkly as a bell and worn as an old shoe, pops into my head and says, “Now, now dear. Why not sit down and have a nice cup of tea?”

I’m not sure if she’s coming through from the other world, or if my mind has just chosen her as the most effective messenger, but I always listen when I hear the advice, and it always works its magic. You’ll know that tea drinking is my preferred method of experiencing herbs – you can read pages and pages about it here – but suffice it to say that there is some magic in the process of preparing a steaming cup of fragrant, herb infused liquid. The preparation in and of itself is part of the medicine. It tricks you into slowing down, just a little, and finding a moment to catch up with yourself.

I like to use herbs that are nourishing and strengthening in my daily stress blend, herbs known traditionally as nerve tonics:

Milky Oats: The very same type of oats you put in your breakfast pot, milky oats are just harvested earlier in the season with the groat is still green and exudes a delicious milky sap. Full of B vitamins and minerals that nourish and strengthen the nervous system, great for those who are depleted from chronic stress, anxiety, and over-work.

Skullcap: Skullcap helps to calm the nervous system and quiet the mind – putting a cap all those thoughts flying in and out of the brain. Skullcap, like oats, is best used before, during and after stressful events, because it works by rebuilding and strengthening – rather than having a strong acute action. Good for those who get tension headaches and tight muscles when stressed.

Tulsi: Also known as Holy Basil, tulsi is revered in India. They love it so much that almost every household keeps a plant in their courtyard, lovingly tended and worshiped by the woman of the house.  It reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, modulates blood sugar, calms anxiety and alleviates depression, while also boosting immune function and acting as a strong antioxidant. Whew!  All that, and it also tastes divine.

Lemon Balm: Calming, uplifting, and soothing to the digestive tract, as well as deliciously lemony tasting. Great for anyone who experiences digestive upset when stressed, or for those who feel a little blue this time of year.

Hawthorn leaf and flower: Traditionally known as a heart tonic, hawthorn also supports and soothes the nervous system – working on that mysterious intersection of heart and mind. Energetically, it fortifies the heart and provides a sense of protection and strength during stressful and emotionally trying times. Especially good for those with stress related high blood pressure.

Lavender: Incredibly soothing to the nervous system – helping to reduce anxiety and quiet the mind. Especially helpful for insomnia.

Linden: The delicious smelling June flowers from an ancient and noble tree, the linden flowers are soothing and sedative, helping to promote sleep and quiet an anxious, worried mind. Also good for those whose blood pressure spikes during stressful times.

Tip #2: Adapt with “Adaptogens”

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help normalize the stress response and enhance resistance to a wide range of stressors on the body. They bring the body back to a place of balance, no matter what the direction of imbalance might be (which is amazing and profound) , while nourishing and enhancing the vitality of the body.

Here are some of my favorites:

Ashwagandha: Adaptogenic, building and calming to the nervous system, a perfect remedy for those who are anxious, have trouble sleeping, and are also weakened and fatigued by chronic stress. Take a teaspoon of the powder in warm milk at bedtime to promote restful sleep.

Eleuthero: Also known as Siberian ginseng, Eleuthero has been long studied by the Russians for its ability to enhance physical and mental endurance and strengthen the immune system. Great for those who tend to get sick when worn down, or for those who get fatigued easily when stressed.

Reishi: Known as the mushroom of immortality, reishi is said in Chinese medicine to, “calm disturbed shen.” Shen roughly translates as spirit – and symptoms of its disturbance include insomnia, heart palpitations, mental agitation, and sadness. Balances the immune system – whether deficient or over-active, protects the liver from damage, and normalizes the cardiovascular system.

Rhodiola: A rosy smelling root that improves memory and enhances alertness, reduces anxiety and symptoms of depression, protects from radiation and improves immunity. Read more about it in my rhodiola post.

Schisandra: Known as the 5-flavored fruit, the bright red berries are something straight out of Harry Potter – tasting first sour, then sweet, and progressing through salty and astringent with a distinctive ending of bitter. Protects the liver (great for all those holiday cocktails), strengthens the immune system, and enhances alertness and concentration while relieving anxiety, heart palpitations and insomnia.

Tip #3: Don’t forget to breathe

I once read that when taking deep breaths, it is nearly impossible physiologically to experience anxiety. Try it for yourself: take a breath, and pull the air all the way into your abdomen – hold it there a moment – and then slowly, slowly exhale the air through your nose. How do you feel?

When we are stressed, we tend to breathe shallowly, which predisposes us to heart palpitations, foggy thinking and fatigue when our blood is not properly oxygenated. Simply remembering to breathe fully can go a long way to remedying these symptoms – and automatically moves our nervous system out of sympathetic fight or flight mode – and into a calm state.

Exercising is also an important part of breathing deeply, oxygenating the blood and helps to diffuse the impact of stress hormones on the body. So while it is all to easy to nix your exercise routine when schedules become hectic and time seems scarce, try to at least get out for 15 – 20 minutes of brisk walking each day. Sacrificing those 15 minutes will enhance your energy, uplift your mood, reduce stress and increase mental concentration – well worth it, I should say.

Tip #4: Nourish your body

While sweet treats and glasses of wine may temporarily give you a lift and ease the stress – they will only worsen the problem in the long run by further depleting and stressing the nervous system. Instead, choose foods that are packed with the nutrients your nervous system and body needs to function optimally.

B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and vitamin C are all important for nervous system and adrenal health, as are omega 3 fatty acids. Complex carbohydrates and high quality proteins support energy levels, and prevent blood sugar dips that further stress your body, cause fatigue, and de-stabilize mood.

To ensure your body is receiving proper nutrition, include these foods in your daily diet:

  • High quality proteins such as cold water fish, pasture raised poultry and eggs, pasture raised meats, and legumes combined with nuts, seeds, or whole grains.
  • Dark leafy greens such as kale, collards, chard, parsley, turnip greens, pok choi and broccoli.
  • B vitamin rich whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth, barley, brown rice and buckwheat.
  • 5-7 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables for antioxidant phytonutrients that protect against the effects of stress.
  • Calcium and magnesium rich foods such as and  sesame, almond, and pumpkin seeds, cultured dairy, and seaweeds.
  • Omega 3 rich foods such as salmon, sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.

And, lastly, don’t forget your promise to make some time for yourself to rest and go inwards, as the season requires. Otherwise, you are only bandaging up the problem rather than healing the root.

May you all have a wonderful, joyful, rejuvenating and relaxing holiday! And while stress is inevitable, may you adapt and move through it with ease and grace.

 

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.