Thursday, 21 May 2015

Living with my gallbladder – some low fat recipes

One of the last things said to me by the discharging doctor last November, was, “I want you to see the dietician about a low fat diet.” Several hours later a smiling young woman appeared by my bed and handed over a leaflet. The first half was entitled, “Foods you can eat” and the second was “Forbidden foods”. The word, ‘forbidden’ had been crossed out and replaced with ‘foods to eat sparingly or avoid’.

So out of my life went cream, cheese, hummus, deep fried foods, nuts, seeds and most things containing fats. I could have half a pint of semi-skimmed milk or a pint of skimmed. Oily fish was a no-no but I could have salmon once a week.

I soon realised I was brought up on a low fat diet. My mother couldn’t tolerate fat with her duodenal ulcer, so we weren’t exposed to it. It’s probably why my gall bladder has never functioned properly and why I was ill every time I went away to a conference!

She never made a roux, she added a flour and milk paste to boiling milk to thicken a sauce, so that’s the way I’ve always done it. She taught me to remove all the fat from meat juices before making gravy so that’s what we do. The leaflet told me to make gravy from vegetable water, which I do, but to throw away meat juices. Blow that for a game of solders! (as my mother would say!)

I’ve always used good fats and know they’re important for my overall health. I don’t want my joints creaking because I’ve ceased to oil them! Now I just use less of them and notice when there are consequences to eating something which means I should pay attention.  I still spread butter on my toast or bread but in sparing amounts. There’s no way I’m using industrial low fat spreads, thank you very much!

Mushrooms cooked in milk and butter in the microwave, which used to be a staple lunch for us, is not a good idea but I can tolerate mushrooms fried in a small amount of sunflower oil with grilled bacon either for lunch or as part of a “full English” breakfast. I still fry onions and red peppers, garlic and ginger as the basis of most of my cooking (soups, stews, bolognaise sauce etc.). When you make ten pints of something at a time, a tablespoon of oil is not a huge amount and can easily be tolerated.

Spices are not a problem, so I’ve used them and low fat coconut milk or yoghurt and tomatoes to make tagines, curries or just to spice things up a bit. When you don’t have fat to provide flavour or umami, you have to search elsewhere. Now I’ve got access to fresh herbs in my garden again, I’m also throwing large amounts of marjoram, lovage and mint into most of my cooking when I want a lighter and delicious flavour.

Here are three recipes I’ve adapted to keep my gall bladder happy.

Nettle Impossible Quiche
1cup semi-skimmed milk
4 eggs
1/5cup flour
1 onion
1 red pepper
2/3 cloves garlic
1 drained small can of tuna or 2 slices of cooked ham cut into small cubes.
2 large handfuls of young nettle tops and leaves or spinach/kale/other greens
Large handful of herbs (parsley, basil or a mint/marjoram/lovage mix)
Grease a large round dish. Dice the onion, red pepper and garlic and sweat in a small amount of oil in a small frying pan. Wilt the nettles on top of the onion mix for about five minutes by putting a lid over the frying pan. Drain any liquid from the pan before adding to the batter. Dice the cooked ham or strain the tuna and break up into flakes. Whisk the eggs with the milk then add the flour and season well to make a batter consistency. Chop the herbs finely then add all the other ingredients to the egg batter so everything is well mixed. Pour into the prepared dish and cook in a moderately hot oven for around thirty minutes until well risen and set. It will flatten after you take it out of the oven. Serve with salad and crusty bread hot or cold or with vegetables for a main meal. This freezes really well and can be cut up into single portions before freezing.

Ham and Sweetcorn Soup
8oz cooked ham cut into small pieces
4 large potatoes peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, de-seeded and diced
2/3 garlic cloves crushed or peeled and sliced
1 small chilli or 1 inch root ginger, peeled and diced.
1 tin sweetcorn, drained
2 tblsps Worcestershire sauce
Handful of herbs (parsley or marjoram and lovage) finely chopped
Sweat the onions, red pepper, garlic and chilli or ginger until soft. Add the potatoes, herbs and ham and cover with water and season well. Bring to the boil and simmer until potatoes are cooked. Add the strained sweetcorn and heat through.
This is a substantial soup which can be enjoyed with or without bread.

Mushroom Soup
1lb mushrooms
2 large potatoes
2 carrots
2 celery stems
1 onion
Wash and slice the mushrooms. Peel and chop the potatoes, carrots and celery. Peel and dice the onion.
Sweat the onion in a small amount of oil until soft, add all the other ingredients and cover with water. Season well. Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour until everything is cooked. Blend and serve. This makes a delicious creamy soup without the need for a white sauce.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Another gift from violet

Violet was my first herbal ally. Prompted by the wealth of violet flowers in my own garden this year, I was drawn to making a violet flower essence during the April workshop at the Sanctuary. The weather was glorious, warm with almost constant sunshine, perfect conditions for making a flower essence.

Purple violets grow sparsely underneath the crabapple tree in front of the summerhouse where we planted them during the seventies. I’ve found scentless dog violets near the ancient willow tree and last year I noticed some new sweet violets growing in the middle of the if seeking a better home than their original shaded site.

When I went to search for flowers, all the purple ones were over. This was a disappointment but I thought to myself that if I were supposed to make a flower essence then the Sanctuary would provide the means. Sure enough, when I searched amongst the bank of daffodils, there was a group of white violets.

Until that moment, I had never seen a wild white violet in my life, yet here they were waiting for me to collect them to create an essence.

White violet was one of Dr Bach’s original flowers. It is thought to offer energetic healing to those who are uncomfortable in closed spaces and constrained environments; fearful of losing their own identity in a group; unable to embody their sensitivity in a comfortable way. The essence helps build trust in the protection of the Higher Self and benevolent spiritual forces; to help those who are highly sensitive or acutely aware of their surroundings maintain a strong sense of self regardless of the dynamics of their environment.

On such a beautiful spring day it seemed the ideal gift for me as my development has felt dry and dusty while my parents needed my support. White violet seemed the perfect flower to use on an adventure of inner spiritual journey.

The flowers were placed on the top of a jam jar of spring water and left to infuse for three hours. An amount was then mixed with an equal amount of brandy to form the mother essence.

When I held the infused liquid up to the sun, it had a turquoise tinge. On tasting it, there appeared to be no discernible taste or scent but after a few moments a definite flavour of scented violets appeared on the sides of my tongue, bringing back memories of sucking my grandmother’s violet pastilles as we lay together on the sitting room sofa for an afternoon nap when I was a very young child. I was never very fond of the violet sweets; I much preferred “iodines”!

Later that night, alone in bed, I concentrated on the white violet plant, apologising for using so many of the flowers to make the essence. I heard a very cross response.

“Do you think we would have shown ourselves if we hadn’t wanted to be used? If that hadn’t been our intention, we would have hidden amongst the grasses and you would never have seen us.” I felt suitably chastened.

 I decided to meditate using a dropperful of flower essence every day for a week to see how the interaction with the white violet essence would develop. I haven’t meditated outside the monthly world healing sessions for several years. It seemed a good opportunity and the perfect helper to reconnect.

Day 1
Unlike previous occasions, no energy flowed through my hands but I did feel the usual tingle around the back of my head which I associate with a protective spirit presence. Although I couldn’t taste the scented violet because of the brandy mask, the receptors on the sides of my tongue were again activated.
In my mind’s eye, I saw pink which turned to red which became tinged with yellow which became the deep yellow/orange of the violet’s centre. The final colour was white. I associate pink with love.
The “messages” given me were

  • The greatest protection is love
  • Stop trying so hard
  • White is the most important colour

Day 2
I took the flower essence at 7pm prior to the world healing session at 7.40pm when I was joined by four of my fellow healers. I saw white. I felt two pyramidal cones of energy (normally I feel spirals) through my hands which were initially upright. The right hand stayed upright while the left hand cone went horizontal pointing to my right through the wall for most of the session.

Messages received were

  • Don’t try, let it flow through you
  • Look to the core.

In the subsequent discussion we talked about the colours of energies. One of our members had been to a recent conference and learned some recently channelled information about the colours of energies. Orange was the colour of nuclear energy, i.e. the energy in the nucleus of cells which is the colour of the centre of the white violet.

We also talked about passed lives, parallel universes and how choices we make cause universal splits at the point of choice.

I’ve never been successful in gaining information about any of my past lives so my friend suggested doing a visualisation with the intention, “Show me those past lives useful to me now.”

Day 3
I saw green which became a white dandelion clock which became pink.


  • This is for you alone
  • Who am I?
  • Learning about self

The pink colour turned lilac then purple then back to pink. I saw different flower shapes – primrose, dahlias and chrysanthemums  Those shapes inspired me to choose a flower spirit card – Nomodiaris, a plant I’d never seen before. This gave me the phrase “I experience freedom by becoming aware and having compassion.”

Day 4
Message: How can you access magic if you’re not grounded?

Day 5
Message: You need to focus if you’re going to achieve anyting.

As my mind was constantly flitting everywhere during this meditation, I missed the following day until life calmed down a little.

Day 7

  • Yes, this exercise is like raking the debris from the top of the soil. You can see the soil underneath waiting to be used but you need to clear the detritus off first before you start working it
  • Everyone has stories
  • Everyone has tears
  • Everyone has memories
  • The important thing is to remember
  •  At the centre, the core is the pink of love. It may look fragile and ethereal but it is always there.
  • Your guides are always with you.

Finding time to meditate has always been difficult for me but this week held none of the usual frustrations. Each meditation lasted no more than fifteen minutes yet it always felt long enough.

The messages and images were all very personal rather than something to share with mankind. It is the first step along a continuing pathway after a long period of standing still not knowing where to go next.

I am very grateful for white violet’s gift of direction.

Friday, 24 April 2015

What to do with dandelions?

Every herb lover has their own favourite story about dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). Brigitte Mars has written a whole book about the plant. Susun Weed has an entertaining chapter written in a French accent in her original Menopause book about dandelion and virtually every herb book mentions it either as part of the materia medica or in passing.  It is a versatile and valuable plant.

Dandelion is native to both Europe and Asia as part of the Asteracea family. There are many, many species which live happily side by side. You may be lulled into thinking the leaves and roots are the only parts used since the various actions of digestive, bitter tonic, diuretic, mild laxative, cholagogue, depurative, anti-inflammatory and antilithic are only applied to those two areas of the plant.

Historically, this may have been the case, along with applying the flower stem sap to warts, but there is one other part, the flower which also has a variety of interesting and beneficial uses. Spring is the time when flowers burst upon the scene in all their golden glory but it is still possible to come across them in sheltered corners at the edge of winter.

If you want to harvest dandelion roots at their most bitter, dig them in early spring when all the sugars gathered during the summer have been used. The roots can be tinctured fresh or dried or can be stored as dry roots for a tea or decoction through the year. If you are drying the roots it is best to slice them into one inch lengths and half them if the root is particularly thick.

I like to harvest my roots in autumn when they are fat and sweet. My favourite recipe is to make a bitter. You can also make dandelion root vinegar and eat the pickled roots in salads.

Dandelion Bitter
Take a mixture of roasted and fresh dandelion roots. Add a handful of fresh or dried orange peel, 1tsp dried ginger or ½-1 inch diced or grated root ginger plus a small handful of either brown or green cardamom pods for added warming effect.
Fill a glass jar with chopped root, peel and spices, cover with vodka for 3 weeks in dark cold place, strain and use. Dose is ½ -1 tsp. 15 minutes before eating or after a heavy meal to release stagnant feeling.

The root is mildly laxative and acts as a bitter digestive and liver tonic, enhancing both appetite and digestion, increasing the flow of digestive juices and aiding absorption.  Where there are no obstructions, it supports the liver in its function as a major detoxifying organ. Dandelion is recommended in liver and gall bladder problems, hepatitis and problems associated with a sluggish liver which may manifest as tiredness, irritability, headaches and skin problems.  

Dandelion’s ability to stimulate bile secretion means that it is contra-indicated if you have an obstruction in the bile duct or gallbladder. I know to my cost that taking a bitter during an inflammatory gall bladder attack makes the pain much worse!

It has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to treat arthritis and rheumatism. It is thought to increase the flow of insulin from the pancreas so may be helpful in supporting people with diabetes.

Dandelion leaves support the kidneys. Their diuretic properties make them useful in water retention, cellulitis and urinary tract infections. Unlike pharmaceutical diuretics which leach potassium from the body, sometimes in dangerous levels, dandelion leaves have a high potassium content, pleasing that lost through increased urination. The leaves can also dissolve stone and gravel, improving the elimination of uric acid, thus making it a helpful remedy for gout.

If you want to harvest leaves, it is best to gather them before flowers appear as the bitterness of the leaves becomes stronger and makes them less palatable. If you want to make a dandelion leaf soup with other vegetables, look for the youngest, sweetest leaves, but even the oldest can make a fresh accompaniment to strong cheese sandwiches.

Dandelion’s ability to increase elimination of toxins and waste products through the liver and kidneys, make it a wonderful ally for skin issues.  It can be used for spots, acne, boils and abscesses often through applications of both leaf and flower infusions. Do be aware that the milky latex in the older leaves and flower stem can cause dermatitis in some people.

Dandelion flowers make one of the first flower essences of the year. Their energetic signature brings joy throughout the year.

Dandelion flower essence
Fill a glass jar or bowl with spring water, cover with dandelion flowers and leave in the sun for three hours. Remove the flowers with a twig or clean spoon and measure 50ml of infused liquid into a jug or glass bottle. Add an equal amount of brandy to preserve the infusion. This is the mother essence and can be diluted further to make a stock essence. Dose is three drops under the tongue three times a day or every half hour in a crisis. Drops can also be added to a glass of water and sipped.

Dandelion flowers also have an affinity with breast tissue and can used to break up benign congestion through appropriate massage. NB Always get any abnormality in breast tissue checked first! The oil can also be used for light muscle massage to relieve pain.

Dandelion Flower Oil
Pick an amount of dandelion flowers and divide into two. Place half of the herb inside the inner pan  if you are suing a double boiler or inside a glass jar or plastic bowl if you are using a slow cooker and cover with sunflower  oil (or your oil of choice). Replace the lid firmly and place inside the other saucepan or slow cooker which is about half filled with water. Heat the external saucepan so that the water gently boils. Do not let the pan boil dry! Boil for about 2 hours, then remove the inner pan and strain off the oil, squeezing the herb if you can to remove as much oil as possible. Place the rest of the herb inside the inner pan and pour over the oil from the first infusion. Replace the lid firmly and heat the oil in the outer pan for a further two hours. Strain the oil into a heated glass bottle or jar and cap with a screw top lid. If using fresh herb, let the infused oil sit for about three days to make sure any water content separates out. Decant oil. If water drops are left in the infused oil it will go off more quickly. Label the oil with the name and date that you made it.

Make a salve by heating 1oz of beeswax with 8-10 fluid ounces of infused oil. Pour into clean jars but do not seal until cold.  A mixture of dandelion and violet leaf oils make a really nice breast tissue massage medium.

Dandelion flowers also make delightful syrups either on their own or mixed with hawthorn flowers and red clover  in spring or rosehips and sloes in autumn. 

Derbyshire Delight
Pick an amount of fresh dandelions, red clover flowers and stalks and hawthorn flowers. Remove the dandelion petals and centres from any green bits. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Strain and measure liquid. Clean saucepan. Return liquid to the pan and simmer with the lid off until the liquid is reduced by 7/8s. Add honey in the ratio of 1pint to1lb honey. Stir gently until honey is dissolved. Pour into heated, sterilized bottles. Seal when cold. Label and date.

Whatever the season, dandelion will be by your side to offer comfort, healing or joy in the world around you.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

What to do with Bramble?

Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) grow everywhere. David Attenborough once called them the most efficient and aggressive coloniser of any free space. The perennial bush produces biennial stems which arch or trail along the ground bearing large thorns to deter predators. Blackberries are produced from the second year stem and have been eaten by animals and humans for thousands of years.

Many people consider brambles to be vicious and unforgiving. I thought the same until I began using different parts of the bush medicinally. Now I count it a useful resource available all year round. It’s astringent properties are often ignored by herbalists in favour of its domesticated cousin, raspberry, (Rubus idaeus) but it has many similar properties and is free!

Bramble foraging begins in winter, when the roots can be harvested for vinegar along with general woodland, hedgerow, field or garden clearing. It is a useful remedy for diarrhoea and has been known to give relief from the pain of IBS flare-ups. I’ve used it to calm my digestive system down when faced with a stressful day which began with a long car journey, especially when time was tight and did not allow frequent comfort stops.

Bramble vinegar
Dig up at least six bramble roots. Cut the new leaves from any briars before discarding. Remove excess soil from roots then scrub in cold water until all soil is removed. Rinse roots in fresh water and chop into small, 1 inch pieces with secuteurs. Place bramble leaves in a large glass jar (2lbs) and snip with long scissors. Add the root pieces and cover with cider vinegar. Poke well with a chopstick to remove air bubbles and fill the jar again so no part of the root or leaf is exposed to the air. Egg shells can be added if you want extra mineral content. These will disappear over time as they are dissolved by the vinegar. Label and date the jar.

Place in a warm, dark place for three weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain off all the roots and leaves, squeezing leaves to remove excess vinegar. Strain the vinegar again through a fine sieve or kitchen paper to remove any soil. Pour into clean bottle with screw top lid. Label and date the bottle.

Use in salad dressings, when making stock to extract minerals from bones or with honey and boiling water to make a soothing drink. If taking medicinally, add 1tsp of vinegar to a small amount of water (I usually add 1-2 tsps. to a shot glass full of water) and sip.

Brambles in spring
It can be a privilege handling the spring roots of bramble. You see the old, hard wood of the previous year and new, red-tinged shoots. It provides a totally new perspective on spring and on this plant. It can be a wonderful experience sitting on a warm patio in the sunshine stroking the velvet softness of new leaves and combing through the root hairs with your fingers prior to scrubbing.

If you want to make a different vinegar, add half roots and half newly emerging shoots to your jar.

Bramble shoots, seen before the leaves fully emerge can be harvested and either eaten raw or lightly sautéed in butter to make a delightful addition to a foraged meal. They have their own unique flavour – a mixture of “green” and nutty – which is both unexpected and very pleasant. Don’t try to eat fully formed leaves as they have barbs on the underside.

Both the leaves and the insides of brambles with the thorns and hard exterior removed can be made into a stomach calming tea which is particularly helpful for children.

Blackberry Flower Essence
When blackberry flowers emerge, a flower remedy can be made from them. All you need is a clean glass bowl, jam jar or drinking glass, enough flowers to cover the top and spring or purified water. Fill the bowl with water and sprinkle the flowers on the surface of the water so it is entirely covered. Leave the bowl outside in sunshine for three hours. Remove the flowers with something other than metal or your hand e.g. a stick and pour 50ml of fluid into a clean dark bottle. Add 50 ml of brandy. Label the bottle and date. 

Blackberry Flower Essence helps to translate goals and intentions into action by connecting someone more effectively with their will. The soul has many lofty visions and desires but may be unable to manifest what needs to be achieved. Such people are often quite perplexed about the gap between their aims and what they actually accomplish. They give much consideration to their intentions but lack the ability to organize these thoughts into specific priorities, or to manifest and execute such goals.

On an energetic level, such people often have a great deal of light around the head, which does not radiate and circulate throughout the body. The blood is often sluggish, as is the entire lower metabolism. As the light comes more into the limbs, the soul feels greater inner power to take real action in the world and to translate what is spiritual into actual change in the world. Blackberry flower essence helps to chanel this radiant, awakened light to the will-life of the human soul.

As summer moves into autumn, blackberry flowers mature into drupes and produce the familiar blackberry. Not every black berry is the same as there are over three hundred varieties of both blackberry and dewberry, several of which can co-exist and hybridise in the same field.

Blackberries are an ancient remedy for combatting diarrhoea and dysentery. I learned my home nursing from my mother. She taught me to starve anyone with a tummy bug for 24 hours and then gradually introduce dry and easily digested food whilst offering suitable fluids throughout to keep the sufferer hydrated.

If symptoms don’t improve after three days, seek medical advice (earlier with young children). Whole blackberries shaken with powdered cinnamon can be helpful in managing loose stools. The eclectic American herbalist, Ellingwood used to offer a blackberry cordial, made in a similar fashion to elderberry cordial, as a drink.

If you are looking for some thing to help improve access to vitamin C either for yourself and your family, a tasty syrup can be made from blackberries and rosehips.

Blackberry and Rosehip Syrup
Small bowl of blackberries and rosehips (1/2lb of each)
1 inch of fresh ginger root peeled and chopped (or you could grate it whole)
3/4  whole nutmeg grated
1 cinnamon stick broken up
4 cloves
runny honey
Juice of a lemon
alcohol of your choice (brandy, sherry, a good whiskey, vodka etc)

Wash the blackberries and rosehips. Place in a heavy bottomed saucepan and cover with water. Simmer over a low heat for half an hour. Mash the blackberries and rosehips to a pulp with a potato masher and cook on the lowest heat for another 15-30 minutes. Strain the liquid through a plastic sieve and measure the volume. Wash out the saucepan. Return the liquid to the pan together with a lb of runny honey for every pint of liquid. Heat gently until honey is dissolved. Add juice of a lemon. This can now be poured into clean, sterile bottles and sealed and kept in the fridge to use with children and anyone who doesn't like/can't have alcohol. To preserve the syrup without keeping in a fridge (but in a cold place) add alcohol to taste. Using 1/4pint alcohol to every pint of original liquid should be an adequate preservative.

You can make jams, jellies and pies with blackberries on their own, but the flavour is very strong. Blackberries reduce the amount of sugar/sweetening you need to add to apples and makes a better flavour combination and texture. If you are cooking for anyone with crumbling or sensitive teeth it is better to sieve the blackberries before adding to any cooking.

Blackberry and apple puree
Peel, core and slice 2-3 large cooking apples and add to a saucepan together with 1-2 large handfuls of washed blackberries. Add sugar and a dash of water (put saucepan under cold tap for one second) then heat the saucepan gently with stirring and simmer until the apples are soft. Sieve the mixture to remove all pips and serve as a fruit fool (by adding ½ pint cold puree to ½ pint cold thick custard to ½ pint double cream), with natural yoghurt, cream or custard. The puree freezes well.

Blackberry and apple pie
Fill the bottom of a pie dish with peeled, cored and sliced cooking apples and blackberries in the ratio of 2/3:1/3. Sprinkle sugar over the top and a small amount of water. Put a pie centre in the middle of the dish. Make approximately 4oz of shortcrust pastry (4ozs flour, 1oz vegetable fat or lard plus 1oz margarine or butter). Roll out the pastry. Cut a ½” strip of pastry to sit on the top of the pie dish edge then brush this with milk. Lift the remainder of the pastry to cover the pie dish and crimp the edges together with the strip of lining. Brush the top of the pie with egg wash and cook in a medium oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Blackberry and apple crumble
Peel, core and slice 2-3 large cooking apples and place in the bottom of a pie dish together with 1-2 good handfuls of washed blackberries. Sprinkle with sugar and add a small dash of water into the bottom of the dish. Make the crumble topping by rubbing together 4 ozs. flour with 2 ozs. of margarine or butter until they resemble breadcrumbs. Add 2 tblsps sugar and mix well. Pour the crumble over the fruit, knocking the edges of the pie dish carefully with your palm to ensure the crumble is evenly spread. Do not push the crumble mixture down firmly with your hand or a spoon. Cook in a medium oven for 15-20 minutes until done.

Blackberry and apple jam
4 lbs blackberries
1/2pt water
1.5lbs cooking/sour apples (prepared weight)
6lbs sugar
Pick over and wash the blackberries, place in a pan with 1/4pt water and simmer slowly until soft. Peel, core and slice apples and add the remaining 1/4pt water. Simmer slowly until soft and make into a pulp with a spoon or potato masher. Add the blackberries and sugar, bring to the boil and boil rapidly, stirring frequently until a setting point is reached. Pour into sterilised jars and cover. (Makes about 10lbs jam.)

Blackberry and apple jelly
4lb blackberries
2lbs cooking or crab apples
2pts water
Wash the blackberries. Wash and cut up the apples without peeling or coring. Put the fruit in the pan with the water and cook for about 1 hour until the fruit is really soft and turned to pulp. Strain through a jelly cloth overnight. Measure the extract and return it to the pan with 1lb sugar to every 1 pint liquid. Heat gently and stir until all the sugar is dissolved then boil rapidly until the setting point is reached. Remove any scum with a slotted spoon before pouring into small, sterilised jars and seal.