Wednesday 13 November 2013

Guest Mentee Post: Mother of Herbs Part 1

Maddie is one of the Australian members of the Kitchenherbwife Mentorship Scheme. This is her first post about her 2013/4 Herbal Ally, Mother of Herbs. Thank you, Maddie, for sharing your experiences with us. 

I have chosen ‘Mother of Herbs’ as my herb ally – but I really believe I had no say in the matter. She chose me – ‘cos she knew we needed her! Several other herbs took my interest including Gotu Kola, Passionflower, and Purslane - and Herb Robert (which I’m presently looking for). I’ve planted Purslane seeds in a pot, which germinated within 4 days. These, and some self-seeded, young Passionfruit plants growing wild, courtesy of the birds, will be looked at in depth, later on. 

In the meantime I’m taking photos of their growth. But for some unknown reason my pull was towards ‘The Mother’.   All through the long, hot, dry weather we’ve been having, ‘Mother of Herbs’ just keeps on keeping on. Don’t know how it got into my garden, really.  I can’t remember planting it, but it grows so profusely here in our sub-tropical climate that I’m forever thinning it out as it tends to suffocate the other plants around it. So easily grown, it just takes root here wherever it hits the ground. We also had it growing in our other home many years ago, but didn’t use it back then. These days it’s a regular in our kitchen – in Italian dishes, tomato based meals, seasonings , pesto & whatever I think might be improved by its addition, but otherwise,  til now  have never taken much notice of it – Big Mistake!

Officially known as Plectranthus amboinicus, from the Family: Lamiaceae (mints/aromatics), and also was known as Coleus amboinicus  (syn), and tends to grow in a similar sprawly nature.) However it has the thick, fleshy, and  hairy/velvety leaves of a succulent, on thick stalks and clear sap. The leaves are almost heart-shaped with scalloped, serrated edges; the main vein from the stem is a darkish  pink for about two-thirds of its length (but sometimes the leaf is all green, depending, it seems on how much shade its in, though the stems still seem to keep the pinkish tone.) 

The tiny flowers form along the length of spikes up to 45cm long. Mine are light purple, but I believe there are also white and pink flowering ones too.  The herb is very aromatic and I liken it to the smell of the dried mixed herbs that was once found in every housewife’s cupboard, if not still is. It is known by many common names – Five Seasons Herb, One in Five Herb, All-Herb, Queen of Herbs, Puerto Rican Oregano, Spanish Sage, Spanish Thyme, Chinese Three in One, Broad Leafed Thyme, 10 Herbs in One – and perhaps many more. 

There seems to be some dispute about where it originated, and at the rate it grows here I can understand why. Its considered a valuable Folk/Traditional Herb in Northern Africa, India, the Caribbean, South America, and sub-tropical Asia,  who all seem to lay claim to its origin, as it favours the hotter climates, where its culinary use was for flavouring and to mask the strong flavours of goat, fish etc. I’m thinking that ‘strong’ could be a nice way of meaning  ‘off’ as it has anti-bacterial properties – much the same as Europeans used their selection of herbs to flavour rancid meats before  refrigeration  eg. France.   

As well as a culinary herb, it’s also an important medicinal herb as well as a decorative plant, especially the variegated leaf variety which I only recently discovered existed.  Both leaf types have the same properties. While both primarily favour the warmer climates, they can be grown in cold climates with a bit of TLC and if brought inside during the cooler months.

In studying this herb for the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that it acts differently depending on its position in the garden. Compare the colour of the leaves – the dark green with the pink main vein in the top picture where it is growing in almost complete shade, to the second pic - the same plant growing with a geranium in full sun, and in much drier conditions under a presently bare Frangipani tree. Here the leaves are much lighter (tending to almost lime in colour) and are curved upwards in a cupping mode (perhaps, I’m thinking, to capture and hold any moisture/dew or whatever?) and the serrated edges of the plant are pink, but not the main vein.   

Actually the pic doesn’t do it justice – the pink edges are much brighter in colour than the pic shows making it a very attractive looking plant. And to think I never noticed this before. Perhaps later on in the mentorship, I may try to draw this plant highlighting the pink edges – but I’m guessing any attempt at this might need to be loosely called abstract. Such is my skill at artwork. 
It wasn’t until I started researching this plant for the Mentorship that I became aware of just how symbolic the common name is to its all-encompassing nature – though perhaps I’m reading far too much into it as more than likely the name was coined for its likeness to so many herbs. It could be co-incidence I guess … or not.  But from my point of view she well deserves the title ‘Mother’.

‘How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life’ Isabell Shipard.
Various miscellaneous sources.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Syrups and Cordials: comfort in winter

With the modern emphasis on reducing amounts of simple carbohydrates we ingest, it may seem strange to think about the production of sugar or honey based recipes. Unless you are faced with someone suffering from diabetes or Syndrome X, there are good reasons for delivering herbal medicines in a syrup.

Children are much more likely to take their medicine if they are syrup based (and personally I would much rather give them a small dose of sugar rather than a mouthful of artificial sweeteners!). Syrups can also be helpful when you are using very bitter or bad tasting herbs (remembering not to do this if you are taking a bitter which much be tasted to kick start your digestive processes.) They can also be fun, allowing you to match flavours and herbs to suit your mood and physical need.

The production of medicinal syrups has been set out in great theory and detail on The Herbarium website. If you wish to make syrups from layering sugar and powdered leaves, barks or petals, it is best to follow the herbarium instructions. They also advocate producing syrup which has a 2:1 sugar to liquid ratio to prevent decay and bacterial infiltration of the finished product. If you are producing syrups for your own use and keep the bottle in the fridge after opening, I use a 1:1 ratio as this has always worked for me.

My basic syrup recipe comes from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley. After you have made your decoction of herbs, you need to evaporate the resulting liquid by 7/8s over a minimum heat. On my gas cooker, an inch of liquid evaporates during the course of one hour, so if I’m making a medicinal syrup from four pints of liquid, it can take a whole day to evaporate leaving me with the required one eighth. That’s fine if you have sufficient time but if I’m making syrups and cordials during a workshop which only lasts three hours, we usually compromise and make a simple cordial which doesn’t require such a massive volume reduction.

General syrup recipe from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's Herbal Remedies
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped herb
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain. Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz) left. Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label. If making a syrup with more liquid, the general rule of thumb is add 1lb sugar or honey to every 1pint of liquid.

When we were making syrups during yesterday’s workshop, the question was asked, “Which herbs would you not put in a syrup?” It wasn’t something I’d really thought about before, but apart from the obvious poisonous herbs, I really couldn’t think of anything I would actively avoid putting in a syrup.

What I would be wary of is to use herbs which could be dangerous in high doses. For example, several years ago I experimented with a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) syrup made from St John’s wort seed tops and lemon balm with added lemon juice. It tasted wonderful and I was really worried that anyone with children who might get hold of the syrup could ingest large quantities which might do them harm. You could argue that this holds true for any medicinal product and is the reason why one should always be mindful of dosage and safety where any kind of medicinal product is concerned.

I have to admit, I don’t use most of my syrups in their concentrated form. I prefer to drink them in a mug of hot water. I find this the most comforting way to take them as I don’t have a very sweet tooth and a spoonful of syrup is too sweet and doesn’t last long enough in my mouth to truly savor.

What I really like about making syrups is the ability to create something unique for an individual at this moment in time. Yesterday was a classic example. Judith has been suffering with a lingering tickly cough. It is irritating especially as she sings in several choirs during the week. She was going to make a classic cough syrup of hyssop, white horehound and marshmallow. When I mentioned that Chris has found relief for his coughs with sage and thyme, she added some of those, proving heat with root ginger and added flavour with juice and rind of a lemon.

Judith’s cough syrup
1 handful dried horehound, marshmallow, sage and thyme
½ handful dried hyssop
Fresh orange peel diced.
1” root ginger grated.
2 pints water
Everything was placed in a saucepan, covered with water , brought to the boil and simmered with the lid on for 20-30 minutes. It was then strained and the liquid measured (1.5 UK pints). After cleaning the saucepan, the liquid was returned and 1lb 8 ozs sugar was added. The mixture was heated slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the sugar was dissolved. The syrup was then brought to the boil and poured into sterilised bottles, sealed, labelled and dated.

Maggie was interested in a mineral rich and fortifying syrup. She chose to make a nettle and rose petal syrup, to which was added ashwagandha roots and a small handful of rosehips.

Maggie’s Nettle and rose syrup
2 large handfuls of dried nettle leaf
1 12oz jar full of dried apothecary’s rose petals
1 small handful of dried ashwagandha roots
1 small handful of rosehips
¼  inch grated ginger root
2 pints water
Everything was placed in a saucepan, covered with water, brought to the boil and simmered with the lid on for 20-30 minutes. It was then strained and the liquid measured (1.25 UK pints). After cleaning the saucepan, the liquid was returned and 1lb 4ozs sugar was added. The mixture was heated slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the sugar was dissolved. The syrup was then brought to the boil and poured into sterilised bottles, sealed, labelled and dated.

Lorraine was attracted by the bowl of fresh rosehips on the table. These had been picked on the farm two days previously. She decided to make a warming rosehip syrup with added ginger and lemon.

Lorraine’s Spiced Rosehip Syrup
3/4lb fresh rosehips
1” root ginger grated
1 lemon juiced and peel diced.
2 pints water
After placing all the ingredients in a saucepan, they were blitzed to a pulp using a stick blender before bringing to the boil and simmering for 30 minutes with the lid on. The contents were then strained through muslin to remove all the seeds and hairs. 1.25 (UK) pints were returned to the clean pan together with 1lb 4 ozs of sugar. The mixture was stirred constantly on a gentle heat until all the sugar dissolved and then was brought to the boil before pouring into sterilised bottles. The bottles were then sealed, labelled and dated in the usual way.

Bill and Janey made a spiced apple cordial using the recipe posted last time. During lunch we drank a rose and lemon balm cordial which I made during the summer and froze.

Rose and lemon balm cordial
5-6 strongly scented roses (I used a mixture of Apothecary’s Rose, William Shakespeare and Gertrude Jekyll)
20 lemon balm stems
4 flowering stems of self-heal
4 lemons
2 lbs of sugar
2 UK pints (20fl oz) of water
Remove the leaves from the lemon balm stems and the leaves and flower stalks from the self-heal and place in a large bowl. Chop into small pieces with scissors. Add all the rose petals and mix. Remove the ends of the lemon and cut into slices. Add these slices to the herbs. Measure the sugar and cold water and place in a saucepan on the heat. Bring to the boil stirring all the time with a long wooden spoon. Pour the sugar syrup carefully into the bowl. Cover with a suitably sized dinner plate so all the plant material is submerged under the syrup. Place the bowl in a cool larder or fridge overnight. You will see that the syrup has turned pink by the following morning. Remove the dinner plate and strain the syrup into a jug. Squeeze the plant material well to remove as much syrup as possible. If you want to maximise your syrup, return the squeezed plant matter to the bowl and cover with cold water. Mix well then strain again and drink. (This should provide your first taste of the cordial at a suitable strength for imbibing.) Pour your rose syrup either into sterilized glass bottles or clean plastic bottles and immediately freeze. The glass bottles should be sealed, labelled and dated and kept in the fridge once open. Dilute to taste with still or sparkling water.

With recent drops in temperature, it is tempting to think there is very little produce available to make ourselves something fresh. A quick walk around our urban environment in the noontime sunshine revealed a multitude of fresh nettles and a red exuberance of rosehips. There is still time to forage and make sufficient cordials to keep us through the winter.

Saturday 2 November 2013

A symphony of spices

As our northern hemisphere moves away from the sun, shortening days and cooling temperatures turn our thoughts to ways of retaining heat both in our bodies and our environment. Whereas in spring and summer we long for the vibrant, refreshing taste of green herbs, autumn flavours come from the spice cupboard.
In ancient times, to trade in spices meant control of great wealth. Despite our seeming isolation from the hot countries of the middle and far east, our British ancestors have always loved cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. 

Scholars may claim the Crusaders brought spices back with them for general use, but archaeologists have found evidence for Phoenician traders plying their wares around the majority of the British coastline during Roman times and probably before that.

Every housewife with means kept her spices under lock and key, bringing them out to flavour festive dishes often during the dark times of the year. Sometimes their use would be to make rancid meat more palatable and safe to eat, whilst richer folk would dazzle their guests with saffron and beaten gold leaf.

Much of British medical knowledge in the middle ages was based on the works of Middle Eastern physicians such as Avicenna as well as classical Greek and Egyptian texts. Their use of spices to warm the blood and keep it moving around the body was well known and ginger syrup retained its place in the British Pharmacia for arthritic pain until the 1950s.

All spices have warming qualities to a greater or lesser degree. Nutmeg is a warming, stimulating spice. It is a traditional digestive remedy and generally stimulates energy in the body. It can be used with other warming spices for people who tend to be on the cold side, constitutionally. It makes a useful poultice for chest congestion.

Large doses (i.e. more than two whole nutmegs eaten at once) are hallucinogenic causing massive hangovers and inability to urinate. They are a favourite high with prisoners who cannot obtain other illegal drugs but they are often unaware of the side effects!

Cardomom and cinnamon have a gentle effect, if you are trying to persuade someone to help their circulation whilst professing to hate spices. They can easily be added to family staples such as rice pudding or apple pie without anyone protesting. Cardamom has been widely used to treat infections in teeth and gums, to prevent and treat throat problems, congestion of the lungs and tuberculosis, inflammation of eyelids and digestive disorders.

Cinnamon has a myriad of uses, from treating Raynauld’s disease to type two diabetes. Every herbalist will wax lyrical about cinnamon if you listen to them long enough.  Jim Macdonald has written, “Cinnamon excels as a stimulating diaphoretic, and is specific for when there is poor peripheral circulation but the afflicted is either sweating profusely or has diarrhoea and is becoming dehydrated.”

He describes this as an example of a diaphoretic that checks perspiration, rather than promoting it. He says this action isn’t inhibitory; rather, it helps to prevent dehydration resultant from weakness in the periphery. He believes diaphoretics don’t, as is often stated, work by stimulating sweating but rather by controlling ventilation via directing circulation and regulating/correcting tension or weakness in the periphery.

King described cinnamon, “For post-partum and other uterine haemorrhages, it is one of the most prompt and efficient remedies in the Materia Medica.” Ellingwood was another nineteen century herbalist who used cinnamon as “a haemostatic of much power” saying, “it is positively reliable in all passive haemorrhages.”

Cumin and coriander are both anti-bacterial, warming and cooling, thanks to their diaphoretic properties. Other spices such as turmeric and chilli are increasingly being used for their anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities.

Turmeric is an ancient Ayevedic medicine.  It is a useful digestive stimulant and chologouge. It gently warms the digestive system and through slight bitter and pungent flavours, it increases secretion of digestive fluids. Turmeric also stimulates the production and secretion of bile, which is extremely important in the digestion of fats.  Difficulty digesting fats can be resolved by stirring a little turmeric into food, or taking as a warm tea before or after meals.

The classical method of taking turmeric is to dry fry the powder, then add to a cup of warm milk sweetened with honey. A teaspoon stirred into warm water with a spoon of honey is a pleasant digestive stimulating tea or eat a small portion of rice cooked with turmeric, or add to your soup broth. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric for treating psoriasis led to one mother hiding turmeric in scrambled egg for her seven year old.

Never add more than 1tsp of turmeric to any dish or it will ruin the flavour. If you need to take larger amounts at any one time, the dose is usually ingested as capsules of powder or tinctured root.
It’s difficult to talk about spices without giving recipes. Here is my favourite warming winter tea

Warming winter tea
Place 1-2tsp flax seed together with a broken up cinnamon stick and maybe a couple of cardamom pods and some sliced orange peel, a handful of fresh or half a handful of dried rosehips and the juice of half an orange. Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and fill the saucepan with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer uncovered until the amount of water has halved from evaporation. Strain, add honey to taste and sip while hot.

Nettle latte is another winter favourite.

Nettle Latte
Make a strong infusion of nettles. Heat a portion of milk and whisk until frothy. Mix hot milk and hot nettle tea in equal quantities. Add honey and powdered cinnamon or nutmeg to taste.

Ginger syrup
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100g (4oz) fresh chopped ginger root
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put the chopped ginger root in water, bring to a boil, simmer for 20-30 minutes, strain.
Clean out the saucepan, pour liquid back into it, evaporate on minimum heat until you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz.) left. Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label.

Sweet Potato Curry
3 medium size sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into approx. 1” segments
2 carrots peeled and sliced
2 celery sticks washed and thinly sliced
1 onion peeled and diced
1 red pepper, diced
1” root ginger peeled and diced
3 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled and left for 15 mins before cooking
3 courgettes washed and sliced (optional)
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin
10 whole green cardamom pods
Any other veg you have lying around which needs using up, cut into suitable small pieces
Sweat the onions, red pepper, garlic and ginger in olive oil. Add the spices and cook for 2 minutes. Add courgettes at this point if you are using them and fry until soft. Add the other ingredients and fry for a few moments then just cover with cold water. Season. Cover the saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes until all the vegetables are sufficiently soft for your taste. Serve with rice of your choice.

Mung bean and pumpkin curry
1/2 a bag of mung beans soaked overnight
Half the insides of a large pumpkin
1 tin of coconut milk
One handful of sultanas
1 red pepper, diced
2 carrots peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced
2 cloves of garlic
1” root ginger
1 tsp cumin,1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp paprika
Peel the garlic and mash with the ginger to form a paste. Sweat the onion and red pepper for five minutes in olive oil. Add the ginger/garlic paste and spices. Cook for 2 mins. Add the carrots, mung beans and pumpkin and fry for 1 min. Add the coconut milk plus another tinful of cold water. Cook for 20 minutes then add sultanas and apple. Cook for another 20-30 minutes until everything is soft. Serve with rice of your choice.

Spiced rice pudding
1pt milk
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. pudding rice
½ tsp. nutmeg grated
8 green cardamoms
Small handful sultanas or raisins (optional)
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Transfer to a secure, lidded boiling basin and place inside a slow cooker. Fill the slow cooker with boiling water up to the level of the liquid inside the basin. Cook for about 3-5 hours until soft.