Sunday, June 26, 2016

Herbal first aid

I have always been fascinated by idea that plants have medicinal properties. The power of plants to affect us, positively or negatively, to heal us, to alter our perception of reality, is something I've been ruminating about more than usual, having just finished reading Michael Pollan's brilliant Botany of Desire during my flight back from California last week. And wouldn't you know it, mere days after my return my friend and local herbalist, Tricia*, sent an email advertising her class on herbal first-aid remedies. A class on identifying and local plants to alleviate common maladies? Sign me up!

Actually, I signed myself up as well as my dear friend Tinka, who is visiting from Germany for the week. As usual, it was both enjoyable and informative -- Tricia's such a great teacher. During the first segment of the class, we learned how to identify, cultivate, and take advantage of the basic medicinal properties of some culinary herbs as well as plants often considered weeds (like wild plantain, no relation to the banana). Talk about practical: Tinka immediately chewed up a couple of plantain leaves to create a "spit poultice" that immediately reduced the irritation from some recently acquired mosquito bites. The technical term for this property is anti-pruritic, which means it stops things from itching. And two days later, when I found myself with a scratchy throat, chocking down a mug of freshly boiled oregano tea knocked whatever was breeding in my respiratory system RIGHT out of there. (It is quite an intense concoction, with 1 cup of hot water to 1 packed teaspoon of fresh oregano leaves. Not a remedy for the faint of heart. Or rather, the faint of tastebuds.) It turns out that both oregano and thyme are not only delicious but also naturally antibacterial. We also learned about the medicinal uses of plants that were vulnerary (heal tissue damage), anti-inflammatory (reduce swelling), and anti-microbial (kill germs). Suddenly I felt like a shaman-in-training. Well, without the drums or animal bones.

After Tricia talked the group through harvesting and storing everything from thyme and yarrow branches to comfrey and chamomile flowers, we headed into the fire station for some hands-on work making infused oils, salves, and balms. (What's that? Oh yes, I should mention that the class took place at one of the local firehouses, which partners with a cool local nonprofit called Everybody Grows. Two guys from the EG team manage the on-site demonstration garden out front, and were as excited as I was to learn more cool things to do with the stuff growing out there.) Together, we proceeded to make a batch of calendula-infused olive oil. Tricia explained that it needed to steep for anywhere from 4 hours (in a warm water bath) to 2 weeks (in a hot car -- no, really), so she did a TV-style quick change and whipped out a second jar of already steeped calendula oil.

We used the herbalist's medieval torture-style mini press to extract as much infused oil from the soaked flowers, stirred in some natural beeswax, and warmed the viscous mixture. The result was now considered a salve. We removed it from the heat and added a few drops of lavender essential oil. What we had now was a balm, which Tricia carefully poured into cute little tins that we labeled and brought home.

Pretty awesome, no? I can't wait for Tricia's next class....

(*You may remember reading about Tricia in an earlier post on making homemade bitters. I learn so much from this lady! Incidentally, a blogpost on other cocktail-related bitters I've been concocting since then is currently under development...)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

You may be a food educator if...

1. You regularly ride public transit with a backpack overstuffed with garden produce.

2. You end up having a lengthy conversation with the woman behind the counter at the liquor store about her favorite way to cook leafy greens. (What? I was buying some supplies to make more bitters!)

3. You proudly show strangers photos of your seedlings on your phone.

4. You take photos of amusing food-related things while on vacation.

5. You save your old laundry detergent bottles to make watering cans. These are especially handy since nobody wants to steal 'em.

Friday, June 17, 2016


Only in Berkeley can you find a brassica-themed Vanilla Ice reference. Oy. This town is too hip for me....

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The (incr)edible schoolyard

Welcome to Day 1 of my week-long California adventure. This morning found me back at Alice Waters' original Edible Schoolyard project. It was amazing to revisit this most beautiful and extensive school garden, tucked away in Berkeley. Having worked in the field for nearly six years since Ollie and I passed through here on our cross-country bike tour, I was even more impressed than I was the first time around. Imagine that!

I picked up my visitor's badge in the school's main office a bit after 11am, then wandered out to the garden to poke around. When I asked them a couple of questions about their interaction with the green space, two middle school girls hanging out at the garden's long picnic table proceeded to give me one of the best garden tours I've ever had. After tasting some delicate yellow raspberries growing near the entrance, the girls walked me past the espaliered apple orchard and excitedly told me about pressing the fruit into cider the previous autumn. We strolled past the in-ground beds of swiss chard and brassicas, with a stop to admire the gorgeous dahlias (my new favorites) as we made our way to see the chickens cavorting around the straw fort students had helped to construct in the far corner of the outdoor space. We continued on to the chicken coop to check for eggs, admired the orderly tools around the shed, and then explored the greenhouse, where I examined the remnants of last week's seedling sale on tables that students had built.

My impromptu guides led me next to the bee hive, apologizing that the usual veil and gloves were not around for me to borrow so I could take a closer peek. (Yes, kids are invited to check out the honeybees on their own. Pretty awesome!) After that, we meandered to the school-built outdoor prep tables and stone pizza oven, where eighth graders annually prepare and bake their own pizzas. The young people have become much more involved in garden work and construction than seemed to be the case during my last time through, and they sure are proud of this... as they should be!

As if I wasn't enamored enough, my teenage guides led me next through a tunnel of grape, kiwi berry, and passion fruit vines. "Certainly more prolific than my own school garden's vining fruit," I muttered, mostly to myself. California weather and four garden teachers certainly help things thrive around here. Still: impressive. We ended our loop back near the entrance, where I admired the outdoor worm bins and rustic kitchen setup.

With a friendly wave, my guides were off to class, and I was left wondering if one of my own gardens might be as impressive one day. Something to ponder during lunch tomorrow at Chez Panisse with my friend (and kind local host) Colin....

Sunday, June 5, 2016

So, I may have gone a little crazy at the farmers market

Ollie was definitely creaking on the ride home. Good thing I ate the half dozen dumplings I purchased on the spot, and a few strawberries, else everything might not have fit in my panniers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Strawberry fields for a few weeks

What a cold and rainy early summer we've had here in the District, eh? I thought strawberry season might never happen. About three weeks ago, I finally started seeing strawberries at the farmers' market. Sadly, they were pretty bland. All that water. Meh. Two weeks ago, I tried again. Bah. Disappointing. And then I tasted a berry at the Twin Springs stand at the Dupont farmers' market last Sunday. I walked away with a whole quart for myself. Then I foolishly stopped to pick up a few more things on my way out of the market, and found myself with yet another quart of strawberries from Spring Valley's farmstand. Darn my lack of resistance. But I'm supporting local farmers, right? Right??


I ate probably about a pint of berries while I was rinsing and storing them Sunday afternoon. (What's that? Yes, I learned a new berry keeping trick from my gentleman friend, Harlan, recently. You rinse the berries in a solution that's 1 cup white vinegar and 2 cups cool water, blot the berries dry, and store them in a tupperware with a clean towel at the bottom. Rinse them with plain water just before you eat them. They last for a week. If you don't eat them all before then. My record since learning this trick is four days. So, about that lack of resistance....) I decided I would share this berry bounty with friends, so set to making some strawberry ice cream for a Monday night dinner party.

When mom called me on Sunday evening, mid-icecream-project, the following conversation ensued:
Me: I'm making a custard base for a roasted strawberry balsamic ice cream.
Mom: Sounds weird. I'm sure you'll love it.
True story. And I do love it. Mom's so smart.

At the request of my lovely interns, who tasted a bit of the creamy berry bounty on Tuesday afternoon, and my dear friend Kathryn, with whom I enjoyed the remainder of the quart of ice cream after dinner last night, I offer you the recipe here. It's based partly on a Driscoll's recipe, but then my teeth started to pre-hurt when I dumped in all of the sugar in that recipe so I switched recipes to one on the Serious Eats website mid-stream. And then I strained out and cooked down the post-roasting balsamic-strawberry liquid, stirred in some chocolate, and made a sauce. Okay, well, it started with actual recipes....

Roasted Strawberry Balsamic Ice Cream

  • 1 3/4 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 pint fresh strawberries, hulls removed
  • 2/3 cup + 2 TBSP sugar
  • 1 generous drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350F.

Chop strawberries into bite-sized chunks, then toss with 2/3 cup sugar. Spread in a pie dish, drizzle with balsamic, and roast for 8-10 minutes until berries are soft and fragrant. Let cool slightly, then strain liquid. (Save this liquid for later use in a reduction sauce OR an amazing salad dressing base. Trust me.)

Puree half of the roasted berries in a food processor or blender , then store in the fridge. Store the chunky remaining roasted berries in another container in the fridge. (I am NOT just creating dishes here, there is a reason for separate storage, that you will discover later.)

In a medium saucepan, simmer cream, milk, and remaining sugar until sugar completely dissolves, about 5 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat.

In a separate bowl, whisk yolks. Whisking constantly, slowly whisk about a third of the hot cream mixture into the yolks, then whisk the yolk mixture back into the saucepan with the cream. Return saucepan to medium-low heat and gently cook until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Strain your custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Cool mixture to room temperature -- I like to set my custard bowl inside a larger bowl that has ice water in it.

Cover and chill overnight. The ice cream base, too. ;)

The next day, start churning your ice cream base in the pre-frozen bowl of your ice cream maker.

With the motor running, drizzle in your roasted strawberry puree, then the buttermilk.

When the ice cream is frozen to a soft-serve consistency, with the motor still running, add your roasted strawberry chunks. Allow the ice cream machine to continue until the ice cream has reached the proper consistency.

Transfer your irresistible ice cream to a container with a tight-fitting lid and place in the freezer until it is firm (at least 4 hours). Devour.

Oh, that balsamic sauce? I just had the balsamic-strawberry liquid simmering in a small saucepan on low for a few hours while I worked on lesson plans -- Memorial Day doesn't mean I'm not working, people -- then stirred in a handful of chocolate chips during the last 20 minutes and whisked it every few minutes. Delish.