Friday, October 31, 2014

Chicken Soup for the Autumn Soul....

It's that time of year-- colds and flu season is kicking into high gear. Those darned viruses! You may be someone who rarely falls prey, or you might succumb several times during a calendar year. A few facts about viruses will help you sort it out....

First, scientists disagree on whether viruses are actually living things. Many feel they don't satisfy the criteria for living organisms and describe them simply as packages of RNA with crunchy coatings, unable to reproduce until they're introduced into cells, where they immediately take full advantage of the host. Those aches and pains you feel when you have the flu? They're caused by your cells being ruptured by explosions of newborn viruses, liberating irritating intracellular substances into your tissues.  Ow.

Second, no one is immune to any virus-- at least that we know of-- unless that person has (1) had the illness caused by the virus or (2) been immunized against it. Even then, neither is 100% foolproof. Simply put, if you get hit with a full virus "load" (e.g., a full sneeze hits your face, or your hand picks up a hefty dose of virus from a doorknob-- and you then rub your eyes, inoculating yourself), you're probably going to get sick. Keep in mind that viruses spread in different ways, i.e, some are airborne, some are spread through contact with infected bodily fluids, etc. Know your viruses and be wary.....

But, this isn't supposed to be a medical post, although my medical background betrays me. I was a registered nurse for thirty years, and once a nurse, always a nurse. Here's my last thought on the subject-- my best suggestions to you for colds and flu season:
  • Get a flu shot, if you're not philosophically opposed (I swear by them; if you are opposed, I respect that, too-- to each her own);
  • Avoid crowds when you can;
    Don't touch doorknobs and other surfaces that a gazillion other people touch;
  • Wash your hands a lot; 
  • Take care of your general health (if you're healthy, you're less likely to get sick); and
  • Make chicken soup.
Which is why we're here, right?

My grandmother taught me to make chicken soup, and my mother added tips of her own. The process is simple, it fills your house with wonderful smells, and it makes a product infinitely superior to anything you can buy. And.... there is actual research supporting the health benefits of chicken soup. It may be good for the soul, but it's great for the body as well.

Let's begin by differentiating stock, broth, and soup. Stock is made by simmering bones with vegetables, herbs, meat/poultry, and seasonings. Broth is similar but doesn't use bones. Soup is what you get when you combine a finished stock or broth with other yummy items like pasta, beans, or veggies.

This blog post will focus on stock, and the first thing you'll need are some bones. You can use raw chicken parts or a whole chicken, bones leftover from a recipe, or a carcass from a roasted or rotisseried chicken. Turkey bones and pieces work, too. In fact, turkey wings are one of my go-to's for stock making-- they're incredibly flavorful and seem to have a lot of gelatin, creating a rich, dense stock.

You'll need veggies and herbs, too. As with any good cooking, the better your ingredients, the better the final product. Splurge! Buy from a local Farmer's Market or greengrocer if you can, take part in a local CSA, or grow your own. Work with fresh, organic components and buy local if you can.

Here's an ingredients list suitable for making a pot of chicken stock-- enough to make soup for four.

Note: Start the process 1-2 days before you want to serve the soup.
  • One "chicken-equivalent" of chicken and/or turkey parts, raw or previously cooked (raw is best)
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, sliced, skin on
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and chunked
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, including lots of leaves
  • 1 handful-sized bunch of parsley, chunked
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
  • 2-3 sprigs (each 3-4") of thyme 
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 12-124 fresh peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A pinch of ground allspice (my grandmother's secret ingredient) (she won't mind me sharing it)
Put all of the ingredients into a big (8-10 quart) kettle and cover with cold water. Why cold? You want the temperature to increase slowly, opening the pores in the bones and coaxing out every bit of the flavor and gelatin within. If you bring the water to a boil too fast, the results won't be nearly as yummy.

Place the kettle over medium low heat. Now go do something.... For several hours. It will take at least a couple of hours for the kettle to slooooowly heat up enough to begin simmering or even bubbling. Once it does, adjust the heat so the kettle is steamy hot but not quite boiling-- a hard simmer. You're going to let it do this all day. Check it every hour or so and add water to keep all of the ingredients submerged. You're not trying to reduce the volume-- you're simply letting everything simmer and get cozy.

Here's the fun part: at the end of the day, turn the stove off, put a lid on the kettle, and leave it right there, overnight. There's no need to refrigerate it. (In French country cooking, it's not uncommon for cottage folk to keep a stock kettle going on the back of the stove all the time, adding bits and pieces and dipping into it as needed.) When you get up in the morning, turn it back on and bring it back to a simmer.

As the Day Two simmer progresses, allow the volume to begin to reduce somewhat. As the bones begin to break down, you'll be able to push and crush them into the bottom of the kettle. Later in the afternoon, turn the stove off and let the kettle cool down for a couple of hours. Then, strain the stock into a clean kettle or large glass or ceramic bowl. (Please don't put hot stock into a plastic bowl-- this may release carcinogens! Bleh....) Taste it and add salt if needed.

Tuck the bowl into the refrigerator-- overnight, if possible. The fat in the stock will rise to the surface and congeal, and you'll be able to lift it off. (Note: if you're a foodie, tuck some of this chicken fat-- also called schmalz-- into the freezer to use another time.) Your chilled stock will resemble chicken jell-o, thanks to all the great gelatin you coaxed out of the bones. (Good job!)

You're now ready to make soup. I usually use diced chicken meat; diced celery, onion, and carrot; and some sort of rice or pasta, but another wonderful variation involves diced chicken meat, sliced kale, and white beans. It's easy to find good recipes in cookbooks or online, and because you're now starting with your own fabulous stock, the soup will be delicious.

  • Some people like to roast their bones before cooking; doing so deepens (and changes) the flavor. If you want to try this, roast the bones in a 450 degree (F) oven in an open shallow pan until the pieces are a deep brown-- but not burned!
  • I like to freeze stock in 2 C portions; I use plastic freezer bags and freeze them flat, allowing me to stack the frozen bags in the freezer. They may it easy to make a quick small amount of soup, and they're also excellent for adding stock to stews, vegetables, or casseroles. 
  • I also keep at least a quart of chicken soup in the freezer on stand-by, just in case I come down with a cold. It's my very own emergency soup back-up kit.
  • And, little bits of leftover stock can also be frozen in ice cube trays. Pop them out when frozen, store in a freezer bag, and add to whatever you're cooking. One cube adds immensely to a stir-fry or a quick vegetable saute.
Enjoy! Yum....

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Say "Nicole’s Cranberry-Maple-Ginger Sauce... or Syrup..." or just say AMAZING...

You know, I think autumn may be my favorite cooking season of the year, what with soups and stews and pot roasts and gingerbread and hot cider and pumpkin pie and any number of other fall treats. I love the fresh foods of summer, but there's something about the lengthening fall days and cooler temps that makes fall comfort foods feel like balm for the weary soul.

Along those lines, I get excited when I see fresh cranberries pop up on the store shelves. They appeared last week, and my mind immediately went to an amazing concoction my friend Nicole turned me on to last year: fresh cranberry-ginger-maple sauce. It's easy to make, tastes decadent, and lasts for months, and a creative cook can use it in a myriad of scrumptious ways. (I love a good chance to use the word scrumptious, don't you?)

For one batch, you'll need:
  • 2 Cups (about 12 ounces) fresh cranberries, washed and sorted (gooshy ones tossed out)
  • 1 1/4 Cup water
  • 1/3 Cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger-- a 2-3" chunk, peeled and grated
  • 1/4 Cup pure maple syrup-- I like the 'B' grade
Combine the berries, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan (right). Bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer until reduced by half (about 10 more minutes). And note: if you want a thicker sauce, boil it a little longer until it reduces more; if it over-reduces, just stir in water a spoonful at a time until it's the right consistency.

Remove from the heat and stir in the ginger (right). (Nicole notes, "sometimes we go double on the ginger." I think she's onto something.)

Let the mixture cool (the recipe says for at least half an hour, but I have trouble waiting that long) and stir in the maple syrup.

At this point, it's ready to use--warm or cool. It can be stored in the fridge for, well, I've had it in there for months with no problems. It also freezes very well. (It would make an awesome Yule gift, maybe packed with some extra-special gingerbread mix.)

How to use the amazing sauce? When Nicole first introduced me to it, her official recommendation was to pour it over gingerbread waffles. I tried this, and yes. She was right. I mean, YES.

But since then, I've also served it on pancakes (in the picture below, it's spooned over pumpkin pancakes--yum!), used it to top oatmeal (with a handful of toasted walnuts), and spooned it over warm gingerbread, along with a dollop of whipped heavy cream. I've stirred it into a spoon of mayonnaise for dressing turkey sandwiches and I've slipped it into peanut butter sandwiches. I've poured it over ice cream, and once I even made a quite wonderful milkshake with it. I've used it for meats and poultry, too: it's an amazing topping for pork chops or sliced tenderloin, and it makes a good simmer sauce for chicken as well. And can I be honest? I'm not opposed to just taking a jar of the sauce out of the 'fridge and eating a big 'ol spoonful plain. Now you know.

Bottom line? Get yourself some cranberries and make a batch of this pronto. You won't be disappointed. And thanks, Nicole!


Health-wise, cranberries are known as a "super food," ridiculously high in antioxidants, vitamins C and E, and fiber-- a perfect addition to one's fall and winter immune-boosting arsenal. Ginger is known in Chinese medicine as a warming herb and is believed to stimulate the immune and circulatory systems. It's also famous for relaxing the digestive tract and settling an upset stomach. As for maple, it's a form of unrefined sugar-- but it also contains minerals, including a significant amount of manganese, zinc, and iron and trace amounts of other minerals.

From a magickal standpoint, cranberries are known for their protective qualities and for boosting vitality, and like most berries, they have a feminine correspondence. As for ginger? It's inherent "warmth" and the fact that the roots often look somewhat human make them ideal for magickal works involving love and connection. Maple is also useful in love and lunar magicks and has strong healing properties as well. There you have it. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How Does Autumn Taste? Like Apple Butter....

I have three apple trees in my back yard—Gala, Golden Delicious, and King-- and this year they produced abundantly. Seriously: I invited the neighbors to come and pick their fill, and I still had apples coming out of my ears. Several boxes are in the basement fridge, and I’ve made applesauce and apple butter and baked a couple of pies. The apple butter came out beautifully, and as one of my friends asked me to share the process, I'm happy to oblige.

  • Apple Butter Hint #1: I prefer the stove-top process for making apple butter. Lots of people today make apple butter in the oven or in a crock pot, but I still cling to doing it like my grandmother used to. Go ahead--call me silly. It makes me feel connected, so there you go. That said, you need a big, deep kettle-- 8-10 quarts is ideal. The broader the kettle-- the more surface area on the bottom of the pan, and the quicker the process.

I started with 5.5 lbs of peeled and cored golden delicious and King apples (weighed with a food scale). I chopped these fine in my food processor and put them into a kettle with 2 C. of water.

  • ABH #2: The finer you chop the apples, the more quickly they'll begin to soften and cook down. However, if you puree them too early, their cooking will look more like what happens in a Yellowstone National Park mud pot, with huge, appley "bloops" that shoot molten apples all around the kitchen. Save the pureeing for late in the process.

Bring the apples and water to a quick boil over moderately high heat. Then, turn it down so it's just barely simmering-- we're talking very, very low heat-- the very lowest setting you can manage without turning the burner off. From this point, you'll want to stir the contents every half hour or so. The fruit has to be hot enough to soften and, eventually, for the moisture to begin evaporating. This is important: you're cooking the apples, but even more you're keeping them hot enough for the water to simmer off slowly.... Slowly. Stirring it helps this process and also keeps the mixture from sticking.

And this is where patience comes in, because the stove top method is a very slow process-- slow as in many hours required. My batch took most of the waking hours of two days time-- probably about 16-18 hours all together. That's what I said: patience. Always a good exercise, yes?

At the end of day one, turn the burner off, cover it, and just leave it on the stove overnight. When you get up the next morning, turn the burner back on and get it going again. The apple butter will thicken and begin to turn a deep brown. At this point, it's time to add sugar and spices.

  • ABH #3: Don't add the sugar too early in the process as it will make the mixture much more likely to scorch. The sugar could also caramelize if cooked too long, affecting the flavor of the apples.

To your batch of apples, add 1/2 C. sugar, 3/4 tsp. cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp. each ground allspice and ground cloves. Stir well, and keep cooking. At some point in here, you'll want to puree the mixture. The easiest way to do this is with an immersion blender (no kitchen should be without one), but you can also cool the mixture slightly and puree it in a blender or food processor.

How will you know when it's done? Scoop up a spoonful and give it a look: it should hold its shape and be easily spreadable. If too "dry," it'll be pasty and sticky-- in this case, add a bit more water, one tablespoon at a time. If too wet, cook it a bit longer. Once you're pretty sure it's done, give it the ultimate test: make a piece of toast and try it out! Adjust the seasonings and sugar as necessary.

From this point, it'll keep in the fridge for a few weeks and in the freezer for a year. You can also water-bath can the butter, which is what I did. To give you an idea of how much the apples cook down, see the difference (above) between the finely chopped apples when I started and the final product, which cooked down to about 4 cups of apple butter. There's a nice metaphor buried in there about the fruits of one's labors being ever so much more appreciated when they come with hard work.

It's a labor of love, indeed, and so worth it! Good apple butter is tart-sweet, smooth, silky, cinnamony, and just plain wonderful. Add magick by stirring deosil as you work and by telling family stories over the kettle, as my grandmother used to do. Work your own energy into the mixture, tell it your stories, and it will nurture you in the months to come.

Fun for the kids: cut an apple in half around its "equator" to reveal the hidden pentacle inside. Apples are deeply regarded in the magickal community, linked to takes of Avalon, dreams of prosperity, and even to entry into the Faery world. May your orchards be fertile and your life much-blessed!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Throat Jam for Winter's Coughs and Colds (And It's Scrumptious!)

(Also known as "Lemons and Honey and Ginger-- Oh, My!")

The seasonal change has rolled past.... A sunny gorgeous autumn is upon us; even as temps reach into the upper 80s each afternoon, the days are shorter, and the mornings are becoming cooler and darker. Around this time of year, I'm putting food up furiously-- canning, freezing, drying, and sharing the wealth with the neighbors. It's a response to an ancient calling, a push to prepare for the coming cold months, to fill the larder and rebuild the pharmacopaeia in readiness for the dark season.

Back in 2010, I saw a Pinterest pinning of a glass jar filled with lemons and honey, and it flashed me  back to a recipe taught to me by my grandmother, and even more deliciously, to the "hot toddy" that can be crafted from it. The women of GG's time, circa the early 1900s, were industrious and resourceful. They not only grew and processed most of their own food but also understood a great deal of folk magick and folk medicine, and they knew how to take the herbs and other plants that grew around them and make those into infusions, tonics, toddies, and more. My grandmother didn't just cook for and feed her family: she doctored them, too, and she ministered to a good many neighbors and sick animals as well. In her footsteps, I've been drying and storing seasonal herbs for the last several weeks: sage, thyme, mint, oregano, red clover, hyssop, rose hips and more, and feeling quite accomplished with my progress. But the image of golden honey and sliced lemons reminded me that I still had work to do.

The mixture in question is an ultra-simple blend of fresh lemons, fresh ginger, red pepper flakes, and honey, which, after sitting for a few weeks (if you can manage to let it last that long), matures into a jelly-like concoction that can be spooned into a mug and used as a base for a hot, steaming cup of medicinal goodness. Sound good? You can't even imagine.... So don't try to imagine: make some of your own!

For one jar full, you'll need the following:
  • A short, squat 8 oz (1/2 pint) jelly jar with lid-- ideally with a wide mouth (I have starting using screw-on plastic lids when I can find them; they're easier to be in-and-out of than the traditional canning lids.)
  • Two lemons
  • An inch-long piece of fresh ginger root
  • Red pepper flakes-- for best results, they should be fresh; you'll need maybe 1/4 tsp. per jar
  • Honey-- somewhere between 1/4-1/2 cup
  • Optional: powdered cinnamon, black peppercorns
Note: for best results, use organic materials. Before using, scrub the lemons with detergent and water to remove any surface wax. Rinse well and pat dry. Make sure the jar and lids are freshly washed--dipping jars and metal lids in boiling water is recommended.

The Making

1. Slice the lemons very thinly, removing seeds as you go.

2. Peel the ginger root; using a spoon's edge is an easy way to do this. Slice the peeled root into very thin slices, and chop up a bit.

3. Layer several lemon slices in the jar, then top with a few pieces of ginger and add a few red pepper flakes. Repeat this until the jar is full. Cut the lemon slices as needed for a better fit: the more lemon and ginger you can fit into the jar, the better--and feel free to press down on the mixture a little bit.

4. When the jar is half-full, begin adding spoonfuls of honey. Slide a knife down the edge of the mixture to release air bubbles. This process can take time; you'll want enough honey to fill every nook and cranny and to cover the contents. Repeat the addition of honey once the jar is full.

5. If you want to add a big pinch of cinnamon and a few peppercorns, add them as you proceed. These are optional, but they do add warmth and heat to the blend.

6. Screw on the lid, and let the jar sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Then invert the jars a few times before opening them to check the fluid level. The goal is to have them filled to about 1/2" from jar's top, and you may need to add a bit more honey.

For best results, refrigerate the throat jam for at least one or two months-- three or four months is even better. I usually make several jars and push them to the far back of the fridge. I find that I end up giving at least half the annual batch away to miserable friends.

Notes and Experiments

Warming the honey a bit before using will thin it and make it easier to work with.

The finished jam may vary in consistency from a thick preserves-like texture to a very liquid, juicy mixture. Either performs equally well-- the variance simply depends on juicy the lemons were and the honey's viscosity.

Although layering whole lemon slices in the jar looks pretty, you can speed the "jellying" process up by chopping the lemon into smaller pieces, either using a knife or a food processor (right). It won't look as pretty in the jar, but the smaller pieces soften more quickly than the slices, and the throat jam will be ready to use sooner. It will also be easier to spoon out and handle.

In continuing to fiddle with this recipe, I have also tried chopping the lemon slices and simmering them in an open kettle for about 15 minutes over low-ish heat; this seems to help the lemon begin to break down a little and speeds the "jellying process." At the very end, I add the grated or chopped ginger, too, giving it a few minutes to soften. Again, the result isn't as pretty as with the perfectly layered glistening lemons packed perfectly into a jar, but the texture tends to be thicker, and it's much easier to use. And, the effect is the same-- so the particular process is up to you.

The Using

As the lemon-ginger-pepper-honey mixture sits in the refrigerator, it will all soften and mature into into a jelly-like mixture. To use it, dip up a big spoonful of the contents and add to a warm mug. Fill with boiling water, stir, and enjoy.

For my grandmother GG's toddy, do the same as above, but before adding the boiling water, stir in a generous shot of brandy, whiskey, or rum-- whatever you have on hand. Then add the water and stir to blend.

If you're drinking this just as a delicious tea (which it is), enjoy sipping it at your leisure: the flavor is wonderful! It's also perfect as a treatment for upper respiratory infections and flu, creating a delicious feeling of internal warmth, soothing irritated airways, and helping loosen up stuffiness and congestion. If using it as a medicinal treatment for a cold, flu, or sore throat, drink it while it's as hot as possible, and hold the mug under your nose and mouth, breathing in the steam as part of the process. In either case, you can drink this up to four times daily.

The Medicine

Lemons (Citrus limon) provide vitamins, particularly vitamin C, which may help the body resist infections. Their acidity stimulates mucous flow in the upper respiratory tract, and they also have expectorant qualities, i.e., they help us cough productively. Lemons also contain bioflavonoids, potent antioxidants which help repair the cellular damage associated with illness. And, lemons stimulate the appetite, which can be useful in someone who is ill.

Ginger, sometimes called ginger root, Zingiber officinaleis a warming spice that loosens phlegm and soothes inflamed mucus membranes. It's ideal for treating respiratory congestion, and it also relieves chills and may reduce fever. It has a strong anti-nausea effect, too, helping calm the edgy stomach that often accompanies illness and fever. 

Red pepper flakes include capsaicin, a compound that creates a sense of warmth and heat when eaten. It provides topical relief of painful sore throat and stimulates mucus flow, which can be helpful in colds and flu. It also tends to dilate (open) blood vessels and air passages, helping ease stuffiness in the nose, throat, and ears.

Honey furnishes a number of trace nutrients and has antibacterial and antiviral properties, meaning it can weaken the effects of some bacteria and viruses. It has a mild antipyretic (fever-reducing) action.

Hot water and steam dilate the air passages and help relax the muscles in the respiratory tract, making it easier to cough and clear mucous. 
The Magick

Lemon is associated with the feminine gender and with purity and longevity. It's also something of a psychic stimulant. Ginger is considered to be masculine in nature and corresponds with success and power. It's warming nature helps it heal tissues and incite passions. Red pepper, as with all peppers, corresponds with the Paracelcian element of fire, the planet Mars, and masculine influences. Honey has strong links to feminine procreative energies and is linked in story to many of the Gods and Goddesses.

The Cautions

Excessive quantities of lemon juice may damage the tooth enamel. If you tend to have weak teeth or lots of decay, rinse your mouth with plain water after drinking lemon-based beverages.  

While ginger is widely used to soothe nausea, too much ginger can upset the stomach in some people; don't exceed recommended quantities.

Honey—especially if organic or “raw”—contains small amounts of botulism toxin. While not harmful to older children and adults, unpasteurized  honey should not be given to infants and children under age 2, and probably should not be given to the frail elderly.

And, I'm not recommending giving alcohol (as in my GG's toddy) to those under legal age, although this is a decision parents might make under specific circumstances.

Sources Consulted

Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. The Definitive Reference to 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments. London: Dorling Kindersley/Eyewitness Books, 2000.

Grieve, M. “A ModernHerbal.” 2009.