Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gather Ye Grape Leaves While Ye May

The wild grapes vines are growing, and if you find yourself anywhere near a good patch of them right now, which isn't hard to do as they're quite aggressive growers, take a nice deep breath, because the grape flowers are blooming and their strong perfume fills the air all around. When you're done, you might as well gather some grape leaves. It doesn't take long or take up much space to pick about 100 at a time. You want a nice sized leaf if you plan to use them for stuffed grape leaves. I look for something at least the size of my palm. Any size will do if you're going to add them to your green smoothie. But you also want younger, more tender growth, not too mature and tough. I count back 3-5 leaves from the tip of the vine and pick the first palm-sized leaf I find, and so on.

Take them home, remove the stems and if you're feeling fastidious or just want an excuse to watch an episode of the old version of Beverly Hills: 90210 on Netflix, then wipe your leaves down with a damp cloth.

You can use them right away, stuffed and eaten raw or steamed. If you want to eat wild grape leaves all year, you can blanch and freeze them. With this method they are ready for use from the freezer right away.

If you're lazy like me or just don't want to be distracted from whether Dylan and Brenda are going to do it for the first time, simply lay your grape leaves in sealable plastic bags, preferably ones you've washed and saved for reuse. I do about 20 at a time. That way I'm not overwhelmed with piles of thawing grape leaves.

Freeze these bags ensuring they stay flat and don't get bent or crushed. If you do it this way, I've read that you should wait a few months for the freezing to break down the plant cell walls, and then no further prep is needed when you are ready for them.

You can can them too à la Hank Shaw.  I've even fermented them.  There's more than one way to skin this grape leaf.

This is how Florence does it: Oh, and when you go out to gather ye grape leaves, just make sure you know what you're after k? There are other vining plants out there, often growing right beside wild grape and some are easy to confuse, not to mention toxic. What out for Virginia creeper, wild cucumber and Canada moonseed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Nice Thing to Do

Speaking of plants in vinegar. This is one of my favourite ways to preserve many herbs and flowers, especially at this time of year. On my shelves currently you'll find mugwort in vinegar, nettle in vinegar, dandelion flowers in vinegar, violet flowers in vinegar.... I use mostly organic ACV, but white wine or white balsamic for flowers that will impart their colour and scent to the maceration and create beautiful, sparkly jewels of yumminess.

Right now my chives are blooming like crazy. If they are where you are too, here's what you do:  Pop the flower heads off into a basket or paper bag. Watch for ants. They love chive blossoms. Take your blossoms home, hopefully minus the ants. Find an appropriately sized, wide mouth glass jar. Loosely pack the jar with your blossoms. Take a decent quality white vinegar, pour and cover blossoms in jar with the vinegar.  Use a knife or chopstick to release the air bubbles.  Top off with more vinegar if you need to.  Cover your jar, with a little plastic wrap in between, if your lid is metal.  Label your jar with the what and when, i.e. chive blossoms in white balsamic vinegar, May 28/12.  Set in a coolish, darkish place but not so out of the way that you'll forget about it.  In fact, you might enjoy checking it every so often and admire the alchemical magic happening right before your eyes.
The jar on the right is a few days old and already the vinegar is extracting the chiveness from the flowers.
The jar on the left was just started last night.
So, in about a month, strain and squeeze out the chive flowers and compost them reverently.  Find a few pretty jars with nice shape and form, from the recycle bin or thrift stores, and pour your infused vinegar in. (Of course your jars in this whole process are squeaky clean, even sterilized if you like.)  Smell and taste a little.  It will smell and taste strongly of chives.  Imagine all the ways you'll want to use this vinegar and how nice it will taste in salad dressings, over fish and chips or as a splash into sauteed greens. 

Store it in the fridge where it will keep for many months.  Save some of your prettiest jars and give them away as gifts to your foodie friends.  It's a nice thing to do.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dragon's Wort or Why I Feel a Little Like Daenerys Targaryen Today or the Post in Which I Refer Heavily to the Game of Thrones

 'Tis highly cordial and friend to the head, heart and liver.'~ John Evelyn on Tarragon

If George R. R. Martin had included more herbs and plant medicines besides Milk of the Poppy in his book series A Song of Ice and Fire, he might have written about Dragon's Wort aka Tarragon aka Artemisia dracunculus.  Even the names sound right. A little Tarragon for the Targaryens, possibly to season their cod cakes.  Maybe a poultice a A. dracunculus could of saved Khal Drogo from his fatal wound.  And if Dany had just put a few drops of Dragon's Wort tincture into Drogo's water bowl, he might not a roasted and eaten that poor child.  Who can say? It can not be known.

What is known however, is that tarragon, French tarragon especially, is a lovely herb that is highly aromatic with a unique flavour much used for its culinary properties, especially in Eastern Europe and also as one of the four fines herbes of French Cooking.  A traditional use is to infuse the herb in vinegar, to which it will impart its flavour and aroma.

Last summer I was gifted a little bit of fresh French tarragon that I immediately put up into vinegar and then forgot about until it resurfaced recently in the move.

Now I think many of my readers know that I haven't used shampoo to wash my hair in years.  Instead I use baking soda with an apple cider vinegar rinse.  Today as I was about to get in the shower I realised that I was out of regular apple cider vinegar (ACV).  Then I spotted my jar of infused tarragon ACV and decided to give it a try. 

Guys!  It was heavenly.  Like borderline inappropriate Herbal Essences commercial heavenly.  I felt like Daenarys coming out of the Red Waste and stepping into the palatial dwellings of Xaro Xhoan Daxos.  Only, if the tarragon vinegar asked me to marry it, I totally would!

The sad things is, I only had a little of the infused ACV and I used most of it in the shower.  So now my project for the summer is to get my hands on some French tarragon plants and grow as much as I can and put it up in ACV.  Even if I have to cross the Narrow Sea to find some!

It is written.


Friday, May 18, 2012

On Whole Plant Medicine

Given yesterday's post, I thought it quite timely that this short piece on whole plant medicine showed up in my FB newsfeed today. 

"The belief that whole plants are used to treat whole people is the heart of traditional herbal medicine...Traditional herbal medicine...treats underlying imbalances in the body that are believed to cause disease. Herbalists use medicines made from whole plants, which, with their complex mix of chemicals are believed to be the most effective way of addressing these imbalances...

Whole plant medicines have the ability, as Isla Burgess says in the film, to "nudge a person back to wellness. They don't do it fast, and they don't do it overnight, but they have an effect on the body that is sustaining and ultimately is healing."

Yep, that pretty much sums it up.  Whole plant medicine for whole body healing.  One cup at a time.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Just What the Herbalist Ordered

Pictured above are some of the recommendations from the herbalist I'm working with. Simmering on the left, is a big pot of fish bone broth, and on the right, a decoction of astragalus, reishi and ginger.  I'm to drink cups of each preparation every day for many months.

Every day I measure out the ingredients for the decoction.  I have to chop the reishi mushroom into smaller pieces.  I pour the water into the pot and keep an eye on it from time to time while it simmers gently on the stove.  It's best for this preparation to decoct for a long time.  To make the broth I cycled to the sustainably sourced fish retailer in town, where I got frozen fish bones and scraps very cheaply.  The broth too needs to simmer gently for hours.  In fact, both preparations require patience, time and attention to detail.  Sure it would be convenient and take less time to simply pop a pill on my way out the door, but that's not how this works.

Folks, this is my kind of medicine.  It's largely food based.  It's something our ancestors, even our ancient ones, would probably recognise.  I like to think of it as slow food meets slow medicine.  And really, what could be more nourishing and healing than a carefully made cup of tea or broth?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Medicinal and Edible Plant Walks

A reader asked about where to find out more information on the plant walks I mentioned in the last post.

If you're on facebook you can check out the event page here.  It is also posted on the Transition Ottawa site here.   

Learn the basics of plant identification, safe and sustainable harvesting practices, preparations and uses of locally growing, wild plants.

This series of informative plant walks will run once a month from May to September.  They are two hours each and will focus on edible and medicinal plants that grow all around us, right here in the city.  Each walk will cover different and new information on how the plants are used by peoples past and present.  Though I may talk about a plant more than once, you will learn something unique about it depending on where we're at in the season.  I will also have at least one sample snack or beverage prepared, of the plants covered, for you to try.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Thoughts on Urban Foraging

The unpacking continues, but we're getting there, and I'm quickly falling in love with the space and the neighbourhood.  The ADG put weather stripping around the doors, I borrowed an air purifier and we've added plants, with more being donated by friends to come!  These measure have greatly improved the air quality in the apartment and I only notice the smoke mixed with air 'freshener' in the stairwells, which is a huge relief for me.  I've since met the woman who smokes, and she's very nice.  She loves plants and maintains the little garden out front of the building.  I'm sure we'll have lots in common to chat about.

Once the space is set up I'll get around to posting some pictures, but that will have to wait until some time next week because we're getting the living room painted.  When I told the property manager that I would pay the extra cost for low VOC paint, he looked at me and said, "Well I don't really believe in that kind of stuff, but I'll do it for you."  What with the paint request and asking about smoking in the building, I'm probably well on my way to cementing my reputation with him as the 'crazy lady in apartment 5'!

My Jane's Walk on Sunday was really well attended and I enjoyed leading the group through the park, introducing them to fiddleheads, Virginia waterleaf, violets, wintercress, garlic mustard, nettles and more!  I've got more weed walks planned for the rest of the summer and people are slowly starting to register for them.  One of my favourite things about doing the weed walks is witnessing the moment when an urban environment with nameless green stuff that gets ignored suddenly transforms into an ecological system where food and medicine can be found and where humans, plants and animals coexist.

So I was delighted to read this interview with urban forager Nance Klehm whose reflections on foraging really resonate with me.  I like how she answered when asked why she shares her experience of foraging with others:

"Well, to create a sense of wonderment with people and [spread the knowledge] that we share this environment. It’s humans’ plus everyone else, from the invisible to the large. When I teach it I am not just staying put this in your mouth, I talk about how it got there. Is it ethical? Whether it is something that has escaped a garden. It’s awareness and a sort of magical aspect I try to expose people to, to get them away from the TV set."  

And when asked to give advice to people who'd like to try foraging she says, "You are in a relationship with these plants, so practice ethics."  Which is basically just what I said to my group on Sunday and reflects something I read recently by Rosemary Gladstar:  "If we choose to use plants as medicine, we then become accountable for the health of the wild gardens. We begin a co-creative partnership with the plants, giving back what we receive -- health, nourishment, beauty and protection. We have reached a time in history when ignoring this relationship with the resources we use would be disastrous." 

I just had to pop in and share those lovely thoughts!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

New Digs

Posting has been and will continue to be light for the next little while because I just moved! Yep. After 6 years of basement living, I have joined the ranks of above ground dwellers. I now call a lovely, bright two bedroom apartment home. It's in a 6 unit building next to the river, which I can see from every window in the place. The building is still within good biking distance of the garden and even closer to where I work. There is a market about 30 seconds away that carries a decent amount of local produce. I'm closer to my library branch too! Through a lovely coincidence my next door neighbour is the girlfriend of one of my dearest friends. The day I moved in, I ran into a downstairs neighbour, the yoga instructor I did my restorative yoga training with. We gave each other a big hug. The best part of it all is that the ADG has moved with me! It's been a long time since I've lived with someone else and no doubt there will be adjustments to make and bumps to smooth out as we navigate our shared living space, but I'm excited to have his awesomeness around day to day, and not just because I now have someone to share chores with!

Speaking of bumps, there are a few drawbacks to this new place that will require some creative thinking. I no longer have access to a backyard. This means I might not have a space for my sun oven, and composting my urine is no longer an option. Also, there's a smoker in the building which I was not aware of. This is upsetting, because I thought I asked about smoking in the building when I first looked at the place. I do know that strong or offensive smells was on my list of things to watch out for, and all seemed fine the two times I viewed the apartment. I'm disappointed in myself for not being more diligent about this.  What's particularly troublesome about this situation, is that I believe the smoker is trying to mask the smell with a strong, chemical air freshener, so both stairwells are quite heavy with cigarette smoke mixed with a sickly-sweet, perfume-y odor that permeates into our apartment.  Sigh...  Thank goodness the lease is only for one year.

But, thinking like a permaculturalist, I'm going to try and mitigate this surplus of toxic air and my houseplant deficiency, by bringing in a veritable jungle of NASA approved, air purifying houseplants! I'm also going to look at weather stripping around our two access doors and research air filters. Hopefully this will take care of things.

 In the meantime, the epic unpacking will continue. The kitchen is mostly set up now, as is the bedroom. There is some painting and minor repairs for the property manager to take care of. Everything that is still in a box is in the spare room right now. Our plan is to have this room (with the best view of the river) as minimal and open as possible for yoga and meditation, a small desk and a couple of bookshelves and a space for crafting and drying herbs.

 I'll take a break from the unpacking for a couple of hours on Sunday to lead a Jane's Walk on wild edibles and medicinal herbs. And you can bet I'll be talking about garlic mustard among other wonderful plants!  If you're local, I'd love to see you come out.  :)