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Za'atar seasoning

Za’atar seasoning

If you read this blog, you likely know that my favorite way of taking herbs is to eat them, and za’atar seasoning (or zaatar or zatar) is no exception. I first encountered za’atar several years ago at dinner at my friends Joe and Nan’s home. Joe is of Lebanese descent; as part of the meal, he had taken pita, drizzled it with good quality olive oil, sprinkled it liberally with za’atar, and then toasted it in the oven. It was divine.

That was before I even started studying herbalism—I didn’t even know what sumac was, nor that it had medicinal properties. Now I know, and if it’s possible, I enjoy this spice blend even more now with the understanding. Similar to a gomasio, this spice blend includes sea salt and sesame seeds but hails from the Middle East. We eat it sprinkled on gluten-free toast, on popcorn, and if you eat meat, it’s wonderful to roll a chicken breast in it before cooking. If you try it out (or if you already use it), I’d love to hear how you use this tasty seasoning!

Za’atar

  • 4 parts dried thyme leaves (if the pieces are large, you might want to grind it a little for optimal mixing)
  • 4 parts sumac powder
  • 4 parts toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 part sea salt

Mix all ingredients together. Store in a glass jar.

What are some of your favorite medicinal-and-tasty herbal seasoning blends?

Apologies for not writing—it’s been an eventful couple of weeks and my mind’s been elsewhere due to exciting developments at home. I expect that I may continue to be a bit… er… distracted for the next eight months, but promise to do my best to stay on target with continuing to learn and post here. That said, I’m a very happy girl.

Last weekend, noting the imminent end of a long dry spell and the coming fall season, I decided to make some herbal oil from the needs-to-be-cut-back-anyway-before-winter rosemary bush (tree??) in the garden. Seriously, it’s huge. The following methods for making  oil are how I was taught by my teacher Kathleen Maier.

For a fresh plant oil, as with most other fresh plant preparations, you want to gather the herb after dew has lifted and the leaves are completely dry, mid to late morning. Remove any bad spots (do not wash it!), chop your herb, and fill a mason jar 3/4 full with the herb. Fill the jar the rest of the way with your oil of choice. Close the jar, put a plate under it in case the oil leaks, and let it sit in a cool dark spot for six weeks. Strain the marc from the oil, and your oil is ready for use.

What oil you decide to use depends largely on what you want to use the oil for. For cooking, you want to use a heat-stable oil like grapeseed, sunflower, or avocado oil—NOT olive oil (contrary to popular use, olive oil is unstable at high heat and should not be used for cooking). Coconut oil is also good for cooking, but since it’s generally solid at room temperature, I don’t recommend it for fresh plant oils. For an oil that will not be cooked, you can use whatever you prefer. It’s always a good idea to be aware of issues of rancidity and shelf life in oils, as well as which oil may suit your purpose or constitution better. For my rosemary oil, I plan to use it for cooking as well as a skin and hair oil, so I chose sunflower.

To make an oil from dried herb, place the herb in a crockpot and cover with  oil. Heat the oil mixture, maintaining a temperature of just under 110 degrees Farenheit for 24 hours. Strain and store oil in a cool, dark place.

Feel free to share your own oil-making tips in the comments!

Thai Basil

Thai Basil

Herbal vinegars are a wonderful, healthful, and easy way of preserving herbs. The two primary reasons to use vinegars are to preserve fresh herbs that don’t retain their flavors/qualities as well after drying (as in the case of Thai basil, shown in the pictures, whose flavor is lost after drying) for flavorful culinary use later. The second reason—and somewhat more relevant to the focus of this blog—is for tincturing herbs when alcohol is not desired. This could be for a number of reasons. The person taking the tincture may have a sensitivity to alcohol, be a recovering alcoholic, or may be taking large enough doses where alcohol would not be a desirable menstruum. In any case, the acetic acid in vinegar acts as a solvent similar to alcohol

An added bonus of tincturing in vinegar is that vinegar is incredibly nutritious and beneficial in and of itself. And, as always of importance to me, it tastes good. You can take it straight by the dropperful, as with a tincture, or use as an herbal vinegar condiment, drizzling over salad or steamed veggies, mixing into gazpacho, etc. As a rule, never use chemical/synthetic vinegars for tincturing—apple cider vinegar is best, and of the varieties available commercially, I prefer Bragg’s.

The instructions for making vinegar tinctures are the same as those for making alcohol tincture—click here for the full instructions. Please note though that the proportions of herb used are different for dried versus fresh and root/seed versus leaf, so be sure to read all the directions.

Thai Basil filling jar for herbal vinegar

In June, I wrote a post about a method of drying herbs that we were shown while visiting Robbie Wooding’s farm. Here at home, unfortunately, I don’t have any rafters from which to hang herbs, so I’ve often resorted to using a cheap-o dehydrator to dry my herbs. But when my dehydrator saw fit to give up the ghost last month, I decided to opt for a non-electric option.

dehydrator - drying herbs

Pictured above is my brand-spankin’-new passive dehydrator, all loaded up with cayenne peppers, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary. I love it. Granted, it cost more than I like spending on anything (ie. it cost money, any amount—I prefer free), but we’ve got grand plans of using this as our trial model and then building some more ourselves. This one is nice though. I has a hook on the top so I can hang it out on my clothesline in the sun for maximum drying (the netting zips up to keep bugs out of your goodies) and then bring it in and hang it in the kitchen at night. I can also use it for sprouting seeds, beans, nuts, etc. How cool is that?

The only downside of a passive or solar dehydrator is a reliance on the weather, but since you have to rely on the weather to gather herbs for drying anyway, this doesn’t seem like a major inconvenience to me.

It is generally recommended that one harvest aerial parts of herbs (leaves, flowers, stems, etc.—anything that grows above the ground) mid to late morning on a sunny dry day once the morning dew has lifted and there is no residual moisture on the plant. Once you’ve harvested your herb, you need to go through it, picking out any hitch-hiking bugs, any chewed on or discolored leaves, basically removing any undesirable bits. Then, you need dry heat, shade, and air flow. This can be accomplished using an electric, passive, or solar dehydrator (you can build your own!), or you can string small bundles—small enough that the air can still flow throughout—and hang them somewhere dry and warm, like the rafters of an attic or a garage, so long as there aren’t any fumes in your garage like there are in mine. Another technique if you don’t get a lot of dry heat is to put the herbs on old window screens and prop them up in your car with the windows up. Keep an eye on the herbs for doneness, and if drying outdoors, be sure to bring the drying racks or dehydrator in at night to keep off the dew.

Once the herbs are fully dried, they should be “crispy” but still retain most of their natural color if they were kept out of sun and were dried quickly enough. Store them in glass jars in a cool, dark, dry place, being sure to label them with the name of the herb and the month/year they were put up.

What are your favorite drying or dehydrating tricks and tips?

My friend Robbie and I spent last Friday afternoon having a high time making lotion, body scrub, and body wash. The one thing we didn’t get to was this sun lotion—I was still waiting for cocoa butter to arrive from Mountain Rose. I promised her however that I would save her a jar. We’re both fair-skinned, and speaking for myself, I need all the help I can get.

I really enjoyed Meghan Telpner’s blog on sun and sun protection, and had been wanting to make my own sun lotion. Using her recipe and a couple others as guidelines, here’s the recipe I came up with.

Melting waxes and oils together in my version of a double boiler

NOTES: If you don’t have a double boiler (I don’t), you can make your own easily enough by putting a canning ring or two inside a large saucepan, filling it partway with water, and resting a smaller saucepan inside of it, as shown in the picture above. The canning ring(s) will allow the water to flow around the smaller saucepan, just like in a double boiler. Also, I love using my immersion blender for the emulsifying process, but a powerful blender would do the job too, I imagine.

Also, use the purest ingredients that you can find—the borax is not your average store-bought borax, I get it from Mountain Rose and it’s cosmetic grade with no additional additives or surfactants. The oils are organic and unrefined whenever possible. And, should you happen to think, “Oh hey, cocoa butter wafers! Those’ll be easy to measure!”, you might want to order them in cooler weather, so you don’t get home to a melted bag of cocoa butter, which will become a brick once it cools from sitting in the sun on one’s front porch. Just saying. 🙂

Homemade Sun Lotion

  • 1/3 c. sesame oil
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. jojoba oil
  • 2 Tbsp. sweet almond oil
  • 1/3 c. cocoa butter
  • 2 tsp. vegetable based emulsifying wax
  • 1/8 tsp. citric acid
  • 1/4 c. distilled water
  • 1/4 c. aloe vera gel
  • 1 tsp. borax powder (pure cosmetic grade)
  • 10 drops lemon balm essential oil (or other lemony or minty oils, for insect repellant actions)

Place the first seven ingredients in a double boiler and turn heat to Medium. Meanwhile, combine in a bowl or wide-mouth quart jar (my preference for the immersion blender) the distilled water, aloe vera gel, and borax powder. Stir or shake well to mix and set aside. Continue stirring the oils in the double boiler constantly while it melts. Once all oils have melted together, removed from heat.

Place your immersion blender into the jar or bowl with the aloe mixture, and begin blending. Slowly pour the oils from the double boiler into the jar or bowl while blending—this will emulsify the lotion. Be sure to scrape all the oil out of the double boiler, as the citric acid granules tend to stick in the bottom of the pan. Continue blending the mixture, thoroughly aerating/emulsifying it until it is quite frothy and light, at least a minute. Add your essential oils and mix in.

Pour lotion into jars and allow to cool—it will thicken as it cools to room temperature.

Makes about 2 cups/1 pint.

Do you have any favorite sun lotion recipes or tips?

As an aside, make sure that when blogging you don’t forget that you’re heating milk in the next room to make yogurt, else big boiling milky mess will ensue. Ask me how I know. 🙂

This past weekend when we visited Robbie Wooding’s farm, not only did we learn about native plants, preservation, water wheels, and inner bark harvesting, but Robbie also shared with us his technique for drying herbs.

When he was younger, the farm was used in part to grow tobacco (this is Virginia, after all). When the green tobacco leaves were harvested, they of course needed to be dried for sale. Leaves would be strung from wooden poles, which were then hoisted up into the tobacco barn to dry until the whole barn was full, top to bottom with tiers and rows of drying tobacco.

This same method can be applied to drying herbs. The traditional tools used were a drying horse (the wooden frame shown in the pictures) and some twine. Alternately you could use a broom handle or dowel laid across two stumps or sawhorses (I always seem to have a broken broom or shovel handle around—apparently I don’t know my own strength *grin*).

Robbie strings the drying horse

First, we harvested some mugwort. Then feed your twine through the eyehole of the drying horse. At the opposite end, start wrapping small bundles of your herb and laying them across the dowel, alternating sides. I’m not going to try to describe the wrapping in words, but the end result is that your alternating bundles are fastened together over the dowel using a chain stitch, which is easy to “unzip.”

Hang your dowel or stick of strung herbs to dry in a warm, dry, dark place, like an attic or the top of a barn.

That's me stringing some mugwort - we all had a turn :)

There are several trees that carry strong medicines. While visiting Robbie Wooding’s farm this past weekend, he demonstrated for us the process of harvesting the inner bark of slippery elm. Typically slippery elm should be harvested in spring when the sap is rising, but trust me, I chewed a bit of what we harvested and it was still very effective, not to mention delicious, in its softly sweet and subtle way.

When harvesting for bark, you want to strip the bark as soon after cutting as possible. Robbie cut a slippery elm limb the day before for our use, then cut it into manageable segments, 2 to 3 feet long.

The next step is called “rossing,” in which you use a rasp to scrape the outer bark away (pictured below), being careful not to scrape away any of the white inner bark. Leaving a little of the outer bark is okay, certainly preferable to losing good medicine.

Robbie demonstrates rossing the outer bark off

Once you’ve rossed the wood, you can use a drawing knife to peel the inner bark away from the wood. On a smaller piece of wood, I personally found it easier to use a pocket knife to score both sides of a strip and then peel it away. The inner bark when fresh is just slightly whiter than the wood, and once you find the layers, it seems to come pretty easily. Dry the strips of inner bark and chew it like gum, add pieces to your cooking, or powder it to mix into your food or digestive tonic of choice.

Using a draw knife to peel off the inner bark

NOTE: In harvesting bark, sustainability is key. Please take the time to look into sustainable harvesting techniques, endangered species information, etc. And it’s always good to plant for the future. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Mary Poppins had it right when she said, “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Not that I advocate eating sugar by the spoonful, but a bit of sweetness does make it easier for children and those adults with pickier palates to take the often-bitter herb. Syrups generally use a strong tea decoction as a base, mixing in honey for sweetness and its innate preservative action. When kept in the refrigerator, this simple medicine will last a long while. If you add a touch of brandy, it’ll last even longer.

So make your own cough syrups or immune boosting syrups! Not only are they easy to take by the spoonful, I frequently mix the tastier syrups like elderberry into mineral water or drizzle over oatmeal.

Here are the general guidelines for making a syrup for your home apothecary:

Ingredients:
2 oz. herb (eleuthero root is shown in the pictures)
1 quart (4 cups) water
1 cup honey (or less)
Brandy – optional

  1. Start with a decoction: place your herb and water in a saucepan and measure the water level with a chopstick. Use a pencil to mark on the chopstick so you’ll know when the liquid is reduced by half, as shown in the picture below – the top mark is the starting level, the lower level is the halfway mark for the finished level.
    Decoction - chopstick is used as a guide for reduce by half
  2. Bring water and herb to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer till liquid is reduced by half, according to your handy dandy chopstick. Remove from heat.
  3. Strain herb out of the menstruum, squeezing it to get all the liquid out. Compost the strained herb.
  4. Return the decoction to low heat and add honey – generally 1 cup raw organic honey per pint of tea, although I usually use less. If you started with a quart (4 cups) of water, reducing by half should give you about a pint (2 cups) of tea. Stir honey into the tea till completely dissolved. Remove from heat.
  5. Pour syrup into jars and allow to cool to room temperature, then label and refrigerate. Enjoy!

Syrup

How is it possible that I’ve been blogging on herbs for 4 months now and I’m only just now getting around to writing about tea preparations? Goodness gracious, myriad apologies, herbal friends! Well, no time like the present.

First off, let’s tackle the basic vocabulary so we’re all on the same page, and then we’ll get into the more general how-to.

Teas—brewed from tea leaves and contain caffeine, but ***also regularly used to describe tea-free herbal brews…
Tisanes—brewed with herbs, generally caffeine-free
Infusion—tea in which the herbs are steeped in (usually hot) water
Decoction—tea in which the herbs are boiled in water until, reducing the volume of the menstruum and resulting in a very strong brew

For the sake of this blog, “tea” will be used for its more general umbrella meaning***, since this is the most common usage. Also, the following instructions and pointers are, once again, non-standardized and for home apothecary use. Listen to your body, and your tastebuds, and make adjustments as you see fit.

Both infusions and decoctions use water as the menstruum with which to draw the desired constituents out of the herbs. Which method is used depends largely on what herbs or parts of the plant are being used and what constituents or properties you want to be predominant—it’s always wise to research this on your own per herb, action, desired and undesired properties—but generally you will use an infusion for leaves and flowers and “softer” plant parts and use a decoction for woodier roots, bark, stems, or hard berries. If you want to use a root in an infusion instead, you will need to make sure that it is finely chopped for higher surface area.

Infusions

There are a couple different methods of infusions, but this is the home wise woman method as I learned it from my teacher, plus a couple of my own notes.

  • For fresh plant material, use approximately 3 Tablespoons herb per cup of water
  • For dry plant material, use 1 Tablespoon herb per cup of water
  • Place herb in your container (mason jar or French press—you want to be able to seal it off so volatile oils don’t evaporate off)
  • Fill your jar with boiling water and seal the jar, allowing it to steep for 1 to four hours

My personal favorite is to put a handful of fresh herb in a mason jar, cover with boiling water, seal it, and then let it steep, turning the jar occasionally, until it has cooled to room temperature.

Infusion of fresh honeysuckle blossoms

Decoctions

This is also the first step in making any syrup, but it’s especially good when you want a strong medicinal brew. In Chinese Medicine, decoctions are a common application for herbal therapies.

  • Use 2 ounces herb per quart of water
  • Place herb and water in a saucepan and bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer on low until reduced by half. A good method of checking your reduction is to use a chopstick – mark your starting water level on the chopstick, then make a second mark showing a halfway reduction. Use this as your guide to know when you’re done

Dandelions

We’ve been a bit dandelion crazy around here, and working on a couple posts celebrating the willful golden “weeds.” For starters, I’d like to share the process of making t’ej, an Ethiopian honey wine that is so simple to make and such a delightful way to celebrate your in-season herbs, soon your countertops will be as cluttered with bottles and jugs as mine are!

This is the process as I was taught by Suzanna Stone, a wonderful guest teacher at Sacred Plant Traditions, with my own notes added in.

Equipment:
2 quart jar
2 quart jug with airlock (or balloon)
Long wooden spoon
Cheesecloth / fine mesh sieve / coffee filters
Funnel

Ingredients:
Distilled or boiled water (to ensure no chlorine or other contaminants
1 1/2 c. raw local honey
Several handfuls fresh herb(s)

  1. If using tap water, bring 2 quarts of it to a rolling boil, then allow it to cool to room temperature.
  2. Collect fresh herbs. Wash gently or brush off dirt etc. Chop and place several handfuls in the 2-quart jar (most recently we made a batch each—dandelion blossoms and violet blossoms).
  3. Pour honey into the jar.
  4. Add water (room temperature) to fill the jar the rest of the way, leaving an inch or two of space at the top for easy stirring.
  5. Stir this mixture well with a wooden spoon until the honey is dissolved, and then some more. Traditionally, an Ethiopian household has their own tej spoon which is not washed between uses so it accumulates it’s own “good” fermenting bacteria and particular flavor. Between stirrings, the spoon is laid across the top of the jar or crock.
  6. Cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth and allow to sit on the counter, out of direct sunlight, stirring 2 or 3 times daily until a froth starts to appear on the top of the liquid. Generally this will take a week or so, but my dandelion batch was frothing abundantly after only three days.Dandelion t'ej with froth, before straining out the herb and putting in the jug with airlock.
  7. Using a funnel with cheesecloth, sieve, or coffee filters, strain the herb out of the t’ej, pouring the remaining liquid into the jug—seal the jug with the airlock. Airlocks can be purchased for 1 or 2 dollars at specialty kitchen or brewing stores, and make sure to follow the directions and use the requisite amount of brandy or vodka in the airlock. If you opt to use a balloon instead of an airlock, remember to “burp” the balloon occasionally.Two kinds of airlocks (filled with brandy) - I personally prefer the one on the right.
  8. Allow the t’ej to continue fermenting in the jug until the airlock stops bubbling—this means that the naturally-occurring yeasts are no longer consuming sugars and producing gases. At this point, your tej is ready—bottle it, label it, and enjoy!

Note: These are the proportions I used, but if you want to make a larger amount, just be sure to keep the proportions the same. Doubling all the portions would make a gallon batch.

Dandelion t'ej - enjoy!

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