Monday, October 20, 2014

Secrets of Echinacea

You would be hard pressed to find someone today who hasn't heard about echinacea. It's cure-all reputation has spanned the decades from the early days in the wild west, when traveling salesman sold ointments and oils of it that were supposed to "cure everything". In fact, some people believe that the term "snake oil" came from the oil made from the snake-shaped root of echinacea and sold by such salesmen. It has also been used for snake bites.

The local native people to the plains where echinacea grows used it for many things, including toothache (it is a local analgesic... good echinacea should make your tongue feel numb), sore throats, snake bites and certain infectious diseases.

Nowadays, echinacea is commonly used for colds and flus, and other types of infections. Lots of research has been done on it; both confirming these uses and questioning them. For me, echinacea has been incredibly effective taken at the onset of a cold when I feel a sore throat or fatigue. It's the primary herb in my cold and flu formula.

My experience confirms what other herbalists have said, which is that echinacea is most effective when taken intensively for a short period of time. Unlike herbs such as Astragalus and Reishi, it is for getting rid of colds rather than preventing them. I take one dropperful every hour during the day when I am sure I have a cold. Frequent doses are the best for acute situations, because the medicine is consistently in your system. If you let up, it might give the cold virus a moment to get the upper hand.

The root of echinacea is most commonly used. It can be easily grown in your garden, and comes back year after year. Some say it's the seventh year root that is the most potent. However, many people are hesitant to harvest the roots, as it kills the plant. Though the plant is quite resilient, it was overharvested from its native prairies, and people are now discouraged from harvesting in in the wild. As with many plants, its habitat is threatened by human developments as well. It's best to buy it organically cultivated. Pacific Botanicals even sells it fresh in the fall.

Echinacea tenneseensis is on the federal list of threatened and endangered plants. Seeds are available at Horizon Herbs if you want to help the preservation of the species by planting it in your garden. According to them, it's quite powerful!

Echinacea seed head tincture.
There are two varieties commonly available. The cheaper one is Echinacea purpurea, which is easier to grow but not as potent. The more expensive is Echinacea angustifolia, which is a wilder variety and stronger, but much harder to grow in your garden.

The seeds are, in fact, the most potent part of the plant. However, they are less often used. Echinacea has spiky seed heads that start flat and grow into cones as the flower matures. That's where the name "coneflower" comes from. These seed heads are also potent medicine, immature or mature.  On some varieties the seed heads can get huge! I like to harvest them when they get large, before they start turning black at the end of the season. I chop them up and tincture them, blending them in with the alcohol in my blender.

Cold and Flu Tincture
(formula from Stephen Harrod Buhner)

1 part echinacea seed top tincture
1 part red root tincture
1 part licorice root tincture

Red root makes lymph more efficient at processing immune system waste. This is helpful during a cold, because it prevents waste from backing up and causing swelling in lymph glands. Licorice root is also an antiviral herb, which decreases swelling and thins mucous. Combined with Echinacea, which encourages the proliferation of white blood cells, they make a great immune formula. This is effective at fighting viral colds, as well as bacterial colds, because they simply make your immune system more efficient. I've used it against so many colds with success that I'll never use anything else.

One last thing; echinacea won't work for someone whose innate immune system is compromised, because there is nothing to stimulate. So, if you're on chemo drugs or you have a weakened immune state, try something else!

Dosage: Take 2 droppersful every 2 hours at the first sign of a cold or flu. Consistency is important. If you were to take it only twice during the day, you will not benefit.

Hawthorn Berry Mania

Hawthorn's three stages of
harvestable growth
Did you know that the Mayflower was named after the Hawthorn tree? The Romans placed leaves of hawthorn in baby cradles to ward off evil spirits. In Ireland, it’s bad luck to cut down a Hawthorn tree.

It is yet again that magical time of year when hawthorn boughs bend with deep red berries. “Haw” is the name for the seedy berries, and “thorn” is for the half-inch thorns lurking beneath the leaves. Well named indeed. If you’re into folklore and stories, check out GuidoMasé’s article about Hawthorn

I have written a post about Hawthorn already, including my recipe for the Hawthorn Berry Chutney that I make every year, which pairs wonderfully with chicken and pork. This evening, we devoured an appetizer plate filled with pepper-rosemary chicken, chevre, fuji apples and hawthorn chutney. Delicious. That post also includes some information about identifying and picking hawthorn in the wild.

People these days are getting their knickers in a knot about all these exotic foreign "superfoods". There is a notion that the more exotic it is, and the more expensive it is, the more miraculous it is! This is a psychological phenomenon that some people are taking massive advantage of. Rather than paying an arm and a leg for Goji berries, which could be cultivated next to a nuclear plant in China for all you know, try our local superfood: hawthorn berries! Studies conducted with hawthorn have shown it to allow blood to flow more freely to the heart, and to help a damaged heart pump more efficiently. Eating the prepared berries throughout the winter is a fantastic health tonic.
Removing leaves from stems from the berries.

This post is focused on the berries due to the season, but the spring flowers and leaves have a stronger medicinal action. Deborah Frances writes in detail about Hawthorn in her book “Practical Wisdom in Natural Healing”, reporting success using hawthorn in cases of acute allergic response in her patients. She also uses it energetically for opening the heart, and recovering from grief.

I think that the berries are best prepared as a food, rather than in a tincture or in capsules. They are not great raw or unsweetened. I’m a big fan of the chutney, and jams and jellies of it are also fantastic (a jam has bits, a jelly is clear). The following recipes are low-sugar, freezer jams. Low sugar is ideal not only for your health, but because it lets the hawthorn flavor out.

Hawthorn Berry Freezer Jam (sweetened with honey)
Makes 4, 8 oz jars of jam
Mashing the cooking berries with a potato masher.

Hawthorne jelly is more common, but a jam is great because it gets more of the actual pulp from the fruit that contains good medicine. Its taste is more intense, and its texture thicker. A totally different experience.

8 cups fresh/ frozen hawthorn berries, (washed and stems removed)
3 cups water
2 Tbsp lemon juice (helps gel and maintains color)
1 heaping tablespoon low sugar pectin*
1-2 cups raw honey

In a large pot, put berries, lemon juice and water. Bring to a gentle boil on medium heat, then reduce to a simmer and simmer for an hour, mashing with a potato masher if you have one. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes or so.

With a hand cranking food mill, on the finest setting, add the pulp in batches. Use a spatula to scrape strained red mixture off the bottom of the food mill, and discard the seeds from the hopper after each batch. Alternatively, you could blend the mixture briefly (in batches) in your blender, and press it by hand through a metal strainer. In any case, your goal is to remove seeds and extraneous stems. I actually used the food mill, and THEN I used the hand strainer, as there were some stems that still made it through the mill.

Once you have your strained berries, get it back into a saucepan on Medium high heat. Stir in the pectin with a wooden spoon, and bring to a boil that cannot be stirred down. Vigorous bubbling! Maintain that, stirring enthusiastically, for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat, stir in the honey, and pour into the awaiting jars. Let the jars sit for about 12 hours, and then put them in the fridge or freezer. In the fridge, it will keep for a month or more, and for much longer in the freezer. Because this is a low sugar recipe, be sure you know what you’re doing before you preserve it.

Hawthorn Berry Freezer Jelly (sweetened with sugar)
Makes 4, 8 oz jars of jelly
Hawthorn berry jelly,  ready to eat!

For the recipe below, I used the leftover seedy pulp from the above recipe. There was still quite a lot of good stuff left, and so I added more water and simmered it for about 30 minutes, then strained it with a flannel cloth (cheesecloth would be fine). You could easily use 3 cups fresh berries, simmered in 4 cups of water for an hour and mashed, and then put through a cloth to make the juice.

3 cups strained hawthorn berry juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons low sugar pectin*
1.5 cups sugar (or more if you like it sweet)

Heat juice on stove until steaming hot. Whisk in the fruit pectin and continue to whisk. Bring to a boil that can’t be stirred down and stir vigorously to avoid burning for 30 seconds or so. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Turn heat down, put back on heat, and heat for a minute while stirring. Fill clean 8 oz mason jars. Let sit out for 24 hours to set, put in either the refrigerator or freezer.

* Low sugar pectin should be used when using honey, no sweetener, or less than 55 percent sugar in a recipe. Regular pectin needs white sugar at 55%+, which is a lot of white sugar!

Please comment or email me if you have any questions! If you’re having trouble commenting, please let me know and I will attempt to fix the problem.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Spicy Herbal Daikon Oden (Japanese radish slow cooked in broth)

Fall is upon us, reminding us that we are only human. We pull on our gore-tex and go about our lives in the horizontal rain, listening to the wind in the trees as we go to sleep at night. This is the time for tonic soups with things that warm us. Ginger, chili, pepper.

Daikon radish is huge, white and spicy. At the market in japan they can be 2 feet long and 5 inches in diameter! It's starting to become available at specialty grocery stores, and asian grocery stores here in the US, but usually much smaller. Like many Japanese foods, Daikon is medicinal. Eaten finely grated and raw, it can help the digestion of fatty foods. It is often included on the side of traditional japanese dishes as a condiment in this form. Eaten cooked it is a gentle tonic for the kidneys and respiratory tract, and a great thing to eat at the colder seasons come.

There are many ways to cook daikon, but I think the most delicious and simple is Oden. Oden is a traditional Japanese winter food often sold from food carts. It is made by simmering daikon, fish cakes, yam cakes, and eggs in a dashi (fish) broth. Karashi (Japanese hot mustard) is often eaten with it. In this modified recipe, we will be simmering daikon in a much different broth, but the process of slow simmering, and the resulting delicious, soft radish are the same.

This is a more obscure recipe that some people may be intimidated by. It's fortunate that the nearest grocery store to my house is a cheap asian grocery store that sells daikon, ginger, burdock, lemongrass, chilis and mushrooms super cheap. Luckily, nowadays many grocery stores carry these things.

Spicy Herbal Oden
Serves 2-4
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 1-2 hours

1 12 inch daikon radish, chopped into 1 inch thick rounds
1-2 small chilis, sliced lengthwise
2 pieces lemongrass, chopped into 2 inch sections
2 handfuls fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms
1-2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and julienned (galangal is better if you can get it)
3 pinches of salt
5-10 whole black peppercorns
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced lengthwise
OPTIONAL: meat bones leftover from another meal

Put 2 quarts of cold water into a pot and add all ingredients.

Bring to a simmer on medium heat with lid on. Try not to let it get to a rolling boil, as this can shock the vegetables and make them less tasty later. (This is true for sweet potatoes and lentils as well.) Turn the heat to low or medium low and leave the lid on. Simmer 1-2 hours. This could also be done in a crock pot, and may make the daikon sweeter.

Many of the ingredients are too woody to eat, so pick out the daikon pieces and pour some broth over them. If you want, you could add a splash of soy sauce at this point, but I like the clear spicy broth alone.