Easy vegetarian, herby campfire roasting - Fire Snakes

The summer camping season is officially open in most of the northern hemisphere. Sleeping, cooking, eating and playing outdoors and close to nature is a good way to ground your body and soul, build self-sufficiency skills and relieve the stresses of the daily grind.

But being crammed into a crowded campground full of fumes and junk food may not qualify as either healthy or stress free. The negative aspects of camping can be mitigated by seeking out places that are not overburdened with visitors or even just sleeping and eating outdoors in your own backyard. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book   Shanna and the Goddess

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book Shanna and the Goddess

The act of sitting around an small fire and preparing food is extremely powerful, and that probably has something to do with our genetic memories of thousands of years of doing just that with our families and clans. Cooking outdoors over a fire connects you to ancestors, regardless of what corner of the earth your people come from. Beyond just the closesness with nature, that connection can be healing. 

But most of us are overwhelmed enough by simple camping and cooking a real meal over a fire can be daunting. The easiest thing to prepare over a fire is something you can put on a stick and roast. Most of us roasted hot dogs and marshmallows as kids. But those may not be endlessly appealing today.

Whether you're vegetarian, vegan or just tired of the choice between ultra-unhealthy sausages and ultra-sugary marshmallows as campfire roasting treats, I have an easy and delicious option for you. Much tastier than just roasting a piece of bread over the fire, you can fire-bake your own bread in a few minutes, and it will have all the flavor of fresh bread along with the tang of the campfire. It's simply delicious. 

This recipe is a free excerpt from the children's and family Summer Solstice story Shanna and the Goddess

Fire Snakes

Fire snakes are bread dough formed into long snakes, twisted around a stick and baked over an open fire (or in the oven, in a pinch). 

They are very simple to make and can be dipped in everything from peanut butter and honey to cinnamon and sugar or ketchup, herbs, cheese sauce and bacon bits. Toppings are unlimited.

You can use any yeast or sourdough bread recipe that is not too sweet (sugar will tend to burn, so add it after cooking). Here is a basic recipe:

  • 1 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 4 cups (or more) all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • A handful of dried or fresh, savory herbs, such as basil, thyme or rosemary (optional)

Mix the water, sugar and yeast in a bowl and let it sit for ten minutes.

Then stir the flour and salt in a large bowl.

Add the yeast mixture and the olive oil. 

Mix well and add extra flour as needed until it forms a heavy dough that can be molded. 

Let it rise for an hour. 

Cut off pieces about the size of a golf ball. 

Sprinkle flour on a clean surface and on your hands and roll out the balls to form snakes. (With large hands you can do this without a rolling surface in camping conditions but it can be tricky for kids). 

Then poke a marshmallow roasting stick through the end of a snake and wind the rest of the snake around the stick in a corkscrew pattern. Pinch the end together around the stick firmly. 
Roast over the fire and dip it in toppings as you eat.

Camping tip: Forage for tea and enjoy a vitamin boost

Nine years ago I packed food and video equipment in to a Greenpeace blockade camp in a military zone in the Czech Republic, dodging patrols and slipping up unmapped trails. The goal of the camp was to protect a couple of tree-sitters and thus to occupy a strategic hilltop marked for a US radar base that would put the first foreign troops in the country since the Soviets were kicked out in 1989 and destroy a fragile ecosystem in the process. 

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

I'm delighted to report that Greenpeace and local activists won that fight. 

I don't recall our packs containing anything like tea or even coffee when we carried supplies in and maybe this wasn't actually an oversight by the more experienced blockaders. In the end, other than a renewed sense of what can be accomplished by non-violent activists and the unsung little victories of environmental and social justice, I came out of the Brdy Hills with an item I no longer needed to carry in my camping kit - tea. 

I'm a tea drinker--herbal, black, green, you name it--and especially on camping trips, a hot drink in the morning is essential, though I can live with or without caffeine. As a result, I have always carefully stocked and refreshed a tea supply in my camping kit and I suffered greatly a few times when it ran out at an inopportune moment. 

The Greenpeace campers taught me how incredibly easy it is to forage for tasty, drinkable leaves if you're out in the woods anyway. After learning this, it seems almost silly to pack the stuff. 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

The basic thing to remember is that if you are used to eating the berries, you can usually brew the leaves. Wild huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves make a great base for tea. Raspberry and blackberry taste pretty similar to black tea and you can treat them much the same. But instead of caffeine you'll get an extra dose of iron and other nutrients, which is particularly useful for when you're outdoors and active. 

Beyond these, the year's newest fir needles are an excellent addition to make a more fragrant tea. Mint and wild thyme or wild oregano flowers can usually be found as well.

Fresh forage tea is particularly high in nutrients and flavor, and you'll enjoy the break from dried teas. However, there are a few cautions to observe while you're doing this:

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

  • Don't eat or brew plants you can't identify or are not sure are edible.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within a few yards/meters of an established campsite. First of all, the campsite will become stripped. And second, the males of our own species and those of one of our most friendly species (dogs) have a habit of marking the edges of such campsites with their urine. You can't be sure who has been there before you.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within 20 yards/meters of a minor road or 100 yards/meters of a major road. You don't want toxic heavy metals along with your iron supplement. 
  • Don't pick plants in protected areas, national parks, high mountain meadows or particularly fragile habitats. If planning to camp in these areas, you do need to pack in everything. (And pack everything you brought in out again, of course.)
  • When harvesting wild plant leaves for tea, be careful to take only a few leaves from each plant. Don't pull or you may damage the roots. If possible use scissors. Take only what you need. Harvest for future use, only if there is a great abundance of a particular plant and then be careful that you don't damage the plants or topsoil. 
  • Before harvesting wild plants, sit a moment in the area and get a sense of it. Does it smell right?  Do you have a relaxed feeling or an uneasy feeling? Any sense of disturbance or unease you feel could indicate that you should not pick plants there. Human beings are still quite capable of instinctively sensing the health of plants without knowing logically why. The area could be polluted or too fragile and your body might pick up on that.  
  • Give your thanks to wild plants you harvest from, whether silently or out loud, when you are finished.

Next time you're camping and have access to hot water out in the woods, brew up fresh forage tea and you will have an immediate connection to the local land and the earth itself.

Feverfew: A tenacious friend to guard against migraines

The first thing I noticed about feverfew is that it is one tough plant. I planted feverfew in a pot early on in my gardening adventures, partly because the flowers are known to repel wasps and we were having a problem with wasps invading the back veranda where we like to sit. 

Unfortunately for the feverfew, I was not a very good gardener all those years ago and because this pot was by the picnic table, away from all the other beds and plants, I often forgot to water it for weeks at a time. It was under the veranda roof, so this was really a problem. It lookedcompletely dried up several times, and I thought it was dead. Then my toddler children over-watered it on many other occasions, drowned it in mud, dug its roots out and tipped it over. 

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Twelve years on, the feverfew is still alive. 

It does have some ability to dissuade wasps from congregating, but only if you take care of it well enough to allow it to make flowers. The more flowers the better, when it comes to repelling wasps. They have a bitter smell. 

Relief for those suffering from migraines

However, the real gold in feverfew is in its ability to prevent and subdue migraine headaches. While the name of the plant suggests it as a treatment for fevers and it has been used that way historically, modern medical studies have proven its worth specifically in treating migraines. In Canada, the use of feverfew to treat migraines has been legally recognized. 

The flowers and leaves of feverfew can be collected and dried, powdered and put into gel capsules for natural headache pills or the fresh leaves and flowers can be tinctured in 40 percent alcohol. The dried-leaf capsules will only have full potency for a few months, so if you can tolerate a small amount of alcohol, tincture may be the better option. 

The short shelf-life is also a good reason to grow your own or find feverfew locally. It will not stand up well to industrial processing or the length of time necessary to distribute commercial capsules, so supplements with feverfew may not be as effective.

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of flickr.com

Warnings

There is one consistent warning given about feverfew. Chewing the fresh unprocessed leaves may result in mouth sores or loss of taste. It has a pungent and bitter taste that is not particularly pleasant, so I don't really recommend it. I did once chew a leaf as a test and suffered no strange effects, but people with greater sensitivity may well suffer from sores and the taste doesn't help matters.

I have found no report that tea from feverfew leaves or syrup made from an infusion would be likely to cause sores, but the taste is so repulsive that I doubt either would be a popular remedy. 

Other uses

Feverfew is also still used to treat fevers, irregular menstruation, colds and sometimes infertility, but these uses have not been studied in modern times and documentation of their traditional use is sparse. Given that there are usually more well-known herbal alternatives for these issues, I generally use feverfew only for headaches. 

Standard dosages

Studies have shown feverfew to be safe if 50-150 mg of leaf powder is taken daily for less than four months. Longer use has not been studied. These dosages are standard and individual reaction and individual plants may vary widely. This isn't specific medical advice and consultation with professionals as well as careful self-observation is recommended.

Feverfew is a tenacious herb and a steadfast friend when you the world is too much for you.

Chickweed: A tasty, early spring green with mild medicine suitable for kids and adults - Home Medicine Cycle 35

“You want us to eat weeds?” the eight-year-old gasped in horror.

“And flowers?” the ten-year-old added.

“It tastes a lot like spinach, except better,” I coaxed.

The older girl tried one and her skeptical expression slowly changed like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

Her younger sister would have none of it. 

Creative Commons image by Dean Morley

Creative Commons image by Dean Morley

But I’ve been around the block a few times and I don’t give up easily. I got the girls gathering a small bowl full of the starry flowers and delicate early spring leaves from the massive chickweed patch behind my greenhouse. 

I used to not have any chickweed at all. Now I have a carpet of it in parts of my yard. Be careful what you wish for. I have been known to plant certain weeds—to the horror of my neighbors—due to their medicinal properties. But I didn’t even plant this. I really did just wish for it and it came. 

Once we had our tasty little herbs, we went down to the house and I set the girls to buttering slices of bread, while I preheated the oven. They put small handfuls of chickweed on the bread and covered it with a slice of cheese. The younger girl put only a few tiny leaves on her sandwich.

We put them on a baking tray and pushed it into the oven. Then we set to work writing down what chickweed is good for. That was the girls’ ESL lesson. They aren’t specifically supposed to be learning about herbs, but their mother is open-minded and I have the luxury of doing fun things with them instead of classical school work.

Chickweed is a diminutive herb and “weed” is the operative term for finding it. It loves to invade my garden. It's tiny starry flowers are distinctive. They are really five cleft petals but they look almost like ten individual petals, the cleft in the middle of each petal is so deep. It will grow in full or partial sun very early in the spring before even the grass starts growing again. This is part of what makes it so valuable. It provides the earliest spring greens, before even dandelions and nettles. And it’s packed with vitamins and minerals. 

Creative Commons image by Dawn Endico

Creative Commons image by Dawn Endico

Chickweed can also be dried and used as a medicinal tea for coughs, hoarseness and constipation (it works as a mild laxative). It’s a good post-partum tonic and helps with kidney problems too. New research is coming out showing that it is also an effective antihistamine, which could end up being its most popular medicinal property in the future. Medicinally it is probably best used dried as a tea. 

It can also be used fresh as a poultice in the field if you happen to get a scrape or cut outdoors in the spring when it’s plentiful. It has good healing properties for the skin, including healing itchy rashes of various types. A clean rag soaked in chickweed tea laid over the eyes while resting is a good cure for pink eye.

But it really is quite delicious and nutritious as well. 

Five minutes later my young students were smelling the good smells coming out of the oven and even the skeptical one was interested. We pulled out the sandwiches and they were snatched up in moments. My daughter came in and ate both her share and her brother’s. It’s a good thing there’s more where that chickweed came from.

“It’s really good!” the younger student said, her eyes wide with amazement. “We have to make this at home.” 

“I don’t think we have this weed in our yard,” the older one said anxiously.

“Don’t worry. You really probably do have it and if you don’t, it seems to come when called,” I told them. 

Using tumeric as a simple, medicinal herb and tea: Home Medicine Cycle 33

Tumeric is a wonderful plant that has been used as a spice and a medicine for thousands of years. It has now become very fashionable among health-conscious people in the West because of recent research into its many medicinal qualities. And as with many fashion trends, this one comes with its caveats. 

Tumeric plant - Image by  J.M.Garg  under a GNU Free Documentation License

Tumeric plant - Image by J.M.Garg under a GNU Free Documentation License

Yes, tumeric contains compounds which have been shown to combat Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and unhealthy cholesterol levels among about six hundred other health problems—primarily through anti-inflammatory and antioxidanteffects. It isn’t all made up.

But it isn’t all well-understood either. And the dosages needed to treat serious illnesses can be difficult to obtain from safe sources.

Exciting research is progressing to find practical ways to use tumeric as a supplemental cancer treatment and to fight Alzheimer’s disease. But at present there are a plethora of supplements and powders on the market that all claim to be the best sources of tumeric and curcumin, the main medicinal active compound in tumeric. Unfortunately many of these supplements and spices are diluted with useless and sometimes hazardous fillers and coloring agents. It can be very difficult to obtain undiluted tumeric supplements or tumeric extracts that have been safely processed to retain beneficial qualities. 

My focus on the Practical Herb Lore blog has always been to give you herbs that simply work, that you can grow or process on your own and ensure the quality and safety at the source. That’s partly because I’m not selling herbs or supplements but rather trying to document my struggle to take back my own health. It’s also because I’ve observed that using fresh, locally grown herbs isn’t just romantic and ecological. It really makes a substantial difference in the health benefits of herbs.

As a result I can’t give you a cure for cancer or diabetes based on tumeric… yet. However, what I can give you is a recipe and guidelines for using tumeric for broad prevention of illness and specifically for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

Analysis of a wide variety of sources concludes that you can take a preventative dose of about 1 tsp of fresh or dried tumeric root daily without side affects. Higher doses can be used to fight specific inflammatory diseases or cancers. High doses over the long term may lead to ulcers. 

Most research on tumeric is focused on powder extracts of the compound curcumin which is the most medicinally active compound in tumeric. While it may be easier to take supplement capsules, it is much more difficult to be sure of the quality and safety of what you are taking. Tumeric has been used successfully in many countries in Asia for centuries as a whole food but the use of an isolated compound such as curcumin hasn’t been studied for so long. There may be side effects to using the isolated compound, as has been found with many synthetic pharmaceuticals.

It may be difficult to grow tumeric root in many parts of the world but you can often buy fresh tumeric root or dried, powdered tumeric root. It may be difficult to tell if the powdered tumeric root has been diluted with useless or potentially harmful fillers and coloring agents. But the fresh root is widely available in grocery stories and can be grated and used as a spice or made into tea—while roughly adhering to the one-teaspoon-per-person-per-day rule.

In a pinch you can put high-quality tumeric spice powder into gel capsules and swallow your one teaspoon per day that way. It is helpful to swallow a couple of corns of black pepper with the capsules as the compounds in tumeric are not well absorbed by the body and black pepper contains compounds that assist in absorption.

Tumeric rhizome - image by  Simon A. Eugster  under a GNU Free Documentation license 

Tumeric rhizome - image by Simon A. Eugster under a GNU Free Documentation license 

But a much more certain and probably more enjoyable option is tea.  One study documented the use of tumeric tea in some villages in India where the population has the lowest incidents of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. Some reports indicate that the key to tumeric’s preventative powers is the consistency of the long-term use of small amounts of tumeric on a daily basis, rather than a one-off drink from an expensive juice counter.
Here are two recipes for tea, one simple and one more complex but quite delicious.

Basic recipe for tumeric tea

Bring four cups of water to the boil. Add a teaspoon of turmeric powder or fresh grated tumeric root (for better flavor). Add a pinch of black pepper to aid in absorption of medicinal compounds and simmer for about ten minutes. Strain the tea and flavor with honey, ginger, cinnamon or lemon.

Tumeric-milk tea with extra punch

The medicinal compounds in tumeric don't dissolve well in water, which is why it's good to strain the basic tea with a fine seive. But curcumin and other compounds do dissolve in fats far more readily. That is why a combination of milk and cocoanut or almond milk makes a good base for tumeric tea.

Gradually warm a cup of coconut or almond milk. Add a half a teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of black pepper, a teaspoon of finely chopped ginger root, a pinch of cinnamon and a teaspoon of raw honey. Mix vigorously to remove lumps. Strain before drinking.

I love to hear from you and I would particularly be interested in the experiences of others in using tumeric medicinally. Drop me a line in the comments. Thanks!