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.

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. 

The easiest herbal syrup recipe: Home Medicine Cycle 27

It can be tough to get kids to take herbal medicine, especially if they haven't been brought up with it from day one. Herbs have taste and herbal medicines often retain a bit of earthy sediment. They are natural after all and today's kids are used to candy that looks like it's made of plastic, as well as food items that have been shaped, pressed and specifically colorized to look synthetic. 

Creative Commons image by  Susy Morris    

Creative Commons image by Susy Morris

 

Add to that the problems of rendering alcoholic tincture safe for kids to consume and the homecrafting herbalist parent has a lot of technical issues to deal with. 

One of the best tools for conquering these problems is herbal syrup. It's sweet and with proper straining it can be sediment free and have a texture that kids associate with commercial medicine and candy. It is often dark brown or black in color, which can be an issue until they've tried the first taste. But once a child is convinced that "black honey" is like caramel, the struggles over medicine will dissipate. 

The other good thing about making herbal syrup is that it is simple and relatively forgiving of the novice. For one thing, you can safely start with either fresh or dried herbs, which means you can make a fresh batch of syrup at various times of the year. Here's how to go about it:

Creative Commons image by  Angelina Earley    

Creative Commons image by Angelina Earley

 

  • Find a source of good-quality honey. Organic honey is good if you can get it, but the primary issue is to make sure that the honey does not include added sugar syrup, which many brands of honey purchased in grocery stores do. The easiest way to make sure your honey is good is to find local beekeepers and buy their honey. It may be a bit more expensive, but beekeeping is so crucial to your local environment that it this is one cost that is well worth it, even if your resources are limited.
  • Obtain fresh or dried herbs. The most basic syrup can be made with plantain, which is found in many lawns, and it is excellent for sore throats, upset stomachs and coughs and will cover a wide variety of children's health problems safely and without a battle. Other common herbs for syrups include lemon balm, mullein leaf, marshmallow flowers and thyme. Lemon balm is good for sore throats, anxiety and hyperactivity, and the other herbs are all specific to coughs and bronchitis. If possible grow your own herbs, even if it's just in a pot on the window sill. If not, gather them in wild places or get to know an herbalist and make sure that the herbs you get are no more than a few months old and stored carefully.
  • Now you're ready to make syrup. Pour a cup of boiling water over a double handful of your chosen herbs in a small saucepan (use enamel if possible or second-best stainless steel, as many medicinal compounds react with metals and lose potency). Add more herbs if they will fit and still be covered by the water. 
  • Simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Strain the herbs out of the water. What you have now is a strong infusion. 
  • Measure your infusion with a cup (as some of the liquid will have evaporated) and add an equal amount of honey.
  • Set your stove on a very low heat and simmer the syrup until all the water has evaporated. The time involved will depend on how hot your stove is. If you keep it at a regular simmer, you will have to stand over it and stir to ensure that your honey doesn't burn or boil over. And then you may be able to evaporate the water in just a half an hour. If you can set your stove to a very low heat, however, it may take hours to evaporate the water but require little supervision. 
  • Don't boil the syrup too long or too vigorously. Not only will this reduce the potency of some herbs. At times I have also accidentally turned the syrup into candy, which would be okay, except that I poured it into a jar and then couldn't get the resultant mass of hard candy out of the jar once it cooled. If you do boil the syrup more vigorously, you can then drop it into greased molds and have candy of various consistencies. I prefer to simmer at a lower heat in order to retain as much of the herbal potency as possible.

A syrup that is about the same thickness as honey is ideal and primarily depends on how long you are willing to evaporate the water. The infusion of herbs will then be left in the honey, usually turning the honey a rich dark color. You should store this syrup in the refrigerator, but it can then last many months if properly evaporated. Both children and adults will enjoy it.

Be sure to share this simple recipe with your friends. It is one that even those without much herbalist experience can use to good effect and get a little of the earthy goodness of herbs to counterbalance pharmaceuticals and processed foods. Drop me a line in the comments below if you have any ideas or questions about this. Thanks!

Experiments with herbal marshmallows: Home medicine cycle 26

I have been intrigued with the idea of making natural marshmallows ever since I discovered that the campfire candy of my childhood shares its name with an herb. As it turns out, marshmallows were originally made from powdered marshmallow root. It's high concentration of mucilaginous compounds makes it a good addition to a jelly-like treat. 

But I was initially skeptical about how much work this would involve and how appetizing the results would be. Furthermore, I am focused on homecrafting herbs. The goal in homecrafting is to grow or gather wild most of what you need and buy as few supplies as possible. This isn't just an exercise in self-sufficiency. When it comes to herbs the more local and the fresher they can be when you use them, the better. And you can't get more local than your backyard and your ability to process herbs gently and carefully will always be superior to even the most conscientious factory operation.

As a result, I was reticent to seek out and order powdered marshmallow root and making it myself would be so time-consuming that it was unlikely to become a top priority in my busy life. The other principle of my style of homecrafting is that it must be realistically achievable by busy people who live in the modern world. So, it took awhile before I cobbled together a marshmallow recipe that doesn't require powdered roots. 

Marshmallow root - Creative Commons image by Victor M. Vicente Selvas

Marshmallow root - Creative Commons image by Victor M. Vicente Selvas

Here's what I did.

  • I dug up fresh marshmallow roots, cutting off the long deep tap roots and leaving the crowns of the plant to grow.
  • Then I chopped them into small pieces (a quarter of an inch thick) and soaked them in a cup of cold water over night (I'm told all you really need is five minutes but overnight worked for me this time).
  • In the morning, I strained out the liquid (a marshmallow cold infusion) and put half of it in a bowl with 4 tablespoons of natural gelatin. 
  • I put the remaining half cup of liquid into a small pan with a cup of honey and three tablespoons of bitter cocoa powder (because I wanted chocolate flavored marshmallows). 
  • I was supposed to heat the honey mixture to a boil and let it simmer for 8 minutes (at which point it was supposed to reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit). I heated it to a boil and used a candy thermometer to test the temperature. This is where my experiment started to get interesting. The mixture was at 220 degrees Fahrenheit and refused to get any hotter. I boiled it for 20 minutes (instead of 8), stirring all the while, and it never got over 221 degrees Fahrenheit. So, I finally gave up on that part of it.
  • I then poured the hot honey mixture over the (now hardened) gelatin mixture in the bowl and beat the resulting mixture with a kitchen mixer. (This is the point at which I would have added any other flavorings beyond cocoa powder if I had wanted them. You can do this with mint extract or lemon juice or vanilla as well, but i prefer chocolate). 
  • Again, my experiment was not going entirely according to plan. I was supposed to beat the mixture for 15 minutes until soft peaks formed. I beat it for 30 minutes and it was smooth and thick but still liquid. I am an intrepid explorer though, so I pressed on. 
  • I now spread wax paper in a baking dish and poured the hot marshmallow mixture into it. I spread it out and let it sit for a few hours. 

The result was a slap of chocolate marshmallow candy, sweetened only with honey. I cut (with a greased knife!) it into small squares and took it to a party with friends, who gobbled it down.  Due to my difficulties with temperatures and forming peaks, my marshmallows were not very fluffy, but they were very edible. And this is a good lesson as well. Be careful with your ingredients and safety and the result will generally be good, even if it isn't exactly what you intended. 

I will continue with my experiments in hopes of producing a fluffy marshmallow. (I may have used too much cocoa powder but that did make them taste fantastic.) However, I can already recommend this recipe because it is healthy and delicious. Gelatin is very good for the joints of adults and the bone growth of children and we usually don't get to eat enough gelatin that isn't packed with artificial colors and chemical flavors.

These marshmallow candies melt in hot chocolate and if you use a greased ice cube tray as a form, they work on a stick over a campfire as well. You can in fact use any number of interesting forms to make shaped candies this way and use fruit juice instead of water to make different colors and flavors. 

I love to hear from you! Drop me a line in the comments below. Have you done any fun kitchen experiments where you got something you didn't expect but it was still useful or at least a good lesson? Share here and let me know if you know any tricks for getting marshmallows to fluff.