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.

Comfort on a winter evening: Homemade herbal candles

Around the 1st or 2nd of February, many northern cultures have a celebration focused on candles. For Catholics, it is Candlemas in which the year's supply of candles used to be brought to the church to be blessed. For modern Neopagans, it is Imbolc, the festival of the Irish fire and hearth goddess Brigid, which derives from her ancient feast day at this time. In Eastern Europe, it is the Thundering, when protections against lightening and fire are renewed also with many candles. The Chinese New Year also takes place around this period with a show of lanterns and candles.  

Imbolc candle.jpg

There is undoubtedly something evocative in the coldest blast of the winter that makes lighting small warm candles immensely comforting. It is also the time when pre-industrial people commonly made their household candles. Candlemaking is warm work and in the summer it can be downright unpleasant, but at this time of year it is both more pleasant and often quicker.

Candlemaking in January in the run up to Imbolc has become a winter tradition at my house and I most especially like to make candles that smell and look beautiful. I have spent several years perfecting this craft and I would like to offer my conclusions here, so that you can avoid some of my more foolish mistakes the easy way.

Here is a quick and easy guide to winter candlemaking using herbs, essential oils and molds. 

You will need: 

  • Wax:  Bees wax is good and will primarily make the traditional yellowish candles. It may come in large rough chunks or in sheets of pre-melted wax. Paraffin candle base is also good. It is usual sold as white granules and can be more easily dyed.
  • Wicks:  You can buy wick from craft stores. Short wicks with tiny metallic discs attached at one end make it easier to hold the wick in place, but you can also cut lengths of wick from a longer string. You can even make your own wick by dipping cotton string in melted wax.
  • Molds: You can technically make candles without a mold by dipping the wick repeatedly in a large vat of hot wax. However, this is tricky and requires a lot of time and arm strength unless you have a lot of specialized equipment. It is a lot easier to use molds and these can also give your candles a desired shape. You can buy candle molds from craft stores, of course. You can also use small boxes lined with wax paper. I have found that cookie cutters smeared with a little cooking oil and placed on wax paper work nicely to make different shapes of candles but they will leak a bit so this method requires patience. The best household candle molds of all are silicon muffin tins. These are completely heat resistant and will not stick to the wax at all. Glass and metal baking ware will often stick and you may be frustrated trying to get your candles out of the mold. Prep them with some grease to aid in that process. 
  • Essential oils: Essential oil is optional and people who are sensitive to aromas should be cautious with their use, but I love to add essential oils to my candles. Pine, rosemary, lavender, rose, nutmeg and mint all make good candle fragrances that can be used for special occasions throughout the year.
  • Dried herbs: You can also add dried herbs to your candles, which can provide a natural scent when the wax around the herbs is heated. They also create beautiful patterns in the sides of the candles. However, it is preferable to keep the herbs on the outer edge of the candles, away from direct contact with the wick, because the herbs can burn unpredictably and present a danger of fire and hot wax spills. 
  • Wax colors: Coloring is optional but can be very fun. I have tried a great many options for coloring candles using homemade supplies, including food coloring, berry juice and spices--all to no avail. I am back to buying wax dyes from craft stores. These work wonderfully but are not entirely necessary to make beautiful candles.
  • A metal pot, preferably one dedicated to candle, soap and salve making. Some of us like to call this our "cauldron," even though that is usually just a glorified name for an older and less-favored household pot.
  • A metal dipper
Candle making imbolc cookie cutters.jpg

How to make the candles:

  1. Heat the wax. Use a low heat and allow the wax to melt over about 20 or 30 minutes. If the heat is low it will not burn, catch fire or spatter and you can prepare your other materials while you wait.
  2. Prepare your molds. If you're using glass or metal molds smear them with cooking oil to make it easier to get the candle out of the mold. Only use glass if you are using glass molds specifically designed for candles as normal glass will shatter when it comes in contact with the hot wax. Also do not use plastic, except silicon used for baking in ovens. Many plastics, including my plastic measuring cups which stand up to regular cooking temperatures melt at the higher temperatures wax may reach. 
  3. If you're using cookie cutters, place wax paper on your work surface and position the cookie cutters so that you can hold down several of them at one time. 
  4. Insert wicks into the center of the molds. Don't worry if you wicks initially lean over. You will be able to correct this later.
  5. Once your wax is hot, add essential oils and colors to it. Add just a little color at first and then add more as you go. A little goes a long way. Estimate about 20 drops of essential oil in about a cup (220 ml) of hot wax. This doesn't have to be exact and over time you will discover if you prefer more or less than that, but this is a conservative start.
  6. Use a metal dipper (how did you think I know about the melting temperature of plastic measuring cups?) to pour a quarter inch (half a centimeter) of hot wax into each of your molds. If you're using cookie cutters or other molds which are not attached to the bottom part of the mold, hold them down firmly for a minute and blow around the edges. (It helps if you work in a somewhat cold room.)
  7. Then adjust your wicks to stand upright. (No, creative wick angles don't work very well when the candle is actually lit. They burn best straight up and down.)
  8. You may add dried herbs around the edges of your candle at this point for deeply embedded herbs. 
  9. Continue pouring in a little more wax. Press down on cookie-cutter molds and readjust wicks as needed.
  10. Be patient and exercise great caution when pouring the hot wax. Wax can cause severe burns and unlike water the burning liquid will not run right off of your skin and will be hard to remove immediately. The best first aid for burns is always immediate immersion in very cold water. This is essential. Do not be swayed by other claims of home remedies in the first 30 minutes after a burn occurs. Cold water, period, and seek professional medical attention if the burn is significant. 
  11. An advanced technique is to create multi-colored candles by pouring first a layer of one color and then after it cools, adding a layer of another color. This can be done with multiple colors and the only limit is your imagination and patience. The effect is quite beautiful as the candle burns down through multiple colored layers.
  12. Once you have filled your candle molds, hopefully without having to use the cold-water first aid for burns, you give the wicks a final adjustment, prop them in place if necessary and wait until the candles cool, at least several hours.
  13. Remove the candles from the molds and trim the wicks. 
  14. If you wish, you can heat the candles slightly in an electric or wood-heated oven (not a microwave or gas oven) and stick dried herbs to the outside of the candles when they become sticky. Then allow them to cool again. 

A little book for the day of candlelight

If you would like to learn about the old Irish fire festival of Imbolc and its candlelight traditions in the form of a modern story, I have a book for you. Shanna and the Raven is a story for families and children to share an adventure of learning to trust intuition amid the candles of an Imbolc celebration. It is a suspenseful story that will grip children seven and up as well as adults. 

This little book also includes a recipe for strawberry dumplings, a traditional seasonal dish from Bohemian grandmothers, and a tutorial for making a doll figure of the Irish goddess Brigid. The book is illustrated with kid-friendly pastel paintings by Julie Freel. While this is mostly a modern adventure story, it also has much to teach both about the holiday and connecting to intuition.

Another potent symbol of the intuition, inspiration and prophecy of the season is the crow or raven, which is featured Shanna and the Raven. You can read last week's post on the history and mystery of crows and ravens here

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.

Calm, rest and sleep - the gifts of Valerian: Home Medicine Cycle 38

My five-year-old daughter raced off the school bus bouncing with delight. 

"Mama! Mama! We had green jello!" she gasped in excitement.

My joyful grin froze in place. I tried not show my trepidation. We had begun to suspect that our daughter has a particular sensitivity to artificial food dyes and I'm told green and red are the worst. 

Still I could hope...

I did get her into the house at least. But when her three-year-old brother touched her she flew into a rage and hit him, then bit him. I pulled her away, but now they were both screaming. I comforted my startled and hurt son, while holding my daughter firmly on the other side. She fought and kicked, squirmed and screamed. And she tried to bite me.

For most of the next three hours, I held her on my lap while she shuddered and cried. After the first hour or so, she simply whimpered, "I can't stop! I can't stop!"

That was two years ago, when my daughter spent a few days at an American kindergarten, where things like green Jello are all too common. 

Due to the specific circumstances of our family, I know something about sedatives and their effects. Both of my children were adopted from Eastern European orphanages and my son--the little brother--was drugged with sedatives from the age of two months until we adopted him when he was ten months old. This delayed his neurological development and he went off of the drugs cold at the time of the adoption, because we were not informed about them..

The following year and a half was a trial for all of us. He was often terrified and he flew into a panic if I moved more than ten feet from him, even within our own home. For a year, we couldn't have visitors, because he was so terrified of strangers.

Creative Commons image by S. Rae of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by S. Rae of Flickr.com

For that and other reasons, my trust in pharmaceuticals is not great, but the situation with my daughter was nearing the point where I thought she might need some sort of medication for what appeared to be hypersensitivity and some fairly extreme stress reactions. 

After several very difficult years, I discovered almost by accident, that dried valerian root may be the answer we've been looking for. I found online forums where parents of children with ADHD said valerian did more for their children than pharmaceutical medications. And it just so happened that a fellow herbalist had just sent me a bit of valerian root from across the ocean. 

I researched it and found that the best way to administer it is as dried powdered root, so I learned a new herbalist skill--making capsules. It isn't nearly as difficult as I would have thought. You simply buy empty jell capsules, grind the root in a mortar as well as possible and fill the capsules with the powder. 

I could even ensure that my daughter got a child's dose this way. And the effect was amazing. If I give my daughter a capsule of valerian when I expect there to be a situation that might trigger her hypersensitivity, she is much calmer. Even in the midst of a meltdown the effects are noticeable a half an hour to an hour after she has swallowed a capsule. Getting her to swallow them is another matter. It was relatively easy at first, but then became more difficult for her to swallow the capsules. If the powder is ground finely enough, she will eat it in honey, which is another option.

Using Valerian

It is interesting that doctors may prescribe valerian for people who are trying to break an addiction to sleeping pills. It helps them sleep as they lower the dose of their pills. However, in this modern age, few doctors will do the obvious thing and just prescribe valerian in the firt place. 

Valerian is a gentle, natural sedative without the addictive side-affects of many synthetic sedatives. It helps to calm anxiety, deepen sleep and settle nerves. It is also used for nervous asthma, menstrual cramps and stress-related migraines. 

Although there are few reports of adverse effects from taking valerian, it acts on the brain much like a synthetic sedative and one should not drive or operate machinery in the hours after taking a dose of valerian. The United States Food and Drug Administration rates valerian as "generally accepted as safe," but there has not been enough research to determine if it is safe for pregnant and nursing mothers. 

The part of the plant used is the root. Besides making capsules or hiding the powdered root in honey, you can tincture the root (see my recipe for tinctures here) or dry it and use it as a tea (see my tips for brewing the most potent herbal teas here). It makes a very bitter tea and powdered root may be more effective than tincture for some people.

Growing Valerian

To my great sorrow, valerian is not easy to grow, or more importantly, it is not easy to germinate. I have tried to grow valieran for four years now and I have never been able to raise a good-sized seedling.

Valerian seeds require stratification, which is a process that simulates the effects of a winter spent outdoors. The general directions for stratification are that you should place the seeds on a piece of wet gauze, enclose it in a plastic bag and freeze it for a week, then refrigerate it for a week and repeat this two more times. Then take the seeds out and plant them. 

I have tried this for four years now without success, but I know of one herbalist who got these directions from me and followed them and grew valerian. So, it may be more to do with the specific growing conditions of my garden than with the directions for stratification. Good luck to you, if you do try to grow it. I wish you much success, and please come back and tell me if it works. I would much rather grow my own herbs than buy them from unknown sources.

Please feel free to leave comments below about your experiences with herbs, home medicine and growing medicinals. I love hearing from you.

When fiery cayenne takes the pain away - Home Medicine Cycle 37

It's counter intuitive. If you've ever bitten into a cayenne pepper or even eaten something with too much dried cayenne powder in it, you surely are no stranger to pain. And yet cayenne pepper can also take pain away and combat some of modern medicine's most distressing foes.

Creative Commons image by Chris Vaughan

Creative Commons image by Chris Vaughan

Many herbalists carry cayenne tincture in their first-aid kits to stop heart attacks. Some go so far as to say that if you want to know only one herb, you should know cayenne because it simply saves lives. Here is a recipe for tincture which can be used with cayenne.

In emergencies patients have also been saved from heart attacks by a teaspoon of cayenne pepper from the spice shelf mixed in a cup of hot water to make a kind of cayenne tea. Cayenne pepper has been used by doctors for heart disease and as a supplement for cardiovascular health.

Several studies have shown cayenne to be effective in preventing heart attacks, managing diabetes and mitigating painful symptoms caused by chemotherapy treatments. One study in 2005, even showed cayenne killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. 

On the tongue cayenne may burn, but on unbroken skin or even the lining of the stomach the burning turns to a soothing, tingling warmth. Certain types of stomach discomfort--including dyspepsia and ulcers--can be quieted with capsules of cayenne pepper powder taken both immediately for first aid and as a regular supplement for people suffering from chronic conditions.

One of the most widespread uses of cayenne as an herbal medicinal is for the treatment of joint pain, including arthritis. Rubbed on the skin, cayenne juice or ointments made with it feel warm or even hot. The sensation is generally soothing but the skin technically registers pain from the burning of the cayenne and a neurological process causes the nerves under the skin to suppress the sensation of pain in the joints below. 

With it's heating properties, cayenne also breaks up congested mucus. Cayenne can thus be effectively used to treat viral infections like the flu whenever there is a lot of mucus congestion. The spicy juice or tea made with cayenne can also sooth a swollen and painful throat when sweet lozenges have a much smaller effect. And some of the most irritating dry coughs can be stopped with cayenne. Some use it to prevent migraine headaches. 

Cayenne has been found to be effective against some fungal pathogens. Still I must bust a few myths here. An old globetrotter's legend claims that cayenne and other hot peppers kill food-born bacteria and parasites and thus eating spicy food may be a way to stave off traveler's diarrhea or even food poisoning in areas where the sources of food may be sketchy. Unfortunately, this myth is baseless. Cayenne, despite all its fire is much less effective as a disinfectant herb than many humbler plants. 

However, the rumor may have been started by the fact that many cultures have used cayenne as an aid to digestion for hundreds of years. The hot peppers in your food, particularly cayenne, do provide health benefits to the stomach, but this has much more to do with aiding metabolism, relieving intestinal gas and encouraging the healthy motion of the intestines. That feeling you may have that bland food makes you stuck and some hot peppers tend to get things flowing... well, that actually is based on some amount of fact.

The fact that cayenne boosts metabolism hints that it might be helpful in maintaining a healthy body weight but the issue goes further than that. A study at he Laval University in Quebec found that test subjects who included cayenne pepper in their breakfast later felt less appetite for further food and thus had a lower calorie intake over the whole day. Cayenne appears to suppress appetite over a matter of hours, although many people enjoy the taste of it initially.

Cayenne can be eaten in food. The dried powder can be added to water or tea or put into capsules and taken as a supplement. For joint and muscle pain a massage oil can be made from 1 tablespoon cayenne, 2 tablespoons crushed mustard seed, 1 tablespoon fresh ginger and 1 cup olive or almond oil. Set the mixture in the sun in a glass jar to infuse for two weeks. Then strain the oil and use it to massage painful joints and muscles. DO NOT use this oil on broken or raw skin. Even so, it may sting initially but is often found to relieve pain better after multiple uses.