There's nothing like a pot of beans

A warm, sweetish musky smell fills the house and steam obscures the kitchen window. The soft rolling sound of a bubbling pot keeps time with the washing machine. And gray light falls on the floor from the winter sky outside.

Winter is no longer fun, my kids say. The snow has turned into slush and patches of deceptive ice. And to me that makes this the perfect time for a big pot of beans.

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

I never thought of myself as being part of the "slow food" movement, but there are few things that are as slow as a pot of pinto beans. And there are few foods as versatile and handy at the end of a tired winter week.

Beans, particularly dark-colored beans, have protein, fiber and a lot of nutrients that the modern diet tends to be deficient in. They are the staple I'd grab if I had to choose just one. And cooking them is surprisingly easy. 

Rule number one: Don't add salt until they're soft. I thought everyone knew this, but recently I've been told that isn't the case. 

Rule number two: Soak if you can but don't panic if you didn't. It just takes longer to cook them.

How long? There are charts online matching each type of bean to a number of hours, but they're pretty useless. It varies a lot depending on the size and type of bean. I've seen kidney beans that really will cook in two hours as the chart states, if they've been soaked overnight. And I've seen those that take a good six hours to soften. The main thing is to plan a bit ahead and figure that having the bubbling pot of beans on your stove all day is part of the experience.

Keep enough water in the pot, keep the heat medium, stir every hour or so and they shouldn't burn.

Once you've got them soft, there are a great many things you can do with your beans from tortillas, tacos, enchiladas and bean salads to a healthier side dish for almost any meal. 

Yes, do add salt--carefully--to taste once the beans are chew-able. As for herbs and spices, my family's most common combination is pinto beans with cayenne pepper, paprika, basil, cilantro and oregano, but there are many other good options:

Aduki beans generally take less time and go well with coriander, cumin and ginger.

Black beans are excellent spiced with chilly peppers, garlic, ginger, savory, thyme, oregano, cumin and/or parsley and they are especially delicious in Brazilian black bean soup which includes orange juice. I know it sounds strange but it's really good.

Black-eyed peas are spiced much like black beans but more often include turmeric. Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans) are a staple of many Mediterranean foods including humus and do well with cardamon, cilantro, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, mint, paprika and rosemary.

Fava beans and lima beans share a lot in common with chickpeas but they are also spiced with sage and thyme.

Kidney beans and navy beans use the basic cumin, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme. Mung beans look different but have a similar rich taste and often get ginger added. 

Lentils are legumes but usually not called beans and they come in various colors. They deserve separate consideration but perhaps in another post. For now, just remember that you cook them in the same way (no salt until they're soft) but for a lot less time (as little as 15 minutes for red lentils) and they do well with a lot more spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry, ginger, mint, parsley, thyme and turmeric. 

This is slow food but actually incredibly easy, filling and nourishing. That is particularly important when you're burnt out and times are tough. The revolution will probably be powered by beans. 

Here's to keeping warm and well-fed wherever you are.

The healing draft - A poem on home herbalist medicine

I have trusted my life to doctors and surgeons and I have trusted my life to dusty herbalist tomes along and my own brain. I've done each in its time and with a lot of forethought. 

I have written these experiences about reclaiming my own health and I've debated in minute detail with proponents of the "medical model" approach. 

My family depends on our herb bed for 90 percent of our medicine and health care. We're lucky to have built up a good perennial supply and the skills to use it. We're also lucky to avoid most chronic illnesses requiring medications with unpredictable interactions.

Still we've seen time and time again that herbs grown and used at home are far superior in action to pills and drugs bought from the pharmacy. We are as careful about the pharmacy as we are about the herbs (and we have a good friend who is a pharmacist to advise us when we do go that route). 

Even with this experience, the drumbeat of advertising and skepticism about herbal medicines is so constant that we have the same discussion every year--just me and my husband as well as with our extended family. We've seen herbs work again and again. And yet there is a resistance to believing that something so simple could be so powerful or that if it is so powerful that it could ever be used safely. 

After a recent skiing trip--during which my husband was too apathetic to put herbal salve on his sore muscles or take echinacea tincture to stave off an encroaching cough, while I breezed through both with the help of these simple medicines--I am tired of the endless argument. I am tired of citing studies and debating with a behemoth industry with my relatives as surrogates. 

This is the season of inspiration and intuition, the days just before Imbolc, and so instead of another detailed treatise, I put it into a poem:

Every day an anecdote,
Sickness, headache, injury or pain
Washed away as if through clear water.
You've got two wore legs-
One rubbed with salve,
The other left to rest and ache.
One is new again in the morning,
one is stiff and swollen.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

It means nothing, they say.
A child crying in pain,
Blisters raised on the skin.
A six-year-old sister goes to pick the leaves,
to brew the tea, to place the cool cloth
against the flaming skin.
And the child smiles,
the blisters disappear
in ten minutes by the phone clock.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

How many times must you see it?
I ask my brother, my friend, my doctor, my dear one
How many times makes a study?
How many people sick with a lasting cough,
How many who drink the garden draft,
who get up and tend those who took pills instead?
How many times before you understand
that medicine is not in an ad?
It isn't Big Pharma or Big Natura.
It is in the hands, the care, the knowledge.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind. 

The questions fall heavy and predictable
like the drum beats of a campaign.
What if you make a mistake?
What if it doesn't help? 
What about the things you cannot fix or cure?
What about all the studies with freeze-dried herbs?
Who are you to say?
You have no double blind or placebo.
You have only whispers
gathered over a thousand years.
You have only the bright faces of your family.
You have only this little plot of growing things.
You have only your own health taken back.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

This is my wish to all in this season--health, healing and inspiration. May your home be snug and your well of strength brim full.

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!

The season of coughs looms but the herb cupboard is well-stocked: Home Medicine Cycle 25

Whether you've been busily flitting from wildflower to wildflower this past summer to gather your herbs or you are looking for a good local supplier of freshly dried and tinctured herbs, this is the time of year to take stock of your herbal supplies. The season of colds, coughs and flu brings infections, seasonal light deprivation, slumps in immune function and other problems that modern medicine has difficulty solving is at hand. 

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

I dread taking my kids to a doctor for a checkup at this time of year because we're sure to catch something in the waiting room. And if someone in our family is sick with a viral infection, we're much better off staying home to rest with a cup of tea than we would be exposing ourselves (and others) to more problematic infections. As hard as doctors and nurses try (and they do try mightily) to combat bacteria, serious infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria are widespread in hospitals and spreading to all types of medical facilities. When you are already weakened by a virus, your chances of contracting a life-threatening resistant bacterial infection are higher.

As much as I love having a good doctor nearby, I would rather chat with her in line at the grocery story than visit her office. And one of the most important ways to avoid that office at this time of year is to know how to handle a cough on your own. Here are my tips:

Know your cough

There are two basic types of cough--a productive cough (where you are actually coughing up mucous) and a dry cough.  And these different types need different approaches. While most of the pharmaceuticals sold over the counter attempt to suppress a cough at all costs, this can actually lead to worse infection and often simply doesn't work. With a productive cough, you don't need to be hacking and coughing all the time to get the troublesome mucous out. If you can loosen up the mucous a productive cough doesn't have to be a too unpleasant or last more than a few days.

In these posts, I try to stay away from terms that aren't clear to lay people, but there are two herbalist terms that are really worth learning. The first is "expectorant." An herb or a chemical compound that is an expectorant has the property of helping to loosen mucous and make it easier to cough out. You may feel like your cough is suppressed after taking an expectorant herb because you will not have to cough so many times in order to release the mucus, but in reality this type of herb does nothing to suppress a cough. It does, however, make it easier to breathe, prevent further infection, hasten the end of the cough and often reduce the frequency of coughing.

Herbs for a phlegmy, mucousy cough: 

  • Mullein leaf (good as tincture, syrup and tea and it's soothing as well)
  • Thyme (my all-time favorite--makes a delicious tea and a good tincture as well)
  • Ginger (a tasty and helpful addition to any cough tea)
  • Eucalyptus (use one drop of essential oil in a steam bath to clear up congestion)
  • Hyssop (a pleasant tea)
  • Horehound (extremely bitter as a tea but can be made into taste cough drops)
  • Garlic (fresh garlic is good sprinkled on soups and salads whenever you're sick)
  • Horseradish root (It's possible that just smelling the fresh root will cure what ails you! Caution!)
  • Elecampane flowers (good for cough syrups)
  • Anise Seed
  • Black Cohosh root
  • Colt's Foot

For a dry, irritating cough

The other important term is "demulcent." An herb or compound that is demulcent will sooth mucous membranes and help get rid of irritations that cause dry, hacking coughs. This second type of cough--the dry cough--is the kind you do want to suppress. The cough itself doesn't do much to rid your body of mucous or infection. It simply serves to further irritate already inflamed places in your throat and airways. That's why this type of cough can go on for months and become chronic. It is often self-perpetuating and it disrupts sleep, further harming the body's ability to heal. 

My husband has battled dry, chronic coughs in the winter for years and the remedie that has finally brought some relief is a combination of thyme, mullein and ground ivy tinctures along with syrup made from mullein leaves, plantain leaves, elecampane flowers and marshmallow flowers. You may have to experiment to find the right combination for a chronic cough but the most common demulcent herbs are:  

  • Mullein (For chronic coughs I find regular tincture to work best but if you can ensure that you drink the tea every day, that could work as well)
  • Marshmallow flowers (not made into candy but rather into syrup)
  • Plantain (helps to sooth whatever it can physically touch, so it is good for irritations close to the throat)
  • Coltsfoot (another good tea)
  • Lungwort (the flowers particularly make a nice tea)
  • Liquorice
  • Slippery Elm
  • Wild cherry bark (It's said to be a strong cough suppressant but I don't have personal experience with it.)
  • Lemon, and honey (Drink a warm lemonade made with honey. It may only provide temporary relief but sometimes temporarily relief is all your body needs to recover.)
  • Onion (you can make a syrup from cooked onion that is used widely for coughs in some parts of Eastern Europe.)
  • Sage, peppermint and rose hips are good additions to many of these teas and syrups for the nutrients they provide when you are dealing with a chronic cough.

Whooping cough

Another kind of cough is whooping cough and this is quite different from a the two other kinds of coughs. True whooping cough (pertussis) is a dangerous bacterial infection that can sometimes be fatal in infants. The signature sound of whooping cough is a cough followed by a whooping noise. The noise comes from the sick person (usually a small child) trying desperately to pull air in through swollen tissue. You can see the hollow at the base of the throat depress as the child strives to take a breath and this is a critical sign of danger.

My son had a cough like this when he was two and again last winter, although he wasn't treated with antibiotics at the time. Sometimes a whooping-type cough comes even when a child has been vaccinated against pertussis and it is frightening and possibly very dangerous. One of the ways that whooping cough is treated in an emergency room is to put the child into a cool steam tent. The reason is that the cool steam soothes the swollen tissue that makes it so difficult to breathe. This is also why many people start out to bring a child with a terrible whooping cough to an emergency room, only to have it disappear by the time they arrive, because of the exposure to the cool, damp air (given that most attacks of whooping cough occur at around 10:00 pm to midnight). 

I learned this the first time my son had such a coughing attack and couldn't breathe. After trying several things that work with other types of cough (to no good effect), I took him out at night and the cough subsided within a half an hour. I didn't get much sleep the rest of the night but he did. The second time it happened, I didn't wait but immediately bundled him up and went outside, where I held him until the attack stopped. Interestingly enough, as a child of barely four, he cried and insisted that he didn't like the cold air. The cough was so powerful, he though he would vomit but couldn't and within ten minutes it passed. 

Please be aware that I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice for any specific ailment. My experience shows that the only thing you can do at home for something resembling whooping cough is cool steam or night air. Otherwise, I would seek out professional medical attention.

Other times to seek out professional help with a cough

Coughs can be a symptom of a number of bacterial infections or other breathing problems. Beyond whooping cough, there are times to leave the home herb cupboard and find professional medical help, particularly if...

  • There is a fever for more than several days,
  • A fever, wheezing or headaches are severe or get worse rapidly,
  • you develop fast breathing or chest pain,
  • it is difficult to get a breath,
  • you cough up blood or rusty-colored phlegm,
  • you become sleepy or confused,
  • a cough lasts for longer than four weeks or keeps coming back.

Please feel free to add your comments and experiences with herbal cough remedies in the comments. 

Amid the glory of early summer, have a care for the winter cold: Home Medicine Cycle 11

The Home Medicine Cycle isn't just a collection of herbal remedies. And it certainly isn't a shopping list. I started with and continually find myself returning to the key element in this practice of "taking back your health." That is growing or gathering and making your own herbal medicines. 

Why grow or gather your own?

  1. The fresher the herbs the more medicinally potent they are.
  2. You know where you got them and have at least a chance to ensure they aren't full of pesticides or heavy metals pollution. 
  3. You can keep processing to a minimum to preserve the medicinal potency.
  4. You know every ingredient and screen out allergens. 
  5. The process of growing and making your own medicinals is a powerful way to connect you to natural rhythms and the earth.
  6. Some herbal medicinals are specifically more effective if they are locally grown.
  7. You can be a part of local, sustainable habitat and community development.
Elderflower - Creative commons image by J. M. Garg

Elderflower - Creative commons image by J. M. Garg

This week I have an herbal tip that is often easy to gather and you may not need to grow it. It is also a perfect example of an herb that will root you in natural rhythms and cycles of the earth and sun. That's elder flowers.

I know you can make elderberry wine and syrup later in the season and these have their own medicinal qualities and significant vitamin content. But I want to spotlight elder flowers because they bloom for only two or three short weeks each year in May or June, depending on where you live. And they are so essential to the home medicine cabinet.

The primary way we use elder flowers is in tinctures and teas to treat colds, sniffles and sinus problems. Elder flower is the single most effective herbal cold medicine I know of and it often works almost uncannily well, drying up serious congestion in a couple of hours with the rapidity usually reserved for unhealthy pharmaceuticals that block the body's production of mucus. Elder flower has a much gentler mechanism with better long-term effects. Sometimes it isn't as dramatic but it should be helpful with colds and sinus problems unless you are actually allergic to elder flower pollen.

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Kurt Stuber

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Kurt Stuber

Some people are allergic, so I recommend caution if you suffer from pollen allergies. I do know people who actually treat pollen allergies with elder flower tincture effectively, but due to their allergies they have to have a friend or family member process the elder flower for them and make it into a tincture with all the pollen and petals filtered out. This is likely to be one case in which the local origin of the herb will be an aid in allergy mitigation. 

Here is a link to the instructions on tincture making. You can use that recipe to make elder flower tincture and bottle a little bit of the June sunshine for next fall and winter when the inevitable sniffles will come around. 

I also recommend drying some elder flower blossoms for tea. The flower can be very effective for children too, but it can be difficult to give children tincture without exposing them to alcohol. 

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Hardyplants at Wikipedia

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Hardyplants at Wikipedia

It may be difficult to get motivated to go out and search for elder flower to treat colds that are unlikely to strike for another six months. This is why it's such a good herb to connect us with natural rhythms and remind us that we are in the cycle of the earth's seasons. Now is the time for gathering and producing food and herbs. The time of need will come soon enough.

Wild elder trees often  grow in empty lots and on the edges of towns in thick bushy clumps, Look for elder flowers in areas that aren't sprayed with pesticides on vacant land or along the edges of forests.

However, if you need a little added motivation, there are ways to make elder flower into a delicious and healthy summer drink, in fact an excellent replacement for pop and other over-sweetened drinks. I posted this recipe last year. Look here for the post on how to make a delicious drink concentrate with elder flowers.