Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Saliva, what have you done for me lately? The Bitter Truth

As a 7 year old, I suggested that my parched cousin “make saliva” to quench her thirst: “Haz saliva”, I demonstrated. She didn’t speak Spanish, but she got the idea. I was already displaying a tendency to troubleshoot other people’s physical discomfort.

Saliva doesn’t just make your mouth wet, it is the first step in digestion, providing amylase, the enzyme that digests starch. Chewing food thoroughly insalivates it and skipping this step by wolfing food down can cheat you out of vitamins, minerals and other co-factors which are the cosmic purpose for chewing and swallowing in the first place.

Chronic heartburn and indigestion, headaches and bloating after a meal, can often be traced back to hurried eating with improper insalivation of food. Insufficient saliva production can also be a consequence of age or genetics, but whatever the cause, Bitters can help.

Bitters prepare the body for digestion. Within seconds of tasting bitter there is an increase of saliva production, bile production, and secretion of bile from the gall bladder into the small intestine. Your digestive system is prepped to derive the maximum nutrition from your meal and the chances of indigestion, bloating, and discomfort during what science writer Natalie Angier calls “the festival of mandatory gratitude”, are diminished.

What’s bitter? Salad greens like endive, escarole, and radicchio; cooked greens like kale, chard, rapini and dandelion; and to bridge the gap, Herbal Bitters like dandelion root and leaves, turmeric root, burdock root, and sarsaparilla root. The herbal bitter liqueurs Chartreuse and Benedictine, originally medicinal formulas created in monasteries, include artichoke leaves and orange peel. Including a Punt รจ Mes aperitif or a Fernet Branca after dinner drink is a great way to ease digestion while bringing some historical herbal context to the holiday table. After all, given that any meal has its genesis at the basis of the food chain, it’s always the plants we have to be thankful for! Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

An Herbalist Walks Into A Bar…

Part of last night’s birthday celebration took place at a restaurant bar in downtown Tucson. Reservations for 7:30 were canceled on the drive and we opted for drinks at the bar instead. Years ago they’d served something called A Real Woman’s Margarita made with a Mexican Damiana (Turnera diffusa) liqueur. Considered an aphrodisiac, the herb has tonic properties with an affinity to the bladder. The liqueur bottle is shaped similar to a Willendorf woman and seemed a fitting ingredient for an herbalist’s birthday cocktail.

As we scanned the menu, the real woman was no where to be found. In her place was a list of pre- and post-prohibition style drinks with ingredients such as walnut-infused whiskey, house made aromatic bitters, wormwood tincture, demerara (a type of raw cane sugar) syrup, herbal-infused liqueurs, and muddled sage and basil. Intrigued, I ordered something called a Vesper: gin, vodka, elderflower liqueur, twist of lemon, and tincture of quinine.

“Where do you get the tincture of quinine?” I was given a basic run down on their tincturing process and refrained both from asking where they procured the Cinchona bark (Cinchona officinalis) and from arching my eyebrows at the short maceration time of 2 hours.* “Can I see the bottle?” Slightly confused, but amenable, the bartender brought over the familiar amber dropper bottle. “Can I open it?” Now my husband explained away the bartender’s furrowed brow, “My wife is an herbalist, she makes many similar tinctures herself.” Ah, with that I’m allowed to taste – quite bitter! The drink itself was heavenly. Served in a traditional 5 oz stemmed cocktail glass, it was finished with one lemon twist squeezed and discarded while a second twist was rubbed along the rim before being floated into the drink. ¡Salud!

My husband ordered something called a Sazerac, a pre-prohibition drink that included the customary absinthe rinse. He loved it! As we sipped our herbal cocktails, a barback offered details. Ciaran Wiese was the mixologist here at Barrio Food & Drink and the force behind the herbal ingredients. He was recently named number one on the Beverage Network’s list of “Top 10 Mixologists to Watch”. Impressive. An herbalist walks into a bar -- and finds a wonderful birthday surprise: tinctures in her cocktail.

*I’ve often wondered if the customary 2 week maceration time is necessary for all tinctures. My biology curriculum included a lab where students dropped various concentrations of alcohol onto Elodea leaves (Elodea canadensis) while observing through a microscope. Within seconds of adding the undiluted alcohol the cell walls would burst and chloroplasts could be seen moving out into the solution. How much can continue to spill out over hours, days, and weeks? Especially with fresh plant tinctures, perhaps a few days of maceration suffice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Milk Thistle, Flavonolignans, & Proper Battle Gear

My top selling tinctures are those that de-stress and detoxify. In today's increasingly toxic world, this makes sense. In fact one could argue that even the biochemical fallout of stress is just one more toxin to burden the liver. What doesn't make sense is that an herbalist providing detoxifying herbs to her clients should become stressed by the need to keep up with the production of one of those detoxifying herbs, Milk Thistle.

People love Milk Thistle -- which is a good thing -- a Great Thing. It protects the liver from harmful pollutants, it can repair damage done to the liver, even increasing regeneration of liver cells, and it provides peace of mind when a potentially harmful pharmaceutical must be used. But what was once a simple tincturing process involving a scale and a few beakers has now become a kind of herbal wash day, and I blame herbalist David Winston for this added stress in my life. No, I don't know Mr. Winston personally, and probably wouldn't recognize him if he took a seat next to me at the bus stop.(Ok, that last statement is not true.) During a 2001 lecture on 'Herbs for the Liver' he took the time to describe what he felt was the proper way to produce a tincture of Milk Thistle, detailing the importance of washing away the starches and fixed oils before tincturing. He boldly stated that unless you're tincture is a bright lemon-yellow in color, it is useless! I'd never heard this or read this, but he explained that the color was an indication of the flavonolignan content and it made sense to me.

Ever since that lecture, production of Milk Thistle begins with grinding and rinsing, grinding and rinsing, and rinsing and rinsing. True to form, the fixed oils and starches turn the rinse water a dirty greasy brown. This dirty water is discarded, fresh water is added and the greasy film appears once more. When dry it is ground again and finally, tinctured. No, it doesn't sound especially stressful, I realize, but laundry of the family's clothing no longer involves a hike to the river, and I still avoid that too. I find myself putting off the tincturing of Milk Thistle -- until stock runs low and it becomes a production priority. My herbalist friend L laughs at my dilemma; she does not subscribe to the wash and rinse school of Milk Thistle. But I persist and wonder if perhaps something of this unspoken labor of love is communicated to patrons through the tincture. Those who buy it, buy it repeatedly, regarding it as an ally in their battle to protect their health and the optimal functioning of their livers. And knowing their intention intensifies my commitment and extends the battle analogy. In my internal narrative I am that blacksmith, folding the metal a few extra times despite the desire to quit and plunge the sword in the water, call it a day. My clients have valid reasons to be purchasing and consuming Milk Thistle, I want to make sure my product sees them through their battle.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Flour Tortillas, recipe

3 cups all-purpose flour
(optional, 1/2 cup of one of the following: oat flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, soy flour)
1.5 teaspoons salt
1.5 teaspoons baking powder, aluminum-free
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1.5 cups just boiled water, this varies daily!

1. In a glass bowl combine flour, salt, and baking powder.
2. Add oil, stir. Using your fingers, mush oil into flour to distribute evenly, leaving no large pockets of "un-mushed" oil.
3. Add a 1/2 cup of hot water, stir. Add the second 1/2 cup of hot water, stir to distribute as evenly as possible.
4. The final 1/2 cup of hot water is what my grandmother would call "al tanteo", which translates loosely as "to the guess" -- meaning you have to guess the right amount, and the right amount changes each time you make the tortillas. So go slowly, adding a bit at a time, until all the flour has been incorporated into the ball of dough, but it is not sticky. Knead a few times on the kitchen counter. It is not like pie dough that must be handled minimally, but it is also not like bread dough that should be kneaded to develop the gluten. Knead just a few times to create a smooth, elastic consistency.
5. Divide into sections, called "testales" (I usually get about 13 to 15 testales). Allow to rest for 15 to 30 minutes, covered with a towel to prevent drying out.
6. Flatten using a rolling pin.
7. Bake on a "comal" (a heavy cast iron griddle) on medium-high heat. See Notes on Baking & Storage, below.
8. Keep warm in a foil-lined dish cloth until time to eat.

Notes on baking:
  • The proper baking temperature is similar to that for pancakes. There should be a slight sizzle sound as the tortilla hits the comal.
  • Also similar to pancakes, when bubbles form, it's time to flip.
  • Use metal spatula to flatten bubble that get out of hand! If your tortilla has puffed up to the size of a blow fish, squash it!
Notes on storage:
  • Arrange unused testales on a plate, cover, use within a week.
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