A Botanist Tackles Spurge Nettle for Lunch

The latest issue of Palmetto, the quarterly journal of the Florida Native Plant Society, has an amusing and informative article by Francis Putz, Ph.D., about Cnidoscolus stimulosus, a much-despised plant for Floridians hiking about in sandals. Every part of this plant has protective needles save the well-hidden root, which can be as deep as three or four feet. And the sting lasts for hours.

Note: Rubbing a bit of plantain (Plantago spp.) on the irritation often relieves the burning itch. Luckily, plantain is usually abundant at the same time of year as Cnidoscolus.

Several years ago, when we invited southeastern herbalist Doug Elliott to present a day-long foraging seminar here in north Florida, he was so excited by the abundant C. stimulosus (also called spurge nettle and tread softly) that he insisted we dig some up for lunch. Well dig we did. He kept promising we soon find the root. Paul went to find a sturdier shovel. After what seemed like an hour, we uncovered an ugly, jointed tuber. That, Doug told us pointing at the monstrosity, could be lunch!

Cnidoscolus stimulosus
Spurge Nettle

We tried it under his instructions: Boil until very soft–two or three times changing the water each time. Mash through a sieve and serve with butter. Actually it was quite tasty. But the effort to obtain it? My husband and I agreed: definitely a survival food!

Dr. Putz and his son Antonio came to a similar conclusion in their experiments to prepare the prickly leaves as a pot herb, although he writes favorably about C. acontifolius and C. chayamansa, related species that he sampled in Costa Rica.

Read “Trying to Eat Tread Softlies” in the current issue of Palmetto, which is available to members of the Florida Native Plant Society, and also more than likely in your public library.

Wild Fermentation

What a delight to spend an evening with Sandor Katz, and to hear all about his latest methods of fermenting foods. His 2003 book, Wild Fermentation, is a well-worn reference on my cookbook shelves, and I was so excited to actually have the opportunity to hear him talk.

His seminar drew a large audience for Gainesville, Florida, where he set up a table with some fermented foods at an alternative reading room called the Civic Media Center. Sandor jumped right in with some background about fermented foods, reminding us that fermentation and drying were the original ways of storing food. All cultures, he said, developed ways to “culture” milk products in various ways with various names.

One such culture called “yogurt” became popularized world-wide through the efforts of the Dannon Company, originally founded in 1919 in Barcelona, Spain, by the Carasso family who obtained cultures from Bulgaria and the Pasteur Institute, where the bacteria strains were first isolated by Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel laureate who attributed the long life of Bulgarians to one of the two bacteria that converted milk into yogurt.

Sauerkraut is the most common “ferment” in the U.S.; however, the commercial sauerkraut available in supermarkets may be fermented, but it is also pasteurized, which sort of begs the issue of the health benefits of live microorganisms.

There are much more exciting options for fermenting food than just cabbage and yogurt,  as Sandor soon showed us. He had already cut up all the vegetables because he told us it would be pretty boring to watch him chop and slice and if he tried talking while chopping, well, who knows what might end up in the fermentation!

While he acknowledged Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions method of using whey for fermentation, which he says will speed things up, he advocates just using the vegetables own juices and a little bit salt. How much salt? He said it depends on your tastes.

He reminded the audience of about 100, most of whom seemed familiar in some way or  another with the process of fermentation, that this stuff keeps forever and he noted that he has a 55-gallon drum of fermented vegetables in his basement at home in Tennessee. He even brought some for us to try, a delicious, pungent mix of various vegetables and cabbage.

Why should you ferment vegetables?

Lots of reasons including improved digestibility; additional nutrients formed by the fermentation process; long-term storage of fresh food; enhancing your immune system by promoting microbial diversity in your body; and for many, the sheer enjoyment of the taste!

Ferments are typically stable due to the salt and the acidity.

And it is safe to ferment just about anything–even meat, but there are special more complicated processes for this that are best left to professionals or the very conscientious.

For successful fermentation, remember this important rule, which applies to infusing herbs as well:  Keep the material out of the air, that is, keep it covered with liquid.  Exposed parts grow mold which will ruin a good ferment.

Sandor’s latest  “no fuss” fermentation process:

  1. Use glass or ceramic jars or crocks.
  2. Chop, grate, or use a food processor to cut up vegetables.
  3. Add salt (not mandatory but better because the salt holds the water out of the vegetable through osmosis).
  4. Bruise the vegetables with a rolling pin, or your hands (about five minutes or so).
  5. Press vegetables down into their own juices and put something heavy (and non-reactive) on top.
  6. Do not fill jar to top and do not seal jar! (Keep vegetables covered with liquid.)
  7. Leave your vegetables out at room temperature. Look at your ferment everyday and taste it. The tartness of the ferment is personal, and you should slow the process when you think its right. (You do this by placing the ferment in the refrigerator.)
  8. Keep mold off the vegetables. A little whitish top mold won’t hurt anything if you catch soon enough. Brightly colored molds can be dangerous, so throw out the ferment, sterilize the jar and start over. One of the participants suggested putting a slice of onion on top the ferment to further retard mold.

What can you ferment?
Just about anything. Cabbages, of course! Radishes, beets, celery, turnips, onions, beans, ginger, garlic, carrots, and the white part of bok choy and other Asian greens. Herbs, including dills heads and seeds, celery seeds, seaweed, and caraway seeds, can be added for flavoring.

Greens can be fermented, but they are not so crunchy. Sandor does not recommend fermenting tomatoes unless they are green, but some red ones may be added for color or flavor. They don’t hold up well, he told us.

And don’t forget fruit! You make a fruit kimchi with a variety of fruit, and adding spices such as garlic cloves, hot chilies, cilantro, and/or ginger. You can add nuts, too! Sandor mentions adding the juice of one lemon in this fruit ferment he learned from a neighbor in Tennessee, Nancy Ramsay. Peel the fruit if you like or not. Leave the grapes whole, but chop everything else and prepare as you would the vegetables, adding water if needed to cover mixture.

My neighbor Joni, who joined me for the evening talk, got so excited about the fermentation process that she attended an impromptu community fermentation workshop the following Sunday. “It was great,” she said. “What a perfect winter activity.”

Especially since the last 10 days continuous days of nighttime temperatures below 32 degrees here in Florida  have pretty much wiped out our typically abundant winter gardens.

Time to  harvest and preserve. Toast the New Year with a glass of kavass!

Meanwhile, it’s Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, so join in the fun,  learn lots, and eat well!

Winter Colds and Christmas Tummies

‘Tis the season to be under-the-weather.  Even here in sunny Florida, we succumb to winter colds (brought to us from our northern neighbors, or so we claim). This is also the time of year our tummies can churn with stress and anxiety or just plain eating too much of all the wrong foods.

Here are some of my favorite herbal remedies for sore throats and coughs and for heartburn and general gastric upset. I’m not being too specific here. These are just the herbal alternatives to the over-the-counter remedies you may have in your home medicine cabinet. If symptoms persist, seek more detailed professional advice, herbal or otherwise.

Herbal Cold and Cough Aids

Elderberry syrup: You can make your own when elder trees are fruiting (black/blue berries only; never use the red ones). Make the syrup like you would a cordial. Or you can buy commercial elderberry syrup products (e.g., Sambucol). Elderberry is also anti-viral and can reduce fevers.

Elderberry Cordial for Coughs

1 cup fresh (or dried and rehydrated) elderberries
2 cups (or enough to cover berries) vodka or brandy
Lemon or orange peel (avoid the white part, it makes the cordial bitter), cinnamon stick broken up, and a few cloves
1 cup sugar (for second step)
1/2 cup water (for second step)

1.  Let mixture sit for 6-8 weeks. Check to be sure berries are covered.  If not, top off with vodka or brandy.

2.  Strain through cheesecloth, squeezing out all the juice, and compost mark (berry residue). Make sugar water by dissolving 2 parts sugar in one part hot water. Add to strained elderberry infusion and let sit for 6 weeks. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

Alternate (Faster) Method

Soak 1 cup of dried or fresh elderberries in 2 cups of vodka or brandy with 1/2 cup sugar and orange or lemon peel and cinnamon and cloves. Infuse for 4 weeks. Strain through cheesecloth, squeezing out all the juice. Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

A product found in Asian markets called Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa (a demulcent sore throat syrup) that is a thick and delicious syrup of slippery elm, honey, and a handful of other herbs including loquat leaf, balloon flower root, licorice root, ginger, and five flavor seed.

Osha Root Complex, especially taken at night before bed. This product is made by Herbs Etc., comes in a glass bottle, and suppresses a cough better than anything else I have tried.

Herbal Remedies for Holiday Gastric Distress

  • Meadowsweet tincture (Filipendula [aka Spirea] ulmaria) : 20-30 drops (nearly a dropperful) in an ounce or two of warm water. Swish around in your mouth and swallow.
  • Fennel seed: chewed, infused (1 T per 8 oz  boiled water; steeped 10-15 minutes); or as a tincture, same as previous. You can also take meadowsweet and fennel together.
  • One tablespoon of  slippery elm powder dissolved in water. This is best taken about an hour or 30 minutes before you start eating the offending foods. Or on an empty stomach when the acid starts churning from stress or anxiety. Slippery elm powder does not dissolve in water, and you do not strain it as you do other herbal teas or infusions. Add the powder to about a 1/2 cup of boiled water. Stir vigorously and add remaining water. You will need to stir from time to time as you drink it our you will end up with a final swallow of slippery sludge.The commercial  tablets are useless except for temporarily soothing a dry throat; for gastric purposes, you have to take too many of them and they are mostly sugar. You can make your own tablets with a bit of flour and honey plus the herb.  Stir together and roll into balls. Depending on your climate, you may need to store these in the refrigerator.

Wishing you a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Herbs Without Patents

Traditional herbalists express concerns about the proclivity of pharmaceutical companies to patent medicines and plants that have been part of historical healing practices that are as old as human beings. This has been a controversial subject, and recently the government of India has taken steps to insure that these traditional practices remain in the public domain and cannot be patented by biotech companies seeking to make profits on indigenous knowledge.

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library currently has more than 150,000 entries from various traditional healing systems including Unani and Ayurveda. The story of this tremendous undertaking was published in the Ecologist . Tumeric and neem are examples of two herbs for which patents were extended, and only after decades of lawsuits and appeals were the patents overturned.

Those of us who forage for food and use natural plant medicine must be vigilant that our rights are not usurped by government regulations, either by those who seek to patent plants medicine or by those who feel one plant or another should be made illegal due to some effect that they feel needs to be proscribed.

This is also the reason there is controversy about the licensing of herbalists. While some believe this would be a benefit and allow rules and guidelines to be put in place for protection of consumers, others believe that such a restriction would end indigenous practices that have been in place for generations. Stephen Harrod Buhner has penned an excellent essay about why herbalists should not be certified.

Personally, I want to retain the freedom to eat and use for medicine whatever plants thrive in my environment. I applaud the Indian government for leaving this legacy for all to share.