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Archive for January, 2013

A trug of fresh picked leaves and flowers to be dried for foraged tea

A trug of fresh picked leaves and flowers to be dried for foraged tea

I am fairly new to foraged teas, long having seen the world as having essentially two types of tea – normal tea (Camellia sinensis) and hippy tea (all the others). I’ve done little more than dabble with herbal teas before and so haven’t gotten around to foraging for them; and I don’t know anywhere that normal tea is growing wild. But now, initially for no more directed a health benefit than something before bed that tastes great and specifically isn’t tea with caffeine (or wine or whiskey), and then secondarily with some thought to tailored health benefits, I have been working up foraged herbal tea alternatives.

The currently favoured flavour is a mix I have been able to gather easily through spring and early summer that works as a smooth balance of mostly mint (Mentha spp.), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora). To this I usually add some other leaves that come along at the time, but that three-species foundation seems like it will be hard to beat.  Other additions have been for taste, health potential, or simply because they were there; like leaves of strawberry, mulberry, dandelion or nettle. The dehydrated leaves get 5 minutes steeping in a coffee plunger (dried leaf parts often crumble very small and the need to strain well makes a plunger perfect for the job) and served with a bit of honey stirred in and an optional sliver of lemon (or dried lemon zest). In months to come the available ingredients will change and so, no doubt, will the recipe.

A dehydrator tray full of foraged tea ingredients (in reality, different species are better off on their own trays because they dry at different rates)

A dehydrator tray full of foraged tea ingredients (in reality, different species are better off on their own trays because they dry at different rates)

There are some definite and proven health benefits and malady-specific treatments that are possible with herbal teas (along with a fair few that seem fanciful). This is something that foraged tea has in common with foraged weed eating, and so I take the same basic approach: First of all selecting based on availability and taste preference; then aiming generally to consume a little of a lot of different types and never one in excess; and finally picking up information along the way that might allow me to tweak consumption a little towards mine and my family’s particular nutritional needs (including some things better avoided).

For now, here is what has become my spring / summer holy trinity for foraged herbal tea:

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Mint (Mentha spp.)

Mint tea is usually made from peppermint (M. piperita) and is reputed to be good for digestion and calming. Anti-cancer claims are also made, as well as warnings about messing with levels of hormones like testosterone. Mint has been a rampant ‘volunteer’ (what you call a weed when it is useful) in our community garden (until slayed by recent drought) and can be found invasively heading out from herb gardens in a lot of places. Once you find somewhere that mint is growing well, you would be likely to be doing the owner a favour by taking some away. Or if it is struggling, your harvest might be justified by meeting its common want of regular water – I have been watering a couple of stands I forage from during our current dry.

Chocolate mint

Chocolate mint

Fennel leaf (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel tea is usually based on seeds rather than leaves and is especially popular with lactating women – or more particularly those who would like to be lactating more than they are. Other reported benefits are for eyesight, mood, sex drive, digestion, the liver and your blood (in what way I cannot tell from claims as generic as ‘blood cleanser’ and ‘blood tonic’). The fennel that grows wild across many parts of the world and the bulb fennel grown in gardens are different varieties of the same species; you don’t use the wild ones for bulbs, but either work for tea.  Leaves and flowers have been a staple until recently, and seed foraging opportunities should begin within a few weeks.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora)

Lemon myrtle is native in eastern Queensland, but grows fine in Sydney. It is the richest of all known sources of citral; which is that lemon grass / lemon verbena / lemonade ice block kind of lemon scent – something that I adore. In Sydney, lemon myrtle isn’t a hugely common garden species but it does occur here and there and is well worth planting either on your own place or in a public place that you can then forage from confident that few others will even know it is worth harvesting. It is not that distinctive a plant to look at, but one pinch of a leaf and a sniff and identification is assured. Other citral sources like lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) or lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) could alternatively take its place. Lemon myrtle in tea is one of those ones with too many health benefit claims to go through. I should be able to get leaves all year round, though they will get tougher in winter.

Lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora)

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora)

Foraged tea

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Feral mustard greens (Brassica juncea):

Feral mustard greens (Brassica juncea):

At our community garden, people have tended mustard greens (Brassica juncea) as a vegetable sometimes, other times as green manure, but mostly because it now just pops up as a volunteer. For those who had something else in mind, it is then a weed. Mizuna (Brassica rapa nipposinica) also pops up, self-sown from bolted Asian salad green plantings. Same with bok choy (Brassica rapa chinensis), that I have also found cropping up as a weed in public reserves. In my herb garden, 3 volunteer heads of Chinese (napa or wombok) cabbage (Brassica rapa pekinensis) have also popped up this year after some was left to go to seed last year. This last one is the usual base for kimchi (spiced and salted Korean fermented cabbage), but all of the others can be used as well.

With a new sauerkraut crock (for German-style fermented cabbage, but Kimchi has the same process, just different ingredients), the previously sparsely used bounty of wild brassica greens has an invigorated welcome in my kitchen. A kitchen which also has the requisite fish sauce, red pepper and flaky salt, after a delightfully inexpensive shop at a local Asian grocer (Usagi-ya, Bondi Junction, where the Korean owner seemed thrilled to be kitting out a novice kimchi maker). I am still using some bought Chinese cabbage as at least half of a mix including other brassica greens and other vegetables, because that, along with the low temperature lactic acid fermentation is what defines kimchi (according to the Codex Alimentarius).

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea) and Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa pekinensis), salting. This has about 1 cup of coarse salt to a huge head of Chinese cabbage and a good bunch of mustard greens, covered in water and then weighed down by a plate to be submerged for a day before joining other ingredients in the fermenting crock.

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea) and Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa pekinensis), salting. This has about 1 cup of coarse salt to a huge head of Chinese cabbage and a good bunch of mustard greens, covered in water and then weighed down by a plate to be submerged for a day before joining other ingredients in the fermenting crock.

I have known I could easily start making kimchi, sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented food for some time (partly inspired by a great Tasmanian blog by a lady named Prue); just as I have known that it is tasty and very healthy; and I have known that an underutilised abundance of volunteer brassicas has being going to waste. I almost regret having taken so long to get to it, but for the enjoyment that I am getting right now out of the discovery of lacto-fermented foods.

The finished product: Partly foraged mixed brassica kimchi

The finished product: Partly foraged mixed brassica kimchi

Recipe

I’m not really giving one. The internet abounds with kimchi recipes, but shop around. On the one hand there are many copied, cobbled and concocted recipes from enthralled newbies like me; and there is a lot out there from Koreans (especially expats and descendants in America) who are heir to centuries of the real deal; not to deny that perhaps there are fusions that take the heart of the latter and tweak to the palate of the former.

I have started from the straightest Korean version: Admittedly it required the right Asian grocer for me; and I accept that there are other chilli powders and fresh chilli options, different fermented fish sauces (like Vietnamese nam pla) and lots of flaky salt around; but there are versions of these ingredients made in Korea and exported to speciality vendors for kimchi by the masters of it. I’d suggest trying more authentic variations first, and then work out toward fusion and experimentation. Leaf brassicas other than Chinese cabbage, those that grow feral and volunteer included, are generally on the authentic side of the variation spectrum. There is a well resolved balance of salt, sour, spice, umami, sweetness and crunchy texture to the Korean tradition that is well worth buying into. And making the most of cheap and freely foraged vegetables fits well with it too.

Traditionally fermented kimchi including foraged brassica greens

Traditionally fermented kimchi including foraged brassica greens

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Despite this state of New South Wales being the home of the Big Banana, further south in the state capital of Sydney, growing a banana (Musa acuminata) is only barely an option. Some people succeed with careful variety selection, some special efforts to make an unusually warm microclimate and good watering, but a lot of bananas never make it to a sweet yellow. The plants will grow well enough, flower and form fruit, but which is then unlikely to ripen. For months they will hang, green and mostly vainly striving for ripeness through the late winter and spring and just as likely achieve decay first. They may be found in community gardens, perhaps your own garden, or a neighbour’s where they never get used, or in public spaces where bananas may be planted more for the tropical looking foliage than a harvest.

All of this doomed fruit (treated here as a starchy vegetable) can be rescued and used in green banana recipes; in particular curry; and even more particularly one that if eaten before a night out can do a lot to prevent a hangover the next day. I am not talking about a slightly less painful hangover, but a lot less painful. It is a worthwhile, tasty and timely concoction for this time of year. Trust me (but with the disclaimer that this will not prevent alcohol killing cells all over the place, will not prevent you do something stupid or dangerous, and will not help you remember something the next day that you may well then regret having done).

A green banana (Musa acuminata), struggling against decay ahead of ripeness

A green banana (Musa acuminata), struggling against decay ahead of ripeness

When harvested and peeled, think of an unripe banana more like a starchy root crop than the sweet fruit that you know

When harvested and peeled, think of an unripe banana more like a starchy root crop than the sweet fruit that you know

The foundation for this recipe (a curry of green banana, turmeric, coconut and spices) is the most common green banana recipe you will come across, be it Indian or Caribbean – mine just adds a few extra things that, being generally adaptable to the curry theme, come from further hangover-fighting lists, both proven and folkloric. While myth abounds with things to consume once you already have one, hangovers are like STDs – easier to prevent than to get rid of (and generally the result of some poor decisions late in the game).

Common recipes may actually call for plantains (Musa balbisiana and M. balbisiana x acuminata), but a green sweet banana (M. acuminata) is close enough. If you were to use a green sweet banana off a grocer’s shelf green that will ripen happily on a windowsill, cooking time would be brief; but although looking similar, with the stubborn green nuggets I am talking about, I go so far as using the slow-cooker and giving it at least 4 hours – and even then they can come up pretty firm.

Ingredients

Ingredients

Ingredients (and their hangover preventativeness) – serves 4

Green bananas: 5 or 6 of them. These are rich in inulin, a long chain, complex starch that is said to be very good for your guts – gut kindness is very important for hangover resistance, as alcohol is known to mess things up down there. Struggling guts can then increase dehydration, prevent the absorption of stuff you need and make you feel ill. Bananas are also a rich source of potassium which is part of the all-important electrolyte balance, which is a big key to the all-important fight against dehydration (this is the same thing that is behind the reputed value of sports drinks before and after drunken sleep, but does it without being a fluoro factory swill). There is also supposed to be a good amount of B6, the depletion of which is a big part of hangover effects.

Coconut milk: A can or two. A lot of the praise that coconuts get for hangover fighting is written about coconut water (and this may be worth having as a better option than that fluoro sports drink); but for this recipe we are on canned coconut milk and getting some of the same benefits plus the oils which some believe helps by slowing alcohol absorption.

Turmeric: A piece the size of your thumb, finely chopped or grated, plus about a tablespoon of powdered stuff. The curcumin that gives turmeric its vibrant orange hue seems to be the key thing for hangover prevention – possibly the most potent of this entire recipe. I’m not completely sure how it works, but the folk assertion and personal experience are good enough for me at this stage. Seriously, somehow this stuff is hangover magic. Supporting gut health seems to be a big part of it, along with being helpful to liver function, being an anti-inflammatory, helping mop up the acetaldehyde residue of the alcohol and keeping down nausea.

Garlic: Between 2 and 8 cloves minced depending on how much you love it. Garlic is a heavily praised cure-all that contains phosphorus, potassium, calcium, vitamins (including B group) and cysteine. The cysteine seems to be a key helper because it helps in breaking down acetaldehyde produced in the breakdown of alcohol as well as assisting in the production of the amino acid glutathione that is said to be a potent antioxidant and detoxifier (precisely what these last two actually mean in practice I don’t really know, but folk seem to swear by them).

Onion: 1 or 2. Just because you do, even if just for its sweetness when slow cooked.

Kumara: One big one. The kumara is mostly about carbohydrate loading – a very common hangover preventative recommendation, but one that needs to be more than just some greasy chips. As a ‘carbo-load’, kumara probably has the best profile for vitamins and minerals that fit the hangover prevention job – and it suits the recipe best in terms of flavour and theme.

Mushrooms: Just a handful. These have B group vitamins, Selenium, protein and (let’s not forget it’s important) flavour that will get right through the dish..

Ginger: A piece about the size of your thumb or a tablespoon of powdered. Ginger can help as an anti-emetic (easing nausea), acting as an anti-inflammatory in the digestive system and blocking serotonin receptors in the stomach. There are vitamins and the like as well, but perhaps the anti-emetic factor is the most important.

A diverse vegie stock, herbs and spices: You will have to do your quantities by feel, using less if in doubt because it just takes one to come through too strong to wreck a curry. The aim is to get a lot in while still mostly keeping to the principal that this mix (masala) is the flavour foundation of any curry. A diversity of herbs and spices takes something of a scattergun approach hopefully hitting as many of the minor nutrients that alcohol will deplete as possible. On spices I’ve used a stick of cinnamon, pepper, and then small amounts of nutmeg, star anise, fennel seed, cardamom, Sichuan pepper, coriander seed, cumin and fenugreek. For herbs (although largely limited by my garden) I have used lovage, parsley, sage, thyme, bay, rosemary and kaffir lime leaf. The turmeric, garlic and ginger don’t factor here because they are serious ingredients, although they would enter the dish with the herbs and spices.

Miso paste: A lumped up tablespoon. B group vitamins, salt as an electrolyte, and the living culture and enzymes aid digestion, gut health and are said to be rich in antioxidants.

Kimchi: A generous spoonful each or to individual preference (as it gets added separately anyway). KImchi has more (as in lots more) of the three key things top hangover prevention (leaving aside whatever the magic of turmeric is), being: vitamins (especially B group and C), electrolytes (potassium, sodium) and living food. Living, lacto-fermented food is too recurrent a feature in anti-hangover recommendations from too many places across the world not to have some sound basis.

Yoghurt: Enough for each diner to add to suit their taste (or desire to smooth out a rich food). Again, it’s living lacto-fermented food for intestinal health, as well as buffering and carrying some of the flavour strength.

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Directions

Sauté cubed green banana flesh dusted with ground turmeric in coconut and olive oils, along with (in rough order) mushrooms, onion, spring onion, garlic, slivered raw turmeric, spices and then douse with coconut milk. Top with more coconut milk or stock as required, allowing for the later addition of kumara. Slow cook for 4 hours, adding some cubed kumara in the last hour and miso paste stirred in well in the last cooling seconds before serving. Serve with a dollop of kimchi and then yoghurt (these want to stay uncooked with their beneficial bacteria alive – if you are serving on rice go with brown (better B vitamins and fibre) and serve the kimchi separate to the curry to lessen the risk of burning the good bacteria to death. To go an extra yard, drink coconut water on the side.

Then drink heavily, with as much of it as possible being water. People will say to make as few drinks as possible bubbly ones, go for pale drinks and not mix grape and grain – but failing that, the intention of the meal is to back you up for a little rule-breaking abandon anyway.

Happy New Year.

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