Friday, October 30, 2009

Nitty-Gritty Cooking

Have I mentioned how much I love our homeschooling group? It's pretty impressive. A carefully balanced blend of the academic, enrichment, practical, and social. In years past, I'll admit that we were more attracted to the social aspect of it. As the Hobbits have aged, I'm appreciating the academic and enrichment. Dog is in a format writing class that assists me with another pair of eyes to critique his burgeoning writing skills. And as a child who has always loved an audience, Drama is quite acceptable to him. Bug is exploring his creative bents under the tutelage of a local professional artist. It's rather exciting to watch this part of him unfurl and his self-confidence blossom. His struggling reading skills have been rocketed ahead by the patient assistance of Party Planner's phonics class. Princess has similarly benefited from this class, even though it was a couple of years ahead of her age level when she first began last year. With a bit of scaffolding, she participated and is now an independent reader. At six. The other day, she looked at a brown bottle on the table and asked me what a "supplement fact" was. See why I love these people?

Geeks of a feather. One of the moms decided that Home Ec classes teaching "a box of this and a can of that" just weren't cutting it. Not good nutrition and not good economics. When our class planning session met, she announced that, pending interest, she planned on teaching a "Nitty-Gritty Cooking Class" with the idea that the students would learn basic recipes that a home manager would be able to produce from memory as a staple dish in the diet. Her syllabus was logical, comprehensive, formed a good foundation for these young men and women in the class. Dog mourned his inability to participate in the class, since, of course, it would be rife with wheat flour and other contact reactives.

Over the weeks, we've watched simple and delicious--if the damp, curling aromas that drifted past our noses were any indication--recipes roll out of the kitchen. She even organized this to such a degree that the products of the class each week will, at the end of the afternoon and after the completion of the organized activities, go on a communal table where we loosely congregate to socialize. See? We do manage to socialize our children...and ourselves, as well. Each serving is $1 and almost nothing has been left over.

This past week, I twitted her that I "had aught against her." As buying club coordinator, upon request, I purchase organic junk food for a snack box from which people can purchase such healthy things as zbars and Barb's cheese puffs, washed down with Spritzers. Since the advent of her class, the disappearance of these tepid offerings have come to a screeching halt. Heh. We homeschoolers are raising no fools.

With the entrance of cold weather--cha', it's already snowed here in the Shire--soups, stews, and casseroules are more on our minds. Last week's Nitty Gritty Cooking class was potato soup. That was my mother-in-love's favorite. I happened to be free that hour and watched as the teenagers peeled and chopped potatoes, onions, et al while the Hostess discoursed on the advantages of scratch food--such as the flexibility to make it your way each time--the importance of tasting as you go, and how changing the timing of adding ingredients will change the nuances of the dish. I whipped out a napkin--the only piece of paper I had to hand--and began jotting down all of the ingredients the class was tossing in. They listened as she and I discussed between us the merits, advantages, and disadvantages of various fats and flours that could be juggled to create the roux. My napkin became quite a crowded scribble of ideas.

At the end of the afternoon, the five quart brimming pot hit the table with the stack of bowls and spoons beside the contribution basket. In less than five minutes the pot was empty. I kid you not. Eat your heart out, Barb.

The next day was shopping day and I came home with forty pounds of potatoes. When I cleared a path through the kitchen to start chopping, Dog pulled up a knife and cutting board and began assisting. The Klondikes were buttery soft. We chatted while chopping, discussing flour options for the roux. I was leaning toward millet, but gf flours tend toward grainy textures. Tapioca makes pretty good sauces, but tends toward too much viscosity. My eyes landed on my potato starch container. Potato soup. Potato starch. Score.

This is what Dog and I came up with. More or less.

Everything Free Potato Soup

6 medium sized potatoes, diced
1 bunch of green onions, sliced
1 quart bone broth
1 bay leaf (opt)
1 sheet of kombu (opt...I'm always looking for ways to guerrilla in seaweed!)
4 T ghee or favorite oil
1/2 cup potato starch flour
1/2 cup coconut milk

In soup pot, simmer onions, bay leaf, and kombu while chopping potatoes and making roux. To make the roux, melt ghee or pour oil into cast iron skillet on medium low heat. Add potato starch flour and stir. This is going to be a "blonde roux," so cook it for about 12 minutes or so, stirring continually. Dog particularly enjoyed this part, which was fine with me, since making roux isn't my favorite kitchen project. After the bay and kombu has been well hydrated and has shared their goodness with the broth, cook potatoes until almost done. Add roux and coconut milk to soup and stir until fully incorporated, but not so much that the potatoes lose their integrity. Turn off heat and allow ambient temperature to finish cooking potatoes.

All of the Hobbits agreed that this was one spectacular batch of soup. Tool Guy pronounced it better than the chicken soup. And better than his mom's potato soup. High praise, indeed! Bug was a bit cool in his evaluation, but politely ate it. We're working on the "eat what's in front of you without complaint" thing. He's getting there. Princess couldn't eat enough, though, coming back for thirds and fourths. She told me later, "You never have to ask if I want potato soup." That works.

Dog is now particularly partial to this soup, having had a large hand in not only cooking it, but in creating it. When we were finished, I looked at him and announced, "Well. You just had your Nitty-Gritty Cooking Class!" He grinned. After we did the taste test, he said to me, "I think this one is better than Mrs. Hostess' soup." Lowering his voice conspiratorially, he assured me that he wouldn't repeat that within her hearing. Heh. It is fortunate that he feels this way about the soup, since this is, perforce, our road.

I repeated his ingenuous comment to her, knowing it would make her laugh. It did.

Friday, October 2, 2009

His Bark is Worse

Coughing appears to have become a seasonal sport. Dog has applied for Olympic consideration in the activity. Bug, as younger siblings are wont to do, has shown a reluctance to be left behind and has joined in the bark-fest. As I was dialing our doctor's number, I looked at the date on the inhaler in my hand and realized that it was exactly a year ago that we'd been in this exact same fix, looking for the exact same solution. Clearly this isn't going to be a one-off situation. When I asked our doctor what to do to avoid these respiratory infections, he glanced at Dog's chart and shrugged, "He has seasonal allergies, doesn't he?" as if that explained and dismissed it all in one fell swoop.

I realized that once again I was reading the menu at McDonald's and hoping to find Chinese food there. I walked out of the office with a handful of prescriptions--that included steroids this time--and a deeper resolve to find a way to avoid doing this again every year. I was bemoaning to Tool Guy that I appear to be constitutionally incapable of being satisfied with mainstream solutions, but upon reflection, I concluded that I wasn't necessarily a wild-eyed, radical, jerk-knee reactor. Regular dosing of antihistamines such as diphenhydramine and cromolyn sodium have reduced the difficulty, but not eliminated it and didn't help us avoid the ultimate infection anyway. Even loratadine was momentarily helpful, but eventually disappointing.

Limbering up my Google-fu, I dove into the internet to gather a consensus of what would be effective treatments for this kind of infection and what would prevent it from occurring in the first place. My first big gun suggestion came from someone who was asthma-free for the first time in years. She'd taken andrographis upon a CAM doctor's recommendation of it as an alternative to echinachea for colds and found that she was so asthma-free that she's not needed to use any of her conventional asthma medications this year. Turns out that andrographis is much more than just an option for ameliorating colds:

  • Scientific Name: Andrographis paniculata (Burm.f) Nees
  • Family: Acanthaceae
  • Other Common Name: Andrographis, Chuan Xin Lian, Kalmegh (Bengali, Hindi), King of Bitters.
  • Andrographis, is a shrub that is found throughout India and other Asian countries. It is sometimes referred to as “Indian echinacea”.
  • Andrographis contains, as its primary chemical constituents, diterpenoid lactones (andrographolides), paniculides, farnesols and flavonoids
  • Andrographis was used historically in the Indian flu epidemic in 1919, during which it was credited with reversing the spread of the disease.

Impressive, no? I made it my business to get my hands on some. It's going to be a "must have" herb for my garden in the spring, I can tell you. And not only is it good for respiratory stuff, as a bitter, it's good for digestive things, too.

At this point, I knew that my windfall of elderberry was not for nothing and poked around for applications. Kami McBride offered an obliging recipe. I tweaked it for the items that I had on hand, namely elderberry, pine needles, and rose hips. My neighbor had happened to notice me low-crawling around my yard and the neighborhood for plant matter and approached me with an offer: "Would you be interested in rose hips?" he asked. Would I! Here I'd thought that he had a persimmon bush that bristled with all of those little orange fruits. Nope. Rose hips. Does it get any better than that? The white pine in my back yard didn't mind yielding a few of their needles and I had just stocked up on a large jar of local honey. (Yes, Virginia, there do exist beekeepers who don't feed their hives with high fructose corn syrup!) The rest of Kami's ingredients I just ignored and set about making up the syrup.

Elderberry Syrup

  • 6 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons elderberry
  • 2 tablespoons pine needles (Okay, I'm not gonna lie to you. I grabbed a handful off of the tree and threw it in because I'm too lazy to snip up a bunch of pine needles and measure them out by the spoonful, all right?)
  • 2 tablespoons of rose hips (Ditto on the rose hips. A handful.)
  • 2 tablespoons of raw honey, added to the syrup after it is cooled. (Don't want to lose all of the raw honey goodness, right?)

In a stainless steel or glass saucepan, add all ingredients, except the honey and simmer for fifteen minutes. Turn off heat and cover, letting the ingredients infuse for a few hours. Later, strain out plant matter and return liquid to saucepan. On simmer burner or with a diffuser, allow liquid to simmer without boiling until the amount is reduced to half. Let cool and add honey. Two tablespoons, three times a day.

My next big gun herbal idea was ginger. Ginger, upon closer examination, yields some very promising potential for lung support. "Ginger also decreases the activity of plate-activating factor (PAF), a clotting agent that creates the clot that can result in heart attack of stroke. Ginger's ability to reduce PAF activity also makes the herb effective against allergies and asthma." There was a bag at the local HFS waiting for me to pick up from the previous vegetable co-op order and I kept forgetting to go and get it. What can I say? I've been forgetting to take my gingko. I had earmarked these for pickling for kimbop, but this was more timely.

Ginger Syrup

1 ounce fresh ginger, sliced
1 pint water

Similarly to Kami's instructions, I put the ginger into boiling water and simmered for about 20 minutes. Turning off the heat, I then covered the pot and let it steep overnight, since roots and bark are sturdier plant materials than berries. After steeping, I strained out the root and reduced the liquid by half, adding raw honey when cooled. Two tablespoons, three times a day or when they started coughing.

Fenugreek and anise seeds came up frequently in searches as effective against coughs. As those were also readily on hand, I added them to my arsenal, preparing them in the same ratios as the ginger. Seeds are more delicate than roots or leaves and so are not simmered, but merely steeped for 20 minutes before straining out. Decoct the liquid as usual and add honey when cooled.

If honey is off the menu, these can be sweetened for the palate with whatever is acceptable, whether glycerin or stevia or the like. Syrups such as these will last a week in the fridge with honey. An alcohol, such as vodka or brandy, will preserve it longer. If freezing is necessary, separate it into smaller amounts so that these can be thawed in more usable batches.

Anise and fenugreek didn't disturb the Hobbit tranquility much, but the elderberry syrup didn't match commercial varieties for comestibility in their opinion. Quelle domage. They took it anyway. Heh. Ginger was decidedly no contender for favorite status, since it "burned all the way down." Hmmm...must be that PAF activity thing. Nonetheless, coughs are almost gone and breathing is decidedly improved. Even Doctor McDonald would be happy with that outcome.