Friday, January 22, 2010

Living Well Is The Best

What's that expression? "Living well is the best revenge?" My spin on it is "living healthy is the best reward." I'll be honest, though, that it has taken a long time for us to reach the reward stage. Remember? I'm the unprofitable servant...I've only done what is required of me. I'll admit that most of this journey has been spent running from a stick of sufficient magnitude to make the effort worthwhile rather than the enticement of a theoretical carrot. I admire people who have the self-discipline to persevere and discipline themselves on that idea of a pay-off in the far-flung future. Shamefacedly, I admit that I'm not one of those. Stick, me. Big stick. Big, big stick.

Our journey was supposed to be only one of four to six months, but has extended to eight years now and still counting. We have a couple stubborn outlying foods that still evade our grasp, but we're getting there. These extended years, though, have afforded me the opportunity to begin to enjoy the carrot phase of the journey while still grappling with the stick aspects.

Tool Guy is the a shining example of what "clean living" will do. His weight was ballooning, as is typical with the men in his family, until he decided to low carb a dozen years ago. In was an inadvertent diagnosis because the carbs he found most dispensable was bread. After we stumbled into our familial gluten intolerance diagnosis, we were able to connect the dots and realize why he responded so well to a low carb diet. Since going gluten free, he has resumed carb consumption without any particular attention or regulation to his diet. And excepting when sugar allures, he is able to maintain a stable weight that isn't far from his low carb ideal. And those annoying eczematic rashes on his feet have mysteriously disappeared, never to return. Without any medical assistance. Ditto on those troublesome ear infections that responded only to aggressive irrigation with Betadyne solution. But those improvements took a long time to surface.

Some improvements don't take so long to manifest themselves. Tool Guy's dad, Pop, visited with us over the holidays. He arrived from sunny Florida, announcing that felt as if he'd aged ten years in the last few months and he moved as if, indeed, he had. The airlines, while very tardy in their scheduling, were at least very prompt in providing a much-needed wheelchair to portage him from terminal to terminal in a timely fashion. Bless his heart, his ditty bag bulged with thirteen different medications. No, not thirteen pills to take daily. Thirteen different medications that required multiple doses a day. Blerg.

During his visit, he reconciled himself to eating what we eat with a minimum of greasy-spoon diner runs. During one conversation, he asked me what was good for arthritis. As it happened, I had some black cherry concentrate in the pantry, since the Hobbits like it to flavor their smoothies, and it became part of his daily routine to have a tablespoon in a cup of water. Within only a few days, he demonstrated how he was able to flex his fingers, effortlessly and painlessly.

Consequently, I started poking around to find what other things might help reduce arthritic inflammation and make him more comfortable. There were a few truncated references to Chinese Star Anise seed pods and bells started going off.

Tool Guy had recently gifted me with a french press coffee maker that I haven't been using to make coffee. I've been using it to make herbal teas, since the press is equally lovely for straining out the herbals as it is for coffee grounds. And the Hobbit favorite is Chai Tea. They used to have to put up with the bagged chai from the grocery store until I was given a recipe for The Real Thing. Definitely met with cries of delight and the more I read on the constituent herbs, the more healthy it is appearing. In addition to reputed benefits for arthritis, Star Anise is the food source for Tamiflu. Cinnamon is in good reputation for diabetics and high blood pressure. Ginger, as I learned this past summer, has a wealth of goodies, just waiting to burst upon us. And the bonus? It tastes good. And isn't it great to be able to juggle things around so that they are safe for us, good for us, and dance on the tastebuds?

I pinched as many pennies as I could to get all of these ingredients in bulk and as fresh as possible. It was well worth the sacrifice. After tweaking the recipe to suit highly specific Hobbit tastes--Hey, I personally happen to like a heavy cinnamon overtone, but, whatever--they have been clamoring for it on a regular basis. I imagine that this will be just as popular during the summer season as it has been during the cold and flu season.

Chai Tea, adapted from a recipe by Aleese Cody, Help's On the Way

1 quart water
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp dried ginger root
1 star anise pod
10 whole peppercorns
1/4 tsp. decorticated cardamom
1/4 tsp. whole coriander
1/4 tsp. whole cloves
1/2 whole vanilla bean or 1 dropperful of vanilla extract
1 tea bag

Combine ingredients except for tea and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes. Cover and allow to steep for another 20 minutes, dropping the tea bag in during the last 5 minutes of the steep. Strain out spices and serve. Flavoring options favored by Hobbits include stevia and coconut milk. A tsp. of cocoa powder was trialed, but didn't pass the taste test. Your mileage may vary.

When Pop left, he was able to bend completely down and pick up anything that he may drop on the floor. And put on his own socks without a struggle. Something that was extremely difficult for him when he first arrived. On the return flight home, after two weeks in the extreme colds that New England is so generous with, he spurned the use of the wheel-chair, striding to his terminals alongside Tool Guy, who accompanied him to see him off. He plans on scaring up some black cherry concentrate.

Eating everything free isn't just about avoiding allergens, it's about eating well, enjoying the food, enjoying life. Living well. Pop has discovered that living free has freed him up from the bondage of the pharmaceutical. He left, down to only two medications. His blood pressure, his doctor tells him, is the lowest it has been in many, many years. Without medication. How's that for everything free? Let your food be your medicine and your medicine your food.

Living well is the best...revenge?...reward? Whatever. Living well is simply the best.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Old Man Winter

Winter has taken its time getting here. We barely had snow for Christmas. The blizzard that socked the seaboard sniffed at our feet and ran south to christen everyone in that direction. But when Old Man Winter decided to arrive, he did it with quite the flourish. We had a week of howling...and I am not using a hyperbolic metaphor when I say "howling"...winds to make things "interesting" for us. Blasts of 30 mph winds sustained themselves for over a week. Everyone was comparing notes on how many times the winds woke them in the night. Tool Guy and I were comparing notes on what new location in the house was exhibiting drafts and we were regretting not being more extensive with our weatherstripping of this past summer. I shared a bed with Princess over the holidays because we had surrendered the master bedroom to guests for the month of December. During our "sleepovers," my feet would hang over the end of her mattress and act as lure for any stray draft that may have wandered in. I think I got frost bite. It was definite incentive for me to finish those black socks that I began in February of last year.

The coup de grace was when I went up into the attic to start returning the Christmas decorations to their storage places. And noticed that there was more visibility and in our attic. The high, sustained winds had trashed the attic fan and the hood was completely gone. Oh. That was the fragments of something that we had noticed out in the yard, but everyone was too wimpy to brace the winds and go find out what it was. Bug's theory was that it was a crashed flying saucer. Well. Almost. It might not explain the alien abductions, but it definitely explained the mysterious drafts that the house had begun to manifest. No need for a ghost buster here.

True to form, this discovery happened on...yep...a weekend. You knew that, right? We consoled ourselves that the 22" hole in our roof didn't coincide with any rain in the forecast. One of the consolations of 12* weather. One of the few. Tool Guy covered the hole from the interior with a spare sheet of plexi-glass and we ferreted around for someone willing to mush out to our remote waste of frozen Shire tundra and climb on our roof to fix this. One insurance adjuster and three visits later, we are the proud possessors of a low-profile (I'm beginning to appreciate the value of this characteristic) attic vent. And it is snowing.

The weather definitely has Tool Guy down. As a child of the Chicagoland, he has none of my romantic notions regarding snowfall. While I saw only two snowfalls of any moment in the bayous of Louisiana, he slogged through masses of this every year in his suburbian neighborhood--"lake effect," you know--and the childhood memories of such aren't of the cherished sort. Ours was not the generation of parents who drove children to the bus stop and sat, expanding their carbon footprint with a running motor to warm the car, until the bus stop arrived and the children dashed from warm car to warm bus to warm school. Nope. Ours was the one that said, "Bundle up, it's cold out there!" as we walked out the door, solitarily, to take on the quarter mile walk and the twenty minute wait at the stop. It was frigid enough in the swamps of the South. Bus stop huddles in this weather would certainly warp my view of New England winters. As it is, I'm free to enjoy my pink-hazed romance with the piles and billows that grace us without the jaundice of too much reality interfering. Heh.

This year, particularly, Tool Guy is grousing about the snow. He wants his motorcycle. The junkie and his crack. What can I say? He heatedly justifies this fervid attachment by expounding on how therapeutic riding is for his back. (You see what they do? Desperate justifications...) I nod. He continues to describe the relief. I nod. He waxes eloquent on the sense of well-being sustained riding provides. I nod. He gives up in disgust, muttering how I just don't understand. I nod. Poor guy. He is, however, hobbling around like a stiff old man, just a mite older than he actually is. So I took pity on him.

Mrs. Hostess (of Nitty-Gritty Cooking fame) is enjoying dabbling along with me into all things herbal. She came home from a visit out to Ohio this past summer with a salve that she declared the best thing since sliced bread...everything free bread even. She explained to me how she'd injured herself during the visit and had discovered this salve provided by an Amish farmer. Application of this salve had resolved the injury in an amazingly short period of time. The ingredients? Comfrey and chickweed. Et voila. Herbs that are readily on hand here.

We started our oil extraction immediately and when the leaves began to fall, we were ready to make the salve. We had planned that this would be our first venture into making a salve, myself heretofore being too lazy to make any of the herbal oils I've done in the past into an actual salve, but we decided that we'd try it together and planned a "salve party" at some point. However, A Series of Unfortunate Events conspired to prevent our party and the autumn wasted away before we got to it. And a few weeks after the bike's entry into hibernation, Tool Guy had commenced hobbling. Time to commence with the salve.

I'm beginning to understand the maddening vagaries of the herbalists whom I've been soliciting for wisdom. When one is accustomed to specific measurements, it sounds very elusive to hear things like "stuff a bunch into a jar." It grates on our Western sensibilities. But there it is.

I--forgive me--stuffed a bunch of comfrey leaf and chickweed in relatively equal amounts (how's that for specificity, eh?) into a quart jar and covered with olive oil. The plant matter need to be completely covered with oil, packed densely enough to have a substantial amount of herb in the oil, but not so tight as to prevent the circulation of the oil through the plant matter. A favorite trick of mine is to vacuum seal the jar with my Food Saver. As the vacuum seal is taking effect, the air bubbles rise from out of the leaves and oil and the leaves, particularly when fresh, will visibly darken. Goody!

Leave this jar in a handy, reachsome place, but out of the sun, for 4-6 weeks. When you walk by, shake it. Alcohol tinctures work on this same principle, but they are easier to shake. Shaking an oil extract is more like playing with a lava lamp and you have to give it a bit more of your time and attention than a tincture. If you have Hobbits running around who would be fascinated with the process and not so fascinated as to want to open the jar, you may want to recruit them. This has inspired not a few in-depth conversations that expanded into actual instructional sessions. Bug and Princess particularly have become adept at identifying plants and their uses from such spontaneous conversations.

An herbalist mentor of mine says that when making an extract or tincture this way, 80% of the virtue of the plant has been imparted to the liquid or "menstrum" after only two weeks. The remaining two to four weeks will net you the last 20% of what the plant has to offer. This is useful to know when one is in a hurry for the final product.

To decant the preparation, pour into a cheesecloth lined strainer. After the excess oil has run through, bundle up the herbs into the cheesecloth and squeeze aggressively. I'm actually drooling over a machine that will press this for me, but the price renders it a hopeless romance. Sigh. Ah, well. The strained oil is then the essence of your medicine.

Aches and Pains Salve

Herbal Oil
Rosemary Essential Oil (opt) or Benzoin Tincture (opt) for preservation
Fragrance oils, if desired
Salve jars, prepared and ready ahead of time

Measure out the desired amount of herbal oil. The ratio of beeswax to oil is approximately 1 T to 1 C, more or less depending on how soft you want your salve to be for usage. I tended toward a stiffer salve; your preferences may vary. In a double boiler, I melted the wax. I'm not sure if I regret using my double boiler. It melted wonderfully well without the requisite hovering that characterized the salve session in my herbal classes, but it did leave wax residue in the ring around the waist of the pot that required a not insubstantial amount of elbow grease to remove.

Oh, and a word on wax. In an effusion of enthusiasm, I bought a fragrant chunk of beeswax and romanced it for quite some time before I breached the wrapping. I was quite in love with this brick. Until I needed to melt it. Wax, despite its ductile reputation in candles, is actually a very hard substance and requires"downsizing" to expedite the melting process. Unromantic hacking away at the boulder was necessary--and a bit risky--if not to say messy. For the more discriminating salve-maker, wax beads are available that render this a less muscular and more genteel activity. And they melt faster. 'Nuff said.

While the wax was melting, I gently heated the medicinal oil so that I would be able to mix the two without the wax immediately setting up upon contact with the cooler oil. Turning off all heat, I combined the two and added about 10 drops of Rosemary EO. Any fragrance oils would be added at this point. Rosemary is a relatively popular food additive and when you see "natural preservatives" on food labels, you can bank on it that it is probably rosemary. The herbalist I studied with recommends a few drops of Benzoin tincture for the purpose (which I didn't have on hand) and another herbalist recommends a capsule of Vitamin E oil. I opted not to use this since most Vitamin E caps are based on wheat or soy. Besides, I had a sneaking suspicion this salve wouldn't last long enough to go rancid, so I decided to experiment with the Rosemary EO.

Stirring the ingredients together before the whole can congeal, pour them into the waiting salve jars, being careful about drips and spills. Allow to cool--a dimple will form in the surface of the salve--and then cover. Label with ingredients and date and store in a cool, dry place.

I waited until Tool Guy began to worry about the status of his back. "One bend away from it going out," was how he phrased it and I presented him with my finished product. That night, he anointed his back and went to bed in his favorite spot. The next morning, the hobble was noticeably absent and he didn't feel as if he were on the brink of the precipice anymore.

Yeah, it ain't his bike. But it beats codeine.