Monday, March 31, 2014

A word about weeds: Stellaria media, Taraxacum officinale and Plantago major

Along with the late rains we have recently been blessed with, plants like Chickweed have taken up residence in my yard as well as in my planter box, nestled up against a patch of flowering cabbage.  Chickweed can be found sprouting up in lawns, by the side of the road, or in a forest thriving under the shade of trees.  It is characterized by its tiny star - like flowers (hence the genus Stellaria).

I like it in salads.  It has a mild taste much like spinach, and is quite good for you.  Not to mention the pretty little leaves and white flowers look very nice in a bowl with some Bosch pears.

Chickweed is high in vitamins and minerals, and can also be used externally for inflammation and skin irritations.  Its demulcent properties will soothe and cool inflamed tissue.  A simple poultice (fresh mashed leaves combined with warm water) can help to relieve mosquito bites, burns, and inflamed wounds.  Oh, and you can also feed it to your chickens!

Now, many of us have heard how those pesky lawn invaders dandelions are actually powerfully medicinal plants, cleansing your blood and aiding your liver in its functions.
They are also an important food source for pollinators and are quite nutritious for human consumption as well.  With deep, stubborn roots and tenacious seeds (make a wish!) dandelions are thankfully hard to kill.  So instead of fighting against them and other edible and medicinal plants tagged with the offensive term "weed", why not make friends and harvest them?  

Another weed that has myriad uses for healing is plantain.  Plantain grows, literally, everywhere.  It is the most common herb found in North America.  You have probably seen it working its way up through cracks in the sidewalk, in parks, soccer fields, vacant lots, you name it.  Look for a rosette of broad leaves with a single flower spike growing up from the base.  Plantain has been called an herbal panacea because of the countless maladies that can be treated by this amazing plant. If you sustain a wound and want to stop the bleeding, find a plantain leaf and apply.  After the bleeding stops, you can place a fresh leaf on the wound to speed up the healing process as plantain contains compounds which cause cells to regenerate quickly.  

High in beta carotene and calcium, it is edible raw or cooked, and has been used for everything from bronchitis and swollen joints to sunburns and toothaches.

Plantain is also one of the sacred plants mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm for drawing out poison.

They surround us, encouraging us to use their medicine; offering their help for health and healing.  A little gratitude for the weeds, please.

Thanks to A Modern Herbal,

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

~Adventures in Container Gardening~

Ah, Limoncello.  Truly like drinking sunshine.  I have made it with vodka, I have made it with whiskey.  I've made it with infused simple syrup, including herbs like chamomile and lemon balm in with the sugar and water.  Some people make Limoncello using only the lemon zest and don't include the juice, but I think adding the lemon juice makes it delightful.  I realize that purists might be horrified by my modifications, but what can I say?  I love to experiment.
Limoncello traditionally is made from Sorrento lemons, from the Amalfi coast of Italy.  Southern Italy is famous for producing this sunny yellow liqueur.  Since I live in California, where the Mediterranean climate guarantees ripe delicious citrus almost year round, this is the perfect aperitif to create from Meyer or Eureka lemons.

The following is my basic recipe.  You can add the lemon juice or just use the zest.  It's up to you.

Pour 1 3/4 cup of vodka into a large jar or bottle, leaving some space as the lemon zest will displace the liquid.

Add the zest of 8 - 10 lemons.  This is important - do not peel the lemons and use the rind.  Zest the lemons using a vegetable peeler or grater.  Either one works, depending on if you want large pieces or finely grated pieces of lemon zest.  (I prefer large pieces.  It's easier to clean up once you strain the liquid.) We only want the yellow part of the rind for the infusing process - the white pith will make it bitter, and you don't want that.

Now you must exercise patience and restraint, for the zest needs to steep in order to infuse the alcohol with its oils, which will impart both a lemony flavor and a bright yellow color.  I like to wait at least three weeks.  Shake the bottle or jar once a day, and keep it in a cool dark place while the magic happens.  If you are going to skip the juice, I would let the zest steep in the alcohol for three months as opposed to three weeks.

After I zest the lemons, I like to juice them and then freeze the juice, as lemons will mold quicker once the skin has been removed.  This way, the (strained) juice is all ready to go once you're set to finish your Limoncello.

After you have let the alcohol steep for three weeks, start by taking taking the lemon juice out of your fridge.  Then strain the alcohol by pouring the infused vodka through a mesh strainer.  Discard or compost the zest.

If you froze your lemon juice, make sure that it is completely thawed out.  Take one cup of the juice and combine it with the alcohol.  I usually do this in a large mixing bowl.  Set aside.

Now it's time to make the simple syrup, which consists of sugar and water.  Combine one cup of water with 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, and then simmer for three more minutes.  Turn off the heat and let cool completely.  When the syrup is cool, add it to the vodka and lemon juice mixture.  Stir.
It's natural to see some sediment even if you strained the pulp out of the lemon juice.

Now you can taste your liqueur.  I like my Limoncello to be on the tart side, so if you like it sweeter, you may want to add more simple syrup, little by little, until it is to your liking.  In small batches, carefully pour the mixture through a funnel into bottles and let sit for a week before enjoying.  I recommend keeping your Limoncello in the freezer - because of the alcohol, it will not freeze.  Now even when it's raining outside, you can enjoy a glass of sunshine.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Alameda Haunt Your House

A mad scientist presides over his demented lab, festive revelers chat around a bonfire in a front yard, a ghost billows in the wind under a giant oak tree, and well dressed skeletons dine on the ghoulish specials of the evening…

Alameda really knows how to celebrate Halloween, and for those of us who are still in love with all things spooky, it feels a bit like being a kid again, walking these haunted streets on the magical night of All Hallows Eve.

One person who has grown up celebrating Halloween in Alameda is Patti Cary, who created Alameda Haunt Your House, a decorating contest and canned food drive that has donated over 3,000 lbs of canned food to the Alameda Food Bank.  Her intention is to continue the legacy of making Alameda the most haunted city in the Bay Area.  I was lucky enough to get an interview with Patti.  I just want to say thank you for helping to make Alameda even more of a wonderful community to live in.  Enjoy!

What do you love most about Alameda?
I was born and raised here in Alameda and to be honest, when I was little, I couldn't wait to move off the island to more exotic lands.  I've been lucky enough to live in London, New Orleans and the LA area but truly, I guess there really is no place like home.

Why do you think Alameda is so good at being spooky?
That's easy.  The architecture and the trees.  We have such a wonderful variety of homes and so many that date back to the 1800s. The Victorian era just lends itself to all things spooky and our gorgeous tree-lined streets really frame and highlight the many styles of interesting homes. 

What fond memories do you have of Halloween as a child?
Oh, my dad was a haunter from way back.  He'd build coffins with pop up vampires and string ghosts on zip lines in front of the house.  He loved getting a rise out of the kids and neighbors.  Growing up, I remember a particular house Paru St. with a witch on the front porch stirring a big caldron shrouded in purple light and fog.  I was hooked!  I looked forward to Halloween like some kids look forward to Christmas or their birthdays and...I still do!

How did you come to create AHYH?
After moving back to Alameda from New Orleans, I really wanted to bring back that magical feeling of the Alameda I knew as a child.  The island is just so perfect for haunting and I wanted to encourage folks to showcase their homes and neighborhoods and make Alameda the most haunted city in the Bay Area.  I enlisted the help of a few friends, the Boo Crew, and we've been holding the contest ever since.  In 2010 we added the canned food drive to the event and that has been another great way of getting folks involved.  Despite some ups and downs, we continue to try to build Alameda - Haunt Your House! as a fun, exciting community event.

How do you think a close and supportive community can change peoples' lives?
It's so important to know your neighbors.  We've met so many great people in town we may have never known if it weren't for the contest.  A simple idea about a Halloween contest has grown and now we are so proud to say the contestants have rallied around and have donated over 3,000 lbs. of canned goods to the Alameda Food Bank.  We have some participants who don't enter the contest but just collect canned goods and that is fantastic!  We're all connected and not just by where we live but how we live.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Once again Alameda is becoming Halloweentown!  Behold - some of the more distinctive residences on our fair island in recent years.

If you visit a haunted house that is participating in Alameda Haunt Your House, please make a canned food donation, which supports the Alameda Food Bank.

Saturday, August 3, 2013


You find the most beautiful stains in desolate places.

Spent the day with friends wandering around the abandoned hangars and seemingly endless blocks of abandoned buildings at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Base after visiting the St. George artisan distillery in Hangar One.  The distillery sits on the northern edge of the base, within view of the San Francisco skyline.  The exterior of the hangar is still rusty and weathered, like all the structures here.  Somehow it would seem wrong for the outside to be restored to a new and shiny condition, yet the interior is sleek and inviting.  Massive vats and copper stills from Germany sit in rows like glorious sculptures, the coils and tubes and vessels busily transforming fruit or grain into something mind-altering.  Jars of infused buddha hand citrons sit on the bar like some sea creature that somehow never found its way back to the watery depths.  A sign proclaims that "consumption of beer, wine, and distilled spirits may actually cause pregnancy".
And even if you don't have to go, please visit all three of their bathrooms.  You'll see why.

St. George, which has been in operation since 1982, crafts bourbon, whiskey, gin, eau de vie, rye, you name it.  They offer tastings of several of these, poured by a friendly and incredibly  knowledgeable server.  You can also take a tour of the facility and learn more about their process of making and distilling small batches of fine spirits. 

Their Mt. Tam terroir gin is the most exquisite I've ever tasted.  It contains bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), California sage (Artemisia californica), juniper berries (Juniperus californica), and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).  It tastes like the forest.  The master distiller, Lance Winters, sounds like a mad scientist of the highest degree. His unconventional and experimental approach to creating spirits really appeals to me. He knows how to blend botanicals and fruit to make an exemplary product.  I highly recommend visiting if you can, and treating yourself to a bottle as well.  Believe me,  you will savor it. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Whisperings of Seaside Ghosts

San Antonio Avenue
Paru Street
San Antonio Avenue

Swell, 1539 Lincoln Avenue

San Antonio Avenue

San Leandro Channel and High Street bridge