Monday, February 17, 2014

Making Simple Winter Healing Herbal Tinctures: Dandelion and Usnea

     I recently began a journey to start foraging in my area a few months ago. I don't have much time for it, but I love being outside and learning the names and uses of new plants. I love plants and everything about them, growing them, smelling them, eating them. This passion combined with my acne issues made me seek out ways to use plants to abate my breakouts. Store bought tinctures are ridiculously expensive, so one thing led to another and soon I was making my own herbal medicines from wildly gathered plants.
    At first it was a lot of work to learn to identify everything and how to properly store and use them as medicine. However, once I got past the first hurdle it has been easy to continue the process. It was a bit overwhelming at first to identify what I would like to collect, so hopefully I can provide a guide for those of you looking to expand your horizons with herbal medicine. 

Using sources such as the wonderful Kiva Rose's site and others, I familiarized myself with what I wanted to collect and what ailments I wanted to try treating. (As a side note:  Kiva Rose's blog is really phenomenal, she has done a great job describing the energetics of herbs and how they can be used for everyday purposes. I learned so much! It is a must visit! )

I chose two winter herbs to gather that I highly recommend for beginners:


 It has unmistakable toothy leaves.
image source:


It is the center lichen pictured. It is fuzzy, easily separated, and sometimes has flat fruiting parts. However it is still unmistakably hairy ( aka: old man's beard) and pliable with a white interior under the skin of the organism.

I chose these two because they were abundant in late fall, and still are in the dead of winter, and do not have any poisonous look-alikes. I am paranoid that I might forage the wrong plant in my naiveness, so I try my best to start with very distinct plants. Please when you are foraging be very careful and always identify, identify, identify!

Dandelion is a wonderful bitter that can be used as a delicate diuretic. It helps expel toxins while maintaining potassium concentrations. Most diuretics can be a bit harsh because you can become dehydrated, however dandelion helps prevent that with potassium absorption. Typically used for liver and kidney support. I was interested in using dandelion because I know my acne is hormone related. The liver is a site for hormone production and breakdown. It synthesizes testosterone and estrogen and expels any excess hormones lurking around looking for trouble. I have heard that dandelion helps clear acne for this reason. Dandelion has neither a cooling nor heating effect on the body, so it is a useful delicate tonic for most all persons.

Usnea is an even more essential herb to keep in your medicine cabinet. It is a strong antibacterial and used for bladder (e.g. urinary infections) and immune support. It has a very cooling effect on people and is good in situations were there is excess heat (or energy/overproduction) in the body. I use this medicine to prevent me from getting sick in the winter months, and surprisingly as a disinfectant wash for my face. It works brilliant for both accounts. I have not gotten sick this winter and my face feels very nice after I apply a few drops of tincture.


Dandelion harvesting in winter is best for root collection. In the winter all of the nutrients migrate down to be stored in the root section of the plant. These are much easier to unearth in wet soil. Search for these in open field areas or on the edges of woods. Be careful not to take plants if you think they may have been contaminated with dog feces. Local parks are usually not good places to gather.

Usnea is very abundant if you know when and where to look for it. The best time to search is directly after any rainy, windy, or snowy weather that might shake loose tree branches or things growing on them. Look for fallen branches on the ground with other fungi growing on them and you are likely to spot usnea. Like all lichen, usnea is sensitive to pollution and will not grow in city areas well. I say this and yet I find usnea quite frequently in my neighborhood,  just never enough to make medicine with :)  Look for these when you are hiking or are in more rural areas.

It is additionally important to gather these during moist weather because usnea gathered on wet days tastes is earthy and sweet but batches collected on dry days are quite bitter.

Medicinal Storage Methods:

There are four main ways to preserve herbs for medicine (that I know of):
-in glycerin
-in oil
-in vinegar
-in honey
-in alcohol

Glycerin is used as an alternative for alcohol extractions. I don't use it. 

Additionally I do not use herbal oils. For internally consumption they must be processed CORRECTLY in order to prevent botulism poisoning. This crock pot method that can be safely used but it is time-consuming.You can not simply place herbs in oil for extended periods of time, this is very dangerous.

Herbal infused vinegar is really lovely for salad dressings and such, but it is hard to stomach as a tonic in spoonfuls. Use 2 parts vinegar to 1 part herbs. Vinegar will kill bacteria, so as long as the herbs are submerged in the fluid, nothing will grow.

Herbal infused honey is a real winner when eating whole spoonfuls of harsh tasting medicine are involved. Unfortunately neither of these herbs infuse well with honey. Dandelion is bitter tasting and usnea will not extract into aqueous solutions. So try this one in the spring when dandelion blossoms are around. Raw honey has antibacterial properties as well, so as long as all of the herbs are submerged you should not worry. Make sure to stir your infusion every now and then.

Alcohol infusions (aka: tinctures) are my favorite way to store medicinal herbs. It is quick, simple, and the most antibacterial substance I know of, so I feel quite comfortable with this method of preservation. The only drawback is that you need very concentrated alcohol to make the usnea tincture. It requires at least 60% alcohol to extract the medicinal molecules from the lichen. So you need 120 proof booze. I have a bottle of bacardi on hand, but everclear would probably be more favorable because it is tasteless. I dilute my alcohol to about 40% for dandelion tinctures, because you don't need as concentrated of a solution for it and that alcohol stuff is expensive sheesh. Make sure your herbs are completely covered in alcohol when you store them.


As for preparation of the medicines it is very simple.
-clean gathered herbs with water (most time consuming step) and a bit of vinegar

- chop with a knife or roughly process the herbs in a food processor

-add to a preferably opaque glass container and cover with alcohol

-label with date and plant name (sharpies come right off with alcohol)
-store in a dark place cool place
-after two weeks, take 2 - 4 spoonfuls of liquid as needed daily depending on severity of condition. I would recommend starting with a low dose and working your way up to make sure your body is fine with the herb.
(The steeped herbs after several months)

Be aware: These medicines do not taste good. They tend to be bitter and strong. Collecting the freshest ingredients will help minimize their harsh taste. I find that the benefits of having them for use outweigh the stinging taste though.

I have read a lot of literature on preparing herbal tinctures, however I am not a medical doctor and information listed on this site should not be taken as medical advice. Please refer to more knowledgeable sources for any serious ailments you might be attempting to treat.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Bacon Beef Stew and Blue Skies

Don't let anyone ever tell you that bacon isn't good with everything. For realz its even good in desserts.

I finally made my first ever tasty soup from homemade stock. I've tried many times to make a broth base for soups and failed to produce anything that tastes better than watered down chicken flavor. I think the key was that I stopped trying to make a stock from just a single meat. Soup is used to get rid of leftovers for a reason! It seemed to taste a lot better when everything was just mixed together.

I don't remember exact quantities, but for posterity I'll record what I can. Because I will make this again. It was really good.

~8 hrs for broth, 1 additional hr for stew

For the Broth:
  • A few large pork rib and chicken bones. ( I used some from barbeque ribs the night before). If you don't have barbeque ribs to boil, use about a 1/2-1 tsp barbeque sauce to the flavor stock.
  • One piece uncooked smoked bacon (I bought some Benton's Bacon. Pretty sure that's what made my soup delicious)
  •  half an onion
  • 3 stalks celery
  • a few carrots
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic
  • as far as spices go I used some: allspice, turmeric, fresh thyme, fresh  rosemary, cumin, shichimi togarashi (probably wouldn't hurt to add some mustard seed and nutmeg. But I dunno didn't try it.) 
  • copious black pepper and some sea salt
I cooked the broth in my slow cooker for about 8 hours. Then I filtered the soup through a strainer, threw away the vegetables, put the bones back in the broth, and refrigerated it.

For the Stew:

  • 1/2- 1 lb beef sliced thin for stir-fry
  • one potato
  • four large carrots
  • quarter of an onion
  • handful of dried shitake
  • clove of garlic
  • soy sauce
  • red-wine vinegar
-Before making the stew filter the broth through a fine mesh sieve into a stew pot. Remove the bones. (The filtering will remove all of the fat that solidified on top from being in the fridge. Turn the eye on to get the broth boiling in the pot.)

I was tight on time so I precooked the stew ingredients:

-In a skillet over medium heat, warm up a little bit of bacon grease and toss the beef in some soy sauce and red-wine vinegar until just barely browned. Its ok if its not entirely cooked because the soup will cook it a bit more. Just don't dry it out.

-Toss the beef in the stew and add some more bacon grease, soy sauce and red-wine vinegar. Cook the vegetables and garlic over medium high heat until just browned. Again its ok if they aren't entirely cooked throughout.
(It might also be necessary to cook the vinegar so it is not overpowering. But again I'm not sure because I am awful at making soup)

-Toss them into the pot as well and lower heat to a simmer. Simmer for another hour or so.
When vegetables are tender remove from heat and add a handful of dried mushrooms. They will swell to be twice and big as their dried size. Don't pre-soak them either, just directly add them. Salt and pepper to taste.

The sweet smoky flavor of the bacon and barbeque really made this stew taste delicious. I drank it up. Literally. Which was probably because I used chop sticks to eat with.
Makes approximately 4-5 servings.

We've also been having some lovely weather and the birds seem to love it :) How many can you count? I found ten.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunomono: Asian Carrot Vinegar Side Salad

~5 min

  • One Carrot per person or one whole cucumber
  • Rice vinegar (or white vinegar with some sugar and salt)
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame seed oil
  • Toasted sesame seeds (optional)


This is a type of Japanese side dish called Sunomono. It consists of thinly cut vegetables soaked in vinegar and soy sauce. It makes a quick and tasty side dish for dinners. It can be made with any raw vegetable but is usually made with either cucumbers or carrots and daikon radish. I don't regularly buy daikon so this is a version with just carrot. 

First toast the sesame seeds by adding a thin layer of them into a skillet on low heat. 
 It takes about 10-15 min before they develop a darker color. They will start to smell like popcorn when they are done.

Second shave the carrots into thin slices with a peeler.  
Add about a Tablespoon or two of vinegar and a few dashes of soy sauce and sesame oil to taste. Refrigerate until the time of serving and top with toasted sesame seeds.