• Aromatherapy: An Introduction

    Aromatherapy is a way to incorporate essential oils to promote physical or psychological healing using our sense of smell.  Essential oils are the concentrated liquid portion of aromatic plants.  Aromatherapy can be used to inspire or maintain moods, aid in pain relief, correct conditions or influence performance and productivity.  In this post, I’ll give some ideas about some simple and versatile oils to buy if you’re just starting your collection and easy ways to use them.

    I think the sense of smell is one of the most underutilized senses.  Other animals rely upon it so heavily but humans tend to think of it more like an accessory.  Aromatherapy is a simple way for us to boost this sense.

    How Aromatherapy Works

    The sense of smell is special because it is so often associated with the formation of memories and can instantly transport us back to how we felt at a certain time and place.  The reason this happens is the same reason that aromatherapy works.  Our olfactory nerves are located very close to both the amygdala and the hippocampus in our brains.  The amygdala processes emotion and the hippocampus is the area of our brain responsible for associative learning.  Each time we smell something new (which happens the highest concentration of times in our childhood) we begin to associate that certain smell with a particular person, place, or memory.

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    There are many ways to incorporate aromatherapy in to your life.   Essential oils can simply be inhaled or massaged (diluted) in to the skin for their healing properties.   Other ideas are below.

    Ways to Incorporate Aromatherapy

    Aromatherapy diffuser: These come in a variety of forms but my favorite one is this one that dissipates the oil with a fine mist of water.  You can also find ones that you light a tea candle underneath.  These are nice but you have to watch them closely so they don’t boil over.  You can also diffuse the scent in to the room by using a lamp ring (works especially well if you’re studying or working at a desk) or by sprinkling some essential oil on logs before you light a fire.

    Household cleaning: Essential oils can be incorporated in to natural cleaning products to make your home smell good as you freshen and cleanse it.  I’m working on a post about natural cleaners, but essential oils can be mixed with water as a counter spray or dropped in to a bucket with the mopping water.

    Personal Care:

    Aromatherapy can be incorporated in to any personal beauty or maintenance product you use as you’ll notice in almost all my kitchen beautician recipes.

    • Skin moisturizer: Try mixing a few drops of essential oil with organic fragrance-free body lotion like I talked about in the travel post.
    • Face masks: Included on this site are kitchen beautician recipes with a little bit of essential oil including the hydrating oatmeal banana mask, and a pumpkin facial for glowing skin.
    • Body scrubs: I have a few body scrub recipes I love including the tropical vanilla hydrating scrub with vanilla and bergamot essential oil and the epsom salt and ginger scrub with lime and ginger essential oils.
    • Body powder: Check out this recipe to make your own body powder.
    • Baths: Most of the bath recipes I have on this site (like the rose petal, spirulina sea salt detox, oatmeal milk and honey, drunken red wine baths) contain some essential oils.  Be mindful that if you have sensitive skin, some oils might irritate it, especially in the bath.  I love oils of bergamot (and other citrus scents), cinnamon, and peppermint but have found that these are better inhaled as they can be irritating to the skin.
    • Facial cleanser: I really like incorporating a couple drops of essential oil in to the oil cleansing method or using a few drops with witch hazel or rose water as a toner.  Rose, vanilla, carrot seed, or geranium oils are good choices.  A little bit of tea tree oil can help acneic skin.
    • Facial steam: Steaming your face using a towel as a tent over your head with a few essential oils can really open up the pores or can help during times of congestion.  I talk about this in my post on eucalyptus oil.
    • Massage: If you would like to use it in massage, try mixing it with almond oil or coconut oil for a nourishing skin treatment.  Don’t forget that giving a massage to someone with aromatherapy will provide the same benefits for you!  I love giving my baby a massage with jojoba oil mixed with a few drops of vanilla after her bath.

    Wellness: Essential oils can help during times of sickness to alleviate symptoms and help you feel better.  Some of the oils like cajeput, peppermint, and ginger specifically work really well on sore muscles or a congested body.  Most essential oils are naturally antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral and can help keep your skin and home healthy.  Try adding a few drops of eucalyptus oil in a humidifier if suffering from a cough or congestion.

    Aromatherapy Benefits

    If you are just starting out with aromatherapy, sometimes the decision about which oils to purchase can be overwhelming so I’ve listed some of the basics both by mood a person is trying to achieve or just a good starter kit to make a lot of different types of blends with fairly inexpensive oils.

    Uplifting: bergamot, tangerine, grapefruit, vanilla

    Activating: lemon, lime, rosemary

    Strengthening: cedarwood, rose

    Warming: clove, cinnamon, nutmeg

    Sensual: ylang ylang, geranium, vanilla, patchouli

    Replenishing: eucalyptus, peppermint, carrot seed

    Meditative: sandalwood, frankincense, clove

    Balancing: clary sage, ginger, rose, geranium

    Relaxing: lavender, geranium, wild chamomile

    Recommended Starter Kit:

    Included in this starter kit are a list of inexpensive (with the exception of chamomile and vanilla) essential oils that will allow you to incorporate all the different types of benefits and properties of essential oils.  The vanilla and the rose oils often come blended in a jojoba carrier so they can be applied directly to the skin but are quite expensive.  I have always liked the Aura Cacia brand and it is easy to find in most natural health or grocery stores or on Amazon.  I also really like Mountain Rose Herbs and is one of the only places I have been able to find undiluted rose and vanilla essential oils.

    • Peppermint
    • Eucalyptus
    • Lavender
    • Grapefruit
    • Tea tree
    • Lemon
    • Ylang ylang
    • Geranium
    • Tangerine
    • Vanilla
    • Rosemary
    • Cedarwood
    • Rose absolute
    • Chamomile

    References

    I really like the AuraCacia app that is available for iPad.  It gives lots of ideas for recipes, talks about the properties of many oils, and says what it mixes well with.

    The Mountain Rose Herbs website is great for listing the origin of essential oils, properties, uses, contradictions and indications on what blends well together.

  • Chicken Stock (Broth) Recipe

    I consider stock made from animal bones to be a panacea of good health.  I hadn’t always recognized their value.  I was introduced to the culinary concept by Chief and then got really in to learning about the health benefits.  Stock is also known by the term broth. While the two are essentially one in the same, stock is generally used to refer to a liquid made from boiling down bone, while broth is made from boiling down bones that still have a significant amount of meat on them.  Also, stock is a term that is sometimes used more in restaurants with a prescribed recipe whereas broth might be more scraps from whatever is available at home and will be slightly different every time.

    Stocks are really simple to do but they are full of vitamins, minerals and amino acids that many people are lacking in our modern diet.  In our throwaway, removed-from-the-process lifestyle, making stocks has kind of gone by the wayside.   Ancient  cultures, conversely, were very resourceful in using up every part of the animal, understanding that not only were bones not meant to be discarded, but that is where some of the most vital nutrients of the animal were contained including calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, gelatin, glucosamine-chondroitin and electrolytes.  The gelatin is an additional source of protein to the diet and is thought to help keep bones healthy while the glucosamine – chondroitin helps keep joints healthy.  Joints can sometimes be troubled as a result of over-training or arthritis.

    Besides the resourcefulness and health benefits, there is also the excitement of contributing to your confidence and pride as a cook by preparing your own stocks.  There is an irreplaceable, rich depth to homemade stock and it imparts a delicious flavor to everything you cook that requires stock in the recipe.

    Cooking it also makes a house smell comforting, and I love making our kitchen a space of experimentation and tradition.

    Stocks are a really important component for keeping you and your family healthy.  Broths are very easily digested so work well for supplying nutrients in the system when the body doesn’t have much energy to supply to digestion, like during times of illnesses or for the elderly or with anyone having digestion problems.  The liquid and electrolytes are also really good during times of dehydration during recovery or during times of over-exertion.

    Because stock is generally made out of any leftovers it is very inexpensive.  You can buy the leftover parts from the butchering process at a low cost or you can simply use  the carcasses you’d normally discard, like the remains of a roast chicken.  Using up these bits means that is an extremely frugal way to cook. Often times we’ll ask for some chicken backs at the meat counter and he gladly gives them away to us for a very low price.

    I’m going to put the recipe for chicken stock here because I think that is the one that’s easiest to do as a beginner, but know that you can follow the same general outline for broths of beef, lamb, etc.  Some of the red meats require roasting (about 40 minutes at 350 degrees F) before they are transferred to the stockpot.

    Equipment
    A large stockpot
    A strainer
    A slotted spoon

    Ingredients

    • 1 whole free range chicken or 2-3 pounds of chicken parts (bones, backs, gizzards, etc.)
    • 2 Tbsps vinegar
    • 4 quarts (one gallon) of cold, filtered water
    • 1 large onion, quartered
    • 2-3 carrots (coarsely chopped)
    • 3 celery stalks (coarsely chopped)
    • 2 bay leaves
    • Other vegetable odds and ends you may have on hand

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    Basic Instructions

    Cut the chicken up in to several large pieces if using a whole chicken.  Put it in your stockpot with vinegar, onion, carrots and celery.  Let stand for about 30 minutes to an hour before turning on the burner and bringing to a boil.  Doing so helps to extract some of the vitamins and minerals with the vinegar.  Once it begins to boil, remove the scum that comes to the top.  It is important to do this step so that you can get rid of the stuff we don’t want and to help ensure clarity of the stock.  This is best done with a metal slotted spoon or a small mesh sieve.  Once all the scum has boiled off, reduce heat to a very low heat, cover and leave for at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours.  You want the water to be turning over to some extent but want to keep the heat as low as possible – not quite to a simmer.  You really won’t need to do much during this time so don’t be daunted by the long process.  It’s really nice to do when you’re around home on the weekends, etc. and makes the house smell lovely.

    The longer you simmer it, the more rich and flavorful the broth will be.  Note that the broth will not be salted until it is ready to be used so keep that in mind when testing the flavor as you go.  When you are finished, remove the bones or carcass with a slotted spoon.  After deliberating for the last year, we finally invested in a stock strainer and Chief is in such a state of joy over it now!  It really is quite handy.  If there is a fair bit of meat left on the bone, remove it to use for things like curry, chili, chicken salads, or enchiladas.  We recently used it as the meat for Vietnamese sandwiches (bánh mì), yum.  The skin or soft small bones can also be given to your dog or cat who will be very happy about the treat!  Larger bones can splinter so don’t feed those to animals.

    Strain the stock and put it in containers to store in the refrigerator or freezer.  We have made the mistake of putting it in glass containers that weren’t made for freezing and cracked them so be sure to get specially designed ones.  It also works well to just put them in Ziploc bags and freezing them that way.  Use larger gallon sizes if you are going to be making soups and smaller Ziploc bags for the times you just need a cup or so.

     

     

     

  • Fun with Fermentation – Sauerkraut Recipe

    We have so much fun with fermentation! Chief and I figure that instead of battling with bacteria, we’ll take a more pacifist approach.  We decided that if we can’t beat them, we’ll join them!  So we now live happily in harmony with the wonderful bacteria that inhabit our kitchen and our guts.  We’ll take any satisfaction we can from doing little experiments in our kitchen anyway!

    I have posted before about various types and states of fermentation in my posts on kombucha and vinegar and today I wanted to talk about fermentation of vegetables, cabbage specifically.  I have included an introduction to augment the sauerkraut recipe below since I have a passion for talking about the health benefits of fermentation.  I also wanted the sauerkraut how-to available ahead of an Oktoberfest meal idea I’ll post soon.

    Sauerkraut is an example of a fermented food that has defined and helped nurture a particular culture – German in this case.  Nearly all ancient cultures have some sort of fermented product they used to help preserve fresh food before the advent of pasteurization or refrigeration.  For example, Koreans have kimchi, French have cheese and wine, Japanese have miso and soy, Indians consume soured creams and milks in many of their dishes, and maybe your grandmother or mother made fruit preserves or relishes or pickled vegetables.

    In preserving foods using the natural process of fermentation, these cultures were able to not only maintain the incredible health benefits of the fresh products but also to amplify particular effects.  While modern day processes can denature food, the ancient methods can increase vitamin levels and make nutrients in the food more available.  This occurs in two ways.  One is that the constituents of the food are “pre-digested” by bacteria and thereby easier to absorb through the intestines.  The other way it does it is by allowing beneficial bacteria to be introduced in the intestinal tract, improving digestion efficacy where they help to break down food and improve overall nourishment and biodiversity.  I actually just read an interesting article on how taking the bacteria from the guts of thin mice and putting them in obese mice made the fat mice thinner.

    Fermentation works by bacteria breaking down sugar and starches in food and transforming them into beneficial acids such as lactic acid and acetic acid (and occasionally alcohol in certain stages of fermentation).  These acids are beneficial to our bodies and also prevent food from spoiling.  Unlike some modern day processes, which nuke good and bad bacteria alike and sometimes dull the original nutritional content, fermentation preserves the nutrients that were originally in the food and can actually increase vitamin levels (including vitamin B vitamins like folic acid, niacin, and biotin and vitamin C).  In fact, Captian Cook took advantage of sauerkraut’s ability to be preserved and brought in journeys over a year long.  Having it on board also helped prevent scurvy! (this tidbit I found in Nourishing Traditions, attributed to Claude Aubert Les Aliments Fermentes Traditionnels).

    Our society is so scared of bacteria these days that we often end up killing or not consuming the bad along with the good.  Consuming food that contains microorganisms that have probiotic properties is a way to essentially increase the diversity of biota in our body.  This helps to boost our immune system and allows us to live connected with everything that is around us, instead of avoiding it and becoming hypersensitive to it.  And as Sandor Ellix Katz mentions in his book Wild on Fermentation, the microflora in fermented foods actually help teach our immune system how to function.

    I have seen lots of different methods for making sauerkraut, but I will include the simplest one here because I know it works and I like the lack of fuss associated with it.  I also appreciate that it is a small-batch recipe.  We once tried making a giant crock of sauerkraut (our first attempt) and besides the fact that we vastly over-salted it, it was just kind of intimidating.  This recipe below is the one I have taken from the Nourishing Traditions book that I talk about in this post.

    Ingredients

    • 1 medium cabbage, cored and shredded
    • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
    • 1 tablespoon sea salt
    • 4 tablespoons whey (if not available, use an extra tablespoon salt)

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    Try to use an organic cabbage and be sure to use sea salt, as it has additional vitamins and minerals and has not been processed like table salt.  I love the addition of caraway seeds in this recipe.  I have always had a thing for them since I was a kid.

    In a bowl, mix the cabbage, caraway seeds, salt and whey.  We happened to have whey that we had frozen because it was leftover from a cheese-making adventure we tried (and succeeded at!) but you may not have any on hand, which is no problem.  In this large bowl, pound  ingredients with a meat hammer for about 10 minutes.  This is a great opportunity to get older kids with too much energy or an appetite for destruction to help with.  I think men really like this job in general, too!

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    After ten minutes, the juices will be released.  Place it in a quart-size mason jar and press down firmly so the juice comes up over the top of the cabbage.  There should be at least an inch below the top of the jar.  I have had good luck with finding mason jars in the US at Sur le Table.  Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about three days before transferring to “cold” storage.  A refrigerator will work but try and put it on the top shelf or wherever it’s warmest.  The best place for it would be somewhere that is similar to cellar or cave temperature (about 56 degrees F or 13 degrees C).  We usually cover ours with a clean swatch of organic fabric held in place with a rubberband to keep flies, etc. out while it’s on the counter and then cover it with a lid once it’s in the refrigerator.

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    The sauerkraut can be eaten right away but really improves with age.  In summary, the salt (and/or whey) helps to inhibit the putrefying bacteria in those first few days.  That is, the bacteria that is usually associated with spoilage.  After the product has had a few days to ferment, enough lactic acid producing bacteria is created (lactobacilli) to begin preserving the food with lactic acid.

    Green cabbage is the most common ingredient in sauerkraut, but you could also use red cabbage to create a pink color or shred in any other cruciferous vegetable like Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy or use grated carrots, etc. to make it a little more colorful.

    Happy fermenting.  Cheers to your health and happy taste buds!

  • Make Your Own Kombucha

    Have you heard of kombucha?  It’s a really popular drink in the health foodie community but has been consumed throughout human history, beginning in ancient China and spreading to Russia.  It’s a refreshing tonic made from fermented sweet tea that delivers both powerful antioxidant and probiotic benefits.  It has a slight fizziness to it and is tangy and slightly sweet at the same time.

    The first time I tried it I didn’t know what to expect and was really surprised by the vinegary taste (like how you’re expecting milk and you get orange juice?).  Once I learned more about it and went in with a different mindset, though, I found I really loved the taste.  It is so refreshing and energizing. I find myself craving it, especially after a hard bike ride on a warm day or a yoga class.

    The kombucha drink is made by the kombucha “mushroom” acting on the sugar in sweet tea.  The “mushroom” is also called SCOBY (which is Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast).  The process begins much the same as it does in the post in which I described the vinegar process.  The fermentation produces acetic acid (as it does with ACV), as well as lactic acid and gluconic acid.

    Along with these organic acids, kombucha also contains a number of other beneficial components.  It has a spectrum of active enzymes and amino acids that are produced by the microbes in the SCOBY.  The tea contributes polyphenols and the drink has an array of beneficial bacteria (probiotics).

    Because of the actions these constituents have on the body, kombucha has been cited as aiding in the prevention of some types of cancers and other degenerative diseases and boosting the immune system.  It may also help to fight yeast overgrowth resulting from an abundance of sugar in the body (from sugar or alcohol consumption) because of the acetic acid present, which stabilizes blood sugar.  For more information about kombucha helping in the prevention of cancer, check out Tom Valentine’s Search For Health.  Kombucha has also been cited over the centuries as having anti-arthritic compounds and liver-protective detoxifying and cleansing compounds.  There have been various studies investigating exactly how this works  (I won’t bore you with the details) but now most of the evidence is anecdotal.

    So, the only downside of kombucha as far as I’m concerned is the cost.  It usually runs about $4 for a 16-ounce bottle.  To circumvent this prohibitive cost, I began brewing it at home, which has also turned out to be a lot of fun!  To do this, you will only need a few ingredients: SCOBY, tea, sugar, a heat-resistant glass jar and a clean cloth to cover it.  Chief and I have been playing around A LOT with the ratios so the recipe I have below is a simple recipe that we have found to work best but our experiments are ongoing:

    • ¾ liter boiling water
    • 2 liters cold filtered water
    • 1 cup plain white sugar
    • 8 tea bags of organic black tea (or equivalent amount of loose tea wrapped in muslin)
    • 1 cup kombucha (from a previous batch or that comes with the SCOBY)
    • 1 kombucha mushroom (SCOBY)

    Bring water to a boil in a teakettle or pot.  Put the tea and sugar in to a large glass jar.  I usually tear the paper off the tea bags.  It took us a while to find the right glass jar because some were too big and some had the bottoms crack off because they weren’t made for boiling water.  We eventually found a nice 3 liter jar made for heat and canning.

    Empty Bottle Sugar

    Pouring Hot

    Once the water has come to a boil, pour it over the tea bags and sugar, just enough to cover them.  Give a gentle stir without breaking any tea bags and making sure all the sugar is dissolved.  Cover the jar with a clean cloth fabric and allow it to sit for about 20 minutes.

    After 20 minutes, remove the tea bags and gently squeeze them to get out any excess.  Be sure you don’t leave any bags behind.  Fill the jar about 4/5 full with cold filtered water and gently stir.  If the whole batch is at room temperature, gently place the SCOBY along with the cup of kombucha liquid from the previous batch/starter.  Cover with a clean swatch of organic fabric and secure tightly with a rubber band to keep out insects, etc.

    Scoby by Jar

    I have had good luck with the brand Goldfinch for the starter mushroom that I ordered from Amazon.

    Place the kombucha in warm dark place where it won’t be disturbed.  Depending on the temperature and how you like your kombucha, it will take anywhere from 7-21 days for it to be ready.  It should have a slight sourness and some fizz and you shouldn’t be able to taste the tea when it’s ready.  Feel free to start tasting it after the seventh day to see how it’s changing.

     Kombucha on Table

    Once it’s ready, we like to funnel it in to 750 ml growler bottles we get from the local pub that has beers on tap.  It’s a good excuse to try some good beers so you have bottles for kombucha!  After pouring them in to the refillable bottles through a funnel, secure the top and place them in a dark place for about 3 days.  We like to label them as we go along with information about when they were brewed and any variations.  For exmaple, we’ve occasionally brewed some hibiscus tea along with the black tea, or added galangal root we dug out of the garden and ground turmeric root, etc.  Then they can be refrigerated and served once cold.

    If you get too busy or go traveling and forget a batch for a long time, no matter.  It will have just turned to vinegar and you can use the vinegar for cooking/consuming, cleaning or beauty treatments.

    Your SCOBY mother will grow a spongy pancake-like daughter with each new batch.  You can save these in a glass container along with some of the kombucha liquid for additional batches or give them away to friends or give them to your kids to be grossly fascinated with.  I hope my family is getting excited about their Christmas presents 😉

    Please place any questions in the comment section.  I love talking about kombucha!