Brown Soda Bread

IMG_5771Most of the time you hear about soda bread people are talking about the sweet loaf with currants and raisins but I am a large fan of savory breads that can be used to sop up a hearty stew.

There are as many different brown soda bread recipes as there are little Celtic Grandmas out there but this is one of my favorites.

Brown Soda Bread

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3 cups white whole wheat flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats (ground coarsely)
3 tablespoons ground pumpkin seeds (this is supposed to be wheat germ)
2 teaspoons dried rosemary plus additional for topping
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper plus additional for topping
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 egg yolk
1 egg white

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9 inch round cake pan.
Cut butter into flour, oats and wheat germ. Ad rosemary, baking powder, baking soda salt and ground pepper. Mix the egg yolk into the butter milk and lightly stir this into the dry ingredients.

Spoon this mixture into the pan. If you can let it rest for 30 minutes or so before baking, you will appreciate the results.

When you are ready to bake the bread, whip up the egg white until it forms a soft peak and stir in some pepper and rosemary. Cut a 1/2 inch x in the top of the loaf and then brush the loaf with the egg white mixture. Bake at least 3o minutes. Serve warm.

Herbal Self-Care Basics: Sourcing Herbs

Where to find quality herbs?
Ideally, we could all go out and gather our food and medicine from pristine woods and green meadows.  I’ve visited a lot of places where you can do that.  I am missing having spent some of February in the mountains, dreadfully, this year.

Map of Glyphosate Usage in the US.  It isn't pretty for Iowans.

Glyphosate Usage in the US. It isn’t pretty for Iowans.

Unfortunately, the reality of wild crafting here in Iowa is that you have to be quite careful about gathering herbs.  We have very little public land in Iowa.  The small managed recreational areas we do have have often spray herbicides or pesticides. Road side ditches are often reservoirs for agricultural run-off.  Generally speaking native Iowans don’t get how difficult ethical wild-crafting is here, until they do it somewhere else.

My personal solution to this problem is to grow my own.  Growing your own wellness garden is a fulfilling project. As a Johnson County Master Gardener, I have been helping people learn about gardening for years. Of course you can’t grow everything, but you can trade your abundance with friends from afar.

I studied ecological design at Goddard because I feel that gardens based on ecological design create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other species, healing the rift between humans and nature.   For me, this is an integral part of making connections.

My garden became part of that work although it was started almost immediately after I moved here.   This is a collage of just a few of the plants I grow here on my .12 acre urban-ish lot I affectionately call Faoi.   I am going to post my final inventory,  as was published in my thesis last June,  on its own page here on the blog.  Hopefully, I will remember to update it.  I am still in the process of adding more plants and moving the ones I have into better guilds.

Faoi na Fuinseoige,  Iowa City, IA

Faoi na Fuinseoige

If you are not inclined toward gardening, check with local herbalists and farmers when looking for supplies. Eventually though, most of us need to visit the herb shop at a local health food store, or order something online.

What do Good Herbs Look Like?

This is when you need to apply good old-fashioned organoleptics. Organoleptic evaluation of herbs refers to the evaluation of a plant sample by color, odor, size, shape, taste and special features including texture.  Knowing some of that involves enough botanical training to recognize the plants, without labels.   Thankfully, for the most part, we have labels to guide us in stores, but don’t forget your critical thinking cap.  The coop had celery root labeled as rutabaga last Thanksgiving.  (No, I am never going to forgive them for that.)

Good quality herbs aren’t too hard to pick out. They are pleasant colors, crisp greens, and dark greens- not brown. Flowers should retain a color close their original blossom.  Fresh herbs also have distinctive odors; not all of which are pleasant. You will learn their smells.

They have specific tastes. In many traditional healing systems, the action an herb has in your body is classified by its taste. So if you have read about the astringency of an herb, you should notice that your mouth feels dry or tight, after you chew it. Herbs, which are classified as “sour” and don’t make you pucker might have lost their potency.

As you lexperience each new herb, you slowly become trained in organoleptic evaluation. Eventually you will be able to identify  the family a new plant belongs to just by chewing on the leaf. I am a big fan of breaking off leaves of plants and handing them to students to chew on.

Putting aside simple organoleptics, another simple question to ask is “Does this herb have an effect?” I think that this should go without saying but if you are drinking a nourishing infusion for weeks, you should notice a change in your body. Sometimes it isn’t always a good change. Not all herbs are suited for all people. For example, nettles have a very drying effect on me. But I can at least tell if they are still potent by recognizing that effect on my body.

There are optional questions you may want to ask if these issues are important to you.  What sort of business practices does your supplier use? Are the herbs ethically sourced?  Are they organic?  If they are wild-crafted in a different country, are they fair trade certified?   If you buy herbal preparations, you should know this stuff, too.   There are a lot of suppliers out there. I am not endorsing one over another, here.

I got the herbs on the left at New Pi.  The second pile came straight from Frontier.

Knowing the supplier is not sufficient. A lot depends on how the herbs are treated after they arrive at the retail outlet.  This oatstraw came from the same supplier but the first pile had clearly been sitting around the coop, too long. The second pile came straight from Frontier.

While everything I just talked about is important, none of it matters if your retailer doesn’t store their herbs properly.  Regretfully,  I tend to feel that you will get better quality herbs when cutting out the middleman.

Herbs should be stored in dark glass and out-of-the light as much as possible.    Most herbs in markets are stored in clear glass in the light. They have a really short shelf-life.  I keep mine in a completely dark closet and I won’t use flowers or leaves if they are more than 6-9 months old regardless of what the bag says when I get it.

Finally, please keep in mind that when I am speaking of dried herbs on this blog, I am never, ever speaking of something you buy in a bottle of capsules. Those are capsules full of fillers which may or may not contain the herb on the label.  I recently read a study in which a red canister of culinary garlic powder contained more allicin than the top nine garlic supplements on the market.

My Shiny Old Tea Kettle

Chances are if you’ve been around my blog for any length of time,  you’ve seen this tea kettle.   It is the first thing my husband and I bought together for our kitchen.  I suppose we’ve had it for fourteen years, or so now.   We use it every day.

It had started to get a little dingy over the last few years. It  wasn’t whistling properly any longer and it was taking forever to heat water. One day, back in early November, I noticed that my tea tasted funny that morning and I really inspected the tea kettle.   I realized that a lot of gunk had built up on the bottom while I was ignoring it.   I thought about throwing it away and getting myself one of those fancy electric tea kettles.   I actually had it sitting in the Goodwill pile and had a fancy new kettle in my Amazon cart.

But you know,  I thought about watching it spit and sputter in a vain attempt to whistle and  I felt some compassion for it.  Odd isn’t it,  to feel compassion for something that is failing you?   Having been a broken thing once in my life, I get it.

I looked at it closely and I was pretty sure I could make it work again.   More importantly, I really love my  tea kettle. It has been there for me every groggy morning for a very long time now;  I have  pretty much built my morning routine around the amount of time it takes to whistle.  It has helped me nurse sick little children and make ice tea for special visitors.

The kettle definitely needed some work.  I took a little screwdriver to it and fixed the whistle.  I cleaned it and got some fine steel wool and polished until it was shiny, again.  Every week since then, I’ve been boiling white vinegar in it- cleaning out the gunk that had built up the bottom.

Today, as I was making my morning brew,  I realized that the little kettle is looking pretty shiny and new.   It’s been heating water a lot faster and it tastes better, too.  That’s not to say that there isn’t still some gunk to clean out,  but I love that I was able to make it work again, when others would have given up on it.

Some of my friends accuse me of being afraid of change, or putting too much effort into reclaiming things that are old and broken. I find it ironic, sometimes, that these are the same people who value me for my loyalty.  I am not without common sense, though.  If it quits working again, I will have to replace it.

Today, though,  I am just happy to watch my shiny old  tea kettle whistle.


Cornish Pasties

IMG_5666My husband spent his summers staying at his grandparents’ cabin in Eagle Harbor, MI and one of his fondest memories is eating the giant pasties served at Toni’s Country Kitchen in Calumet.  It was one of the first places we went to eat when we vacationed in Eagle Harbor.  I was one of the few Iowans I knew who knew about pasties, because my Mom made them growing up. When we were growing up we used chunks of pork and beef, but I gave in and started adding some ground meat after I had Toni’s. I don’t really like hamburger, so I use ground pork.

I’ve kind of avoided posting a recipe because well, I don’t really have precise measurements for the filling. I just kind of throw it together but I can post a specific dough recipe that works well for pasties.


2 scant cups of flour
4 oz butter
1/4 tsp mustard powder
2-4 tbsp water

Mix the flour and mustard powder. Cut the butter into the flour and add the water until you have a nice elastic dough. The consistency isn’t quite like pie crust, it is the same recipe I use for my sausage rolls.


1/2 finely cubed stew beef
1/2 ground pork
thinly sliced rutabaga or turnips
thinly sliced potato
finely chopped onion

I mix the meat and vegetables together, like a meatloaf, before I put the pasties together. The ground meat holds the vegetables in place, which makes crimping the crust a little easier. The short video below gives you a little bit of history about the pasty and shows an alternative method of putting the pasties together by layering the ingredients.

Once you have them put together, bake them in an oven preheated to 400 degrees for 60 minutes.