Borage: It’s what’s for dinner

image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Our friend Milli (Master Gardener of the Milagro Allegro community garden) stopped by today to pick up some sourdough starter. On seeing our back yard swamped abundant with borage (Borago officinalis), she mentioned that she’s been really digging borage tacos lately. This was very exciting news to us, because we’d never eaten our borage leaves–only the flowers.

So tonight I went out and cut a whole mess of stiff, prickly borage leaves. The prickles vanish on cooking. Some sources say only to use small leaves for cooking but I say fie to that. I used leaves of all sizes and after cooking there was no difference between them. Borage is actually rather delicate under all its spikes and cooks down considerably in to a very tender, spinach-like consistency.

Instead of making little tacos with it, we folded it into tortillas with a bit of goat’s milk gouda to make yummy green quesadillas–a quick, light and satisfying meal at the end of a busy day.

How did we cook it? –>


We cooked the borage as we cook all of our greens, no matter what kind. It seems we can’t be bothered to develop any variations on this theme. First we saute chopped garlic in lots of olive oil along with chile pepper flakes, then add piles of chopped wet greens–any greens– to the pan. These get tossed until they wilt to the point where we want them, which varies. If any green seems particularly tough, we put a lid over the skillet for a moment to steam them. Salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon finishes them off.

I used this technique on the borage and it came out very nice. Tender, as I said, with pleasing bit of cucumber flavor. There is also the faintest hint of a mucilaginous texture, but nothing off-putting. Borage is a cooling herb, like mallow (Malva sylvestris)–which we like to eat as a green as well. Because of this cooling quality, both are refreshing to eat, especially on a hot day. I’m writing this a few minutes after dinner and this coolness lingers in my throat. It’s also supposed to be a soothing, grounding herb and now I’m wondering if I don’t feel a bit more grounded, too, post-quesadilla.

Borage is also a medicinal plant–as a compress, tea, tincture or oil extract it has different uses and effects, which will have to be covered in another post.

More people are familiar with borage’s star-like edible flowers, which can be preserved in sugar for cakes, or tossed into salads. I’ve heard of freezing them in ice cubes for fancy drinks, which is a lovely idea.

Obligatory health warning:  I’m going to quote this directly from the very useful Plants for a Future database, from their entry on borage:

The plant, but not the oil obtained from the seeds, contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver cancer[238]. These alkaloids are present in too small a quantity to be harmful unless you make borage a major part of your diet, though people with liver problems would be wise to avoid using the leaves or flowers of this plant.

Also, I’ve seen warnings regarding pregnant and nursing women eating borage here and there, too, although I don’t know the exact reasons for the warning. As per usual, check with your doctor if you have concerns.

We figure as long as we’re only eating borage a few times a week, and only for a limited period–“borage season,” as it were–these pyrrolizidine alkaloids are not going to get us down.

Least Favorite Plant: Unkown

This is my first contribution to a regular feature here on Root Simple: the Least Favorite Plant. For me it’s a tie for least favorite between Manroot (I’m sure my adversarial obsession with this plant will compel a future post) and this tree that I have yet to identify (please help in the comments if you know what it is).

[update: The Root Simple Community has correctly identified the tree as Osage Orange or Bois d’Arc. Thanks everyone for the comments!]

I tried to have the tree removed by professionals a few years ago but the stump just keeps growing despite all of the terrible things we’ve done to it including cutting the stump, stripping the bark and severing roots.
The thorns are extremely wicked. Thick leather gloves are no match for this plant. I have taken to working without gloves since they offer no protection and I can be more nimble and careful without them. Someone could make a very realistic crown of thorns with the thin branches of this tree.
When cut it exudes a white glue like sap that is stickier than pine sap but more viscous so it quickly spreads everywhere.
This is where we stand after a 3 year battle and that’s after the initial tree was removed. I hope I’ve finally won.

Poached eggs and greens on toast with wildflowers

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

This is a fancy iteration of one of our springtime go-to dishes: eggs and greens on toast. Today, Erik was inspired (perhaps by the spirit of Spring?) to sprinkle nasturtium blossoms and little arugula flowers over the plate.

It was dee-lish–so much so I had to blog it. I sincerely hope we haven’t blogged this before, but it seems like we would have, because we make this dish so often.

Anyway, it’s easy to make:


All you have to do is cook up a mess of greens of your choice: steam them, saute them, do whatever you like. The greens can be spiced up with onions, garlic, hot pepper, etc.–or absolutely plain.

At the same time, get some water going for poached eggs. While that’s heating, toast up some nice big slices of bread. Dress that toast how you like–with butter, olive oil, S&P, a rub of garlic, maybe a bit of some gourmet spread you’ve got in the fridge–whatever.

(And by the way, just because it’s not part of our plan doesn’t mean that some bacon or ham might not have a place in this scenario.)

When the water is simmering, crack the eggs in and cook until they’re poached and still runny–for us, that’s two minutes. This dish is all about runny yokes. When you carve into it, the yoke runs everywhere, coating the greens, soaking into the bread, and doing unspeakably yummy things with the cheese. If you’re no fan of yolk, this is not your dish. Without the yoke factor, it’s not half as good. (We know this because we sometimes overcook the eggs, and then there is much sadness as we pick at our dry toast.)

While the eggs are poaching, pile the greens on the toast. When the eggs are done, slide the eggs on the greens. Add some S&P.

The final stage is cheese. This time, Erik just dusted the whole thing with grated parmesean. You can go one step further and lay thin slices of the cheese of your choice over the eggs, then pop it under the broiler ’til the cheese melts.

Serve it fast, while it’s hot, and the yoke is flowing like golden lava.

Regarding the flowers: Nasturtium flowers are edible, mildly spicy to taste, and strong enough to be tossed in a salad. Arugula flowers (got by letting your arugula go to flower) are delicate white little things. They don’t keep at all–you have to deploy them as soon as you pick them–but they have a very pleasant, sweet flavor all their own. Sometimes I eat them off the bush, much to the consternation of the bees.

Self-Watering Containers in Mother Earth News

We’re proud to announce that Mother Earth News online is excerpting the project, How to Build a Self-Watering Container from our book, The Urban Homestead.

We heart Mother Earth News. If you haven’t visited their site, do so. You’ll find a treasure trove of homesteady-type information to peruse.

(Here’s a hint about that article: there are illustrations, but they’re not embedded in the text. Look for the link to the “Image Gallery.”)

Thirsty bees

Did you know bees need to drink water? They seek out shallow water sources like puddles and bird baths.

Even if you don’t keep bees, you can help out our little pollinator friends (and a host of other wildlife) by keeping a bird bath or even just putting a saucer of fresh water out for them. You can do this even if you don’t have a yard–try keeping a saucer of water on, say, a balcony railing or in a window box.

If you keep it full, and in the same location, word will spread and the bees will come and belly up. It may take a couple of weeks for a worker to discover the water source, but once she does, she will take that information back to her hive and they will never forget where it is.

The benefit to you is that if bees are coming to drink in your yard, they’ll do you the return favor of pollinating your garden.

Bees are not known as good swimmers, so it really helps if you put a stone or something in your bird bath–even in a saucer–so they have somewhere safe to perch while they drink. We keep this odd calcified beach-thing in our bird bath. (Don’t worry, it’s not salty anymore.) The bees really dig the way the water rises up into the nooks and crannies.  I dare say our bath is one of the most popular bee bars in town.
One of the busiest bee hang outs we’ve ever seen is a piece of modern sculpture by Aristide Maillol at the Getty Center. It’s this massive marble block thing that is skinned with a continuous flow of water. On one nice spring day we watched as hundreds of bees used it as their drinking fountain. If you ever happen to go to the Getty, check it out. It’s down in the little garden at the base of the hill where the trams come and go. Nice to see modern sculpture is good for something. ;)

Nurturing the Next Generation of Nature Lovers

Recently, a friend of mine took her daughters for a visit to their pediatrician. She was shocked when her doctor told her on average a child in the Los Angeles area only spends 15 minutes outside each day.
I have always been interested about how children forge a relationship with the world outside. What happens when the door from inside to outside is opened? Is the child given the time and space to build a relationship?
Since becoming a parent, my interest has become even more acute. I discovered Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder where he takes a critical look at children’s shrinking access to unstructured time outdoors. Louv asks who will protect the world outside if they have no connection to it? He argues that the next generation of nature lovers will only grow when they have the space and time to be outside and fall in love.
I think it merits more than 15 minutes a day, but that’s a start.

Addendum to the previous post: Nasal irrigation and pressure points

[I’m going to spare you an illustration on this one]

Mrs. Homegrown here, again:

While I credit my recovery from this nasty cold/sinus thing largely to the herbal steams of my previous post, I also used a bit of nasal irrigation and pressure point therapy, so I thought I’d cover them too, real quick.


Nasal irrigation is the practice of cleaning out the nasal cavities with a saline solution. This dislodges gunk, and feels really good on dry, inflamed, or swollen tissue. It’s a good technique to use to keep a cold from becoming worse, and to alleviate symptoms–it helps temporarily clear a clogged nose, and can ease sinuses.

These days lots of folks use neti pots, an Indian import, to do this with some semblance of dignity. I don’t own a neti pot, so can’t speak to how to use one of those. I learned to do this the messy way long ago from my stepmother, who was a nurse.

All you do is dissolve 1 teaspoon of sea salt or kosher salt in 2 cups of water. The water should be close to body temperature, otherwise you’ll be uncomfortable when you snort it. Put the water in a cup or bowl big enough to get your nose into. You’ll have to play around to get the hang of this–it’s never pretty.

First, stand over a sink. Then fiddle around with the bowl and the angle of your head until manage to get your nostrils under water, plug one nostril with your fingers, and inhale with the other. The idea is to snort as much water up your nose as you can. You’ll know you’re doing it right when you taste the salt water at the back of your mouth. Then let go of your nostril and allow the water and snot to drain out into the sink. Change sides and repeat.

It is gross, but it’s worth doing because you’ll feel so much better afterward: all clean and fresh.

***

The second technique that I found helpful for sinus pain was pressure points. I don’t know much about this therapy, a friend suggested it and I just did as she said. I found it helped, or at least distracted me, when I wasn’t under my steam tent. I used two sets of points:

1) Press the tips of your index fingers on either side of your nostrils. Not on the nostrils themselves, but on the cheek right next to the nostrils. Hold firm for three or four minutes.

2) Press the tips of your index fingers on either side of the bridge of your nose, not at the corners of your eyes, but just under the corners, right beneath the squishy tear ducts. Hold for three or four minutes.

Strange brew: herbal steam for a chest cold and sinus pain

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve had a bad cold for almost a week now. It’s gone through all the classic steps: the sore throat, then the snot factory, then the ghastly “productive cough” that keeps you awake at night, and on top of it all, the lost voice. Oh, the fun! I thought I was almost out of the woods, but then I seem to have hit a cul-de-sac involving the sinuses. Sinus trouble is a new malady for me–I’m just not prone to it–so it’s been a learning experience. My new best friend in this experience is my steaming pot-o-herbs.

Most folks know that you can inhale steam to ease congestion, whether that be in a hot shower, a steam room or by tenting a towel over a bowl of boiling water. What I’m going to talk about here is the bowl technique, tricked up by spiking the water with powerful healing herbs.


My inspiration came from the book by well-known herb expert, Stephen Harrod Buhner called Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria. It’s a slender, informative book profiling the actions of a short list of top antibacterial botanicals, some of which, like ginger and garlic, are quite commonplace. Highly recommended reading.

This is Buehner’s steam for upper-respiratory infections:

Get yourself a big cook pot–stainless, glass or enamel are recommended for working with herbs.

Fill it with a gallon of water

Into the cold water put:

2 oz. dried eucalyptus leaf
1 oz. dried sage
1 oz. dried juniper or crushed juniper berry

Bring to a rolling boil, then take off heat (I kept the pot covered to keep the good stuff in).

No need to transfer the liquid out of the pot into a bowl. Just put a trivet or folded towel on the table and put the pot on it. Lean over the steam with a towel over your head. Breath deep until the steam dies, or you can’t stand it any longer.

Don’t throw out the pot contents. Just put the lid back on when you’re done and heat it up when you need it again. If it seems to be losing potency, throw in another handful of herbs.

I used my pot for a night and a day before it began to look a little tired. It was also completely full of solid matter! At that point I dumped it out in the yard and started a fresh pot.

Alternative herbs:

You may not have all these ingredients, and that’s okay. You could get by with just one–e,g. only juniper. If you have access to fresh material instead of dried, that’s good, if not better. Don’t worry too much about quantity, just toss handfuls in the pot.

You can also use essential oils of the same herbs in the water if you have those on hand. Buhner says 30 drops of each–I think that’s overkill. I’d start with 2 drops of each and see how that works for you.

My first steam contained dried sage and juniper, and a few juniper berries. I had no dried eucalyptus. Eucalyptus has that nice, lung-opening menthol action which is hard to replace. Fortunately, I had some eucalyptus essential oil and would add one drop of it to the water each time I went into the tent. From now on I’m going to be sure to have eucalyptus essential oil on hand at all times.

On steam round two, I wanted to freshen the mix and had no more dried sage or juniper, so I added a big spray of fresh pine (baby cone and all) from the neighbor’s yard. Pine is considered a good substitute for juniper, followed by fir, cedar and spruce–in that order. You might not have a well stocked herb cupboard, but most neighborhoods and parks have evergreen trees. Just make sure you don’t pick the branches of the yew tree (the conifer with thimble-like red berries), because yews are toxic to consume. I don’t know if the steam would harm you, but I wouldn’t fool with it. I don’t know of any other toxic evergreen.

Remember, these particular herbs were chosen because of their strong antibacterial properties. You can also take steams with other healing herbs that may not have quite the power of these, but which have their own benefits. I’d recommend trying lavender, rosemary and mint as more gentle, but pleasing alternatives.

And failing all that, a plain water steam is better than nothing.

The results:

The idea here is that aromatics opened up my poor nose, sinuses and bronchial passages, loosening all that gunk so my body could  send it on its way. Beyond that, I believe the antibacterial steam killed, or at least inhibited, the nasty bacteria it found on the way. I steamed intensively for 24 hours (every 2 to 4 hours, I think–whenever my head hurt I went back to the tent). Today I feel a lot better, so only did a steam in the morning.

When my sinus pain was at its worst, I’d take a washcloth in the tent with me, wet it in the herb water and use it as a compress over my sore face while I was breathing the steam.

The foremost effect of steaming for me was keeping sinus pain at bay–which it did very well. Ibuprofen did nothing. (And I don’t like OTC decongestants, in case you’re wondering) Steam took care of it just fine. The secondary effect is that my nose and chest have cleared up. The third effect is that my facial pores are now remarkably refined. ;)

Tonight I am pain free, snot free, feeling chipper and happily noshing on a cupcake Erik baked I post this.

Content Mills: Pimples on the Information Superhighway

Yes, there really is a “How to Get Rid of Pimples on the Buttocks” video on eHow. If only they had a how to get rid of eHow article.

Google’s powerful search engine has become an essential component of the urban homesteading toolbox. From diagnosing tomato diseases to cooking Ethiopian injera Google has the answers.

In recent years, unfortunately, low quality “content mills,” such as ezinearticles and suite101 that pair dubious information with advertising, have replaced more respectable sources in search rankings.  An article in Wired Magazine, “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model” details how these content mill scams work. Authors and video producers for these companies get next to nothing to produce shoddy work that is then tied to keywords used to generate click through advertising.

I actually got an email a few months ago from content mill king Demand Media asking if we’d contribute video. I replied with a terse email message, “Sorry to say that we don’t generate material for content mills.” I got an astonishing response,

Hi Erik,

Thank you for your timely reply. I think you have a point about the content mill, however should you ever reconsider, and would like for us to produce high quality How To videos for you and Ehow, which you can use on your own web site, please don’t hesitate to contact me. All the videos on Ehow include links to your website, a bio of the expert, and Google Search result optimization.

Google adjusted its algorithms last week to bump down content mill sites. A study, released this past weekend by Sistrix, shows how that adjustment has changed search results. The results are mostly positive. In Sitrix’s “visibility index” exinearticles.com is down 90% and suite101.com is down 94%. But at least one content mill slipped through the cracks. EHow.com actually rose in Sistrix’s index.

So Google has more algorithm tweaking to do that runs somewhat counter to their financial interests in selling more ads. But I’ll repeat what Amy Stewart says over at Garden Rant, dear eHow: please go away.