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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Healthy Vinegars from your Plant Allies

Next time you reach for the oil and vinegar as dressing for your salad, think about a wonderful way to increase the nutritional value of that dressing. A good quality extra-virgin olive oil is the oil of choice but did you know you can turn an ordinary vinegar into an extraordinary source of minerals?

In the Wise Woman tradition ("Healing Wise" by Susan Weed), it is claimed that we can improve our health by allying ourselves with common, abundant wild plants, the weeds. Called the green allies because they can become our closest friends in terms of supplying our bodies with what we need for good metabolism, strong bones and vitality. They grow naturally, are not an agricultural crop, therefore their genetic forms have not been altered and our bodies easily recognize their chemical makeup.

One of the most amazing attributes of the plant kingdom is it's ability to extract metallic compounds (minerals) from simple dirt and rocks and, with the help of the sun, rain, and soil bacteria, transform those metallic minerals into crystalline, water-soluble forms of the same pure minerals, and in doing so, make them usable to the animal life on the planet, including humans!  The minerals in plants are water soluble therefore in a form easily absorbed by our bodies.

Herbal vinegars are a wonderful way to put up herbs for later use.  Natural vinegars, preferably raw with the mother (Bragg's vinegar is a good one), are especially effective for extracting the mineral richness of plants.  Be sure pesticide or herbicide hadn't been used on the area you choose to gather your plants. Wait until late morning after the sun has dried the night dampness and using a kitchen shears snip the leaves leaving behind the plant to regrow (if desired). You don't want to pull the whole plant out of the ground and have the mess of dirt clinging to the leaves.

When you have enough plant material to fill a mason jar spread it out on a baking sheet for an hour or so to not only dry a bit more but to give any bugs a chance to exit. Using the kitchen shears cut the leaves, stems and flowers into smaller pieces to expose more surface area to the vinegar.  Pour the vinegar over the plant material to fill the jar and cover the plant material. Using a chopstick or wooden spoon (vinegar reacts with metal so don't use a metal spoon), push down the herbs to fully mix and release air bubbles. Then top off with more vinegar. Cap tightly with a plastic lid (don't use a metal lid) and let sit  for about six weeks. The location for the jar should be somewhere you won't forget about it since the jar should be shaken daily, but in a cool spot away from exposure to direct sunlight.

By six weeks the plant material will be pretty much used up and it is ready to strain. The easiest way to strain is to put a funnel into the opening of another jar or bottle and lay cheesecloth or a metal strainer over the funnel. Then pour the vinegar through and discard the plant material. You will be left with an ideal salad dressing loaded with goodness from the plants themselves. Herbal vinegars don't have to be refrigerated but it is best to use up within a year for the greatest potency from the herbs. Besides, you will probably want to make a fresh batch every spring anyway.
Spring is an ideal time to gather your greens since the plants are young and tender and not yet bitter.  
When gathering wild plants be sure you are able to properly identify them. A good source you could use is "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so wild) Places.  Written by Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean.  Below are a few of the common plants you can find in the typical yard or garden landscape. Again don't pick unless you know the area hadn't been treated with herbicides or pesticides.
Plantain

Nettles

Chickweed

Dandelion leaves

Dandelion flower
Lamb's Quarters

Violet flowers and leaves



Chicory

Red Clover

Sorrel