Sunday, August 29, 2010

Merriwether: cultural for a day

I really think you should go.

Of course, any married man knows "should" actually means "must", even if it's something he considers to be on par with a yearly physical after the age of forty. In this case it was the Houston Theater District Open House. This is a full day of free cultural activities such as opera, dance, symphony, ballet, and thankfully sword fighting. There's also plenty of free activities for the kids such as face painting, be a pirate, and acting lessons.

I went anyway. It made Misseswether happy. Plus someone had to carry stuff.

Sidenote, as far as I could see there were no 30-06 signs anywhere, so carrying is allowed.

As usual, Houston downtown was a maze of construction, one way streets, and random flashing lights. We eventually (though pretty much accidentally) found an entrance to the huge underground parking complex that tunnels beneath Houston streets and buildings. I have no idea how deep this parking cave goes, but the red glow and smell of brimstone seeping up from below suggested we stick to the upper levels.

First stop: Wortham Center.

This theater was built in the late 1980's and cost somewhere in the upper $70,000,000's. Those of you who know anything about Houston history will realize this was at the low point of the oil crash which turned Houston into an 80's version of modern day Detroit. Yet somehow they built this magnificent theater.


The main stage is home to ballet, operas, plays and coming this May, the Blue Man Group!!

I love the Blue Man Group. Too bad they weren't there today.

We did see this opera singer. He was good. I don't know his name.

We also saw this ballet. I don't know what it was called. They jumped a lot.

I probably could have asked her but I didn't.

This modern dance troupe was pretty good. They didn't actually glow like that. It would have been cool if they did...unless it involved radioactivity or something like that.

Backstage at the Wortham was pretty cool. You discover that most of the beautiful things you see are actually hacked together out of duct tape, plywood, and gold-colored paint.

The fire escape isn't 3D, just drawn on the wall but it's an amazing illusion!

Miniwether loved dressing up in the costumes.

I liked taking pictures of myself with the techno/industrial backdrop.

Very techno/industrial. Each of these is a rope which controls a prop, backdrop, or scrim. Do NOT grab jump up onto one with a Tarzan scream. The guides get really upset if you do that.

I have no idea what this is about, but it looked cool so I took a picture.

Leaving the Wortham theater.

Next stop: the Alley Theater.

The Alley Theater is a world-class venue for amazing plays and musicals. Also, they have wonderful violence.

Violence!! This was the coolest part of the day.

They also had free acting lessons for kids there. You can't see it in this picture, but Mambowether does and excellent interpretation of a malfunctioning machine. I was laughing too hard to take a picture of it.

The final stop: Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts.

By this point Mini and Mambo were getting a bit tired and cranky, but how often does one get to hear the Houston symphony for free?! Okay, multiple times throughout the year at the Cynthia Woods Pavilion, but here was another chance and Misseswether wasn't going to miss it!

They started with Ride of the Valkyries, so that was cool. They also did this song and this song which continued the coolness.

The ceiling of Jones Hall was an techno/industrial marvel of sound control. Miniwether was afraid a giant skeleton would come crashing through it during Danse Macabre. Sometimes she's afraid of weird stuff.

So that was today's adventurer. No woods, no bugs, no sweat, no blood. Sorry about that, I'll try and do better soon. I know how y'all like it when I return from an adventure all bloody and broken!

Adventure! Excitement! Culture!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Food Everywhere War

Not a lot of volunteers have been showing up...
-Joe, founder of the Last Organic Outpost

The LOO back in the spring.

The sand-filled playground last spring.

The playground last Saturday, overrun with nutgrass.

The LOO paths and plant beds covered in weeds.. :-(

All Joe wants to do is feed everyone. Unfortunately when the weather got hot everyone who had been helping him decided it was too hard. Considering Houston is one step away from being a tropical rain forest, it didn't take long for weeds to take over. The front section that Zombie Squad had spent days clearing has turned back into jungle. Worse, all the raised beds are under attack from nutgrass, quack grass, amaranth, purslane, and lamb's quarter... True, the last three are edible, but since very few people are even out picking the "normal" crops, wild edibles are just wild weeds right now. I was out there with Joe last Saturday spending several hours pulling up weed after weed, but two people aren't enough to fight this war. Since the pickers aren't showing up either, plenty of food is just sitting there. Anyone who comes out to weed can walk away with all the veggies they can carry.

Mmmmm, eggplant!

Yeah baby, it's okra!

Joe is kind of discouraged, but he's also very strong and the fire of his Food Everywhere goal still burns fiercely. I love his new phrase "Food Everywhere", it's a lot more friendly and optimistic than "The Houston Food Security Program". He's hoping this new name will get people more excited. Considering everything that is going on in the world, I can't help wonder if we'll have things ready in time. You know things in the Middle East are heating up? If that powder keg blows it's a given gas and diesel prices will go through the roof, making transportation of food really expensive which will make the food really expensive. You may have noticed retailers have quietly increased the price of food by 6% lately. With the droughts in Russia/Europe, the cold weather in the USA, and the flooding in Asian the price of food staples are set to climb even higher.

Of course, the Last Organic Outpost may be rendered illegal under some interpretations of the Food Safety Modernization Act S.510 currently on the US Senate calender. This bill requires growers, producers, manufacturers, distributors, etc to maintain detailed records and safety measures to insure no possibility of contamination by any harmful chemical, organism, or terrorist poison attack. Failing to do so would make it illegal to transfer, sell or give away any of the food. This poorly-written bill technically could even make backyard gardens illegal if the grower doesn't follow this law. I'm not sure what effect the bill would have on harvesting wild foods.

Adventure! Excitement! Food fight!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Once is accident,
twice is coincidence,
three times is enemy action.

-Chant of the paranoid

So what the frack does seven times mean?
In the last ten weeks we've had the clothes drier break down: $250
The dishwasher die: $500+
The dishwasher flooded the kitchen in it's death throes, requiring the replacement of a bunch of wood trim: $400+ (and not everything has been replaced yet)
The AC units both crap out: $7500+
Misseswether's health: $$$$$
Merriwether's dental work: $550

And now last night our hot water heater stopped working. I've done all the trouble-shooting I can on it and it's not any of the common problems. I went to Home Depot as they advertised if I contact them before noon they can replace it the same day. Turns out they are swamped with requests so currently "same day" now means "Saturday". What the heck is knocking out all the water heaters in Houston? I found one thing on line that if Houston attics get hot enough (above 150F) it can burn out the water heater control unit. I guess that's what happened to mine. Heater + installation: $1000+

Adventure! Excitement! Never getting that AMD-65!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

An introduction to herbal tea: preparation

So now let's make the tea. There are a few things to keep in mind to optimize the release of power of your herbs. Being a chemist, I'm going to pull out the big words for this section.

This method is used for soft plant matter such as leaves, flowers, seeds, or crushed fruits/berries. Boiling water is poured over these materials which are then seeped for 10 to 30 minutes. The water is not brought back to a boil but rather it is allowed to slowly cool or heated to below boiling. The longer the herbs are soaked in this water the more flavor, nutrients, and medicinal compounds will be released. However, be careful with some bitter herbs as a long soaking of these can render the tea unfit to drink.

To decoct means to add the woody herbs to boiling water which is then kept over heat and simmered 20-60 minutes. Roots, bark, and twigs need this more vigorous extraction. As before, the longer you soak the herbs the more you'll get out of them. If making a tea with both soft and woody components first boil the roots/bark/twigs then add the leaves/flowers/fruit and remove from heat.

Extraction of herbal chemicals with alcohol makes a tincture. The basic rule of thumb is 300-400 grams of herbs are used per liter of alcohol. Let this mixture soak for at least two weeks with shaking every day. Some people leave the herbs in the alcohol others filter them out. Filtering them out makes for a cleaner tincture which I find easier to use. Vodka and rum (80-100 proof) are the alcohols of choice, with rum being better at disguising flavors of harsher herbs. To use, take one teaspoon of the tincture up to three times a day, either straight or added to juice or soda.
WARNING: never use wood alcohol, rubbing alcohol, or methanol to make tinctures.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An introduction to herbal tea: harvesting, drying, and storage

Okay, so know you know something about the health benefits and flavors of herbal teas, now lets learn about proper collecting and storing of your future tea. It's a pretty easy, but there are a few things you should know to make great teas.

Now days it is easy to buy tea herbs off the internet or even in grocery stores. However, the fresher the better in most cases and the freshest will be the ones you grow yourself. The best time to harvest your herbs' leaves and flowers is mid-morning after any dew has evaporated but before the day's heat has a chance to really set in. Most of the flavor-producing compounds are produced by chemical reactions in the plant during the night. But these yummy compounds are easily evaporated out of the plant by the sun's heat so the later in the day you wait to pick them the less there will be of these tasty and beneficial chemicals. However if you pick the leaves/flowers while they still have a coating of dew there is a very good chance that they will mildew and turn to a mushy, useless mess during storage.

The time of day is less important for heavier parts of the plant such as roots, twigs, and bark. The proper time to collect these are based more on the calender than on a clock. Late winter/early spring is usually the right time to collect twigs, roots and bark from trees as this is when they are starting to be flooded with life again after the cold, dark winter. This new life is the vitality you want to tap. On the other hand, the roots of flowers, shrubs, and non-tree-type plants are usually better in the fall. The plant has spent all summer turning sunlight into healthy nutrients and stuffing them into the roots for storage over the winter. Come spring these nutrients were to be used to regrow the plant but now you'll be harvesting that regrowth for yourself.

A basic rule of thumb is the thicker the plant matter the thicker you can pile it on top of itself during drying. Leaves are best dried while still on the stems/stalks in bundles hung up in warm, dry areas out of direct sunlight. Remember, you don't want the good chemicals to evaporate away so warm with air circulation is better than hot or direct sunlight. If you have the room, store these bundles hanging somewhere dry. A layer of cheese cloth over them will keep the dust off them.

Flowers should be removed from their stems and gently shaken to get rid of any bugs (though these bugs are a source of protein). Place them on a cookie sheets one layer deep and set them in a dry, warm place. Again, avoid hot areas or direct sunlight. Air gently passing over them with prevent mildewing, molds, or fungi from growing which are BAD for tea. Once dry, place the flowers in lidded, wide-mouth jars. Traditionally porcelain or amber-colored glass jars are preferred to reduce degradation of the herbs by light.

Heavy materials such as roots, bark and twigs should be cut into strips approximately 4" long and no wider than your little finger, then loosely pile on a cookie sheet. As before, place them in a dry, warm area with moving air to dry them without losing any goodness. Twigs and uncut roots can be bundled and hung like your did earlier with the leaves. Bark and cut roots should be stored in the same manner as flowers.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

East, west, then a direction all my own.

Daddy! Daddy! Dried squid!! Can we get some , please?!!
-Miniwether at the Asian store.

Remember back when Clark and I were intrepid explorers of the borderlands? Walked where no one else had walked, paddling where no one else had paddled, stepping on copperheads where no one else has stepped on a copperhead. Ah, those heady days of adventure, adventure and exploration...they are a lot harder to come by for guys with four kids in tow.

That is, for guys who AREN'T me and Clark. There's still plenty of exploration left to do in Houston even if you have kids. For instance, if you want your children to experience the world, why not take them to Asia and Eastern Europe? Both are conveniently located just a few blocks apart on Blalock Rd in west Houston.

Our first stop was the 99 Ranch Asian Market at 1005 Blalock Rd. I love this place! Weird foods, strange candies, odd drinks, bright colors and the babble of Chinese, Japanese, Koren, and other languages of far off lands.

A pallet of durian fruit!

Fish! Like most Asian food stores, they have tanks of live fish, crabs, and assorted other aquatic edibles. Wander down to the meat section if you want a platter of pig's ears, chicken paws, hog's feet, or the best price on brisket you'll find in Houston.

The Wethergirls and Clarkettes loved seeing all the funky (to them) foods and we really excited when Clark and I said "yes" whenever they found something they wanted to try eating. We left there with bags of sweets, treats, roots, and wine.

Cool, wolf berry wine!

But why stay in the Orient when more of the world beckons? Head down to 1780 Blalock to experience vowel-free shopping in Houston's only Polish food store? If you have a hankering for woda niegazowana, sok wielowarzywny, barszczyk czerwony z jablkiem, or wieprzowina we wlasnym sosie then this is the place to get it.

I have no idea what any of this is but I bet it's tasty.

Clark, being of Polish ancestry and being married to a Polish women, lead the tour through this store. Like the previous place, we loaded up with foods you aren't going to find in the local Kroger's. You want sausage? Nobody makes better sausage than Poles. Stop in, drop a few dimes, and let your feast begin.

So, what did I learn in visiting these two stores? Anything that is edible has been pickled by some culture somewhere, which led me to my latest experiment: pickling purslane and burdock roots!

The purslane and dill were grown in my yard, the burdock root was bought at 99 Ranch Market.

I used the pickled okra recipe from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving Food. I cut the recipe in half which was just the right amount of pickling solution to fill two pint jars, one filled with strips of burdock root and one with finger-long branches of purslane.

Finished product. I'm going to let them soak for a few weeks before trying them. I have no idea how they are going to taste.

Anyway, that's my latest adventure. Now it's time for you Wetherpals to tell me about your favorite ethnic stores. Is there an African place you like? An Indian store you find yourself returning to? A Venezuelan market you can't pass by? Me and fellow readers would love to here about them whether in Houston or elsewhere.

Adventure! Excitement! Yummy!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

An introduction to herbal tea: flavor

Okay, in the last post I introduced you to the beneficial tea powers of numerous common herbs. There's a lot of power in that knowledge, but what good is power if you don't enjoy it? True, most of those herbs I listed taste good on their own, but when blended with other herbs picked specifically for flavor something really awesome occurs: healthy pleasure! Those two words are rarely placed together, but in this case it's true. So, on with the tastes of tea!

Stevia leaves
Vanilla beans
Yaupon holly leaves
Blackberry/Dewberry leaves
Raspberry leaves
Apple fruit
Peach fruit
Strawberry leaves

Yerba Santa


Chamomile leaves & flowers
Elderberry flowers
Jasmine flowers
Lavender flowers
Basswood/Linden flowers
Clover (white & red)
Rose flowers

Beebalm/Lemon balm
Lemon peel
Orange peel
Lime peel

Star Anise
Goldenrod leaves & flowers

Rose hips
Turk's cap flowers
Hibiscus flowers
Dock leaves
Sorrel leaves

Dandelion root
Burdock root
Ginseng root
Chicory root

Pine needles
Birch leaves

Chicory root
Dandelion root
Yarrow leaves & flowers
Willow twigs

Sarsaparilla roots
Birch leaves
Ginseng roots
Sassafras roots
Burdock root
Echinacea flowers
Ephedra bark & twigs

*Warning: the peel of store-bought citrus fruit may have been treated with fungicides or other potentially toxic compounds. Wash them thoroughly before use or purchase organically grown fruits.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

An introduction to herbal tea: what does what.

Being a forager, my concept of viable plant sources of tea may be a bit wider than that of your average tea fashionista. Of course, this also means that I may occasionally find a catalpa worm or other crawly thing in the bottom of my mug. Don't worry, if you attend my herbal tea class this fall at the Houston Arboretum I'll make sure we only use plants!

So, what's all this about herbal teas and why are they so dang healthy? As usual, it's all about the chemistry. You basic Lipton's tea is loaded with a number of beneficial chemicals with the main class being known as "flavoniods". Most flavonoids work as antioxidants which is just a fancy way of saying they get rid of the bad, highly-reactive molecules (aka free radicals) in your body. These free radicals would normally bounce around ripping apart other necessary molecules, which is a very bad thing. Getting rid of the free radicals greatly reduces molecular damage to your cells, which is a very good thing.

If all you want to do is protect your molecules from destruction then regular tea is fine. However, why stop there? How about adding chemicals that can perk you up or make you relax, chemicals that can stimulate your immune system or settle down your stomach, chemicals that can reduces cramps or clear your sinuses of goo, maybe even extend your life? Yeah, they can do that and more. Here's a sample of know benefits from different herbal teas.

Herbs for Energy
Yaupon holly (caffeine)

Herbs for Calm
Kava kava root
Lemon balm
St. John's Wort
Valerian root

Herbs for Stomach Ills
Burdock - reduces indigestion and constipation, increases bile production
Cardomom - increases digestion, reduces gas
Chamomile - reduces indigestion
Cinnamon - reduces indigestion
Fennel - improves appetite, stimulates digestion, reduces gas
Ginger - reduces nausea
Lemongrass - improves digestion
Mint - improves digestion
Sting nettle - relives both constipation and diarrhea
Blackberry/Dewberry - helps control diarrhea
Sage - improves digestion
Valerian - reduces stomach cramps
Yarrow - increases appetite, improves digestion
Red clover - reduces gas
Stevia - reduces heartburn
Anise - reduces gas and indigestion

Herbs for Headaches
Rose hips
Birch leaves

Herbs for Colds
Burdock - reduces congestion, opens airways, reduces fever
Elderberry - improves immune system
Fennel - soothes sore throats, reduces coughing
Ginger - soothes throat, opens sinuses, reduces fever
Lemongrass - reduces fevers and other cold symptoms
Licorice - soothes sore throats, reduces coughing
Stinging nettle - reduces coughing, opens sinuses
Sage - reduces congestion and coughing
Strawberry leaves - slows diarrhea, reduces indigestion
Thyme - reduces coughing and sore throats, strengthens immune system
Yarrow - reduces congestion and other cold symptoms
Red clover - expectorant
Ephedra - reduces congestion
Anise - expectorant, reduces congestion

Herbs for Improved Health
Burdock root - blood purifier, antioxidants
Cinnamon - improves circulation
Dandelion root - stimulates liver, flushes system
Lemongrass - cleanses blood, liver and kidneys; reduces blood pressure
Licorice - reduces congestion from allergies
Stinging nettle - cleanses blood, stimulates liver & kidneys
Blackberry/Dewberry - high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; blood cleanser
Rose hips - vitamin C, antioxidants
Rosemary - improves liver action and blood circulation
Persimmon - vitamin C
Sassafras - blood cleanser
Hibiscus flower - antioxidants, control blood pressure, lowers cholesterol
Red clover - antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, reduces bad cholesterol, thins blood
Ginger - reduces morning sickness, reduces menstrual cramping
Jasmine - antioxidants, reduces absorption of ft and cholesterol, may fight cancer

Herbs for Women
Cinnamon - reduces menstrual cramps
Ginger - reduces menstrual cramps
Lemongrass - reduces menstrual issues
Licorice - reduces menstrual cramps
Motherwort - reduces PMS
Blackberry/Dewberry - general menstrual aid
Skullcap - reduces PMS mood swings
Stevia - may help prevent osteoporosis
Red clover - reduces symptoms of menopause due to estrogen mimicking molecules, not for use by pregnant women!

Herbs for Men
Ginseng - improves blood flow to Mr. Happypants
Ginko Biloba - improves blood flow to Mr. Happypants
Ginger - improves blood flow to Mr. Happypants (don't let Mary Ann know!)
Hawthorn - improves blood flow to Mr. Happypants
Blackberry/Dewberry - improves blood flow to Mr. Happypants

Adventure! Excitement! Merriwether in hot water!