Mud Forest Brew: The Miracle of Traditional Chinese Medicinal Tea

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A few years ago, I was in a writing group called Merry Muses with two close friends while we lived near the sea in Venice Beach. One night, alongside our bowls of fruit and chunks of dark chocolate that accompanied our reading materials, our hostess served a special “ladies tea” she had bought earlier that morning from an herbalist at a spa in Santa Monica. Reading through the list of ingredients on the tea was impressive—there were at least 15 items in the mix. The brew was a golden brown with caramel overtones and came wrapped in white linen paper smelling of cucumber essence. This was all fine and dandy but deep down inside I knew the herbalists of Santa Monica serving the new trend of herbal blends customized to each unique human were a watered down version of the truth.

The truth as I knew it was an older, spry man with a wizened face named William Woo Yiu Fai who sat at a small table in the bowels of Chinatown. His table was cluttered high with papers next to a wall lined with sticky notes. He sat there in the middle of Fuk Yin Tong Herbal Trading Centre day in and out, while his wife manned the store counter, giving his $15 consultations to anyone who walked in complaining of a certain ill. After spending two years battling severe ups and downs with my hormones surrounding my menstrual cycle and feeling weakened in the adrenals from a foodie’s roster of weekly cocktails and a strenuous hiking schedule, I finally ventured in to meet him.

I handed over my $15 bucks and told him my woes. I was tired. I was seeking energy. I was getting older and having my womanly chi suddenly alternate between rage and lethargy on a whim. I didn’t want a fancy woman to hand me a cotton robe and an Indian flute soundtrack and a bag of weak chamomile and exotic sounding mellow dried fruits. I wanted medicine and could he help me?

It took him ten minutes to look at my tongue, stare into my eyes, review my ears and sit silently listening to my pulse. He then told me that I shouldn’t eat the spicy Indian and Thai foods that I love because my nature is too hot. I should drink water at room temperature as to stop “shocking” my digestive system which is more like a tepid miso soup than a cold vichyssoise or a boiling stew. He said it was time to ask my medical insurance company for my first colonic because my tubes could use a flushing. He said the rest of me was healthy but 42 years of ingestion (and some of those years including cigarettes and other not so great ingredients) had taken its toll so I needed a reboot. He said my menstrual woes and random headaches were connected but he could push a reset button in me with a special tonic tea if I followed his instructions properly. While I sat in a dark back room with my feet in a bucket of water for a $10 ionic detox treatment that helped my body go back to a more alkaline state, William’s wife carefully measured and poured six $25 bags of herbs, roots, barks, dried mushrooms, powders and other ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for a 6-day regimen. The bags weighed five pounds each—no dainty envelopes here.

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For the next 6 days I followed William’s instructions to pour an entire bag of ingredients into a 4 quart-dutch oven and cover the lot with water. I then boiled the pot followed by a low simmer for 1-2 hours as the liquid condensed into only one cup. I then drank the cup. An interesting phenomenon occurred. On the first day the brew was unbearable; it tasted and looked like bitter mud from an ancient forest. But as the days went by and my body started to assimilate the ingredients, the taste magically went away. By day six, I was drinking in slow measured sips rather than chaotic, gulping gags. I found that so interesting, that the fluid had entered my cells with its nourishment in such a way that my body now fully welcomed it.

In one week I felt brand new. My sluggishness was gone. My need for a 2 p.m. nap had dissipated and I was upping my daily yoga to an hour and a half without a problem. Of course I don’t have x-rays or a hefty insurance bill to showcase the changes that took place in my liver or kidneys but the way that I feel is assurance enough for me, even now two weeks later when the effects are still lasting and real. I even went through a menstrual cycle which was surprisingly mellow and didn’t deter me, as is usual, from walking miles up an overly steep hill.

When I was leaving the store that day with my bags of tea, I asked William when I should come back for a follow up appointment. He told me whenever I was feeling bad again. I was reminded that Chinese herbalists and practitioners of TCM pride themselves on not getting paid when a client is sick, but being paid to keep a client well. Following those instructions for wellness were now all on me.

Nobody Does It Better Berry Crumble

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Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you’re the best
-Carly Simon

This time of year as temperatures rise over 90 degrees and our Saturday morning hikes are accompanied by mild cursing beneath our winded uphill breaths, there are exquisite, juicy rewards waiting for us at the end of the day. In the afternoon, after the sun has done its plumping of all the glories in our garden, I go into the backyard to pick strawberries and the Cute Gardener heads to the side of the house where berry brambles dance along the wooden fence. There, he chooses the fattest purple boysenberries, (or blackberries or raspberries on years when they are also abundant) bountiful and ripe, for an after dinner crumble that wins the prize as my all time favorite dessert.

Sure, there are dark chocolate ganaches in five star restaurants that make me quiver and butterscotch pot de crèmes always on menus to tantalize my tongue. Of course, there are also foie gras candy bars in indulgent Las Vegas supper clubs and tiny little macarons in rose, pistachio or Earl Grey flavors in Beverly Hills bakeries that never fail to call my name. But there is simply nothing more sublime than a simple berry crumble made in our kitchen by my man with the green thumb.

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The CG has perfected the crumble, which differs from pies, tarts and cobblers in its very design. First, nothing more than a perfect pile of boysenberries mixed with a minimal amount of sugar, cornstarch and a zing of squeezed lemon is placed into a ramekin. Then a nice little dough beret of ground peanuts, pecans and brown sugar is made to place on top, that when baked turns into a crunchy, chewy crust. After a torturous hour or so of waiting for the crumble to cool, we dive in with two spoons and enjoy the decidedly peanut butter and jelly like goodness as warm berries pop in the mouth, swimming in a tart syrup that induces merriment.

With so many berries we are oftentimes prone to enjoy a crumble two nights in a row. It is a shame to freeze them, which we have to do in order to preserve the large harvest, so we feel perfectly validated in having more than our normal share of dessert during this seasonal period. I will be sad to see them go in another few weeks.

Jazz with a Side of Dank Crab Head

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I was never a huge listener of jazz. Everyone I had ever met who claimed to love it seemed a little strange to me—very serious people with an odd hint of funk who reveled in music that seemed to schizophrenically jump all over the place. Most of my brush-ins with these types would be with boys or men I dated. One curly haired Irish New Englander liked to call himself the first letter of his name rather than his real name and kept pictures of me in denim shorts and a bikini top tucked under the floor mat of his car while listening to Martin Medeski and Wood. Another strange mullet haired photographer liked to wear high-heeled shoes, like Prince does to appear taller. I never knew this until the second time he kissed me after taking off his shoes in my home and he was a good few inches shorter than the first time he had tried to kiss me: all of this while his stereo surround system blared the same Thelonious Monk song over and over to oblivion. One pretentious poet, on our first date, took me to a jazz festival where he proceeded to obscure my hearing of any of the live acts because he was singing so loud next to me sloshed on wine a half-hour in. Trying to impress me that he knew all the words to all the songs by all the contemporary acts in actuality only caused me to think I hated jazz.

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But then I had a magical evening in Greenwich Village at the 55 Bar where I was privileged to be in the cramped smoky room on a night of pouring rain to hear Sweet Georgia Brown sing the blues. At a table for two, I huddled and squished with an ex-beau, his best friend from Yale and his sweet hunk of a nurse boyfriend as we were heckled, regaled, brought to tears and simultaneous hysterics by this bombastic black woman with a heaving bosom that matched time with the bliss of her voice. I never insulted jazz again.

One day I realized that I had actually accumulated a hearty list of songs in my iTunes music library that offered another perspective. I not only liked jazz, but I had become one of those weirdos myself albeit a very picky and discerning one. It still takes something special to prick my ears up to a song, but when it happens, I end up loving it just like all the other genres in my musical repertoire. After meeting the Cute Gardener, who is a major contemporary jazz head, I began to enjoy the game of finding new jazz songs to enjoy. I realized I not only loved Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane but I could fall into incredible lust with the mere act of ferocious fingers hitting piano keys ala Keith Jarrett. It was a new evolution in my cultural maturity to bypass the pigeonholes of youth whereas you stick yourself with sharp identifiers and don’t go far from your norm. Now I have learned to appreciate singular music moments for what they evoke in my soul and it has been a pleasurable experience to go to jazz concerts and see which instruments and forms strike my inner cords as well as sample from across the jazz landscape from old to new, from soft to hard, from classical to modern.

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Unfortunately jazz clubs are notorious for having bad food. You are there for the music, not the nosh. The CG and I typically make it a point to eat at home prior to a show or somewhere else nearby. We’ve seen Stanley Clarke and Eric Reed at Catalina Bar and Grill while eschewing the odd plates of hotel buffet looking meals. We attempted dinner at Café Cordiale but with very low expectations, even for the drinks. But this past weekend we decided to go out on a limb to try Dave Koz’s new supper club Spaghettini in Beverly Hills where David Benoit was playing on occasion of a new CD release. We had set a low bar in our minds but were ultimately surprised by many aspects of the dinner. The pasta for the carbonara was hand rolled and cut in nice al dente tubes. The pasta for the namesake spaghettini was curly and ramen like. The soft shell crab was perfectly crunchy yet tender on the inside and to the CG’s delight, included the dank head. The sautéed mushrooms were plentiful and the beet salad on pistachio yogurt was refreshingly light. All came on small plates meant to share in non-complicated ways while enjoying the music. We even liked the cocktails. Now, this was in no way one of our food sojourn highlights but it was delicious food we liked and accompanying the great sounds of Benoit on the keys, made for a romantic and fun night. The food and the tunes put me in such a great mood that I sidled up to Benoit in a booth at the end of the night to buy the CG a CD and let him know that my boyfriend had been a fan of his for the past 30 years.

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My favorite jazz moments of the moment:
The Georgian young genius Beka Gochiashvili’s piano playing.
David Benoit’s Moment in Hyde Park
Ahmad Jamal’s Saturday Morning
Madeleine Peyroux’s Between the Bars
Our Love Is Easy by Melody Gardot

The Fried Squashes of June

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This time every year the Cute Gardener and I struggle to use the last few butternut squashes that remain from the bountiful Fall harvest. By now we’ve exhausted our mental inventories of dishes like roasted butternut, butternut gratin, butternut pasta, mashed butternut instead of potatoes, butternut cream soups and smooth butternut purees, and diced butternut chunks in everything from pilafs to lentils. We have also used the best of the bunch and are left with the tiny runts, the scrawny, skinny long ones and the discolored strays that are more diluted in flavor than is normal. It is only natural that we would resort to the oldest trick in the book that makes any food taste good. The CG breaks out a huge pot and his oil and deep-fries a batch up for us. Paired with some local tamales from the Latino masa maker in our neighborhood, fresh cabbage from the garden and diced avocados from the backyard tree, the fried butternut is a sweet and crunchy natural adornment that combines sweet with savory. Even for a girl like me, who mostly eschews fried food in lieu of healthier options, it is hard to resist the combination of sweet squashes and an expertly blended fry coating that is mixed with care and creativity.

Which brings me to mention another specialty recently discovered this month suddenly awash with fried squash.

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Every time the CG and I travel to the desert to see my family, we take the opportunity to eat dim sum in Monterey Park. This past weekend while habitually betting on a new place Mama Lu’s, we stumbled upon a dish called Fried Seaweed Pumpkin. With memories of fried butternut fresh in mind, I ordered the dish. At first I was certain the pumpkin would be wrapped in seaweed as a salty coating and then fried. What we received instead was a plate towering with plump pieces of rich, dense fried kabocha squash—the Asian gourd that is like a cross between pumpkin and butternut. It also has a rind that looks very much like seaweed so it’s no surprise those creative Chinese would imaginatively instead of literally name this dish. I loved it, although it was so filling that I could only down three pieces with the rest of the already plentiful dim sum items we had ordered. I took the rest home with me and although the fry coating had wilted in the fridge overnight, it crisped immediately back up after spending five minutes in a 360-degree toaster oven. The kabocha was even better the next day dipped sparingly into dark mushroom soy sauce.

Forget the old saying, “When in doubt throw it out.” My new motto is, “When vegetables threaten to go dry, all you need is a quick flash fry!”