Hungary Water: Part 2


March 21, 2022  •  No Comments

This is the continuation of this jars filled with herbsblog describing the recipe and my first try at recreating Hungary Water. I left the test batches to steep for about three months. I waited some months more to let the scents settle down and blend.

My first observation is that volume is important. By the time I strained the vegetable matter from my test batches, I didn’t get much yield—maybe half a cup per jar. The results were also very concentrated. When I do this again, I’m going to use at least a quart-sized container and more liquid.

The rosemary scent dominates the results, but that could be because it was the one element that was home grown and therefore freshest. All three bases initially overpowered the scent of the herbs but calmed down with time. The witch hazel version was fairly raunchy when it first brewed but is now the most pleasant of the three. It is a nice addition to a bath and as a facial astringent. I used the cider vinegar version (diluted) to rinse my hair after shampooing it. This is an excellent way to add scent and shine, but please be careful with color-treated hair as the vinegar can be drying. The vodka version was my least favorite. It killed some stubborn weeds in the driveway and probably any other living entity within five yards. I’m pretty sure the driveway glows after dark and the raccoons are building a bomb shelter.

My honest assessment is that a) a greater liquid volume would create a better balance of scents, b) the combination of herbs could possibly be simplified, and c) I need to do more research into a good liquid base for this purpose. The witch hazel is acceptable, but I’d like to keep exploring.

Bottom line: this experiment opened the door to some interesting possibilities for more research and experimentation.

 


Pesto!


February 20, 2022  •  1 Comment

As a follow up to our previous post about basil, here is my favorite pesto recipe. Substitutions are easy–if pine nuts are too expensive, walnuts, toasted pumpkin seeds, orpesto any combo of the three can be used. If basil is not in season, I’ve used spinach or a blend of spinach and arugula for a punchier sauce.

Put into blender or food processor:

  • 4 cups of basil or other greens (such as spinach, parsley, arugula and/or other fresh herbs)
  • Crushed fresh garlic (3 cloves) or good-quality powdered garlic to taste
  • Half cup pine nuts or other nut/seed combo
  • Scant cup of grated parmesan cheese
  • Dash of lemon juice

Blend the above until smooth, adding olive oil to thin to the desired consistency (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup).

Pesto literally means “paste” and can be treated like any other condiment. It’s brilliant on pasta, but can also be combined with yogurt to make a great salad dressing. I also use it as a flavoring in wraps and sandwiches or as a veggie dip.

 

 


Love, Hate, and Severed Heads – the Secret Life of Basil


  •  1 Comment

BasilMany herbs have stories, and basil has more than most. The name derives from the Greek basileus, which means kingly or royal. Associated with love potions, angry monsters, and tales of romantic tragedy (and decapitation), basil’s legend goes far beyond pesto.

Basil is associated with the masculine, Mars, fire, and Scorpio. It is a culinary herb and also a strewing herb, valued for its scent. As an inhalant, it stimulates the intellect.  As an incense, it invokes the presence of astral and mythological creatures and gives strength to pursue positive expansion, releasing fear associated with spiritual growth. Traditional health uses vary. It is used in folk medicine to treat fevers, and there is some investigation being done on treatment for herpes-related conditions like shingles.

Basil is used cosmetically for brightening the complexion. Sweet basil oil (Ocimum basilicum) is used in perfumes and also in a scalp massage to stimulate healthy hair growth.

According to the Ancient World—or at least the Greco-Roman segment thereof—basil was associated with anger and insanity. Perhaps this comes from its association with scorpions, salamanders, and also the basilisk, a dragon-esque creature that could kill with a glare. Given all the cranky crawlies, it’s a good thing basil was reputed to draw the poison from venomous bites.

It’s hard to say when the humble herb moved from angry lizards to love potions, but by the Middle Ages a sprig of basil became a love token and a means of attracting wealth. It was also said to have grown at the site of Christ’s crucifixion—further evidence of its ability to repel evil—and in some regions was planted on graves. In India, holy basil (Tulsi) is used for purification and protection.

Basil’s twin spirits of love and hate twine together in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a 14th Century collection of Italian tales. Many know the story from John Keats’s Pot of Basil1818 poem retelling the story. In a nutshell (or herb pot), lovely young Isabella is destined for an advantageous marriage but falls in love with a handsome servant named Lorenzo. Furious, her brothers murder the young man. Guided by the ghost of her dead lover, Isabella digs up his body, chops off his head, and buries it in a pot of basil. There, she can water it with her tears and waste away in fine tragic fashion.

For such a grim tale, it inspired a wealth of lovely pre-Raphaelite art, like this painting by William Holman Hunt.

Common garden basil is native to India and flowers in high summer. I’ve never found basil easy to grow indoors. It loves heat, but not too much; rich soil, but not too much richness; and exactly the right amount of water. A bright windowsill is good, but be careful not to introduce other plants nearby. I had a thriving pot of globe basil until I left a planter of cat grass beside it just long enough to deposit a swarm of pesto-loving aphids. The best home-grown basil I ever saw lived in a compost box beneath a tent of plastic that kept the cold dew off the leaves. There, the plants grew to a Jurassic size I’ve never been able to replicate.

Check this blog for my pesto recipe.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: herbal medicines should be prepared and taken under the supervision of a trained professional (and that does not include me or this blog).

References:

I consulted quite a few sources for this blog, but here are the main ones:

Easley, Thomas, and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2016.

Beyerl, Paul.  The Master Book of Herbalism.  Blaine, Washington: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1984.

Grieve, Mrs. M.  A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.

Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, 2nd edition. Woodbury, Minnesota Llewellyn Publications, 2020.

Rose, Jeanne The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations Berkeley, California, 1992


Whitelisting


December 27, 2021  •  No Comments

coffee cup on booksAnyone with an email address knows that spam happens, and email providers weed out the worst offenders by sending those emails to the junk folder. Unfortunately, automated systems don’t always know the difference between stuff you do and don’t want. Whitelisting ensures that emails from a certain address reach your inbox every time.

An example is my newsletter. If my newsletter goes to your spam folder, that’s sad for both of us! After all, you need to whitelist an address just once. Here are two methods:

1. Adding our address (admin@rowanartistry.com) to your contacts is one way to ensure my newsletter arrives safe and sound; or,

2. Here is a link to instructions (with pictures) for a comprehensive list of email clients (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, Apple, AOL and many others) if you need something specific.

Whitelisting can, of course, be done with any newsletters (besides mine) you want to receive.  I hope this helps!

By the way, if you aren’t on my email list and want to be, sign up here for Sharon’s paranormal romance and here for Emma Jane Holloway’s steampunk books. We’ll send you a free read! And yes, you may sign up for both lists.


Ten Days in a Mad-House


July 26, 2021  •  No Comments

There aren’t many historical figures I want to fangirl over, but Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman 1864 – 1922) makes the list. An American reporter, she pursued investigative stories at a time when women were doomed to penning fluff pieces. Bly soon tired of the society pages and insisted on challenging subjects. Danger was no deterrent – among other assignments, she covered the European Eastern Front during WWI.

Around 2019, I read Ten Days in a Mad-House, Bly’s expose of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She got herself committed and posed as one of the female inmates to discover what went on inside. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Her revelations of abusive living conditions and the casual cruelty of asylum officials shocked the New York public of 1887. Eventually, it led to reforms at the asylum. Her steady, detailed narrative stands up today as readable reporting.

I returned to Bly’s story in my research of Victorian-era asylums. When I learned there was a film adaptation, I quickly found it on Hoopla. Timothy Hines wrote and directed this 2015 production (10 Days in a Madhouse). Caroline Barry is charming as Nellie, but I question her chirpiness in places. And unfortunately, where the true story is dark enough, the movie gilds the lily in places. As a result, the tone comes out as spunky and sordid at the same time, making me wonder what audience they were aiming for.

That said, the movie worked well enough as a recap. The unsanitary conditions, bad food, inadequate heating, and casual cruelty are all part of the original. So is the maddening truth that institutions silenced the inconvenient far more often than they cured them.

Unruly women were deemed most inconvenient indeed.


Character Interview: Kifi the Temple Cat

Sharon Ashwood
July 10, 2021  •  No Comments

Today, we’re here to interview Kifi, the temple cat who joins the cast in Smolder, the third novel in the Crown of Fae series. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Kifi:  Delighted to pull up a cushion and entertain.

Q: To begin with, what is the role of a temple cat?

Kifi: That is like asking the purpose of water in the sea. We keep the memory of the fire fae, for the tribes of the Flame do not rely on written language. The history and wisdom of all things is ours to preserve, and what one cat knows, we all know.

Q: So cats know everything?

Kifi: Is that a question?

Q: I see. Moving on, how did you come to be involved in the story of Leena and Morran?

Kifi: Leena’s journey took her near the Great Temple. I seized the opportunity to join her, for the Temple is sacred to my kind. It was lucky that I was available to assist my two-legged companions. Such foolish creatures, always in need of rescue. One should never leave home without a cat.

Arwen looking cuteQ: What hardships did you experience along the way?

Kifi: Monsters, bad food, and far too many smelly werewolves.

Q: Audiences have responded to you as a character. How have you dealt with sudden fame?

Kifi: Such adoration is the fate and burden of felines. I bear it with humility. I’ve even forgiven the artist for leaving me off the book cover.

Q: Yes, that is quite a glaring oversight.

Kifi: Indeed. One might think the story is all about the love story between my friend, Leena, and the Phoenix Prince. Who would want to read that?

Q: One last question. Despite your experience, you’re still young for your kind. Is there any advice you could give to other junior temple cats wanting to follow in your pawprints?

Kifi: Accept the challenge of the journey and treasure those who walk at your side. Most of all, realize that not everyone is lucky enough to be one of us. Be kind to the poor two-legged creatures.


Mysterious Green Sauce


July 5, 2021  •  No Comments

pasta dishDespite the title, I resist the term “green sauce” because (something like the enigmatic “brown sauce” encountered in the UK) I feel as if the creator won’t admit to what’s in it. Lots of things are green, but I won’t put all of them in my mouth.

No need to fear this version!  This green sauce quick, easy, and very taste-bud friendly. Although the obvious use is on pasta, it’s also good as a garnish on potatoes, a mixed vegetable plate, or even salad. I also suggest trying it on fish.

Recipe:

I start with two large bunches of kale, stems removed and lightly steamed.

While that’s happening, I fry one small diced onion in a little olive oil.  Once that’s starting to brown, add a generous handful of sliced mushrooms and 3 to 4 cloves of crushed garlic. Once that’s thoroughly cooked, set it aside.  For those who are not garlic/onion tolerant, feel free to substitute a powdered version.

Put the kale into a blender

Add 2 ripe avocados

Add the onion mix

Add 3 heaping teaspoons of nutritional yeast

2 teaspoons of mixed dried herbs or whatever fresh ones you have in the garden (suggest oregano, marjoram, basil, or thyme)

1 ½ to 2 cups of kefir (can substitute plain yogurt)

Juice of one lime

Salt to taste

 

Blend until it’s smooth and creamy with no traces of solid kale.

Serve generously over pasta. For a final touch, garnish your pasta dish with pine nuts or broiled, halved cherry tomatoes.

This will keep in the fridge for a few days. A wide-mouthed jar is perfect for this.

 


The Three Inspirations of Leena: building a character


June 26, 2021  •  No Comments

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world. ― Voltaire

Fire is light and movement and passion. It comforts and terrifies, gives life and destroys it. To embody this element, my heroine of the fire fae had to be a creature of contrasts, so itdancer seemed natural that she’d be a dancer. Few things demand such primal abandon and rigorous discipline at once.

*

Where do characters come from? It’s one thing to imagine the type of character we want—a fire fae, a spunky barista, a master thief. However, creating a protagonist who can lead a complex story goes beyond a simple archetype. We need broad strokes, but we also need emotions, contradictions, history, and a deep well of desires that are completely unique to that individual. Real people are messy and complicated. Characterization should capture some of that, even if the heroine is a paranormal being.

My characters come to me in many different ways, but in this case Leena and Smolder arrived through three inspirations. The first came from Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring. At the time of its premier, both the music and choreography shocked audiences—a lusty depiction of ritual sacrifice was just too distant from the floaty tutus usually seen on the Paris stage. But if anything could summon flame from the core of the universe, it was this creation, and I loved its strangeness and power at first sight. Stravinsky also wrote The Firebird, so my subconscious clearly owes him a debt for my book about a dancer and a phoenix.

So, I had my concept of what a fire fae should be—the flavor or keynote of her nature. But Leena is a person and not a ballet, so I used a writing meditation to find the core of her psychology. It’s perfect as a second step, when an author knows the basic facts about a character and it’s time to find out more:

Imagine yourself in a character’s room. What is there? What does it tell you about the character?

shawlLeena’s room in the poorer district of Eldaban has little in it, but I found a woolen shawl woven in a pattern that is typical of her mountain tribe. What does it say about her? A shawl is used to keep warm, but it’s also good for carrying possessions, gathering apples, making a baby sling, or as a shroud. The wool would come from the family’s sheep. The women of the tribe would spin and weave it. A mother might make a shawl as a gift for her daughter as a sign that she was ready to forge her own future. That told me a lot about Leena’s people—humble, independent, and steeped in the love of their home and family.

I did a similar exercise around Leena’s chatelaine, which she carries with her in Smolder. (For those who don’t know, chatelaines were a short of tool-holder that clipped to a belt. Here is a beautiful example of one from the nineteenth century.) At first, I didn’t know how Leena would use the chatelaine in the story, but she insisted on having it. It turned out to be essential to the plot, so sometimes the character knows best!

So now that I knew who Leena was, I had to know how she finds the courage to walk into extreme danger. My third inspiration was Fionn, her brother. She held his hand when theydancer 2 fled the destruction of their homeland. She raised him from the time they were orphaned children, but now he’s a grown man with ambitions of his own. When he makes a terrible choice, what’s a big sister to do? Try to save him, of course, even if it’s a task far beyond anything she’s braved before. This was the motivation that launched my story’s plot.

So, to return to the initial question of where do characters come from–mostly they walk into my head fully formed, but once in a while I get to know them in a more organized way. These three steps describe how I discovered enough about Leena to begin writing her adventure. I found the inspiration, developed her backstory, and gave her strong motivation. They helped me find her spark at the start.

As befits a fire fae, she needed no help from me to set the rest of the story ablaze.


Pawsitive Attraction


June 20, 2021  •  2 Comments

Never work with animals or children. – W.C. Fields

Pets steal the show, whether at a family picnic, in a meme, or as part of your story. Thousands of cat videos prove the magnetic attraction of furry characters, the more Brigid 1ridiculous the better. As a case in point, readers of Smolder, third in the Crown of Fae series, talked as much about Kifi the talking temple cat as the hero, heroine, and villains combined. Small, sassy, and very much the star of her own story, she got to be outrageous in ways that human characters could never pull off.

Writing such characters well isn’t always easy. Stage management is a constant problem. If your book is a romance, Fido has to be parked before the humans can have alone time. If it’s an action-packed thriller, one is in a constant state of saving the cat. As a rule, I carefully control the amount of time the little scene-stealers are on the page. Otherwise, as the storyline becomes a logistics nightmare, dog-napping starts to look like a practical plot twist. Plus, while any side character can hog the limelight, animals are the worst. Don’t give them all the best lines.

So why include an animal as a side character in your book? The cute factor wears off eventually, but pets can be effective character extensions of their humans. What does it say about the lumberjack when it turns out he picks a goggle-eyed pug over a pit bull for his rescue project? Have you noticed how many B-movie villains own smug Brigid 2felines? The Game of Thrones series (especially the books) used a litter of wolf puppies as shorthand for the lives and fates of the Stark children. Through their presence, animals can contrast or comment on the rest of a narrative and its characters.

Or, they can level up and play a role in the action. Murder-solving pets are a staple of the mystery genre. A favorite of mine is Monty the golden retriever and his handler, Sarah Patrick, in Iris Johansen’s mysteries. Monty is a cadaver dog, which gives him an important role in the stories. He knows his role and understands when he’s done his job—or when he’s failed—in a very realistic way. An animal’s vulnerability naturally heightens the emotion of a situation, whether that’s for laughter or nail-biting drama.

Integrating an animal character into the plot can mean giving them a story goal and character arc. In Smolder, Kifi joins the quest so she can meet her queen, a decision that turns out to have important consequences for the human characters. Kifi is also a feline, with all the sassy good and bad that entails. There is a temptation to make pets too adorable, and a dash of naughtiness avoids sentimentality.

The gold standard, in my opinion, remains the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. He writes about talking animals, but they are memorable creations with personality, flaws and a Brigid 3purpose. The author treats them as fully formed characters and so makes them integral to the story. No one who has met Reepicheep or Mr. Tumnus will soon forget them.

Even if that’s going deeper into fantasy than is appropriate for your story, it’s worth considering what’s on your fictional pet’s mind. The trick is to make those fuzzy characters work hard for their time on stage and deliver good story value. When W.C. Fields warned that animals can easily steal the show, he understood their power to entertain.


Coconut Squash Soup


June 7, 2021  •  No Comments

The tale of this coconut squash soup begins with a trip to the farmer’s market, where a New Zealand blue squash followed me home. The variety was new to me (and, apparently, to the cat) so I was curious to see what I could do with it. As it turns out, this variety cooks up nicely with a flavor between a butternut squash and a pumpkin.

Quarter the squash, scoop out the seeds (these can be saved and roasted later) and bake on a cookie sheet at 325F until fork tender. Peel off the skin and mash.  This should give you around 4 cups of cooked squash. If you have too much, it freezes well.

Fry until thoroughly cooked:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large diced onion

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

Add:

1.5 tsp cumin

1.5 tsp coriander

1/2 tsp cardamom

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

Cook for two minutes and add:

Your squash

6 cups vegetarian broth (low salt is best–you can add salt if needed)

Optional: Fresh garden herbs, if available (I use chives, oregano, and thyme)

1 can (14-oz) of low-fat coconut milk

Simmer for about half an hour. At the very end, add the juice of 1 lime. Then puree thoroughly so there are no lumpy squash bits.

This coconut squash soup is a very attractive, colorful soup, and makes a great centerpiece of a light meal.