Plants for dyeing: Comfrey

comfreyI’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.


Plants for dyeing: Pokeweed

pokeweed Pokeweed is shrub that commonly grows in dry, neglected areas. In New England, it generally blossoms in mid-summer and sets fruit in September. Throughout history, pokeweed has had several uses. One of the first plants to show itself in spring, young shoots were gathered, boiled and eaten as a tonic after the long, cold winter. As the plant matures, however, parts of it become poisonous.

The Algonquins called this plant puccoon, which means “plant used for stains or dyes.” An English name for the same plant is “inkberry”, and in my museum classes I sometimes have kids pick, mash, and write with pokeberry. Though technically a berry, which provides a stain rather than a dye, pokeweed can be used to color wool a rich shade of magenta. Unfortunately, stains fade a discolor rather quickly, and are definitely not as colorfast as true dyes. (Think of what happens on that white T shirt that gets blueberry or strawberry stains on it. )

For that reason, I have only used pokeweed to color my yarns a few times. While alum mordant is usually pretty effective with plant dyes, I have not found that it works well at all with pokeweed. My best results and truest, deepest colors have been achieved using white vinegar as mordant.

Pokeweed dyepot:

This is a simple recipe. For a pound of yarn, pick a large paper grocery bag full of pokeweed berries. Crush them until the juice runs, combine with about 1/2 gallon of water in a suitable steel or glass container. Pour in about 1 cup of vinegar. Submerge presoaked yarn skeins into dyebath, raise to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 1/2 hour. Allow yarn and dyebath to cool. Rinse yarn in cool water, allow to air dry.

If you try this yourself, I’d love to hear about your results.


Post revised 9/26/14

Christmas Traditions: How to Make Sugarplums

Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore. It’s become an indelible part of the American Christmas tradition, and many of us know it by heart. The line I’ve always wondered about is:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads….

So I set out to discover what this delectable sounding treat might be. The dictionary defines a sugarplum as a small round or oval piece of sugary candy. Knowledge about exactly what it’s made of is considerably less exact. Perhaps the name arose from its resemblance to a small plum, or from the practice of preserving plums in sugar, a way to keep some summer fruits around for a while longer. No matter. Recipes using real plums date from at least the 16th century. (The sugarplum referred to in the Victorian poem are composed of a mix of ingredients, including dried fruits and nuts.)

The making of genuine sugarplums is quite time consuming, although it is not difficult.


1 pound of plums

2½ pounds of white granulated sugar

16 ounces of  water plus 2 Tbls water

1. Make a thin sugar syrup by mixing ½ lb of sugar and 16 oz. of water in a large pot.

2. Slit the plums down the seam and place them into the syrup so they are fully covered. Poach gently until just tender. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the plums to absorb the sweetness.

3. Make a heavy sugar syrup by mixing 2 pounds of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a large pot. Slowly boil until a drop of syrup in cold water makes a thick but soft ball. Transfer plums from the thin syrup to the heavy syrup and remove from heat, making certain plums are covered by the heavy syrup. Allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a glass or ceramic bowl, cover tightly, and refrigerate for about a week.

Once flavor has developed, separate plums onto parchment paper and place them in a warm (170 degree) oven, turning them every half hour until dry (or use a home dehydrator.)

Entertain visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy while enjoying this traditional confection!

Easter Traditions: Polish Babka Bread

My mother’s family came to the US from Poland, first to Deep River, CT, then moving to Buffalo, NY. When I was little, after church and after my brother and I had found all the hidden Easter eggs, we’d all sit down to Easter brunch. The menu never varied: juice, fresh kielbasa, boiled eggs, and babka. No chocolate till we’d all finished brunch. This year, I’ve decided to make a babka instead of settling for the dry kind sold  in  stores.


This recipe is from Old Farmer’s Almanac.

  • 1 yeast cake, or 1 package dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) soft butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
  • 1 cup white raisins
  • 1/3 cup fine bread crumbs
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds

Add yeast to lukewarm water and let stand until softened or dissolved, about 5 minutes. Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, add salt to egg yolks and beat until thick; then add to sugar and butter mixture. Add yeast and water, lemon rind, and cinnamon. Add flour alternately with milk and beat well to make a smooth batter. Add raisins and knead by hand until batter leaves the fingers. Let rise in a warm place until double (about 1-1/4 hours). Punch down and let rise again until double.

Generously butter a fluted tube pan. Sprinkle with  fine bread crumbs, sugar, and if desired, honey,   and fill pan  with dough. Brush with mixture of egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons water. Sprinkle with almonds and let rise again. Bake in preheated 350 degrees F oven for 30 minutes.

How to Make a Hot Toddy

Feeling cold? Have a cold/sore throat/cough? This is the drink for you. Simply stated, a hot toddy is a mixed drink containing tea (or coffee, water, cider, coffee, etc.),  whiskey or another form of alcohol, and a sweetener.  Sometimes fruit, spices, and butter are added. Once believed to alleviate a cold, toddies were traditionally drunk at bedtime, or to warm up after becoming chilled.  Whether or not it has medicinal properties, it’s likely to make you feel better, if only for a little while! The toddy  appears to be a close relative of the more widely known Irish Coffee. The recipe’s very basic, and is amenable to all sorts of variations.

  1. Brew tea and fill a large mug 3/4 full.
  2. Mix in honey ( or other sweetener), 1 tbsp or to taste.
  3. Mix in 2 brandy or whiskey shots.
  4. Optional: Add lemon slice, cinnamon stick, a few cloves

Personally, I’d rather drink this when I don’t have a cold, the better to taste and enjoy. A few variations to try: flavored brandy, flavored tea or coffee, herbal tea, lemonade, star anise, or gin. (It’s also easy to make a virgin hot toddy, using apple cider or lemonade )

It’s Fall! How to make Pumpkin Soup

Magically Spiced Pumpkin Soup

by the Editors of Easy Home Cooking Magazine

Yield: Makes 8 servings


1 tablespoon oil

1 large sweet onion (such as Walla Walla), peeled and coarsely chopped

1 large Golden Delicious apple, peeled and coarsely chopped

3 slices (1/4-inch thick) fresh ginger

2-1/2 cups chicken broth, divided

2 cans (15 ounces each) solid-pack pumpkin

1 cup half-and-half

1-1/2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

Black pepper

Additional chicken broth, if needed

Pumpkin seeds, raisins or whipping cream for garnish (optional)


1. Heat oil in large saucepan. Add onion, apple and ginger. Cook and stir 10 minutes over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup chicken broth. Cover and simmer 10 minutes or until apple is tender.

2. Pour onion mixture into blender; purée. Return to saucepan. Add pumpkin, remaining 2 cups chicken broth, half-and-half, curry powder, salt and pepper to taste. If soup is too thick, add additional broth, a little at a time, until soup reaches desired consistency. Cook until heated through.

3. Sprinkle each serving with pumpkin seeds and/or raisins, if desired, or drizzle cream on top of soup to make a Halloween design.

Mmmmmm! Comfort food that’s good for you.



Thanksgiving Traditions: Ginger Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Traditions can be started any time, and last year, using a recipe provided by Meg, my DIL, I changed my Thanksgiving sweet potato tradition from lightly candied with brown sugar, to ginger mashed. The pilgrims didn’t have ginger, but we do, and these potatoes were scrumptious, with the added the benefit of less sugar and butter. This our the second year following our delicious, healthier new tradition. I believe the following recipe was provided by Teri Hatcher on the Rachel Ray show.


  • 4 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed well
  • Extra-virgin olive oil , for drizzling
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger or 2 teaspoons dried ginger
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock or heavy cream (eyeball it)

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Place the potatoes on a small baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and rub them with some salt and freshly ground black pepper before wrapping each potato in foil. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until tender. When the potatoes have finished baking, remove them from the oven, unwrap and  cool enough so you can handle them.

Cut potatoes lengthwise. Scoop out the cooked insides  and roughly chop the skin of the potatoes – it adds great texture and more rustic flavor! Reserve both.

In a large sauce pot over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter and add in the fresh or dried ginger. Cook for a couple of seconds to bring out more of the flavor before adding in the reserved potatoes. Coat  well in the butter and ginger, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add  stock or heavy cream, then mash and serve.

Serves 6.