Are you ready for the rainy season? After that brief, long-delayed idyll of sundress weather, it seems the dark and damp of our wet Mediterranean winter has set in. In his story "A Christmas Memory" Truman Capote called this fruitcake weather--the blustery late-autumn days when the holiday cakes were due to be mixed and baked, anointed with brandy and set on the shelf to mellow and age. If you're a fruitcake maker, or if this is the year when you're finally going to give Laurie Colwin’s infamous Black Cake a go, now's the time to start searching out your dried figs and candied orange peels, your burnt-sugar essence, rum and sweet kosher wine.
But among a certain sector of forage-minded do-it-yourselfers, this is the week to stockpile not nutmeg and sugarplums but onions and horseradish, honey and ginger. It's fire cider time, time to get prepared for winter's onslaught of colds, coughs, and flus, brought on by drafty Victorians, rainy bicycle trips, and sneezers on Muni, not to mention the petri dishes that are small children.
Last year, when all my mom friends were ankle-deep in squashed tissues and empty C-Monster bottles, with sticky glasses ringed with the dregs of tangerine Emergen-C scattered over every nightstand and tabletop, I heard about the wonders of fire cider on (where else?) Facebook.
Given that most of my friends online are a) teachers in constant contact with tiny grubby hands and small, constantly running noses; b) artists with flexible schedules, an enthusiasm for alchemical activities, and, often, day jobs at places like Rainbow Grocery; and c) writer/cooks procrastinating, er, continually browsing for interesting stuff on the Net like hungry giraffes among the treetops, it's only surprising that a recipe for fire cider didn't come my way earlier. But last year, there it was, courtesy of a post by my friend Sara Seinberg, a writer, excellent cook, Rainbow collective member, recent San Francisco marathon runner, and all-around curious and glamorous person. She'd found her recipe on The Urban Field Guide, written by herbalist-blogger Kristen Dilley.
I was instantly charmed by everything about it—its witchy, Harry Potter-ish name, its overload of everything fiery and naturally anti-bacterial, and especially, its supposed, nearly magical ability to fire-breathe the winter blues (and sniffles) back up into the clouds. Until I got to the fine print, the uh-oh last step of the recipe, where you put the jar on a dark shelf (or bury it in the backyard) for 6 to 8 weeks before using. Everyone I knew was sick now, not 8 weeks from now. So I shelved my plans for fire cider that winter; Robitussin and chicken soup would have to do.
But with the first rains beginning, I'm inspired to get started ahead of the colds and coughs this time. You'll need to go to a well-stocked grocery like Rainbow or Berkeley Bowl to find the potent roots you need.
Search out fresh horseradish roots if you can (they look like particularly knobbly, gnarly parsnips, thick and twisted, often still muddy). Because fresh horseradish quickly loses its bite when exposed to air, the jarred stuff usually contains salt, sugar, and other additives. The fumes coming off freshly grated horseradish will be enough to keep your sinuses clear for quite a while.
If you can find fresh turmeric root, peel and grate it like ginger, using about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of grated root. While many people think of turmeric as a cheap saffron substitute for saffron, or the stuff that makes curry powder gold, ayurvedic practitioners have valued it for ages, revering it for its purifying, antiseptic and immune-boosting qualities. Cayenne, horseradish, ginger: all of these are warming down to your toes.
This is potent stuff. If you have gastric issues, like irritable bowel syndrome or ulcers, or are taking blood thinners, do not take fire cider. Otherwise, you can sip it in shots, 1-2 tablespoons at a time, up to three times a day. Yes, you'll have dragon breath, but that in and of itself may keep you healthy, keeping the coughers and sneezers on the other side of the bus.
Makes: 2 cups
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3/4 cup peeled, grated fresh horseradish
1/2 cup peeled, grated fresh ginger
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
½ cup honey, preferably raw and local
Apple cider vinegar to cover, approximately 2 cups
1. Get out a clean quart-sized glass jar. Fill with onion, garlic, ginger, horseradish, turmeric, and cayenne. Drizzle in honey.
2. Add cider vinegar to cover. Top lid with a square of waxed paper, then fasten lid on tightly.
3. Put away into a cool, dark place, and let sit undisturbed for 6 to 8 weeks.
4. Strain cider through cheesecloth, squeezing the solids firmly to get all the liquid out. Decant liquid into a clean jar and store in a cool, dark place. Fire cider will last up to 6 months.