Below is my version of a warming, restoring, folkloric immunity tonic. It is spicy, sweet, sour and floral. I started making it some years ago after a few bouts of serious winter illness that always seem to settle in my lungs; but this tonic is not just for winter. In our house, we take it year round. A few years ago I was experimenting with drinking vinegars, shrubs and fermented fruits for my blog Hungry Ghost Food and Travel. Growing up in New England, I was no stranger to home remedies. My stepmother was an avid gardener and self taught herbalist, as were most of the women in my neighborhood. They all had incredible herb gardens and when they got together they shared plants, seeds books and knowledge. I first read about the concept of healthy drinking vinegars and fire cider in a book she had; it was Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes For Vibrant Health. I revisited Rosemary’s book when I was making shrubs. This more curative vinegar based tonic was a natural progression as I began to look at food as medicine. Rosemary first made a version of what she called fire cider in the late 1970’s when she was teaching at the California School of Herbal Studies. I like the word folkloric to describe this tonic because it is something that has been passed down through many cultures and many generations through spoken word. It has many incarnations and no one really knows when or where it started, but most cultures have a version of a healing vinegar tonic. The amazing thing about a recipe like this, is that it is not a recipe at all; just a set of guidelines, notes a friend might pass to you to do with it as you wish. It belongs to no one. My version has morphed and changed with time and place. The current mood it takes on is the local terroir of upstate (where I forage for anything and everything) as well as the flavors and inspirations of my travels.
The basic ingredients in this tonic are; vinegar, ginger, turmeric, garlic, horseradish, onions, lemons, chilies and honey. I add dried sumac, rosehips, pine and hibiscus for an extra boost of vitamin C and always extra turmeric and black pepper for anti inflammatory properties. In my last few batches I have been adding bee balm, fennel pollen, cranberries and a bit of bee pollen. I sometimes mix young ginger with mature ginger. You get the idea. Once you have the base you can really experiment. Gathering all your ingredients for this health tonic is almost as fun as drinking it. Before you start chopping and grating, take a moment to revel in what you have gathered. I have started growing horseradish and turmeric in pots in my kitchen. They are surprisingly easy to grow and are both such pretty plants. I don’t grow near enough for the amount I need to use, but it makes me feel good to grow plants I can use for health and wellness in my New York City loft.
If you start making this in big batches you may want to search out a farmer who grows turmeric, ginger and horseradish. It can get a little costly if you buy from health food stores or larger grocery stores. I started sharing half a case of fresh turmeric and young ginger a couple years ago with my friend India. We order it in the early fall. It comes from a farm in Western Massachusetts, but now, more and more, people are growing ginger and turmeric and you can probably find them at the farmer's market. Last year, I cheated a little and instead of getting a large knob of horseradish root, I picked up some freshly grated horseradish at a market in Pennsylvania. There are quite a few farms around Lancaster that are growing delicious horseradish. I didn’t notice any difference in using freshly grated or the pre-grated horseradish, so I would say do what easiest. You might not want to spend the time grating it yourself. This year I am adding some deep red hibiscus from a trip to Oaxaca and some dried rose hips and sumac from upstate. I am always on the lookout when I travel for easy things to bring back and they inevitably end up in my cooking. Ingredients and market hunting are at the crux of what inspires me. Salt, honey, dried flowers and spices are high on that list. I hit the market wherever I am traveling first thing and if I know I will be cooking, I often travel with spices I can't live without. I don’t want to scare you off with all the foraged and stowed travel bits, because you can jazz this up or strip it back to just the key ingredients, so I will just stop here. The items with an asterisk are optional and in the end I want you make it your own!
You will want to make a big batch because once you share it with friends they are going to be asking for more. You might want to drink it at the first sign of feeling a bit of a cold or sore throat, or you might want to take shot everyday as a preventative.
Once strained save the macerated roots and fruits. Store them in a small jar in your fridge. It has quite a kick.
Folkloric Immunity Tonic
Makes two gallons. Takes 4-6 weeks to mature.
Make it now to combat that New Year Hangover.
2 cups freshly grated ginger root
2 cups freshly grated horseradish
2 medium sweet yellow onions, chopped fine
20 cloves plump fresh garlic, chopped fine
10 1-inch nubs fresh turmeric, chopped fine (buy turmeric root at your local health food store Whole Foods or farmer's market. Turmeric is insanely good for you so don't worry if you can't measure 10 one inch nubs exactly. A little more won't hurt.
4 organic lemons de-seeded, juiced and peeled. I peel the skin making 1/2 inch strips
4 dried red chilies (give them a little smash in the mortar and pestle to release the oils)
Give the whole mixture a thorough stir. Divide the chopped ingredients evenly into two large gallon Ball jars. Top each jar with 14 cups of organic apple cider vinegar. You will want to completely cover the ingredients with vinegar. Cover the top of the jar with baking paper or cheesecloth before screwing on the metal lid. The metal will corrode if you don't. Place the jars in a darkened room or pantry for one month. Periodically turn the jars gently.
After one month
Strain the liquid from the chopped and macerated roots and other bits with a fine mesh sieve into another clean gallon ball jar.
Add the organic raw honey.
Add 2 cups raw organic honey to the liquid (1 1/2 cups to each gallon jar) or to taste.
Your tonic should be spicy and sweet but not overly sweet.
Refrigerate and decant into a smaller bottle for easy access. Take daily or when you are feeling little less than stellar.
Save the strained roots and vegetables to be jarred and stored in a smaller jar in the fridge. You can use the chopped relish in your favorite dragon bowl or in fried rice, or even on a pork taco (so good!). I substitute it for Kimchee (see Julia Turshen’s kimchee fried rice recipe in Small Victories, substitute some fire relish for the kimchee) or just eat it by the spoonful when you need a little kick.