Scary Food

So what’s scarier?

This? Or this? The above is an Opuntia ficus-indica (well, probably, as I am no botanist), commonly known as the “prickly-pear cactus,”  and the structure she has commandeered is a six-foot fence.  But it’s really hard to appreciate the massive size of our Opuntia without standing right next to her, inches away from the spines. And man, are there spines. Two types, actually; the large fixed ones like canine teeth that appear on the broad, flat green plates (“nopales”) . . .

. . . and then the tiny, delicate, nearly invisible “glochids” that are most evident on the fruits (“tunas”). “Evident” being a relative term, as the ones that get under your skin and make you crazy really aren’t detectable by sight at all.

Opuntias make you wonder about the Wisdom of Nature and all that.  For a plant, isn’t the whole point of producing a fruit involve convincing some ambulatory creature to eat it and deposit the (prefertilized) seed somewhere else?  Wasn’t I taught that in middle school? How on earth can this be achieved when the fruit is more insanely hostile than North Korea?  This plant is better-armed than the soldiers in “Aliens.”  Even our neighborhood squadron of highly-trained squirrels — rodents who have successfully broken into our garage to get at a rumor of birdseed as well as perfecting the launching physics of fig-cannonballs at our dogs — even they avoid even going near the Opuntia.

Enter me, of course.

Confronting the Opuntia involves extremely basic technology. A chair, a stick, some tongs and really long, really thick rubber gloves. Alright, the rubber gloves aren’t really “basic” but you get what I’m saying. When the fruits are ripe, they will be a gloriously brilliant red, plump and tempting and eager to send you to the emergency room with the spines, where you will be mocked mercilessly by junior doctors practicing their tweezer skills at $1,000 an hour.   But that doesn’t have to happen.  Use the stick to knock down the high fruits, the tongs to twist off the lowers, and eventually you weave through the squirrel-fig cannonade with what you were after.

They look like grenades for a reason.

Now here’s where the rubber hits the road, and I’m not kidding about the rubber. You need gloves. Big thick ones.  On the Web there are many reports of people singeing off the spines and glochids by holding them over an open flame.  That’s all very Paleo and very hip. But as a matter of principle (I like my house not being a smoking hole in the ground) and painful experience (I like my skin being intact) I avoid open flames unless I absolutely have to use them, so I’ve adopted a much simpler technique: rubber gloves, a green scrubby sponge, and the sink.

Once the scrubbing is done and the sponge thrown away (do NOT mess that part up), you end up with these guys:  The juice is deeply red and will stain anything within thirty feet, so be aware.  Cut the fruits into quarters and then throw them into the biggest stewpot you have.  About twelve fruits will make a nice batch of syrup or jelly. 

On the lowest setting on the stove, let the fruits think about things for a while. You don’t have to add water.  In time the fruits will start to release liquid.  It’s kind of a sauna for them. That’s when you finally get your revenge and bring out the Masher.

 

Once you’ve got some liquid in the pot, bring out a potato masher and go to town.  You’re going to be doing this for a while, so make sure you don’t try this when you’re on the hook for meetings, first dates, or your caesarian appointment.  Mash the fruits and then let them sit a bit more on the lowest heat possible. Do it again. Do it again.

Enjoy every bit of it.

Eventually, you’ll end up with a pot full of skins and simmering mash.  Turn everything off, let it cool a bit, and then sieve out the skins and seeds. Any fine strainer will do, but once I bought a big Chinoise strainer I’ve never looked back.

Now, you simmer.

You’ve got a pot full of prickly pear juice. If you have about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of juice, which is about what twelve fruits will get you, you’re ready to go.  If you have more than that, bring it up to a simmer and let it reduce a bit.  Then add:

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 5 cups sugar

“Five CUPS?” I hear you cry. “Five CUPS”?  Yup.  No joke.  You’re not going to get a decent syrup or have the base for a jelly without that amount of sugar.  There are recipes and entire websites dedicated to faking food with “healthy” chemical this and thats, or the latest herbal miracle sweetener that will also burn fat and do your dishes and walk your dog and make your husband love you, but this isn’t one of them. Now boil it. HARD. For about two minutes.  You should see it becoming viscous and agreeable, like honey or maple syrup.  Check with a spoon; it should sheet off instead of drip.  Then you’re done.  You’ve made prickly pear syrup.  Let it cool, package it up, put it in the fridge. Break it out to add to lemonade, margaritas, mojitos and fizzy water.  Tomorrow, I’ll post how to use it to make a ferocious hot sauce and a sweet, complex and frisky barbecue sauce.  I think these things are why the Hive Queen/Opuntia puts up with me at all.

 

 

 

Canning, The Beast, And The Mise En Place

It’s cherry and raspberry season here, and it would take a heart of stone (much like a cherry’s, now that I think about it) to resist their wiles.  A few days ago I was waylaid, totally without warning, by a charismatic cherry-seller in my bank’s parking lot, and then I was assaulted by a giant, glowing display of raspberries at my grocery store.  In both cases my wallet was sucked right out of my pocket and I dutifully brought the bags and clamshells home with me. I stuck them in the fridge, thinking I’d come up with something to do with them RSN (real soon now).

This morning I realized I’d better get on with it because they and I weren’t getting any younger. Freezing was the obvious (and quickest) option, but a look at the calendar — I usually have no idea what date it is and only a loose grip on the actual day of the week — told me that the fig and tomato seasons were right around the corner.

One moment, you ask.  What do figs, tomatoes, cherries and raspberries have to do with each other?  The answer’s in this bad boy right here:

(Ominous chords.)

That is The Beast, a Ball waterbath canner, the genuine article, about as unchanged over geologic time as a horseshoe crab and nearly as ugly.  I got it as a Christmas present two years ago.  Now before anybody gets all worked up about lousy Christmas presents (e.g., vacuum cleaners and the like), you should know that I asked for it and I was delighted when the gigantic box appeared under the tree.  I can’t imagine that a medieval alchemist would have been any happier getting a brand-new alembic.

It came with the iconic Blue Book Guide To Preserving. “The Book.” THE 100TH EDITION of “The Book.”

This was like having Robert of Chester’s Book of the Composition of Alchemy (translated from Arabic circa 1144) delivered to your front door.

 

 

Over the next year I learned to make and can jams, jellies and syrups with The Beast and The Book, but without a doubt its premiere use for me is to preserve tomato puree.  There is absolutely no comparison between the tomato puree/sauce you get in the grocery stores to the absolute elixir of joy and deliciousness you can produce at home.  You can choose the variety of the tomatoes (I’ve produced several varieties of puree, from the chocolate beefsteaks to purple heirlooms to the classic Romas) and the texture of the sauce.  There’s none of that strange overcooked taste from the commercial cans and even better, none of the bisphenol-A chemical epoxy that lines them. It’s just incredibly fresh puree and glass.

So this morning, with cherries and raspberries ticking like tiny bombs in the fridge, I realized that I had tomato season coming up. To add a little more pressure, our Mission fig tree has had some kind of divine revelation, and is producing more fruit than I have ever seen before or even believed possible. Fig preserves and jam were going to be very much a part of my life.

“I feel Happy!”

It was obvious that The Beast had to come out of the cave where it had been hibernating for months.  Any alchemy relies on technique as well as theory, and technique in turn relies on practice. What better practice than a bag of beautiful ripe cherries and packs of glowing raspberries to start ramping up for the real work this summer?

I decided on a recipe in The Book, the Cherry-Raspberry Conserve (page 31).  It’s pretty simple;  you pit the cherries, push the raspberries through a sieve to remove the seeds, and add sugar.  But I also decided to add two other ingredients.  This year I started growing lemon verbena, an herb with an astonishing citrus blast as well as a grassy note that I thought would cut the sweetness of the conserve.  And then, because I had more cherries than raspberries, I thought I’d add a little Framboise.Framboise is a raspberry wine with some grape spirits added, to give you that delicate smack upside the head you really need sometimes.  It is rich, sensuous, and completely addictive.  I have absolutely no historical evidence for this but I can imagine Roman emporers sipping it during banquets.  I thought I had it all down.

The wisdom of the trial run became apparent pretty quickly.  My pitter had disappeared, which wasn’t that much of a tragedy because it never worked very well anyway.  But it also meant that I had to hand-cut and de-pit a ton of cherries.  And then I had to smash  raspberries through my chinoise strainer to produce pulp.  During all this I forgot to put the lids into a pot to warm up, so there was some running around getting that done, and I had to make sure that the water level in The Beast remained high enough while the jars and rings were sterilizing, and then I had to rig up an infusion-bag for the lemon verbena because my cheesecloth had mysteriously vanished.  I found that none of my tools ever ended up in the right place, that I had to constantly retrace my steps, and that my setups weren’t efficient.  Handling and filling the hot jars felt clumsy.  I’d been a smooth machine last summer, but I felt like I had blinders and oven mitts on this time. It doesn’t take long for technique to decay.

I managed to limp through the process and produce a few jars of Cherry-Raspberry Conserve, infused with lemon verbena and Framboise.

Boom! There it is.

In the end, I was utterly convinced of the truth of Anthony Bourdain’s meditation on the cook’s mise en place from “Kitchen Confidential”: “The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.”  Thanks to the conserve, I’m a little more prepared for the figs and the tomatoes.  Because they’re coming, and I’d better be ready.

 

For My Handmade Soap Testers

Thanks so much to all of you who’ve stepped up to try the latest batches!

As most of you know, this soap is carefully made in absurdly small quantities by hand from individual oils, butters, essential oils, fragrances, herbs, infusions and even enfleurages. The technique is traditionally called “cold process” soap. I like to make it because it’s the very best kind of alchemy:  you start with a few ingredients that bear absolutely no resemblance to the end product, you follow rigorous steps at speed and with precision, and when you’re done you either have what you’re after or you have a complete and mystifying (and if you’ve really screwed up, a Hazmat-team-worthy) disaster.  How much more thrilling can a project get?  Those medieval guys, they knew what was worth doing.*

One of the things about cold process soapmaking is that (if it works) the soap requires a “curing” time after it’s made.  Curing shouldn’t be a matter of safety.  A properly designed and prepared recipe should be pH-safe very soon after unmolding, and I confirm safety at several points in the process with testing. (Also, by trying it out on myself first.) What curing does is slightly different.  Curing dries and hardens the soap, making it last longer.  It also allows you to see if colors or fragrances change over time, and many people say the soap becomes milder and bubblier.  Cures last from at least four weeks to over six months, depending on the recipe.

So for the folks that are testing out the new bars — thank you!  You’re evaluating the end product of a very small-scale and long-term process, and I could really use your feedback.  So when you’re trying it out, think about the following and if you can, send me your thoughts:

  • How does the soap make your skin feel? For example, moisturized, clean, too dry, too hard to rinse?
  • How was the lather? For example, bubbly, creamy, rich, too thin, too hard to produce?
  • Did you like the way the soap looked?  How was the size of the bar, and were the colors and appearance attractive or not?
  • Was the fragrance appealing? Was there enough, too much, or not enough of it? Did the fragrance “match” the appearance of the soap?
  • Are there any other changes that you would suggest?

You can send your thoughts to stargazer@accidentalalchemist.com, or just post a response here.  Let me know which soap you’re testing in your remarks. What you say, good or bad, matters to this accidental alchemist.  Thank you.

* Endnote:  The university doctors and the freelancers with pointy hats weren’t the only people doing alchemy in the Middle Ages.  Alewives and herb-women did it all the time, and with a great deal less fuss.  But the women were only making beer and medicine, instead of gold and immortality elixirs.

 

Anticipation

I cannot possibly thrive in these conditions.

This year I am trying to grow my tomatoes in containers.  The side raised bed was shaded a bit too much by the neighbor’s overhanging tree last summer, so early this year I decided to dedicate that bed to herbs and partial-shade-agreeable vegetables.  Of course, the neighbor — a good one — trimmed his tree about a month ago, so here I am with my tomatoes in containers and a side bed of herbs and lettuce that as far as I can tell are having a 24/7 party.

That’s an Italian Red Plum in the first picture, though it doesn’t look plumlike at all at this point.  I’m not in the least surprised by this.  One year I planted a Paul Robeson tomato (round beefsteak, chocolate brown) in the same bed as a bunch of heirloom plum tomatoes. I ended up with half chocolate plum tomatoes and a very confused beefsteak plant that produced a few plums, a couple big round ones, and then gave up completely in a Hollywood-worthy breakdown of wilt and spiders.  The only things we were lacking were a DUI and rehab.  (It’s a good thing tomato plants don’t know how to handle car keys.) There’s only so much cognitive dissonance that you can ask from people, much less plants.

I’m working on it.

Now this guy is an actual beefsteak plant, a snazzy hybrid that’s supposed to be able to withstand wilt, virus, pests, bacteria, molds, poor soils, intermittent watering, lightning strikes, bad interior design choices, nuclear armageddon and the zombie apocalypse.  (Seriously, who writes those gardening catalogs?) It doesn’t seem to be too perturbed by the fact that it’s planted in a (potato bag).

Did I say that last part out loud?  Well, don’t tell the tomatoes, they seem to be doing well so far. The Italian Red Plum has decided to be zebra-striped and entirely unplumlike?  Cool with me.  The hearty beefsteak has decided to produce many small fruits instead of a few big ones? Fine.  The classic Roma across the way can’t decide whether it wants to set fruit or not (“I am a Glorious Magnificent Flower, Woman!)?  Do what you will, dear.

After a few years of gardening, which makes me barely a novice, I am finally learning to stand still with my hands in my back pockets sometimes.  Now if only I could apply that lesson in other parts of my life.

 

When “Garbled” Is Good

I frequently garble phone messages, phone numbers, combination locks, simple instructions, passwords and punchlines, but there is one time when garbling is a good thing — when you’re handling herbs.

Usually, to garble something means to distort it profoundly, so that it loses its true meaning.  But in herbalism, the verb means almost exactly the opposite.  “Garbling” an herb means to strip it of everything but its useful essence: to remove any extra twigs or stems, dirt, bugs, or deteriorated leaves, and carefully retain everything good and graceful about the plant.

A small cut of golden lemon thyme, garbled after drying.

A few days ago, a friend delivered unto me a pretty amazing quantity of sweet marjoram from her garden.  She wasn’t sure what it was, but I’ve been growing it for years and I knew the look on that plant’s face when she dropped the pile on my counter.  Her reports of the plant’s behavior confirmed the identification.  It can’t be killed, she said.  I cut it down to nothing and it’s still back.  I think it’s hostile.  Should I call somebody about this.

No no, I said, I got this one.  I was feeling like I’d hit the lottery, because marjoram is an incredibly underrated herb.  While we tend to limit our herbal seasonings to basil, oregano, and maybe a little bit of thyme when we’re feeling all foodie (rosemary scares people), marjoram provides an entirely new level of herbal flavor.  Imagine a combination of flowery thyme, bitter oregano, and maybe a tiny resinous zap of rosemary all rolled into one.  It’s an herb that’s regarded by many as being absolutely necessary to make the iconic kielbasa biala surowa, or fresh Polish white sausage, and that adds an incredibly complex and memorable touch to vinaigrettes, marinades, light tomato sauces, and fresh salads. Finally, this amazing gift comes from a plant that refuses to die even under the most adverse circumstances, such as a gardener that’s giving it the hairy eyeball every day.

It’s an indication of how underrated this herb really is that the only picture I have of it is one from two years ago.

The marjoram (top back) knows that I was really only taking a picture of the tarragon and thymes.

But I’ve finally learned to appreciate the oddballs among us, and when that pile of marjoram hit the deck I was ready to go.  A quick cleaning swish and then it was stacked in the dehydrator, which to me (see the earlier Strange Herbs post) is the best way to preserve herbs.  In the dehydrator, a few hours at exactly 95 degrees and the fan’s gentle breeze keeps much of the herb’s color and essential oils in the leaves, without the dust, burning, or contaminant problems that can come from air or oven drying.

Out of the dehydrator. There are two more frames beneath.

Once it’s out of the dryer, then the garbling process begins. You need to get the leaves off the stems and twigs, choosing which to keep and which to discard, while keeping them as whole as possible.  (For dried herbs, keeping the leaves whole is important — you crush them when you use them, and not before.  This way you avoid the tasteless dust frequently sold as herbs in grocery stores).   You use your hands in a very gentle way, rubbing your fingers along the dried stems to release the leaves while trying to preserve them intact.  It is a peaceful and almost meditative process, because you remain engaged in what you are doing while at the same time your mind roams around in deep and profound places.  I imagine for some people it would be horrifically boring.  I’m not admitting to anything here, but music helps.

Garbling herb is well performed in solitude, where it provides a prime opportunity to simultaneously garble one’s attitude and beliefs about life.  — James Green, “The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook,” pp. 62-63 (Berkeley: Crossing Press 2000)*

 

From the three dried frames of my friend’s generous gift, I ended up with enough marjoram to stock the cabinet for sausages and sauces and marinades for the year.  A good day.

More than enough.

*Endnote:  This sentence is a lovely example of a syllepsis, a language construction where a word (usually a verb) has multiple meanings when it is applied to the words that it governs in a sentence.  “He lost his coat and his temper.” There is apparently a fight to the death among grammarians as to whether it is distinct from, or simply a form of, something deeply incomprehensible called a zeugma.

 

Volunteering

When we moved into what we now call the Zoo, there were two large, well-established, and obviously aging landscaping-type bushes installed along the driveway. Some part of our arrival made them completely despondent, because bits of each began pointedly dying, shriveling, and collapsing in pathetic little brown heaps all over the place for months.  Every morning was a new “J’accuse!” of curled, leafless branches. Yes, we watered, fertilized, organically pest-controlled, provided verbal encouragement, hummed classical music, did little amusing dances,  the whole nine yards of Attachment Gardening.  Yet still they withered.

So I dug them up and sent them to the composters, because I am a heartless and merciless virago.  But while committing this crime, I noticed that there was a little vine that was growing right next to one of the I Am A Helpless Victim of Society bushes.  It was small, about as long as my forearm, wiry, and completely unimpressive in every way.  It had no redeeming color, structure, flowering, or rarity qualities whatsoever. Hell, it barely had any leaves.  It was simply a nondescript weed, clinging with absolute determination to its shaded, starved spot there along the driveway.

Something told me to leave it where it was, even as I did the stewardess “Bye-bye” wave at the “Where’s My Guvmint Paycheck” bushes.  But then I had two big open holes in the ground and a single, scrawny, might-as-well-be-a-dog-chewed-electrical-wire of a plant left behind.  My gardener guy at the time poked it quizzically and said, “I’m pretty sure it’s a grapevine. But I dunno, could be poison oak.”  He was kidding, I think.  But I knew he was right in his first call, because I also knew that the Zoo’s builder made his own wine in a shed in the side yard. I knew this because his recipes are written on the walls in that shed in a delicate, graceful, now-fading pencil.

So what do you do when you have what you’re pretty sure is a grapevine that seemingly came out of nowhere, resisting with its whole heart any plans to “landscape” a property, simply to survive?  The answer was pretty clear to me.  You build this tough little thug a house.

Now for a grapevine, a “house” is an arbor, and I had two open spots from our recently vacated tenants in which to frame an arbor. The guy on the left is my “volunteer” — the chewed, wretched, starved shoestring that grew on its own, without anyone wanting it there, and refused to give up.  I had to balance it out, so I bought a Thompson seedless grape plant from a nursery (kind of like the private-school kid, if you think about it) and put it on the right side.

We discovered a year after planting the Thompson that there was yet another volunteer. There’s another wine grapevine (we think) that emerged at the base of the right-hand arbor posts.  The picture above is what’s going on right now with everyone, about two years into the process. The tree in the center is a dwarf nectarine; the bigger guy right next to it is a Mission fig.  And this year, for the first time, we have these:

The Tough Kid’s grapes.

 

We don’t know if these are red or white wine grapes, and can’t wait to find out.  But the Thompson, not to be outdone, is also popping out bunches as fast as it can.

Oh yeah? Bring it.

But you see, the grapevine isn’t the only volunteer here at the Zoo.  At the base of the Mission fig, every year, something spectacular happens.  It’s a giant snapdragon, I think, and it requires nothing but admiration.

I have a new, deep, and abiding respect for “volunteers” around my house now.  As I think I quoted in another post, gardens teach you patience more than anything else (well, on some days I’d argue “frustration” is more accurate, but then again I’m neither pundit nor priest.)  “Hold on a bit, let’s see what happens” is, however, now one of my New Age Affirmations.  Now if only I could apply it to something aside of plants — then we’d really be getting somewhere.

 

Soap, Again, For The Intrepid Testers

Once you really start experimenting with soapmaking, you end up with a lot of it.  Some of it ends up stuck in a giant ball on the end of a spoon (“seizing”).  Some of it does weird things, like “volcanoing” in the mold.

Not a mushroom. Not a mushroom at all.

Some of it doesn’t retain the fragrance you expect, or the colors come out strangely (“This. Is Not. Blue. On OUR planet anyway”) or is way mushier than what you thought it would be and ends up sticking to the cutting knife, to the mat, to you, the cabinets, the floor, and to random passersby out in the street.  When you’re first starting out (and if reports are correct even when you’ve been doing it for a while), sometimes you get surprised.  The only things you can do are to follow your ideas, your carefully evaluated recipes, and your GMP procedures while you’re making it. If it comes out, you always test the soap for pH safety, and then you just let it cure.

“Curing” is the process whereby you cut your soap and then just leave it alone for a period of time — anywhere from four weeks to over six months in some cases.  The water used in the processing slowly evaporates out, and the soap becomes harder and theoretically more long-lasting. Some people say it becomes milder and bubblier during the cure as well.  That’s why, for every batch of soap you make, it’s a good idea to hold back at least one or two pieces and just let them do their thing on the curing rack.  But the others? You send ’em out to your Intrepid Testers, after ensuring they are safe, and let them find their way.

So: Intrepid Testers:  These are the soaps that have cured, and are looking for tryouts in the next couple weeks.

Sea Reef:  The islands of the Caribbean are usually surrounded with coral and stone reefs that break, redirect, and even still the waves.  Viewing them from the surface, the effect is a spectacular variation in the colors of the water. 

This photograph is only one example.  Along the reefs, shades from light and forest greens, sky and navy blues, delicate violets and purples close to night are striated, streaked and sometimes massed together.

The seas along the reefs inspired me to try out some new colorants.  In “Sea Reef,” I began with a classic olive oil, coconut oil and shea butter basic recipe that I knew performed well, along with a bright, fresh breeze of a fragrance I also knew.  I then picked out some cosmetic-standard pigments: Ultramarine Blue, Ultramarine Violet, and Chrome Green, and did a mold swirl to try to replicate the mixing of the colors of the sea across a reef.

Sea Reef

Harbor:  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, they say, and I think this applies to almost every endeavor.  Before Sea Reef, I experimented with the same basic olive oil, coconut oil and shea butter recipe, but along with the Ultramarine Blue pigment I tried a fragrance that I hadn’t worked with before but liked a great deal “OOB” (out of the bottle).

Harbor

Now here’s the story on fragrancing soap:  some fragrances can screw you up. What some do is “accelerate” the process of saponification — the alchemy whereby a sodium hydroxide solution transforms the present oils into soap. The key is to manage the process so that it doesn’t happen so fast that it turns into a solid, immoveable mass before you get it into the mold.  Guess what? This fragrance accelerated like a bat out of hell. It went faster than an Internet entrepreneur in a brand-new Tesla. It would have taken superhuman dexterity to get it into a mold. I ended up with what folks call “soap on a stick,” but I did manage to save a few pieces before it all turned into a brick.

The color, though, is very reminiscent of the color of the sea of some harbors in the Caribbean.  At least that bit worked.

 

The fragrance to my sense is also outstandingly “oceanlike.”  There are only a few pieces, though.

Night Sky:  Last comes my favorite, and probably the one that has to be babied the most.  It’s a “milk” recipe — a soap where the water usually used to dilute the sodium hydroxide into a solution is replaced by milk.  They are difficult, cranky, annoying and unpredictable soaps to make, and yet some folks swear that they are the best real soaps on the planet and won’t use anything else.  The quality for the user is more than worth the terror for the maker.

But let’s back up one second.  Most of the Caribbean islands are unusual in that their placement in the tradewinds, as well as the absence of light and atmospheric pollution, creates outstanding views of the night sky at sea level.  (Want more info? Go here: www.caribbeanastronomy.com . Do it.) Without naming names, I’ll tell a story of a person who pointed up at the sky from a little island house and said, “What’s that? An airplane trail or something?”  I said, “That’s the Milky Way. You can see it here.”

“Night Sky” is my attempt to capture that extraordinary vision of the edge of the galaxy. It is made from olive oil, coconut oil, and coconut milk, and is colored with completely natural activated charcoal.  The highlights are eye-and lip-safe cosmetic-grade micas (the same stuff in mineral makeup), each piece individually painted with artists’ brushes.  It is a soft and gentle soap that will be ready in about two weeks.

Night Sky

The scent is a rich but measured sandalwood-based spice fragrance. It is intoxicating.

I’m looking for testers on all three soaps.  Let me know if you’re interested at my contact on this blog.

The passion of the Passiflora

How hard can it be?

The screwy weather in Northern California continues.  We’ll have chilly, windy temperatures for a week, and then soar into the 80’s for a day or two, then drop back into the 60’s again.  Night temperatures remain cold — mid 40’s — and it’s making the peppers and the two new Passiflora Incarnatas (passionvines) rather unhappy.  I’ve begun taking the Passifloras inside the house at night in hopes that they won’t up and die on me, as every other Passiflora has to date. There is something about Passifloras I’m just not getting.  They’re practically an invasive weed in every other part of the country except my backyard, where they dramatically clutch their little throats and shrivel up.  (You can see the Passifloras in Picture #1, right in front of the snazzy new potting bench and tool rack that Incredibly Useful Husband put together for me without effort despite the world’s worst instructions.  The nifty device the vines are climbing is called a “Spiraclimb,” which is really just a big cheap spring and I wish to God I’d thought of it first.)  — Garden Update to friends, May 2011

I have a “thing” for the passionflower vine, and not least because it was reputed to be incredibly hard to kill.   (Don’t underestimate that.) But given that I am one very special snowflake when it comes to gardening, I was able to cripple or outright murder several victims before the stars came into alignment and a couple of them clung to life. This summer, things seem to have turned the corner.

A little backstory first.   Passifloraceae are perennial vines.  The genus contains a large number of variants and cultivars, the latter largely hybrid for the quality of their blooms — all of which are completely unique, absolutely spectacular, and perfectly ephemeral, as they last only a single day.   It’s a well-known plant in the southern part of the United States, to the point where the august Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs notes that it’s “a rather weedy specimen and is not of great interest to many gardeners.”  Herbalists are deeply interested in it, though.  A few specific varieties have been recognized as containing calmative and sedative properties in their leaves and flowers, very useful in a tea and tincture, as well as producing a delicious and unique fruit.  Two of those varieties are the edulis and the incarnata.

Below is Ed, our Passiflora edulis.  He began his career in the backyard in a large (and I thought quite attractive) pot, but soon expressed his deep unhappiness with the conditions by dropping leaves, refusing to grow, and doing everything but taking out a New York Times ad accusing me of negligence.

Ed (Passiflora edulis).

Concerned, I transplanted him into Actual Dirt with a trellis along a fenceline, which I thought might please his essential vininess. He proceeded to sulk for two years.  I gave him the “do what the hell you want” watering treatment I used on the alyssum.

This morning, though, I went outside to find three of these. I guess he’s forgiven me.

The Passiflora incarnata has a more dramatic story, which involves a moral choice that I think anyone would torture themselves over.  Below is a picture of an Incarnata flower — you can see the similarity between it and Ed, but the variations are distinctive.

Passiflora incarnata, a.k.a. “Maypop”

What I didn’t know when I started out with the passionvines is that there is a butterfly called the Gulf Fritillary that prefers P. incarnata plants, above everything else, to lay its eggs on.  The butterfly is very beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and eating everything you care about.

WTF?

Last summer, when I had two Incarnatas growing in the backyard, I started noticing a large number of these lovely creatures flitting and soaring around me as I puttered about.   It made me very happy and peaceful.

And then, in the fog of butterflies, I noticed this.

Cue the “run screaming to the Internet” behavior.  I soon discovered that what was almost certainly happening was that all those glorious butterflies were starting their careers on my Incarnatas.  So I went out to investigate.  The following picture is NSFPeopleWhoHateBugs.

AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

I grew up in Michigan, the Land of Ugly Caterpillars, but this guy beat all.  I’d never seen anything like it. But after the panic attack I realized that those gorgeous butterflies beating their fragile stained-glass wings around my head every morning were relying on my precious Incarnatas as a food and shelter source for their young. As terrifyingly ugly as they were.

Cutting to the chase: I let them eat the vines. I’m not going to pretend to be noble here — it’s just that I don’t use pesticides, and I wasn’t even close to handpicking them off.  (Go ahead, you touch that.)  And I’ll admit that the grace and beauty of the butterflies made up for a lot of the frustration.

But there’s an upside to this. The vines did survive the Butterfly Onslaught long enough to produce some fruit before they were turned into dry little sticks by the munching horror stories.  All fruit came from the Incarnatas, as Ed was still sulking.  I hear that his fruit is larger and more purple, if, in fact, he ever decides to produce any.  I’m not betting on it, but anything can happen.

The butterfly survivors.

 

(The best indication I’ve found for ripeness for a passionfruit, incidentally, is going out every morning and picking them off the ground.  The vines drop them when they’re ready. You have to be fast to beat the squirrels.)

 

 

Ready to go.

Passionfruit, like the prickly pear, has one of those utterly unmistakeable flavors that is difficult to describe.  I gouged out the flesh and strained the seeds out, and then, without any ideas of what to do with it, froze the batch until lightning struck.

Enter: Hot Sauce. Habanero pepper, prickly pear, and passionfruit.

Sweet and hot.

The Incarnatas were eaten down to sticks last summer, but came back this year to my complete surprise.  One of them has exploded with flowers and I see no caterpillars as of yet.  Ed, unaffected by the Butterfly Onslaught, is on his own agenda. At this point, I’m going to wait and see what happens.

Strange Herbs

One of the better aspects of gardening is its endless ability to inspire experimentation.  After a few years of watching your magazine-standard flowers and vegetables wither into sticks for various mystifying reasons despite budget-crushing outlays on fertilizers, feeds and soils, you feel emboldened to try killing something more unusual.  Something oddball that the neighbors haven’t killed too.  Something rare and exotic, preferably from a) very far away or b) the backyard of the last surviving member of a diminutive religious denomination.  If it’s also weirdly colored for the plant it’s supposed to be, you’ve just hit the modern gardener’s trifecta.

For example, tomato fetishists (and aren’t we all) have turned this psychological phenomenon into a booming market for seeds from Japan, Siberia, Africa, various long-defunct American sectarian communes, and (I totally want this one) “a small Lebanese hill town.”  But herb gardeners in particular put the tomato folks to shame.  Once you get the herb twitch, you’ve just hit the gold mine for strange plants with long, obscure, and occasionally bizarre histories.  I am a cautionary tale.

This is the flower of Motherwort, a.k.a. Leonurus cardiaca.  I started it from seed and then transplanted it into an unassuming little pot two springs ago, where it hung out doing just enough to keep me from sending it to the composters.  This spring, however, it shot up about two feet overnight and produced an aggressively bristly flower stalk that had the bougainvillea back the hell off with an almost audible “whoa.” No dropped bracts in this pot.

Motherwort is a “women’s herb” in herbalist lore.  The reports of its use originate from Roman and medieval English times; supposedly it eases recovery from childbirth, helps balance a woman’s hormonal state, and can help with heart, digestive, and nervous system conditions as well.

This is yarrow, a.k.a. Achillea millefolium, and it’s a plant that really can’t be busted in terms of street cred.  I remember running across references to it in some of my medieval English readings.  For centuries it’s been used to stanch bleeding wounds on battlefields, resolve nosebleeds, soothe skin inflammations and conditions, and promote gastrointestinal health.  It’s also got the unfair advantage of being a very attractive cultivar, with delicately feathered, fernlike leaves that spray out beneath heavy stalks of clustered white flowers.  Like the Motherwort, this guy just ambled along for a couple years before exploding this spring in a blossom riot.

I’d been watching these two for a couple weeks, and on my morning walkabout today I decided it was time to do some harvesting.  I knew I had to start replenishing the golden lemon thyme stocks for the kitchen, and the Thumbelina dwarf lavender in the front pot had a profusion of sweet blossoms.  The herbalists recommend that harvesting be done in the morning, just as the sun is drying the dew off the leaves; the explanation is that the essential oils of the herb are most concentrated at that time.  I don’t know if that is true, but it’s a pleasant activity first thing in the morning.

After a quick rinse, I prepped the herbs for drying.  There are a number of techniques that work.  At first I used the basic technique of tying and hanging them in a protected area, like this:

You can also oven and microwave-dry herbs, but it takes a bit more attention to ensure that they don’t cook or turn into dust.

Because of the sheer mass of herbs that I need to preserve, I ended up buying a dedicated dehydrator.  It lurks like a giant black McGuffin in the spare room (which we are now calling “The Lab.” I have not yet perfected my maniacal laugh, alas).  Herbs are dried at a steady 95 degrees on a framework that allows the air to fan through every leaf.

Once they’re done drying, I’ll put up the golden lemon thyme into spice containers for cooking, pack the lavender for use in soaps (I use fresh blossoms for infusions into jellies and jam), and either tincture or oil-infuse the motherwort and yarrow.

 

Even if you’re not really sure what you’re going to do with an herb in the age of modern medicines, there is a certain pleasure in growing plants with healing histories that stretch back to the Roman Empire. From my reading, both motherwort and yarrow were certainly well-known by hedge-healers, midwives, battlefield medics, university doctors, and alchemists in the Middle Ages.  I wonder if they felt as much of a victory as I did today — a small one, of course, but a victory nonetheless — when they harvested their blossoms despite drought and flood, pests and predators.  For them, the plants weren’t strange or exotic or bargained-for on heirloom seed exchanges.  For me, they are.  And I bet my neighbors haven’t even tried to kill a yarrow yet.