Dinner May Be Alchemy, But Fishing It Up Is Magic

Frigate bird over St. Croix seas The bellwether.

That’s a Magnificent Frigate Bird, commonly seen soaring effortlessly over the seas and reefs surrounding St. Croix, and it’s magnificent for more than one reason.  Its enormous, tilted wingspan (over 6 feet in most instances) allows it to soar for hours, even days, without touching land.  (The only other bird known to do this is the Common Swift). Frigate birds snatch flying fish as they jump — a stunt I’d pay good cash to see, considering how wicked fast those slippery little freaks zip inches over the waves  — and pick off smaller fish that come close to the surface without even wetting their feathers.  They’re also thugs to other birds, harassing them until the victim drops their dinner. Yes, even birds push each other around for their lunch money.

But aside from their superb aerialism and obvious antisocial personality disorder, frigate birds are also incredibly useful.  I’ve learned that when an offshore fisherman sees one or two of these guys circling an area, that means that there’s almost certainly some serious sportfishing action going on right there, right now.

Unbelievably Useful Husband (hereafter, “UUH”) and I found this out when we booked a fishing charter for our next-to-last day in the little house on the island.  We’ve gone sportfishing before in Hawaii, where UUH solidified his reputation as “Tailfisher.”  For some unknown reason, every time he actually caught a fish, it wasn’t in the standard operational mode.  You know, fish bites hook, hook gets stuck in fish’s mouth, guy reels fish in face-first.  Nope, not nearly interesting enough for UUH.

For him the fish would evade the hook, but somehow would get the line wrapped around its tail, so UUH would drag it in backwards in a comic reversal of the usual process.  How he managed this multiple times was one of those mysteries that deserved further investigation, and we were eager to see if he could replicate it in the Caribbean. So friends of ours found the Island Girl II of St. Croix Deep Blue Charters, a superb custom 45-foot Hatteras that works off the Christiansted area of St. Croix, and we began the experiment.

The Island Girl II is run by a husband and wife team  — Ben, the Captain, and Megan, the First Mate. (Island Girl I, we discovered, was crushed and sunk by a yacht during Hurricane Hugo.)  After the usual confused period where the charterees load on about six times more beer and food than they need, which turns out to be exactly the right amount, we were off into the Caribbean Sea.

The Island Girl II in full display is an impressive sight. The multiple rods and lines are spread out in perfect geometries, interconnected in complex but aesthetically beautiful ways with connectors and hooks and even rubber bands.  The reels are polished, golden, wickedly functional works of art in themselves.  As the boat moves farther out, the baited lines take flight, extending and then disappearing into the vanishing point as the wake surges behind.  We had a pretty calm sea that day, with a warm sun and few clouds, so it was tough not to doze off.

One thing I did notice in my sun-induced stupor, though, was the constant communication between the captain and first mate.  They were constantly scanning the skies — looking for frigate birds like our lead player.  Frigate birds are great bellwethers; they’re the pathfinders to what you want.  Fishermen know that they tend to circle over groups of small fish hovering near the surface, hoping to evade larger fish hunting them.  When you see a few frigate birds in one place, you know that the party’s on down there.  First Mate Megan carefully tracked and circled the boat right at the birds that were spotted, as Captain Ben ensured that the bait was correct for what we were after.

It didn’t take long after that before there was a loud BZING!, one of the reels began buzzing frantically, suddenly there was great deal of frenzied activity, and apparently the fight was on.  UUH was in the chair.  There appears to be a great deal of physical work involved, and as I try to avoid that as much as possible, I was quite happy to simply observe the process. There’s a constant chatter of “ease up,” “let him out a bit,” “pull him in,” “he’s running, he’s running,” and the whole event has the adrenaline of a Top Gun dogfight.  This fish didn’t breach the water much, but as the churning water kept coming closer and closer to the boat the tension became so excruciating everybody watching had to have another beer.

 

 

One brief but brutal side-of-the-boat struggle later (a word of advice — don’t get into a fight with Captain Ben, especially if he has a big stick) the fish was eventually brought aboard.  It was a mahi-mahi, which folks also call a dolphin. They’d been hunting the little fish that the frigate birds had spotted.  In the water, they are even more gloriously incandescent than they are on land, though considerably less delicious.

The end of an era.

It was a victory for us, but sadly, UUH’s unbroken record as “Tailfisher” has now been broken. It cannot be disputed that the hook is actually in the fish’s mouth.

It didn’t take long before there was another BZING, another challenge accepted, and our friend Denise was fighting a fish to the boat.  These guys are no slouches and it takes a while, but eventually we had another dolphin on board. Two big, beautiful mahis later, we returned to dock.  If you’ve caught fish, tradition demands that you put a flag up indicating what you’re bringing home.

Dolphin flag — a successful mission!

 

Captain Ben was kind enough to fillet them for us so we’d have dinner that night.  The scraps he produced during the precise, exacting filleting process (this guy could teach knife technique to surgeons) he threw to a group of tarpon fish loitering near the boat.  They obviously knew the routine:  fishing boat coming in = dinnertime.  Tarpons are pretty much useless except for entertainment; they’re big but bony and unpleasant-tasting, so no one eats them, but my God can they put on a floor show.  Several bars on the Christiansted harbor boardwalk have tarpon gangs in the water that hang out waiting for scraps, and it’s nearly irresistible not to feed them something simply for the amusement value. Kids are transfixed. Hell, I was transfixed. We took about fifty pictures of the tarpons just fighting over mahi scraps because . . . because . . . well, because. It was the sun, or the beer, or something.  Anyhow, look at these fish! The expedition was fantastic, and the dinner was even better. The expertly filleted steaks were probably the best meal we had on the island. A few days before while grocery shopping, I’d found irresistible a bottle of Tamarindo Bay Caribbean steak sauce and bought it on the spot without knowing exactly what I’d do with it. The answer was obvious the minute we got home with two chunky, perfect mahi steaks.  A few minutes marinading in the sweet but tangy, unmistakeably Caribbean sauce — this stuff would be great on anything up to and including truck tires — and they were ready for the grill.

On the advice of a brief website search (how on earth did I ever do anything before the Interwebs?), I put the steaks on a piece of foil and then directly on the little house’s big Weber grill on the porch.  The foil makes it easier to flip the steaks without sticking and breaking.  About three minutes a side and they were ready. A simple side salad was all that was needed.

It was the perfect farewell meal to St. Croix.  Our thanks to Captain Ben and First Mate Megan of the Island Girl II, our friends Keith and Denise Murphy, the mahis that graciously provided our dinner, and especially to our bellwethers, the Magnificent Frigate Birds that helped it all happen.

 

 

Day of the Iguana

After a morning of wrestling large, aggressive fish into a boat, we came home and my first thought was to take a dip in the pool.  I found what I thought was one of our geckos gone wayward, floating motionless in the water.  I feared he had drowned.  I picked him up and put him on the deck, and when I did, I felt his little claws clutch against my hand.

He recovered pretty quickly and hung out on the deck for a bit, then scuttled for the shade underneath the fence.  Unbelievably Useful Husband took a good look at him and said, “I don’t think that’s a gecko.  I think that’s a baby iguana.”  And you know what?  I think he’s right. Whatever he is, he needs to learn to swim. At least if he wants to live long enough to look like this:

Iguana at Tamarind Reef Hotel, St. Croix. Avoided pools and ocean, apparently.

Soap and the Caribbean

It’s been a busy couple days for the Alchemist.  If you’ll recall, the first attempt at a genip syrup off an Ancient Document (a Virgin Islands newspaper from 1973) did not have a good result.  From perfectly good genips I ended up with a burned, wretched mess that went directly into the garbage.  The second attempt, however, was focused entirely on getting juice, and to do that I relied on my technique for persuading it out of prickly pears.  Five bunches and a dollop of water over a very low simmer for hours seemed to do the trick.

Genip juice Now that’s more like it.

I ended up with about four cups of the strained juice, which was a lot more than I expected.  But this was a good thing, because I intended to do two things with it — use some of the juice as the liquid to dissolve the lye in my first island-made soap, and the rest to make a syrup in the way that I knew how.

The only problem I had is that my lye hadn’t arrived.  Without lye there is no handmade cold-process soap, so day after day went by with my anxious checking of the USPS tracking site, only to find that my sodium hydroxide languished in Sebring, Florida, for days (is there good sightseeing there, or what?) and then took a few day trips out of Catano, Puerto Rico. I just hope it found a good hotel.

I’ll note this was no fault of the supplier — Essential Depot, which unlike most soapmaking suppliers can ship everywhere.  As far as I can tell, they’ve got the docs to ship to the moon (sodium hydroxide requires special permissions and papers to ship across the street, apparently).  Their customer service is first rate.  They picked up a problem in my shipping address instantly, fixed it on the phone, and my package was on its way the same day.  I’d recommend them to anyone trying this out.

On Tuesday night, literally minutes after I’d left the post office in yet another fruitless quest, I learn from the USPS tracking website that the package had dropped.  Of course it was too late to pick it up then — the office closed literally seconds after I read the email (/banghead) — so it was all up to Wednesday.  I set up the mise as well as I could, considering that I was jerry-rigging more than a bit of the usual setup.  But I’d found some locally-made, beautifully clear coconut oil sold by our local Rastafarians; I had genip juice; I had some light-colored olive oil, and that was basically my formula.  70% olive, 30% coconut, a 34% lye concentration and a whole lot of prayer for my first island soap.

I was stuck here without essential oils, fragrance oils, or any of my usual colorants, so I tried a couple things.  First was the attempted infusion of fresh red hibiscus flowers into some coconut oil.  Guess what? Hibiscus flowers, while water soluble into a fantastic tea,

What do you want me to do again?

will not give it up in oil.  They sit there, get soggy, and look more and more resentful. Same deal with the Jamaican sorrel and ginger tea.  So I gave up the oil infusion idea, measured off the correct amount of genip juice for the soap formula, and popped a couple of the teabags into it.  In a few minutes II had a gloriously deep red color.

 

 

Now I know that soap colorants, especially herbal ones, can change, morph, or even disappear without as much as a text message (FU HAHA SOAP NOOB), so I wasn’t too overjoyed. But I was hopeful.

 

When the lye arrived and I ripped home with it, I started the process right away. I was using a Pringles can as a stunt mold (because it was easiest, really) and had it propped up inside a hideous vase left behind by the previous owners.  I prepped the lye outside on the concrete driveway, because I had no clue as to what would happen and decided I’d rather not burn a hole through either myself or my kitchen floor if something went horrifically awry.  When the lye hit the sorrel-infused genip juice**, it turned a violent neon green, the juice itself started swirling bright orange, and then it rippled back through a dark red as the lye dissolved.  After the shock of this hallucinogenic color experience had dissipated I raced back inside, strained it into the prepared oils, and started into it with the stick blender that had taken me two days to find on island.

It took forever to “trace” (emulsify and thicken up during the saponification process enough to mold), and by the time it did, it was the most hideous color I’d ever seen — a horrific greenish brown that looked like it had been scraped from the bottom of an abandoned boat and then left in an abandoned basement inside a diseased bucket, and that had me thisclose to tossing it all into the garbage.  But I kept the faith and molded it.  And this morning, I tossed the can into the freezer for a half hour or so and then unmolded and cut it. The color had deepened and evened, and it’s possible that it might redden over time — herbal colorants are tricky creatures and while a cold-processed soap cures, the colors can change.  What you can see, here, is how the soap is “sweating.”  While soaps taken out of the freezer frequently do this, this particular soap was suffering just as much as we were in the heat.

Ahh, outside breezes.

 

 

So at first I took it outside where there was a light wind that I thought might help dry it quickly.   And then I started worrying about sudden downpours, birds, and bugs, and concluded that technology was obviously the answer. The next step is to leave some here with our friends, to see how it cures in the Caribbean, and to take some home with us to keep an eye on it there.  But it is my first real island soap, made with island ingredients in real island heat, humidity and wind.  My curiosity on how this simple formula will come out is overwhelming.  While it isn’t the sexiest-looking soap out there, it’s got the advantage of being The First.

 

 

 

Happy Hour at Blue Yonder

Nearly every night here on the island there’s a short, brutal downpour — the type that can wake up us statesiders with our hearts pounding and the conviction that the roof is coming off.  Imagine a cartoon where the character steps outside and has a bucket of water thrown on him — that’s what they’re like.

You’d think with all this water, it would be easily available to all the critters, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  One of the crucial components that brought the bananaquits back to the feeder was adding a dish of water along with the sugar dish.  So every morning, when I refresh the sugar in the dishes that were brought in and washed the night before, I always make sure to fill up the water dish as well.  The idea seems to be a hit.

Bananaquit, St. Croix Next time fill ‘er up a little higher, eh?

A Curiously Curated Collection Of Croix Critters (And A Beach)

By “curiously curated,” I of course mean that “these are pictures that I’ve managed to take and vaguely resemble the object at which the camera was pointed.”  I’ve got a great camera — the Canon PowerShot SX20IS is nothing to sneeze at — but it does take some getting used to, and I’m no natural with technology, as Unbelievably Useful Husband will attest.

Bananaquit, St. Croix Bananaquit, posing for his official portrait.

I have a passionate relationship with bananaquits. On a trip to Barbados, I had the fortune to visit a place where bananaquits would eat sugar out of your hand (they’re colloquially called “sugarbirds” for just this reason) and fell in love with the colorful, curious, pugnacious little birds. I was delighted to discover that they are St. Croix’s island bird, and that a large group lived in the Ginger Thomas stands that line the hills beneath the house. During our earlier trip this spring, I persuaded mobs of them to visit a bright yellow soapdish I’d filled with Turbinado sugar and placed on the top rail of our deck.  They eventually allowed me to get quite close; my favorite picture from that time is now the centerpiece of the “Contact Me” part of this site.

This time of year, though, things were different.  The Ginger Thomas stands aren’t flowering with the profusion they did in the spring,

Ginger Thomas blossoms — there are only a few now.

and the birdsongs sounded like the bananaquits had moved far down the hill.  My placement of the sugar dish remained sadly unvisited.  So I began from the beginning, placing the dish on the railing of the lower deck, and waited patiently.

It took a few days, but one eventually visited, and then more came.  It was a little different than the spring, though; the birds seemed to be taking turns instead of mobbing the dish.  They were also enormously shy; instead of jumping away a few feet and protesting furiously whenever I appeared on the deck, they’d always eat and bolt for the bush.  It took a week, but I eventually moved the sugar and water dishes back to their usual places on the top rail, and they kept coming back.  They are still shy, though, and I have to try to take pictures at pretty extreme zooms.

I did notice that we had a visitor that I’d never seen before.  He was a dark bird with a very different beak than the bananaquits —

The new guy.

a short, seed-crunching, all-business finchy beak, like the ones I saw on our house finches at home. He was also pretty pushy, able to drive off the bananaquits when he decided it was time for lunch. Curious, I did a little research and found out that he was a St. Lucia Black Finch.

 

Did you hear the kids?

We also discovered that he had a wife.

The Finch Family are regular visitors now to the sugar dish, as is an increasing number of bananaquits.  They aren’t the only avian travelers that pass through, though.  There’s a quite dramatic and impressively large-lunged gray kingbird that’s staked out the power wire above our house as his Preferred Perch.  He’ll occasionally cruise through the Ginger Thomas stands — I believe he’s a bug-eater, watching his spectacular aerodynamic performances.  When he lands he’s hard to miss.

Gray Kingbird Another Blue Yonder resident.

A few others that I haven’t been able to catch yet in pictures are the Anguillan hummingbirds (lovely dark black hummingbirds, the males with an iridescent green crest), a yellow warbler who spent about fifteen minutes closely examining our habits last spring, and what I do believe is a kestrel that has been examining our household as a potential hunting ground.

But the most ubiquitous denizens of the household are, without doubt, the geckos.  They’re also known as “anoles” and they are welcome guests in and around any residence, because they are harmless, shy, and ant and bug eaters par excellence.  Right now appears to be mating season,

Gecko, Anole I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.

because some of the bigger ones have been staking out the front porch as prime performance territory.  I don’t know a lot about the St. Croix ground lizard, but I have noticed a few repeating patterns; wherever there’s a smaller, dark brown lizard skittering through the bushes or across the porch, there’s almost always a larger green one in the sort of “desperately casual” pursuit you can see in some urban twentysomething bars.  And once a sort of trembling equilibrium is reached — the little brown one peering from the leaves, the green one posing on a rail — the green one  will Begin to Dance.

Look at the size of this thing!
Gecko, St. Croix ground lizard, anoleYou ain’t seen nothin’ yet, honey.

He’ll inflate and deflate the throat sac, which is a brilliant yellow, while pumping himself up and down on his front legs.  It’s better than “Riverdance” and a hell of a lot less expensive.  After a few minutes of this, everyone will freeze into immobility for a while.  Then the little brown one’s eye will be caught by the other guy carefully posing on the wall, she’ll skitter through the bushes again to take another observation spot, and the whole Dance will begin again.

I realize that this post has been a bit “Animal Planet,” but the creatures here are some of the most delightful features of the island.  However, I realize my responsibility, so here are some shots of St. Croix beaches.  This location is one of the most beautiful on the island.  It’s the beach ringed by the Tamarind Reef Hotel, a resort I would recommend to anyone.  It has a spectacular snorkeling area, unbelievable white sand, delightful, knowledgeable staff, and SEA TURTLES NEST THERE.  The turtles are carefully guarded, so you don’t need to worry, but it’s not uncommon during certain times of the year to see baby turtle tracks heading down the beach to the ocean.

Tamarind Reef Hotel beach

The beach features several jetties where an extraordinary variety of fish have made homes.  We’ve seen everything from giant pufferfish, trumpetfish, mass blue tang clans, and an extraordinary flying gurnard.  (Please look that last one up on the web.)  But, you know, there’s more than just undersea life that makes the place home.  This guy and his cousins live there too:

No one expects the Iguana Inquisition.

 

Burning the Genips

These are genips:

Genip, quenepa, Spanish lime The noble Genip, a.k.a. Melicoccus bijugatus, if you’re feeling Scientific.

This fruit comes from a tree in the soapberry family — not very promising, I know, but go with me on this — that’s either native or naturalized to most of the Caribbean Islands and to Central and South America.  It’s also got more names across these places than Jupiter has moons (63 to date, in case you’re astronomically oriented). A small sampling: quenepa, kenepa, canepa, kenep, talpa jacote, xenepa, and Spanish lime.  For a small, bunching, and largely unprepossessing fruit, that’s a lot of monikers, and the fact that the Jamaicans call it an “ackee” (NOT to be confused with that other ackee) only adds to the confusion.

What that brittle shell is hiding.

Here in St. Croix they are ubiquitous, and I picked up a bunch for a dollar from a truck parked on the side of the road.  (You can also acquire the insanely delicious Caribbean lobster, various fish, papayas, bananas, coconuts, and mangoes the same way.  I heartily recommend this approach.)  The fruits have a thin, brittle outer shell.

In the usual method you crack the shell between your teeth, spit it out, and then chew and suck off the sweet, orange, fibrous flesh that clings somewhat stubbornly to a large central seed.  Some folks believe that it’s a bit too much work for too little reward, but I love the citrusy top note, followed up with a warm and delicately sweet flavor that just bellows “YOU’RE IN THE TROPICS” to your taste buds.

But that’s not enough for an accidental alchemist.  Nope, I decided I was going to try to make some syrup from the genips.  For all good alchemists every project begins with research into ancient documents, just as for all good software programmers every project begins with a T-shirt.  Astoundingly, I found a reference in the Virgin Islands Daily News from 1973, preserved by Google with all its dark arts.  Genip Syrup

The recipe recommends popping them out of their shells, which is an easy and unusually enjoyable experience, putting them in a pot, and dumping some sugar over them to extract the juice.

Genips in sugar. I’m just following the instructions.

After a curiously unexplained period of this extraction, you’re to wring them out and then add a ton more sugar.  So I wrangled with the proportions a bit, because I didn’t have a gallon’s worth of genips, put them into a pot, and sat around.

After a curiously unexplained period of time I noticed not a lot of juice seemed to be presenting itself, so I shifted gears a bit to something I did know how to do — get juice out of prickly pear fruits.  This technique requires that you warm the cut fruits over a very, very slow heat for (again) a curiously unexplained period of time.  So I put a lid on, started up the simmer burner, and congratulated the genips on their brand new sauna.

Now let me tell you, genips are tough little brats and just as they don’t want to give up their fruit when you’re chewing on them, they don’t want to give up their juice even while simmering.  I noticed that while the sugar had liquified, I wasn’t getting a lot of anything else out of these delinquents.

So I popped in about a half cup of water to encourage the process.  That seemed to turn the trick.  Once the water started simmering, I got a marvelous, citrusy fragrance wafting through the air, and a quick taste screamed “GENIP!” from the liquid in the pot.  I did the little alchemist woo-woo dance (yes, that’s the official name) and decided to work on something else while they continued to simmer out all their wonderfulness.

There are multitaskers, and then there are non-multitaskers.  While admitting that you are a poor multitasker is a great mark of shame, well, I’m Cat and I’m a terrible multitasker.  By the time I surfaced for air and remembered the genips, they’d burned — the water had simmered away, the sugar had burned and hardened, and the genips themselves were mean, shriveled, dark orange and blackened balls that essentially seethed with resentment at me from the bottom of the pot.  I didn’t even have enough energy through the despair to take a picture of this disaster.  Into the garbage it went.

What I did, though, was go out the next day and get five,  not one, bunches of these punks from the truck at the side of the road.

Then we will fight in the shade!

Because even through the disaster, I have some great ideas.  I have some soap stuff that I managed to figure out how to ship here, and which should arrive in the next day or so.  I think a simple genip juice (no sugar) would be an excellent water for the lye mix — or at least the kind of experiment that makes alchemy worth doing.  And I think I’ve gotten the line on the syrup workings.  It’ll be a pretty interesting next few days.

 

The Very First Thing Is Food

The view from Blue Yonder’s deck.

Back on the island. Once the incredibly long, unbelievably painful series of flights is over, all you want to do is settle in a bit. But the fact remains that everyone needs to eat, and there are a number of great restaurant and takeout-shop options on St. Croix.  Here, the portions are usually very generous.  What you do is eat what you can, and then take the rest home with you.

What we’ve come up with for some time now is what we’re calling “Blue Yonder Hash.”  It involves everything you’ve brought home, and one incredibly important ingredient:

The magic dust.

This little packet is what will make every leftover meat, fish, potato, artichoke dip, breadstick, and vegetable you bring home from a restaurant  into a brand new, utterly delicious dinner. This little package costs practically nothing, is stupidly easy to prepare, and creates some kind of alchemical glory out of whatever you throw into it. I think the only thing we haven’t thrown into it is truck tires.

The process is fairly simple.  You must obtain an onion and saute it in some nice butter until it softens up a bit.

Think of the onion as the goalie.

Following this, you start up another pot.  This pot is the Vigo Red Beans & Rice, shown above.  It needs some water, a little butter, a little boiling, a little stirring, and some simmering for about 20-25 minutes. That’s it.  So while that’s running, you pull out every leftover you’ve got, slew them over a cutting board, and get to work.  Trim the fat off the meat (do not fail to do this), even things up, but don’t be afraid about putting everything from pita bread to artichoke dip to both breaded fish and grilled fillets in there.  Throw them all in, turn the heat down (the onions should be soft and browned by now).  Heat on low, let everything think things through for a bit.

All the leftovers, simmering gently with the Goalie Onion.

In a short time, the Red Beans and Rice will be ready.  Here’s the big fun: slop it all in, mix it all up, and heat slowly for a few minutes.

Everybody into the pool.

Here’s where Gordon Ramsey and I will probably have a major difference of opinion — I agree, this doesn’t look like a five-star entree, but I’m not throwing it out.  I’d get canned out of Hell’s Kitchen faster than a tuna if I’d offered this.  But I will tell you a few things: it is very, very delicious, will save you a great deal of money from eating out every night, and will keep even the most boo-yah divers, snorkelers, swimmers, runners, hikers, and even beach bunnies going for many hours after eating it.  It’s one of our mainstays at Blue Yonder and we stock the cabinets for our renters with the Vigo packets.  After a long day of diving, snorkeling, and wading through the cutting Croix sun, sometimes you just want a nice little pot of easy, fast, economical and warm comfort food in front of the television, on the deck, or under the stars at the pool.   (For us right now, it’s in front of the Olympics). Because even if you’re the toughest, meanest unit on the mainland, the Croix sun and heat is going to tire you out, and this is a nice way to handle the dinner problem when you’ve got leftovers and you’re too tired to move your legs to the car.

Tonight, at the Kid’s request, we’re trying a new mashup with the Vigo jambalaya mix, some leftover hamburger, superb bacon (Cheeseburger in American Paradise on the East End where we live), a little artichoke dip, maybe some good cheddar cheese, and we hope a few exciting Track and Field finals.