What’s Worth The Effort?

Back here in Northern California, I’ve been canning tomato puree for a few years.  I got started with the classic Ball waterbath canning kit — the giant pot, the the jar lifter tongs and lid magnet and weird little headspace measuring stick,also useful for releasing bubbles out of the jars before you boil the living bejesus out of them. The impulse wasn’t some hippy-crunchy survivalist meme.  It was the hippy-crunchy “avoid the endocrine-disruptor BPA in commercial can liners.”  The fact that home-canned tomato puree — the basis for every superb pasta sauce — just tasted so much better and fresher than the overcooked, stale and chemical-tasting stuff in grocery cans was simply a benefit to the process.

Some work goes into these guys, but it's worth it.

Some work goes into these guys, but it’s worth it.

Well, in order to get a few quarts of good, thick tomato puree to can, you’ve got to go big or go home.

The haul from the Farmer's Market.  I like to play with varietals other than paste tomatoes sometimes.

The haul from the Farmer’s Market. I like to play with varietals other than paste tomatoes sometimes.

At this point, I’m used to the amount of work it takes to reduce a perfect tomato into a perfect quart of tomato puree.  I’ve had to learn how to avoid separation and suctioning through the lid and overcooking the tomatoes in the thickening-simmerdown process before the canning procedure.  (DO NOT LET IT BOIL, for the love of Pete.)  And you also need a version of what Alchemist Natty and I call “The Machine.”

"The Machine." Also known as the "Tomatopress Velox."

“The Machine.” Also known as the “Tomatopress Velox.”

Once the tomatoes are soft enough through a bit of sweating in a big-ass pot, you can pop them into The Machine and it strips out seeds and skins with relatively little effort and a lot of speed.  Then it’s a matter of sloooowly simmering down any extra water out of the puree (you’ve already gotten rid of a great deal through the sweating process) and setting them up into jars for canning.

Filling jars. I follow the Ball recommendations exactly, so there's 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in every quart jar.

Filling jars. I follow the Ball recommendations exactly, so there’s 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in every quart jar.

After that, the boil-the-bunny process begins.  Timing is everything.

Jars in the waterbath canner.

Jars in the waterbath canner.

But what do you do if you have a ton of a tomato varietal that’s not exactly prime for puree-making?  Well, just like everyone else, I get a cup of coffee and go to the web. My friend Kris is a tomato-growing goddess, as well as a superbly skilled cook, griller, and smoker (check out her blog), and she provided me with a few pounds of utterly lovely cherry tomatoes.  I owe her some Anaheims and hot peppers, which have not as yet been particularly cooperative, but I have threatened them and we should see some production in the near future.

A bit of bounding around the Web found a recipe for “Oven Roasted Cherry Tomato Paste.”  Paste was something I hadn’t tried yet, so the circumstances seemed ideal.  I prepared everything according to directions — it’s a satisfyingly OCD process — and got ready to rumble.

Preparing the tomatoes for paste. Olive oil, St. Croix sea salt, 350 degree oven.

Preparing the tomatoes for paste. Olive oil, St. Croix sea salt, 350 degree oven.

There actually ended up to be a lot more of them, turning the whole process into a kind of Tetris game.

OHGAWD OHGAWD WILL THEY FIT

OHGAWD OHGAWD WILL THEY FIT

They’re roasted until they wrinkle and dry a bit on the rims, but take them out before they collapse into themselves and turn into tomato goo.  Then you pop them into a blender (or food processor, for you evolved folks).  I used my ancient and almost museum-worthy Osterizer.

I expect to hear from the Smithsonian anytime now.

I expect to hear from the Smithsonian anytime now.

Now here is what I found was the key.  After blending, the recipe author did not strain out the skins and seeds that had remained unblended, so I didn’t.  The puree then went into a pot for a very slow simmer, cooking for over an hour, stirring frequently as the puree reduced and folding it into itself.  Once the paste clings to a spoon held sideways without falling off, you’re done.

The paste at the point of finish.

The paste at the point of finish.

But at testing, I found that the unblended skins and seeds gave the paste an unpleasant texture.  Perhaps a Vitamix could have taken care of this problem, as opposed to my anachronistic Osterizer.  Regardless, it wasn’t what I thought of as paste. Hard, angry little bits were getting stuck in my teeth.  It had to be fixed.

I added a dollop of water to the paste, stirred it back up into a puree, and strained it through the magical Chinoise. This is the material that was left behind.

The Chinoise strainer. A gift from God.

The Chinoise strainer. A gift from God to my teeth. That’s all seeds and skins.

Then back into the pot for another simmer down, stirring, folding.

Round Two: FIGHT!

Round Two: FIGHT!

I think the double-simmering did no good for the paste taste and texture, and it certainly reduced it to the point of absurdity.  In the end, I had about as much as a single can of tomato paste from the store — probably a little less.

You're kidding me.

You’re kidding me. (Incidentally the container is plastic 5 which is supposed to be okay).

That’s probably about enough for one batch of tomato sauce.  You’d probably get more out of the recipe if you strain BEFORE reducing, instead of repeating the process twice, like I did. I can’t judge the taste properly because of the double cooking, but it doesn’t have the dark, smokey, weirdish flavor of grocery tomato paste even with my bumbling around.

Well, there it is.

Well, there it is.

But honestly, it’s all a matter of experimentation. And where would us alchemists be without that?

 

 

Salt, Soap, Tangs, Tattoos and Turtles — St. Croix, A Multi-Episode Event

Episode One:  Birds, Butterflies, and Salt

The Accidental Alchemist found herself fetched ashore upon a certain island again, fortunately not by shipwreck but instead by a rather painless plane flight from Miami.  And while I failed to bend any local spirits to my will, I did bring some bananaquits around through the magic of Turbinado sugar.

I’m pretty sure that’s a new kid on the block — you can still see some  “baby fuzz” sticking out from his grownup duds.  Most of our BQ gang has moved down the hill from us, because the Ginger Thomas is not flowering very much at this point in the year and I think they’ve moved on to other nectar food sources.   The concentration of hummingbirds has decreased as well, though the kingbirds are more active and vocal than usual.  This is because it is snowing.

Well, that’s what some call it — “Crucian snow,” when a local species of small, white,  faster-than-a-Wall-Street-banker-after-your-IRA butterflies (probably these guys) decides it’s time to get it on.  There are masses of them and when they start dancing together in the air, it does look like a snow flurry.  The problem is, they’re so fast they are almost impossible to catch in a photograph when you’re as clumsy as I am.  This is as close as I got to capturing the blizzards that circled our house for days.

IMG_3404(He’s the tiny white dot in the middle of the picture.)

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, though.  The kingbirds LOVE these guys for dinner and it’s a real airshow when things get serious.

Like most other birds right now, the kingbirds have kids to feed and probably mortgages to pay, so they’re pretty determined to make as much of the butterfly buffet as possible. Much Discovery Channel drama resulted.

My own goals were a little less strenuous, as supermarkets do not regularly attempt to escape.  It had occurred to me that we were surrounded by salt water, being on a Caribbean island and all, and that “local salt” seemed to be a gourmet item flogged to death in every cooking article I’d read in the last six years.  Most “everyday” salt is mined, but a great deal (and most of the fancy-dan stuff) is made from seawater.  Enter me, a gallon jug, and the Caribbean sea off Tamarind Reef. Twice, because I’d read of two methods to make seawater salt, and as a proper alchemist I had to try both. DIGITAL CAMERA

The first method is the classic one used even today in the San Francisco Bay.  Pool some water in a shallow area, let dry in sun and wind.

The second is a bit faster.  Pool water in pot and boil the living hell out of it until you get salt.

As I am a bit OCD about ingredients, I made sure to wallow out on the reef until I could capture as clean a wave as I could.  (The UUH bravely helped with one of these attempts).  There’s a bit of seagrass and other debris that bobs around closer to the shore, and I wanted to avoid as much of it as possible.

 Even so, the water has to be sieved several times to make sure you get as clean a source as possible. A regular sieve lined with a coffee filter works great for this. IMG_4119

 Eventually, you’ll get a beautiful sparkly pool of seawater ready for the pot. IMG_4121

With the first gallon, I boiled the water until there was about 1/2″-1/4″ of water left in the pot.  The salt was precipitating out and crystallizing on the bottom even then.  One glass baking pan and a towel later, out it went into the St. Croix sun.  You can see how wet it remains, even after a day and a half out there in the wild. IMG_4098 The other gallon was used in a “Boil That Dust Speck” approach (kudos to anyone who gets that reference, minus a half-point if you’re a parent).  As it was pretty muggy and there were Some Complaints about  Using The Stove In The House, out the stainless-steel pot went onto the Weber. IMG_4125 I was surprised at how fast the process was.  The salt was still a little damp when nearly all of the water had evaporated, so I spread it out on another platter and set it outside with its buddy. IMG_4126
When all was finally said and dried, I noticed a couple differences between the two techniques.  The “evaporator pool” salt seemed clumpier and definitely more brilliant white in color — I wonder if a bleaching effect from the sun had something to do with it.  The boiled-down and sun-finished salt was crumblier from the get-go.  Both were intensely salty and have a tang to them that my “regular” salt doesn’t have.  For both techniques, I estimate about a salt-shaker full from a gallon of seawater; I got a little more from the boil-down process. IMG_4137 I used some of the salt from this experiment in the soap I made later on in the trip.  But that adventure is part of Episode Two: Wrestling With Soap And The Shocking Discovery That My Spirit Animal Is A Fish.  “Soon come,” as they say in St. Croix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing The Tough Guy Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘N Roll and Soap Club (Free Recipe Included)

Hunting in freezing woods! Fishing in ferocious deep-sea waves! Smoking your hard-won dinner over chunks of wood you cut yourself using power tools most normal people avoid at all costs because they read too many Steven King books! Air guitar and headbanging to bands shrieking and noodling at earsplitting volume with no detectable melody!  How tough guy is all that?  That’s tough guy, I tell you! And us tough guys (this includes girls) need our own club!

I have no idea who these people are. But they look tough.

Wait a minute, I hear you say.  What was that at the end?

Well, soap.  Soap is part of the club. Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘N Roll and, you know, soap.

Prolonged pause, backed by Sesame Street’s “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others.”

Oh, so you don’t think making soap is an appropriate tough-guy activity?  Let me fill you in, bub. (Tough guys say “bub” and “pal” a lot.)  First of all, there’s the screaming hot, scary caustic (as in burn your skin off and blind you if you’re stupid) lye solution you get to mix up and then dump into slippery and sometimes viciously expensive oils.  Then you use a wicked sharp stick blender to beat said mix into submission without splattering it all over yourself, add various other (usually expensive) stuff in various exact amounts at exactly the right times, beat it or abuse it some more, and then pour it into a mold without spilling it on everything around you because that countertop will cost a fortune to replace.  Now if that isn’t tough-guy material, I don’t know what is.  What’s more, it’s synergistic with other tough-guy activities!

All right, let me prove it to you.  Deep-sea fishing counts, right?  (It’s right up there in the title.)  Bracing the surging waves, far from shore, fighting a spirited fish with nothing more than a stick and a piece of string!  How, I hear you cry, can soap help us with this mighty battle?  Well, the answer lies in, of all things, a “girly” little plant called anise.

The mighty fisherman’s friend, anise.

Anise has a history as medicine since ancient times.  It’s been used for coughs, epilepsy, digestive difficulties (including flatulence — the Romans seem weirdly focused on this application), and as a tonic for nursing mothers.  But one of the neatest things about anise is that, according to fisherman’s lore, fish love the stuff.  I mean, love it.  Fishermen dip lures and lines into anise oil and wash their gear and themselves with anise soap to both hide their own scent and attract the fish.  (Here’s an example report.)  And think about it — even if you’re not a fisherman, but just like to snorkel or dive, a dose of anise might help you start the party with the finny guys you’re there for.

But where to find this magical elixir?  You can buy anise extract at a grocery store and add some into a carrier oil, like cod liver.  There’s your dip for lures, hooks and lines or snorkel/scuba gear. But what about the soap?  Well, that’s right here:

Fisherman’s Magic Soap. (The shells are soap too.)

Wait, it gets better.  Part of the mojo of this soap is that unlike nearly all other soaps, it’s made of 100% coconut oil — the only soaping oil that will reliably lather in salt water.  No need to waste precious freshwater while you’re out on (or in) the bounding main, waiting for that record marlin to catch a whiff of that sexy, irresistible anise and head straight for your lines (or your camera). I’ll be taking a few of these on the next trip to St. Croix, where an excellent fishing crew, as well as dozens of beautiful snorkeling sites, await.

Fishing isn’t all soap can do for us tough guys.  Hunters have their own problems — what you’re after for dinner can usually smell you a mile away and decide to take their custom elsewhere.  (The more peaceable tough guys like birdwatchers and wildlife photographers have the same problem.) There’s a big business in scent-masking strategies and products:  everything from layering your clothes in baking soda to expensive sprays and washing powders.  But one of the oldest, and simplest, approaches for deodorizing your deadly/voyeuristic presence is —

let’s not see all the same hands —

Hunter’s Dirt Soap.  Yep, soap that smells exactly like dirt and makes you smell exactly like dirt. (Here’s a report on dirt soap.) It’s the good kind of dirt, like a garden you’re just beginning to work, or the smell of a freshly-turned field after a rain.

Hunter’s Dirt Soap.

The soap itself is a pretty simple coconut, olive and castor formula with a dollop of dirt fragrance, enough to stay on the skin and mask the fact that you’re a human with a camera, binoculars, or a pointy-edged (bow) or explosive (rifle) projectile looking for something to eat.  The camo (activated charcoal, black walnut hull powder, and ultramarine green) is just for fun.

So, say there’s some meat in the freezer now, and you need to do something with it.  For example, if you go after a wild hog and get a nice pork shoulder (or even ambush the latter at the local grocery store) smoking it might be the way to go.  There are a zillion different approaches out there for how to smoke a big solid piece of meat, but one of the consistent points of agreement is that it’s great to use a rub of some kind.  The UUH is fanatic about one in particular — a wet rub made from a mustard carrier and herbs.

In the beginning, there is a mustard/herb rubbed pork shoulder.

Giving credit where credit is due,  the original formulation of this rub comes from the Weber grill company, where they suggest using it on a beef prime rib and cooking it at a fairly high temperature on a grill.  Let me tell you, it works on pork shoulder even better than prime rib (although the prime rib is stupendous as originally written) and like a charm in a smoker as opposed to on a grill.  You won’t taste the mustard flavor after it’s done. The mustard holds the herbs and other ingredients together and forms a “bark” on the meat — the addictive flavor-bomb crunchy covering of the meltingly tender, obscenely rich roast beneath.  I’ve also found that fresh herbs, while nice, aren’t really any better flavor-wise than dried herbs as long as you’re generous, and you should use the herbs that you really like.  For example, this time  I swapped out the rosemary in the original recipe for a healthy dose of English thyme, and it worked beautifully.  So here’s my estimate on how I worked a mustard rub for a 7-8 pound pork shoulder:

  • 1/2 cup (or more, as much as you need to cover) ordinary yellow mustard
  • 1/4 cup (maybe a little less) each marjoram, basil, oregano and thyme
  • A couple tablespoons A1 Steak Sauce
  • A generous dribble of Sriracha Hot Pepper Sauce
  • Dehydrated garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper to taste

Rubs are really personal and amounts can be adjusted up, down, sideways, or abandoned altogether.  This rub is really thick with herbs, as you can see from the photo; I find that the long smoking I do mellows and evens them out.  For a roast this size,  I smoked for 10 hours at between 225-250F over peachwood until the center of the roast hit 180F.  Waiting a little longer, until the roast hits 190F or above, can make it even tenderer and absolutely perfect for pulled pork recipes.  The best thing to do, as an alchemist, is to EXPERIMENT.

It’s done — time to eat! (UUH has gnawed off one end.)

Okay, you say.  I’m partially convinced.  But you forgot one thing.

Oh, come on, nobody forgets rock and roll!

Now I’ve made a couple soaps with certain people or events in mind already.

Tracy’s Rose

 

 

There was Tracy’s Rose, a shea butter formula with a rose absolute and vetiver fragrance.

 

 

 

Monsoon Wedding

 

Then there was Monsoon Wedding, made for some friends getting married in India.  It was twice-milled for the right consistency, and needed a complex layering of scents. Everyone in my family get hunted expressions as I pursued them with my latest attempt at the “right” fragrance combination.

This last soap arises from different, and more worrying, circumstances.  A friend became very, very sick recently, and remains in the hospital.  He was one of my first soap testers and gave me terrific feedback every time I fired a new soap in his direction.  From here in California, I can’t do much for him — except make and dedicate a soap to show my thoughts and gratitude.  Now this guy has made a movie, is a hellacious rock and roll singer, and has a heart and personality as big as the universe, so I had to make something as over-the-top as he is.  And there was no holding back on the photo. The photo had to show it all.

So I’d like to introduce “Tommy’s Heavy Metal THUNDERR!” soap — hide your wives and children!

Tommy’s Heavy Metal THUNDERR!
My eyes! Good Lord, woman, what have you done?!

Because they don’t make a “cocaine, beer, cheap perfume and eau de tour bus” fragrance yet, I had to go with a really nice sandalwood.  I was worried it would detract too much from the effect — but looking at this puppy, somehow I don’t think it will.

Signing out for the night, the Tough Guy Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘N Roll and Soap Club.

From Peach Tree to Bacon — Smoking Literally Start to Finish

Our friend, the scarily smart Ollalieberry expert and Chicken Alchemist Natty, had a peach tree in her backyard.

The valiant Peach.

It was an intrepid little tree, producing as many peaches as it could.  It withstood the cold winter rains, blustering windstorms, broiling summer sun, and the other various indignities suffered by trees in backyards with dogs.  It kept up its job like a trooper, even when Natty noticed that it seemed unwell, and had to prop it up.  It was not too much later that she discovered that it had been infected with oak tree fungus. Soon afterward, it died.

Having a tree die on you is not an easy thing when you don’t have that many.  First of all, you feel like you’ve let down Mother Earth and/or Gaia and Arbor Day and Al Gore and the reversal of global warming and pretty much every National Geographic special you saw as a kid.  Second, you have to find somebody to do something about it, which usually requires money you don’t have because it’s a TREE and not some random weed, unless you’d like to wake up at midnight and see its tortured skeletal remains lurking in the dark like some sort of creepy spiritual entity, and then suddenly you’re in a horror movie.  All of these results suck.

So what Natty did was exactly what any decent thinking Alchemist would do — use the tree to create something new.  She cut us off a beautiful branch when she took the tree out, and we left it outside to season the entire winter.  It dried through the late spring and then baked a few weeks in some hot summer sun we were lucky to receive.  A few days ago, we took a look at it.

The peach tree branch, seasoned.

It was ready.  I needed to make a batch of bacon — you can see how it’s done here — and to do it properly, you need to smoke it.  Yes, yes, you can roast it in the oven or cook it on the grill and it’ll be perfectly fine.  But it’s not bacon unless it’s really smoked, not just doused with smoke flavoring and caramel coloring (which is the stuff you get at the grocery store).  Really, truly, smoked.

That leads us to the next question. You can’t just stuff a branch into a smoker or a grill. You have to prepare the wood first.  Now there’s a dispute among folks who smoke meat that has reached almost religious proportions — what types of wood to use, pellets versus sawdust versus chips versus chunks, and the breaking point — to soak first or not.  I’m not afraid to draw my own line and say I prefer fruitwood over hickory, cherry over apple, chips over sawdust, and I soaked. Briefly. (I am impatient.)  But here I had a big-ass branch of peach, which I’d never used, and somebody had to do something about it.

Enter the UUH and the Den Of Dangerously Sharp Things That Make Loud Noises And Probably Won’t Stop When You Want Them To.

The UUH in the Den, with him and the branch eyeballing each other.

I handle large quantities of caustic lye on a regular basis for soapmaking — stuff that can burn your eyes out and strip your skin like a knife if you screw up — and yet I am absolutely terrified by some of the machines that the UUH has in the Den.  (Note please that this does not make me a “girl,” it makes me a “wuss.” Precision is important.)  When the UUH whipped out the Sawzall and what looked like a clamp from a medieval torture house I fled to eat bonbons or watch soap operas or do my nails or something.

The Sawzall. I sawz it not for long.

After it was chopped into manageable pieces, then the Other Thing was employed.

The Other Thing. I’m pretty sure this is a primitive SkyNet extensional.

This bandsaw is about a million years old.  Okay, not a million, but it’s old — decades at least.  (At least 26, says the UUH.) The manual, which the UUH somehow found on the Web, looks like it was designed by Don Draper in “Mad Men.”  And you can still find parts for it and it still works.  That’s how we used to make things, I think.  So once the UUH had Sawzalled the branch into manageable pieces, it was up to the bandsaw.

I have to hide when he’s using things like this.

OHGAWD OHGAWD

 

 

I have visions of emergency rooms and prosthetics and extensive occupational therapy.  I am a catastrophist.

 

But in the end, we had first this:

Not so tough against the ancient bandsaw, are you?

And then the bandsaw again to get them into chunks.  My first chunks. I was so proud.

Peach tree wood chunks, ready for the smoker.

 

I’m not going to go through all the prep stages for bacon again, as you can see them here.  But this is what the smoker looked like, once those beautiful peach chunks got themselves up and going.

Whoah!

 

I don’t have one of the high-tech, programmable beauties that I know some folks have.  Mine is a steel box with a few vents, a propane burner, a thermometer that’s about as reliable as a politician (I use an oven therm inside for reliable reports), and a desperate need for niggly vent-attention if the wind or temperature fluctuates even for a few minutes.  God help us all if it rains.

Yet this peach wood is a beautiful thing. Deciding to explore one side of the religious war, I’d chosen not to soak the chunks but rather let them start dry.  We’d experimented the day before with this approach on a tri-tip and it came out like it’d been made by an angel.

There she is! THERE SHE IS!

So for the bacon, I did the same thing.  There was no bitter scent at all, no hint of creosote, even with a heavy smoke at the beginning.  It settled down, started smoking evenly, and then laid down the work after it was done.  It took another hour or so to finish cooking the bacon to the appropriate temperature (150F, as the bacon is cured).

 

And now, here we have it, right out of the smoker.  I’ll be peeling the rind after it cools a bit and wrapping it, and feeling it was a good day’s work — even if I do smell like a forest fire and the neighbors are almost certainly going to report me to the Bay Area Air Quality Nazis any minute now.

Maple syrup bacon, smoked over peach.

But for real bacon, what sacrifice isn’t worth it?

 

 

There Is A Season

I mentioned in my last post that priorities are shifting slightly now.  While I draw up supply orders and accounting for Blue Yonder Botanicals, I’ve got other things to do.  Today, it was pulling together some beef jerky at the UUH’s request.

It’s not that difficult — you can do it with an oven, a grill/smoker, a dehydrator, or any combination of the above.  There are a couple key points, though.  The meat should be as free of fat as possible, which means a lot of trimming and for me, a couple very happy dogs.  The next question is whether you put a cure into the brine or the rub.  The cure (I use Instacure #1) when used properly, prevents certain bacteria (including botulism) from reproducing during a long, slow, low-temperature smoking and drying cycle.  Other people do not use it; the arguments on both sides are easily found in a Google search. The last factor is that you don’t want to heat it up so fast you get a “crust” on the top, which will mislead you about how dry the inside of the meat is.  That means lower temperatures.

I usually use some form of bottom round that I find cheapest at the supermarket.  I partially freeze it, so I can slice it thinly.  This batch went into a marinade of soy sauce, ponzu (for that citrus tang), cure, brown sugar, and sriracha sauce for a slight pepper kick. It sat for 12 hours in the fridge (flip and massage it a few times) and then, after warming up a bit, went into the smoker for 3 hours at 120 to 150 degrees over hickory.  We want to smoke and dry it, not cook it.

Out of the smoker, ready for the McGuffin.

After the smoke, it goes into the dehydrator (mine is the boss Excalibur 9-rack, called The McGuffin) for as long as it takes at the 155F setting.  A lot depends on how thickly the meat is cut (most jerky makers recommend 1/4″ slices at the thickest) and how big they are.  This batch took about 4 hours after the smoke.  When the pieces are dry on the surface, and bend and then crack, you’re probably done. Moist spots are no good — put those dudes back in the dehydrator.  Like most nifty alchemist things, jerky takes as much time as it needs.

The finished jerky. That’s the McGuffin that dried it.

This batch turned out well — a tender and delicious balance of sweet, smoke and salt, with a little kick of sriracha flavor at the end.

During the entire process, you lose more than half (at least) of the poundage of the meat you start with; the process is labor and ingredient intensive; and it takes time and attention to tend and test.  But man, is it worth it in the end for the sheer, though ephemeral, happiness of this stuff.

 

Natty’s Field Guide to California Mushroom Hunting, Part Two: Lousy Poetry, Good Recipe

The mushroom hunting season in California has started with the winter rains, and our intrepid fellow Alchemist and Mushroom Hunter Natty has stepped up (in one case literally) to the plate. Unfortunately, it also means doggerel, as we’ve all learned from Part One.  — Cat

 

OUR FIRST CONTESTANT:  THE ZELLER’S BOLETE (OR IS IT?)

Taking bets on what it is, which may not always be a good idea with mushrooms.

Natty is as confused about this mushroom as I am about her bizarre habit of roaming sodden, freezing, filthy woods.  Her first message was typically direct and initially decisive:

Consultation with ID book and Interwebz suggests that this is a Red-Stemmed Bitter Bolete. Not deadly, but not edible either.

Cool, I thought, don’t pick it, and went on my merry way wasting time on the Interwebz (“working”) in my warm and non-raining office.  But moments later there was another message, one that raised alarm bells, one that sounded both confused and resentful:

Or it could be Zeller’s Bolete. Which looks similar, and is not bitter. Argh! It was so much easier back in Russia. Anything with a sponge on the bottom was edible and tasty. This whole “bitter bolete” thing in California (and East Coast too) is annoying.

Good grief! Help is on the way! I sprang into decisive action the way everyone does nowadays, which meant clicking on Wikipedia while getting another cup of coffee.  Unsurprisingly, there’s not much help to be found.  The photographs of the Red-Stemmed Bitter (Boletus rubripes) show it to look pretty much exactly like the Zeller’s Bolete (Boletus zelleri), so much so that cynical persons like myself start wondering if some puckishly sadistic mycologist might be pulling one over on us.  The question remains tantalizingly unresolved:

I am a BO-leet,

and not a bo-LEH-tay.

So while you can cut me

With your machete,

I’ll continue to taunt you

And cause you to jitter —

Am I a sweet Zeller’s

or a Red-Stemmed BITTER?

 

OUR SECOND CONTESTANT:  THE ARMILLARIA, A.K.A. THAT ROOMMATE YOU THOUGHT WAS COOL UNTIL ALL YOUR STUFF STARTED DISAPPEARING

Armillaria, “oak root fungus.” Delicious, like the tears of tortured unicorns.

I am Armillaria —

A wraith of wretched ruthless rot,

A parasitic pathogen

Who’ll eat trees live or not.

So call me “honey fungus”

(My P.R. is elite)

And toast me with your vodka,

While I spread beneath your feet.

Natty’s remarks on this specimen are heartbreakingly tormented.

While the Russian in me rejoices at the prospect of salting it and serving it as an appetizer with vodka, the gardener in me wants to turn a flame thrower on these things. These guys are also known an “oak root fungus”, the evil killer of fruit and other trees around here. We lost two decorative plums and a peach to this stuff.

Wikipedia (why yes, I did just get another cup of coffee) confirms that this particular mushroom is both delicacy and destruction.  Let’s start with the good stuff first.  In colloquial English it’s nicknamed “honey fungus,” while in Ukrainian it’s called either “openky” or “pidpenky,” which means “on/beneath the stumps.”  (In a second you’ll see why this differential is so perfectly explanatory.) Its edibility is regarded as “choice,” and it is esteemed above even morels and chanterelles.  It makes a delicious and classic side dish, as Natty notes, or at least the excuse to have lots of vodka; as a child, she brought bucketsful home to her mother. We’ll get to the recipe below just in case, like Natty’s mother, you end up with buckets too.

But there’s another side to the Armillaria — most strains are so profoundly, unrepentantly parasitic that they kill their hosts.  It’s an unusual trick Armillaria has; it can thrive on dead trees as well as live ones.  (Most of the parasitic mushrooms moderate their growth in order to avoid killing the tree).  The Wikipedia description of what it does to trees sounds like something out of a horror movie. And it’s a fast and prolific spreader — so successful, in fact, that Armillarias form some of the largest living organisms in the world.  There are literally armies of Armillaria out there committing mass arboreal murder.

So there we have it. Delicious amuse-bouche or tree-murdering pestilent horde? “Honey fungus” or “beneath the stumps” (of the trees it just massacred, presumably)? You make the call!

If you do end up in possession of some confirmed edible Armillarias, though (don’t mess this part up), and choose to side with the “honey fungus” position as opposed to the “flamethrower” point of view, Natty has a recipe that she remembers from her youth. The captions explain each step in detail.

After picking, remove the “stems” (or stypes as the mycologists call them). Some people peel them and saute them, but I was too lazy.
We just eat the caps. Wash.
Slice the caps.
Put in a pot of water, bring to a boil, drain and rinse, then refill the pot with cold water, bring to a boil and cook for about 20-30 minutes. The drain/rinse is to get rid of the scum that will come up.
Prepare the salting ingredients: pepper, bay leaf, garlic, and salt. For the purists, in Russia we also use blackcurrant leaves, sour cherry leaves, and horseradish leaves. And it should really be dill flowers, not dill itself. And, I had to walk to school 4 miles, in the snow, uphill, both ways. And it was dark too. Both on the way there and on the way back.
Drain the mushrooms after the cooking is finished.
Find a glass or enamel bowl. Layer herbs on the bottom, then a layer of mushrooms, then sprinkle generously with salt, then another layer of herbs, more mushrooms, more salt, etc. For 1 kg cooked mushrooms, use 40 g of salt (yes it’s a LOT; you may wish to notify your cardiologist).

 

For the final preparation step, put a cover over the mushrooms (I used shrinkwrap), and then a plate or bowl on top of that, and then something heavy on the plate or bowl. The idea is to keep everything compressed.
For authentic compression, I used the staple of every sophisticated Russian kitchen — a rock.

Leave the weighted, salted mushrooms in the fridge for a week.  The dish is served cold, with only the herbs removed, and can be topped with onion slices and a drizzle of sunflower oil. Then they’re ready for you to break out the vodka and toast the Armillaria in a superbly appropriate way — by eating them with about as much remorse as they show their victims.  It’s a tough old world out there, even for mushrooms. And revenge is best when, as here, it’s served cold.

 


Strategic Layoffs in ChickenVille

The Challenge

A week or so ago, my friend and accomplished Alchemist and Chickenkeeper Natty called me and asked me what I was doing the coming Saturday.  I was immediately suspicious, as Natty’s weekend activities usually involve things like fifteen-mile hikes across relentlessly hostile landscapes in pouring rain (Natty: that is totally an exaggeration. The most I’ve ever hiked in a pouring rain was 10 miles), and lately I’ve found that a drive to the CVS around the corner is a miserable ordeal.  In self-defense I mumbled something weaselly about having to check my calendar.

Natty was undeterred. “You see,” she confided, “we have to do something about the chickens.”

The chickens.  We have to do something about the chickens.  (If you’re not familiar with the ongoing epic story arc of the Chickenkeeper, you might want to check these posts out right quick:  Welcome to ChickenVille. The Case of the Broken Eggs. When Chickens Explode.)  But here’s the backstory for the impatient:  There were too many hostile or unproductive chickens, an attempted compassionate rehoming fell completely flat because everyone else also had too many chickens, and thus Something Had To Be Done. That Something would involve a live chicken, a sharp knife, and a great deal more fortitude than I’d ever give myself credit for.

Let’s just go ahead and start with the obvious: like most people, I buy chicken at the grocery store.  It comes in surgically trimmed cuts, is neatly wrapped and sealed in plastic packages, and is completely unrecognizable as once having been part of an animal. (Natty: because, really, no normal animal should have that much, um,  breast without undergoing extensive surgery.)

“What’s for dinner, hun?” “Chicken.”

Seriously, what is that? It’s spongy, formless, and swimming in goo. It might as well have been produced in a low-orbital factory vat by our robot overlords.  Moreover, the packages come prominently labelled with “safe handling instructions.”  One might think such warnings would be more appropriate on purchases that could violently attack you in the car on the way home rather than something you’d make for dinner.  But by now everyone knows about the Salmonella and C.dificil and Campylobacter lurking silently in those pristine sealed slabs of factory-raised food, and preparing meals with sanitization procedures worthy of a CDC Wildfire Lab is old hat to most of us.  (Isn’t it great that we can all recite by heart the names of deadly dinner bacteria? Maybe we should make a little song to something from Gilbert & Sullivan).  Next year the FDA is probably going to start recommending that we autoclave our chicken parmesan, as if all this is somehow our fault.

But the inconvenience and fear of contamination is not all of the matter, and probably not even the deepest part of it.  There’s now a mournful cliche that we’ve become several steps removed from — and indifferent to —  the real source of our meat: a living animal that we’ve caused to die.  Everyone from food writers to PETA regularly bemoan this state of affairs.  Chef Anthony Bourdain, who’s been around the block enough times to get it named after him, recognizes it as well:

Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on my order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die.  .  . . The only evidence of my crimes is the relatively antiseptic boxed or plastic-wrapped appearance of what is inarguably meat.   — A Cook’s Tour, p. 17 (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001)

In the book, Bourdain tells the story of how he traveled to Portugal to his boss’s hometown farm for the slaughter of a pig, the graphic details of what happened, and its effects on him.  I’d read the book years before Natty’s call and its gruesome descriptions roared through like some nightmare flashback as soon as it sunk in what the Something was about.  On Saturday, Natty was asking me if I wanted to dispatch some chickens with primitive and violent prejudice, and I’d know at least three of their names.

I said “Yes” immediately.

The Preparation

Saturday morning I didn’t eat anything.  This was not so much a wise precaution as a simple biological imperative, as I’d had a bit of a late night on Friday and the idea of food was appalling.  I should have had more coffee, as I completely forgot the sharpened knives that Natty asked me to bring, but when I got there I found that the scene had been well-prepared.

The stage is set.

 

I was surprised that it really doesn’t take much equipment to dispatch, pluck, and gut a chicken.  There was a tarp-covered table, a traffic cone half-sawn off, and a plastic bag-lined bucket.

 

 

There were two more buckets, a pot filled with 140F water, some Dawn dishwashing liquid, and, of course, the knife.

I asked Natty how she’d learned to do this, expecting a story about picking it up as a child in between foraging for exotic mushrooms, solving complex differential equations in her head, and dodging running-dog capitalists in frozen forests all at once. Nope, she said with her usual matter-of-factness, I learned it off the Web.

This site, in particular: How To Kill A Chicken.  I’ll warn you — not only is that post a bit “graphic,” but what happens next in this one might be a bit upsetting as well to the tenderhearted among us.  I don’t have pictures of the actual butchering, as I was the photographer as well as a heartless killer and was a bit busy at the time.  But as master horror-film directors will attest, sometimes all you need is the “before” and “after” to make your point.  So skip the “During,” if you’re sensitive.

The Before

They knew.  (I’m kidding. They’re chickens, they had no idea.)

There were three of her own that Natty had scheduled for the knife, as well as another victim that had somehow landed in Natty’s possession due to the aborted rehoming/trade scenario.  Now this last random chicken was big and mean and I think even Natty was slightly afraid of it.  When I arrived, it was seething with rage inside a decent-sized dog crate.

The Hannibal Lector of chickens.

 

There’s a reason why the picture is so wretched.  When I walked up to the crate and idiotically stuck my face right at the grate, the thing ran right at me with its eyes bulging and beak agape. The impact bashed the crate a good couple inches forward.  I did the involuntary “Jesus!” step-back-and-look-around-pretending-to-be-casual routine while my heart was hammering like my kid’s drumline practice.  If chickens could hiss, this one would have sounded like an anaconda.  Suddenly what we about to do didn’t sound like such a bad idea, especially for this specimen. “Just you wait, tough guy,” I muttered spitefully as I took its picture.  From a safe distance.

The other chickens, both doomed and pardoned, were milling about pretty much in the way chickens always do in the pen across the yard.  Except for one — Nekkid was in her own crate next to the pen because she’d been proven, after Natty’s extensive detective work, to destroy and eat not only her own but the other hens’ eggs.  The Case of the Broken Eggs.

Nekkid. Yes, she’s supposed to look like she fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

To her credit, Natty had attempted to reintroduce her into the common pen after the hens had stopped laying for their molt (see When Chickens Explode).  Nekkid immediately commenced a whirlwind of violent mayhem on her fellow citizens, whether out of resentment or florid chicken mental illness we’ll never know.  Natty promptly plopped her back in the separate crate and there she crouched, with an expression no less poisonous than the other Dog Crate Psychochicken.

I was briefly saddened to find out that the other two were Pretty Chicken and Original. For them, their fate was sealed because they hadn’t laid eggs for a long time and almost certainly never would again.  The critical factor here is that they aren’t pets. It’s nice to think that there are retirement farms for chickens, and maybe there are on the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but when you’re expending considerable amounts of money and effort on feeding, cleaning and caring for egg chickens, you have a completely understandable expectation of eggs at the end of the process. No eggs? Well, here’s your ticket, and it’s not for the bus.

Pretty Chicken. Like many other unusually attractive females both avian and mammalian, she enjoyed the benefit of a free ride for quite a long time.

 

Original. Her sister, Xerox, kicked over from a heart attack and apparently Original saw no point in egg laying anymore. That’s the theory, anyway.

Now, I knew these chickens.  It’s not like I took them out for ice cream or we had sleepovers in our jammies talking about our hopes and fears, but I’d visited them more than a few times and had formed a pretty good idea of whatever nascent personality a chicken might have.  (Pretty Chicken, for example, was famous for facing down enormous dogs through the wire while the other chickens ran for cover.)  It was a different scenario than the one Anthony Bourdain faced regarding the pig. His introduction to his victim was brief, to say the least.

At the far end of the barn, a low door was opened into a small straw-filled pen. A monstrously large, aggressive-looking pig waggled and snorted as the crowd peered in.  When he was joined in the confined space by the three hired hands, none of them bearing food, he seemed to get the idea that nothing good was going to be happening anytime soon, and he began scrambling and squealing at tremendous volume.  — A Cook’s Tour, p. 21

 

The During (Caution)

Chickens are a lot smaller and dumber than pigs, and that’s a grace, because to kill a chicken you have to catch it first and it’s nice to be able to do it without “three hired hands.”  Natty extracted the first Psychochicken from its crate with only a few choice swear words and a moderate amount of thrashing.  She immediately turned her upside down, with a firm grip on her extravagantly feathered feet, and the chicken seemed to calm almost instantly.  We then fitted the chicken’s head down through the sawed-off traffic cone, gently arranged her feet so that they were over the top lip of the cone, and waited a moment again for the sleepiness to set in.

And here is where the artistry, and the only amount of kindness that can be mustered in this event, comes into play.  You (in this case, Natty) sit on the chair with the cone and chicken positioned over the lined plastic bucket.  You gently turn the chicken’s head and throat back to bare the exact area of the throat where the major arteries are closest to the surface. You can feel the heat of her skin and gentle thump of her heartbeat with your thumb. You cover the chicken’s head and eyes with your free hand while you bear the knife in the other.  And then, as quickly, firmly and confidently as you can, you cut through the chicken’s throat deeply in a single swipe.  The blood will gush immediately and the chicken may spasm for a few short seconds.  Once it is quiet, you remove it from the cone by the feet and allow it to bleed out into the bucket.   This takes surprisingly little time and there is surprisingly little blood.  We’re not talking about CSI-worthy bloodsprays all over the backyard and clothing splattered in gore. That just doesn’t happen.

Once it was over, the chicken was rinsed thoroughly and placed to wait for the completion of the event. Natty had to go into the pen to fetch the remainder of the victims, one at a time.  It was a fairly rapid process, although it did involve a little bit of running and squawking.  (Natty: there really is no graceful way to catch a chicken that doesn’t want to get caught.)    I’m pretty sure I ushered Nekkid and Pretty Chicken to the Great Pen In The Sky, and Natty handled Original after Dog Crate Psychochicken, though I will admit to being a little blurry in memory at this time.  Both of us wanted to cause as little pain and fear as possible.  We were fortunate in that all of our efforts went well, and soon there were four chickens washed and laid out ready for plucking. (Warning — picture might be disturbing to some.)

The aftermath.

I found that once the killing was done, there is an aftereffect as the adrenaline of the act drains off — it can leave you a little tired, but not spacy or even emotional; and there’s a profound and focused recognition that not only have you done something both basic and significant, but that there is more work to do.  There is nothing trivial about what you’ve just done. Anthony Bourdain touches on this, though his experience seems to have shaken him up a great deal more than mine did. It might have been because pigs are profoundly different than chickens, or that he stood to one side, simply watching the process instead of bearing the knife himself.

And I’ll never forget the look on Jose’s face, as if he were saying, This, this is where it all starts. Now you know. This is where food comes from. . . . I was a pathetic city boy, all to comfortable with my ignorance of the facts, seeing for the first time what was usually handled on the Discovery Channel (just after I changed the channel). . . . I was smoking and trying to look cool, as if what I’d just seen hadn’t bothered me at all. — A Cook’s Tour, p. 23

The After

The pot of 140F warmed water, with a few drops of Dawn dishwashing liquid added, comes into play after the chickens have been washed.  A rinse of a few seconds will loose the feathers so they can be plucked easily and efficiently.  (Natty: for me, the process of plucking was where the chicken suddenly transformed itself from “OMG it’s a dead thing” to “food.”) Let me tell you, chickens have a lot of feathers, and all of them need to come off.  The big wing feathers are the absolute worst in terms of physical effort — you’re yanking like you would on an old-fashioned lawnmower starter chain —  but the tiny little pinfeathers can actually make you insane.  You end up picking and picking and picking over an object the size of a bread loaf for half an hour if you’re not good at it, like me.  By the time I’d finished plucking one bird, Natty was done with hers and well into cleaning one after rinsing off the table.  (Natty: memo to the staff, never ever dispatch a chicken that’s not done molting.  You will be picking out half-formed feathers until it gets dark outside. Trust me, I had to do it, and it was horrible. Let them grow out their feathers first.) 

And then there’s the gutting.  Even after the catching, the killing and the plucking, there’s more to do. Yup, the insides have got to come out, and there’s a specific technique for doing so cleanly and safely.  Descriptions and pictures are best left to the website where Natty learned it and then from it taught me, because I wasn’t going anywhere near the camera during this process.  (How To Kill A Chicken. Very helpful photos.) Because the chickens drain of blood so thoroughly using this method, the cleaning is surprisingly straightforward. No zombie horrors here (though I’ll admit this was the part where I was originally most fearful of turning into a barfing, useless git). Getting your hand up into the gut of a chicken  (Natty: it’s still warm, too) and pulling goopy things out carefully and slowly is more a tactile experiment and learning process than a grotesque thrill suitable for a horror movie. Although, now that I think about it, maybe too many horror/slash flicks have desensitized us to the sight of intestines and hearts and lungs. I didn’t hesitate a bit.

After the chickens were gutted and cleaned, they were tossed into a pot of very cold water. And then we were done except for the cleanup — the bucket of blood and feathers and guts, the separation out of choice pieces for the dogs, the rinsing and cleaning and folding of the equipment. All told, I believe the process lasted a little over two hours — and that’s with self-taught beginners.

Organic, free-range chicken feet and certain carefully cleaned organs. The equivalent of a Nabu dinner for the dogs.

The Finale

At the end of the day, I was a little shaky from dehydration and low blood sugar, due to my failure to eat something before coming over.  But we ended up with this, something we’d done from start to finish, ourselves:

The sacrifice, now ready for dinner.

What to make of our chickens was the next question. Believe me, there is no wasting food if you’ve dispatched it yourself.  Both Natty and I were in violent agreement on coq au vin — the classic dish that is traditionally prepared with an old, egg-laying breed of hen (like ours) or a particularly mean rooster that had run its keepers out of patience. (Making coq au vin from a tough old rooster is particularly funny).  I was interested in what kind of stock an old hen would make, so that was my first plan.  And in the next post, we’ll go over what our culinary experiments made out of these tough old birds.

 

Finishing up the season: Tomato Episode

It’s coming down to the seasonal wire for good tomatoes, and as I have only 12 quarts of puree packed at the moment — enough, at our usage rate, to get us through December maybe — I had to get on the ball.  A bout of bronchitis that began at the end of August has finally loosened its literal stranglehold, and I was able to get myself to the farmer’s market today.

Two flats of romas (paste tomatoes) and 20 pounds of Cherokee Purple heirlooms

I’ve found that without a doubt, plum- or pear-type tomatoes, also known as “paste” tomatoes (various romas and San Marzano variants) make the thickest, most reliable puree to can yourself.  There’s a lot of meat on these guys and not too much juice.  Why is the latter important?  Some time ago, I ran across a webpost from a lady who regularly cans all her own puree, and she pointed out that the flavor of the tomato isn’t primarily in the juice.  As a matter of fact, to get the best puree, you want to get as much of the juice out as possible.

How you do this is a matter of technique.  You can cut and core the fresh tomato and squeeze out the juice, then warm them to release the rest of it and drain. This technique has the added advantage of loosening the skins.  Alternatively, you can skin the tomato (a quick dump in very hot water and then a dunk in ice water will slip the skin right off), puree it with your preferred technique, and then simmer it down. (You might have to do the latter anyway. I like to keep the simmering to a minimum, because I like the freshest-tasting puree possible.)

Whatever technique seems right, the question remains — why use any other varietal but plum tomatoes, if what you’re after is puree?  Pure alchemical experimentation!  This year I’ve prepared several varietals separately, canned them, and labeled them so we can experiment with how each responds when cooked into sauce. So far we’ve got Early Girls and beefsteaks,

Early Girl on the left, Beefsteak on the right. You can see a little more liquid remains in the Beefsteak puree.

and now I’ll have Cherokee Purples as well as the standard romas.  I haven’t seen the Robeson in the market at all this year.  It’s a chocolate-colored varietal that, in my experience, has made the deepest, richest-tasting puree of all — but you need a lot of them and a lot of patience.  Like the Cherokee Purple, it’s very fragile and needs to be handled almost immediately after buying.

 

So this afternoon got pretty busy — a trip to the market for the tomatoes and then the frenzied cleaning and assembling of the mise for everything that had to get done.  My waterbath canner was full of prickly pears from the Hive Queen (don’t ask), so those had to get handled first.

Prickly pears Prickly pears in the sauna after despiking.

Once those were out and in the sauna pot, I could clean out and sanitize the waterbath canner.  But I needed yet another pot — the big stockpot full of the “24-Hour Chicken Stock” I’d made with the remains of a rotisserie chicken dinner.  That had sat overnight in the fridge so the fat would solidify and I could easily skim it out.  Skim, filter through coffee filters, and into freezer containers 2 cups at a time. That freed up my other stockpot for cleaning and sanitizing, so I could get to the Cherokees, which were looking increasingly peaked even as I whirled around doing everything else.

Eventually it all got set up and on the stove.  For the Cherokees, I chose the cut and slow heat method to get as much of the juice out of them as possible. I heated them gently, squished them only a bit (as opposed to the sledgehammer treatment the prickly pears get) and then turned off the heat.

Cherokee Purples getting ready to pulp, strain and can as puree.

There won’t be a lot of this puree; the big heirlooms, designed as cutting tomatoes, usually don’t make much of it per batch.  But I’ve found that they can produce a depth of flavor that sometimes doesn’t come through a batch of the “standard” paste tomato purees.  Once I’m happy that these guys are pretty much done sweating out the juice, I’ll drain it carefully through a Chinoise strainer, possible lined with cheesecloth,

Passatutto Velox Tomato Press — a.k.a. “The Machine”

and then run it through The Machine.

Now, there might be some of you out there who can handle a food mill with skill and ease. I’m not one of them. Things come apart and fly around and stuff gets everywhere except where I want it to.  Now I’m not blaming the technology, as bloody ancient as it is (you’d think I’d appreciate that).  All I know is that The Machine makes short work of a lot of tomatoes, especially prepped as I do now, and this puppy is easy to use, break down, and clean after I’m done.

I’ll take a look at the puree once it’s finished and determine if a little simmering is still necessary; that seems to be standard operating procedure when you’re working with the big, juicy, flavorful beefsteak varietals.  From there we’ll move on to the classic Ball waterbath canning recipe — and I’ll have another few (or even a couple) clean, fresh, organic and BPA-free jars of puree in the cabinet, ready for winter pastas and lasagnas.

Tomorrow, though, two flats of Romas await — as well as the prickly pears, a McGuffin full of herbs still drying, and a valerian that needs Attention.  Ah, harvest season.

Who Said April Is The Cruellest Month?

When everything starts ripening and the harvest is in full swing, I’d have to argue from sheer exhaustion that it’s September.  This morning’s haul from the garden: Steel bowl top left, from top left: tarragon, rosemary, golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, silver thyme in the center.

Plastic bowl top right: Purple Ruffles basil, Pasta Perpetuo basil (a real champion performer), a Passionflower, and sweet basil.
Center little bowl: the last of the chamomile flowers, with yarrow aerials tucked underneath.
Bottom white bowl, from top right: rose blossom, Thai Dragon hot peppers, Ace sweet peppers, Barker’s New Mexico Red hot peppers, a single Concho de Toro sweet (most harvested already), and a bunch of poblanos. Hanging over the side is lemon verbena with another rose blossom.
And I haven’t even gotten to the lemongrass, sage, oregano and peppermint yet.

Most of the herbs will be going into the dehydrator, along with the rose blossoms (so nice for teas),  and the peppers prepped and either frozen or canned whole or as puree.  Now that the tomato flats are coming into the farmers’ markets, I don’t think the canner is going to be leaving the stove anytime soon.

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.