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.

A Day’s Alchemy

But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . .  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them.  — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.

For most of us, the day has a predictable routine.  For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.).  There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”)  But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook.  If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:

Homemade smoked bacon. Maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of sweet cherry smoke.
Sliced homemade bacon. Ready to go, Captain.

. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking.  Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.


Frying homemade bacon. In the pan, slow and steady.

Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook.  All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race.  You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook.  Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly.  A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.

No magic here except for heat — judiciously applied to an egg and some meticulously spiced, cured and smoked pork belly.

Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs.  More fire is not necessarily better.

Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.”  It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.

Herbs from home garden.Lemon verbena, tarragon, golden lemon thyme, various basils, oregano, and more yarrow aerials were up today.

Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it.  Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.

Home-grown herbs ready for dehydrating. Off to the Lab.

So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.

The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin.  I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata.  Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on a Passiflora incarnata. Oh, there’s more than one of me.

Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start.  Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited.  One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down.  When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.

Gulf Fritillary adult butterfly and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Mom, checking on the kids.

As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.

Adult Gulf Fritillary and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Everybody looks okay. Off to yoga.

There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours.  But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do:  I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining.  Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds.  Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it).  Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.

Jojoba and fractionated coconut massage oil, infused with herbs Yarrow, mullein and Ginger Thomas herbs, infused in jojoba. I think gold costs less than jojoba.

Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet.  Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.



Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world.  Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience.  It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist.  From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different.  It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like  magic for most of human history.  (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)

This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on.  It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Handmade soap, inspired by St. Croix “Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it.  I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture.  While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.

The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life.   Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us.  And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said:  “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”





Natty’s Field Guide to California Mushroom Hunting (Free Doggerel Included)

As well as being the ChickenKeeper, our poster Natty is also an intrepid MushroomHunter.  This might spring from her background, which (in my estimation) apparently involved leaping from crag to crag toting a Kalashnikov from a tender age,  foraging for survival in frozen forests while being pursued by bears and running-dog capitalists, and excelling in mathematics, sarcastic remarks, complex computer systems, and the like.  She’s gathered some pictures of her applying her elite skills to the fey and cautious mushroom populations here in Northern California.  The poetic digressions, I’m afraid, are entirely my own.  — Stargazer



Amanita Phalloides, a.k.a. “Does Your Insurance Cover Liver Transplants, And How Fast Can You Find Out?”

Amanita Phalloides, such a lovely fungus,

Amanita Phalloides, delicious and among us;

Amanita Phalloides, what for do I shiver?

Amanita Phalloides, what costs a brand new liver?

The reports are nearly universal:  people who’ve eaten this report that it’s one of the most delicious mushrooms on the face of the earth.  Unfortunately, it also contains a compound that destroys the human liver in an astoundingly short period of time.  Every year a handful of Northern California mushroom hunters mistake it for another mushroom — mostly its harmless little brother (below) or for other varieties.  They have a great dinner and then a not-so-great stay in the hospital and on the liver-transplant list.  Mushroom hunting is not for amateurs.


Amanita calyptroderma. Beautiful, delicious, won’t kill you. You hope.

Amanita calyptroderma

Sings Dey-O in the rain

Yet its sullen older brother

Will bring you lots of pain;

Before you go on piercing

That universal veil

‘Tis best to check that it sings

Lest your organs fail.

All young Amanita mushrooms feature a membrane called the “universal veil.”  In the Coccora, it’s very thick and cottony, and there are a few other giveaways that this is not the Mushroom of I-Literally-Ate-Myself-To-Death but rather a very pleasant and agreeable dinner guest.  But as Natty says, “It’s very different. I still wouldn’t eat it.”


Lactarius rubrilacteus, please call the Department of Repeating Yourself Department.

Lactarius rubrilacteus says, “I’m a bit redundant;

I’m milky and red-milky, but then I am no pundit.

It might say something to you that you cook me with a rock,

And even with the salt and herbs, I still taste like a sock.”

A reference I ran across for this mushroom mentioned that it was traditionally cooked by layering it in salt and herbs, weighing it down with a rock, and then simmering it for hours.  Natty confirms that in her experience the salt was definitely involved.  My attitude is that any supposed food item that has to be packed in salt and boiled, much less squashed by large rocks (for what reason? To prevent it from escaping?) in order to achieve even basic edibility is probably not worth the trouble.


Cantherellus californicus — pure California gold.

Cantherellus californicus

Will cheer the most forlorn of us.

To see that massive golden crest —

Our Destiny so Manifest —

It’s clear that dinner super-sizing

Isn’t just our own devising.

They can get monster, these Chantarelles, and they are a culinary treasure. On Natty’s own blog, http://squeakolas.blogspot.com/2011/12/gribnik.html, she demonstrates how to make a delicious main meal from the three pounds of chantarelles she foraged on a single walk.

While mushroom hunting isn’t my gig — I prefer huddling inside over a warm computer to digging around in the cold damp wild and almost certainly coming home with a whopping case of poison ivy, if not actual pneumonia — it’s pretty cool that someone knows how to do this.  And Natty promises that once the rains start again, we’ll be expanding on the Guide.

Things Work, And Sometimes Don’t

I realized on the morning garden walkabout that several herbs desperately needed harvesting, and that I had a few peppers so ready that they winked at me as I went by.

Clockwise from top left: yarrow aerials, golden lemon thyme, ancho chili peppers, bell peppers, basil “Purple Ruffles,” sweet basil, basil “Pesto Perpetuo.”

I mentioned in an earlier post, “Strange Herbs,” that herb fanciers are even crazier than the tomato freaks, and basil’s an excellent example of how obsessive you can get.  Basils, quite frankly, are even worse than thymes in how much brain and garden space they can occupy.  There are hundreds of cultivars and varieties, each one alluring in a different way (I have beautiful purple leaves!  I have glorious blue flowers!  I grow in an impossibly compact ball! My leaves were found in the excavation of a Roman Empire camp!) and each one is independently capable of ringing up your credit card at the nursery, as I have discovered.

I’m going to dehydrate the herbs to continue stocking the spice cabinet, so I had the sad task of clearing out a Failed Experiment from the big black McGuffin in the Lab.  The grapevines on the arbor out front have decided that this is the Super-Awesomest-Year-Ever* (see below) and decided that they needed the sidewalk and the driveway to express their joy.  As I would prefer not to be sued by a postal worker attacked by exuberant grapes as he’s trying to deliver my daily fifteen pounds of catalogs and Lasix flyers, I had to take the clippers out and beat them back a bit.  Once the wayward vines were in hand, the Alchemist came roaring out — What can I do with these?

Dry the leaves, of course!  Now there are lots of recipes on the Interwebs about how to salt-pickle grape leaves to make dolmas (and I’ll probably do that with the next batch of trimmings), but I had this great idea that dried grape leaves might make attractive ornamentation for stuff like . . . soap packaging.  Stripped the vines were and into the dehydrator at the classic 95 degrees!

As it happens, grape leaves don’t dry very well.  First they turn weird colors, then they curl up like you’d hit them with napalm, and then they shatter into dust if you even look at them suspiciously.

Oh well.

I imagine that even in the Middle Ages, alchemists had garbage heaps full of Failed Experiments, so I’m trying not to take it too much to heart.

* Many thanks to my friend for the phrase “Super-Awesome.”  Seriously, if grapevines could talk, they’d say “Super-Awesome” all the time.

The Bacon Diversion, Or: Belay Those Ollalieberries

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

— Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

I’ll argue that the remarkable Mr. Johnson never had twelve pounds of ollalieberries in his refrigerator, probably because neither existed at the time he was uttering pearls of wisdom, or else he’d have adjusted his quote to take this into account.  Twelve pounds of fragile, astoundingly perishable berries that you yourself have clawed from implacably hostile bushes under an unforgiving sun concentrates your mind, all right.  After the initial burst of adjective-releasing terror (see above), you suddenly remember that you also have twelve pounds of pork bellies that you really have to do something about right now.

The ollalieberries had to wait.  Bacon must have its day.

The Belly Of The Beast

These are pork bellies, the foundation of all bacon, a product so central to all-American patriotic-breakfast existence that until 2011 they were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a commodity.  We’re not the only ones that like them, though.  The Koreans and the Chinese use this cut to create fantastic dishes like samgyeopsal (slices grilled and served with a spicy pepper paste) and Dongpo pork (pieces first pan-fried, and then slow-braised in wine and other liquids).  Oddly enough, the popularity of these cuisines partly explains why it’s much easier now to find pork bellies in American grocery stores — or in the Asian market that just opened down the street.  Before the explosion of food shows, expert Asian restaurateurs, and celebrity fusion cooks, you’d have gotten the same blank stare from a butcher when you asked for pork belly as you would if you’d asked for wombat feet.    (Word to the hip — wombat feet, next big thing.)

Making your own bacon isn’t difficult, but you do need a special ingredient, a bit of prep time, and, as always, your mise in order. I’d also recommend this before you do anything:

The Bible.

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2005).  Not only does this book have a clear and detailed explanation of how to make your own bacon, it also covers salt-curing, pickling, smoking, sausagemaking, dry-curing, pate/terrine, and confit techniques for virtually every edible object on Earth.  (The cats disappear when I take it out).

After the pork belly, the only special ingredient you need is “pink salt,” also known as Insta Cure #1, DQ Curing Salt, and by a few other brand names.  It’s a compound of 93% salt and about 6% nitrite, dyed pink so you don’t accidentally eat it.  Nitrites have taken a PR hit over the last few years; Ruhlman and Polcyn have an excellent discussion of the benefits and risks in Charcuterie, and I won’t recap it here.  But I will note that I don’t make bacon or smoked sausages without pink salt for both food safety and flavor reasons. You can easily get pink salt over the Internet, it’s not expensive, and a packet lasts a long time.  My supplier is www.sausagemaker.com.

Once you have the bellies and the pink salt, you whip up your dry cure.  You end up making a lot of it, so you can save what you don’t use for later batches. Polcyn likes dextrose because it dissolves more easily, and I’ve used it, but I’ve also used regular granulated sugar with no difference in the end product. Polcyn’s dextrose cure is 1 pound of kosher salt, 13 ounces dextrose, and 3 ounces pink salt.  With sugar, it’s 1 pound of kosher salt, 8 ounces sugar, and 2 ounces pink salt.


I’ve used a few pictures from an older batch to illustrate. The song, however, remains the same.


The dry cure is your foundation stone.  What you add to the pork bellies after that is up to you.  You can go for a sweet bacon, with maple syrup or honey, or a more savory one with herbs and spices.  Breakfast bacon is best sweet, so that’s the type I usually make.


Magic happens.

The maple syrup I use always comes, without question, from Quebec.  Now I can hear the howling from the Vermont contingent already, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Part of my passion for Quebecois syrup comes from having made it — yeah, from sap, the stuff that comes magically out of the tree — at the farm of Unbelievably Useful Husband’s relative. (That’s a can of the syrup we made in the picture above.)  But even aside of that, I simply find Quebec syrup to be richer and deeper in flavor than the thin pale stuff from Vermont.

To start the cure,  I pour some of the dry cure mixture into a cookie sheet, grab a belly, and rub it like crazy into the cure. I get a nice thick layer of the cure on all sides, and then pop it into a Ziploc bag. By “popping” it, I of course mean “wrestling it,” and the cure gets absolutely everywhere no matter how clever you try to be.  Try to keep animals, children, and house-gnomes out of the kitchen while you’re doing this.



Once it’s in and I’ve finished cursing like a sailor, I add a half-cup or even a little more of maple syrup, about a quarter cup of brown sugar, and a dollop each of molasses and honey to each belly.  I’ve found over time and experimentation that the brown sugar, molasses and honey don’t interfere with the maple syrup flavor — they amplify it into the “mind-blowing” category.  Give each bag a brief massage, and then they are ready to go into the refrigerator for a week. The bellies will release a lot of liquid over the time they are curing.  In effect, they make their own brine.  Go in every day and flip them over to make sure the brine is distributed.  In a week they should be cured and ready for roasting in the oven, if you don’t have a smoker, or smoking if you do have one.

Be prepared to smell like a forest fire for hours while doing this.


I smoke my bacon at about 225F, and it usually takes between two and three hours for the bellies to hit 150F.  Cherrywood and applewood add a very pleasant and delicate note, but hickory provides the most traditional “bacony” smoke flavor.



At 150F, you take them out and let them cool.

Now’s the time to cut off the rind.  The rind is the skin on one side of the belly.  Slide a sharp knife under one end, and the rind should peel off very easily.  Save some in a bag and freeze it — pieces of rind add spectacular flavor to soups, sauces and especially chowder.


All told, prepping and making your own bacon takes about 3 hours preparation and cooking time (a little less if you’ve premade cure), and a week of allowing it to sit and cure in your refrigerator.  But once you’ve made it, you’ll understand why it’s worth the effort and the precious fridge space.  As Ruhlman and Polcyn explain, “When you make your own bacon and fry a slice, you’ll know what bacon is all about.  Notice the copious amount of fat that renders out, and that the meat doesn’t reduce in size by fifty percent.  The result can give you an understanding of why bacon became such a powerful part of America’s culinary culture.”

It’s also worth noting that while pork bellies may no longer be traded on the national mercantile exchange, homemade bacon is a surefire winner in the neighborhood ones. I’ve traded for lemons, grapes, backyard eggs and I’m hoping this time for an ollalieberry pie.  Yes, I know I have my own ollalieberries.  But some days there’s a limit to the alchemy you can do, and I think that twelve pounds is meeting the freezer.

Scary Food

So what’s scarier?

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

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

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

Enter me, of course.

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

They look like grenades for a reason.

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

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

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


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

Enjoy every bit of it.

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

Now, you simmer.

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

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 5 cups sugar

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




Canning, The Beast, And The Mise En Place

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

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

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

(Ominous chords.)

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

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

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



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

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

“I feel Happy!”

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

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

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

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

Boom! There it is.

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



I cannot possibly thrive in these conditions.

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

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

I’m working on it.

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

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

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