Fifty Shades of Garden

Something was drawing her, irresistibly, to the edge of the garden.  As if she were pulled by invisible bonds, Alchemist and Chickenkeeper Natty felt compelled to search — to explore — to test the edges of her gardening.

It was there, calling her.  The plant she had overlooked in the past.  Hesitantly, biting her lip, she extended her shaking hand and plunged it into the bush. What was there — hidden, unknown until now — rocked her to her very core.


Nothing would ever be the same.

Across the bustling city, the Accidental Alchemist somehow felt the same call, as if the two were horticulturally communicating in some deep, dirty way.  Unafraid, inspired by the deep throbbing of vegetation from the backyard fence, she responded.  Big Fred, the Passionflower, was waiting for her.  And he knew exactly what she needed.

Passiflora edulis

The silent command came, as she knew it would.  Taste me.

We have to go now.

A Brief Digression Into Disaster

Sometimes things go really wrong in the lab.




Oh yeah.




A few days ago, I posted about a soap I’d made using a technique called “tiger stripe.”  I was trying to reproduce some of the colors, scents and the the overall sensory dazzlement of an Indian cultural dance called “Kathakali.”  I posted the picture of the end result:

“Kathakali Dance.”

But I also dropped some hints in that post that my first attempt at this soap was a nearly unmitigated disaster.  It thickened, almost to seizing, at an absolutely lightning rate. I was digging and blopping and slamming things around even to get it into the mold.  I unmolded and cut it and then abandoned it on the cure rack, where I tried to avoid looking at it every time I went into the Lab.

But you know, they’re still your babies.  After four weeks (which is as early as I’ll try a soap in cure), it smells wonderful. It behaves beautifully, lathering and conditioning superbly. But it also, still, and will eternally, look like something scraped off a wet barn after it escaped from a Monsanto lab.

I figured it would only be fair to show you exactly what my first attempt looks like.

Glop, air bubbles, resolidifying oils, weirdly morphing yellow: what didn’t go wrong with this?

Every soapmaker has Those Soaps We Only Use In The House: the “Uglysoaps.”  They might be some of the best-performing soaps you’ll ever use, but if your first instinct is to recoil in fear and protect your children when you see them — well, that’s not such a great marketing feature.  I’m afraid this guy is an Uglysoap, but he’ll have a home (and a use) simply for being such a terrific instructor in the value of trying again.



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.

House Imps, Gremlins, and Other Impractical Pests

One of the best things about playing with alchemy is the constant reminder that you are part of a tradition that has persisted through millennia, and there are books to prove it.  This morning I was perfecting and vetting a formula for an herb-based cream, and as part of my research I ended up browsing through several medieval works to see what they had to say about the matter. The one that prompted this post was Hildegard von Bingen’s “Physica.”

Hildegard (1098-1179) was one boss lady, a medieval genius who established and ran several important (meaning incredibly wealthy) abbeys, wrote music that people perform to this day, argued with and persuaded kings, bishops and Popes over theology and politics, dictated uplifting and illuminating visions of God that were the medieval equivalent of bestsellers, knocked out biographies of saints and Gospel commentaries on a weekly basis, and wrote a kickass medieval medicine textbook in her spare time.  That last is the “Physica,” and it covers a lot more than herbal medicine.  She meticulously documents the essences and uses not only of plants, but also of trees, elements, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles and metals.  But what captivated me on this reading was triggered by her description of lavender:

Lavender is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odor. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die.  Its odor clears the eyes [since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified.]


Now any serious discussion of malign spirits can drive your train of thought completely off into the (nonmedicinal) weeds, no matter what millennium it is.  I ended up going through not only the Physica but also a really nifty book I’ve neglected for some time — “Magic in the Middle Ages” by professor Richard Kieckhefer — to find out a little more about them.  Not only were malign spirits, imps, and other potential hostiles like fairies and elves viewed as a real threat for most of documented history, they’re still around in modern culture: for example, soapmakers frequently blame the “soap gremlins” whenever a batch seizes, rots or explodes for absolutely no reason, and pretty much everyone recognizes when a gremlin gets into a car engine or an airplane (see, e.g., the Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”).

Given this kind of record, I found myself thinking about malign spirits that house gods were intended to intimidate way back in the day.  I came up with the following list because I’ve hosted all of them at one time or another.

DRAGGLE:  Imp specializing in unpredictably intermittent, unusual and unexplainable noises. Exclusively nocturnal. Distinguish from “Plynk.”

PHNU:  Water-dwelling imp that clogs drains.  A particularly venomous subspecies backs up toilets, usually during dinner parties when you’re trying to impress someone.

PIFFT:  Deflates things that need to stay inflated. Subspecies pokes holes in beanbag chairs. See also “Shrip.”

SKRITCH:  Dries out pens, and returns them to desks and countertops after you’ve thrown them away.

OHFOR: Produces reoccurring and inexplicable carpet stains. Researchers dispute about whether it’s an imp or an actual gremlin, considering the cost of replacing carpet once you’ve given up trying to remove that disturbing, did-somebody-die-here splurtch.

PLYNK: Gremlin residing in plumbing systems, particularly water mains, irrigation pipes, and tank heaters.  When bored will produce tantalizingly irreproducible faucet drips. Almost always seen only during weekends, holidays, or other “overtime” plumber scheduling.

SHRIP:  Herds, hoards and hides dust-bunnies, -buffaloes, and -brachiosaurs.  Regional subspecies known to disable vacuum cleaners; evidence is Lego, penny, and string spoor that have completely mangled your expensive Dyson. Check for nests under large, heavy objects.

GAH:  Knocks over containers of liquids; first signs of infestation are water rings on wood surfaces with no obvious glass in evidence.  Subspecies known to colonize refrigerators.

MINCH:  Kills houseplants.

Finally, there’s the PURSE WEASEL, the only imp for which I have an actual, though poorly-realized, image.  Every woman is familiar with this one.  It removes and hides keys as its specialization, but also conceals credit cards and other important documentation while replacing them with crumpled receipts, outdated coupons, grocery lists from 2008, and useless change.  Subspecies are the “Backpack Weasel,” which hides and/or destroys homework, and the “Mail Weasel,” which piles junk mail on every available flat surface of the home while dragging important letters such as bills and legal notices into unpredictable areas.

Suspected “Purse Weasel” imp.

I’m sure there are a lot more of them out there.  Which ones have you hosted?