Do-Overs, Mulligans, and Restarts — Let’s Take It From The Top

I spent a pretty good portion of the day yesterday combing through comments posted to the blog.  Considering I’ve been out of the ring for a couple months, due to the Bad Situation and its ongoing effects, there were more than a few of them.  Over a thousand, in fact.  And most of them were autogenerated come-ons for various websites selling — well, here’s a very partial list:

replica handbags, knockoff handbags, michael kors, levitra, viagra, retin a, clarisonic, soma, parajumpers, strattera, propecia, nike, kamagra, bose, dr dre, montblanc, seo, burberry, bose, and apparently Michael Jordan.

It was pretty clear pretty fast that my filters really needed fixing, but I was unwilling to universal-wipe the comments just in case there was some gem buried in there.  (For the impatient types, there wasn’t).  Accordingly, I was able to experience the full spectrum of Interwebs barker teases, which kept raising unanswerable questions in my head as I scrolled through. Most were fairly innocuous:  If soma is a drug, how do you make a bra out of it? Who is Karen Mullen and why is her coat so important — does it make you invisible or something? Is she here standing behind me, transparent, right now? What on earth is a “parajumper” and why do I need one? Do I get a base jumper for half off if I buy it?  Is everyone on earth selling “replica” handbags except me, and if so, how did I miss the memo?

Others were a bit more disturbing — such as the website that asked, “Does Viagra work on dogs?”  or the one that promised in English not just broken but annihilated that I’d become a “supercharged dildo” if I used their SEO scripting.

I finished the job and fixed the filters (again) and then, hoping for some lighthearted entertainment, moved over to my favorite vice: the U.K.’s best rag, also known as the Daily Mail.  There, I learned about various family murders, a guy too dumb to turn off his truck when the tailpipe got buried in mud, more than enough about Kim Kardashian’s sartorial choices, and the news that a cute young woman had just received a $500,000 advance to write a book about her life buying drugs, taking drugs, having sex for drugs, and writing magazine pieces about all of the above plus some comments about makeup.

I had the John Cleese moment in “A Fish Called Wanda” — the courtroom scene where he says, “Right, that’s it” — and went outside into the back garden, wishing that life had a “Reset” button.

Well, sometimes it does.  As Robert Orben remarked,

Spring is God’s way of saying, ‘One more time!’


Chamomile and chives. I’m pretty sure that pot was empty before winter.

Instead of my usual manic winter cleanup last year, I’d decided to let the various containers, pots and the side bed do as they would without any interference.  And sure, I found a tangled mess of dead tomatoes and peppers, a marjoram that looked like it committed seppoku, and what I think are three-foot-tall dandelions in the side bed.  They’re either dandelions or they’re triffids, and I have no more bandwidth to worry.

The Brave Little Valerian x 4


But I also found that the Brave Little Valerian had not only survived me ripping it up last fall, chopping off its roots, and cutting its root crown into four pieces before replanting — but that all four of them were thriving.



The passifloras, both Big Fred and the Little Guy The Butterflies Gnaw Down To A Stick During The Summer, had also pulled through.

Passiflora edulis “Frederick,” a.k.a. “Big Fred”


Fred seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be a “vine,” the kind of plant that climbs things, and settled into a comfortable couch potato position on the fence.




The side bed was a jungle.  I’d sown calendula seeds at random right before the rains set in, simply out of curiosity as to what they would do.  I found, amidst the three-foot-“dandelions” mentioned above,

Calendulas, an official Really Useful Plant

a riot of blossoms that I immediately started cutting and drying. (Calendula has an herbalist and culinary history since the Middle Ages. King Henry VIII insisted that his food be brightly colored and his cooks used Calendula for bright orange and yellow shades.  According to ancient and modern herbalists, it’s also a superb treatment for skin conditions, burns, bruises, and strains, and has applications for gastrointestinal disturbances as well).  But it wasn’t just the calendulas that had taken advantage of my benign neglect.

Golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, yarrow, and one determined strawberry plant



The various thymes had run riot, the yarrow was exploding, and a strawberry plant that had appeared really, truly, and seriously dead for months had resurrected itself.



Even better, the lemon verbena had come roaring back after my perhaps too-enthusiastic harvesting last fall.

A very forgiving lemon verbena.


(Lemon verbena makes a fantastic tea all by itself, adds terrific flavor other less appealing medicinal teas, and can convince almost anyone to eat their vegetables when added as a delicate seasoning, either fresh or dried.)



And much to my delight, my lavenders had survived.  I’ve had about as much luck with lavenders as I had in the past with passifloras — I’d plant them, they’d flourish for a while, and then they’d curl up and die overnight.  Less water, more water, less sun, more sun, feed them, don’t; nothing I did seemed to make any difference.  But simply being left alone was more to their taste.

Lavendula augustifolia “Hidcote” — English lavender.

There’s also another one, planted next to an aloe that also seems to have pulled through pretty well.

C’mon, little fella! You can do it!

It’s a smaller varietal which, unfortunately, I seem to have forgotten the name of, though its flowers last year had a lovely, rich, deep scent that a lot of lavenders don’t possess. (A lot of them have that cutting, acrid, headachy sweetness that smells like Grandma’s wardrobe).  It’s looking a little punky right now, but I hope the spring will inspire it as it has its companion.

It takes a lot of stress and awfulness to make someone like me ignore a garden for months.  But you’d think I would have learned from something I posted myself a while ago — sometimes, it’s not a disaster to step back, take a breath, and leave things alone for a while.  There might just be a “Start Over” coming down the road.




And Now For Something Not Too Completely Different

Up in Blue Yonder (that’s her center in the picture above — she’s kind of hard to miss from the St. Croix South Shore, where this picture was taken), you’re surrounded by Ginger Thomas flowers.  From the deck, you quickly become aware that there are entire nations
of birds, lizards, mongeese, bees, and other bugs you don’t really want to think about that view the place as home.

The most common birds, bananaquits and Anguillan crested hummingbirds, rely heavily on the nectar produced by the bright yellow Ginger Thomas flower.  They get it, though, in two different ways:  while the hummingbirds use their tongues to go into the center of the flower, the bananaquits are a little more brutal.  They use their curved beak to pierce between the petals and the calyx (the little green pocket that holds the petals), to get directly to the nectar without any fuss.  This might be because, unlike hummingbirds, they cannot hover and must perch to get their food.  It also might be because it’s more fun that way, which is the explanation I tend to believe because of their relentless pugnacity.  (Also, anyone who’s ever torn apart a baked potato might appreciate this.)

I found this time that the Ginger Thomas isn’t the only local plant that produces the nectar these guys desire.  Along a stone wall above the house, some wild-looking cactuses grow.  They have long, spindly, wickedly thorned appendages that look like they just stopped flailing around the second you turned to look. And this visit, I found that they produce an equally-weird looking flower that was like crack cocaine to the hummingbirds and the bananaquits.

This is the lone bananaquit I caught actually getting at the cactus flower.  The rest of the time, the cactus was surrounded by a buzzing swirl of divebombing hummingbirds, who would argue in their rasping musical-saw voices with each other, the bananaquits, and me whenever I dared step foot outside.  (I always apologized profusely. I doubt the bananaquits did.) Now the hummingbirds move like lightning, and I’ve never been able to get any good photographs of them.  But when you’ve got the avian equivalent of a “Free Beer” sign right outside your door, you might just have a chance.

Gotcha. Anguillan Crested Hummingbirds on the Weird Cactus Flower.

In fact, one stuffed himself so much that he had to stop and take a break.

I ate the whole thing.

Most of the time, in the light you have, you’ll see these guys as nearly black, tiny little projectiles whizzing around in the branches or right past your head if they’re annoyed.  But in the shot above, you can really see the irridescence of their feathers.  (A moment later this guy de-poofed and zipped off, yelling at the top of his lungs at an interloper.)

The ferocious competition over the Weird Cactus Flower made me start thinking about nectar, and then honey.  St. Croix has a thriving apiary/beekeeper community, and the honey they produce is the best I’ve ever had.  Like fish and lobsters and fruit on the island, you can buy local honey in unexpected places:  for instance, from a little stand by the side of the road on the way from Blue Yonder to Christiansted.  So I bought some,

The secret weapon.

(well, a lot), and when I got home I started thinking about a St. Croix honey soap.

Mushroom cloud or alien spaceship? You make the call.

Honey soaps can be tricky; as with any additive that involves sugars, you take the risk of massively overheating the saponification reaction in the batter, and ending up with a) a mess  b) a disaster or c) a Soap Volcano, which is the absolute epitome of all soaping screwups.  I’ve seen pictures of soaps that their horrified makers described as “crawling out of the mold and across the counter,” bubbling and steaming and spreading its active lye on anything that came close. (Go ahead — Google it.)  But it isn’t that I’m blameless in this.  I’ve had a Tiny Soap Mushroom Cloud, and that’s about as close as I want to come to this experience.

So I had to think pretty carefully about the formula I’d use, and the technique for incorporating the honey, at what temperature I’d mix the oils and lye, and how I’d handle the molded soap afterwards.  It was pretty clear from my research that I had to disperse the honey in reserved water first, mix it in at “trace” (the point, demonstrated by a certain thickening, that the saponification reaction between the lye and oils is well and truly roaring along), and then whip that puppy into some ice after I molded it up.  If I didn’t disperse the honey well, it might recollect in droplets inside the soap — harmless and actually kind of cool (think “sweet honey in the rock”), but not exactly what I was after.  If I didn’t cool it down fast enough, I might end up playing Steve McQueen in “The Blob” to the dismay of everyone else in the house as well as the local HazMat team, who I seriously do not want to piss off.

So with all due caution, “St. Croix Honey Blossom” began to come together:  olive and coconut oils, shea butter, and a generous dollop of genuine St. Croix wild bee honey premixed for addition right before the mold.  I picked a combination of amber, honey, and citrus blossom fragrances to try to maintain the richness of the honey scent in the bottle I had.  And then I had one of those orthogonal ideas about how to color it — I’d try the stamens from a bouquet of Stargazer lilies that the UUH had brought home out of the basic goodness of his heart. For the next couple days, every time a blossom opened, I’d carefully clip the bright-orange stamens off and collect them in a little container.  Once they were done, the moment of truth arrived — would the stamens release their color at all, and if so, into what?  My first experiment was a grand slam.  Olive oil will release the color of the stamens, and it’s a beautiful dark red-orange.  I let it set for a day, strained it a few times, and then my new natural colorant was ready to go.

The very last aspect of the soap involved the garden. It ran wild all winter after I sowed a few seeds, and I went out a few days ago to find it blanketed in Calendula blossoms. Calendula is both a flower and an herb that’s been recognized since the Middle Ages for certain medicinal properties — but that wasn’t why I was going to use them this time.  Unlike almost every other herb or flower petal, Calendula petals do not turn brown when in contact with the high-pH of cold process soap. (Lavender is well known as turning into “mouse poo” after a few weeks on top of soap).   I cut a few, tossed them into the dehydrator, and in a few hours had the petals I needed for the tops of St. Croix Honey Blossom.

“St. Croix Honey Blossom.”

It’s a softer soap that’s going to take a bit longer to cure, but the stargazer colorant came through as a lovely honey shade, and when it’s done it should have superior lathering and conditioning qualities due to the honey and shea butter.  The fragrance is citrus blossom with a deep bottom note of pure honey.

I think both the bananaquits and the hummingbirds would be pleased.




Well, I’m Back

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” — J.R.R. Tolkien


Like a lot of people — Frodo included — I’ve always admired Samwise the most among all of the cast of the Lord of the Rings.  This is a guy who is more than a little awkward to the people around him; he’s clumsy, shy, and completely transparent while others plot, negotiate and manipulate.  Yet he also has an impenetrable sense of duty and responsibility despite attacks from all directions, and most importantly he never gives up even in the worst circumstances.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.  — Winston Churchill


Coming home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to India in January, excited and inspired by everything I’d seen, smelled, eaten, and done, I was immediately confronted by a terrible situation caused primarily by an adult who should have known better.  It knocked me flat but in the spirit of Samwise and Winston, as well as having no other option, I kept grinding through it with the help of the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband).  It took its toll — and continues to do so — but one of the nice things about alchemy is that you get to fool around with various dangerous substances when you’re emotionally out of your skull.

So, of course, that leads us to the soap.

Cold process soap — the soap you make “from scratch,” with oils, butters and our favorite drain-sizzling, death-fog-producing meth-lab pal, sodium hydroxide* — is a product that lends itself to enormous creativity in technique.  From single solid colors, to textured tops, to embedded objects and to swirls and layers, you can attempt practically anything with this stuff.  That’s not to say the finished soap is going to work out the way you envisioned it.  In fact, I can virtually guarantee you some sort of surprise with nearly every batch, even those where you think you’ve got the formula nailed down.  The surprise factor multiplies exponentially when you’re trying something new — a new ingredient, fragrance, colorant or technique. Usually, these surprises are bad.

Accordingly, under intense emotional stress, I decided to check every box of the above.

But let’s back up a minute.  In Kochi, India, I’d seen a performance of Kathakali dance.  It’s extraordinary mythic storytelling, performed silently except for a drum, with dancers who have trained for years to learn a complex vocabulary of gesture and expression.  The costuming and makeup are both dazzling and meaningful.  I knew as soon as I reeled out of the theater that I had to try to reproduce something about the experience, and it involved the colors I’d just seen.  My plans (and posting here) were held up at home as the bad situation developed, but eventually I found myself with enough time and sense to put my hand to something useful.  I decided I’d make a soap involving the colors of one of the Kathakali dancers (the guy right up there).  And to try to recreate the overwhelming sensory experience of the dance, I’d try to use a technique called “tiger stripe.”

Now I’ve tried tiger stripe before.  It’s demanding.  It requires exquisite timing and a thorough knowledge of your formula and ingredients.  But when it’s done right, it can produce a really nifty-looking soap.

“Swirling Reef of Death.” Named for a St. Croix snorkeling site that isn’t.

Swirling Reef is a pretty straightforward coconut, olive, palm kernel flake, and castor oil soap, colored with ultramarines, micas, and titanium dioxide to get the white.  The trick to the technique is emulsifying the soap completely — in other words, incorporating the lye into the oils thoroughly enough to start the saponification process — without letting it “trace” too thickly to pour in stripes, one color atop another, into the mold.  You gotta move fast with this, which means you have to emulsify the base batter BUT NOT TOO MUCH, add your fragrance, separate out the amounts for your colors, mix your colors, and then pour like a madwoman.  (Preferably to the “Benny Hill” theme music.)

With “Swirling Reef” under my belt, I gathered all the materials together for “Kathakali Dance.”   I was trying a new fragrance and new colorants, which should really have been the first hint that this would end in disaster, but I was undaunted.

Well, it was a disaster.  The batter traced and thickened almost instantaneously.  In a panic I just glopped everything into the mold, eventually using a spoon to dig nearly solid soap out of the mixing container and smash it in.  The finished product smells great, lathers beautifully, and looks like something growing on the side of a wet barn.  I can barely bring myself to look at it on the curing rack.  It is a continuing reproach.  It is my Cautionary Tale.

So instead of giving up like any sensible person, I decided to try it again.  I tweaked the formula (abandoning the palm kernel flakes, among other adjustments) in the hope that it would stay liquid longer.  I changed some of my colorants to micas.  I did use the same fragrance — an exotic and intoxicating mix of wood and spices, flowers and rain — because it seemed so perfect for the experience I was trying to recreate.  And then I got the mise in order, turned up the music, and threw myself at it.

“Kathakali Dance” — iteration two.

The green mica morphed blue a bit on me — I’m going to stick with ultramarines for green from now on, I think, and the black didn’t come across as much as I’d like — but otherwise it’s pretty close to what I had in mind.  It’s curing on the rack right next to its cousin.  To me, both illustrate Sam and Winston’s principle of not giving up.

* I’m using a little hyperbole here, except for the “meth-lab” part.


The Mystery Soap Revealed

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I’d soon be showing a new soap, now cured, that required a completely unique fragrance mix — as well as a pretty complex ingredient formula.  It was hand-milled (in other words, made twice over) in order to get just the right texture, hardness, color, lathering and gentleness that I was after.  So here it is:

The Mystery Soap

The ingredients, made in the cold-process method, included olive oil, coconut oil, spice-infused rice bran oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, castor oil, and coconut milk. It was colored with red clay. The fragrance is layered: the gentle bottom note is the scent of earth after rain, followed by a developing aura of curry spice, coconut, sandalwood, amber, and patchouli, and finished with a delicate top note of the beautiful scent of pomegranate and osmanthus flowers in the sun.  It was finished with a stamp of two hearts becoming one, and hand-brushed with gold and pearly white micas.

It was a genuine pleasure to make, and so far it’s a delight in the shower.  It was made in honor of two friends — and I’ve called it “Monsoon Wedding.”

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



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?



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.


Blue Yonder Original Botanicals — The End of the Year Roundup

This year has been quite the experience for the Accidental Alchemist — I’ve tried everything from canning herb-infused jelly made from our own cabernet sauvignon grapes (you can read about that little fighting vine here), to using a pressure canner for the first time, to slaughtering chickens, dividing The Brave Little Valerian‘s root crown and experimenting with permaculture principles, preparing custom herbal teas, and making an herbal-based muscle salve from infusion to finished product.  With the other Alchemists who post here, I’ve learned about chickenkeeping, mushroom hunting, and cake decorating.

Making soap, though, is my special project, and I thought I’d put together a roundup of what I made this year.

Some folks know from reading the blog that I am in love with the Caribbean island of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of these soaps were inspired by the island in some way — the sky, the sea, and the earth.  Below are some photographs from the amusingly small, completely handcrafted “production line” of what we are now calling Blue Yonder Original Botanicals.  (You can virtually “tour” the actual Blue Yonder in St. Croix at

The Sky Series

“Morning Sun” is probably our personal favorite and the favorite of many of our testers (for whose patience I am profoundly grateful).  It is a classic olive oil, coconut oil, and shea butter formulation, fragranced with orange and litsea cubeba essential oils, and finished with a soap stamp hand-brushed with skin-safe mica.  It deserves its own position of honor for its gentleness and invigorating, get-your-day started scent.

Handmade soap “Morning Sun”


Another favorite for our testers was probably the most exotic soap I’ve made to date — the stunning “Night Sky.”  “Night Sky” was inspired by the view of the stars in St. Croix, a view made possible by a sky so deep black that you can see clearly the Milky Way. (Want to know why? Go here.)  It is a coconut oil, olive oil, and coconut milk formula, colored with activated charcoal, and scented with a rich, deep fragrance oil of sandalwood and amber.  It was finished with a very light hand-brushing of copper, gold, and pearl micas.

handmade soap “Night Sky”

Sunsets in St. Croix are spectacular nearly every night, with bands of shaded color that stretch across the entire sky.

One sunset from Blue Yonder


That’s a banana tree to the far right — it took a bit of a hit in the last run of storms, but is still hanging tough.  The geographical feature close to the center, beneath the moon, probably has a real name but I call it “The Nose.”  In order to even try to replicate this, I had to investigate a new technique.  The soapmakers call it “ombre” or “ombre layering,” and it requires a level of preparation comparable to a moon shot, the ability to not panic when something doesn’t go as expected (not my strong suit), and a great deal of luck.  But in the end, what came out of the mold was “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars.”

handmade soap “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”


How I managed to get even a hint of “The Nose” in there, I’ll never know.  But the colorants included activated charcoal, ultramarines in blue, violet and pink, an FD&C approved liquid soap colorant for the gold, and a dusting of mica in a olive oil, coconut oil, sustainable palm oil and castor oil formula. The fragrance, like “Night Sky” above, was a warm and evocative amber and sandalwood, but with light top notes of spice and Caribbean flowers.

Finally for the “Sky” series, this year saw a convergence of two events: a “blue moon” at the end of August, and the funeral of Neil Armstrong.  A “blue moon” is simply an “extra” full moon during a lunar cycle, and Neil Armstrong remains one of my personal heroes.  So when the blue moon occurred, I broke out the soapmaking stuff and got to work.  I’d made a small tube mold of goatmilk soap with crushed organic chamomile flowers that had been sitting for a few days, and I was pretty confident that it might withstand — without melting — inclusion as an “embed” in another soap.  So I formulated up olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and castor oil, emulsified it, colored it with activated charcoal and ultramarine blue, did the pouring and embedding and crossed my fingers.

“Blue Moon (for Neil Armstrong)”


The fragrance came out very light, as they sometimes do for no explainable reason, but this one was an amber, milk and honey that becomes stronger in the shower.  It’s a very gentle and richly lathering soap that’s turning into one of my personal favorites.

The Sea Series

It requires a better writer than I am to describe the seas around St. Croix without resorting to the most tired cliches.

Sea breaking over reef


It is constantly changing in color, from deep blues to the most delicate of teals, streaks of green and purple, and always the white foam of the waves breaking.




The view from Blue Yonder, when the sea turned to rose


Some evenings, the sunset will reflect from the clouds and sky and turn the sea into a stunning rose.




The view from Turtle Beach on Buck Island



Buck Island’s Turtle Beach is where a flatfish is now wearing my husband’s wedding ring as a tiara.  The entire island, and the reefs around it, are designated a National Monument. It contains an underwater snorkeling trail, with signs explaining everything you are swimming through and gasping at.  That’s where we met the “Blue Tang Clan” and the “Squid Squad,” as well as one tense moment with four barracudas staring flatly, utterly motionless, at us. (These are fish who can appear to contemplate, better than any other fish I’ve ever seen, how easily they can turn you into chum.)  It’s also where we swam with a pod of wild dolphins and saw wild mongeese in the woods.

This level of sensory input is a pretty high barrier to overcome, and I’m still working on trying to recreate even a sense of the Caribbean sea in some of the soaps I make.



“Harbor” was my first experience with a “fast-accelerating” ocean fragrance oil.  Some scents can speed up the saponification process, turning your soap batter into cement in seconds. (We call it “soap on a stick,” the stick being your stirring spoon).  I managed to slap a few pieces of Harbor into individual molds before the rest of it hardened into something you’d use to pave a landing strip.  The color, though, did come out very true to the blue you see in the harbors of the Caribbean, the scent very ocean-like and refreshing, and the lather was very good.

“Reef Sea”

“Reef Sea” was the result of the rest of the soap batch, which hadn’t contained the accelerating fragrance.  I mixed several ultramarine colorants and did a basic swirl to try to recreate the mixing of the colors of the sea as it breaks over a coral reef. The fragrance I did try was an evocative “island” scent, full of flowers and fruit, while at the same time carrying a whiff of salt and sea.

The next attempt was inspired by the photograph above from Turtle Beach at Buck Island.  Dozens of boats, from small two-manners to giant yachts, are moored at any time at marinas all over the island.  One of the most exhilarating experiences you can have is taking a half- or full-day deep-sea fishing trip, or taking a catamaran out to Buck Island.  Boating and sailing are intrinsic parts of island life, and I wanted to try to capture what it looks like when you are just heading out on a beautiful day.

“Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

Boating isn’t all there is to the sea, though.  St. Croix is famous for “The Wall,” a ledge that runs along the north shore of the island and can drop to 13,000 feet deep.  It’s a favorite of serious divers — the diversity and richness of the sea life is stunning, as is the clarity of the water.  But even casual snorkelers can find sites that suit their level of swimming skill and snorkeling experience all over the island.  Most of these sites have names that range from accurate to hilarious.  My favorite has always been the “Swirling Reef of Death,” and I felt, when I discovered a new swirling technique (the “zebra stripe” or “spoon swirl”), that I had to get on it right away.

“Swirling Reef of Death”

Needless to say, the “Swirling Reef of Death” isn’t.  It’s a peaceful, warm, and beautiful spot that absolutely deserves a soap like this to maintain its reputation.  The formula is simple but classic, a basic coconut oil, olive oil, sustainable palm kernel oil, and castor oil formula with ultramarines and micas as colorants.  The scent is another island type — sandalwood and amber, with fresh flowers and fruit.

The Earth Series


The island is more than just the sea and sky cradling it.  St. Croix is small island that contains astonishing geographical diversity — the east end is drier, suitable even for cactus species, while the western half contains an actual rainforest.  Driving through the rainforest (you’d probably take Mahogany Road, named after the magnificent trees that populate the area) can be a hair-raising experience, but well worth the occasional alarm from washed-out stream-crossings and crumbling asphalt.  It is a place of such extraordinary color and variation that of course I made a soap.

“Rainforest” was my first experiment with completely herbal and clay colorants.  Some folks might know that I grow herbs, lots of them, and I was excited to try using them to color soap as opposed to my usual ultramarines and oxides.  So in order to try to capture the shifting variations of greens in the forest canopy, I chose comfrey leaf, nettle leaf, and French green clay as my swirl colors.  The formula was as basic as I could get it, just olive oil and coconut oil, because I had no idea about what these babies were going to do.  The fragrance was what I knew was a well-behaved sandalwood and fruit with a top note of lemongrass, and I put in some ground chamomile flowers for a slight exfoliation effect. Nothing accelerated, everyone behaved, and after a stint in a Pringles can mold (this was before I had the PVC pipe that I use now) I had “Rainforest.”  I stamped it with a little rubber leaf stamp I found in a long-abandoned kids’ art project box, and brushed it with just a little mica.

Enfleuraging Ginger Thomas flowers

Then there’s “Christiansted,” which was my first try at rebatching a soap into something new.  I’d made a soap that didn’t work out at all the way it was supposed to, even though it contained a very labor-intensive enfleurage of Ginger Thomas flowers that I’d made on the island. The stuff looked great when first poured into the mold.

Wow! Look at that color!



Sadly, the color did not hold, and I ended up with a white soap that the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband) disliked. Colors and fragrances can morph, intensify, and completely disappear on you in soapmaking.  It’s part of the alchemy.  I suppose tearing your hair out is too, which is why the medieval guys wore those ridiculous hats.

Shredding soap for a rebatch.

Yup, that’s the color it turned — a very nice white, but not at all what I was after.  I had to do some research on how to rebatch soap, which in my case meant creating another new batch up, melting the shreds into the new batch, recoloring, and refragrancing.  I was inspired here by the charming little harbor town of Christiansted, and I wanted to capture the colors of the buildings there.

The colors are worn to pastels by the sea and salt, battered by rains, constantly washed by the tradewinds, but remain beautiful and vibrant all the same.  I chose a Moroccan rose clay for what’s called an “in-the-pot” swirl, as opposed to a swirl you attempt in a mold (see “Swirling Reef of Death” for an example of the latter), and ended up with “Christiansted.”  It turned out to be one of my testers’ most popular soaps.

“Sea Glass in Sand”

“Sea Glass in Sand” was a bit of a stunt soap, my experimenting with adding glycerine soap chunks to my own cold-process goat milk formulation.  I was trying to recreate the experience of finding sea glass, which is ordinary broken glass worn smooth and jewel-like by the action of sea and sand, during a walk on the beach.  I used commercial glycerine soap for the chunks, as I don’t have the experience for doing it myself, and it is a complex and chemical process best left to the commercial operations.  This photograph was shot soon after cutting; in the weeks it has been curing, it has whitened so dramatically that it surprises even me.  The fragrance has “stuck” beautifully.

Finally, there’s “Turtle Tracks,” which is a soap I am absolutely delighted with.  On St. Croix, as on most Caribbean islands, sea turtles come up on the beaches to dig their nests and lay eggs.  The citizens of the island take their responsibility toward the turtles very seriously. Entire beaches, or areas of beaches, can be roped off completely; and in places where that’s not quite necessary, nests are clearly marked with “Stay Off” signs.  At night, when they’re ready, the little turtles emerge and make their dash for the sea. They leave very distinctive tracks behind, and one day I saw them at the Tamarind Reef Resort. While this isn’t a picture I took, it’ll give you an idea of what you’ll see when you go, and why I became so enchanted with the idea of making a soap about this heroic effort:

I knew I had to make it small, like the turtles, so a guest-sized soap seemed appropriate. I had a little left of some jojoba oil that I had infused with mullein flowers, organic yarrow, and Ginger Thomas from the island; to that I formulated coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, and castor oil, and added a little ground chamomile flowers to give the appearance of the sand. Recreating the turtle tracks was the hardest part.  I ended up using one of those cheap little sponge eyeshadow applicators and a tiny brush for the mica to pick the tracks out from the “sand.”

“Turtle Tracks”

While the island provides a lot of inspiration to me, I also began to experiment with fragrances as well as formulas for different reasons.  For one person, I developed a rose absolute and vetiver fragranced shea-butter formula that is now and forever will be “Tracy’s Rose”:

“Tracy’s Rose”




There was “Phoenix,” a shea-butter formula with an oatmeal, milk and honey fragrance. I did do some new work with stamping and mica-brushing.
New molds can give “usual” formulas very interesting new looks.
And lastly, I had a special request from a very special person to make a Chocolate Soap. Now I had some things to consider; in the house there were allergies, so I had to avoid any oils or butters that might be nut-derived.  Coconut oil was okay, so I could use that.  I wanted to avoid any colorants if possible, and I knew that any fragrance that contained vanilla would naturally darken the soap to a chocolate brown.  I researched the safest chocolate fragrances and planned out the pour.  My task was clear; the end result was “Chocolate Pie.”

“Chocolate Pie”

Right now, a soap is curing that required a completely unique fragrance mix, and that I’ll introduce at some point in the near future.  Creating new fragrances from infused oils, fragrance oils, and essential oils has been an unexpected and delightful surprise from the soapmaking venture I’ve gone on this year, as well as learning the physical techniques of pouring and swirling, cutting and curing.  With the generosity of the UUH I now have beautiful and useful devices for cutting, planing, and finishing the pieces that I’ve made.

“The Tank” — wire soapcutter handmade in Hong Kong.

I’d like to thank everyone who tried my soaps, gave me feedback, and listened to my moaning about all the trials and tribulations.  It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out at Blue Yonder, and I’ll keep you up to date.


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.

When chickens explode

Fall is here. Trees are turning yellow.


A few last tomatoes still cling to the dying plants.

Fallen leaves decorate the lawn.

Fallen leaves and fallen… features? A few here.

A few more there.

And soon, the chicken yard looks like someone got into a fight with a pillow.

Every fall, chickens go through a molt to discard old feathers and grow a new plumage. Some molt slowly, drop a few feathers here, a few there, for months on end.

Dude! Where’s my tail feathers?
I don’t know, dude, probably same place where half of mine are. Gah! This itches!

Others drop lots of feathers at once, and look bedraggled for a while.

So I look a little moth-eaten. I am still boss chicken! Don’t mess with me!

And then there’s chickens that explode. Their feathers come out in giant clumps, leaving patches of bare skin behind. They look so pathetic you cannot help but laugh, although you have to feel a little sorry for the poor naked things.

This is just sad, White Chicken!
I will turn my back so you stop taking pictures of me! Wait, no, that’s the worst part!

The only one who’s not molting yet is Twister. She’s next. She’s also a heavy molter, even worse than White Chicken.

I refuse to answer any questions about the status of my feathers.

Some of you may wonder what happened to Nekkid’s little egg eating habit. Well, it’s currently not a problem since chickens do not lay in the fall and winter due to molting and short daylight hours. So for now, she has an amnesty. Although, I am talking to a guy who is happy to take her “no questions asked”. I may take him up on the offer, but for now, I am going to go rake some leaves. And some feathers.

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?