Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Tiskit, A Tasket, A Photo-Filled Basket

Because I can't give each of you a basket full of lovely hand-dyed hard boiled eggs, home-made chocolates with centers of various liqueurs, with tiny surprises - I can't tell you, they wouldn't be surprises - buried in the new-mown grass while you wait for your leg of lamb dinner with an aroma like an arrow pointing straight to the kitchen; new potatoes and asparagus mingled in, while you are sitting at a long wooden plank table enlivened with brilliant tulips and daffodils in fat glass bowls, seated in comfortable arm chairs among your best family and friends with a glass of a dry Spanish rose or sparkling cider in your hand...I'll give you this instead.

And then a blessing rain came down! It was beautiful.

My neighbor didn't let the rain stop the good times (this one's for you)

The cat didn't quite feel the same way.

Have a satisfyingly sated Saturday. Do something sublime!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Free Range Good Friday ~ Feel the Roux

I've never understood why this day is called Good Friday in the Christian religion as it seems like if that is where your beliefs lie it should be more like Horrible I Can't Stand to Watch Friday, but so it is and so it shall be.

It has been fun watching (because I'm not out there) Dakity fill up with boats as it does over this week. Campers on the land, boaters on the water, Culebra draws Semana Santa and Spring Break celebrators like a WalMart blue light special draws shoppers. They even bring their own chairs. Hopefully, they will bring their own trash bags too and take some of it home with them.
From a normal day, a few days ago, to this morning. One year I need to video the reverse of this, everyone leaving, because it's truly a sight to see. I've posted photos of it but a video would be better.

I'm not sure another boat can be crammed in there, but no doubt it will be tried. 
I'm very much hoping the manatee Chris G. saw out there the other day will be okay. With alcohol fueled boat driving, it's not easy for humans to be safe, let alone slow, lumbering creatures who show up like miracles without a clue.

The other day I was reading something and the topic of gumbo was introduced. Maybe it is because of spring, but it was not the first or second time that dish came across my screen in the last couple of weeks but this time I was hooked. Not by the idea of making an actual gumbo, which I love but knew I'd not have all the ingredients for, but making the roux.

If you've ever made roux, you'll remember the first time as vividly as any more vivid than possibly imagined first time on your lifeline scale. I can see the kitchen (it wasn't mine and I don't remember who's kitchen it was but it must have been someone good), I remember the big gas stove. I remember the big cast iron skillet and the wooden spoon and the other pots on other burners. I remember standing there an hour or so, stirring, with the occasional other person taking over, but mostly doing it myself, watching the color change, inhaling the fragrance, wondering why I'd never done this before.

And I remember how much it changed the complexity of what was basically a chicken stew, turning it into everything the word gumbo conveys, even though we were many, many miles from any sort of bayou. We were there, Spanish moss hanging from live oaks, zydeco wafting from the porch, through the screen door where the buzzing insects waited to come in, a couple of cans of Dixie beer making sweat rings on an old wooden table; we were there, through that roux infused melange of textures and tastes that make gumbo gumbo.

I wanted that. I didn't get that and it's my own damn fault. First of all, I didn't use my cast iron skillet. Why not? It was screaming to me from the shelf, the very shelf I took the light weight, no stick skillet into my cheating hands. Don't make this mistake, really. Roux needs an iron skillet and if you don't have one, you should, no excuses. Go garage sailing if you can't afford one in a store, just make sure it's American made because if not, it will end up not seasoning itself into something as smooth as a baby's butt and as no stick as the best no stick on any market anywhere. Just so you know.

The BEST way to do this is with a cast iron dutch oven where you can do the whole operation in one pot. An old pot like this will outlast anything else in your kitchen right now.

If you're lucky, you'll find a deal like this on ebay (this is over seasoned, but it's a Griswold 9" skillet, and the current bid on it is 1.54! ends tonight)
So what happened basically, is I made a sort of Brunswick stew, sort of because I didn't (and never do) use tomatoes, but did use corn and potatoes and then at the end threw in some rice - I don't know why, it just was so thin and disappointing I had to do something.

Disappointing for my taste bud longing, but delicious. Just not the Bayou Transport Special

So yes, it was good. And here's what was in it.

MJ's NOT Gumbo and NOT Brunswick Chicken Stew

One chicken, boiled, deboned and shredded (actually got all natural, no hormone chicken from Genesis! woohoo)
Two large onions, chopped
A whole lot of garlic, chopped small - no need to mince, this will cook long enough for it to melt
Two cans of corn (yes, fresh would be better but I live here. You can and should! put a lot more veggies in this, bell peppers, peas, green beans, okra - I just didn't have any of that on hand at the time)
Two large potatoes, cut into two inch squares. (yes, potatoes are not square. Do your best)
Eight slices of kindly raised bacon cooked to crunchiness (save the bacon fat!!)
White flour
Salt and pepper to taste

First, a word on fat. Don't even think about using a fat substitute - there isn't one, in my world; this is not a health food dish. Each fat has its own smoke point. Butter will be lower than bacon or lard, but lots of people use butter. I like bacon fat but I've used butter. The most important thing is...don't walk away from your roux, no matter what you are using but especially with butter! You burn it, you'll cry.

Why I save jars. Leftover bacon fat - good for way too much to list but start with frying eggs
 Put your chicken in enough water to cover it and bring to boil, after the big boil, take down to simmering. Get out your IRON SKILLET and cook the bacon. Get it nice and done, and remove it to a plate with a paper towel to drain and cool. Drain off the fat into something you can save it in (best to use a glass jar and that means, let it cool down first).

When the chicken is at the falling off the bone stage, remove it with a slotted spoon to a colander to drain and cool so you can debone and shred it. Into the pot put all the rest of the goodies. You can return the shredded chicken now or after the roux is done, I'd suggest now and keep it all at a low simmer.

Now comes the fun part. There are many instructions for making roux, one I saw went on for about 10 pages, which I think is a little insane. If you've never made it before, that would pretty much scare you off from even trying. So here's my suggestion. Use the same amount of fat as flour (white flour works well here). You might find that that is too much fat and really, it is, but it will keep you from burning it. Trust me, you don't want to burn this because a) you have no roux and b) you'll have wasted a long hour of stirring and c) you'll have no roux. Yes, I repeated that, you want the roux!

I don't know why, but you could stir a roux all day in this thing and this was as dark as it would get. I wasn't stirring at all furiously as this would indicate. Gentle is fine. A spatula works well, I like this wooden spatula.
How much fat? How much flour? If you go with 3/4 cup of each, you're going to have a lot of roux but that's not a bad thing! Now we move into the subtle art of color. There are lots of colors of roux, white, blonde, dark and inbetween. The more color, the more flavor, as far as I'm concerned. Lucky for you and me, this Louisiana cook made a roux color chart so you don't have to guess what I'm talking about! If you are making gumbo, you want it dark. I wanted it dark. I didn't get that.

So put the fat back in the skillet, warm it up and sprinkle in your flour, stirring as you go. You can start with the heat at medium and lower it from there, if you get a whiff of smoke, you've gone too far. Keep stirring until it is the color you like and STOP! Remove from the heat. Pour the roux gently into the pot of chicken and veggies, stirring until the stock thickens. Season as you wish. Cook on low as long as you like, this is a dish that can take a long simmer (and is better the next day).  You can chill this and take off the extra fat or not. By now, it's so flavor infused so you won't lose much by a bit of removal. Enjoy!

Of course, Sunday is Easter and what I should have given you is a leg of lamb recipe but since I can't get lamb here and I really really really want some (and Milka's decided no lamb chops for us this year), I just couldn't bear to do that.

No matter the madness, there is always a quiet place.

Have a fondly fun and flexible Friday. Do something feastable.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's Getting Crowded Out There!

As the holiday of Easter draws closer, the streets are getting more full, the lines are longer, the bay is busy. Be safe out there!!

I sit in my yard and watch the boats flow over the channel transom...there are two really beautiful boats in the bay right now, teaching schooners. I just couldn't get a good photo of them from the yard but maybe I'll come into town today...they'd be worth it.

I tend to stay home a lot during Semana Santa, even more than usual. The only crowding in my little serenity zone happens when it is time to feed the chickens and  they sort things out pretty rapidly. Let's hope everyone else does the same. Be nice. Nice is good.

What I am enjoying is listening to the St. Thomas radio as preparations for Carnival ramp up. Carnival goes on pretty much the entire month of April, so it's early days - but if you combined a royal wedding and an inauguration and the Ringling Bros. Circus flying to Russia, you might get an idea of the planning that goes on for this yearly event.

Culebra is about how close I like to get to Carnival, but the excitement, stories of years gone by, imagining the food village, the aroma of seafood callaloo and butter sauce conch, while calypso singers practice and girls putting the finishing bits of glitter and glam on their costumes? Radio. A good thing.

photo credit: unknown

Did you see the moon last night? Yes, Virginia, it's the same moon here as there.

The Full Moon of March
Fish Moon, Sleepy Moon, Sap Moon, Chaste Moon, Worm Moon, 
Lenten Moon, Sugar Moon, Storm Moon, Crow Moon, 
Moon When Eyes Are Sore from Bright Snow, Death Moon.

Have a toast to Today! Thursday. Do something tactfully teasing.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tiddly Winks!

I have no idea why tiddly winks came to mind this morning, but I do know if I don't get them out of my brain pan, out there into the fire of the day, it won't be good for anybody crossing my path. I'm pretty sure I don't need to hunt down and play with some but it's early yet. In fact, after finding this page, I think it's toddled out of my system working like a rehash trivia vaccination, I feel safe for the next decade or so. Note: I spell it Tiddly Winks because...I do.

Maybe you read our weird story about a little girl dropping a piece of unexploded ordnance at the ferry dock that she'd picked up at the beach...and it exploded. I didn't know the rest of the story until yesterday. It gets weirder, but the important part to us is Captain Pat being the heroine of the day in the incident.

As you can tell, Judy is....speechless. Or something like speechless. I think. 
Suffice to say that the parents actions were, in my humble opinion (who can spot the lie in this already?) very questionable at best and actionable at worst. But Pat stepped quickly up to the plate and acted correctly, and that's all one can do. Lesson? Don't pick up weird stuff at the beach. But if you do and you're in trouble, find Pat.

A few of us got together at Dinghy Dock yesterday to give Judy a send off until next year. The plan was to have a couple Happy Hour drinks and then move along to dinner but since the line waiting for the dining room to open (for dinner, it's about as open as a room can get on any other score) went from the bar, up the stairs and to the street, we decided to take ourselves to a front porch instead.

Naturally, one of the handful of nights I think I'm actually going out to dinner is during Semana Santa., something like a desire to take a casual stroll across Times Square on New Year's Eve.  Ah well, it was a memorable time anyway. With much practice, we do 'adapt and roll with it' well here.

The not-sister sisters. I love the expression on the face of the guy at the bar. Read it as you wish.
If you drive or walk about here at all, you've noticed our new welcome bear. Not that we had an old welcome bear, that was a windmill, not a bear. There aren't a lot of bears around Culebra or even the Caribbean, I'm pretty sure. But what's equally true is that this is already my favorite bear, maybe in the whole world. Thanks, whoever brought him here.

This morning dawned with a calm, glassy start, wrapping the bay in hushed stillness that was quickly broken by a fishing boat heading out to deeper waters. And that's okay.

Have a wink-able Wednesday. Do something wonky.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Well, That Never Happened Before

Some islands put warnings on popular beaches. Some don't.
Isn't it funny how surprised we are when the most ordinary thing that happens all the time but never happens to us happens to us? That's why I didn't know what was happening when the skin on my upper face, including around my eyes, was burning more and more as the day went on, to the point of rawness. It was like I'd been standing in front of a particularly wicked blow torch. For too long. Which, if you are standing in front of a blow torch for one second, that would be too long. Make a note.

Those pretty little apple things? They are not apples.
I put some cream on my face and forgot it was there when my friend who knows all things plant-y came by and asked what was wrong with me. Squinty-eyed, reverse raccoon looking, I said, oh, I don't know...and she said, you've gotten into some manchineel (or, in Spanish, manzanilla). Spanish or English, it works the same
"Contact with the bark or leaves is very irritating to human skin and can result in severe dermatitis with blistering, swelling, and inflammation" pretty much sums it up. Thank you, National Parks Traveler, for a description I even more succinctly called Hideous Face. Okay, it wasn't that bad, but it felt that bad and for a bit, I wondered if I was going to go blind because of all the matter my eyes were producing in defense - the body is amazing, really - but a lot of face washing, plus using aloe (forget the cream, it felt better, which at the time was saying a lot, but the aloe felt great AND is healing the skin fast).

The thing is, I know about manchineel. I've warned people about it. I've sent tourists to the clinic who got into it. How did I not know I'd gotten too close or that that's what it was melting burning my face? One, I was doing some landscaping and tossing some dead limbs into 'some bush' and not thinking about what I was doing because I've done it dozens of times in that exact spot. Two, it was the next day that the irritation started and I didn't connect the incidents, which my plant-wise friend did immediately. Point is, I wasn't paying enough attention, then I treated it wrong before I treated it right (yes, I washed my face at first, but it stung so much I went to the cream, effectively sealing in the toxins).

So now you know what NOT to do if you stumble near the manchineel tree - and you don't have to be rubbing your face in it. As I was told, you can go years and not have any reaction and then the 'next time' have a full blown reaction, the same as with bee or hornet stings. Now I know too.

We've also had wonky internet connections, also known as Semana Santa, that time of year that Culebra is invaded with campers from the big island and relatives from everywhere. Easter = Semana Santa/Holy Week. Of course, it is also Passover, but that isn't a real big holiday here...

I have no idea what this means but I do notice it all starts in Puerto Rico and blurbles out from here. But then, everything does.
No doubt our air waves are filled to overflowing with the invisible reaching out to satellites and towers and whatever other kind of heebee jeebee voodoo gets us connected (see illustration above). Especially as I read somewhere that Puerto Rico has more cell phone use than than anywhere else in the world. I could back that up with facts but I'll just say, I believe it. The last two days I've pretty much given up any long term computer use and I'm probably pushing the envelope with this, since I started it two hours ago and am hitting the slow wall now.

I'll leave you with this.

 So far, there is no rafting up going on in my bay. It's early days though.

So long! See you next time!

Have a toxin-free Tuesday! Do something that tastes like TA DA!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Simple Sunday ~ Culebra

The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.  ~John Buchan

Friday, March 22, 2013

Free Range Friday ~ How Do You Say Pho?

In my endless quest to eat something different than we can get here, I was reminded of Pho Ga (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup). I probably ate this and other variations of pho a few times a week at one point of my life. There was this wonderful Vietnamese place a friend and I practically lived in; the food was delicious and cheap and the owners and staff embraced us and put up with my terrible attempts to actually say what I wanted to eat in Vietnamese. Languages other than English are not my strong point, to my eternal semi-shame. I don't have red hair or blue eyes either...but I digress. Again.

Just because this racoa looks so pretty in sunrise light
In reading about Pho Ga, I read Pho is your friend, not your foe, so don't pronounce it that way. Then the point was made that pho should be pronounced as if it is has question mark stuck on its o. Truthfully, I have no idea if that is correct, but I've already spent too much time pronouncing it like that. And now, so are you. Sorry about that. 

While looking for a fair use photo of pho? I came across this one. Mine! And found out a whole lot of unpleasant things about how google is presenting photos now. Another issue for another time. I'd share the day I posted this but it doesn't take you to the page (though it says it will). Pho you, Google. Of course, this means I've already done a post on Pho, probably Pho Ga and told you all my Kai stories! But can you have too much pho? No you cannot! And being reminded of a good man isn't so bad either. I'm pretty sure the other time didn't include charring the seasonings. I'm pretty sure. Oops. Forward!
Pho Ga is one of the best things to eat. Period. So I'm going to make it this weekend, with my new cache of herbs and a few things needed to buy (and yes, you can buy star anise on Culebra, one of those weird things...cloves? Not so sure about that). The part of this recipe I like the best is the charring of the spices and onion. Cooking trick I never knew about. How did that happen? What else is super awesome about making food that I don't know? Lots, I bet.
The other thing about this recipe that made me laugh was the call for sawtooth herb. I knew immediately that must mean racao, or Puerto Rican cilantro. Not because I was educated in the term, but because I've felt that sawtooth on far too many occasions to imagine it being anything else. For some reason, racao grows like mad in my yard, a good thing.

And how often do you get to use star anise? Or cardamom pods? Or play with fire directly in your food prep? Here is the recipe. I looked at a lot of them but this one seemed the most interesting and maybe the most close to those wonderful meals I'd share with Chris so long ago. On a happy memory carpet ride, I say I'd like the Pho Ga, please. Kai, our always server, holds his hands out, very far apart, and says, 'Very good. You are this close.' We laugh. We eat. It's good.

Lest you forget Culebra, even for a moment, here is a reminder.

Oh wait, that's Vieques!

Here you go! Around the bend from Melones.
Have a find your pho-zen Friday! Do something phobulous!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Pursuit of Purslane

If you are familiar with purslane, you'll know that the variety we have here is not quite like in other places, but that should not be a surprise. It is still edible and my chickens think it's the best treat in the universe. Usually, that's a good thing as a nice sized patch of it grows near the water in my yard. But with the drought (despite that lovely rain, we need more. Much more), the iguanas have also discovered it. For some reason the wild chickens leave it alone and I don't know why.

What I do know is if I take any more from my patch (I only take the leaves) they will be completely naked. However! I happen to know where a lot of it grows and occasionally take a walk to pluck a few dozen leaves. There are two varieties along the way, one smaller than what is in my yard and one much bigger. The chickens don't care, it's all manna* to them.

The green on the ground is the patch of purslane (she wrote alliteratively)
What I also know is that this is one of my favorite walks on Culebra. There's no room for more than two to walk comfortably and even that can be dicey with traffic on the curves (hear me warning you drivers who take those curves too fast and in the middle of the road?). And having headed out there early in the morning many times in a vehicle, here's a warning for walkers. Sunrise is blinding for the driver and you can barely be seen, if you are seen at all. Take note!

Here are some of the pieces and parts that wrap my heart up with invisible zip ties.

A look toward town.

Some fisherman didn't need all his bait. Why not toss it in to do some fish some good?

Splish splash

Mangroves in filtration mode. They cannot filter plastic bottles or bags though.

This rock was sitting on another rock. Thanks, whoever did that.

The one mangrove looks so snaky! The ones hanging down are not quite to the ground and were swaying in the breeze. It was a mangrove ballet.

The other night at Dinghy Dock we were trying to identify a piece of wood someone found. One person opined that it couldn't be mangrove because they didn't get that big. The rest of us all sang out in disharmonic chorus, 'Oh yes they do!' And yes. They do!
Purslane (and a bag of plastic trash, though I was far from collecting it all) stashed away, I headed home. The sun was beating down on my back and I was thinking of a friend who got sunburned the other day. I was thinking, MJ, you are an idiot, you don't have any sunscreen on and no proper shirt - yes, I had a top on - when a vehicle stopped with a friendly face behind the wheel, offering a ride. Thanks for that!

The chickens were thrilled. I am a purslane goddess. After feeding them, I was looking out in the bay and saw Samuel sailing in the briskness of the afternoon breeze.

Life is good
Dawn made a leap to an earlier hour yesterday. This morning, it was a pink red dawning, but looking at the radar I'm afraid the sailor's poem will go by the wayside. One can always hope!! Here is a wonderful explanation of that folk-loric bit, if you like knowing the backstory of certain sayings. How wonderful that people just randomly take the time to put these sorts of things out on the internet, for anyone cruising by to read.

Red sky at night, sailor's delight, red sky at morning, sailor's take warning.
*Purslane can be manna for you too. I know it's not Friday but in reading about it, I came across this recipe that sounds really good. Next time I go purslane gathering, some will be put aside for this salad. Maybe I'll have my own tomatoes by then too. Now to get some mint going...

Thanks to David and Debbie for a lovely pot of herbs to enjoy until their return next season - I'll add mint!. As much as I hate seeing our winter people return home, I'll admit that boxes of yumminess and pots of goodies they bring by make it a mini Christmas around here this time of year. I'll be celebrating until the last pinon nut is gone!

Have an (un)tarnished Thursday. Do something therapeutic.