Dreamy's Delights

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Accidental Alchemist

I was reading this post from my friend Cat and loved it. I figured since I didn’t really cook anything worth writing about tonight I would share Cat’s post. I’ve finally posted enough of her stuff that I even added a tag just for her lol. There’s beautiful pictures from the Caribbean including some of food. Enjoy!


Dinner May Be Alchemy, But Fishing It Up Is Magic

Posted on August 21, 2012 by


Frigate bird over St. Croix seasThe bellwether.

That’s a Magnificent Frigate Bird, commonly seen soaring effortlessly over the seas and reefs surrounding St. Croix, and it’s magnificent for more than one reason.  Its enormous, tilted wingspan (over 6 feet in most instances) allows it to soar for hours, even days, without touching land.  (The only other bird known to do this is the Common Swift). Frigate birds snatch flying fish as they jump — a stunt I’d pay good cash to see, considering how wicked fast those slippery little freaks zip inches over the waves  — and pick off smaller fish that come close to the surface without even wetting their feathers.  They’re also thugs to other birds, harassing them until the victim drops their dinner. Yes, even birds push each other around for their lunch money.

But aside from their superb aerialism and obvious antisocial personality disorder, frigate birds are also incredibly useful.  I’ve learned that when an offshore fisherman sees one or two of these guys circling an area, that means that there’s almost certainly some serious sportfishing action going on right there, right now.

Unbelievably Useful Husband (hereafter, “UUH”) and I found this out when we booked a fishing charter for our next-to-last day in the little house on the island.  We’ve gone sportfishing before in Hawaii, where UUH solidified his reputation as “Tailfisher.”  For some unknown reason, every time he actually caught a fish, it wasn’t in the standard operational mode.  You know, fish bites hook, hook gets stuck in fish’s mouth, guy reels fish in face-first.  Nope, not nearly interesting enough for UUH.

For him the fish would evade the hook, but somehow would get the line wrapped around its tail, so UUH would drag it in backwards in a comic reversal of the usual process.  How he managed this multiple times was one of those mysteries that deserved further investigation, and we were eager to see if he could replicate it in the Caribbean. So friends of ours found the Island Girl II of St. Croix Deep Blue Charters, a superb custom 45-foot Hatteras that works off the Christiansted area of St. Croix, and we began the experiment.

The Island Girl II is run by a husband and wife team  — Ben, the Captain, and Megan, the First Mate. (Island Girl I, we discovered, was crushed and sunk by a yacht during Hurricane Hugo.)  After the usual confused period where the charterees load on about six times more beer and food than they need, which turns out to be exactly the right amount, we were off into the Caribbean Sea.

The Island Girl II in full display is an impressive sight. The multiple rods and lines are spread out in perfect geometries, interconnected in complex but aesthetically beautiful ways with connectors and hooks and even rubber bands.  The reels are polished, golden, wickedly functional works of art in themselves.  As the boat moves farther out, the baited lines take flight, extending and then disappearing into the vanishing point as the wake surges behind.  We had a pretty calm sea that day, with a warm sun and few clouds, so it was tough not to doze off.

One thing I did notice in my sun-induced stupor, though, was the constant communication between the captain and first mate.  They were constantly scanning the skies — looking for frigate birds like our lead player.  Frigate birds are great bellwethers; they’re the pathfinders to what you want.  Fishermen know that they tend to circle over groups of small fish hovering near the surface, hoping to evade larger fish hunting them.  When you see a few frigate birds in one place, you know that the party’s on down there.  First Mate Megan carefully tracked and circled the boat right at the birds that were spotted, as Captain Ben ensured that the bait was correct for what we were after.

It didn’t take long after that before there was a loud BZING!, one of the reels began buzzing frantically, suddenly there was great deal of frenzied activity, and apparently the fight was on.  UUH was in the chair.  There appears to be a great deal of physical work involved, and as I try to avoid that as much as possible, I was quite happy to simply observe the process. There’s a constant chatter of “ease up,” “let him out a bit,” “pull him in,” “he’s running, he’s running,” and the whole event has the adrenaline of a Top Gun dogfight.  This fish didn’t breach the water much, but as the churning water kept coming closer and closer to the boat the tension became so excruciating everybody watching had to have another beer.



One brief but brutal side-of-the-boat struggle later (a word of advice — don’t get into a fight with Captain Ben, especially if he has a big stick) the fish was eventually brought aboard.  It was a mahi-mahi, which folks also call a dolphin. They’d been hunting the little fish that the frigate birds had spotted.  In the water, they are even more gloriously incandescent than they are on land, though considerably less delicious.

The end of an era.

It was a victory for us, but sadly, UUH’s unbroken record as “Tailfisher” has now been broken. It cannot be disputed that the hook is actually in the fish’s mouth.

It didn’t take long before there was another BZING, another challenge accepted, and our friend Denise was fighting a fish to the boat.  These guys are no slouches and it takes a while, but eventually we had another dolphin on board. Two big, beautiful mahis later, we returned to dock.  If you’ve caught fish, tradition demands that you put a flag up indicating what you’re bringing home.

Dolphin flag — a successful mission!


Captain Ben was kind enough to fillet them for us so we’d have dinner that night.  The scraps he produced during the precise, exacting filleting process (this guy could teach knife technique to surgeons) he threw to a group of tarpon fish loitering near the boat.  They obviously knew the routine:  fishing boat coming in = dinnertime.  Tarpons are pretty much useless except for entertainment; they’re big but bony and unpleasant-tasting, so no one eats them, but my God can they put on a floor show.  Several bars on the Christiansted harbor boardwalk have tarpon gangs in the water that hang out waiting for scraps, and it’s nearly irresistible not to feed them something simply for the amusement value. Kids are transfixed. Hell, I was transfixed. We took about fifty pictures of the tarpons just fighting over mahi scraps because . . . because . . . well, because. It was the sun, or the beer, or something.  Anyhow, look at these fish! The expedition was fantastic, and the dinner was even better. The expertly filleted steaks were probably the best meal we had on the island.A few days before while grocery shopping, I’d found irresistible a bottle of Tamarindo Bay Caribbean steak sauce and bought it on the spot without knowing exactly what I’d do with it. The answer was obvious the minute we got home with two chunky, perfect mahi steaks.  A few minutes marinading in the sweet but tangy, unmistakeably Caribbean sauce — this stuff would be great on anything up to and including truck tires — and they were ready for the grill.

On the advice of a brief website search (how on earth did I ever do anything before the Interwebs?), I put the steaks on a piece of foil and then directly on the little house’s big Weber grill on the porch.  The foil makes it easier to flip the steaks without sticking and breaking.  About three minutes a side and they were ready. A simple side salad was all that was needed.

It was the perfect farewell meal to St. Croix.  Our thanks to Captain Ben and First Mate Megan of the Island Girl II, our friends Keith and Denise Murphy, the mahis that graciously provided our dinner, and especially to our bellwethers, the Magnificent Frigate Birds that helped it all happen.

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Another Accidental Alchemist Post

Scary Food

Posted on June 30, 2012 by

So what’s scarier?

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

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

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

Enter me, of course.

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

They look like grenades for a reason.

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

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

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

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

Enjoy every bit of it.

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

Now, you simmer.

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

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 5 cups sugar

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

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Accidental Alchemy (A Friend’s Blog)

I’ve mentioned my friend Cat a couple of times in other posts. I decided that I wanted to give her a better introduction. Here is her post that talks about herself.

It all started with a sausage.

(No, no, that’s quite all right, I’ll wait.)

I’d finally had enough of the hot dog texture and chemical taste of what was sold as “Polish sausage” in the supermarkets.  So, as a transplanted Midwesterner, I decided to make my own.  Moreover, as a former office-dwelling well-certified paper-pusher, I figured I had more than enough research and self-teaching skills to pull this one project off with aplomb.

What I hadn’t figured into my smug equation is that sausage-making, like all artisan skills, requires more than research.  It also requires insignificant details like few interruptions, physical dexterity, organization, judgment, and most of all experience.  Now while I’ve known that I have never been a particularly “crafty” person — the only thing I can reliably do with scissors is run with them — that didn’t slow me down a bit.  I’ll leave you here for a moment to imagine my first attempt at grinding, mixing, and stuffing my first white kielbasa.  Trust me, hubris has ugly results when a lot of pig fat is involved.

For some reason, though, I didn’t give up with the sausage-making after the first splattered disaster.  Nor did I give it all up after my first attempt at wheat bread, which was nicknamed “The Egyptian Brick” by my thoughtful family. (Kid experimentally hefts the weirdly flattened, strangely heavy tablet off the rack, taps it on the counter for a disturbingly hollow ‘tonk’ sound, and says, “Didn’t Charlton Heston make this in ‘The Ten Commandments?’”)


Yet at about the same time, a container garden full of herbs began taking over the largely concrete back yard, the gigantic prickly-pear cactus suddenly presented itself as something other than a hostile nuisance, and my browser history started filling up with gardening, herbalism, and food-preservation site visits.

While I can’t completely explain what happened, I think I started asking, “What can I do with this?”  That’s the basic question of any alchemy:  discovering the technique of transformation, from one thing to another.  Over a few years, “what can I do with this” has resulted in more than just sausage-making; the question has become jams, jellies, syrups, bacon, dried and tinctured and infused herbs, canned and frozen vegetables and fruits of all sorts, smoked meats of all types, lemonade and orange juice and now soap.  What’s best about this kind of alchemy is that it doesn’t require crucibles or beakers or mystical reagents (not to mention Latin, long robes and a pointed hat).  It can be accomplished in your pajamas with as little as a single herb pot on a windowsill, a single trip to a farmer’s market or grocery store, a pot or two, a spritz of creativity and a dollop of determination and a couple hours here and there.  That’s all that’s necessary to become an accidental alchemist.

I thought I’d post some of my experiments on this blog.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll note that while it all began with a sausage, it hasn’t ended with one.  While I’ve gotten really close a few times, the kielbasa still isn’t perfect. Check off hunter’s sausage, italians both sweet and hot, breakfast, chorizo, and bratwurst.  The keilbasa still isn’t perfect, though. It might never be, because I’m trying to recover a taste memory that might have faded into the past.

It comforts me that the medieval alchemists never pulled off turning lead into gold, either.

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