Monday, May 25, 2015

Ii - Indian Figs!!

Look Familiar?
   Picture it – 1972, my right arm is extended, fingers curled under with thumb up and arched.  I’m wearing a pack that makes the one Reese Witherspoon wears in the movie “Wild” look like she snatched it from a preschooler with a penchant for cupcakes and bunnies.  Mine extends several inches above my head and weighs almost twice my 119 pounds.  Fortunately my dancer’s flexibility and leg strength allows me to maneuver my arms into the padded straps then rise to a standing position.  However, like Reese, I have to hunch over in order to maintain my balance.  This forces me to lift my chin in order to see where I’m going.  I feel like a turtle on two legs.   
   Michael, Jimmy and I are making our way down a long stretch of road somewhere on the south side of the Badlands.  We’re not exactly sure where we are and, as been our practice of late, the boys are hanging back a bit so drivers passing by initially see only me.  On this particular day, the South Dakota winds whip their way through Jackson County with such ferocity I can barely hold myself upright.  My long paisley printed, purple skirt keeps getting twisted around my ankles making it even more challenging for me to put one heavy hiking boot, in front of the other.
   Michael is yelling something at me, but the sound of the wind muffles his words.  As I turn around to see what he said, my muscles are no match for the huffing and puffing of Mother Nature and I am blown backwards by a surging gust.  Suddenly I find myself flat on my back, the tire-tread soles of my boots facing skyward while my overstuffed back pack serves to cushion the fall.  Evidently this is a comical sight, because now I can clearly hear both Michael and Jimmy laughing hysterically.  Of course neither of them walks over to help me.  Probably because the Women’s Liberation Movement is going strong and I’m usually thrilled when opportunities such as this one allow me to emulate leaders of The Movement.  What would Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan do?  With a one, two, three, I manage to roll over onto my hands and knees then wobble my way up to a semi- erect position.  I see blood dripping onto my white peasant blouse.  

“I’m bleeding!!”

   Thoughts of the Sisterhood are blown away with the dust and pebbles skittering past my feet and replaced with behavior more associated with a Disney Princess.  The boys rush over, Michael shoves my head back and uses his dirty, torn shirt to pinch my nose while Jimmy stands behind me pack-to-pack ensuring I don’t fall backwards again.  It is during this display of harried hustle and bustle when a long, black, shiny car pulls up next to us.

“Everything okay?”

“Yea, she just has a bloody nose.”

   As the three of us look over to acknowledge the driver we see he isn’t our usual pick up.  Those who have been giving us rides as we make our way across the country from West Coast to East are usually “middle America.”  Decent people who are more curious than anything, about a 6’2” Grizzly Adams doppelganger, a diminutive but real life Bilbo Baggins, (with a really long beard), and a Peggy Lipton wanna-be, on an adventure most of them of have only heard about and a few dared dream.  They ask us questions like; where’r  you from, where’r you going, so you don’t have tents, do you work, what do you do for money, so you just sold all your stuff and now you’re out seeing the country?  Their interest is genuine and help generous.  Of course there have been some who slow only enough to spit a luggy at us and yell something like “go home hippies!”  But those are few and far between.  Due to the lack of teeth in their heads we don’t take them too seriously.  What they do have are rifles on the gun racks of their trucks, spitting back is never an option.
  This driver is different.  He wears a dark suit and tie and appears to be in his forties.  Instead of a gun we see a briefcase on the seat of his car.  Because of this, not one of us thinks to ask him for a ride. 

“Get in the car.”

Well, that sounds scary.  Shit where did all my; I am woman hear me roar stuff go?  Michael, Jimmy and I don’t move.  Obviously he can’t rob us.  You can tell by looking at our tired, dirty and my now bloody face we don’t have any money or valuables on us.  Rape is out of the question.  Michael looks to be a big, mean, biker guy and some might discern Jimmy as shifty. Though he’s anything but.

“Get in!  You’re not supposed to be here.  If they catch you, you’ll be in trouble.”

This gets our attention.  Still we stand looking at him, heads cocked as though urging him, well go on.

“You’re on Lakota property!”

   Michael and Jimmy immediately opened the back door of the car, throw in our packs then push me in.  As I sit wedged between my two bulldogs the man asks how we ended up there. 

“Where?  We don’t even know where we are.”  Michael booms from the back seat. 
I’m amazed there’s room in the car for the three of us and all our stuff. 
“You’re on protected land.  You’re on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” replies the man.

  “I guess when our last ride dropped off us we walked on without knowing it.”  Michael sounds sheepish when he answers. 
   The man explains in a serious tone, he’s a federal attorney and has been in meetings over the last several days with the chiefs and elders of the Oglala Lakota tribe.  For three hippies to be found wandering around without permission could work out badly for us.  Especially during a time of unrest, which this is. 

“But we’re peaceful,” I murmur.

   “Doesn’t matter,” says Jimmy.  “The Oglala are one of the 7 tribes of the Lakota People that make up the Great Sioux Nation.  The Lakota have been reported to be among the most aggressive of Native American tribes due to their unifying with the Cheyenne and the Arapaho when they wiped out General Custer’s entire battalion.”

“That’s right, Battle of The Little Bighorn.”  Our driver clarifies from his position.  Jimmy went on.

“The Oglala Lakota are also known as The Teton, which means Prairie Dwellers or The Teton Sioux.  But some of their people reject the Sioux name since it is said it was given to them by their enemies the Chippewa.  Sioux means snake, so it can be considered a slur.  Because Native Americans have their own by-laws and are not required to adhere to state and federal laws, they can judge and sentence people as they see fit.”

“How do you know all that?”  Michael asked.

“I don’t know, I just do.”

Jimmy retreated back into his quiet space.  He hadn’t said more than four words in the last week, so this splurge of words tumbling out of his mouth and his intimate knowledge about the Lakota was downright shocking to Michael and me. 
   But now I was really scared.  When you realize how close to serious trouble you stood not one minute ago it brings you to a place of introspection and gratitude.  We rode in somber silence until we reached the end of the reservation, according to the attorney anyway.  I still couldn’t see any kind of boundary of where we were when the man picked us up and now.  It was all tall and short grasses amid wide open prairie land that make up this part of the Great Plains. 
   The man told us there was a small market and gas station about a mile or two up the right side of the fork in the road.  We climbed out, thanked him and watched as his big shiny car headed towards the left.  It was dusk and all I wanted to do was get to a bathroom where I could wash myself up and change my clothes.  As we approached the market Michael said he would buy some food and ask about a good place to camp for the night. 
   I emerged from the bathroom, in fresh jeans and shirt, legs shaved, (I had perfected the art of shaving my legs in the sinks of public bathrooms), smiling at Michael and Jimmy each carrying a grocery bag filled to the brim.  Michael had decided my bloody nose was a result of low iron and not enough food.  He bought all kinds of fruit, nuts, raw veggies, beans and beef jerky.  Jimmy had the beer, wine and water.   And since I had a tougher than usual day, M & M’s, candy bars as well as all the ingredients needed to make S’Mores!  I was ecstatic and realized I was starving.  The clerk inside told them there was a safe place to camp another mile.
   We set up camp, if you can call it that, no tents, just ground cover sheeting, our bags, blankets and bug spray.  Jimmy built a small campfire and I sorted through the groceries to assemble dinner.  Most evenings I was less Betty Friedan and more Betty Crocker.  I pulled something from Michael’s bag I had never seen before. 

“What’s this?’

“Oh that’s an Indian Fig!  At least that’s what the lady at the market told me.  She said it would be good for you.   Have lots of vitamin C, fiber and calcium.  There’s jerky for your iron deficiency.”

“Who said I’m iron deficient?”

“I did.”

“Well I’m not.”

“Who had the bloody nose today?”

“They also have lots of potassium in ‘em.  You need that too Deborah.”  Jimmy chimes in with yet another gemstone of information, causing me and Michael to desist in our verbal tennis match.

“How do I eat this?”

“Ask Einstein, I’m sure he knows,” remarked Michael.

Jimmy did know how to eat the Indian Fig, also known as Prickly Pear, Cactus Fruit or Tuna.  Pulling out his hunter’s knife, he began cutting away the skin, explaining the sharp spines, are removed before they reach the market. 

Indian Figs come from a specific type of cactus with flowers that come in white, yellow or red.  They begin blooming in early May, so this is their season.”   Jimmy continued expounding his knowledge of this rare find.
“It can be used to make jams or jellies.  In Mexico it’s used to prepare Colonche an alcoholic drink.   Indian Figs are best eaten chilled but since we don’t have access to refrigeration we’ll have to make do. Here, try it,” Jimmy instructed, as he held a small cut of the magenta morsel on the point of his knife. 

   Cautiously I plucked the piece from its utensil and put it in my mouth.  The texture was soft and there were lots of small seeds inside.  But the taste . . . the taste was wonderful!   Like a juicy watermelon hooked up with a piece of Bazooka bubblegum! 

“Wow!  I like this!  What do I do with the seeds?”  I garbled with my mouth full of them.

“You can swallow ‘em or just spit ‘em out.”  Jim replied as he began slicing up a second one for himself.

I liked Indian Figs then and I like them now.  They can be hard to find.  Your best bet is going to a market offering a rich selection of ethnic produce.  When I do happen upon some of these delightful, albeit unusual, treasures I buy them up.  You don’t have to remove the skin to eat; you can simply cut the fruit in half and use a spoon to scoop out the meat, kind of like a grapefruit.  I also like to peel them and throw one into my smoothie.  Another great idea would be to cook it down or juice it then use as an ingredient in vinaigrette.  
I can't take credit for this beautiful bottle of Indian Fig concentrate.  But I DO plan on adding some to my smoothie tomorrow morning.

Recipe for Indian Fig concentrate:
6-8 Indian Figs
1-2 cups Baker’s sugar, (super fine)
1)      Remove skins from figs by using a sharp knife and making one incision along the length of the fruit.  Peel back the skin and discard or save for your compost pile.  Do this for each fig.
2)      Cut the figs into quarters and place in a large saucepot
3)      Add water to the pot, enough to cover the figs
4)      Place on stove top over medium-low heat
5)      Add 1 cup of the sugar and allow mixture to simmer for about 30 minutes.  Taste about halfway through the cooking process, adding more sugar if you like.
6)      Allow mixture to cook down until it thickens, about the consistency of real maple syrup, not the fake really thick syrup some of us like.
7)      Allow mixture to cool – then store, covered in the refrigerator.
Use this mixture to taste, in a home-made vinaigrette, your smoothie or as an ingredient in a sassy Margarita!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hh - Halibut & Hyssop, But Not Together, (but I guess you could)

Swwwish ~ Zooom~Aaahhhh.  Those are the sounds of my recent blowing around from Vegas to Sacramento , Ashland Oregon to Carson City, San Diego and back again.  I’ve been doing a bit of traveling and have lots of food fodder to share.  So I’ll get right to it.
Sacramento was our first stop, (I was traveling with my youngest daughter), to pick up my mother, sister and nieces.  My eldest niece, a kindred spirit, as she is truly a mini-me of me, had taken the time to prepare a simple yet flavorful cream of mushroom soup upon our arrival.  Of course there was ample wine as mother, my mini-me and I enjoy our squeezed and fermented grapes, then we were off to bed.

We rose very early the next morning embarking upon our “road trip” to Ashland.  The five hour drive provided us with all kinds of girl talk, country music, (they allowed me ONE song from the sixties), and stunning topography that went from green to greener and more lush.  Bathroom stops included healthy snacks comprised of beef jerky, animal crackers and chocolate milk.  By our final stop we began to complain about the chill in the air as we rummaged the car in search of sweaters and jackets.  Upon exiting the little market with more snacks, we chatted it up with some very friendly gentlemen, (that always happens when my sister and I go out with our daughters), warning us about the excitable highway patrol officers who are drawn to cars with California license plates.  When they saw us wrap our sweaters and jackets tighter around ourselves, they chuckled.  One of the men told us we would only get colder, as we headed further north, “up into the clouds.”  He was right. 
Our 4:30 a.m. wake up time was worth it.  We arrived at the Shakespeare box office just in time for our 11:30 matinee.  Oh, opps, wait ~ Note; Mother and I are notorious for making little mistakes such as scheduling limos to pick us up 24-hours prior to when we actually need to be picked up.  Or, we find ourselves standing at someone’s door for a garden party, with our thoughtfully prepared dish for the potluck, only to be told by our baffled hostess, the party is tomorrow.  In our efforts to do better, we’ve started emailing one to ensure our flights are synchronized.  And yet, to our dismay, we recently discovered while our flights arrived within minutes of each other we were days apart.  She a week too early, me a week too late.  Anyway, this day was one such mistake; the matinee didn’t start until 1:30.  Sharon and my nieces immediately began grumbling about losing a good two hours of beauty sleep.  As if they needed it!
No worries, a marvelous aromatic scent emitting from the restaurant next door, tickled our noses and activated our salivary glands.  We entered; no wait of course, ordered lunch and officially began our vacation with glasses of wine and Prosecco.  Lunch was followed by a bit of shopping, since we still had time before the show.  We were all shocked and surprised about the no sales tax thing in Oregon.  But no one more than I, as I watched my sister and nieces try on and purchase my favourite style of sandal, Birkenstocks.  They must have caught the Hippy-Dippy fever as we descended that last mountain into downtown Ashland.  I don’t recall anyone getting that excited about Berkies when I wore them back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s! 
Amid mild rain storms, backstage tours and theater productions there were two amazing meals.  The first was at The Loft, the second at Alchemy.  For me the meal at The Loft was ahmaazing. 

Dining with others whose culinary knowledge and experiences range from actually cooking, to watching Food Network to well . . . just eating, always serves to heighten my enthusiasm for a meal.  My youngest niece had been told by one of her co-workers, if she had a chance, to order charcuterie.  After explaining charcuterie is a platter of selected meats and pork specialties, such as pates, rillettes and galantines with perhaps a few cornichons or olives and always bread, my table-mates agreed to make that our choice of shared appetizer.  It was fabulous.   For dinner Alicia ordered a comforting, rainy-day macaroni and cheese, my daughter and eldest niece shared a hearty bowl of bouillabaisse, mother ordered duck nestled on a bed of polenta.  The polenta, I’m afraid was the best part.  My sister and I shared the Alaskan Halibut.  And not just because Halibut begins with Hh, my letter for this week’s Blog, but the server’s description was so good.  When the platter was set before us, our generous portion of this northern Pacific flatfish relative was adorned with fresh morels, asparagus and carrots.  All drizzled with a champagne beurre noisette.  The flavor was clean yet rich.  I loved it! 

To say Halibut can be included in my alpha-food journey is not the stretch you may think it is.  Though we have access to halibut year round, according to my research, halibut fishing season begins in May for Oregon and Washington State.  This means we get the best fresh caught from late spring to early summer.    A friend of mine who is a regular traveling fisherman claimsAugust is the month when halibut is most abundant.  He says the cost of fresh caught in the stores should be lower than as well.  Since August is part of summer,  I’m going with my research and when my friend snaps on his fishing vest and slings his pole over his shoulder. 

On to Carson City for a week of work.  Nothing terribly exciting about my food there.  My work peers and I usually head for the nearest grocery store upon arrival so we can stock the mini-fridge in our hotel rooms.  I purchased some hummus along with crudités, cheese wine and water, but that’s it for Carson.
I arrived back at McCarran long enough to walk my oversized suitcase out to my associate’s car then turn right back around to get on another flight for San Diego.  My trip to Mission Beach was for a Dragon Boat race with a group of women who can out-paddle and out-sweat any co-ed team.  And that is just what we did!  Three heats later, against mixed teams, since they had cancelled the women’s only event due to lack of sign-ups, and beating our own best time, we were due for a party.  And party we did!  With plenty of beer, spicy poke fish tacos, fresh, bright ceviche and individual team member recognition.  
It was Sunday morning when my team/roommate and I went in search of a good cup of coffee.  Just around the corner of our hotel we found ourselves in Old Town amid a huge Cinco de Mayo celebration.  No Starbucks, Peet’s or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, just good old coffee/ice cream shops, a torrent of Mexican restaurants, clothing and shoe vendors and a marvelous array of hyped-up-lowered vintage American cars.  Still there were plenty of homes not converted into commercial venues.  Instead, they had weathered patio furniture, obviously still in use, decorative clay pottery littered about and a near forest of Hibiscus, Hydrangeas and Bougainvillea.  But one little pueblo like house stood out.  This homeowner was a real gardener.   Though still somewhat unruly the garden displayed an abundance of edibles.  Fruit trees, citrus trees, tomatoes and herbs.  Tons of herbs, most I recognized immediately as my friend tested my herbology knowledge.  One herb stumped me.  But only for a moment; it was hyssop.  It took me a minute to call out its name as I scrutinized the mint scented, tarragon shaped leaves and tall spindly stems with small blueish-purple flowers at the top.  The plant didn’t seem to be in full bloom yet, but once I reached my hand through the black, rod iron fencing, to pluck and smell the herb, that licorice scented flowers were the give-a-way. 
I have only had the pleasure of growing hyssop once, since I don’t ever see it at our local nurseries.  
Odd, as hyssop would do well here Vegas.  Drought and deer tolerant, we don’t have deer but certainly heat.  And it draws butterflies and hummingbirds.   When I harvested my hyssop I used it every chance I could.  Adding it to salads, atop brie cheese and infused in my ice teas, and cooked carrots.  I used to eat my raw carrots dipped in Ranch dressing and the cooked carrots in a bath of butter, cumin and marmalade.  Later, making healthier choices I began dipping my raw carrots in hummus and figuring my marmalade glazed carrots carried too much sugar I thought the culinary hyssop might be a nice alternative.  I was right.  The hyssop gave a unique and real Peter Rabbit herbaceousness to my side dish. 
Hyssop is an herb that goes way back.  There are several mentions of it in the Bible from Moses to John the Baptist.  The ancient Greeks boiled hyssop with rue, (another herb also known as “herb of grace”), and honey, then use the concoction as a cough remedy.   Here’s my hyssop concoction:
1 lb of baby carrots           ½ cup vegetable stock       salt and pepper to taste
1 Tblsp orange marmalade (this is far less than I used to use)
1 Tblsp unsalted butter     1 tsp finely chopped culinary hyssop leaves – save flowers for garnish

1)      In medium saucepot, combine carrots, stock, marmalade and butter.  Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat.
2)      Cook until carrots have softened a little but still have some snap and liquid has thickened, about 8-12 minutes
3)      Remove from heat and pour into serving bowl.  Toss with chopped hyssop leaves and season to taste with salt and pepper. 
4)      Garnish with hyssop flowers and serve immediately

                                                                                     Makes 2-3 servings

I couldn't help myself, I added currants to this one.