Friday, October 24, 2014

Pawpaws and Persimmons: Two More Reasons to Love Autumn in Missouri

October is the best month in Missouri, it really is. I claim all 31 days as my “birth month.” I love the way October takes us from the last bits of summer and through the most brilliant parts of “red” autumn. Low humidity and bright blue skies return, and it’s a pleasure to be outside again.

This seemed to be a bumper year for both pawpaws and persimmons, two luscious tree fruits native to the eastern United States. This year, to preserve and extend the feast, I processed the fruits and froze the pulp in measured quantities.

With both fruits, it’s the pulp you want, and not so much “pieces.” Both are at their best when super ripe and soft. Persimmon flesh turns into jam. Pawpaws turn into custard.

What will I do with my treasures?

Ice cream is my current favorite application. It’s pretty doggone larapin to serve samples of pawpaw ice cream and persimmon ice cream together, two dabs nestled side by side, one greenish yellow, the other pale orange. They compliment each other beautifully.

Some people put persimmons into a quick bread, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Quick bread is how you disguise zucchini. No thanks; it was some work to remove the seeds from the pulp, and I don’t want to do anything to hide the exquisite flavor.

Indeed, compared to the domesticated persimmons you can buy at the grocery store (they’re in season, now—you should try them!), the wild persimmons are definitely more highly flavored.

There are plenty of recipes on the Internet for pawpaws and persimmons, but I like to stick to simple concoctions that put the fruit first. Like persimmon jam, or whipped cream with persimmon pulp swirled through it.

I can’t believe I haven’t done a post on persimmons and pawpaws yet, here on the Opulent Opossum, but there you go. Do you have a favorite recipe for these treasures? I hope you’ll share!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Black Walnut Wheat by Piney River Brewing Company

Piney River Brewing Company, based in Bucyrus, Missouri, has invented a beer that I especially admire: their Black Walnut Wheat. It’s delicious!

Since there’s nothing not to like about it, let’s go directly to why we love it!

Because we love black walnuts! It’s Missouri’s official state tree nut. Our state is the top producer of black walnuts in the world, and we like them, and we’re proud of them.

I’ve blogged about black walnuts before—shown their progress as they mature; told you about the delicious pickled black walnuts produced by Barnacle Farms in Mary’s Home, Missouri; even shown you pictures of a variety of critters drinking the late-January sap of the walnut tree in our backyard.

I think everyone should have a big black walnut tree in their backyard!

And we can’t have our lebkuchen or our billy goat Christmas cookies without black walnuts!

Since I’m so proud of Missouri’s black walnuts, when I first saw this beer on tap at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, I had to give it a try: Black walnut beer, really?

And there’s something to that local pride, isn’t there. It’s September, and it’s that time of year when the Hammons company, based in Stockton, Missouri, establishes black walnut hulling stations around the state. This is a distinctly Missouri thing, which the Piney River beer celebrates on its label.

The deal is, black walnuts are harvested by hand, by anyone. Whether you’re collecting them for yourself or selling them to Hammons, the company makes it easy for you. It’s a messy, involved process to hull them (that is, remove the sloppy, black-staining green or black outer part), which is the first step in getting to the nutmeats.

So people bring buckets, bags, and pickup trucks full of black walnuts to these processing stations, where Hammons hulls them using really cool-looking machines. (It’s great fun to watch!) At the time of processing, you can either sell your bounty to Hammons, or if you want to take your walnuts home and try to bust them open and pick out the nutmeats yourself, you just pay them for the processing.

If you’re interested in harvesting and cracking your own nuts, read Hammons’s webpage about how to do it. Once you’ve tried it yourself, you’ll understand why black walnuts cost so much at the store.

Anyway—the limited seasonality, the gathering of people it causes, the promise of all those good Christmas cookies, and the idea of genuine riches growing on the trees without any help from you, besides picking it up after it’s fallen, plus the crispness and blue skies of early fall, all makes black walnut harvest seem like a celebration.

And that’s what I get from the fact that this beer exists: Someone else feels this same way. Right on, Piney River Brewing Company!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Piney River Brewery: An Excursion!

We had a serious amount of fun this summer! We did not do a great deal of traveling, but in late August, we did spend a weekend in the Ozarks—as in, more deeply in the Ozarks. (Jefferson City and Columbia are technically “Ozark Border”—we have a taste of it, but it’s not as pure as when you go down, say, to the piney woods of Shannon County!)

We started that weekend on a celebratory note by visiting Piney River Brewing Company in Bucyrus, Missouri, Saturday afternoon, August 23. (It was interesting that not a month before, we had visited Bucyrus, Ohio, which the Bucyrus in Missouri is named for!)

Bucyrus, Missouri, is not at all a big town. It’s not even a “four corners”; it’s more of a “wide spot in the road” just east of Houston, Missouri (the seat of Texas County and the hometown of Emmett Kelly, the famous “Weary Willy” clown). And the Piney River “BARn” taproom isn’t exactly easy to find! If you’re interested in visiting Piney River Brewing like us, make sure you know the hours they’re open (only weekends at this point), and where you’re going before you get to Bucyrus. Why? Because you may have trouble getting an Internet signal in that area. Don’t depend on your “device”!

So I’m warning you: Check your Google map way before you get close, or you’ll be stopping at the tiny Bucyrus, Missouri, post office, asking for directions. (By the way, I’d like to thank the lady there that Saturday, who was kind enough to offer us what directions she knew. You big city people, you don’t know how nice people can be until you ask for, well, any kind of help, in a small town.)

More on the drive in a little bit. Let’s get to the fun part, the brewery! Check out Piney River Brewing’s website, okay? Then, you’ll want to friend them on Facebook, so you poor cusses who don’t live in their distribution area can find out when their products are finally available near you. I’m sure it’ll soon be available in St. Louis and Kansas City, but for now, hmmph. It’s pretty much exclusive to the Ozarks the beers celebrate.

Since you can perfectly well visit their website on your own, you can see for yourself how they won gold in the 2014 World Beer Cup for their Float Trip Ale, and gold in 2013 for their Old Tom Porter at the Great American Beer Festival. Pretty good for a brewery that started in 2010!

I won’t go into their beers too much, except to say “fresh and delicious!” and Hooray! Their beers, the names of their beers, and their lovely designs celebrate the Ozarks, including its natural and human heritage. (I hope they’re paying their designer well, because her designs contribute greatly to the joy of their beers.) I love it that their beers celebrate raccoons and river eddies, Missouri mules, float trips, and hot dates down on the river.

(Someday, maybe they’ll see fit to make a brew after North America's one and only native marsupial! Dear Piney River people: May I humbly submit--the “Opulent Opossum Stout”??)

The “BARn” is a renovated seventy-year-old barn that’s been made into a “nanobrewery” on the ground floor, with a spacious taproom in the second-story loft, along with a deck with a beautiful view of . . . well . . .

This is really out in the boonies, folks!

Here’s a little slideshow of our visit there.

Not knowing when they opened, we were early and waited outside while the band (it was bluegrass, y’all, and they were good!) moved their instruments and equipment into the BARn.

Though we were the first ones there, many other folks showed up, everyone driving on gravel roads to get there. It must be gratifying to have established something that people will go far out of their way to get to!

It was a regular little crowd in there! For those of you who are interested in all the particulars, here’s the details about what was on tap that day:

They really made that barn into something remarkable. You know it’s impressive when even the lavatories stay with the down-home theme.

But seriously, folks, be prepared for the drive. That photo at the top of this post was of Highway ZZ, the last stretch of paved road before you reach gravel Walnut Grove Drive, which the brewery is at the end of:

Fortunately, we arrived just as one of the Piney River guys was setting up their sign. It was encouraging we were on the right path!

We got the sampler tray, which had seven beers and (thankfully) a printed list of the beers we were tasting. I hadn’t tried their Sweet Potato Ale before (I’m usually skeptical of “flavored” beers, as they are usually too overdone and cloying), and I admired its subtlety. The Bronzeback Pale Ale (named for Missouri’s celebrated smallmouth bass) seemed especially delicious, though—maybe because its refreshing brightness complemented the heat of that weekend. And the hot, dusty road we took to get there!

(A digression: Beer and wine tastings forever remind me of the “France” episode of Absolutely Fabulous: “This is the one! . . . This is the one!”) Ahem. Oh, well. It wasn’t like that at all, but I think of it, and it cracks me up.

Finally, I should mention that the Piney River Brewery is indeed located near the Little Piney River. As you drive on Highway 17 from Houston to Bucyrus, you drive over the Big Piney River at Dog’s Bluff Public Fishing Access. All of it is very near the brewery. Isn’t it pretty?

Dog’s Bluff is a beautiful spot to have a picnic, or go swimming or wading. This scenery is inspiring, to anyone in need of rejuvenation. No wonder they make such inspired beers in this area!

Now, don’t you want to take a little drive, through hills and hollers, to the bustling metropolis of Bucyrus, Missouri? Now that we’ve been to the Piney River “BARn,” we can recommend it!

Note: Thanks to Sue, for letting me use so many of her excellent photos. All the ones in this post that look good are from her!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Other Life

For those of you who are my friends and family, you may be interested in the links I'm providing in this post. I keep my work life separate from my blog, and from everything else personal, but for those of you who have missed me (and may miss my posts again, the next time I get all busy with work), if you want to see more of what I've been "up to," then check out the online field guide of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

When I started working on this project, the MDC folks asked me if I wanted to be identified publicly as a "field guide maven," and I said no. I'm an editor, right? I'm not a "writer"!! (Okay, I guess I am, now, aren't I.) And I certainly don't want my sad-looking mugshot next to anything on this online field guide. It's all about the plants and animals! But my friends, and family--if you ever want to know what I'm "up to," look at this site.

(Muskrat photo by Susan Ferber.)

It's basically 10 field guides in one: aquatic invertebrates, insects, butterflies and moths, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, mushrooms, wildflowers and nonwoody plants, and trees/shrubs/woody vines. You can search on it via an alphabetical browse menu, or you can do an "advanced search" that allows you to narrow search results using key identifying characteristics (such as color, habitat, etc.).

This summer, I've been particularly busy fulfilling entries on the wildflowers and other nonwoody plants. (It's still going to be a while before I post a bunch of grasses and ferns--surely you can see why those present special problems for writing a guide for nonscientific readers.) Here's a link to the "browse" page for the wildflowers. It's an alphabetical listing; just scroll down, then click on the next page, etc. There's close to 300 species entries for this group, with more a-comin'.

Also, in the browse menus, when a plant or animal strikes your fancy, click on that image to see the complete entry for that species. Here, for example, is a recent entry I did, for Giant Ragweed. You know this plant; you've seen it a million times. But have you really seen it? Part of the satisfaction of creating this field guide is in thinking, really thinking, about some of the most minute aspects of these organisms. What sets it apart from others of its kind? Why should anyone care about it? Why does it possess its unique characteristics?

I love it when I can include information that is particular to Missouri, the Ozarks, the tallgrass prairie. I guess because of my own local pride. Like how the word "cooter" came from Africa and then became a verb in Ozark dialect. And every time I write about a prairie wildflower, I think of how they must have cheered settlers as they headed west into such strange, treeless terrain.

It's especially been fascinating to include "human connections" and "ecosystem connections" for each species. What has amazed me is how nearly every single species in the state, whether it's a weird mushroom, or a nondescript rodent, a ubiquitous roadside wildflower, or even a minnow, a wicked-looking insect that hides under rocks in a stream, or a type of insect that's so damn common you don't give a second thought to it, has an interest on a human level and on the level of its relationship to nature. That's just incredibly cool, I think.

Honestly--sometimes the hardest thing about this project is to keep from writing too much. There's no end to the fascination in the natural world.

Anyway--enough of "tooting my own horn." But I did want to let y'all know that I haven't exactly been absent from the Internets--just from my blog. If you ever miss me (you know who you are!), check out the MDC field guide, where you'll find out what I've been doing in "my other life."

I'm Back! (And I Never Even Went Anywhere.)

Hi, folks! It's been a while since I posted, but hey: It's been a fun summer, and life is good! It's hard to believe school has started already, Labor Day is passed, and the stores are putting out their Christmas sales stuff.

I have soooo much to write about, to tell you about, and pictures to show you. But as usual: As soon as I sit down at my computer, I feel I should be working instead of farting around, blogging. Maybe I just need to "chunk down," as it were . . . offer you shorter snippets.

That's what the Internet cognoscenti say is the best way to "hook" people, anyway.

So: Keep your eyes open for new posts. Because it's way past time for me to be telling you about my summer!


Thursday, May 8, 2014

New Curry Class!

Hello, my friends! Remember that delicious Aloo Keema recipe I posted in January? And remember how you wanted to learn how to make such a tasty (and actually, pretty easy) dish? Well, here’s your chance to learn some of the secrets of one of the world’s great cuisines!

That Aloo Keema recipe, as I told you, basically came from Mrs. Sahar Khan, of Jefferson City’s SK Kitchen Store. She hosts occasional cooking classes, which is how I got her recipe.

Well, I just found out she’s hosting another class! It’s one night only! Put it on your calendar! There is limited space available, and Sahar is signing up people right now.

A lot of the “mystery” of South Asian cuisine is in the technique, and she shows you: How hot should the oil be before you add the spices? Is there a faster way to grate ginger? When has the masala cooked enough? (What is a masala, anyway?)

Also, in case you’re nervous about any kind of cultural divide, relax! Sahar is gracious and very welcoming, and her enthusiasm is contagious!

Here’s the info you need to sign up:

Place: SK Kitchen Store, 1709 Missouri Blvd. (Schnucks Plaza), Jefferson City
Date: Friday, May 30, 2014
Time: Arrive between 5:30 and no later than 6:00 p.m.; demo starts at 6:00 and will probably last until 8:00. (See explanation below.)
RSVP: Please call and sign up (they want to make sure there’s enough food, recipes, and seating for everyone): Mrs. Sahar Khan, 816-210-1097.
Cost: $40 per person.

Sahar says we’ll be making a dinner entrĂ©e this time—a meat-and-vegetable curry. She didn’t tell me details, but I’m sure it will be delicious. (Even the aroma will be enough to make you flip!)

The cooking demo will start right at 6:00, but you’ll want to arrive early to meet Sahar and the others in the class, see the ingredients up close, and look around the store (if you haven’t been there yet).

They don’t have a big exterior sign, just a banner in the front window. SK Kitchen Store is in the same shopping plaza as Schnuck’s, next to the “Great Clips.” (It’s where “Movie Gallery” used to be.)

The class will last about two hours. You’ll get to eat the food at the end, and I’m pretty sure you’ll get to take some food home, as well. (“Mmmm! Taste some of what we made tonight—I know how to make this now!”)

In previous classes, Sahar invited volunteers to help with some of the cooking, and I bet she will do that again. But if you prefer, you can just sit and watch. She’ll give everyone printouts of the recipe, but I suggest you bring a pencil or pen so you can take additional notes.

If you’re not familiar with South Asian cooking ingredients or techniques, but you want to learn how to cook their mouthwatering dishes, it’s essential to see how it’s done and have someone who can answer your questions. Like, what do you do with kalonji?

It’s the same as when you were young, and your mom or grandma showed you the cooking techniques you take for granted today. (When do you take those scrambled eggs off the heat? How do you sear a roast prior to braising it? What’s the basic ratio of oil to vinegar in a salad dressing?) Once you understand the basic principles, and what they look and feel like, you can cook from written recipes with greater confidence.

Here’s your chance to learn some authentic Pakistani home cookin’, and to make friends in the process. It’s great fun—I hope I see you there!

(Just so you know: Sahar called me a few days ago and asked if I’d mention this forthcoming class on Facebook—she doesn’t have an account, and I don’t think she’s entirely comfortable with computer stuff. She mainly contacts people using the phone. But even without her request, I’d want to tell you about this class, anyway!)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Arizona Trip 2014

Hi, friends, we just got back from a vacation to Arizona--and you know what that means: vacation pictures! Yay!

First, a warning: these are MY pictures. Snapshots. Don't think for a second that Sue took any of them. She's a much better photographer than I am! Also, I didn't go around photojournalizing the entire trip. I just took pictures when I saw something I wanted to remember, and realized I had a camera with me.

One of the first things we do when we fly into Phoenix is visit the Desert Botanical Garden. Like public gardens everywhere, it not only offers a crash-refresher-course in the native flora and horticultural plants of the area, but also draws in lots of cool birds, insects, and other animals.

We saw lots of nifty birds: Lesser goldfinches, a roadrunner, Abert's towhees, cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers (nesting and feeding fledglings), mourning and white-winged doves, phainopeplas, and a lovely pair of northern cardinals. Did you know that the southwestern race of cardinals is a distinct subspecies, ssp. superbus? Compared to the cardinals in the Midwest, the males are brighter red, have a longer and fuller-looking crest, and have less black encircling the bill.

Also at the DBG is a new Dale Chihuly art-glass installation. He's been making the rounds of major public botanical gardens (including our own Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis), creating impressive glass sculptures designed to harmonize with garden landscaping.

Here's one of the sculptures from a previous exhibition at the DBG, which the DBG purchased for permanent display:

And here's one of the newer sculptures--it reminds me of mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata):

And yet . . . although there were scads of people out viewing and photographing the glass art, I was still more enthused to see old friends from the "botany department," including blooming brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). Each plant becomes a small bush of wavy, grayish, hairy leaves. In spring, each bush becomes a huge bouquet of golden sunflower blossoms. They can cover entire hillsides, transforming volcanic black rock into a hill of glittering yellow.

Here's another flower that was blooming in abundance at the DBG. I'm not quite sure of the species, but it's some kind of "fairy duster," genus Calliandra. It's another small desert shrub (in the pea family, related to mimosa), and it's one of the many lovely plants you can have in your water-conserving, desert-landscaped yard. If you live there.

When in Arizona, we are always eager to get our fix of good (as in, awesomely good) Mexican food. High on our list is a place I've been in love with since about 1991, Los Dos Molinos. "Los Dos" is a mini-chain at this point, but we always like the one on South Central, which is festively cluttered with brightly painted objects and multicolored lights.

They offer New Mexican cuisine, in particular, and they claim they "don't know how" to make it "not hot." They're always winning awards, like "Best Margarita" and "Best Torch-Your-Mouth Mexican Food." Recently, the Phoenix New Times included eating at Los Dos Molinos in its "Phoenix Bucket List."

Naturally, each meal starts with green and red salsa.

We always try to decide which we "like best tonight." Sometimes it's the red; sometimes it's the green. The red. No, the green. Definitely the green. But wait a minute--let me drink some more of my margarita and try the red again . . .

Ahhh. Nothing in Missouri even touches this.

Although we stayed mostly in Phoenix, taking day trips from there, we did spend two nights in Sedona. On the way up, there's a lovely grassland mesa that you reach just after your car clambers up the mountainous switchbacks north of Black Canyon City. The sudden appearance of flat, grassy land decorated with prickly pears is breathtaking, after the rocky uphill section. This grassland is part of the Agua Fria National Monument, and we like to pull off at the "Sunset View" exit and park on the east side of the highway. There, we wander around and botanize.

Grasslands are rather difficult for people in our culture to appreciate. We're used to having our goodies delivered right to us, without having to make an effort. But the treasures of grasslands are not exactly "front and center." You have to slow the hell down. You have to wander. You have to kneel, to scrutinize.

The little plant below, for instance, was growing against the base of a rock. A relative of the weedy spurges that infest sidewalk cracks, it's a dainty, unusual wildflower in this desert grassland. It's called rattlesnake weed (named for an antique medicinal application), or white-margined spurge (Euphorbia albomarginata). It's pretty, don't you think?

Here's another pretty thing I saw there. I didn't go all out to ID it, but we can safely call it by the common name "silverpuffs." It's in the genus Microseris or Uropappus (lindleyi, I think; about all I remember is that it had hollow stems, and only basal leaves). It's one of many native aster-family plants that could be called "false dandelions."

Ohhhh there were so many pretty flowers out there in that grassland. Purple lupines, desert onion, blue dicks, borages, globemallows, mustards, daisies, plus a variety of bunch grasses and range grasses, shrubby oaks, and the ever-lovin' "wait-a-minute" bush, a shrubby acacia with curved thorns like kitten claws, which grabs hold of you and stops you right in your tracks.

Well, if that happens, it's time to stop and take a picture of something, probably.

Sedona, of course, has become a busy, bustling tourist city. They've installed roundabouts all over the main thoroughfares to keep the traffic flowing. To me, the spinning and constant movement adds to the dizzy, busy sense I get from the city nowadays. I'm glad I got to see Sedona when it was less built-up. And thankfully, we were glad to discover that it's not impossible to still find some places where you can be alone.

Our first night in town, we watched the sunset from a little pullout at the side of Dry Creek Road (that's the road that goes north toward Boynton Canyon, if you've ever been there). There's a place where the road reaches a high point, and the view is terrific. As we stood watching the glow, two more cars, and two pairs of people, arrived, and we all enjoyed the sunset together.

As an added bonus, the ground all over this area was covered with short little evening primroses. I don't know the species; there are something like 20 Oenothera species in Arizona. Like most of its kind, it was happily blooming away as dusk drew on.

You really shouldn't visit Sedona without doing some of the New Age stuff. Whether you "believe" it or not, go ahead and get a psychic reading, or an aura cleansing, or a "negative program removal." Buy a crystal or a pendulum, an amulet or prayer beads. Or join a UFO-watching expedition (they guarantee you will see UFOs). (I suppose what they don't tell you is that they specialize in un-identifying otherwise identifiable objects, but whatever.)

However, because I've done enough of that stuff to last me the rest of my life (I think), the farthest I went this trip was to buy a lovely, boring, space music CD to help me go to sleep nights when I'm too busy thinking. I also looked for my favorite brand of incense (didn't find it), and I looked at cards and art, books and candles, and gemstones and crystals. (But not to buy.)

And then we went to the Red Planet Diner, which is a rather tongue-in-cheek reflection of all the UFO stuff. The cafe started out as a new-built retro-diner, but now it's blended the old-fashioned cafe look with a UFO theme. It's all decorated with space/sci-fi stuff, the ceiling is painted with a huge flying saucer surrounded by stars, comets, and planets, and the menu features dishes like Solar Salad, Flash Gordon Chili, and Roswell Burger. Earlier, we had had Szechuan food for dinner, so we split an order of churros with coconut ice cream and had cups of coffee. And then we took pictures of the flying saucer in front of the restaurant.

The next day, we went hiking not at one of the famous psychic energy vortexes, but on some of the trails in the Coconino National Forest, just off of Jordan Road north of downtown. Below are some views from the trail--because any collection of photos of Sedona must include pictures of the red rocks.

Along the hike, we discovered some little desert puffball mushrooms! They were about the size of marbles and were dry and rather tough. Not papery, not leathery--almost like thin plastic. They were like tiny, thin-skinned Ping-Pong balls. One cluster, at least, I noted, was growing at the base of a ceanothus bush.

It was a good trail. It was sunny, the sky was blue, the birds were singing, and the ground was red. Red, red, red. My formerly white shoes are now official souvenirs of our Arizona trip!

The next day, we walked at Red Rock Crossing, which is one of the official psychic energy vortexes. It's also quite simply a gorgeous place--who wouldn't feel some special "energy" afoot? I won't bore you with all the lovely photos I might have taken. You can find them all over the place.

Instead, I want to show you a picture of what the New Age people have been up to there. Wow! They've been busy! There are a kazillion little rock cairns clustered at various places at Red Rock State Park. This, below, is one of the largest collections. I suppose someone officially pronounced that this very spot is the vortex. Or something. It was pretty interesting to be walking along, minding one's own business, and then suddenly see all this.

Still--you know me. Much more interesting, to me, was this grasshopper, which perfectly blended in with the miscellaneous grayish bits of tree bark, twigs, and other detritus against the red, red Sedona soil.

Of course I haven't told you about a lot of the good parts of our trip, simply because I didn't take pictures of everything (that's Sue's job). But this post is long enough, anyway. To close, I'll share with you our traditional last meal of all our trips to Arizona: The mesquite-grilled, quarter chicken dinner at El Pollo Supremo in Tempe. Oh, it's so good, so, so, good! It's a small, family-owned restaurant, with a limited menu, but what they do, they do with excellence.

Ahhh. El Pollo Supremo.

Don't be sad--we've promised not to wait so long to visit Arizona again.