Thursday, July 21, 2011

Watermelon Sherbet

Photo courtesy Steve Evans/Wikicommons
Watermelons are the essence of summer in the U.S. of A., right up there alongside flip-flops, barbecues, and ice-cream bars bought from the ice-cream truck trolling the streets. I can remember scorching summer days on Long Island in New York, where I grew up, and seeing the watermelon lolling in a water-and-ice-filled cooler as it chilled during dinnertime, looking like a Martian version of a pig wallowing in a puddle. It was all of a piece with summer--with the chut-chut-chut-fzzzz sound of the sprinkler, the buzzing of cicadas, and, in the evening, the sudden stars of fireflies.

Now, however, even though I still like the eye-popping colors of this oversized fruit (hot pink and lime green! What a show!), I realize I don't really like the taste of it very much. (That's not all that's changed--I remember it was fun to spit the seeds when I was a kid, but back then the seeds really were seeds, hard shiny brown things and not the small, flat, damp flecks they are now. Heck, trying to spit these seeds would be like expectorating Rice Krispies.)

So I wasn't exactly turning cartwheels of joy when my husband and daughter returned from a camping trip with an "extra watermelon" that nobody else had wanted. I would've been delighted if it had been a cast-aside cantaloupe, a leftover lot of lemons, or abandoned asparagus. But no, it was a big fat watermelon rolling around on the counter. And the two people who'd schlepped it home, it turns out, aren't particularly fond of watermelon, either.

I didn't have time to find it a new home, so I decided to chop it up and make sherbet out of it. Since I couldn't get to the sherbety part of it right away, I started by cutting it up and putting the pink flesh through a food mill to make watermelon juice. Doing this quickly reveals that a watermelon is indeed 92 percent water by weight: after cranking the food mill's handle round and round, the entire interior of the watermelon was reduced to a large container of thick, pulpy juice, with the only remains left behind in the mill a handful of seeds.

It was definitely a very pretty juice. I added some to a glass of seltzer with a bit of sugar, but that watermelon taste was still too musky for me, so the next day I followed some instructions I found online to turn it into sherbet. The recipe called for nothing more than some sugar, gelatin, and cream. After it had spun around in the Cuisenart ice-cream maker, I poured it into a pre-frozen metal loaf pan, put plastic wrap on top, and set it in the freezer.

I didn't have high hopes when I took it out the next day: It was frozen solid in the pan and wouldn't budge. It looked as if we could only eat it by scraping shavings off the top and enjoying them as a flavored shave ice. A little hot water bath for the pan, however, released it.

Now we had an impenetrable pink, melon-flavored brick.

It was a bit easier to scrape chunks off the bottom of the watermelon brick, though, and to my surprise it was actually tasty.

Today I made vanilla ice cream using a complicated recipe in Cook's Illustrated, a recipe that aimed to produce ice cream as smooth as that bought in a store, and in the article it pointed out that one of the ingredients they'd used in their tests was gelatin. They ruled it out as a failure because they noted that, like some other failed additions, it lent the product "an artificial texture and strange melting properties. The sample with gelatin refused to melt, even after 10 minutes at room temperature."

Which would probably explain our sherbet, too. Nobody's touched it since the first attempt to hack through it. So instead of a hog-sized watermelon snoring on the counter for weeks, we will have this giant pink Lego taking up space in the freezer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Mystery Plant

Seeing as this chilly, wet summer of ours, marked by leaden skies and head colds, is not exactly inspiring the garden to flourish or the gardener to hoe/weed/plant/dig/mulch, I figured I'd finally get around to a story I meant to write about last year: the case of the Mystery Plant.

The Mystery Plant rose up out of a long garden bed we'd created as an afterthought last year. That is, after leveling the ground and adding more pavers to our patio, we were too lazy to lug the heaped-up soil elsewhere in the yard and figured we might as well let the heap be a new plot that could border the area.

It soon stood taller than all the other new plants in that bed, and finally blossomed into a deep-throated, richly colored flower that reminded me of an orchid. For a day or so, I thrilled to the notion that perhaps some rare woodland species had taken root in my humble garden, reflecting an appreciation for our efforts to create a leafy oasis in the city without using any chemicals.

Then I got a little concerned. This thing just kept growing taller and more vigorous looking, putting me in mind of Audrey from "Little Shop of Horrors." So I did what anybody would do when faced with a possibly carnivorous plant: I started googling.

How do you google an unknown plant? Well, you'd be amazed at how quickly you can find what you're looking for if you throw a lot of adjectives at the search engine. Some combination of the words "purple," "pink," "green pointy leaves," and "red stems" led me to a discussion board, where someone else was trying to figure out the plant volunteering in their garden, and that in turn led to a suggestion by another person who included a link to a possible species.

That species, it turns out, is apparently a plant that should have its mug on Wanted posters in every state of the union: It is none other than an Asian plant called Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), an extremely invasive non-native species designated as a Class B noxious weed in the "top 20" of non-native weeds in Washington State, which requires that the plant be controlled when found. Its aliases include "policeman's helmet" and, in the UK, "kiss-me-on-the-mountain."

The seemingly innocent flower was in actuality a ferocious destroyer of habitats, a plant that could overwhelm native species in wetlands and moist woodlands, shading them out and hogging all the light and nutrients. It grows seed capsules that explode, launching seeds up to 21 feet away from the plant, thus ensuring that it will quite literally sow seeds of destruction.

The little demon had smuggled itself into our garden by hiding out as a seed in the soil of a plant I'd bought in Kirkland--from a bunch of little old ladies holding a fund-raising sale.

I glanced out the window at the plant. Yeah, there it stood, pretending it didn't see me, gazing off into the distance, all innocence...biding its time. Evil thing, hoodwinking such nice elderly women as it embarked on a course of world domination. It didn't take more than a minute to yank it out by the roots, embalm it in a plastic bag, and bury it in the trash.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pastries, Ponies, and Thundereggs in Portland

The heck with "Snakes on a Plane." My trip to Portland, Oregon, began with "Snacks on a Train." What a lovely way to start a vacation: hopping aboard a brand-new Amtrak train car in the wee hours of the morning and sitting back with a cup of coffee, some banana bread, and a brand-new book, with nothing (except quite possibly a nap) to distract you for the next 3.5 hours.

I met up with two friends from college days upon arrival (one of whom graciously hosted us at her Portland home), and we immediately set out in search of (a) lunch and (b) pastries. We found both at La Petite Provence. And then we picked up some emergency backup pastries at Pix Patisserie to tide us over the next few nights. When we weren't eating at Panero's or at Thai Peacock. (In case you're wondering, over the course of three days we did actually dine at places that did not begin with the letter P.)

Inside a thunderegg.
As for the thundereggs, they were not something we ordered at a trendy diner: we visited them at the wonderful Rice Museum, which is not at all about rice but is totally about rocks.

It's an amazing collection of geological splendor that also includes petrified wood, meteorites, and dinosaur and early-mammal fossils, all housed in a vintage 1950s architectural gem of a sprawling ranch house.

The thunderegg, which is Oregon's official state rock, is basically a rounded rocky blog that is unimpressive on the outside, but contains a core of minerals that form stunning patterns, many of which resemble traditional Chinese paintings, seascapes, and other vignettes, in miniature. The minerals are typically jasper, agate, or opal.

Also on display was a subdued stone that boasted a claim to being the oldest rock in the world. But it seems to be merely late-middle-aged compared to some of the older oldest rocks in the world, so perhaps next time I'll pause to read the fine print (maybe it's "the oldest rock in the world located in Portland" or something).

Tucker the Baby Psittacosaurus, however, was undeniably the cutest critter in the place.

And there was even a separate room filled with minerals that flouresced under black light. Very cool!

And of course we stopped at the incomparable Powell's to shop for books.

"What about the ponies?" OK, OK, already. I didn't see any real ponies, but did spy several toy ponies tied to old hitching rings embedded in the city's curbs, all there thanks to a community art effort called The Horse Project.

More pastries, more coffee, then back home to *sigh* responsibilities and expectations.