Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I’m a birder now…

I’m a birder now. Not for finally laying eyes on the secretive Resplendent Quetzal, nor for stalking the wily Motmot (been there, done that). No, I earned my wings for killing one. A chicken.

I’m mostly a vegetarian now. Not out of concern for the tender sensibilities of my fellow creatures; rather from caring for the planet. After power generation, industrial meat production is the next largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, methane farts and all (transportation ranks third). Not to mention the absurdly large portion of the earth's surface devoted to making meat, and all the habitat destruction, groundwater contamination, etc. For more grim meaty facts, check out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or this TED talk by food writer Mark Bittman; also on YouTube (by the way, if this your first visit to TED, go explore—refined essence of brilliance from the world’s best and brightest).

All the same, you gotta eat, right? Pablo, owner of the small tropical homestead where I’m staying, keeps poultry. A paltry few. Layers and fryers. They eat kitchen scraps; a convenient and tidy relationship. The layers are easy, and truly fresh eggs are a treat. But when a Boa Constrictor started picking off the fryers, we figured it was our turn.

Eat what you kill, kill what you eat. So I did the deed (they really do keep flapping and twitching long after they’ve lost their heads). Then you pluck ‘em. Boiling hot water scalds the skin, and feathers come out in messy wet handfuls. Smells like wet dog. Then I steeled myself for the gutting. “Just like cleaning a fish,” I told myself as I reached in. Only it was warm inside, and made sucking sounds as I pulled fistfuls of entrails out of the cavity.

Gradually, it started looking more like the chickens I was familiar with—naked and headless! I was finally on firmer ground, foodwise. A mess of minced garlic, handful of garden-fresh chopped basil, olive oil, salt, pepper; work it under the skin and into the cavity; roast for an hour at 425. Voila!

I wish I could say it was a tender and delectable treat. But this was one tough old bird. Tasty, but chewy. Thinly sliced, the breast meat will be good for a few sandwiches. The rest should make some fine chicken stock for soups and sauces.

Anyway, that’s how I earned my feathers. Braawwk!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hatch of the day...

The jungle seethes with life. Plants grow rapidly, clambering over one another, competing for light, nutrients, moisture. Grazers eat this bounty, and in turn get eaten. That’s life! While things may appear to be in a stable equilibrium, that’s hardly the case. Life not only seethes, it surges and pulses. Remember the lynx and the hare (from your high school biology class)? Predator and prey populations crescendo and crash. Natural selection favors the unpredictable, making it difficult for predators to set their alarms for meal times. One strategy is to burst on the scene in vast numbers, sating predators while allowing plenty of survivors to reproduce, securing a place in the next generation.

Last night there were insects. (OK; there are always insects, especially at night, little moths attracted to the light.) But these were unexpected visitors, just last night. Little black ones (sorry entomologists out there, I know I should try harder, at least ID to Family, but it’s after hours!). Drawn to my candles and kitchen light, they were everywhere, perversely having timed their arrival for the day I had the house cleaned! Sometimes they’d land on you. They don’t sting or claw or bite; just a bit of a tickle. You ignore them until they bug you enough, then flick them off—they don’t come back like annoying flies. They’re just as likely to land on the cutting board while you’re chopping. Or on your plate while you’re chomping. Anyway, they’re hard to see, especially because you dim the lights to minimize the onslaught.

So there are insects in my food. It might have been better to prepare the meal in daylight, dodging the hatch. But you don’t know they’re coming until it’s too late. (That’s their strategy, right? Burst on the scene unexpected and unannounced…) Will they be back tomorrow? Will I bother with early prep in anticipation? Anyway, dinner was delicious: Ensalata Caprese with fresh mozzarella from the cloud forest zone dairies of Monteverde, a gorgeous red ripe tomato from the farmer’s market, and fresh-picked basil from the garden; drizzled with olive oil and balsamic, accompanied by fresh whole wheat walnut bread, all rinsed down with a fine glass of Chilean Cabernet. Yum. Bugs and all!