Archive for July, 2019

Ratatouille

July 27, 2019

During summer I utilize vegetables that are of the best quality this time of year.  I like to make Greek salad, gazpacho, eggplant parm, and ratatouille.  The vegetables in ratatouille grow best in regions with warm climate, and this dish originated in the south of France where a Mediterranean climate prevails.  It’s a fairly recent dish, probably not invented until about 1877, and it descends from French peasant stews traditionally made with beans, potatoes, root vegetables, and fatty meat.  These ingredients are less available during the warmer months, so rural people began substituting what they grew in their garden in the summer.  Almost all of the vegetables in ratatouille were unknown in Europe until the 16th century.  Trade brought eggplant from India; and tomatoes, peppers, and squash from South America.  Other countries have similar dishes, such as caponata from Italy, and numerous vegetarian dishes from India.  This is how I make ratatouille.

My ratatouille.  I cooked the bell peppers separate because my wife can’t eat them.  My daughter refuses to eat eggplant, and I had to make something else for her.

Slice 1 or 2 eggplants into long wide strips and add salt to them.  Let them sit for an hour until the salt forces the extraction of the bitter liquid inside.  Then wash the salt off.  Many chefs claim this step is unnecessary, but I made the mistake of listening to them once, and the eggplant was bitter.  Slice 3 or 4 zucchini into long wide strips.  Place the zucchini and eggplant into a pan covered with a thin layer of olive oil and sprinkle salt on the vegetables.  Roast them in the oven at 375 for half an hour.  (The size of the vegetables varies and so does oven temperatures.  Use common sense and knowledge of your own oven when making this.)

Meanwhile, in a skillet sautee an onion, 1 or 2 sweet peppers, and some garlic in olive oil.  Sprinkle salt on them. When the vegetables in the oven are done dump them in the skillet with the other vegetables.  They should be swimming in olive oil.  Add a 6 ounce can of tomato paste plus 6 ounces of water to this along with some basil and oregano.  Heat them together briefly and it’s done.

Ratatouille is a nice side dish, but I prefer to make it the focus of the meal.  It’s satisfying because the eggplant has a meaty texture, and the olive oil is a good substitute for meat fat.  I like to serve it with hard boiled eggs and crusty bread.  One could poach eggs in it, but I like hard boiled eggs better.

I’ve even invented an excellent sandwich using leftover ratatouille.  Heat the leftover ratatouille in the microwave.  Smear some of the excess olive oil on the bottom of a sturdy bun.  Add a layer of salami and put a slice of provolone cheese on the salami.  Place a big spoonful of warm ratatouille on the cheese so that it melts and top with the other half of the bun.

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Do Astronauts Masturbate in Space?

July 20, 2019

My favorite segment of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO is his New Rules.  A few weeks ago he was critical of the ridiculous aspiration some chumps have that humans should go to Mars.

He’s right.  Wasting money on a manned trip to Mars is really a stupid idea.  Humans can not live in space.  Humans can exist in space for awhile, using very expensive equipment, but I wouldn’t call that living.  Some nerds expressed their outrage toward Bill Maher on Twitter, but I defended him and got into an argument with Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer who works for Madein Space Aerodynamics–a company that manufactures optic fiber and other products in micro-gravity.  On his Facebook page Fagin claims that he is going to be one of the first people to land on Mars.  Yeah, right.  Traveling to Mars is extremely difficult.  Even unmanned missions to Mars have had a high rate of failure.  There have been 28 failed unmanned missions to Mars compared to just 19 successful missions.  And these are unmanned missions.  Just imagine how risky a manned mission could be.  Moreover, being trapped in a space capsule for that long is akin to some kind of cruel and unusual punishment.  It would take about 7 months to get there and 7 months to return–about as long as the longest space station mission ever.  (A Russian cosmonaut once stayed in a space station for 438 days.)  So for over a year, the astronauts would not be able to go for a walk in the woods and hear birds singing.  They wouldn’t be able to do any outdoor activities, and there are many indoor activities they would miss out on as well.  There is no sex in space.  When I suggested to Max Fagin there was no sex in space, he responded by telling me I hadn’t thought this through, and he then ended our discussion.  No, he  hasn’t thought this through.  Sex in microgravity would be difficult and uncomfortable.

It is against NASA’s regulations to have sex in space…even to masturbate.  Bodily fluids might float around inside the capsule and foul their expensive machines.  But let’s say NASA allowed sex as an experiment.  There would still be difficulties.  In microgravity the blood that normally goes to the sex organs rises to the head, making it hard to achieve and maintain an erection, and this can cause an headache during sex as well.  Even if an erection can be established, the partners would float apart.  A suit with Velcro has been designed that would hold the coupling pair together, but really…does that sound sexy? The lack of privacy is also not particularly sexy–I know I wouldn’t want professional colleagues watching me have sex.  Astronauts experience lowered testosterone levels in microgravity, and this too would likely dampen desire.

Nerds dream about establishing colonies in space, but reproduction would be a real problem. A fetus would be exposed to high levels of radiation, resulting in increased rates of mutation, and most mutations are harmful.  NASA has experimented with rats in space.  Rats impregnated in space suffer higher rates of failed pregnancies.  Humans would eventually become extinct, if forced to live in space, even with advanced technology.

I’m all for unmanned missions and super telescopes because scientific knowledge is never a bad thing.  But manned space missions are an expensive boondoggle that humans can’t afford when there are so many unsolved problems on earth that require loads of cash to solve.

Frijoles Barrachos and Carolina Reaper Peppers

July 13, 2019

I’m growing a Carolina Reaper pepper plant in my garden this year.  I planted it in May of 2018, but it didn’t start flowering until October, and I was forced to dig it up and bring it inside the house before it was killed by a frost.  There is not a good sunny place in my house, and the plant gradually lost all of its flowers and many of the leaves.  When I replanted it outside this spring, I didn’t expect it to produce peppers, but it finally has.  The Carolina reaper is the hottest pepper in the world, producing fruit with 2,200,000 Scoville units.  This is 200 times hotter than a Jalapeno and 4 times hotter than an Habanero.  Scoville units measure the concentration of capsaicinoid, the substance that makes peppers hot.  The Carolina Reaper is an hybrid between the La Sofriero and Naga Viper peppers.

A Carolina Reaper pepper grown in my garden next to a matchbook for size comparison.  They turn red when completely ripe.

While cutting into a Carolina Reaper pepper I could smell the capsaicinoid.  I put a pepper measuring just a little more than an inch square into an half-gallon pot of pinto beans, and it made the whole batch astonishingly hot. I love hot foods, but this made it tough to eat, even for me.  I later turned the leftovers into refried beans.  I was afraid this would concentrate the capsaicinoid and make it even hotter, but instead the oils must have evaporated because it was a little more bearable.  Nevertheless, my mouth burned for at least 10 minutes after consuming a bowl of beans, and I could feel the heat in my stomach for about 2 hours.  It hurt even worse exiting my body the next day.  The only culinary use I can think of for this pepper is as an ingredient for some kind of insanity hot sauce.  I’m going to add salt and hot vinegar to the rest of them, and keep the hot sauce in a malt vinegar dropper.

Peppers (Capsicum chinense and/or C. frutescens) are native to Central America and Southern Mexico.  There is an interesting disjunct population in southeastern Missouri.  Indians probably cultivated them there, and they escaped into the wild.  Taxonomists disagree over whether there are 1 or 2 species.  Native Americans have used them for ~9000 years and probably began cultivating them a long time ago.  The small pequin chili peppers still grow in the wild and birds propagate them.  The capsaicinoid doesn’t stop birds from eating them and spreading the seeds in their dung.  Bird digestion increases pepper germination by 370% because bird digestive juices work to prevent fungal growth, and ants (which might consume the seeds) can’t find them without rotting fruit around the seeds.  The capsaicinoid does stop insect predation on the fruit.

I enjoy eating frijoles barrachos–a simple peasant dish.  To make it, soak 1 pound of pinto beans in 1.5 quarts of water over night.  Put the beans and water in a crock pot with 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 chopped onion, 2 tomatoes,  2 hot peppers (I recommend jalapenos, not Carolina Reaper), and 1 12 ounce bottle of dark beer.  Cook on low for 8 hours.

Frijoles barrachos.  I could eat beans everyday and never tire of them.

I like refried beans even better because the evaporation concentrates the flavor.  Take the leftover beans and mash them with a potato masher.  Dump them in hot bacon grease and fry them, stirring frequently, until they develop a nice crust on the bottom and much of the liquid has evaporated.

Frijoles barrachos after they’ve been well fried.  Serve with cheese and/or bacon.

Pleistocene Mimosas

July 6, 2019

A remnant of the local original landscape grows on a 4′ by 4′ area of my front yard near the road.  It is known as sensitive briar (Mimosa microphilia), and it attracts numerous bees and other pollinators.  Sensitive briar resembles its close relative, sunshine mimosa (M. strigillosa), but differs in that its vine is covered with thorns.  These mimosas, native to southeastern North America, prefer to grow in prairies, ravines, savannahs, and open woods; and they do well on sandy or rocky soils.  I live in a sandhill area located on the fall line between the piedmont and the coastal plain.  The sandy soils originated during the Eocene when this region was a coast line and the fall line was a sandy beach.  Today, the co-dominant trees are loblolly pine and sand laurel oak.  Before humans repressed fires, it seems likely this area was dominated by longleaf pine with some sand laurel oak.  Longleaf pine is slow-growing and dependent upon fire for germination, and it has largely been replaced in my neighborhood by faster growing, less fire-dependent loblolly pine.  Also in the absence of fire, sand laurel oak forms dense stands on vacant lots when formerly they would be thermally pruned and grow farther apart.  I hypothesize the original environment was open woodland or even savannah, dominated by the aforementioned trees and with a great variety of flowers and grasses growing in the open spaces between the trees.  Other species in my neighborhood that might be remnants of this original environment include yellow cottony aster, a type of small daisy, prickly pear, ground cherry, blackberry, lowbush blueberry, false foxglove, and passion flower.

Sensitive briar growing in my front yard by the road.

The mimosa genus includes about 400 species of herbs, shrubs and trees within the legume family.  The most commonly noticed mimosa in southeastern North America is Albizia julibrisson,  a native from Asia and the Middle East.  It was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in 1783 and has spread like crazy all across the region.  They are found in open areas alongside roads and are now considered an invasive species.  I think they are more beneficial than detrimental.  Their flowers feed the bees and butterflies, and their roots, like those of all legumes, help fix nitrogen in the soil.  They are probably more beneficial than many of the native plants they outcompete.  They produce numerous bean pods that readily germinate in road side ditches.

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Mimosa trees are widespread and common in disturbed areas of the southeastern United States.

The mimosa genus is very old with a world wide distribution.  They likely originated before the continents drifted apart.  During the Pleistocene sensitive briar flourished in the open spaces that resulted from rapid climate change and megafauna foraging.  However, there is no pollen or fossil evidence of this species from that age.  Nevertheless, I’m sure they were common in some areas and just perchance left little evidence of their previous existence.

Plants in the mimosa genus are capable of rapid movement.  Sensitive briar closes its leaves when being touched.  Scientists think this response helps protect them from foraging herbivores, but they are vulnerable to at least 1 predator–the mimosa webworm (Homodaula anisocentra).  The larva of this species wraps mimosa leaves inside a protective webbing which prevents the leaves from closing completely.  They then feed upon the leaves before their transformation into their adult stage.

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Mimosa webworm.