Archive for May, 2021

Recent Experiments in the Kitchen–Custard Pie and Making a Black Roux

May 28, 2021

I had extra milk the other day, and I decided to make a custard pie. I searched the internet to find a recipe. The top 2 results used the same recipe that called for 2 and 1/2 cups of milk. I am an experienced cook, so I should have known better, but a 9 inch pie pan will not hold that much liquid, let alone the 4 eggs and sugar. The filling spilled over the top, and I felt annoyed. I cleaned up the mess and put the pie with the remainder of the filling in the oven. Again, I should have known better, but I followed the recipe instructions and blitzed the pie at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. The result was edible but not up to my usual standards. I remembered a reliable, oft-used buttermilk pie recipe, and a few days later tried again, substituting milk for buttermilk, and the result was much better. Buttermilk pie is a type of custard pie as are pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie; any pie using eggs is a custard pie. The following recipe for custard pie is better than the top recipes found in a google search. I think they are written by people who don’t really even cook.

First, make a pat-in-the-pan pie crust from scratch. The leading recipes claim store bought pie crust is adequate, but it is not. Take 1 cup of cake flour and 1/3rd cup of bread flour and mix with a pinch of salt, 1/3rd a cup of vegetable oil, and a little cold water to make a pie dough. Put the dough into a 9 inch pie pan and pat it into a crust.

Next, make the filling. Mix 1 melted stick of butter with 1 cup of sugar, 3 eggs, 1 cup of milk, 1 tablespoon of flour, and cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Put the filling in the pie crust and bake gently in a 300 degree oven for 1 hour. The spices float to the top. The top recipes call for pre-baking the pie crust, but this is an unnecessary step. The premise for this step is the prevention of a soggy crust. What nonsense? Pour water on a baked crust and an unbaked pie crust and both will get soggy.

My custard pie made the right way, not the way the leading search results on google suggest.

The standard custard pie will never replace a family favorite of ours–the Cajun tart ala bouillie. This custard pie has a sweetened cookie dough crust and is best served warm.

For the crust mix 3/4 cup of lard or Crisco, 1 and 1/2 cups of sugar, 1/2 cup of buttermilk, 3 and 1/2 cups of cake flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, and nutmeg. This batter will by very sticky, and it is messy to work with. Line a pie pan with about half of this mixture.

Next, make the filling. Scald 2 cups of milk while mixing 2/3rds cup of sugar, 6 tablespoons of flour, 2 eggs, and 2 cups of milk. Slowly pour this mixture into the scalding milk. It’s best to temper this mixture by adding some of the scalded milk to it before pouring it into the scalding milk. This prevents the eggs from scrambling. When the custard is thick add 2 teaspoons of vanilla to it and put it into the pie crust. Top the pie with the rest of the crust. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Tarte ala bouille. Made with a sweetened cookie dough crust, this is much better than a traditional custard pie.

I was reviewing my copy of the late Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen recently and came across something I hadn’t noticed before. There are photos of different roux stages in this book, and I had never paid attention to the picture of the black stage of a roux. Moreover, I was a little surprised to learn Prudhomme considered this the best stage of roux to make a proper gumbo. He believed a light brown roux was right for dark meats, a dark brown roux was right for white meats, , but a good gumbo required a black roux. Well, the weather is currently too warm for gumbo. Instead, I decided to experiment with making a black roux to flavor the gravy for shrimp and grits.

I melted 1/2 cup of lard over very high heat and added half a cup of flour. I stirred constantly until the roux almost turned black. (I lost my nerve at the last minute.) I believe the result bordered between a dark brown roux and a black roux. I added 2 finely chopped onions to the roux and turned the heat down. I sauteed the onions until they were tender, then added 1 pound of shrimp. I seasoned the shrimp with salt and would have added red and black pepper, but my wife can’t eat spicy food. When the shrimp turned pink I added 2 cups of chicken broth and cooked until it came to a boil. Flour loses its thickening power the darker a roux gets.

I liked the flavor. It was slightly bitter, but a pleasant bitter, like coffee, chocolate, or beer. I don’t think I burned it. However, in the future, I’m going to stick with a dark brown roux for my gumbos. I feel more comfortable with them.

Shrimp and grits. The gravy was made with an (almost) black roux.
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Deer Herbivory Alters Plant and Bird Species Composition

May 20, 2021

Cades Cove, located within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is 1 of my favorite places in the world. I visited Cades Cove during June of 2017 and saw lots of deer, a few black bears, a turkey, and an herd of tame horses. It’s 1 of the best places to see wildlife east of the Mississippi. Cades Cove is known for its high density of white-tailed deer and is 1 of many areas where deer herbivory and its effect on plant species diversity and abundance has been studied. High density deer populations reduce tree regeneration and alter plant species composition and forest successional patterns. Areas where deer are abundant can also see a shift in natural communities to an alternate state, while plant species diversity becomes reduced, influencing other species of wildlife. Results of studies on the interaction between deer and plant community vary, depending upon geographical location. Some species thrive or can at least survive in high density deer locations, while these same species in a different geographical location my suffer. I’ll review some of these studies below.

Plant growth inside and outside a deer exclosure in Wisconsin.

Cades Cove, located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is an area considered to have an high density of deer.
Deer in Cades Cover are not hunted, and they have little fear of people.
Look at how close these stupid asses got to this bear in Cades Cove. That bear could be mauling them in about 2 seconds.

Scientists studying the effect of deer herbivory on plant species composition use exclosures, or in other words they construct deer proof fences on certain plots to prevent deer from feeding on the plants inside the fence. They then compare plant composition and abundance inside and outside the fence. A study at the Clemson Experimental Forest found that after 2 years the difference between inside and outside exclosures was negligible. The differences aren’t noticeable until 5-20 years after the exclosure is constructed. At Callaway Gardens near Columbus, Georgia deer exclosures were in use for 20 years. Here, there were significant differences between the inside and outside of the enclosures. Inside the exclosures strawberry bush (Eunonymous americanus not to be confused with the strawberry people eat–Fragaria virginianus) and greenbriar, 2 favorite deer foods, grew taller and more dense than outside the exclosure. There was also an increase in red maple, black cherry, white oak, and sassafras inside the exclosure. Outside the exclosures there was an increase in sweetgum, wax myrtle, hop hornbeam, shining sumac, water oak, and willow oak. Black cherry benefitted from the absence of deer at this location, but at a site in northwest Pennsylvania, this species was found to be resistant to deer browsing.

Violet responds differently to deer herbivory at different locations as well. Scientists studying deer herbivory on the upper peninsula of Michigan found deer eradicated violets, but at Cades Code, though it is often eaten by deer, violet still regenerates. The scientists in Michigan identified “winners” and “losers” among plants in high density deer sites. “Winners included wind pollinated sedges and grasses in the Poa genus, along with hazelnut, blueberry, wood anemone, and wood fern. “Losers” in addition to violets were forbs such as big leaf aster, blue beard lily, strawberry, and thimbleberry. In some areas of Wisconsin deer can reduce tree sapling abundance by 90%, and they can eliminate white cedar and red oak. Oddly enough, yellow birch trees require moderate deer population densities. This species didn’t regenerate if deer populations were too low or too high.

The effects of deer herbivory were studied in a forest located in northwest Pennsylvania. The forest consisted of sugar maple, striped maple, black cherry, fire cherry, beech, and sweet birch. Tree regeneration failed in 25%-40% of clear cut plots. Species of trees that were browse resistant included beech, black cherry, striped maple, ash, and hackberry. A number of common bird species were absent from Pennsylvania forests with high deer population densities. This list includes wood peewees, cerulean warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, and indigo buntings.

Ironically, heavy deer populations can accelerate forest successional patterns. By feeding upon pioneer species of plants, deer reduce competition for space with species that normally don’t dominate until later stages of forest succession.

References:

Thrift, J.

“Effects of White-Tailed Deer Herbivory on Forest Plant Communities”

Clemson University Thesis 2007

Wiegmann, S.; and D. Waller

“Fifty Years of Change in Northern Upland Forest Understory. Identity and Traits of “Winner” and “Loser Plant Species”

Biological Conservation 129 2006

Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) is Beneficial for Birds

May 13, 2021

During the 1927 college football season the Georgia Bulldogs won 9 consecutive games before playing their hated rival, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Bulldogs always played the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta during this era because their own home games were played at rocky Herty Field–a poor quality gridiron. The Bulldogs were a fast team that year, so some Yellow Jacket officials watered down the field before the game, turning it into a muddy quagmire that negated Georgia’s speed advantage, and the Yellow Jackets upset the Bulldogs 12-0, ruining their unbeaten season. Georgia officials were furious and vowed to build their own stadium where they could play Tech at home every other year. Sanford Stadium was completed in 1929. Hedges of Chinese privet were planted near the sidelines, and Georgia home games are referred to as being played “between the hedges.” I’m a big Georgia Bulldog fan, and I was excited to discover 1 specimen of Chinese privet that recently popped up on its own near my back door.

Gardeners planted Chinese privet in Sanford Stadium during 1929. Traditionally, college football games played in Athens, Georgia are said to be played “between the hedges.” Photo from Gun and Garden Magazine.
I’m a big Georgia Bulldog fan, so I was excited to discover this Chinese privet that popped up near my back door.
Cardinal eating a privet berry. At least 16 species of birds use privet thickets for food and/or cover. Photo ripped off from google images.

Chinese privet, as the name would suggest, is native to China, and it was introduced to North America during 1852 as an ornamental plant. Privet is a tough species and thrives in both wet and dry locations on just about any kind of soil. In the wild privet grows on disturbed sites and originally depended upon elephant foraging, human activity, fires, or wind storms to open up the forest canopy, so it could take over a location. Privet can survive fire and will come back from the roots. In addition to spreading through sucker roots, privet is spread by birds eating its fruit and defecating the still viable seeds throughout the environment. It grows fast. The 1996 Olympic soccer matches were played at Sanford Stadium, and the privet hedges were temporarily removed and transplanted. Upon their return to Sanford Stadium they grew enough in 1 week that one couldn’t tell they’d ever been moved.

Chinese privet flowers are very fragrant. This is what attracted my attention to the bush, but I did not recognize it. I posted a photo on a Facebook page known as Weakley’s Flora of Southeastern North America. I learned plant conservationists revile Chinese privet because it crowds out native plants. The man who identified it for me told me to destroy it. I told him I liked it and was not destroying it. Numerous other shmucks called me a troll, and one suggested I was a fake account who signed up for this group just to troll about Chinese privet. (Facebook suggested the group based on my interests. That’s why I joined.) Another person suggested I use an app for plant identification because I must not be interested in ecology and didn’t belong in the group. (I’ve been writing this blog about Pleistocene ecology for over 10 years.) Yet another putz encouraged me to breath the flowers in deeply in the hopes I would suffer an uncomfortable allergic response. The internet makes it easy to expose people for their mean spirited attitudes.

Now, I am trolling them. I found a scientific study that determined Chinese privet benefits birds. Thickets of Chinese privet host the same abundance and species diversity of birds as other more natural areas during spring, summer, and fall; but during winter bird species diversity and abundance is even higher than in the surrounding landscape. Privet berries ripen in late fall/early winter when most native berries are gone. Birds that benefit from food and/or cover provided by privet include cedar waxwings, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, Carolina wrens, chickadees, brown thrashers, flickers, mockingbirds, purple finches, blackbirds, blue jays, crows, doves, sparrows, bobwhite quail, turkey, and feral chickens. Mockingbirds are the most common songbird in my neighborhood, and I suspect this was the species that inadvertently planted the bush in my backyard when it defecated the seed. The berries are toxic to humans. Deer and cotton rats eat privet foliage and also benefit from the presence of the plant. This same study did find privet does crowd out native plants.

Another study determined privet thickets host fewer bees and butterflies than privet-free zones, but this study is misleading and seriously flawed. Privet was mechanically removed from locations in a botanical garden and a nature reserve in Athens, Georgia. Forest service scientists trapped bees and butterflies 5 years after the removal and counted species abundance and diversity. The title of the article is misleading–“Removing Chinese Privet from a Riparian Corridor Benefits Pollinators 5 years later.” From the title one would assume they counted bees and butterflies at the same location before the privet was removed, but this is not what they did. Instead, they compared bee and butterfly composition from this location to different locations within the Oconee National Forest including 2 sites with privet and 2 sites without. This is quite flawed because some sites might be better for pollinators based on factors unrelated to privet. (And see below…an obvious factor.) Moreover, the sites where privet was removed were embedded within a botanical garden and a nature reserve where humans deliberately plant flowers that attract bees and butterflies. Populations of pollinators in these areas are artificially boosted due to anthropogenic activities. They are even higher than in the natural privet-free zones used as control groups in the study. A better study would take inventory of pollinators before and after privet removal in the same location.

Even without human interference nature would eventually control privet populations. During the 1996 transplanting of the Sanford Stadium privet, horticulturalists discovered the privet was slowly dying of a nematode infestation. They treated it, but many wild stands of privet may be dying from nematode infestations. Left alone, after centuries, native plants could retake space where privet previously took over.

References:

Hudson, J.; J. Handa, and S. Kim

“Removing Chinese Privet from Riparian Forest Still Benefits Pollinators 5 Years Later”

Biological Conservation 167 November 2017

Wilcox, J; and C. Beck

“Effects of Ligustrum sinense (Chinese privet) on Abundance and Diversity of Songbirds and Native Plants in a Southeastern Nature Preserve”

Southeastern Naturalist 6 (3) 2007

Giant Sea Snakes of the Georgia Eocene

May 6, 2021

The entire coastal plain of southeastern North America and all of Florida were below sea level until about 32 million years ago. Strong currents carried sediment into shallow coastal waters, and some sediments eventually became kaolin clay, now mined in Wilkinson County, Georgia. The clay preserves fossils of the Eocene Age including shark’s teeth, sawfish and ray bones, and the remains of primitive whales. Miners excavating clay also find vertebrae from an enormous extinct sea snake given the scientific name, Palaeophis virginianus. Scientists compared the vertebrae of Palaeophis with modern species of snakes and estimated this extinct species reached a length of at least 17 feet long.

Artist’s rendition of an extinct giant sea snake (Palaeophis).. Image from the Prehistoric Animals Twitter Page..
Fossil vertebrae of an extinct giant sea snake. Image from an anonymous post on the Fossil Forum.

Palaeophis was not closely related to modern day sea snakes. Scientists don’t know much about it, but they think it was an ambush predator, like a modern day anaconda, that preyed on other animals in shallow coastal waters. There was more than 1 species of Palaeophis sea snakes alive during the Eocene (55 million years BP-33 Million years BP), and they had a worldwide distribution, but today they are extinct and they left no descendants. Palaeophis fossils found in south Georgia are thought to date to ~34 million years ago, close to the end of the Eocene.

Reference:

Calvert, C; A. Mead, and D. Parmley

“Size Estimate of Extinct Aquatic Snakes from the Eocene of Central Georgia”

Georgia Journal of Science 79 (1) Article 22 2021