Friday, July 29, 2011

James Beard's Scorpion Jalapeno Relish

It's summer, it's beastly hot, and finally - finally - the tomato plants have started bearing fruit.  Like lots.  Earlier this morning, my countertop was literally covered with them -- celebrities, early girls, lemon boys, cherokee purples, and jet stars.  They're all wonderful fresh, but we knew there was no way we'd be able to eat them all before they went bad.

What to do?  Go to the Scampwalker family archives and can some scorpion jalapeno relish, created by the legendary James Beard.  And this cooked relish/salsa befits the great chef, back before chefs were celebrities.

Some 30 years ago, I remember my own dad toiling away in the kitchen, chopping tomatoes, peppers, and onions by the potful.  I was only passively interested in its creation (much like my own kids this very day).  But when it was done?  No finer concoction has ever adorned a tortilla chip. 

Back when I was a kid, I can remember popping a jar open during a Cornhusker football game on a snowy Saturday afternoon, and nothing brought back memories of a distant summer more vividly.  I recall eating it on the back of a tailgate for lunch on a pheasant hunting trip.  And I fondly remember fishing trips on Nebraska's Merritt Reservoir where my dad, my brother, and I -- along with our guide turned close friend -- ate scorpion and tortilla chips and drank gin and tonics (the aptly-dubbed "champagne cruise") while routinely reeling in six-pound walleye.  This salsa is memories.

And despite it's menacing name, it's not particularly hot.  It's sweet, with a nice acidic tang, and a mild kick.  The recipe, below, was given to me by my dad.  I can't seem to find any history on it, nor the cookbook it came from anywhere on the internet (a rarity these days).  My adaptation is below.

5 pounds ripe tomatoes
2 medium onions
1 cup sliced jalapenos, most seeds and veins removed
2 bell peppers
2-3 coarsely chopped garlic cloves
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chile powder
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Coarsely chop the tomatoes and onions, and cook in a large pot over medium heat for about 10 minutes.  Then add the rest of the ingredients, and cook until the peppers and onions are softened a bit, but not mush.  Don't cover the pot -- you want some of the liquid to cook off.

You can eat it fresh at this point, or if you want to can it, use standard waterbath canning techniques, using pint jars with about a quarter inch headspace, and simmer for 15 minutes.

It was my first attempt at waterbath canning, and so far, so good -- the seals are all tight and I can look forward to the taste of summer all year long.  Thanks, Pop.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Un-Chained Chain Gang

Like the rest of upland nation, I'm biding my time in the sweltering heat, counting down the days before the bird season starts. Please don't get me wrong -- I love the summer, and I'm now old enough to realize that wishing time away isn't in my long-term best interests.

So I've occupied myself with the summer garden and various chores around the house that have been delayed. But a guy like me needs a project that'll add to my enjoyment in the field. Last year, I built a custom dog box (which continues to be a very successful project, I might add).

This summer, I think I've built a better chain gang. For those of you unaware, the chain gang is a useful tool if you've got a bunch of bird dogs in your care. Trainers use it so an entire pack of dogs can observe others being trained. For me, they make a lot of sense when you're airing, watering, and feeding a string of dogs.

Last year in Montana, we had six dogs, and every night at feeding time, we hammered six stakes into the often-hard ground. After two weeks on the road, it got a bit old. This year, we'll have eight dogs.

The chain gang lets you hammer just two stakes -- one at each end -- and you hook up a dog every six feet on 18-inch drop chains. It gives the dogs plenty of room to stretch out, drink and eat, do their business, all while not tangling (literally or figuratively) with one another.

After a lot of internet reading, discussions with buddies, and scores of visits to various hardware stores, I came up with a pretty handy system that I think will suit my needs well.

Instead of using chain, Jack and I chose a vinyl-coated 3/16 inch stainless steel cable. Mine was rated at 3,700 pounds minimum breaking strength, so I don't think that'll be an issue. Having it coated keeps it cleaner and less likely to corrode or unravel.

There are some distinct advantages in using cable. First of all, it's significantly cheaper. I got mine for 49 cents a foot at a big-box store, and comparable chain came in at two to four times that much. Cable is also much lighter, and in my opinion, easier to manage and less likely to tangle. Finally, most chain links are just about the perfect size for a dog nail to get caught in... not fun.

Back to the chain (er, cable) gang. I made two four-dog sections that can be combined, something (but hardly the only thing) I learned from my buddy Steve Snell, who knows a thing or two about bird dogs. I made a loop at one end using a quarter-inch aluminum ferrule. I agonized over the best way to attach the ferrules and stops -- a good swaging tool will run you over a hundred dollars, and I couldn't justify that.

So as a lark, I just pounded the ferrule semi-flat on a concrete slab. It seems to work just fine... I looped it through a hook on my backyard deck, and I can support my 180-pound frame from it. I also dropped 50 pounds worth of cinderblock from a height of two feet, and neither ferrule nor stop budged.

Three feet from the terminating loop I hammered in two stops, about an inch apart. I connect my drop leads in between these stops. I added three more sets of stops six feet apart, and then added another terminating loop three feet from the last stop. You can make as many of these main lines as you have dogs, and only use what you need.

A word about cutting cable. It's not easy to make a clean cut. I tried a bolt cutter (just kinda smashed everything) and a hacksaw (did the job, but took a long time and was an uneven cut). This was my perfect excuse to buy a Dremel, a power tool I've always wanted. Outfitted with a cutting wheel, it made quick work of things.

Each drop line -- the line that connects the dog to the main line -- consists of roughly an 18-inch long piece of cable terminated in loops, and I looped a brass snap swivel into each loop. That way, it pivots and swivels on the main line, meaning no tangles.

Best of all, the whole 8-dog rig easily winds onto a standard extension cord spool. Jack and I can deploy or stow the whole setup in just a couple of minutes. The whole shebang cost me around $80, hardware included (minus the dremel).

The dogs -- Dottie, Vegas, and Ariel the visiting Boston Terrier seemed happy with the setup.  I'm looking forward to using it this fall.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Update on LuLu

I've been exchanging emails with my trainer, Nolan Huffman, and he reports that LuLu is taking to formal training very well. So much though that he claims she's his "star pupil." I'm sure he says that to all his clients, but I'm going to take it as good news nonetheless.

Nolan tells me that LuLu is the easiest pointer he's ever trained. Being a brittany guy, I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not! She's apparently loving her time chasing wild Montana birds, and I'd by lying if I said I wasn't more than a bit jealous of my dog - an odd feeling to be sure.

"I have been working with her on hunting to me instead of me to her," Nolan writes. That sounds like an enthusiastic pointer to me.

I miss the girl, and I do miss being a part of her training. But I also know that I made the right decision to send her to a pro. I freely admit that I don't come close to Nolan's knowledge, patience, and focus when it comes to bird dogs. I also don't have quick access to open land -- nor the time to do it right (I used to remember when summers were laid back affairs -- when did that change??).

And to add insult to injury, it was 84 degrees this morning at 5:45 A.M., and it shows no sign of letting up. Who can effectively train in that??

My hat's off to you if you're a DIY trainer - I wish I could be, and maybe someday I will be. But for now, sending LuLu off to college seems like the right thing to do.