Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Caribbean: Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbados

We typically prefer to avoid cruises unless we can find a cruise that is in port most every day. Even then, they usually leave so early in the late afternoon that you give up lots of precious time that could otherwise have been spent in that port. However, if you are trying to cover lots of ground, particularly different islands, as in the Caribbean, then cruising is the only way to go (it is much cheaper than taking multiple flights between islands). 

In the Caribbean, by starting out in Puerto Rico, as opposed to Miami, you save several travel days. The cruise we chose only had one travel day, the last day when we traveled from our furthest point back to where we started. 

We left LAX on a Thursday in March at 7:30 p.m. and arrived at JFK at 8:20 a.m. Friday morning. After a 3 hour and 40 minute layer over, where we had lunch and met up with Judy's brother and one of her sisters, and their spouses, who were joining us, we caught a noon flight for San Juan and arrived about 5:00 p.m. We rented a mini-van with Ace Rent A Car which was off-airport and then drove to Levittown, which required a drive around the Bay of San Juan to our Comfort Inn just across the street from Old Mouth Cove (Ensenada de Boca Vieja). It is about a 20 minute drive in non-rush hour traffic and is much cheaper than staying in San Juan. We walked several blocks from the hotel to El Kampestre for dinner and had a nice authentic Puerto Rican dinner, including the laid back and maddeningly long wait to get our food which we experienced at every meal in Puerto Rico. 

Saturday morning we drove to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. We hit a horrible traffic jam into the Visitor's Center which was slower than our wait the night before for dinner. We looked around briefly, took a short walk on a trail next to the Visitor's Center, then drove into the Forest. We stopped for pictures at La Coca Falls, then took the 1.6 mile round trip hike to La Mina Falls, from the top end, including a cold dip in the stream that feeds the falls. We made a brief stop at Yokahu Tower on the way back out and had a nice, but very slow, lunch at Mi Vida Cafe and Burgers in Palmer. We then drove to San Juan and walked into Old Town. Our most significant visit there was to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the second oldest cathedral in the Americas. We spent a second night at the same hotel. 
     Barred Anole  (Bob)
     Yellow-Chinned Anole  (Bob)

Sunday we went to a Sacrament Meeting service at the LDS Levittown Ward, which was all in Spanish, then drove about an hour south and east of San Juan to eat at Los Pinos in Guavate, along the Rutas de Lechon (the Pork Highway). Both Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain have featured Los Pinos in their shows and we had a very fun lunch of pork cooked on a spit. We made another brief stop at Lechonera Bruny's, for another pork sample, then headed back to Old Town San Juan where we spent another hour or two, before we dropped off our rental car and had a taxi takes us to the cruise port where we checked on to the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas, about 4:30 p.m., which became our floating hotel for the rest of the trip. 

Monday morning we arrived in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, about 8:00 a.m. We walked around the pier area in the morning and found numerous giant green iguanas basking on the rocks. At 10:30 a.m. we took a ship shore excursion to Trunk Bay on St. John Island, part of Virgin Islands National Park. It involved a long boat ride, both ways, a drive to Trunk Bay, and about 1 1/2 hours of snorkeling. I tried out my new underwater camera for the first time. After we got back, Judy and I took a taxi into Charlotte Amalie for about 45 minutes, then got back to the boat for our 5:00 p.m. on board time and 5:30 p.m. departure.
     U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John  (Judy)
     Green Iguana  (Bob)
     Barracuda - Trunk Bay, St. John  (Bob)
     Stoplight Parrotfish  (Bob)
     Yellowtail Snapper  (Bob)
Tuesday morning we arrived in Basseterre, St. Kitts about 8:00 a.m. We walked to Avis, not far from the port, rented a small SUV, then walked to some nearby sights, including Independence Square, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, St. George's Anglican Church and the American Bakery near it. Then we walked back and picked up the vehicle and drove to Romney Manor. We walked the grounds and viewed the batik shop, then walked down to the Wingfield Estate where we visited an archaeological site for one of the oldest rum distilleries in the Caribbean. From there we drove up toward the Brimstone Hill Fortress, had lunch at King Snack, a small store front cafe, if you can call it that, then made the amazing drive up the mountain along a very narrow road to the Brimstone Hill Fortress. We got beautiful views of the mountains behind us and the ocean and coast before us and saw a troop of green vervet monkeys along side of the road on our way back down. We spent time in an unsuccessful search for Charles Fort, then headed back to Basseterre to the ship where our on board time was 4:30 p.m.
     Basseterre, St. Kitts: A Park, Two Churches, and a Bakery  (Judy)
     American Bakery - Basseterre, St. Kitts  (Bob)
     St. Kitts: Romney Manor, Caribelle Batik, and Wingfield Estates  (Judy)
     King Snack, Sandy Point Town, St. Kitts  (Bob)
     St. Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park  (Judy)
     Vervet Monkey - Caribbean  (Bob)

Wednesday morning we arrived at St. John's, Antigua about 8:00 a.m. We rented a van through Tropical Rentals and had to wait about 30 minutes for our contact to show up, but at least she came to us and we didn't have to go to her. We drove through downtown St. John's, then across a good portion of the island to Stingray City, near Seaton's Village. The drive out took less time than we were told and we waited for an hour and a half before our 11:00 a.m. start. We loaded up onto a large catamaran and were ferried out to a white sand bottom surrounded by reef. There the guides had buckets of squid which attracted southern stingrays. We had an opportunity to try and hold, feed and get close to stingrays which was really amazing. Afterwards, we drove another good distance to Nelson's Dock Yard, an old dock for the British Navy, turned into restored museums, shops and restaurants. There we had lunch, just off the boats docked in the harbor. We drove back to St. John's in time for our 4:30 p.m. on board time.
     Antigua  (Judy)
     Southern Stingray - Antigua  (Bob)
     Lesser Antillean Bullfinch  (Bob)
     Zenaida Dove  (Bob)

On Thursday we landed in Castries, St. Lucia about 8:00 a.m. We lined up a tour with Real St. Lucia Tours which provided a vehicle and a guide for the day. We were picked up at 9:00 a.m. and then spent a good part of the rest of the day in the van. St. Lucia was lush, green and mountainous. I think all six of our group would say it was our favorite of all the islands we visited, which is not to say it was our favorite visit. We had issues with our guide who did not seem to know much about the island and did not speak much. We stopped to buy some roadside bananas, stopped to look at a red-tail boa that someone was holding off the side of the road, stopped at the Tet Paul Nature Trail where we got great views of the Pitons, the famous twin pointed mountains, stopped at the caldera of a volcano, and then had an authentic local lunch in Soufriere. By the time we got back to Castries we barely had time to visit the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the site that was at the top of our list that day, before our on board time of 4:30 p.m.
     St. Lucia, Part I: An old French Base, a Snake, the Tet Paul Nature Trail, the Pitons, and some Sulphur Springs  (Judy)
     Carib Grackle  (Bob)
     St. Lucia Anole  (Bob)
     St. Lucia, Part II: Lunch, Castries Basilica, a Nobel Poet, and the Pitons  (Judy)
     Fedo's New Venture - Soufriere, St. Lucia  (Bob)
     Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception - Castries, St. Lucia  (Bob)

Friday we arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados around 8:00 a.m. We'd lined up our own excursion with Silver Moon Barbados for a five hour catamaran cruise. Our group of six took up half the guest space of twelve. This was probably the highlight of our Caribbean trip. We were on a beautiful sailboat with motor power for when the winds were not strong enough, we had a captain and two additional crew members and we were being fed and waited on constantly. We went snorkeling and saw green sea turtles, a stingray and quite a few fish. The water was very clear and nice and warm. We had a great lunch and a chance to swim off an exclusive resort. As we got back we took a taxi into Bridgetown where I found and tasted a flying fish sandwich and we walked around town and then back to the ship. Although this was our favorite activity, Bridgetown may have been my least favorite cruise port. Our on board time was 4:30 p.m.
     Barbados: Catamaran Sailing and a Flying Fish Sandwich  (Judy)
     Silver Moon Barbados  (Bob)
     Sergeant Major (fish)  (Bob)
     Green Sea Turtle  (Bob)
     Spanish Hogfish  (Bob)
     Houndfish  (Bob)
     Atlantic Tarpon (fish)  (Bob)
     Live Sharksucker (fish)  (Bob)
     Ballyhoo (fish)  (Bob)
     Flying Fish Sandwich - Bridgetown, Barbados  (Bob)
Saturday was a cruise day. We saw some islands at a distance. Nothing much to blog about.
We arrived back where we had started, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sunday morning about 6:00 a.m. Our flight home did not leave until 12:40 p.m., a flight to Atlanta, then LAX, arriving about 9:15 p.m. So we arranged with a taxi to take us to the Sheraton near Old Town, which agreed to hold our bags for a fee, and we visited the territorial capitol building, Fort San Cristobal and El Morro before catching a taxi to the airport. An iron man competition pretty much closed off Old Town to traffic, so we had to walk through Old Town.
     Puerto Rico: Territorial Capitol Building in San Juan  (Judy)
     Puerto Rico: San Juan Fortresses and Street Art  (Bob)
     Greater Antillean Grackle  (Bob)
The Caribbean had not been high on our destination list, but it was much more fun than either of us anticipated. I would love to go back. The difficult part is finding another cruise that hits different islands and that minimizes cruise days. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

White-Winged Doves and Fruiting Saguaros

In June of 2017, while in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument looking for fruiting saguaros, I was impressed by the number of white-winged doves I was seeing. I'd seen a couple in my many previous visits, but here I was seeing them all over, and invariably, they were standing on the top of a saguaro and picking away at the saguaro fruit. 

White-winged dove standing on saguaro fruit, bathed in the glow of the setting sun. 
I have learned that the desert is a variable canvas that presents a new picture each time I visit. The introduction of these sweet saguaro fruit brought these white winged doves out by the hundreds as they stood on the galeri 
of these desert ascetics transformed into cardinals by their ripe fruit. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Saguaro Flowers and Fruit

I did a post on the saguaro cactus in 2010 and I noted that the saguaro has a ruby colored fruit that matures in late June (I just read a source that said late May to early July), but that I'd never been to the desert that late to see them. Well, Judy was out of town this past weekend, so I decided to brave the 108 degree heat of southern Arizona (Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument) for the primary purpose of finding and tasting some saguaro fruit. 

One thing that surprised me was how the fruit production process varied significantly from cactus to cactus. Some saguaro were still blooming (the flowers only open at night), which is the first stage;
The flowers come off the ends.
on some the flower had fizzled and the bulb beneath it was bulging, but still green, the second stage; 
The black ends are flowers that have stopped blooming and their green bases are swelling. The one stem in the middle is still flowering, but the flower is closed during the day. 
some had bulbs that were red and ripe, the third stage; 
Two bulbs, left of center that are ripe. The one to the left is the one I knocked off and ate. 
and some had bulbs that had split open and the inner seeds were falling out or had completely fallen out, the fourth stage; 
These over-ripe red bulbs have split open and the inner seeds are spilling out. 
The two red bulbs that look like flowers have opened up and completely lost their seeds. The other bulbs only look partially ripe. 
and on some, the remains of the fruit had fallen of the cactus and were lying on the ground around it. the fifth stage.
These fruit fragments and seeds were laying around the saguaro I got my fruit from. 
I went to the Tillotson Peak turnout and walked among the saguaros there and did not find any that had ripe fruit. Driving in I'd seen a number of saguaros with ripe fruit and decided that the best way to find ripe fruit would be to drive the main road slowly looking for them. I eventually spotted a saguaro with some beautiful red fruit on it and it looked relatively low to the ground. I got to the cactus and found red debris around it, left-overs from fruit that had ripened and spilled their contents of seeds. My hiking pole was way too short to reach the fruit, so I searched for a dead saguaro and pulled out some of the internal staves to use as poles. These were just long enough to touch the fruit, but not long enough to exert enough pressure to remove them. 
I pulled several staves off this dead saguaro. They weren't long enough, so I found a longer dead saguaro. 
So I searched and found a longer dead saguaro that had staves long enough to reach the fruit. The staves were long and wobbly and were not strong enough to push off the fruit. So I had to swing the staves back and forth and eventually dislodged the piece of fruit I was after, bit by bit, in a back-and-forth motion.
A piece of ripe fruit.
I was surprised that the fruit was mostly spine free and about the size of a large turkey egg. I used a knife to easily split it in half, lengthwise, and was a little taken back by how dark red the inner fruit was. It consisted of hundreds of seeds in a consistency almost like mushy watermelon with small fish eggs and a slightly sweet taste. 
The fruit cut in half.
The fruit roughed up a bit to reveal its texture.
One-half with the seeds removed.
An inside and outside picture.
I was not craving more, it was not worth the additional effort, but I was very happy I'd tried it. It was certainly not bad or gross. 
Fruit in various stages.
A more distant view of the saguaro I got my fruit from. 
Later, when I visited the Visitor's Center one of the rangers took me out back and showed me a saguaro fruit stick that they use to knock the fruit off a saguaro. It was a much more sturdy wood stick than the one I used, and had a wood cross bar at the top for wedging the fruit in and enabling a good push to knock off the fruit. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Zebra-Tailed Lizard - Organ Pipe 2017

The zebra-tailed lizard loves open sandy gravel and heat. In two of my visits to Organ Pipe Cactus NM this year I've visited Quitobaquito Spring, a rare oasis in the Sonoran Desert, and found zebra-tailed lizards both times in the sandy gravel near the foliage generated by the spring water. 
On the sandy gravel near Quitobaquito. Note that the tail and the toes on the hind feet are in the air. 
Note the front toes are in the air as are the back toes as well as the rest of the body. 
In looking closely at my pictures it becomes apparent that one of the lizards is minimizing its contacts with the ground. Its tail is in the air, its torso is in the air and the toes on all four feet are in the air. It makes sense that the lizard is minimizing contact with the ground to reduce the amount of heat it is absorbing.

Another of the lizards is resting on a rock and I was able to get photos of it from a number of different angles. It is a male with two black belly stripes and some yellow and turquoise blue near those stripes, as well as some orange.  
The belly colors are stunning.
From the front it almost looks like Kermit the frog. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Coues Deer

The Coues or Arizona white-tailed deer is a subspecies of the white-tailed deer found in southern Arizona, mostly the southeastern part, southwestern New Mexico and Mexico, including all of Sonora and portions of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Nayarit and Durango. It is named after Elliott Coues, a naturalist, pronounced "cows," but almost always said "coos." It is the second smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer, after the Key deer of the Florida Keys, with bucks rarely weighing more than 100 pounds and does averaging about 65 pounds. Their eyes have white halos around them, their muzzle a white band across it, and a broad tail with a white underside and gray to reddish-black on top. 
Coues deer between Diablo Mountains and Ajo Mountains in southern Arizona. Note the white eye halos, white line on the muzzle and reddish flag tail. 
They inhabit "desert islands," the mountain ranges of the region, usually from about 3,000 to 9,000 feet elevation. Some consider it the hardest big-game animal to hunt and call it the "grey ghost," because of its ability to vanish from view in a small amount of cover. Jack O'Connor, the Shooting Editor of Outdoor Life magazine for 31 years, which I subscribed to as a youth, called the Coues deer the "most difficult of all deer to kill" because it is so wary and is found in such difficult and inhospitable habitat.  
Examples of them using ground cover to hide. 

Good luck spotting this one. It is to the left of the photo. 
I was in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in mid-June where the daytime temperature was 108 degrees. I took the Ajo Mountain Drive at about 6:00 a.m., when the temperature was in the high 70s or low 80s, and had just crossed over the Diablo Mountains and was heading up toward Arch Canyon in the Ajo Mountains when a deer spooked in front of me and ran for cover in the thick creosote bushes, interspersed with saguaro cactus and chain-fruit cholla. I stopped the car and got out with my camera and got intermittent views of two does hidden in the creosote, often looking at me and usually quite hidden by vegetation. They did not spook, but ambled away quite casually, but also quite well camouflaged. I've been to Organ Pipe about 15 times and these are the first deer I've ever seen there. 
Raised white flag as the Coues deer ambles beneath a chain fruit cholla. 
Another shot of the flag.
A short drive forward, maybe a quarter mile, I spotted a coyote off the side of the road. I only got a very poor, blurry picture of it. 
Poor picture of a coyote. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Elk Rib Chops - Sous Vide

I've eaten a little bit of elk in the past, but only once had I eaten a choice cut, an elk chop at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, South Dakota. It was a great piece of meat, but it was a little tough and a little bit more rare than I would have preferred. 
Some wild elk in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Recently I was at Exotic Meat Market in Grand Terrace and found a rack of elk chops that was imported from New Zealand - pasture raised and grass fed. I've been experimenting with my sous vide and I'm getting pretty confident at cooking steak with it. I decided to get the elk chops and give them a try. 
The elk chops out of the package.
The elk chops sliced into individual steaks.
I vacuum sealed the elk chops after I'd added salt and pepper and some butter. I cooked them at 55 degrees Centigrade for 2 and a half hours. 
After being cooked sous vide. 
After I cook them sous vide I put them in a sizzling hot frying pan and browned them on each side, then ate them. The first batch I browned in camel fat and served them with fried shishito peppers, fried garlic cloves, baked and fried potatoes and fried onions. The chops were cooked perfectly, still nice and rare, but not as tough or stringy as the South Dakota elk I had. 
Frying the chops in a hot skillet to brown them and create a nicer outer texture. 
Elk chops - nice and rare in the middle. 
A chop by itself. 
The next night I warmed up another bag of elk chops in the sous vide, at the same temperature, and fried the end product in a frying pan with butter. One of the nice things about sous vide cooking is that you don't over-cook the meat, so warming it up again does not de-grade or over-cook the meat. For this meal I had some more shishito peppers, some of my left over potatoes, cut into slices and fried in butter, and a steamed artichoke with butter and mayonnaise. The elk chop was as good as the night before and I did not notice any significant difference between the frying in camel fat verses butter. 
Elk chops fried in butter.
The sous vide is a marvelous way to cook leaner cuts of meat, like elk. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Goat Head Soup

Some time back one of Anshu Pathak's workers at Exotic Meat Market gave me the head of a goat that they'd slaughtered at Anshu's farm. Judy went out of town last night so I thought it an opportune time to try goat head soup, something I don't think she would have appreciated. 
The head was already skinned, leaving very little preparation. 

Googling recipes for goat head soup I learned that the Rolling Stones had an album, "Goats Head Soup," that included one of their number one songs, "Angie." That album dominated the search results. The next search result with the most hits was Jamaican Mannish Water which is a goat head soup that also includes the feet, testicles and other parts of the goat. It is supposed to be a powerful aphrodisiac and what the Rolling Stones album was named after. The third topic in terms of hit results was for a Nigerian spicy goat head dish. Ultimately, I was able to find bits and pieces that were helpful in what I wanted to prepare, such as an article in The Prairie Star

The basic concept was to put the goat head in a pot of water and get it boiling, then lower it to a simmer for three hours. Remove the goat head, extract the meat from it, then put the meat back in the pot with various root vegetables for another 30 minutes. 

I initially planned to break open the skull with a mallet before cooking it. I hammered away for awhile and decided it was not going to work well (I think they used an ax or a saw in Morocco to split the sheep heads). However, I did create a hole in the head which later provided access to the brain that would have been more difficult without it.  
For root vegetables, I used 7 potatoes, 3 large yellow beets, 3 onions, half of a butternut squash, corn cut off two ears of white corn, and some carrots. I added beef bouillon, dried roasted garlic slices and granulated garlic. 
After simmering for three hours, the goat head separated quite easily. The jaws came apart with hardly a pull and I was able to pull the brain out through the hole I'd made with the mallet. 

The eyes were large and intact and pulled right out. I salted one and plopped it in my mouth. It was just as good as the lamb eye I ate in Morocco last year. It had a pleasant mouth feel and nice taste, but the mental challenge of eating it is substantial. Eating the eye of the lamb in Morocco last year helped the mental aspect a lot. This time it was not a problem. I saved one eye for the soup.
The tongue pulled right out of the skull. I cut the outer skin off the tongue with kitchen shears and the skin pulled right off. I sliced up the tongue and added it to the pile of meat I was creating. The brain came out in sections and I pulled it into smaller pieces and added to the meat pile, which by the time I finished was quite significant. 
The tongue and both eyes.
The tongue, after the skin has been removed, and one eye.
The pile of head meat ready for the soup. 
By the time I got the meat in the pot the root vegetables were soft, so I only left the meat in for about 10 minutes before dishing up a bowl of soup. 
Goat head soup.
The final result was quite good. The vegetables were soft and plentiful, I particularly liked the sweet corn that still had a pop to it. The meat separated into the soup quite well and had a decent texture and a nice taste, nothing off-putting about it. 

Eating sheeps head in Morocco last year really helped me with the mental aspects of eating head meat (brains and eyes particularly). The goat head really was not much of a problem for me mentally.