Monday, October 10, 2016


Insect Meteorologist?

Old-time folklore and superstitions are usually laughed at in today’s modern, scientific world.  But can your technology predict the severity of the coming winter?  Undoubtedly, we think it can.  Weather satellites, historic weather trend analysis, computer modelling and the heavily degreed men and women of meteorology would indicate that technology can do a decent job predicting the weather, I think.  But in simpler times, before the advent of space travel and computers, our ancestors would use a number of naturally occurring indicators to help them predict the weather.  The times of bird migrations and insect activity were among them.  In the case of winter weather one of the insects used to predict the severity of the coming season was the coloring of the “Woolly Bear” or “Woolly Worm”, a common caterpillar native to North America, so called because of its woolly appearance. It is the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella), a rather understated moth of yellow, orange or pink with small black spots.  The moth lays her eggs during the warm summer and they grow into brown and black fuzzy caterpillars that are evident in October.  Normally, the front and rear sections of the caterpillar are black and the mid sections are rust brown. 
Isabella Tiger Moth
According to tradition, the coloring of the 13 segments of the Woolly Bear’s body indicated the severity of the coming winter.  More brown segments indicate a milder winter and more black segments indicate a harsher winter.  “How does the caterpillar know?”, I ask?  Well, according to the University of Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, the caterpillar doesn’t “know”, per se.  The caterpillar has black end segments and as it ages the black segments shrink as it molts.  So it seems to follow that if the fall is milder and longer that you will find more Woolly Bears with more brown than black.  To add to the confusion, there are variants of the same caterpillar that are all brown have no black at all.    

All brown Isabella caterpillar
There are even all white “Woolly Bears” caterpillars that are the larva of the Spotted Tiger Moth.  I didn’t see any the day I was exploring but if I find one I will update this article.  So, the brown and black segments of the Isabella caterpillar seem to be a better indicator of how long it’s growing season was as opposed to how severe the coming winter will be.  As the weather cools the caterpillars find a safe place to hide and hibernate through the winter, emerging in spring and cocooning until emerging as the moth.  Tiger Moths have two generations every year, one in spring after emerging and one in summer, which will hibernate through the winter.

Woolly Bears do not sting!
The great thing about Woolly Bears is that they do not sting!  Many other woolly or hairy caterpillars have stinging spines or hairs.  Not so with the Woolly Bear.  All of its color variations are safe to handle, making it an excellent and fun little insect to introduce children to insects.  When handled they tend to curl up in a protective little ball, but they will soon crawl around on your hand at surprising speed!  Some people keep Woolly Bears as pets and they seem to do well, of course you should expect them to hibernate over winter, which is probably not very exciting for the kids.  

So unless a long, warm fall indicates a mild winter, which it may or may not, it is hard to say that our Woolly Bear weather predictor is any more accurate than a heavily degreed meteorologist, but they are probably more entertaining.  

In the Southern States the caterpillar is mostly referred to as the Woolly Worm.  The tradition of observing the Woolly Worm is still strong in North Carolina, where every year there is a Woolly Worm Festival and a properly trained Woolly Worm is selected as the year's winner and winter weather forecaster.  The 2016 festival is 15-16 October in Banner Elk, North Carolina.  If you go to festival let us know how it was!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Chicken and Andouille Gumbo


Gumbo in a '40's era Wagner MagnaLite Dutch oven and cornbread.
Gumbo is a traditional Louisiana food.  There are as many different ways to prepare it as there are people who prepare it.  Chicken and andouille sausage is a standard, but many use game meats, like duck and sausage (one of my all-time favorites), and seafood such as shrimp and/or crawfish.  Rabbit, squirrel and even deer can be used.  Some folks like to add okra to their gumbo, but not all.  Okra is more common in Creole style gumbo than in Cajun style.  I like them both.  Gumbo takes a while to make, so don’t get in a hurry, but you have to manage your prep time for cutting up vegetables and de-boning the chicken.  
Boil your chicken in a large Dutch oven, covered in water.  You can add some seasoning if you wish but not too much because this will make the chicken stock you will use in your gumbo.  I find a couple shakes of Tony’s is all I need.  You want to boil it and set it to simmer until the meat is ready to fall off the bones.  At least an hour.  Some folks cut their chicken up to cook it but I boil it whole.  You will probably have to add water to keep the chicken submerged.Once it’s done take the chicken out and let it cool a little so you can pull the meat off the bones.  Once you have removed all the bones and skin cover or refrigerate your chicken meat.  SAVE THE STOCK.  I keep the stock in the pot with a lid on it. 
The two most important elements of Cajun gumbo, and many other Cajun dishes, is the “Holy Trinity”; onion, bell pepper and celery, and the other is a roux.  It is advisable to cut up your trinity before you begin heating your pot.  Use one large white onion, one large or two small bell peppers, I like to use one red and one green for color, and a small handful of celery stalks, leaves and all.  If you want okra you can cut it into thick slices.  Once you have your trinity cut up into small cubes, put it all in a bowl and cover it or place it in the ‘frig.  Keep your okra separate until you add it because it gets slimy.

There are also different styles of roux, but the basic roux is flour cooked in equal parts of oil; one cup of flour cooked in one cup of oil.  There are different types of oil you can use, but DO NOT use olive oil.  Its smoke point is too low and it will give your gumbo a terrible flavor.  You can use Crisco, lard, peanut oil, blended vegetable oil or corn oil, but I prefer to use bacon grease.  Every time I cook bacon I pour the excess grease into a cup that I store in the refrigerator.  Nothing goes to waste.  

The trick to making a roux is to slowly add the flour into the oil and cook it over a medium heat in a big Dutch oven.  Using cast iron is the best way to ensure you get an even distribution of the stove’s heat to the entire bottom of your Dutch oven.  If you don’t get even heat you will not get a good roux.  Adjust the heat as you go along to keep the oil from smoking too much. Do not add any seasoning to the flour at this point, that all comes later.  I spread the flour out evenly into the oil and stir it, and stir it, and stir it… actually, you never stop stirring the roux the entire time you are cooking it.  That means you need to have your oil and your flour at hand because you cannot walk away from the roux.  You want to reach a nice, even consistency with the texture of the flour and oil mixture, something akin to creamy peanut butter.  You can add oil and/or flour as you go to get that consistency.  As you cook the flour it will darken slowly.  Adjust your heat as needed.  It is up to you how dark you like your roux to be, just don’t burn it.  If you smell burned oil and flour, you need to start over.  Burned roux is a sin and making anyone eat it is punishable by hell fire.  I like to get my roux to the color of ground beef.  

Once you are satisfied with your roux you add the trinity vegetables (and okra) and saut√© them in the roux until the onions begin to clear.  Do not let the mixture stick to the bottom of the pot or it will burn.  Once you have the vegetables thoroughly mixed in the roux and starting to saut√© you can add a ladle or two full of chicken stock, just to keep it from sticking at first, then slowly add more stock as the vegetables cook until you have a stew.  Now you can add some seasoning if you wish, but you don’t need much.  I usually use a little cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper, and that’s it.  By now the aroma of the gumbo is really at its peak.  Let the gumbo simmer on low heat while you slice up your andouille sausage into bite size pieces.  Then, add your chicken and your sausage and enough stock to cover it all and give it the consistency of thick soup.  Let it simmer on low heat for at least 45 minutes to an hour.  During this time, you make the rice that you will serve your gumbo over.  You can also make French bread and potato salad, if you want a real Cajun meal.

When your rice is done and your gumbo is ready, serve your gumbo over a bed of rice in a deep dish or bowl.  You can garnish it with sliced scallions and/or fresh cut parsley.  A big slice of homemade cornbread or a flakey slice of French bread and a little bowl of potato salad will have you wishing for Cajun country in no time.  

Bon Appetit!  Ma, yah, sa se bon!