Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fever Diary


This week Luce’s Gluten-Free Artisan Bread passed another milestone: an initial health department inspection. We have a few minor corrections to make, but we can complete them in 3-4 days. That means production can start next week (week of September 24).

If you haven’t signed up for my e-mail letter, now is the time. Members will get dibs on the first batch out of our kitchen.

It’s been a long haul to get to this point, and I have to confess I’m feeling quite a mixture of emotions. I’m elated to have finally put this together and gotten it “legal”, excited at the prospect of sharing my bread mixes with the world, and more than a little intimidated by the amount of work ahead. 

With the thought that my future might be a very busy one, my wife and I took a vacation last week, visiting one of our favorite places: Chincoteaque Island, Virginia. Those of you who loved to read as children probably know the name. It’s the site of a kiddy-lit classic: Misty of Chincoteaque. Now a good reader I was not, but I know that this story revolves around the wild horses that actually exist on the island. 

Sunshine and vacation shoes
We’ve been vacationing on Chincoteaque island for about 20 years. We always go the first weekend after Labor Day and we usually stay three days, but since I’ve “retired” and since this retirement is soon to end, we elected to spend four weekdays on the island this time. It has a huge National Wildlife Refuge, glorious beaches, a beautiful long-needle-pine forest, interesting fungi and - thanks to all those wild ponies, a world-class mosquito population. 

This year the days were all sunny and not terribly hot. Surf was heavy, thanks to two tropical storms out in the Atlantic, but the water was relatively warm. 

Food on the island can be a bit of a challenge, given our dietary restrictions, but we like to spread our net wide and drive all over the Southern DelMarVa peninsula in search of non-toxic treats. This time we tried the harbor town of Onancock Virginia - and lucked out. The restaurant we found - and went back to twice - was The Inn and Garden Cafe, where Chef Ted went out of his way to make gluten-free crabcakes. What a treat they were!

Leslie and the North Atlantic
A week of lounging in the sun, swimming from time-to-time and eating crab was intensely refreshing, but all too soon it was time to head home. THAT however meant stopping at as many BBQ joints and produce stands as I could convince Leslie to tolerate. Think wood-smoked pig meat, late summer melons, fresh limas, okra, tomatoes, and of course local figs. These were smallish, quite dark and tough-skinned, but much more intensely flavorful than the California varieties I’ve been finding in my local groceries.

Easy to love: Virginia figs
Our journey home was on a Friday. On the way I ate more than a few figs, and was so enraptured by their musky rich flavors I neglected to pay sufficient information to my passenger my wife. Had I been less self-absorbed I might have noticed her unusual restlessness (Leslie is a world-class car sleeper). But as it turned out I didn’t suspect a thing until we were home. “I don’t feel well,” she averred. At which point I noticed she was flushed. I put a hand on her forehead. It was hot. Shit. Leslie is one lady who never gets fevers. I was pretty certain I knew where this one came from.

The first day we’d been on the island, Leslie had taken a walk we always take together: to a wild pony overlook. Rarely are ponies visible, but the view is terrific and the forest through which the trail winds, gorgeous. Unfortunately it is quite mosquito-riddled. This year it was beyond the pale. Mosquitoes usually don’t pursue me, but 20 feet into the woods they were around us in a dense swarm. “Forget this,” I told her, “say hi to the horses for me, I’m waiting in the car.”

I thought she’d come with me. Mosquitoes love her. But, no, the walk was a tradition and she loves traditions. When she got back to the car she had a nimbus of bugs; so many they were uncountable. Even jumping in and slamming the door we ended up with dozens in the car. Despite the fact I thought she’d been foolish to go out in that mob, I felt sorry for her.

Mentally I returned here to balm my fear
By Saturday morning I was feeling much sorrier. Her temp was up to 102, and she was alternatively chilled and sweltering, nauseous and head-achy. I spent the day feeding her acetaminophen. We called our doctor’s on-call service and were told her fever was “low-grade”. We tried to shrug it off.

Sunday was worse. We had a wedding to go to but I called and cancelled her seat. She insisted I go - she wanted photos of the wedding gown. I did go and had a great time. When I got home I stuck a thermometer in her mouth. 104.

Panicked, we struggled to face the situation rationally. That’s not so easy when one of the engaged brains is beginning to cook. 104 is the border for hallucinations, and Leslie allowed she was having some trouble processing time-related concepts. My pulse had begun to race, but we agreed to not head to an ER until we saw what acetaminophen did. Which was actually and thankfully quite a bit. Her fever dropped to 100 and she soon fell asleep.

It was a wild night. Her fever “broke” early Monday, bathing her in perspiration and rousing her for showers and mop-downs twice before dawn. I had to pry her out of bed for a noon doctor’s appointment. Which, as I feared and suspected, indicated (but did not prove) West Nile Virus.

I’ll skip the rest of the medical story and say that in the intervening days she’s improved steadily: no more fever, no more nausea, gradually increasing appetite. We do not yet have an official diagnosis, but whatever-it-was, was too close for comfort. Fortunately she’s unscathed.

Postscript (written 9/22/12): Leslie has almost completely recovered, though she still is quite tired. Lab results say it was NOT West Nile. We're going back to the doctor next week for further investigation.)

As for me, I almost suffered the unspeakable calamity of losing those Virginia figs. By the time I remembered them on Monday afternoon they were at the outer orbit of ripe. Leslie was too sick to eat, and I couldn’t do that job myself (Anybody know what happens when you eat an entire quart of ripe figs? Bet you can guess...) so I elected to try a combination that’s been knocking around in my head since figs “came in” this autumn: cooking them with chanterelles.

Chanterelle vodka
Problem: I had no fresh chanterelles. Idea: I had a fifth of chanterelle vodka.

Do not go down to your liquor store and try to order this. You must make it: shred two or three very fresh, large chanterelles into a bottle of vodka and stash this in the refrigerator until the mushroom fragments sink to the bottom and the booze turns faint orange. Then freeze it or just keep it cold. 

Chanterelle vodka is not something I’d consume directly since I do not drink, but I made a bottle in August for slight-of-hand flavor tricks. It was time to try one. If I did this right, the diner would find unique flavors in the caramelized figs but not realize they were mushrooms. Unless of course I’d told them the ingredients in advance.

The figs were so pungent they overwhelmed any but a heavy dose of mushroom booze, but after fiddling with the ratio I ended up with a fun and rich dish. I’m not sure where it should be on a menu, but my instinct says appetizer. Whenever I ate some - which was often, since Leslie wouldn’t touch it - I paired it with chive-and-onion-laced Cotswald cheese, or Basque Issara cheese, or Vermont Clothbound Cheddar, and it was terrific. And, yes you can store leftovers in the fridge, though for some reason that kills the chanterelle flavor.

One of the best things about this dish - besides the illogical yet wonderful flavors - is how quickly and easily it can be realized. Just one thing: if you’re going to forage your own chanterelles and/or figs, wear plenty of mosquito repellant.  

Caramelized figs with onions and chanterelle vodka


10 small figs, or 5 larger ones, halved and stems removed
1 TBLS unsalted butter
1 TBLS extra-virgin olive oil
3 TBLS Vidalia onions, chopped fine
1/8 tsp salt
Pinch paprika 
7 TBLS chanterelle Vodka, divided (see text, above)


In a heavy skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the olive oil and allow to heat until butter sizzles. Add chopped onions and distribute evenly. Allow to sauté until onions just begin to brown, then reduce heat to low and place figs halves onto the hot oil, face down. Sprinkle salt and paprika over the simmering figs.

Continue to braise the figs for 10 minutes. Add one tablespoon of the vodka. It will boil off vigorously. Turn heat off.

When pan has cooled to below the vodka boiling point, add the remainder of the vodka and swirl pan so that liquid picks up the paprika and salt. Return pan to low heat. Simmer another 5 minutes or so until the alcohol is boiled away (or not, if you want a dish with kick). Stir just once and place into a serving dish. Serve warm with very sharp cheeses.

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