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Flash in the Pan: A duel with a rattlesnake gives me food for thought

—Ari LeVaux

Serpentine Cuisine

We arrived home late, in the dark. I parked so the headlights shone across the chicken yard, helping me avoid cacti when I shut the coop. But the lights missed the rattlesnake lying in my path.

Its buzzing tail and hissing breath combined into a sound like a helicopter taking off. I made the sound of a shrieking girl. Shorty’s voice, invisible behind the headlights, was low and calm. “Are you OK?”

The snake’s head was off the ground, with mouth gaping, fangs bared, and tongue flapping in the breeze of its angry hiss.

“I’m kind of OK,” I said.

I know an old hippy who says it’s bad karma to kill a rattlesnake. He’s lived on this mountain all his life. Never been bit, though he has lost dogs.

The hens were unusually silent in their coop. Usually, when there’s a commotion, they cluck and fuss. Two of the hens, Annabelle and Black ‘n’ Blue, were incubating eggs, adding to the drama. Eggs are a favorite rattlesnake food, and perhaps it was after those eggs. But what’s weird is the snake was in the same place I dumped the body of the first rattlesnake.

Shorty spotted the first snake in the tomato patch, where she was harvesting. It was a young snake, sleeping in the shade. Young snakes are considered more dangerous because they don’t conserve venom when they bite, shooting their entire load instead.

The first snake wasn’t bothering Shorty, so she continued harvesting tomatoes peacefully, albeit with frequent glances toward the slumbering serpent. When she told me about it, my eyes rolled back a little. I grabbed my square-point shovel grimly, with zero tolerance in my heart for rattlesnakes in the garden.

A better man would have just captured the snake and moved it to safer turf. I used the shovel blade to pin the snake into the ground right behind its head, and finished with a machete. I tossed the snake’s body into the chicken yard because I hoped the girls might peck at it, as they do with meat scraps. The snake’s body writhed slowly in the dirt for about ten minutes before it finally lay still. The girls avoided the body, which sank into the dirt in front of the rock beneath which the new snake was now cursing its forked tongue at me.

The first snake, being asleep, was easy. But version 2.0 was ready to rumble. I edged backwards toward the fence, eyes locked on my foe. I reached over the fence and grabbed my square-point shovel. I held the shovel toward the snake, and it struck quicker than my eyes could see. I felt the hit, heard the ping of fangs on the blade, and immediately bolted to the top of the chicken coop.

“Worst-case scenario is I get bit and Shorty drives me straight to the ER,” I thought. “It’s a half-hour to the ER.”

It would suck, but I would live. And while I was in the ER surviving, that snake would slither around the chicken yard, feasting on unhatched baby chicks, while Annabelle and Black ‘n’ Blue panicked or lay dead, helpless to stop the carnage.

Can’t. Let. That. Happen.

I hopped off the coop, keeping my eyes on the snake as I backed toward the fence, where I picked up a grapefruit-sized rock and whipped it at the snake, nailing it. It hissed louder, uncoiled and re-coiled itself. Shorty collected more rocks and handed them to me over the fence. I threw rocks until the snake began moving more slowly and hissing more quietly. Then I moved in with the shovel for an ugly finish.

Since dumping the last snake in the chicken yard hadn’t worked out so well, the next day I skinned the snake and soaked its body in salt water. It happened to be Shorty’s birthday, and we had the grill going for burgers. I put the snake on the grill, too.

We devoured our green chile burgers and picked at the snake. The taste was good, sort of like chicken. But each little mouthful was a lot of work, because the layer of flesh around the bones was so thin. Eating it this way was tasty but slightly painstaking.

I got a pot of water going, and simmered the snake in hopes of coaxing off the remaining meat. I strained the water, teased apart flesh from bones, and ended up with about half a cup of snake meat.

In the land around our house, prickly pear cactus fruit were ripe and purple. The coyotes had gobbled up all but the most inaccessible fruits, but I was able to gather a few, thinking their tart sweetness would nicely offset the snake’s greasiness.

Prickly pear fruits are juicy, and covered with annoying short fuzzy spines that hook into your skin and hang on tenaciously. I scraped the fruits clean with a butter knife under the faucet while the snake scraps baked at 350 degrees in a cast-iron skillet. When the prickly pear fruits were clean, I added them to the skillet. After about twenty-five minutes, they started to collapse, and I added whole garlic cloves, stirring occasionally until the garlic softened. Then I turned off the oven and left the dish inside to keep warm.

The prickly pear fruits, sweet and perfumy, were the highlight of the dish. The garlic cloves too were spectacular, as was the rattlesnake, which still tasted like chicken. It was crispy and dry at this point, nicely balanced by the pungent garlic and the tart sweetness of cactus fruit. This was the best that snake had tasted.

Not sure what we’re going to do with the skin yet. It’s still hanging on the fence in the back yard. I hope that’s not a mistake.


What to do with a peck of peppers

Q: Our peppers are still reddening on the plants, but with frost coming, I’ve got some picking and preserving ahead. We still have several jars of pickled peppers on the shelf from last year, gathering dust, and I’ve had mixed luck with drying peppers in the past.

We had good luck one year making chipotles by smoking jalapeno and Rio Grande chiles. Another time we tried blending garlic and jalapenos and freezing them in ice cube trays. Not a lot of flavor, and the ice cube trays were never the same.

Now I’m thinking of filling jars with jalapenos and oil. I like cooking with the hot oil that results, and the peppers taste less vinegary when preserved in oil.

I’m also considering attempting to replicate the chili paste I find in the Asian section of the grocery store. It seems like it‘s primarily chili, garlic, and preservative.

Our pepper varieties are Thai Hot, Rio Grande Hot, Bulgarian Carrot, Española Improved, Anaheim, and Poblano.

What do you think of these ideas, and do you have any suggestions for preserving peppers beyond pickling them?

—Peck o’ Peppers

A: Dude, what’s wrong with your pickled peppers? Having a few jars left over from last year should not be a problem, and shouldn’t even happen, unless your pickles suck, or you’re just not a pickled pepper person.

Assuming you’re not a pickle person, you’re excused, and your ideas sound great. Especially the pepper paste and pepper oil, not to mention the proven chipotle option. I think the Thai Hot and Bulgarian Carrot are best for paste. But careful with those Bulgarians. They’re hot.

Preserving with oil can produce spectacularly delicious results. But because oil-preservation carries a botulism risk, I’m not going to go there.

As for your Rio Grandes, Poblanos, Españolas, and Anaheims: these peppers are for roasting, either in the broiler or on the grill, until the skins blister. Then freeze them, remembering to leave several bags in my freezer.


Give your home a facelift without spending a fortune

Angie’s List (www.angieslist.com), the nation’s leading provider of consumer ratings on local service companies, went to the experts to find cheaper alternatives to home improvement projects that could otherwise break your bank. Here are a few:

Big-bucks project: New bathtub
Small-bucks fix: Re-glaze the old tub

An old and worn-out bathtub can make any bathroom look dull and dated. But the cost of a new bathtub can start anywhere from $200 to $600, and some tubs can cost thousands, depending on the size and features, such as jets. In addition, replacing a bathtub usually involves more than just buying a new tub—you may have to move or replace plumbing to fit the new tub.

Consider a less expensive option, such as re-glazing the bathtub—a new enamel finish in a color you choose. Price typically ranges from $300-$600 and you don’t have to factor in the expense of ripping out the old tub.

Big-bucks project: New kitchen or bathroom cabinets
Small-bucks fix: Cabinet re-facing

Looking for a new, fresh look for your kitchen, but can’t afford a total remodel? Consider re-facing your cabinets. That way you can rework an already adequate kitchen/bath with a facelift without interrupting your busy life.

Re-facing consists of installing new cabinet doors and drawer fronts, and covering the exposed frames of the cabinets with new matching wood or plastic veneer. No cabinets are ripped out, and the layout remains the same. Add some new hardware, and voila—your kitchen has a new look!

Cabinet re-facing typically costs twenty-five to thirty percent less than replacing existing cabinets. Most companies price per unit (count each door, drawer, etc. as a unit). Price per unit can range as low as $100 to as high as $250, depending on materials.

Big-bucks project: New deck
Small-bucks fix: Clean and seal

A deck will last up to twenty years if you take care of it. Considering it costs anywhere from $10-20 a square foot to build a new deck, a little maintenance is the best bang for your buck.

Decks take a good amount of beating from the weather and catch a lot of dirt, grime, and mold. A good cleaning once a year with a pressure washer will keep the deck looking nice and is essential before sealing or staining. After a thorough cleaning, seal the deck or the wood will splinter, crack, and warp.

And finally, keep the deck free from debris build-up between boards. Areas covered in debris collect moisture and can cause dry rot.

 

     

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