A Fine Day for Digging in Someone Else’s Trash

The weather has been absolutely divine this week. We were side-swiped by a slow moving “tropical storm” last week, which didn’t do much more than knock some branches down, but somehow delivered this extremely unseasonably cool weather.

By cool, I mean in the 80s. But nights in the 60s! Oh my, delight cannot cease. It’s like an indian summer, in reverse. Just when I thought the heat would go on and on forever, a reprieve!

I’ve been dabbling in my garden, clearing weeds, planting seeds. And taking delicious morning walks. Which are always very fruitful for me. And I’m wondering, as per my Quiet Riot, do I get to subtract the weight of trash removed from other folks cans?

Cause, if I do, I’m golden.

Scavenger Crow

I am an insatiable scrounge. When I am out and about, my eyes are restless. They flit here and there, looking for Opportunities. I like to think it’s a carry-over from my woodsy foraging days. Always something out there, in the world. Waiting for me to discover it.

Trash day. Love it. I’m not ballsy or desperate enough to open random trash cans. But when I see some clue about possibly good contents, I have no qualms whatsoever. Broad daylight, kids in the stroller, me rummaging through someone’s trash.

Even as a purely recreational scrounge I have found some good shit down here. Suitcases and rugs galore, and other big stuff that doesn’t fit in the can itself. A few times someone purging for a move, bulging trash bags full of household goods next to the can. A feather down mattress pad, in pristine condition. Innumerable goodies really.

Back in Alaska, in small town life, I used to really dive. As in, grocery store dumpsters. As in, get in, down with the crates of eggs smashed on the bottom corner, cases of milk one day past date, box after box of perfectly ripe produce (did you know that they throw it away at peak ripeness? That’s the standard, because it’s supposed to last one week in your fridge at home…) and all the junk food you could ever hope to resist. I was always nervous at first, headlamp in the dark dumpster, someone watching for the cops. Always elated at the end as we packed hundreds of dollars worth of food into the car.

(I can’t resist giving you a link here to the very last post on my last-life blog, Subsist/Resist, with photos of the prototype for Dumpster Diver Barbie a friend and I made. Mattel spies be warned, I want the all the royalties!)

Here in one of the most dangerous cities in America, I have not summoned the courage to venture out after dark, to lurk behind darkened grocery stores. Seems a bad idea. Not to mention that here there are people with real need. I like to think they are exersizing full license on those laden dumpsters. I like to think, though I suspect I’m wrong, that there isn’t enough left for me.

What I have enjoyed here, in full light of day, without headlamps or black hats, is scavenging neighborhood fruit. I’ve scavenged lemons, grapefruit, kumquats, mandarinquats, satsumas, miniature pomegranates, and now…. mulberries! I’ve not gotten up the gumption to ask about trees I see through fences, dripping with fruit, that whole long list is street-side, or otherwise unclaimed. If I had the time to process tons of fruit, I could gather my wits to knock on some doors, and then I’d really be in ’em.

Most of those fruits I only harvested in small, tasting quantities. The mandarinquat days were glorious, but brief. It was a bush in an abandoned lot. I made many a deliciousness out of those little sour oranges. But then one day, I went to fill my bag and the lot had been razed to the ground. Construction started two days later. I almost cried.

The mulberries were a great tip-off from a friend. I had biked past the tree dozens of times, and just never noticed it. When I finally made it over last week to pick, it was a revelation. What a wonderful little berry! So, so sweet. Our hands were positively sticky with dark burgundy juices. No berry in Alaska makes your hands sticky. The mulberries taste dark, sweet, winey, like too much sun. The kids picked and ate off the (blessed) low branches for a full half an hour while a visiting friend and I cleaned the upper branches. We picked probably a gallon and a half. I was ecstatic! I put about half the load in the freezer (frozen on a tray, then into a bag, so that we could grab a handful at will), and jammed the other half.

Do you scavenge local fruits? If you are lucky enough to live in one of the areas covered by the awesome group Fallen Fruits, you can download one of their maps. They map all the fruits in or over public spaces. Unfortunately, although they’ve mapped several cities in California and Colorado, a couple of other random spots in the US, and quite a few in Europe, the rest of us have to slowly build our own local fruit maps.

Put the word out. Keep your eyes peeled. Get your crow on.

Then swallow your pride and grab a bucket.

Ruby Fruit Jungle

Just took my morning put-the-Babe-to-sleep walk. We peruse the neighborhoods looking for adventure, morning sun, and trash. I’ve found some good stuff lately, maybe people are doing closet clean-outs to prepare for the holiday’s influx of new junk. That’s fine. I’ll take their old junk.

Found a very nice large laundry hamper sized wicker basket this morning. When I pulled it out, I assumed there would be a broken spot, or at least the wicker pulling out somewhere. But no, it’s in perfect condition. Beautiful.

the morning's plunder
the morning's plunder

But what’s really got the fire going under my kettle is the grapefruit tree!

First I walked past the lemon tree on the corner, as I always do after windy weather, to check for fallen fruits. Counted five, but left them to pick up on the way back. Then I was thinking about the Satsuma tree at the end of the street, thinking I’d better go ask them about picking a bunch for juicing. I’m not terribly fond of the fruit as is, it’s too plainly sweet for me, but I love the juice when mixed with a smidge of lemon to spice it up.

I was thinking to myself as I walked, ‘Okay, local foraging so far– lemon tree? Check. Mandarin tree? Check. Hmmm… What I need now is a grapefruit tree…” And I kid you not, two minutes later, there it was! I have walked past it dozens of times and never seen it. But suddenly, like a beacon on a dark citrus sea, it shone bright to my eyes.

There were several fruits on the sidewalk beneath the overhanging branch. A few had split in the fall, and were buzzing with fruit flies, but three were whole and good. As I bent over to pick them up, I saw under the tree’s branches into the yard of it’s owner. Of course, a dozen more grapefruits under the tree on the other side of the fence. But also– a lemon tree. A banana tree. And a pitchfork stuck in the ground. I need to meet these people!

I’ve long had a soft spot for ruby red grapefruit, and I don’t think it’s just because of Rita Mae Brown’s book. The first time I loved a grapefruit I was 19 years old, on a mountianside in Iceland. My traveling partner and I had just discovered dumpster diving, and one of our treasures was a grapefruit, which we took on a hike with us up the mountain for our lunch. When we bit into that grapefruit, it was a revelation. It was so sweet! And sour and feisty and delicious. At the time I didn’t know why it was so much better than any grapefruit I’d ever had. But I’ve since realized that, before that day, I’d never eaten a ripe grapefruit. Being from Alaska, you pretty much can’t buy a ripe grapefruit. Because by the time they’re ripe, they feel soft and old, and the produce guy throws them into… you guessed it, the dumpster. The best grapefruits I’ve ever eaten in Alaska (or Iceland) were out of dumpsters.

So, I should let these beauties sit on the counter until they’re nice and soft. But you know I’m not going to be able to resist cracking at least one open for my brekky. Bon appetit!

Marmalade Redooo

The good news: It worked! I gelled a batch of marmalade!

The bad news: I have no idea why it worked.

I did put the seeds in a little cheesecloth baggie, and boiled with the rest, as some recipes suggested. But there weren’t very many seeds, I can’t imagine it was that. I also let the boiled till tender peels and everything (pre-sugar adding) sit overnight to “develop” the pectin, as some other recipes suggested. Was that it? Or was it that I made a smaller batch? One recipe did say it was hard to get a big batch to reach temperature…

Whatever it was, I sure was excited when the roiling, boiling mass of orangey goodeness started to look right. And just so’s you know, even on a plate that had been in the freezer, a dab still looked a little too soft when it was, in fact, ready.

A good trick for busy mamas:

By the time it had finished cooking and was ready to jar, it was late, all I wanted to do was go to bed. And anyway I hadn’t made it to the hardware store to get the smaller jars. So I let it sit overnight (also gave me the opportunity to see how gelled it had really gotten) then the next day reheated it and poured into my sterilized jars.

Bad trick: letting it burn a teeny bit while reheating. It doesn’t really need to reach a boil. It sterilized last night, and if you covered it, should still be sterile, besides it’s packed with sugar, I doubt this stuff is capable of supporting mold. So don’t overdo it whilst simultaneously eating lunch, oblivious to stirring, as some people might have done. That said, the little bit of burny didn’t make a bad flavor at all.

So, now that you have jar upon jar of marmalade, dear girl, what do you intend to do with it?

For starters I’ve discovered I like marmalade way better than milder fruit jams. I was never a huge jam fan. It’s fun to make (quite easy to make too much, in fact) and I do enjoy stirring it into yogurt, and the occasional PB&J. But I’ve always found jam to be either too sweet or too bland. Wasn’t till I tried my homemade marmalade that I realized fruit you would eat out of hand just doesn’t have enough flavor to carry the sugar it takes to make jam as sweet as I want it to be. But take something like orange peels, add a ton of sugar and you get something with real gusto! Wowza. Zing-orama!

Saw on another blog in my marm research that one woman’s family called it Mama-lade, because she was the only one who would touch the stuff. I like that, and suspect it will be true in our household as well. It is a very unusual taste to an American taste bud. We do tend to scorn the bitter.

In addition to smearing it on homemade toasted wheat bread with butter, I think it’s going to rock for cooking with.

For starters, I followed Riana’s non-recipe for Moroccan Chocolate Tangerine Tart. I love how she cooks exactly like I do, and is therefore incapable of conveying a real recipe, because anyway you’d have to have on hand whatever weird concoction she pulls out of her freezer to substitute for whatever she doesn’t have on hand. It’s impossible to imitate truly resource based cooking.

I did her non-recipe justice by paying very little attention to any part of it, except the concept– bittersweet whole orange puree (I just used marmalade whizzed up in the food processor), thickened with egg, on a pastry crust, with chocolate on top. I made mine bars, cuz I don’t have even a pie dish here, let alone a tart dish. They are intriguing little numbers. Exotic. I added cinnamon to play up the Moroccan flavor, and vanilla. I wouldn’t say they’re my new fave, the bitterness of the marmalade is kind of overpowering in such quantity, but well worth making.

More than star attraction cooking, I’m thinking the marm will be a good ‘punch up the flavor by the spoonful’ addition to lots of yummie things. It’d go great in almost any dessert. How about marm replacing a few tablespoons of the sugar in a chocolate cake? Stirred into the filling of an apple pie? Marmalade ice cream? But savory things too often benefit from a little sweetness– spaghetti sauce? (I once knew a real slimeball who, after asking me if I was a dancer and reading my palm made me spaghetti by his grandmother’s “secret” recipe, which included a big spoonful of grape jelly… I was young.) How about stir fry? It’d be a fab glaze for any kind of meat or fish, I can hardly wait to try it on one of our lovingly brought from Cordova salmon fillets.

So many ideas, and plenty of marmalade to try them all! The neighbor just brought another bag of Satsumas, so I’ll be on to my fourth batch. I’ll figure this thing out yet!



Trash vs. Treasure

Spent my early morning scouting for trash. When I first went out to greet the day (and get this Baby back to sleep so I could enjoy a little blogging time) I heard a distant rumble, “Crap! The garbage truck!” I had been eyeing several bulging bags of leaves the last couple of days, and didn’t want to miss my opportunity, especially with the community garden plot looming large in my future.

I finished my coffee quick and unlocked my bike. Babe strapped on in my mei tai, trailer rolling behind, I pedaled a block over and picked up four huge bags. These were especially ironic. The bags were from a commercial shredded wood mulch that is impregnated with some chemical– the bag guarantees no weeds for 6 months. Rake up the leaves, spread out the petro-chemicals. Ha, ha… Ha… Hm.

Another two laps around the block yielded two more trailer loads. Yesterday I scavenged a big heap of cardboard ahead of the recycling truck. Garden mulch, here I come!

I’ve been watchful of trash cans ever since we got here. Found some decent odds and ends. Just last week found this brand new (tag still on) fancy yuppie bamboo cutting board for bread, cheese and olives. After bringing it home I realized it’s really not very useful. Too small and specific. Now it will just clutter up my kitchen until I finally take it to the Sally, so it can clutter up someone else’s kitchen… Scavenging’s downside is the accumulation of marginally useful stuff.

Also last week saw two little pumpkins in the top of someone’s overstuffed trash can. They looked like the real sugar-pie pumpkins, meant for cooking not carving (the carving variety pumpkins are a waste of time to try to eat, in my opinion. All water, no flavor). I was a little afraid they’d be just the carving variety engineered to be smaller, some kind of backwards mean trick. But after baking them and making a tasty creamy soup, I’d say- no mean trick. Perfectly good food. Out of the two little p’kins, I got one batch of soup, and enough for an as yet unmade p’kin pie, which I’ll save for Thanksgiving.

I’ve also scrounged a nice big shelf for our bedroom, scraps of lumber, a few pieces of windfall fruit.

And then there’s the monastery lemons. Which are brewing into marmalade as I write.

What I haven’t done at all since we got here is any true dumpster diving. I miss it, especially when I hand over $80 for groceries. I’ve never been a particularly brave dumpster diver, and it’s pretty intimidating here. Especially since you’re not really supposed to wander around after dark… I keep meaning to ask around at the farmer’s market to see if anyone would save me their “trash” produce. But having no chickens as an excuse, it just sounds like asking for free food. Probably, whenever I really do it, they’ll be cool about it. Most people (excepting the apparently soul-less big box grocery store owners) don’t like to see stuff wasted. This doesn’t mean they’ll go very far trying to stop the waste, but it does mean that they’ll likely be relieved if someone else does something about it.

Speaking of other people doing something about it, here’s a great mainstream media article about dumpster diving for food. Leave it to the Brits to tackle a subject Americans won’t touch with a ten foot pole. I thought they were the ones who were supposed to have a stick up their ass. Oh, that’s right, we are spawned from their most hard core prudes.

And here’s a photo gallery from the same article. They didn’t just write about it, they took and published pictures! For any of y’all who have never dived a grocery store dumpster, and never witnessed they unbelievable quantity and (oh yes) quality therein, you must look at these photos. And for those old hand DDers out there, for a good laugh, take a gander at the Dumpster Diver Barbie photos on my old blog. Product spies from Mattel be warned– I want all the royalties!

At some point in our tenure here, I hope I’ll get to do some real diving. But, until then, I’ll make do with my furtive trash can scoping.

Monastery Marmalade

Oh yes, you read me right. I’m quite excited about this one. For some reason it took me more than a month living here to realize we lived one and a half blocks from a monastery. I guess in my life up till now, monasteries are the stuff of fairy tales. Maybe they really exist, in Tibet or some such equally fairy tale-ish place. But not just down the street!

Our neighborhood monastery has a big gate that’s usually open, with a sign that says Monastery Gift Shop, as welcoming as an iron gate on a ten foot tall brick wall can be. We kept meaning to check it out, but hadn’t.

Anyway, two days ago walking back from the park I saw some strangely bulging trash bags, right next to the trash can out back of the monastery’s tall brick wall. The strange way they were bulging said to me– oranges! Or maybe, grapefruit. Unless they were throwing out three bags full of softballs…. I ripped one open. Indeed some kind of citrus, but what? Yellow and sourer smelling than grapefruit. Whatever they were, surely I could marmalade them! I marmaladed a big box of limes from the dumpster once, so I know that it’s not just for oranges.


But I couldn’t do anything that involved the peels until I found out if they had been sprayed. I had to venture past the iron gate, into the mysterious, walled off lair of the monastery. Would there be nuns or monks inside? Would they be adorably kind and gentle, or tight lipped, harsh and in need of a good lay? Only one way to find out.

With my Toddler and Babe in tow, brandishing my wedding ring like a shield (in case they should suspect my virtue), I entered the iron gate and scaled the wide marble steps to the open door. Inside it was, predictably, completely silent– all dark wood and effigies. There was a sign that said, “for gift shop, ring bell” (the bell was, sadly, just the push button type). I rang and waited. A few moments later a deep-set wooden window opened. I suddenly wondered if I had anything to confess.

It was a woman. Not in any penguin outfit, but nun-looking none-the-less. Older, and definitely the sweet variety.

I apologized for the interruption (of course I imagined she’d been deep in prayer, but more likely she was just balancing the books and contemplating how to lure more shoppers into the gift shop) and then explained myself. Her eyes lit up when she understood my question. She said they were lemons. That they’d had the tree for years, for grafting onto, but never did. The lemons weren’t very good, though they’d gotten better in recent years. No, they hadn’t been sprayed, and yes, I could have as many as I wanted.

I left with a gleam in my mind’s eye. Behind that tall wall was a lemon tree. All the lemons I could want (well, how many lemons can a person want anyway?). But what else? What else were those industrious nuns growing for God back there? What other secrets did they have to discover? I found myself burning with obsessive desire to see behind the wall. I had an instant little fantasy, where I bring them back a jar of their lemons turned marmalade, and they invite me in. They give me tea. They show me around to all their unused fruit. Trees. They let me pick their lemons.

Yikes! Let’s get back to the marmalade!

The bags, which I collected the next day with my bike trailer, were full of lemons, yes. But these were the fallen fruits. They were almost all split open on one side, and having sat in the sun for a day or two, soft and fermenty around the split. I took a few in the house and cut them in half, the good half was still perfectly firm and fresh. I juiced them and tasted the juice, as delicious as lemon juice straight up can be! I foraged online for a recipe, and trialed a batch of marmalade. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have a scale, I didn’t actually follow the recipe, just the technique.

Okay, not really the technique either. I’m one of those notorious recipe disregarders. I always look at two or three recipes when I’m cooking something new, I write at least one down. And then proceed to completely disregard it. It’s like a dysfunction. I always have excuses. ‘I don’t have a scale’ or, ‘But these lemons are only half good, I can’t boil them whole.’ Sometimes I get arrogant and second guess the recipe writer. Or I combine recipes heedless of the importance of one ingredient to another.

For a dysfunction it’s fairly functional. I occasionally have disasters, but most often things work out fine. Not perfect, but good enough. I do learn things. Like why you should follow recipes.

At any rate. My first batch of lemon marmalade candied. Maybe I added too much sugar, or not enough liquid. Either way I let it boil down too much, and got a very soft ball stage. I got a combo of syrup and candied lemon peel. I whizzed it up in the food processor to get a somewhat better texture. It’s actually surprisingly good. I had some on my toast this morning.

In the middle of making my second batch, I willed into reality our neighbor bringing by a big bag of Satsumas. These little mandarins are ubiquitous here this time of year. I personally find them too sweet to be very satisfying. But I had dreamed that the best marmalade would be made from both satsumas and lemons, for a perfect balance of sweet, sour and bitter.

Satsuma Love

The proof will be in the pudding. I have some bubbling away on the stove, and some in the crock pot (I’ve been using the crock pot for canning type projects which need a low simmer for a long time. Works great, and there’s less waste heat) I did have one taste when I tested for sugar content, and wowza. Yu-um!

Marmalade is all about peel. The original definition in fact was just a preserve thickened with pectin from fruit peels. Many fruits have pectin in the peel and seeds. Now marmalade is generally considered to be just citrus, but the antiquated practice of using the peel for pectin remains. It’s a real old school jam!

I worked off of three recipes. The most complete and thorough from Delia Online (I don’t know who Delia is, but the recipe sounds British). This was the one where you boil the whole fruits first, and as I mentioned, that was not an option for me. It was also specifically for Seville oranges, the traditional British marmalading fruit.

Here is the recipe for lemon marmalade from Local Foods, that I more or less attempted to follow. With both batches now done, I can say I don’t know why the hell mine would not gel, and didn’t look remotely “creamy” as the recipe promises. True I didn’t weigh my fruit or measure my sugar, but the recipe gives a fairly large range for sugar, implying it’s not so critical…

And lastly, here’s a recipe and cute blog post from Pots and Pins about Satsuma marmalade.  I might try truly following this one next. If I can manage to.

And yes, as you may have gathered, my second batch is now done. I can tell you that marmalade is not exactly easy. But it depends on your standards. What I got is not like a jelly, it’s like soft sweet peel in a thick syrup. You have to use a spoon, but really the toast sucks up the extra moisture and it works just fine, and tastes… wow.

Actually, I had hardly ever eaten marmalade before and I think I might have a new obsession. I can imagine it’s not for everyone, at least not the stuff I made. It’s quite bitter. I don’t normally go in much for the bitter flavor. I always wish I would, since many wild greens are bitter. But the marmalade is bitter-sweet. And this is somehow incredibly alluring, seductive. Like the monastery itself, I feel this marmalade has a secret I am compelled to discover.

And I will, oh, I will.