The Perfumed Void https://the-orbit.net/alyssa Research, Feelings, and Life with Alyssa Gonzalez Thu, 19 May 2022 12:29:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.3 https://i0.wp.com/the-orbit.net/alyssa/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2018/03/cropped-Screen-Shot-2018-03-30-at-12.31.50-PM.png?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 The Perfumed Void https://the-orbit.net/alyssa 32 32 134704142 A Quick Tour of Alyssa’s 125-Gallon Aquarium https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/05/19/a-quick-tour-of-alyssas-125-gallon-aquarium/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/05/19/a-quick-tour-of-alyssas-125-gallon-aquarium/#respond Thu, 19 May 2022 12:29:55 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7397 The post A Quick Tour of Alyssa’s 125-Gallon Aquarium appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I’m trying something a little different today. By popular request, I’ve filmed a video going over the contents of my 125-gallon (473-liter) aquarium. Come for the aquarium insight, stay for my clothes, leave knowing more about turtle penises than you ever wanted to know. Have fun!

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Cuban Pulled Pork, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/04/26/cuban-pulled-pork-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/04/26/cuban-pulled-pork-alyssa-style/#respond Tue, 26 Apr 2022 23:58:09 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7387 The post Cuban Pulled Pork, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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As promised, here is how I make pulled pork into something Cuban-American.

Pulled pork might be best known as a staple of southern USian barbecue, part of the “holy trinity” of barbecue staples (the others being brisket and spareribs), but it is far from unique to this cultural area. I grew up with special occasions being marked by caja china roasts, with whole suckling pigs being roasted and served from specialized barbecues. Once the fresh experience was over, there was inevitably a lot left over, even after splitting it between select attendees. One of the easiest ways to store and serve it was as shredded or pulled pork. This version was not as consummately sauced as southern-US pulled pork and usually served differently. Hispanic Americans will serve anything with rice, but Cuban-style pulled pork would often be served in various other ways: as filling for tamales, as a component of Cuban sandwiches, or…yes, with rice. With its distinctive citrus flavor and heady aroma, this is a pork preparation one does not soon forget.

A key ingredient in Cuban-style pulled pork is naranja agria, or bitter orange, juice. This juice is made from a specific citrus cultivar, Citrus x aurantium, also called the “marmalade orange,” “Seville orange,” or other names. Its flavor is distinctively sour compared to orange juice meant for drinking and, as the other names suggest, they are most often reserved for making marmalade and other culinary preparations. Naranja agria juice can be difficult to source outside Hispanic enclaves, but it can be substituted with ordinary orange juice and additional acid. Note that naranja agria has properties similar to grapefruit when it comes to pharmaceutical interactions and many commercial “naranja agria” products are actually blends of orange and grapefruit juice rather than true naranja agria.

A bottle of Badia-brand naranja agria.
This is the good stuff, and by “the good stuff,” I mean I thought it was the good stuff until I checked the ingredients and it turned out to be an orange/grapefruit blend.

This recipe serves far too many. It capably provides the amount of filling needed for my tamal recipe, which is enough to serve at least eight people. Freeze whatever you will not be consuming within three days.

Equipment

You will need a your preferred cutting and measuring tools, a blender or food processor, a slow cooker (preferably an Instant Pot), a large bowl, and two forks. You will also need a small bowl and a tool for mixing inside it, such as a chopstick or small fork. You may also need a large frying pan and your preferred source of bottom-up heat and a saucepan and wooden spoon.

Ingredients

Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.

  • Fennel bulb, ½
  • Dried oregano, 1.5 tablespoons
  • Salt, 1 tablespoon
  • Ground black pepper, 1.5 teaspoons
  • Ground cumin, 1 tablespoon
  • Naranja agria juice, 594 mL / 20 fl oz. Substitute with 1 cup grapefruit juice, ¾ cup lime juice, and ½ cup orange juice.
  • White vinegar, ¼ cup
  • Extra virgin olive oil, ¼ cup
  • Asafoetida/hing to taste
  • One pork shoulder, approximately 12 pounds or 5.5 kilograms.
  • Cornstarch, 1 tablespoon
  • Water, 3 tablespoons

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: As written, this recipe is gluten-free. Note that asafoetida/hing may or may not contain gluten depending on how it is prepared.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe is primarily a protein preparation and is therefore low-carb.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions and should work on a low-FODMAP diet.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan:  A similar flavor profile can potentially be deployed with a meat substitute, but other details will vary extensively.

Preparation

The Night Before

  1. Chop the fennel and blend it with the dried oregano, salt, ground black pepper, ground cumin, naranja agria, and white vinegar.
  2. Marinate the pork shoulder in the result of Step 1 If the pork shoulder is not completely enveloped in marinade in your container, flip it approximately halfway through the marinating time. The recommended marinating time is 12 hours.

Pulled Pork

  1. Heat the asafoetida/hing in olive oil on medium heat. If using an Instant Pot, the Sauté setting is ideal.
  2. Remove the pork shoulder from the marinade and sear on all sides in the result of Step 3. If using an Instant Pot, the Sauté setting is ideal.
  3. Add the marinade to the slow-cooker, which should now contain the asafoetida/hing oil, the pork shoulder, and the marinade, and slow-cook for at least six hours. If the marinade does not completely cover the pork shoulder, flip the pork shoulder halfway through.
  4. Remove the pork shoulder from the marinade and place in a large bowl. Shred the pork shoulder with two forks. There should be few or no large pieces left. Any portion that was outside the marinade will be harder and drier.
  5. If you are using pulled pork as tamal filling or as a component of Cuban sandwiches, it is ready and can be so used now. If you are serving pulled pork directly, consider making the remaining liquid in the slow cooker into a sauce for it using the steps below.
An image of pulled pork in a bowl with two forks
Ready for tamales or sandwiches.

Sauce

  1. Drain the slow cooker into a saucepan on medium-high heat. If using an Instant Pot, switching to the Sauté setting works instead.
  2. Make a slurry of cornstarch and water and add it to the pan or Instant Pot. Stir while boiling until the sauce reaches one’s desired thickness. Depending on the amount of drippings, the desired thickness, and the desired ratio of sauce to meat, it may be necessary to boil for longer or shorter, or to add more cornstarch slurry.
  3. Combine the sauce with the pulled pork and serve.

This version of pulled pork always seems to be a surprise to people, providing a hearty, tangy flavor experience quite distinct from what usually comes to mind for this meat. It is always a hit and I hope it serves you well. Happy cooking!

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Lessons from an Aquarium Upgrade https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/04/12/lessons-from-an-aquarium-upgrade/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/04/12/lessons-from-an-aquarium-upgrade/#respond Tue, 12 Apr 2022 14:27:48 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7356 The post Lessons from an Aquarium Upgrade appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I made a big decision recently. I replaced my 55-gallon (208 liter) aquarium with a shiny new 125-gallon (473-liter) beast that now defines the layout of my home office. This was no small task, and I offer this series of thoughts as guidance for anyone else attempting a similar upgrade.

The Price Is Right

I considered this upgrade first and foremost because I found a price for a combined tank, stand, hood, and light set that was shockingly affordable. A kit with all the aforementioned items could easily run more than CAD$1600 together, plus taxes and delivery charges, but the price I found was a little over half that. I was not prepared to spend nearly $2000 on just the base of what would have to be a much larger project, but $900 plus tax was doable. The deal was further sweetened when a friend alerted me to a tool for accessing potentially sizable discounts on items from this pet store, which would take another $250 off the post-tax price. With this purchase taking place shortly after receiving my annual income tax refund, there was an opportunity to be a little extravagant, but that was no excuse to spend more than I had to.

The aforementioned kit did not come with a suitable filter, heaters, and other necessary items for aquarium success, so I made use of my preferred aquarium specialty store and its mail-order annex to fill the gaps in my existing inventory. Additional planted-aquarium substrate and décor for the additional floor space would also be necessary for making this project shine. My discount for being a member of the Ottawa Valley Aquarium Society (OVAS) took the edge off some of these purchases. This would still be a pricey adventure, but it did not have to sting as much as it could have.

Hypothetically, patrolling local second-hand sites, including Kijiji and local aquarist fora, might have yielded deeper discounts. However, particularly for large or heavy objects, the need to retrieve the items myself as a user of public transit and rideshares would rapidly eat into the cost savings, particularly for the tank itself, which was too large to transport in anything but a van, pickup truck, or larger vehicle, while making the whole adventure that much more logistically complicated. Paying a little extra was worth it to save that much time and effort.

Lesson: Although aquarium-keeping can be an expensive hobby, there are ways to defray those costs and they should be pursued.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

The next barrier this adventure had to cross was whether my home could handle having such a large aquarium in it. I had to measure the space it would inhabit. Some quick checks with a tape measure revealed that it absolutely would fit, with room to spare, in the space previously occupied by the 55-gallon aquarium and the adjacent cat tree. I could put the cat tree elsewhere in my home and the old aquarium and stand could go into my basement storage locker until and unless I had need of them again. With that, space was assured.

A related concern was whether my floor could handle the weight of the aquarium. A full 125-gallon aquarium weighs more than 1300 pounds (almost 600 kg), which is a considerable load and a big reason why keepers of large aquaria are usually homeowners with basements. As a dweller on a high floor of a residential tower, I could not be so certain of the capacity of the ground beneath me to support my ambitions. Mercifully, some research into the material of my floor and the loads it could bear set my mind at ease. Not only was the weight of this aquarium less than 1/100 of the most conservatively estimated strength of my floor, but the pressure exerted by the new tank was only marginally greater than that exerted by the old, its greater weight apparently almost fully countered by its greater floor area. I would have no concerns with the floor caving in under my new box of water.

Lesson: Concrete can hold up cars in parking garages; you’re fine.

A Little Help from My Friends

With all the preliminary math done, and once mail-ordered items were in hand, it was time to acquire the beast. This was something I could not do on my own. The empty tank weighted more than 200 lbs (91 kg), far beyond what I could hope to bring home on a hand-truck and more than I could realistically so much as lift safely. The store would not deliver it, so I had to enlist some helpful friends with a suitable vehicle.  They did not take as long to find as I feared they might, and I ended up with an excess of volunteers to help make this purchase happen. With three experienced lifters, one van, a second vehicle in case the van could not fit the tank and its stand at the same time, and a prearranged service elevator, getting the aquarium into its space in my home proved to be the easiest part of this entire process.

Lesson: Asking for help does not have to be as fraught as it often feels for this fiercely independent aquarist.

The Best-Laid Plans

And that’s where things started to go a little sideways.

I had big ideas about how to get the contents of my old aquarium into the new one. I spent the night before rinsing 28 kilograms of Flourite Red substrate to minimize its complement of dust. I spent the morning before the tank purchase capturing all my fish and shrimp and putting them in a heated, aerated bucket. I set up similar buckets for my Java ferns, since these plants could be moved without massive disruption to a deep root system. I brought two large scoops I could use to move the old substrate, remaining plants still in it, as non-destructively as possible, between and atop the new Fluorite completing the greater floor area of the new tank.

And then the Flourite dust hit.

Flourite is always dusty. It was dusty the first time I used it in Miami, it was dusty when I first used it with my 55-gallon aquarium when it was new, and it was dusty after adding more a few years later. The package warns of dust from the clay particles in the Flourite rubbing together in transit and smaller sizes come with porous bottoms so that they can be rinsed in the bag. The least surprising thing that could have happened was the hours spent rinsing out dust the night before turning out to not be enough, and yet, there I was, in water so dusty I could not see the bottom, trying to plant plants and add substrate without burying anything I wanted to save.  My old plants could survive only so long out of water and would lose their leaves, at a minimum, if this process took too long, but frantically removing dusty water and replacing it with fresh or trying to work in reduced water depth led nowhere. Only time would help.

With the help of one of my assistants, I gave it a few hours by heading to pet stores and procuring as many of the new fish I had in mind as were available, hoping that this time would be enough to at least enable the rest of the aquascaping. It was not. Those fish, and the fish I already had, would wait several more hours while I transferred as much as I could as painlessly as I could from the old system. It was a time-consuming, anxious, frightening, emotional, laborious, and so very dusty process. It ended only with a crying jag, acceptance that I would have to tidy the aquascape in the morning, and deciding that I needed to get my fish in there now before they had more time to soil their temporary containers. I had promised my helpers pizza if they stayed until dinnertime and fussing over this situation pushed dinnertime past when the last of them was able to linger. I would have to reward them another day.

Lesson: If you can, set up a new tank with minimal destruction of the old. Use new Flourite, rinse it thoroughly, and arrange for at least 24 hours between putting it in the tank and whatever happens next. If possible, don’t buy new fish while a tank is still equilibrating after a major shift like this.

Aftermath

The dust cloud was short-lived, in the end. By the next day it was clear enough for me to tidy most of the aquascape issues, and by the day after it was almost gone. In the interim, I could adjust how various plants’ roots were buried, make sure my lotus seeds were in the right places since the fish were moving them a little, and otherwise switch from setup to refinement.

One amusing side effect of this whole adventure was confirming that I have five Amano shrimp, not the four I had previously thought. One I had not seen in months and concluded was dead turned up during the teardown of the old tank.

Another amusing side effect was the reappearance of numerous plant weights from plants that failed to thrive, revealed by the upheaval of the old substrate. Some of them have since been reused for new plants.

One less amusing side effect was that three glass/ghost catfish, Kryptopterus sp., that I purchased from the only store in town to be carrying them are currently missing in action, present and exploring their new home on Sunday but nowhere to be found on Monday. Given the Amano shrimp’s ability to hide from me, it remains possible that the fish are simply out of sight, but signs are inauspicious. The other new and old fish are happy. If indeed the glass catfish have died, I have additional tank capacity to share with a different species, in addition to what remains held in reserve for fish that were not in stock.

A school of glass catfish, Kryptopterus bicirrhis, showing their transparent bodies and long barbels.
RIP, fated attempt.

Either way, I now have twice as many fish, so I must feed more, and I am very pleased to have this problem.

Lesson: Patience has ever been my finest virtue, and my every failure to exercise it is a reminder.

What’s Next?

I intend to ascend into the planted-aquarium stratosphere that I see displayed in aquarium specialty stores, on YouTube, and in the homes of other OVAS members in the monthly web calls the club hosts. In the not-too-distant future, I will be replacing the lights currently on this aquarium with specialist planted-aquarium lights with the ideal 6500k color temperature. Depending on how that goes, I will consider a CO2 injection system, and this combination will enable me to grow more demanding plants at greater densities. I have sensibly avoided harder-to-keep plants such as the beautiful Madagascar lace plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis) before this step, but they are where my heart is headed and I shall follow when my setup is ready. One of my other target plants is Aldrovanda vesiculosa, the waterwheel plant, whose claim to fame is that it is an aquatic carnivore that feeds on planktonic crustaceans using traps similar in mechanism to those of its close cousin, the Venus’s flytrap. Aldrovanda is famously difficult for houseplant and carnivorous-plant enthusiasts to maintain due to needs that align closely with what a properly lit, CO2-injected planted aquarium provides, so this, too, is a possibility I can explore once my system is ready. My fish and Aldrovanda alike will benefit from how the space in my new, larger aquarium stand allows me to set up a smaller tank for raising live foods like brine shrimp, freshwater ostracods, or scuds, as well.

A 125-gallon aquarium showing many Java fern and other plants and some tropical freshwater fish from all over the world.
Three days later. I am no longer sure how much is lingering Flourite dust, how much is a potential post-transfer bacterial bloom, how much is the spectrum of the economy-grade lights that came with this kit, how much is condensation on the hood…but it’s clear enough to enjoy.

I have other fish acquisitions in mind, depending on what is in stock in local stores. As above, I have tank capacity to spare even after an overnight doubling of the number of fish and crustaceans in my care, and some ideas of how to fill it. I might even consider something more dramatic like a vampire shrimp (Atya gabonensis, a harmless filter feeder). In the immediate term, however, the best course is to let this system get used to itself and let the existing plants settle and grow some more, while my wallet likewise heals.

I have similar plans to set up one more, final aquarium, most likely a marine setup optimized for an Odontodactylus scyllarus mantis shrimp, but that is waiting on a delivery that should be mere weeks away by now. Time will tell.

Lesson: My ambitions are thought-out enough that I can usually get around any difficulties I might have with them, and I can pursue them at my own pace.

 

So there we have it: I now have a 125-gallon tank I intend to grow into a powerful testament to my green thumb and fish fingers alike, and I have plans. I hope my experience can be instructive for those of you who are pursuing similar goals or might like to.

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Tamales, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/03/27/tamales-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/03/27/tamales-alyssa-style/#respond Mon, 28 Mar 2022 02:34:29 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7353 The post Tamales, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Everyone loves tamales. They are a culinary fixture so beloved that the name has outpaced even the knowledge of what they are, and their appearance on party platters and restaurant menus results in instant delight. But what are tamales, exactly, and how does one bring them into one’s home?

First things first: plural tamales, singular tamal. Anglophones often say “tamale” in singular, misapprehending the Spanish plural suffix -es, and one shows cultural knowledge by getting it right. This name derives from the Nahuatl tamalli, for the original version of this concept made in central Mexico.

It is in Mexico that the tamal first saw its quintessential form, a corn-based dough with a meat or vegetable filling, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. Mexico’s tamales are noteworthy for making use of masa harina, the nixtamalized corn flour I showcase in other recipes here, which creates a more cohesive dough than raw cornmeal while also unlocking more of corn’s nutrition. Tamales have long since spread from their origin culture to the rest of Latin America, first via indigenous contacts and then through the Spanish. Puerto Rico has a particular abundance of variations, including guanimes, pasteles, and arguably alcapurrias, distinguished from the original Mexican tamal by using local ingredients in addition to or instead of corn for the dough and by their characteristic fillings. In Cuba, by contrast, the preferred tamal variation hews closely to the Mexican recipe, differing mainly in its use of pork as a common filling. It is after Spanish contact that tamales met what, in my and many others’ opinion, is their most crucial partner: the banana leaf.

Bananas are native to southeast Asia and did not reach the Americas until Spanish and Portuguese sailors transplanted them. Bananas, both dessert and cooking, rapidly became iconic Latin American fixtures in their own right, and one surprising role they took on was providing their large leaves as alternative wraps for tamales. The banana leaf imparts a mildly sweet, earthy flavor to tamales so wrapped, spawning a whole new style that became the default in many parts of Latin America.

All this backstory is necessary to understand the tamal variation I present here. The tamales I know and love from my own childhood are a mix of various traditions, spawning something uniquely ours and, as of this writing, just as uniquely yours. In this version, the dough is made with masa harina much as it is in many Mexican tamales, the filling is Cuban-style pulled pork, and the whole is wrapped in a banana leaf to steam.

Small tamales are often served as appetizers prior to a larger meal, while large ones (or more smaller ones) can be served as a main course. They are traditionally served with a sauce, often hot sauce.

As written here, this recipe makes at least 21 tamales and likely a few more, enough to feed seven or more people. Although it is trivial to make less dough and excess filling can usually be frozen or used some other way, banana leaves are usually sold frozen in one-pound / 454-gram packages. Making partial use of one of these packages can be tricky. Because of how labor-intensive preparing and cooking tamales is, this is often considered a social affair, with an entire family getting together to assemble, wrap, and steam many tamales. Some will be eaten right away, but others will be frozen for future occasions. Tamales can be frozen before or after steaming, but after steaming provides the best results.

Equipment

For the filling, use my Cuban-style pulled pork recipe. Filling a tamal is a flexible endeavor, however, so feel free to switch in a similar mass of alcapurria filling or even something based on Cuban frita burgers if you’re feeling adventurous.

For the dough, you will need a large mixing bowl, your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a mixing tool, and a large spoon. Due to the intensity of the required mixing, it is recommended to use an electric mixer; a stand mixer is ideal.

For the wrap, you will need a ruler and a set of kitchen shears.

For final assembly, you will need cooking twine. This can be substituted with strips of leftover banana leaf (see below), but this will be more fragile. You will also need a large setup for steaming, the larger the better, and the associated bottom-up heat source. A dedicated tamalera is ideal, but is likely impractical to own for anyone who is not making tamales routinely.

Ingredients

Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.

Wraps

  • Frozen banana leaves, one 1-lb (454g) package. If you have access to fresh banana leaves, use those instead.

Filling

  • This recipe assumes an entire pork shoulder was used to make the filling, approximately 12 pounds or 5.5 kilograms. This provides the amount of filling needed for enough tamales to expend the indicated amounts of dough and banana leaves.
  • Variations: There are as many tamal fillings as there are people and cultures that make tamales. Try the same filling used in alcapurrias or a Mexican chile-based filling instead, but watch out for the amount needed to match the rest of the recipe.

Dough

  • 7.5 cups masa harina
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 tablespoons sazón
  • 3 cups cold lard. Substitute butter, vegetable shortening, or coconut oil.
  • 3 cups chicken or beef broth
  • 4.5 cups hot water

Final Assembly

  • Hot sauce to taste.

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: As written, this recipe is gluten-free. Pay attention to the ingredients in the filling.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe showcases carbohydrates and cannot be made low-carb.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions, but watch out for garlic and other potential hazards in the sazón and pay attention to the ingredients in the filling.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan:  Use a vegetable-derived fat in the dough and a vegetable filling. Tamales are also lovely with no filling at all.

Preparation

The Night Before

  1. Thaw the banana leaves in the refrigerator.

Filling

  1. Prepare the filling first according to its recipe and let it cool.

Wraps

  1. Cut the banana leaves into 8” by 8” (20 cm by 20 cm) squares, orienting so as to leave torn or damaged parts of the leaves out of the squares as excess.
  2. Rinse the squares and set aside to dry.
  3. Reserve the excess for use in patching any damage done to the squares during assembly.

Dough

  1. Combine the masa harina, baking powder, and sazón in a large mixing bowl and mix well.
  2. Divide the lard into small pieces and add it to the bowl.
  3. Add the broth and hot water to the bowl and mix intensely until the mixture is a smooth dough. This is best done with an electric mixer and is particularly well suited to a stand mixer. Continue until the appearance of flecks of unmixed lard is minimized. Depending on the size of your vessels, you may have to prepare the dough in 2-3 batches.
Some assembled tamales alongside the assembly station.
So much to do.

Final Assembly

  1. Make a roughly 4” by 6” (10 cm by 15 cm) flat rectangle of dough roughly ½” (1 cm) high near the center of a banana leaf square.
  2. Spread approximately two tablespoons of filling over the dough, pressing it into the dough with the back of a spoon.
  3. Gently use the banana leaf to help the dough enclose the filling, and then roll it shut. Gently fold in the ends to enclose the tamal. If the wrap split along its length, add a scrap of banana leaf over the damaged area.
  4. Secure the tamal with at least two pieces of string tied in place, one lengthwise, one across its width. For a large or fragile-looking tamal, use more string.
  5. Assemble as many tamales as fit within your steamer before proceeding on to the next step, and repeat Final Assembly steps 1-4 with any remaining materials while those tamales steam.
  6. Steam in a steamer for 80 to 90 minutes, replenishing water as needed.
  7. Remove from heat and let sit covered in steamer for 30 more minutes.
  8. Serve with scissors and hot sauce.

 Tamales are another entry in the labor-intensive but eminently rewarding canon of Hispanic cuisine, and I hope you all enjoy this iteration.

 

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What’s to Love about Aquariums? https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/03/08/whats-to-love-about-aquariums/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/03/08/whats-to-love-about-aquariums/#respond Wed, 09 Mar 2022 03:19:48 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7350 The post What’s to Love about Aquariums? appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Everything.

Aquaria are beautiful, diverse, interactive, complicated, and so many more adjectives. Their sounds bring peace, their sight brings smiles, and millions of people around the world bring these boxes full of water into their homes. But why? What are the joys that aquaria provide to those who keep them? I’m so glad you asked.

Aquaria Are Interactive

Aquaria are alive. Aquarium panes are transparent in both directions, and the fish and other animals inside look out just as much as human viewers look in. Fish will follow fingers, react to things happening near their tanks, and taunt cats that decide to paw at their glass. Fish will learn their feeding routines and throng excitedly near where food arrives. Fish can be trained to eat from hands and to accept affectionate touch. More intelligent aquarium inhabitants, including octopodes and mantis shrimp, benefit from the same kind of environmental enrichment that cat toys provide to cats and can be seen enjoying the challenge of food puzzles or the novelty of brightly colored unfamiliar objects. Owners of less readily handleable pets often deride aquaria as not tactile enough for their tastes, but aquarium keepers know that their charges are not just for show.

Aquaria Are a Technological Puzzle

An aquarium aims to emulate a small piece of a much larger natural system. As such, it must have the stability and interconnectivity of a system many times larger than itself, subject to natural forces from which it is sheltered, and that means technology. Aquaria, virtually without exception, have filters, heaters, and lights. As aquaria become more specialized, so too do the devices required to keep them healthy. Some systems employ chillers as well as or instead of heaters to keep temperature within specific bounds, often alongside electronic thermostats that control when one device or the other is active. Others, particularly saltwater systems featuring corals, use micronutrient dosing pumps and elaborate water-testing equipment. Heavily planted freshwater systems often use CO2 delivery systems to keep their plants thriving. Freshwater aquaria that emulate fast-moving streams, and marine tanks that emulate the movement of ocean waves, make use of powerheads to keep water moving at desired speeds. All these devices and more can be connected to programmable power strips or fed information from elaborate electronic testing equipment, some of which is Wi-Fi- or even ethernet-capable and connects to people’s computers. Even the living components of an aquarium, flora and fauna alike, can be thought of as part of this equipment, affecting water chemistry in specific ways that the technological components either make use of or attempt to counteract.

What this means is that aquarium systems can provide much the same joy that assembling computers brings to people with that hobby: the joy of building a complex system made of interconnected, interdependent parts that all contribute to a harmonious, beautiful whole, and accomplish wondrous things along the way. Each aquarium device is a marvel of engineering for its specific role, and together, they bring into a person’s home a small piece of what nature itself requires a literal planet to maintain. That is exciting, and that is wonderful.

Two butterflyfish, Pantodon bucholzi.

Aquaria Are a Biological Marvel

The core of the aquarium is not the technology that keeps it running, but the living things that technology serves. There is far more life in the world’s waters than there is on land, and bony fish have more species than mammals, birds, squamates, and turtles combined. Alongside fish, freshwater and especially marine aquaria can feature a seemingly endless array of other animals, including aquatic amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, annelids, cnidarians, and groups obscure enough that only enthusiasts can rattle off their names by heart. These inhabitants all interact with each other and the plants and microbes in their homes in the ways that creatures always do: feeding, jostling for territory, pair-bonding, reproducing, forming mutualistic connections, and more. An aquarium, by its nature, is an ecosystem and a window into biological interactions an aquarist might have no way to observe in the wild, in all their wonder.

This means that aquarists can approach the biological side of their charges any of various ways. Some aquarists collect whatever they can keep alive in standard tropical-aquarium conditions, achieving communities with African catfish, South American tetras, and Asian gouramis swimming through Indonesian plants in water whose base chemistry is Appalachian. Others aim to emulate specific places in their livestock, water chemistry, and aquascaping, such as an Amazonian floodplain, a Caribbean salt marsh, or an Australian coral reef. Aquaria can even be set up to exhibit the behaviors of specific animals to best effect, such as the precision water jets of archerfish, the symbiotic associations of pistol shrimps and burrowing gobies, or the partially terrestrial existence of mudskippers. Marine aquaria emulating coral reefs often aim to have a relatively small number of display fish and a veritable menagerie of small invertebrates acting as “cleanup crew” for uneaten food, keeping substrate clean, and acting as meat on the hoof for specialized carnivores such as dragonets, all while the corals themselves dominate the tank’s aesthetic with their pulsing movement and otherworldly color. For anyone interested in observing animals living their lives in all their splendor, an aquarium is an ideal opportunity.

A bright green lobster-like shrimp with red limbs and tail.
Odontodactylus scyllarus, the peacock mantis shrimp.

Aquaria Are Art

Much of the point of an aquarium is to view it, and that means that aesthetic considerations are never far away. Unless a tank keeps the largest, strongest, most determined redecorators in the animal world, there is ample room for an aquarium to reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the person putting it together. Fish can be chosen in part for their complementary colors, to fill different levels of the tank with activity, or for their interesting shapes. Aquatic plants, corals, bivalves, and other stationary features can be arranged to fit photographic sensibilities and create interesting contrasts and visual layers that will then shift on their own as these organisms grow. People add artificial decorations reflecting their fandoms or just cute and funny images they enjoy, personalizing their system in ways no natural décor ever could. An aquarium in the hands of someone with a solid aesthetic sense becomes a living painting and sculpture in one, every bit the visual delight of one done in oil on canvas.

It is in this niche that fish selectively bred for unusual shapes or colors, such as round goldfish breeds, designer clownfish, long-finned bettas, and guppies particularly excel. Often less able to live in community or naturalistic homes, these fish live long, happy lives in tanks designed to safely show off their unusual features.

Particularly invested aesthetes can also manipulate their aquaria’s soundscapes. In addition to the unavoidable machine hums of filters and such, aquaria almost always come with the sound of flowing water. How that water flows depends on the nature of an aquarium’s plumbing, so to speak, and can vary from sharp streams to gentle riffles. Systems with extensive land areas, called paludariums, can pass their water flows over waterfalls, down channels, and otherwise into potential soundscapes inaccessible to those whose tanks are not so endowed. Also, some fish make noises.

An assortment of colorful guppies.

Aquaria Are Everything

Like cooking and electronics, aquaria are every kind of obsessive appeal rolled into one. Wherever one’s fancy tends to reach, there is the aquarium hobby ready to accept it. Whether one’s thoughts are toward highly mechanized systems that communicate over computer networks or tanks that expect more hands-on care, toward biotopes that imitate nature or hodgepodges that merely accept it, toward psychedelic fluorescence or earthy peace, the aquarium hobby has a fish tank to match. The beauty of this hobby is in the sheer abundant possibilities it encompasses, and every aquarist’s regret is that they will never live long enough to try them all. Which possibility will you try next?

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When Animals Farm: It’s Not Just for Humans https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/02/12/when-animals-farm-its-not-just-for-humans/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/02/12/when-animals-farm-its-not-just-for-humans/#respond Sat, 12 Feb 2022 16:53:21 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7347 The post When Animals Farm: It’s Not Just for Humans appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Agriculture is rightly recognized as one of the turning points in human history. The practice of tending to specific animals and plants to maintain and even increase their utility helped drive humans into city-building and, from there, into the large, complex, settled societies we know today. Humans, however, are not the only animals that have discovered agriculture. Everything from snails to elephants has some ability to foster and guide the evolution of another creature for its own use. Agriculture, it turns out, is a subset of ecosystem engineering, and a lot of creatures are engineers.

Savanna for Me but not for Thee

African elephants live in many habitats, from inland grasslands to coastal forests. Savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), a distinct species from those that dwell in forests (L. cyclotis), are keystone species for their home grasslands. By being enormous and traveling long distances, elephants maintain a presence throughout their territory and affect its ecology in numerous ways. One of the more controversial ideas surrounding elephant activity in the savanna attempts to explain why savanna elephants are often seen stripping, trampling, uprooting, and otherwise destroying trees in their territory, usually without eating them. This behavior may be a mere release of aggressive energy, but it also has the result of pruning trees to more convenient heights for feeding on later growth. More extreme tree destruction by elephants prevents nearby forests from expanding into the savanna at all, preserving its character as a grassland. Given the intelligent behavior already observed among elephants in numerous other settings and the fact that intelligence is not necessary for ecosystem engineering, it is possible that elephants are deliberately maintaining these trees and the savanna ecosystem surrounding them—that is, farming the savanna.

Fish Farms

Farming is not a purely terrestrial endeavor. Even fish can become farmers, specifically the damselfish Stegastes nigricans. These damselfish maintain gardens of one specific algal species, weeding out all others, and defend these gardens with characteristic aggression. Their preferred alga is rare and easily overtaken when not so protected, so these gardens are the only way for them to access a large amount of it at once. They even protect mysid shrimps that visit their gardens, having figured out that the shrimps’ excrement fertilizes their gardens. This is especially noteworthy because even herbivorous damselfish do not normally pass up a meal of planktonic invertebrates like mysid shrimp, but they protect this species to the point that it forms swarms only when so protected. Not only has S. nigricans figured out how to grow its own food, but it is in the process of domesticating farm animals to help.

Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) - Own work Leaf cutter ants Atta cephalotes (Bug World, Bristol Zoo, England). The grey piece is a wire binding the rope.
Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) – Own work, Wikimedia Commons.
Leaf cutter ants Atta cephalotes (Bug World, Bristol Zoo, England). The grey piece is a wire binding the rope.

Fungus Gardens

Fungi are popular subjects for animal agriculture. It is easy to see how it starts: an herbivore or detritivore discovers that fungi growing on decaying material or injured plants provide more concentrated nourishment than their previous diet and begins preferentially eating the fungus, and the relationship grows from there. Ambrosia beetles (two subfamilies of weevils, family Curculionidae) dig tunnels in wood like many weevils, but unlike their long-faced cousins, they do not feed on the wood or seed pulp they find inside. Rather, their tunnels spread distinctive fungus species throughout the wood, which the beetles then eat. Ambrosia fungi comprise numerous species, none of which have been discovered outside the care of ambrosia beetles. Ambrosia beetles even take bits of this fungi from each other if their fungus farms run out, restarting cultivation from this new stock.

Leafcutter ants, dozens of species in in the genera Atta and Acromyrmex, are perhaps the most famous of all animal farmers. Their parades of workers carrying chunks of leaf across the forest floors of Central and South America are well known and eminently photogenic, and it was easy for observers to believe this was ordinary hoard-building behavior until it was investigated in more detail. The ants do not eat the leaves, but use them as fodder for fungus gardens. The symbiosis between the ants and their fungi is profound, emulating the changes that occur during domestication. The ants harbor bacteria inside their bodies whose antimicrobial secretions they use to keep other fungi and bacteria from harming their fungus gardens, and choose their leafy substrate based on their fungus’s preferences. Some ants’ fungus gardens no longer produce spores, spreading only by ant-induced fragmentation of their mycelia, and also produce swollen structures specifically for the ants to eat, similar to how the edible parts of domestic plants are many times larger than those of their wild cousins.

Lest anyone imagine that it takes at least an insect’s mind to become a fungus farmer, semiaquatic snails have also taken up this practice. Marsh periwinkles (Littoraria irrorata) graze on cordgrass plants, but they are not eating the grass. Rather, they are wounding it with their razored tongues called radulas, introducing fungi into the wounds. As these fungi grow, the snail returns to previous wounds to feed on them, and the periwinkles may even fertilize these gardens with their feces.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the fungal gardeners are Macrotermes termites. Like leafcutter ants and ambrosia beetles, these termites cultivate specific varieties of fungus that are not found outside of insect care, but unlike the previous two, they also do not eat the fungus. Rather, they feed the fungus on wood pulp that they collect from the area around their nests, and then feed on the resulting decay products. The fungi can break down cellulose and lignin, two plant compounds that few animals can digest, and their leftovers therefore have much higher nutritional value than the raw wood and other plant material. This has been described as a kind of “extracorporeal digestion,” outsourcing some of the work of turning food into nutrition to another body, but one might also call it something else: cooking.

Meat on the Tarsus

Ants are noteworthy farmers in one other way. Many ants maintain herds of aphids and similar insects for their honeydew, sugary secretions they release from their anuses. In some cases, they even remove the wings of their aphid charges to keep them near, effectively an early step in domestication.

But ants take their agricultural tendencies one step farther. Melissotarsus ants farm scale insects, relatives of aphids, but the scale insects that these ants protect produce neither honeydew nor the waxy “scale” compound for which their lineage is named. It is difficult to see what the ants gain from this association, and one possibility is that they are farming the scale insects to eat them. Further study will reveal whether the scale insects are farm animals or whether, like paussid beetles and certain spiders, they are instead farming the ants for protection.

I Am the Farm

Some animals skip the “farmland” part of farming and use themselves as fertile soil. These symbiotic relationships are, if anything, far more abundant than external agriculture, but some examples straddle the line between the two. The top of that list is yeti crabs, Kiwa hirsuta, which grow symbiotic bacteria on their trademark hairy arms and wave those arms in the outflows of hydrothermal vents. The bacteria feed on the energy-rich chemicals wafting out of the vents, and the crabs feed on the bacteria. Given the difficulty of accessing yeti crabs in their native habitat, whether the relationship between these two organisms is as complex as that between ants and their fungi has yet to be studied.

Next to all of these, the various soft-bodied invertebrates that house algae within their tissues to feed on its sugars seem almost tame.

 

If this tour of animal agriculture provides any lesson, it is that the natural world is full of wonders biochemical, behavioral, and everything in between, and few broad concepts are truly distinct to humans. Animals can be anything, including farmers.

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Some Nice Hecking Tits https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/01/07/some-nice-hecking-tits/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2022/01/07/some-nice-hecking-tits/#comments Fri, 07 Jan 2022 22:48:13 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7342 The post Some Nice Hecking Tits appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I wrote this for a plastic surgery support group, to make the transgender experience more familiar to them. It was well received, so I am sharing it more broadly.

 

These two photos, ten years apart, tell a story.

Alyssa, circa 2011, before she knew herself, in a green button-down Hawaiian shirt. Her hair is short and her features show the influence of the testosterone she had not yet suppressed.
2011.
Alyssa circa 2021, in a pink crop top and shorts with long hair, in all her feminine glory.
2021.

Ten years ago, I had only the faintest hints of where my life was heading. I was getting a degree that hadn’t yet finished burning me out on my entire field, the most dramatic shouting matches between me and my parents had not yet happened…and I didn’t look at all like I do today. Back then, I didn’t know I was a woman yet.

It would take a few more years for some of those shoes to drop, a few more dominoes to fall, a few more metaphors to mix, before that poor kid’s sad, sad eyes had any life in them. The time before that realization (“hatching,” in transgender slang) is a haze, fogged with the wrongness that every moment feels like when one’s identity is so mismatched. To be transgender and not know it yet is to wrestle with an opponent one can’t name or see or touch but whose every waking moment is spent tearing one down and daring one to look up and see the truth, all at once. It is exhausting, and it makes every other problem and challenge in one’s life into a fuzzed-out blur against that endless pummeling. There was so much I could not see until I could name that opponent.

Medical science worked miracles on me, once I knew what to ask of it. The established, accepted, medically recommended response to being transgender is to make one’s life and, if desired, one’s body line up with that reality. For most of us, me included, that meant a new name, a new wardrobe, and a regimen of estrogen to replace the testosterone that was ruining my body.

It was a transformative experience in every sense of the word. The stories about us that cis (that is, non-trans) people tell each other focus on the lurid outside: the obligatory putting-on-makeup scene, the genitals, the awkward dressing room moments. Transition is so much more than that for those of us who need it. The best thing that replacing my hormones did for me wasn’t these curvaceous hips, this soft skin, or finally defeating my persistent adult acne. It was the moment when the change in my brain chemistry meant that, for the first time in decades, I looked in the mirror and the person looking back at me wasn’t a stranger. Depersonalization is a frequent symptom of being trans, the mind protecting itself from the sheer visceral body horror of such a mismatched shape by refusing to recognize it as one’s own, and one day, before my eyes, long before the hormones had done much of anything for my curves or skin or libido, it wasn’t like that anymore. I looked in the mirror and I saw ME.

There were more steps to claiming myself. There still are. There’s legal rigmarole ahead of me due to my two-country existence, I’m still purging unwanted androgenic hair with lasers and electric needles, things with my family are vastly improved but still tense. But some big ones are done, including the ones that brought me to you lovelies.

Tragically, hormones can’t fix everything. A few years ago, I had the privilege of receiving vaginoplasty, correcting perhaps the most obvious of the frustrations testosterone inflicted upon me in the womb. A few years after that, roughly one year ago, I made a few more corrections in one fell swoop: four facial surgeries and my breast augmentation. Today, at last, I can look at this body and see no dramatic errors, no horror at my own shape, no disappointment, no pain that isn’t my chronic migraines and TMD. It’s mine. I did it. From that most inauspicious start, I’ve claimed beauty and femininity and all those other things that sad-eyed green-shirted young adult didn’t yet believe were possible. That 23-year-old could scarcely imagine the woman she would become by 33, or the life that that woman would lead, thanks to all the medical science she would take into that body to finally make it hers.

Maybe it’s not that intense for most of you. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming to see one’s old shape reappear after a post-weight-loss tummy tuck, or square the circle of an intense fitness regimen and a bust that feels appropriately hefty, or reclaim the proportions one had before birthing children, or just having some bigger breasts installed without any grander narrative. But I like to think that all these experiences have some of this feeling in common, this sense of finally coming home to oneself after a long journey one might not have even known one was on, of finally looking in the mirror and at long last getting to say,

yeah,

that’s me.

I’m here.

I made it.

It’s a thought I find beautiful, that something about me that would seem to set me thoroughly apart from the 99+% of humans who aren’t trans, could also be something that all of us here understand in our own way.

So here’s to the wonders of modern medicine, and all the glorious ways it lets us make our bodies truly, inescapably our own, even when so, so many people don’t understand why we’d want to.

And here’s to us, for coming home to ourselves, no matter how long it took.

And here’s to some nice hecking tits.

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Was Megatron Right? A Critical Examination of Beast Wars https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/12/04/was-megatron-right-a-critical-examination-of-beast-wars/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/12/04/was-megatron-right-a-critical-examination-of-beast-wars/#respond Sat, 04 Dec 2021 14:40:19 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7331 The post Was Megatron Right? A Critical Examination of Beast Wars appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Megatron is not a good person, that much is clear. But what of his cause?

A long time ago, I waxed rhapsodic about my love of the recently-sort-of-revived Beast Wars Transformers franchise and how it dodges many tropes of its kind of story to rich results. Its protagonists are a research and exploration team pulled into a war they did not want to fight, and they spend much of the first season trying to achieve goals rather than stop their adversary Megatron from achieving his. In between their battles, they study the world on which they’ve become trapped, regarding learning as its own reward. Characters on both sides of the show’s central conflict are shown to have interpersonal clashes, competing goals, and different leadership styles, which occasionally bring even generally copacetic groups to blows. It is, at times, a far deeper and more emotional story than children’s media of its time was usually allowed to be, telling hard-hitting stories about disability, loyalty, growth, and giant shapeshifting robots stabbing each other in the heart with swords made of energized crystal. The untold sums I have spent completing a collection of associated merchandise speak for themselves.

But there are ways in which Beast Wars reflects the unwholesome DNA of its origins, patterns that permeate North American action storytelling and cast a pall over the entire genre. And those ways all meet in the person of Megatron himself.

Megatron Is Not a Good Person

Megatron, the leader of the Predacon faction that is Beast Wars’s primary antagonists and named after the more famous Decepticon leader from previous Transformers stories, establishes himself almost immediately as a love-to-hate villain, downright Vaudevillian in his mannerisms and expansive in his designs. He seems at first to be a would-be conqueror, seeking to acquire resources on prehistoric Earth to fuel a conquest of the planet Cybertron, from which both the Maximal and Predacon races hail. Such an act would rekindle a centuries-past conflict called the “Great War,” which otherwise ended in a treaty called the Pax Cybertronia. Whether this is irredentism or simply acquisitiveness, it seems straightforward enough. Similarly, Megatron’s faction is full of backstabbing, hidden agendas, wanton disregard for collateral damage, and many other unpleasant qualities, making them easy to oppose. Megatron himself obviously does not have the best interests of his team at heart, routinely subjecting them to bodily harm if it serves his strategic goals. He often leads through intimidation and likes to toy with and torment his foes rather than simply defeat them. When he reaches the height of his power, in the Beast Machines follow-up to Beast Wars that I’m here considering part of the same story, he does so with the robotic equivalent of a bioweapon and enslaves much of his home planet of Cybertron to his will in the process. He becomes a nigh-cosmic horror by the end of the series, switching between prepared bodies as suits him and subsisting on a diet of the literal souls of his fellow Cybertronians. To call Megatron “not a good person” is a miracle of understatement: he is literally and figuratively monstrous, a megalomaniacal sadist and burgeoning elder demon who tortures and enslaves not just his enemies, but his even his allies if they’re not compliant enough, and this monstrosity is clear even before Beast Wars’s characterizations properly solidify a few episodes into its run.

Megatron and some of his Predacon minions in robot mode, styled like a triumphant painting of a military leader.
“Vote for Megatron to have your soul devoured today!”

But these are not Megatron’s stated goals. Megatron does not recruit his initial followers with the pitch that he’ll torture them with energy weapons if they disobey him, or promise them a bright future as meals for his future ascension. What he tells them says a great deal about the status of Predacons in Cybertronian society and raises some difficult questions.

Pax for Thee, But Not for Me

One of the first things we hear from Megatron is that the Pax Cybertronia resulted in “peace on your side…but not on ours.” Later in the series, Predacons outside of Megatron’s faction are introduced, and they are pursuing essentially the same goals as Megatron despite regarding him as a dangerous renegade. Predacons all, it seems, resent the inferior social position that the Pax Cybertronia imposed on them, not least because the Predacons and Maximals are not even signatories to this treaty—their respective Decepticon and Autobot ancestors were. This plus Megatron’s initial plans were enough for him to recruit both his initial crew and a Predacon police officer sent to bring him into custody. Later still, Megatron describes the Maximals and their Autobot ancestors as “you who made us slaves!” When the show returns to Cybertron, the Maximals almost always use the words “Maximal” and “Cybertronian” interchangeably, scarcely acknowledging that Predacons ever lived there.

These signs all point to Predacons not being, and possibly never having been, more than a small fraction of Cybertron’s population, and to facing ongoing hostility from the Maximals even in the centuries of peace following the Great War. From there, it starts to look like the much larger population of Maximals hopes to keep the much smaller population of Predacons “in their place” and out of power. These possibilities would paint Optimus Primal and his Maximals into an awkward narrative corner, casting a pall over their supposed heroism…if anyone bothered to ask them.

Questions That Never Get Asked

Beast Wars isn’t interested in questions about what Cybertronian society is like. It is strongly focused on its characters rather than its setting and never actually shows us the society from which its characters hail. Like many action-oriented stories told in the North American tradition, the narrative does not care. The hints and suggestions that the Predacons are not a planet-scale invading army, but a put-upon minority, are background dressing, nods to the idea that a story is deeper if it makes sense why people would follow someone like Megatron. As far as the overall narrative of Beast Wars is concerned, it does not matter what story those tidbits of worldbuilding add up to tell.

So which is it? Why are the Predacons, as a population, so angry? Are they a put-upon minority, would-be conquerors, or both, or neither?  Is Megatron dramatizing the state of Cybertronian society and merely annoyed that his “team” isn’t subjugating the whole planet? Is Megatron speaking truthfully about the status of his people, with his status as an utter garbage fire of a person being unrelated? Is Megatron a narcissist wielding legitimate grievances to his own advantage, or a narcissist inventing grievances to delude himself and his followers into a sense of righteousness?

Beast Wars will never answer these questions, not because the show ended in the 2000s, but because American-style stories find questions like these irrelevant and suspicious to even ask. The Predacons in general and Megatron’s faction in particular want to change things, and that’s enough, all by itself, to make them The Bad Guys. The narrative of Beast Wars presents Megatron’s opposition to “peace” as self-evidently wrong and worthy of enmity, with no interest in whether that peace is positive or negative. Megatron’s status as a would-be revolutionary is enough, in this storytelling tradition, to explain why he becomes a soul-devouring demon by the end of his story. After all, only bad people want to change things.

 

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Frita Cubana Burger, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/11/13/frita-cubana-burger-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/11/13/frita-cubana-burger-alyssa-style/#respond Sat, 13 Nov 2021 19:30:24 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7325 The post Frita Cubana Burger, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Cuba, like every country, has distinctive street food, and one of the crowning achievements of that tradition is the frita cubana, a style of hamburger that has taken on a life of its own in the years since its invention. Supposedly invented in the 1920s and spread through Cuban food carts and hotel chains, the frita cubana is perhaps now best known as a signature offering of Miami’s Cuban-American restaurants, celebrated by burger connoisseurs but little-known outside the places where it is routinely served. That is positively criminal, as this burger has few equals.

The frita cubana is defined by three unusual traits: its patty is a mix of beef and chorizo (some variations use ground pork instead, but those are wrong), its “secret sauce” is largely ketchup heavily seasoned with paprika, and it is topped with julienned or shoestring potatoes fried until crispy. The result is an intensely flavorful burger with a characteristic blend of heat and crunch, cheese optional, that your friends and family are unlikely to have experienced before.

The combination of so many components makes aligning the amounts of each one tricky. It will be easy to produce far more of one than another and end up with extra. Fortunately, there are always uses for extra fennel or shoestring potatoes, and it’s easy to make more secret sauce if it’s needed. You might even find yourself making more to use outside of this dish.

This recipe is designed to result in four patties and roughly the amount of everything else needed to complete them. Adjust as needed to match your specific situation, including scaling up. To serve this at a party or barbecue, it’s best to complete at least some of the work (particularly the potatoes) well in advance, or guests might be waiting a little too long for the complete experience. There is a reason that this dish is most popular in commercial settings rather than as part of a home cook’s repertoire.

A ciabatta bun laden with sauce, a fancy burger patty, fennel, and shoestring potatoes.
The wonder itself.

Equipment

For the sauce, you will need your favorite measuring tools, a small saucepan with a lid, a stove or other bottom-up heat source, and a wooden spoon.

For the potatoes, you will need a box grater or equivalent food-processor attachment, a bowl, a plate lined with paper towels, and your preferred setup for frying (either a deep fryer or a large skillet). A food processor and deep fryer are recommended.

For the patties, you will need your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a large bowl, a food processor, and a grill, griddle, or frying pan. It is traditional to cook a frita cubana on a flat griddle, but I find a George Foreman-style folding indoor grill to be ideal. The food processor has several roles in this part of the recipe that can all be replaced with hand techniques if needed.

For the whole recipe, you will need your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a small saucepan with a lid, a stove or other bottom-up heat source, a wooden spoon, a food processor with a grater attachment, your preferred frying setup, a plate lined with paper towels, a large bowl, and your preferred grill or griddle.

Ingredients

Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.

Sauce

  • Tomato ketchup, ½ cup (120 mL)
  • Water, 2 tbsp (30 mL)
  • Vinegar, ½ tbsp (12 mL)
  • Paprika, ¾ teaspoon (3.75 mL). Sweet Spanish paprika is best but any paprika will work.
  • Ground cumin, ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL)
  • Salt, ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL)
  • Dried oregano, ¼ teaspoon (1.25 mL)
  • Crushed red pepper, ¼ teaspoon (1.25 mL)
  • Cuban oregano, 1 branch

Potatoes

Patties

  • Ground beef, ½ lb (250 g)
  • Chorizo, ½ lb (250 g). This is usually equivalent to one ordinary-sized package.
  • Asafoetida/hing, heavily sprinkled onto meat. Don’t even try to measure it precisely.
  • Fennel, ¾ cup (180 mL). An ordinary-sized fennel bulb will be close to 2 cups.
  • Ketchup, 1.5 tbsp (22.5 mL)
  • Ground cumin, ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL)
  • Paprika, 2 teaspoons (10 mL). For best results, use 1 teaspoon each of sweet Spanish paprika and smoked paprika, but any combination, including all of one or the other, will work.
  • Salt, ¾ teaspoon (3.75 mL). Kosher or other flaked salt works best here due to larger grain size; cubed salt will be saltier for the same volume.
  • Black pepper, to taste.
  • Variations: Like other burgers, it is common to serve with cheese or stacked with multiple patties. Experiment to find what you like.

Final Assembly

  • 4 buns. Cuban rolls are traditional, but brioche, ciabatta, ordinary hamburger buns, or any other suitably sized firm bread will work.

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: Watch for gluten in the chorizo, asafoetida, and buns and use gluten-free options for these ingredients.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Use alternatives to buns and consider leaving out the fennel.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions, but watch out for garlic and other potential hazards in the chorizo. Consider switching to gluten-free alternatives of gluten-containing ingredients.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: This recipe showcases a specific meat blend and creating a similar experience with a meat substitute may be tricky.

Preparation

Sauce

  1. Finely chop the Cuban oregano.
  2. Mix the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and gently simmer, partially covered, for five minutes.

Deep red sauce in a saucepan.

Potatoes

  1. Using a box grater or an equivalent food processor attachment on the course setting, grate the potato into shoestring size. Peeling first is traditional but not required.
  2. Rinse the potatoes in water, changing the water until it runs clear. This removes excess starch and helps the potatoes fry crispy.
  3. Let the potatoes air-dry while bringing the fryer to temperature.
  4. Fry in small batches until golden brown. Depending on your fryer temperature, this can take up to five minutes per batch.
  5. Set to dry on a plate lined with paper towels.
  6. Optionally, sprinkle with salt.

Patties

  1. Dice the chorizo and use your food processor or similar tool to mince it to a fine paste. This is necessary to make it mix properly with the other ingredients.
  2. Use your food processor or other cutting tools to mince the fennel to a fine paste. Reserve the largest bits to use as garnish later, during Final Assembly.
  3. Mix the ground beef, chorizo, and fennel. This works best by hand but can be done in a food processor. Pro tip: wear gloves.
  4. Dust the meat mixture with asafoetida and add the non-reserved fennel, ketchup, cumin, paprika, and salt. Mix again until the ingredients are uniformly combined.
  5. Form into four patties on parchment paper or a similar nonstick surface.
  6. Cook the patties on your grill or griddle for 2-4 minutes per side to the desired doneness. I found 5 minutes in a George Foreman grill to be ideal, not least because all four could be cooked at once this way.
Ten burger patties arranged on parchment paper.
My first batch was double+ this recipe. It’s going to take me a while to eat them all.

Final Assembly

  1. Open the buns and spread the sauce on the interior of both halves.
  2. Place a patty on top of each bottom bun.
  3. If using cheese, add to the top of each patty. Add more sauce to the top of each patty or the cheese, as indicated.
  4. Add the reserved fennel to the top of Step 17.
  5. Add large piles of shoestring potatoes to the top of Step 18.
  6. Place the top buns and serve.

This is another high effort, high reward dish best suited to communal situations. It is an ideal match for people who might make its various components on their own and thus often have them around rather than creating them all specifically for this combination, but it’s worth the effort even if shoestring potatoes aren’t a regular part of one’s diet. When preparing in advance for later reheating, stop at step 14 and perform the Final Assembly steps after reheating the patties only, for best results. It’s time to wow your friends with this lovely bit of Cubanidad. Happy cooking!

 

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Life from Death in the Desert of Wet: Whalefalls https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/10/30/life-from-death-in-the-desert-of-wet-whalefalls/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/10/30/life-from-death-in-the-desert-of-wet-whalefalls/#respond Sun, 31 Oct 2021 03:05:29 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7323 The post Life from Death in the Desert of Wet: Whalefalls appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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The deep ocean is one of the most impoverished biomes on the planet. It encompasses more area than all of the world’s land biomes combined but exists hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away from the nearest solar ray, a lightless void punctuated almost entirely by the wispy phosphorescence of the creatures within it. Such light cannot sustain an ecosystem, for the energy that powers it comes from within that very ecosystem. Nearly all of the resources available to the creatures that call the deep ocean home fall from above, nutritious plankton remains forming the dense sludge called “marine snow” that coats much of the seafloor. There is productivity at the seafloor, involving chemical reactions at geologic sites called hydrothermal vents, and these locations occupy an outsized portion of the public imagination. But there is another deep-ocean ecosystem that is no less fascinating for its obscurity, and is proving to be instrumental to the persistence of hydrothermal vent life: the whalefall.

When large animals, most conspicuously whales, die at sea, their remains make a long, slow descent to the seafloor. Along the way, various scavengers take their fill, but much of each carcass still reaches the bottom, alighting on the layer of marine snow. When this happens, a characteristic series of scavengers finds them in relatively short order. Sharks, crabs, giant isopods, echinoderms, various fish species, and the primitive hagfish descend on the carcass from kilometers around, feeding for months or even years. After the soft tissues are exhausted, specialized organisms such as the Osedax worm feed on the lipid-rich bones and marrow, a process that itself can last years or even decades. At the end of the cycle, anaerobic bacteria decay the last of the non-mineralized material in the skeleton using hydrogen sulfide instead of oxygen, becoming a food source for filter-feeding organisms growing on the whale bones in the process. What remains after this can anchor pelagic larvae and become a substrate for deep-water reefs. Any large enough animal, from a whale to a shark to a sea turtle to an alligator dumped by curious researchers, can initiate this cycle, but whales’ status as enormous air-breathing animals whose bodies are denser than water and whose bones are unusually lipid-rich makes whales more likely to reach the seafloor mostly intact and to host the complete cycle when they do.

A whalefall community in the chemoautotrophic stage, consisting of a whale skeleton covered in mats of yellow bacteria with a few animals visible.
The chemoautotrophic, anaerobic stage, where bacteria are doing the work and the flesh is long gone.

The whalefall cycle can take up to a century to complete. Throughout that time, the whale carcass is effectively an oasis in a largely featureless desert, temporary but nevertheless enduring enough to become a landmark for the creatures that depend on it. On land, scavengers are usually considered a niche within a larger ecosystem, but the ocean’s vastness and the long duration of a whalefall makes whalefalls different. Many of the species that populate the whalefall biota are rarely found anywhere else, spending their entire lives either on a whalefall or traveling to the next. This makes whalefalls a distinct ecosystem in their own right, one that rarely gets the same attention and fascination that the hydrothermal vent biota rightly receives.

Scientists are coming to appreciate the major role that whalefalls play in the overall oceanic biome. Whales move huge amounts of nutrition around the world by feeding in upwelling zones and defecating elsewhere, and their carcasses represent the return of this nutrition to the deep ocean. The near-extinction of numerous whale species during the heyday of whaling continues to have a sizable impact on the prevalence of whalefalls. The lingering effect of this loss on deep-sea nutrient flows, in turn, is only beginning to be understood. Similarly, because deep-sea nutrients take an enormous amount of time to return to the surface once deposited there, each whalefall represents the sequestering of thousands of kilograms of carbon where it will not affect the atmosphere. Understanding what the depletion of whale populations means for atmospheric carbon levels is one of the keys for a truly complete model of anthropogenic climate change. At a more local level, research is beginning to show that whalefalls have another role in oceanic life: as way stations for hydrothermal vent specialists migrating to new hydrothermal vents when their previous homes move away from volcanic hotspots and begin to go quiet. Just as whalefalls sustain their characteristic predators, they can also sustain vent specialists on the move.

Whalefalls are about as glamorous as roadkill and as scenic as a pack of hyenas dismembering a zebra. They lack the raw, colorful charisma of coral reefs or the sheer scale of marlins feeding on sardines at the surface. But in the cold depths of the ocean floor, where light is a distant memory and food is what one makes it, there is a stark, alien beauty to the churning swarm of whalefall eaters, and to the sheer scale of what they represent. Everything about whales is big, including what happens when they die.

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