Monday, August 10, 2009

The Prodigal Cat

Callie and Rusty

I am a cat person and have been for most, if not all, of my life. We did have a dog when I was growing up, Poochie Pie Bell. He was NTB (not too bright) and loved to chase cars on the road I lived on in Spruce Pine, even surviving being hit a couple of times. Luckily, a broken tail was the worst of his injuries. Poochie was a mutt, but generally a lovable, although smelly one. He loved me more than I loved him, to tell the truth. Everyone else in my family has one or more dogs. I just did not get that gene. For years, my grandparents babysat for my Aunt Sandi's dog while she was at work. No kidding. (They preferred that to babysitting for me and my three siblings.) My sister Marsha has 3 (or is it 4?) chihuahuas. I am not the least bit fond of those yapping dogs. I tolerate them when I go visit. I draw the line with them sleeping in the bed with me.
In Arles, I admit that I did love to walk the family dog, Filou. And he loves to be walked! There is no better way to look as if you belong in France than to have a dog on the end of a leash. I think there are about as many dogs as there are French citizens, somewhere around 60 million. They love their dogs and allow them to go most everywhere (except museums as I found out in Nice at the Matisse museum- another story, but let's just say that I volunteered to stay outside with Filou on a hot day, lost my wallet and was not too thrilled with the whole experience). But walking Filou around the wall in Arles and down by the Rhône River was relaxing. When we would go out and about with him in the van, though, he liked to ride shotgun, on my lap, with his head sticking out the window. Filou heaven.
I have had quite a few cats, favoring tabby and black ones. I had an orange tabby named Powder Puff when I was high school. I did love that cat and she loved me until I ran her through the clothes dryer. Not on purpose, I promise. I needed to dry something really quickly and threw it in the dryer and turned it on. There was a thumping noise coming from the dryer, but I ignored it, thinking it was probably my brother's Converse sneakers. Imagine my shock when I opened the dryer a little while later and Powder Puff shot out of it like a rocket. She ran right out the door and didn't come back for a couple of days. I figured her for dead and felt horrible. However, she came home, not too worse for the wear, just a little scorched around the ears. I was no longer her favorite human being and she steered clear of me for the rest of my time at home.
We now have Callie and Rusty, a sister and brother rescue duo. We've had them for a couple of years, finding them after our family cat TC died due to a sudden strange disease which paralyzed her. No dryers involved. Since the Powder Puff incident
I've been very, very careful to always close the door tightly. Rusty and Callie have always been quite content to be indoor cats, never trying to dart outside when we come home. That is, until last month. Rusty escaped while we were in Pennsylvania for a couple of days. Evidently we did not close the back door very well before leaving. Steve had been out on the deck watering my herbs and tomatoes and didn't tightly close the door and lock it. That's the best we can do to explain why the door was open and nothing was missing except Rusty when we returned home.
We called him, set out food for him but pretty much gave up on finding him after a few days and no sightings. Then one night we were sitting out on the deck, looked out in the grass and there he was, staring back at us before running away. The next week was spent trying to entice him to come back, to no avail. Rusty discovered that our next door neighbors' crawl space was open and made it his new home. I can't say as I blame him. It is nice and cool under there, lined with plastic covering the ground, a little grate opening to the front so that he could watch everyone come and go. After discovering he was under there and not managing to get him to come to us, we called Critter Control. They came and set a trap with fragrant wet cat food (the kind he never gets at home) and we checked it every day to see if he was in it. Nope. It was now time for our week at the beach but still no Rusty. Steve and Jake crawled around on their hands and knees (and even tummies at times) trying to find him under the house (Grant stayed on the outside with me, claiming to suffer from arachnophobia and claustrophobia). No again. We left for Sunset and the Critter Control guy promised to come check every day. We returned a week later. Still no caged cat. We were really starting to worry because he hadn't eaten in at least a week. He had water, but no food except for what was in the trap. We decided to have our new best friend Chip come remove the traps. We placed food outside the door to the crawl space, hoping to get him out so we could close the door and at least get our neighbors out of the drama. One evening, he finally came to me as I was sitting at the door to the crawl space, under the neighbors' deck. I tried to grab him tightly, hold on and crawl out from under the deck. Yeah, right. He used his very sharp claws on me and I let go, hoping not to need stitches or to bleed to death. So much for that tactic. Lesson learned: a tank top is not appropriate cat-catching gear.
Next plan of action. I finally spotted him outside and quickly closed the door to the crawl space. Now was the time to place his food and water dishes on our front porch and try to lure him in the house. Rusty loves to eat and loves the rattle of his cat food as it is poured into his dish. Music to his little orange ears. So, Grant and I spent a few evenings on the porch rattling his dish and calling him. We discovered that he was hiding out in the drain near our townhouse. We could hear him meowing and actually see him, but he still wouldn't come to us.
It was time to put our final plan in place. Last night around 11:30, Grant and I opened the front door and placed his food dish in the doorway. Callie was safe and sound in my bedroom fast asleep (she adjusted very well to being the only cat!). Grant was the lookout and I sat in a chair, patiently working a crossword puzzle while keeping an eye on the door. I am not the most patient person I know, but I couldn't sleep and I figured it was as good a night as any for cat trapping. Finally, after the neighbor walked his yappy dog twice, the neighborhood got quiet and Rusty's hunger pangs and curiosity got the better of him. I saw his shadow on the threshold. He saw me, too, however and bolted. I pretended to ignore him, figuring he would return. And sure enough he did. He came in the house, took a right and headed into the kitchen where we keep the food and water dishes. I sat very still, knowing that a false move on my part and he would head right back out the door. Pretty soon I saw him walk back past the door and head either to where his litter box is kept in the downstairs half bath or up the stairs to Grant's and Jake's bedrooms. I gave him a few minutes and got up quietly, closed and locked the door. I went upstairs to find out if Grant had seen him. He was watching TV, having given up his sentry position and wasn't aware that Rusty was now inside. We found Rusty under Grant's bed, one of his former favorite hiding spots.
We released Callie from the bedroom to see if she could make his re-entry easier. She proceeded to puff out her tail and hiss at him. I imagine he didn't smell the same anymore and she didn't seem overjoyed to see her long lost brother. Rusty spent the night roaming through the house, meowing loudly and walking on me as I tried to sleep, begging to have his ears scratched. At one point, Grant and I decided to attempt to give him a dose of his flea medicine and finally managed to accomplish that. He seems none the worse for his adventure, just a few pounds lighter. He was getting chubby anyway. Grant thinks he may be slightly "retarded." The neighbor even suggested a cat specialist. I did not laugh out loud at that suggestion, showing amazing self-control on my part, I think. But hey, maybe I can rent myself out as a cat whisperer.

Since I do not eat cats (do they really do that in Asia??), I decided that one of Chef Érick's tuna recipes would be appropriate!

Thon Aux Câpres - Tuna with Capers

Serves 4

Preparation time : 40 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours for the sauce; 10 minutes for the tuna.

For the tuna :
2 good size tuna steaks (7-9 inches long, one inch thick)
6 Tbsp olive oil for frying
2 Tbsp flour for coating the tuna

For the tomato sauce :
6 large fresh tomatoes
one mid-sized yellow onion chopped fine
3 garlic cloves crushed and chopped fine
3 bay leaves
a small bird’s eye pepper
3 Tbsp olive oil
large pinch of sea salt or to taste
3 Tbsp capers
water as needed

1. Rinse the tuna well in running cold water for 5 minutes and then tap it dry.

2. Prepare the sauce : Peel the tomatoes. Peeling the tomatoes over a stove top flame one by one works well. Hold them on the end of a fork, and turn them slowly, until the skin simply pops off. This removes only the thinnest outer skin, and leaves all the rich and flavorful flesh from just under the skin intact. Once all the tomatoes are peeled, chop them into small cubes.

3. In a large sauce pan pour in the olive oil and add the onions. Simmer until translucent (sweated), approximately 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook untill they start to release their juice (5 minutes or so). Add the garlic, the bay leaves, the tiny pepper and the salt and let simmer. As needed, add fresh water (especially if you’re working with a sauce pan without a lid). This has the added benefit of allowing you to cook the tomatoes longer and therefore have a sweeter richer sauce flavor when you serve it. Do not let the sauce reduce to a thickness that would encourage the bottom to burn. You want a relatively liquid sauce. Cooking time can be an hour or two if you have the time. The general rule with tomatoes is the more they simmer, the less acidic they’ll be. 15 minutes before you are ready to serve the tuna, add the capers to the sauce and let simmer gently.

4. Now take the tuna steaks and cut them in half lengthwise to have 4 good portions, remove the skin and the center bone. Flour them on one side only. In a large frying pan pour in olive oil for frying and heat it for a minute (depending on the thickness of the pan, if using a heavy cast iron, heat for at least 2-3 minutes). Just before it starts to smoke, place tuna steaks, flour side down and fry for 6 minutes on the flour side, turn them over and fry for 1 minute on the other side.

To serve : On each individual plate place a tuna steak, browned side up, spoon a few capers on the top of the steak and gently ladle a 1/2 ladle-full of sauce around the steak.

Small steamed new potatoes make a good side dish.

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