Monday, January 12, 2009

Give me your answer do

Almost 4 years ago, we went out to Seattle for some friend's beautiful wedding. With some of our extra time in the city, we made a trip over to the Space Needle... not actually for the Needle, but for its neighbor, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

They've done a good job representing the villains of science fiction in the museum. Darth Vader. Klingons. Ming the Merciless. They had a special exhibit on the different representations of the Martians from War of the Worlds. They've got a full-size Alien, which is pretty cool. But there was one moment when I turned a corner, and met with evil eye-to-eye. I jumped right out of my skin.

And then Alison pet my hair gently and whispered that it's only a museum.

And I said "I probably work with computers too much."

Happy 17th birthday, HAL.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

My dear acquaintance

Years ago, I wrote my answer to the question "why do you blog". It seems like the right time to address the question "why start blogging again."

An author can take a hiatus, but the little hit counter on each page just keeps ticking along. And it's not a bad reality check to look at those logs and discover that, in two-and-a-half years, I wrote one post that gets any continuing readers.

I'm actually pleased to discover that any of my posts have held value. And I'm particularly tickled with the idea that it's a post which may have ended up on someone's dinner plate. So that's the chunk of the blog I want to concentrate on reviving - recent recipes. One of the nice tips I got on that post is to keep up the experimental tone, document the variables and improvisations, the next directions. It's a kind of food writing I don't see very often, but I feel it might be a better way to capture the art of cooking that by a programmatic listing of ingredients and steps.

New Years just passed, and I've gotta have my black-eyed peas for good luck. I suppose, someday, I should find a black-eyed peas recipe which isn't hoppin' john... but darn it, I like hoppin' john. So here it is.

Don't Mess With A Good Thing Hopping John

about half a pound of dried black eyed peas, soaked and drained
3 ham hocks (because it was a 3-pack at the store and I like ham hocks)
1 bay leaf
1 poblano pepper, veined, seeded, and diced
2 short celery ribs, diced (about a cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced (about a cup)
1 red bell pepper
2 more shorter ribs of celery, sliced - about a half-cup
2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
about 1 1/2 tsp. thyme
about 2/3rds cup of medium grain rice
4 cups of liquid - I used about 2 cups of water and 2 cups of creole crawfish stock

Get a heavy pot. Look at 3 ham hocks. Get a bigger pot.

Cut the red pepper open. Discover that the slightly wrinkled skin was a sign the the inside was completely spoiled. Cuss and toss it.

Brown the ham hocks in a little oil over medium-high heat - a minute or so per side. Saute the peppers, onion, and garlic for about 2 minutes. Add the drained beans and toss quickly. Add the liquid and bring to a low simmer. Return the ham hocks to the pot.

Think about that lost red pepper. Slice up 2 more short ribs of celery and add to the pot to get a little more vegetable texture and flavor in there.

Stew away until the beans are tender - about 40 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Look at the pot and think "that is really too soupy." Throw the rice in to absorb some of that liquid. Cook for about 20 minutes more, until the rice is done and the beans are creamy.

Pull the ham hocks, harvest the meat off the bones, and mix it back in. Ham hocks are slippery little things and the meat isn't easy to get at - you could serve them along side the beans, but that's not very nice to your dining companions.


This recipe works just fine with canned black-eyed peas, and it's ready a lot faster.

Losing that red pepper really hurt. But it did give me a test of the late addition of a vegetable in this recipe - and it gives a nice addition of texture and distinct flavor.

It's traditional to serve hopping john over rice, and some recipes say you can get away with cooking the rice and beans together like I did. Don't do this. (Which suggests, don't use 4 cups of liquid for half a pound of beans either.) The flavors get muddy. Ideally, there should be a contrast between the clean flavor of the rice and the warm rich beans. (Add some vinegary greens to the plate and it's heaven.)

I used a poblano... well, because I was shocked to see one in my Kroger. I've used jalapeno in the past, and that's good too.

You don't have to use 3 ham hocks... 1 or 2 will work fine. I bet 4 would be good. If you can't find ham hocks, use some bacon. You can make a vegetarian hopping john and leave it out entirely... bump up the salt, thyme, and a smoky spice like cumin.

Thyme, beans, and pork are great friends - I could've gone with quite a bit more (or used rubbed thyme instead of fresh).

I like this dish to have a little kick. A good shake of Old Bay or hot sauce at the table is nice. (A friend gave us a bottle of Nando's hot sauce, which has quite a kick and a neat lemony taste... that worked really well.)

A couple of recipes I looked at to remind myself:
At the Seattle Times
Emeril's recipe at the Food Network
John Martin Taylor's recipe at Epicurious


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Five pound box of tens

Wil Wheaton suggests this cure for holiday stress: take a moment to think about three things that make you happy."The exercise is awesome, because the first thing is always very easy to list, but it's a challenge to just pick two more things."

(Actually, I'm not feeling a lot of holiday stress. It's still a good exercise.)

1) My son has his mother's ear for music. Seriously... I have an almost-two year old who can sing the opening of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

2) Christmas blues/R&B songs. This is a whole other post (in fact, it already is), but I love Christmas music, and I especially love anything true to its roots.

3) Psych. I'm not saying it's great art, but it makes me happy.

And sure enough, it's hard to defend why these three and not numbers 4-10. It's not like these are ranked by level of happiness caused. But it does put me in the right frame of mind to get to work and remind my staff what a great year we had, and how thankful I am for them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

If you'll turn the record over

...we'll continue with our story.

Holy smokes, is this thing still on?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Nobody knows him, and nobody cares

Since Bob "Freedom Fries" Ney resigned, I don't have a Representative in the House. Which is a shame, because H.R. 5388 is important.

There are a pretty limited number of things you can do to invalidate your franchise in the United States. You can repudiate your citizenship; that'll do it. Being convicted of a felony will ding it, but even then a couple of states will let you vote from prison, and most will let you vote sometime after you get out.

Or you can move to the District of Columbia.

The guards at the doors to our Congress probably don't have a vote in it. Neither, for that matter, do a lot of the staff. The cops and firemen and Metro drivers and teachers and librarians of D.C., the folks that make the governing possible, nobody actually represents them when Congress calls the question.

Although a fair number of somebody else's representatives have been happy to experiment on them.

According to Morning Edition, DC might finally be getting a voice in the House. H.R. 5388 gives the District a voting member in the House, and adds a member to the delegation from Utah, remedying an undercount in the last census.

Virginia Rep. Tom Davis has been championing this idea for 3 years. Now we're down to one week for this Congress to get the deal done. Everybody's saying the leadership is going to take a knee and run out the clock, and since most of America has no idea this is going on, they might be right.

That's where you come in.

The Utah legislature resolved the last major objection to H.R. 5388 on Tuesday. Now it's all about waking up our legislators. I don't have a Congressman, so I have to ask you to call yours for me. Ask them to get the DC Fair and Equal Voting Rights Act to a vote this week. Call or email your Senators and ask them to contact a colleague. Call the President, and ask him to light a fire under it. Spread the word through emails or your blog.

Enough is enough, and we shouldn't have to wait until February. There are half a million people waiting for a seat at the table they set.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

He'd like to come and meet us but he thinks he'll blow our minds

According to one of these weird photographs taken with a machine I don't understand by a person I've never met before...

It's a boy.

(I don't really understand why I distrust my eyes more than my ears... it's not like the Doppler of the heartbeat would be any harder to fake. But I have to admit a certain reaction of c'mon, now, you expect me to believe something on TV?)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Walk right in it's around the back

It's been a glorious weekend in Central Ohio. It's gotten up to the mid-60s every day, and on Thanksgiving, the sky was impossibly, flawlessly blue, the color of television tuned to a dead channel.
Poor William Gibson. The guy writes one of the all-time great opening lines of a novel, probably the best in science fiction since "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", and 10 years later, the metaphor's been broken by digital cable. Ah, sic transit somethingorother.
I'm pretty sure I stole this insight from Wil Wheaton sometime in the last few months. But Neil Gaiman hit on it in Neverwhere 10 years ago, so we're in good company.

Nice tangent. Where was I? Oh, Thanksgiving.

That perfect weather did make me long for the days of the Turkey Bowl. The year after we graduated high school, something like 35 of us reunited on the Good Counsel High School field for a game of pickup, full contact, no pads football. (An uncharitable person might refer to this as "criminal trespass.")

Full contact only lasted for a year or so, and we went to 2-hand touch. The group dwindled down as we went our separate ways. (The Best Turkey Bowl of all was '92 or '93, when my friend Chris was the only other one who showed up. He rolled down the window, threw the football to me, and said "good game, let's go to the Royal Mile Pub." He never cut the engine to his car.) Eventually, my friend Matt rolled Chris, Pat, and myself into his family's game. That was really all the high school reunion we needed anyway, and you can have some fun when the 60 year old quarterback is making completions to his 14 year old grandson (and all the guys pushing 30 are sucking wind).

The traditions are different now. For my folks, this was the first Thanksgiving none of the kids came home. They hosted some of my mom's family, and it sounds like they had a good time. For us, we had friends over, and discovered why Thanksgiving is the Holiday of the Traditional Casserole.

The nice thing about a traditional casserole is that you know how the recipe goes, and it only takes up oven space. Whereas if you think the New York Times had some interesting ideas and start trying new recipes, you can run out of burners on the stove real quick. And then there's a little stressing, and some raised voices, and lots of randomly standing smack in the center of the kitchen wondering just where the hell you're going to put this pot of boiled sweet potatoes.

Strangely enough, it all turns out well. Nobody knows how. It's a mystery.

The hashed brussel sprouts with garlic and lemon zest turned out fantastic. (I honestly had no idea you could serve sliced brussel sprouts... I figured there was a law protecting the cole slaw manufacturers or something.) Shirley's recipe for mashed potatoes worked like a champ, again, and Alison's idea for mashed sweet potatoes with crab boil seasoning was just about perfect. We decided to forgo in-the-bird stuffing this year, and I did miss that savory mush, but we had a darn nice cornbread dressing anyway. (That loaf of cornbread was a golden dome of beauty when it came out of the oven - almost a shame to crumble it up.)

We weren't bold enough to try the Cook's Illustrated salted turkey, but we used their recipe for spice rubbed turkey. And here's a testament to brining for you: their procedure calls for a 14-pound bird, and ours was only 8. Almost a glorified chicken. We put in the instant read thermometer, and the needle spun around until it said "is this trip really necessary?" By rights, it should've been a charcoal briquette with wings, but it was fragrant and moist and just right. (And our friend Bruce smoked his 10-pounder into the best poultry barbecue I've ever had in my life.)

And at the end of the day, with the guests gone and the dishwasher running for the umpteenth time of the day, my beautiful wife found my favorite thing on TV: a countdown show. Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies ever. Something to argue at and laugh with... what could be better?

I never got last year's overwhelming moment. Maybe that's OK. How could surprise be a tradition anyway? Last year was about being in the moment, but this year I can see that where I've been was good, and it's all leading up to something wonderful.

I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving, and I still thank you for your support.