Biscuits Never Judge

So a lot’s been going on. There are so many things I could say about so much. Instead I’d like to talk for a moment about biscuits.

Our family went to Disney World in Florida. It was a lot of fun and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on our daughter’s face when she saw Cinderella’s Castle for the first time. Of course then she realized it’s basically just a restaurant. Thankfully there was enough else to see and do it was no big deal. Since returning home, we’ve been busy beyond busy. On top of that, I’m unlikely to get around to seeing Superman or Pacific Rim. They haven’t gotten great reviews, but dammit, I don’t care. I’d just be in it for the geek-out factor.

Back to the biscuits. They’re always going to be there for you come hell or high water. I grew up on biscuits made in the Southern U.S. tradition–wonderful dollops of dirtbag that they are. they’re a special treat. Especially for someone who loves to cook.

Preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

Start with 2 cups of flour. You need a soft winter wheat “short patent” bleached flour for best results. White Lilly is the sentimental favorite for me and many others, but it’s getting harder to find. But do go out of your way to find a specialized flour for biscuits. I’ve made biscuits many times with national-brand all-purpose flour and trust me–they won’t yield exceptional results. Biscuits are almost entirely wheat flour, so if you’re not using the right one for the job, why bother? That’s what Pillsbury Grands are for. Incidentally, I find short patent flour makes the best roux. It creates much smoother sauces–almost the consistency of corn starch.

Mix in a teaspoon of salt–I use fine sea salt. Then mix in one tablespoon of baking powder. Sift them together–short patent flour tends to clump more in my experience. I also like to add a tablespoon of sugar. Some don’t. I find it balances the slight chalky taste of bleached flour. Next, cut in a third cup of butter. You could use less, but why not indulge? These really should be a “sometimes food.” Some people prefer shortening or lard, which produce a lighter consistency. Buttered biscuits are denser, but have a superior flavor, in my opinion. Lard is supremely light, but can pass on a gamey flavor and won’t get you much vegetarian cred. I cut the butter into half-inch chunks and then knead them into the flour mixture with my fingers. Once they become pea-sized clumps, I take a pastry cutter and blend them in until the clumps are the size of coarse crumbs. This way, some of the butter is blended in well with the flour, tenderizing the crumb while leaving a few bigger spots. Form a well in the center and stir in about 3/4 cup cold milk (I use plain milk instead of buttermilk). Knead slightly until all of the flour mixture is moistened. Do not overwork the dough. You want them to hold together enough to cut, but the more you knead, the tougher the finished biscuit will become.

Lightly flour a counter and pat the dough down into a round or oval a half inch thick. Cut out the biscuits and arrange them in a circle inside a cold 9 or 10-inch cast-iron skillet so that they barely touch each other. This contact will help them rise straight up instead of outwards.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the dough is dry and just beginning to turn pale golden brown in spots. Brush the tops with about a tablespoon of melted butter, if desired (DO IT).

Don’t eat them all in one place. Seriously. That’s a lot of fat.

What is there to say. I mean... it's a biscuit. Two of them in fact.

What is there to say. I mean… it’s a biscuit. Two of them in fact.

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Vegetarian Ambivalence

It’s been a while since I’ve had so many mixed feelings. Our soon-to-be six-year-old daughter recently declared she’s a vegetarian. We’ve been told many times by many different people we’re screwed when she hits her teenage years.

So here’s my dilemma: I have the utmost respect for vegetarians. A vegetarian diet is one of the most healthy and ethical diets out there. Too bad, as I said in my first post, I really, really likes me some bacon!

I’m a big believer in the virtue of free-range and ethically-raised livestock and I’ve tried to extoll this to my daughter. At this point it would be fair to note that, though I’m a licensed mental health provider, I don’t generally work with kids and tend to miss nuances of developmental appropriateness. Because the more I’ve talked to my daughter about how important it is we treat our food animals well, the more it hammers home that… well… she’s eating once-living beings.

I’m trying to eat more vegetables and this has urged us in that direction. My goal is more “Meatless Mondays” and more dishes in which meat is a subordinate part of the meal.

I’m far from swearing off pork fat, but if there’s a positive to this, it may be I’ll finally get my daughter to finish her vegetables and at least try her beans. “Otherwise, you don’t get to be a vegetarian.”

So here’s an attempt at compromise. For an early Father’s Day meal, I made grilled grass-fed steak with a spinach puree inspired in equal parts by Indian saag curries and chimichurri. I find herbacious, olive oil based sauces tend to compliment grass-fed beef more than buttery ones such as bearnaise or bordelaise. Those are great sauces, but they tend to stifle the delicate flavor of its natural fat. Enjoy!

 

Spinach Puree

 

Ingredients:

12 oz. spinach leaves

1 small tomato

2 cloves garlic

1 scallion

2 tablespoons good quality extra-vigin olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice (or to taste)

Cayenne pepper, to taste

Salt, to taste

 

Directions:

Bring one gallon of water to a boil. Cut an X into the bottom of the tomato skin and trim off the stem area. Blanch the spinach and tomato for about a minute, until the spinach is wilted and the tomato skin is loosened. Drain and shock both in an ice water bath.

Peel and seed the tomato. Squeeze the spinach into a clump until dry. Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until they form a paste. Thin out with more olive oil if a looser consistency is desired. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne, and lemon juice. Serve as a condiment with grilled meat.

Pictured with grilled asaparagus and homemade brioche. I snapped the picture too fast. Too busy eating to bother with multiple takes.

Pictured with grilled asaparagus and homemade brioche. I took the shot too fast. Too busy eating to be bothered by decent photography.

 

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Politics as Usual

The other day, I took a little time to catch up with Ursula Le Guin’s blog. I’m often a little surprised by her eagerness to embrace political topics. But then, to those familiar with her works, her political views seem unlikely to surprise. That got me to thinking–she is by no means strictly a writer of speculative fiction, but it is the genre for which she is best known. Is speculative fiction more political than some other genres?

Let me be clear–I don’t think think any narrative is apolitical. This goes beyond fiction. A friend’s father used to work for Voice of America. His father, he said, objected to frequent assertions that Voice of America is a political instrument of the United States government. He argued journalists for Voice of America’s passions generally lie not with U.S. interests, but with earnest, free speech. “Their only bias is that people be happy and well fed.” I believe and respect that. But it is a bias. Not all worldwide media outlets would give a snot about whether or not all people are happy and well-fed.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something about sci-fi and fantasy that sets it apart and I wonder if that something has to do with “world building.” Whether you’re talking the slightly sci-fi (let’s say, Atlas Shrugged) to the hard sci-fi (Let’s say, Star Trek) the “speculative” nature of spec fic inevitably involves some sort of deconstructing and reconstructing of setting. Even if it’s as simple as “Capitalists are smart enough to invent a perpetual motion machine and everyone else is not.” Yes, world building occurs even in supposedly naturalistic fiction, but at its heart, a work of speculative fiction tends to be a “what if..?” story. Good, bad, or ugly, the answer to “what if…?” is always, “whatever the author damn well wants.” We all carry underlying thoughts and assumptions about the way the world works. Those come to the fore in sci-fi and fantasy.

Politicization is, in my opinion inevitable in the process of creating meaning for things. But I feel like in some ways that political dimension you can find in speculative fiction is part of its allure. It gives you something to believe in. Something to point to and say, “see!”

I grew up loving Trek, in a household that loved Trek, but as I grow older I become more and more suspicious of its politics. More and more, I feel like there’s something disingenuous about the United Federation of Planets–an intergalactic coalition based out of San Francisco and led by socialist anglophones. Through its eyes, alien cultures come across as somehow less enlightened and easy to caricaturize. The Original Series was practically built around episodes devoted to Kirk and crew convincing foreign cultures how screwed up they’ve been. The Next Generation isn’t much better in some ways…

Still, it’s effective. It’s hard for me not to like Trek’s fundamental message of human actualization on some level, even if on another level I think it’s a total crock of shit. That’s powerful storytelling. As skeptical as I am, just queue up Alexander Courage’s fanfare and I’m ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

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Summon the Witch Doctors

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is rolling out the fifth edition of its DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, this month. Like Game of Thrones‘ Stannis Baratheon, it’s the rightful heir, but no one wants it. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m a mental health social worker by trade. DSM 5 was a work in progress when I was in grad school eight years ago and it hasn’t earned a lot of positive early reviews so far. Furthermore, as it falls under HIPAA, my agency will switch to ICD-10 anyhow.

Arguably most damning, the National Institute of Mental Health recently released a statement that it will be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” Its rational is long, technical, and for the most part, makes a lot of sense. Here’s the gist of it (and the emphasis is mine):

The goal of this new manual, as with all previous editions, is to provide a common language for describing psychopathology. While DSM has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.

To summarize, unlike other fields of medicine, psychiatric disorders are classified by symptom (like persistent cough and sore throat) rather than etiology (like streptococcal infection). I should note the DSM’s creators’ goal was to create a purely descriptive diagnostic system that looked at “symptom clusters” without inferring underlying cause.

Of course, a lot has changed about our understanding of the mind since 1952. Schizophrenia was once though to result from poor parenting. Not only is that patently false, we can now detect apparent differences in brain activity in unsymptomatic children with a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia.

Daniel Amen is an American psychiatrist known for his reliance on brain scans, not just as a research tool, but for diagnosis. Last year, the Washington Post published a compelling article about him:

“Psychiatry is broken,” he is given to say, and psychiatrists “remain the only medical specialists that rarely look at the organ they treat.” He scoffs that diagnostic methods have scarcely progressed since “the days of Abe Lincoln.”

So you may think at this point think I’m a critic of DSM and advocate for advances in brain imaging technology. You’d be wrong. Let me tell you for what I’m advocating…

Witch doctors.

That’s right. Bring back the witch doctor. Because I believe in my heart that’s all a great psychiatrist really is. A witch doctor learned in the scientific method and perhaps heavily indebted to higher education, but a witch doctor nonetheless.

Here’s where I take issue with Dr. Amen: he claims psychiatrists “remain the only medical specialists that rarely look at the organ they treat.” He’s right in they rarely look at what they treat and wrong in that it’ an organ. A psychiatrist is not strictly a doctor of the brain. That’s a neurologist. The word, psychiatry is derived from the Ancient Greek “psykhe,” meaning “the soul.”

A psychiatrist is a doctor of the soul.

And what’s the difference? Can we even say such a thing as a soul exists? No. It’s by its very nature radically unknowable.

As much faith as Dr. Amen has in brain scans, the fact of the matter is, there are no widely-accepted diagnostic criteria based on brain scan markers. Though scans can show a difference in brain activity with someone impaired by a severe thought disorder, they can’t for many other debilitating mental illnesses. Furthermore, how could you ever tell the difference between, say people with obsessive compulsive traits that cause severe dysfunction in everyday life and people with obsessive compulsive traits that make them really organized and good at their jobs? Mental illness is a continuum we all fall within somewhere. You see a lot of lists of famous people who have struggled with mental illness. In some cases, they’ve not only overcome symptoms, but channeled traits such as compulsion or mania or depression into insight and organization and creation.

The fact of the matter is, modern psychiatry isn’t that different from folk-medicine. “Take one of these for a week. Tell me if you feel better. Experience says you will, but we don’t know for sure. We don’t know why it might make you feel better either.” I’m oversimplifying obviously. We have clinical trials and quantifiable rather than anecdotal evidence of efficacy. We also have mounting research about the brain/cognition link. The mechanism by which most psychotropic medication works is still theoretical, however. Drugs are created and tested to mimic existing drugs or speculated properties. Trial and error. Like the witchdoctor and the salve.

Freud

As witch doctors go, this one was card-carrying.

In my job at a community mental health center, I don’t think in terms of “what would be this person’s diagnosis per a SPECT?” I think, “how does this person need help?” And that’s the strength of the psychiatrist. She or he befriends the unknowable; the “how do you feel?”; the “who are you?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m cynical about DSM5–especially the ways in which its writers have generally loosened diagnostic criteria, which could lead to over-diagnosis and over-medication. I can also believe assertions that its diagnoses lack validity and internal consistency. But the latter I chalk up to the DSM pretending to be something which its not–which is a dictionary of disorders that actually have validity and internal consistency. If you ask me, the DSM should imitate the holy book of Vonnegut’s Cats Cradle and preface itself with the following:

“All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.”

I like the idea of a psychiatry that’s a fellowship of witch doctors and like the witch doctors of old, one that answers to its communities (plural). These include the general public, mental health peer/consumer/survivors, advocacy groups and yes even the least among them, NIMH. There’s something audacious about saying a psychiatrist treats the intangible. That yes, psychiatry cannot be removed from its cultural context; can manifest as social control, but that’s the baby’s bath wash. We can be okay with that because to accept psychiatry as such is a victory for the individual who doesn’t meet a machine’s dubious diagnostic criteria. It’s a victory for the power of the subjective.

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Airing Out the Closet

Spoilers ahead for mid-nineties TV shows. You have been warned.

By the end of middle school, I’d hit a couple of Star Trek conventions with my parents. They were both long-time fans of science fiction. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest a literary genre has inherent political stripes. After all, the novel most entwined with Tea Party politics is ostensibly science fiction. I think it’s fair to say there’s a certain progress streak in a lot of science fiction, including Trek that’s always resonated with my family. The appearances of DOMA and Prop. 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court this past week remind me of how perceptions have changed just within the past ten years. The court decision will be important in some ways, but in others, almost incidental. The fact of the matter is, today the majority of Americans support marriage equality. I don’t normally pay much attention to what Rush Limbaugh says–except when it’s, “We’ve lost.

So it looks like, come what may, Americans will almost inevitably be able to marry a person of the same sex sometime, somehow. This is a big deal.

So looking back, how did our favorite futurists do?

Star Trek is like many others in that LGBT characters were either absent or… well… metaphorical.

There’s a blog by Adam McGovern at TOR about representations of sexual minorities in science Fiction. McGovern writes,

Star Trek producer Rick Berman used to answer gay and gay-positive fans’ calls for more representation of sexual difference in that franchise by saying the creative team would rather provoke thought by dealing with the issue metaphorically, and it wasn’t just a matter of “having two men or two women in [the Enterprise lounge] holding hands”;

A later episode of Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine depicts a taboo relationship between main character, Jadzia Dax and a former flame. Both characters are women, but that’s not why the relationship is taboo. It’s taboo because their race, the Trill, a symbiotic species, are forbidden from revisiting relationships from their past. It’s silly and arbitrary and that’s kind of the point. Almost beautifully, the fact that they’re both women is never even made an issue.

Of course in the end, it doesn’t work out. It can’t. Society just isn’t ready. Hm.

We establish that same-sex relationships are theoretically possible in the world of Star Trek, but they just aren’t depicted–this from a franchise that brought America one of its first interracial kisses. What’s problematic in the case of Trek is this–forget tokenism. Most Americans know someone who is LGBT. At the very least, how many people haven’t at least seen a same-sex couple holding hands somewhere?

How many crowd scenes are there in the history of Trek?

I’ve been working my way through Babylon 5 and, as much as I love it, I’m struck by how terribly… mid-nineties it can seem. Creator and executive producer, J. Michael Straczynski was quite progressive at the time with regards to depictions of sexual minorities. What stands out is how nonchalant he was about same-sex relationships and marriage (and yes, gay marriage did exist in the B5 universe). Same-sex couples appear to meander around the station and the first couple of seasons are loaded with Commander Ivanova and Psi-corp. operative, Talia Winters subtext.

And now for the mid-nineties part: the episode in which the subtext becomes main text ends with Talia Winters going nuts. She’s dragged off and, as is later implied, killed off-screen.

Talia and Ivanova

On right: Babylon 5’s Mad Woman in the Attic

This happens. And let’s not even talk about lesbians going nuts in media (yes, I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon).

I don’t necessarily fault producers who kill the lesbian with heterosexism in the same way I don’t fault most of them with overt racism in killing the black guy. The black guy and the lesbian are quite often noble, positively-depicted characters. They’re just not the hero or heroine. They tend to be incidental characters: “people-we-kind-of-care-about-but-hell-we’ve-gotta-kill-someone.” In short: marginalized. Andrea Thompson left the show in part due to Talia’s relative lack of screen time. Yes, the show depicts same-sex relationships, but in a peripheral way. And yet, it was something at a time when the rest of American television had nothing.

So here’s the question: will history more harshly judge problematic depictions of sexual minorities or their long stay in the closet?

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Flour, Water, Salt, and Speculative Fiction

As photogenic as I could possibly make it.

As photogenic as I could possibly make it.

I mentioned last post that I took a shot at making demi-baguettes again recently. Baguettes and I haven’t always been BFFs. They never quite turn out like I would hope. Even within the same batch, they turn out differently. This last time, I followed the Bread Baker’s Guild of America 2008 Coupe du Monde formula to the letter–scaled down such that flour in the main formula was 250 grams (disclosure though–I could not find and therefore did not use malted barley powder). The results were good and after having made demi-baguettes periodically for over a decade, I’m still learning nuances to shape and crumb and texture. The more hydrated the dough, the more open and attractive the crumb, but the harder it is to shape and score (65-70% hydration seems to be the sweet spot). I usually add too much water in the initial mixing and too much flour for the shaping. I learned from this last attempt that if the dough is not a little tacky without being too sticky, it is almost impossible to make the finished bread look as it should. This dough used a tiny amount of levain and a lot of poolish to give it that extra kick.

All that to say flour, water, salt, and maybe a little yeast can yield an incredible range of flavors. That’s what I love about baking.

What I love about writing is that arrangements of letters can yield even greater diversity.

I’m a little late to the party, but the Nebula Award Nominees for 2012 are out there. Furthermore, many of them are available to read for free online, including all of the short stories. I can’t help but feel like this is an exciting time to be a reader of speculative fiction.

Robot” by Helena Bell gets props in my book for successful use of the second person.

Ken Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” defies conventional plot structure and manages to be meta in the process.

I appreciated Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion” and couldn’t help but think of my own bicultural family through this sci-fi lens. Oh yeah, and more second person!

I found “Fragmentation” by Tom Crosshill beautifully poignant, especially for a story evocative of mobile operating systems.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” is the only fantasy story in the mix–to me, not very relatable (disclosure–I think “love at first sight” is silly) but so beautifully wrought.

Leah Cypress’ “Nanny’s Day” is a whole different animal–almost plausible–and it resonated with me like none other. I can’t help but feel like it takes the easy way out in the end, but then it goes to a very real, vey uncomfortable place for many readers–myself included.

Cat Rambo’s “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” is a fascinating speculative story and gets props in my book for being one of only stories not published in ClarkesWorld or Lightspeed.

I didn’t really read short fiction until not long ago. I always imagined stodgy, contemplative works in the tradition of Chekhov. These nominees make a fascinating study of how tense, tone, plot structure (or lack thereof) interplay–like a simple lean bread, complexity from a simple foundation. My favorites were “Nanny’s Day” and “Give Her Honey.” Curiously, the former is the most realistic of the bunch and the latter: the most out-there. I appreciated their places on different dimensions of pleasurable writing.

So, reader, if you have not read this year’s nominees, you are doing yourself a disservice. Any other thoughts on the the nominees for this year? Favorites?

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Beef. Stew.

There’s something therapeutic about a good braise–something soul-soothing about chunks of meat that soak up the flavor of everything nearby and stew until they’ve just about turned to mush. It’s alchemy. You can manipulate the ingredients and manipulate your sear and the temperature, but time and the laws of nature are far more the chef than you.

I made beef stew over the weekend and I needed something simple and soul-soothing–something to help me slip into an A-grade food food coma. Becuase sometimes you just need to let go a little.

This is a fairly “stock” braise recipe, but with a few unique flairs. I love the combination of star anise and/or cinnamon with beef and tomato. The sweet licorice spice and tangy tomato balance the beef so well. Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of my favorite dishes. For the red wine, I used Prince Michel Cabernet Franc. It’s light-bodied, fruit-forward, and has a ridiculously long vanilla finish that plays off the anise nicely. It’s local too. I served it with homemade demi-baguettes and used this formula, scaled down. We’ll probably serve the leftovers with Chinese wheat noodle.

What quintessential comfort foods get your food coma on?

Aroma Therapy Beef Stew

Ingredients:

3.5 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes

12 oz. (or 1 1/2 cups OR 2 glasses) light-bodied red wine.

1 cup broth or stock

1 cup tomato sauce (I used homemade)*

2 onions cut into 3/4-inch chunks

2 carrots cut into 3/4-inch chunks

3 celery stalks cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 star anise

1 bay leaf

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Season the beef all over with salt and pepper (I use about a half-teaspoon per pound) and let rest for about half an hour to an hour.

Heat a Dutch oven to medium-high. Add olive oil to coat the bottom and sear the beef in several batches. Remove from the Dutch oven and reserve.

Add more oil if necessary and sear the vegetables with a pinch of salt for five to ten minutes or until browned. Deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce until the alcoholic smell has cooked off. Add the broth, tomato sauce, reserved beef, herbs, and spices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and then cover.

Simmer for 2 1/2 to three hours or until desired tenderness is achieved, stirring occasionally. Simmer uncovered for ten to twenty minutes at the end of the cooking time to thicken, if desired.

Serve with rice or bread.

In other news: my first presentable demi-baguette.

In other news: my first presentable demi-baguette.

*Homemade Tomato Sauce:

Ingredients:

2 28-oz. cans whole tomatoes in puree

About 6 tablespoons olive oil

6-8 cloves garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Add just enough of the oil to a skillet to coat the bottom and heat to medium/medium high. Add the crushed whole garlic cloves and toast, stirring occasionally until they are a light nutty brown, but not burnt (burnt garlic should be discarded immediately).

Crush the whole tomatoes and add to the skillet with the tomato puree. Bring to a boil and add the remainder of the olive oil. Cook until reduced. The sauce will have reduced, sweetened, and have a glossy appearance. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

beefstew

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Dangerous Chinese Things

I hope everyone who reads this is had a nice holiday last week. This was after all one of the world’s most celebrated holiday seasons and of course I’m referring to the fifteen days of the Chinese New Year and not that other saintly holiday which, by the way, is not even an official “Saints Day” according to the Catholic Church. The fact of the matter is, the modern holiday probably has more to do with a pagan festival involving public nudity and undergarment flailing.

My wife’s family, having immigrated from Taiwan, treats this as a season of festivity and gift-giving. Consequently, with a five-year-old daughter, we get a lot of toys.

Ah, the toys.

If I were ever to start a blog that wasn’t by-and-large rambling and directionless, my wife suggested I call it…

DANGEROUS CHINESE THINGS

Seriously, I’d have years of material. take this innocuous example:

dangerous toy

dangerous toy

 

Kind of cute, right? It has an identical companion. You’re supposed to catch and throw the yellow ping-pong ball thingies that look disturbingly like eyes with the vinyl sheet.

Here’s where it gets dangerous…

Little missile.

Exhibit A.

 

You see, when you open it and shut it, this little metal pin slides out of place and launches across the room with the force of an anti-eye missile. There is no way to secure it.

Maybe instead, I should title this hypothetical blog, “Why American Children are Clearly Too Fragile for the Modern World.”

Only that would make for really long URLs.

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Slow Food is Killing Me Softly

I need some help.

Here’s the thing. Between work (day job plus periodic mental health on-call crisis), time with family, reading, and writing, I don’t really have a heck of a lot of time to cook. Maybe a generous hour a day if I want us to eat at a comfortable time. As I’ve said before, even then, we do a lot more fast food than I would like. And yet, as long as I’ve been cooking, I’ve been fascinated with Slow Food, even before I knew there was a name for it and a movement behind it. I remember in college making pasta from scratch and homemade sun-dried tomato pesto without a blender or mortar and pestle–I just sort of chopped the hell out of it for, like, half an hour with a WalMart chef’s knife. I once made homemade tonkotsu ramen with from-scratch egg noodles and pig’s feet broth. The pig’s feet burned to the bottom of my pressure cooker because that much steam escaped without blowing the safety valve. If something can be bought, I like experimenting to see if I can make it from scratch.

Never, ever burn pig’s feet to the bottom of a pressure cooker if you can help it, by the way. That’s my advice for the day. Honestly, I need advice myself. Because every now and again, as a consequence of my fascination with preparing the mundane, I make something like this:

Yes, it really is green--made with a particularly dark extra virgin olive oil.

Yes, it really is green–made with a particularly dark extra virgin olive oil.

 

A whole 8-oz. cup of aioli. I used Brian Polcyn’s recipe from his book, Charcuterie. We’re not big sports fans at our house, so the Superbowl tends to be an excuse for me to cook something a little extra ambitious in the spirit of the game. In this case, I whipped up a whole batch of aioli so I could add a shmear or two to our cheeseburgers.

Only one problem–now we’ve got pretty much a whole cup left of aioli left and the clock’s ticking to use it all up before all that nice extra virgin olive oil goes to waste. Any suggestions?

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Curry Rice: Not Very Pornographic, but Japanese

I’m following up from my previous post in which I intended to post my tried-and-true recipe for Japanese curry but timed out for ranting.

Japan, as anyone with connections knows, has a long and illustrious gastronomic tradition reaching into its antiquity. A friend of mine moved there some years back and works as a game designer. He observed even non-foodies (I don’t love that word) he knows in Japan seem to engage in highly nuanced discussions about food. In 2010, Michelin released its Red Guide of Japan. Michelin awarded more stars there than anywhere else in the world: even major seats of western gastronomy. Consider too that not only is Japan a small country, its geography is such that its population is cluster in just a handful of major population centers. And you know what?

Japanese people complained.

They said Michelin missed out on the real gems. They said they awarded multiple stars to restaurants that weren’t really that big of a deal. They said a lot of things.* This is a culture that doesn’t screw around with its food, and Japanese curry rice remains one of its most popular dishes**

So what makes Japanese curry rice so special?

Hard to say. Honest to goodness.

A little background. Japanese curry rice is a pretty old dish in Japan, with roots in the Meiji era, shortly after opening trade with the west. Let’s examine the ingredients of a leading brand of curry sauce mix marketed in the U.S.:

Wheat flour, edible oil, salt, sugar, curry powder, spices, food color, monosodioum glutamate, malic acid, sodium guanylate, disodium inosinate.

Essentially just flour, oil, and seasoning. With the exception of malic acid and the flavor enhancers, nothing, in fact, one wouldn’t find in a typical Western kitchen. The above paste is dissolved into water simmered with meat and vegetables. As you can see. Curry rice is essentially a Western stew thickened with a roux. Not something you’ll find in a Betty Crocker Cookbook, is it? And certainly not anything like the curry we would eat in the West. We just don’t cook stuff like this anymore. But British sailors did a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a simple, homespun stew seasoned with ready-made curry powder–maybe or maybe not to mask pungency of subprime meat.

That’s right. Japanese curry is a page out of culinary anthropology. Like an alligator,a coelacanth, a Lincoln Town Car: a dish that’s remain unchanged as the world has moved on. It is, in a country with more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world, a dish invented by dirtbag seafarers to stave off scurvy.

I love it. Love it, love it, love it.

So on to the recipe. As I’ve written, you can find bricks of “curry roux” in most American grocery stores these days, but again, there’s not a lot in the commercial curry roux you don’t already have in your kitchen. In place of the malic acid and sugar in the store-bought stuff, we’re using grated apple. My first curry recipe came from a Japanese-language cookbook whose name I have trouble recalling–Something like “Mama’s 1000 Recipe Cookbook.” I use chicken, as did that recipe; thighs in particular. They’re not only one of the cheapest meats around, but also just about impossible to screw up. Variations will follow after the recipe.

Basic Japanese Curry Rice

Ingredients:

(serves 2-3)

½ to 3/4 lb. chicken, cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced into half-inch rounds

1 medium potato, coarsely diced

1 medium onion, coarsely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium apple (such as a fuji), grated or shredded

1 oz. (2 tablespoons) butter

1 oz. (about 3 ½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour (short-patent works best as a thickener)

¼ tsp. salt plus more to taste

1 tablespoon curry powder (more to taste)

2 cups broth, stock, or water (if using water, more salt may be needed)

Cooking oil

Pepper to taste

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, my pay stub, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

Directions:

Heat a lightly-oiled pan to medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking.  Season the meat cubes with salt and pepper and sauté until browned but not necessarily cooked through.  Remove from heat and reserve.  Reduce heat to medium.

Melt the butter in the pan.  Add the flour and curry powder and stir until it forms a paste.  Cook this mixture, stirring frequently until it begins to brown.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant.  Add remaining vegetables, browned meat, and grated or shredded apple.  Add the broth, stock or water, salt, and pepper and stir until the butter and flour are incorporated.  Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.  Once it has come to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are tender. The sauce should be about the consistency of a gravy. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve with white rice.  May be garnished with beni shoga or other Japanese pickle.

Notes:

More heat can be achieved by adding cayenne pepper or increasing the amount of curry powder.

Japanese curry is a very versatile dish. Beef. pork, or seafood may be used instead of the chicken. Beef is more stereotypical of an authentic curry in fact. For cubed beef chuck, do not add the carrots, onion, and potato immediately to the pan. Instead, braise it covered with the roux and  broth for about an hour. Add the remainder of the vegetables for the last half-hour of cooking.

Other vegetables may be used–the recipe upon which this one was based called for minced carrots, celery, and onion. I’m also a fan or parsnips and sweet potato in curry.

Leftover curry makes a great sauce for breaded, fried cutlet (katsu curry; カツカレー)

  • Optional ingredients can be added for a more complex taste:
  • About ¼ cup wine or coffee (the wine should be allowed to boil down before adding the broth)
  • Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
  • Five-spice powder
  • ¼-inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • demi-glace
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste

JapaneseCurry

* I’m over-simplifying. A lot of people criticized Michelin. Here is a longer discussion from the Wall Street Journal.

** For a relatively brief, but more detailed account of the history and popularity of Japanese Curry rice, see this page on the Kikkoman Corporation website.

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