bacon is my spiritual path

November 28th, 2010

Dear Pork, who art in heaven,
Briny be thy Ham.
Thy porchetta come.
Thy chops be done
On grills with a side of pappardelle.
Give us this day our daily prosciutto,
And forgive us our tofu,
As we forgive those who don’t dig on swine,
And feed us not overcooked, tasteless flesh,
But deliver us from factory farm agribusiness.

Awomen.


bits of conversation

November 5th, 2010

Does life swallow you whole? Or do you make it what you want it to be?

Sometimes it does swallow you whole.

When shit happens, it’s not like someone is out to get you, to make you suffer. It just happens. It simply is. To say that life is sad is to say that time itself is sad.

How can that be? A life is the distance from the time you are born to the time you die. To pin it down to one emotion seems awfully small and limiting.

But if you are sad, then yes, life is sad, because that is your view of the world.


anthony bourdain’s medium raw challenge: my essay

September 30th, 2010

Anthony Bourdain asked “why cook well?” Here’s my answer, on the Medium Raw Challenge site. (Argh, I’m not sure where my paragraph marks went. Do vote!)

Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw Challenge

misanthropy: a short short story

September 22nd, 2010

Sometimes the smallest interaction seems a chore. The very thought of making a phone call is exhausting. Pick up the phone, listen to the monotony of the dial tone, think of all the things I need to say to the person on the other side. The words drone on in my head, like the dial tone. The train of imaginary conversation makes me vaguely ill.

I put down the phone and glance at my inbox. So many unanswered missives, so many people awaiting a response. I open one e-mail and read the friendly salutation, the banter, the questions, questions, questions, like so many hooks pulling and poking at my skin. I think of what I should say. “Yes, that sounds great.” “Certainly, that could work.” “Would you be amenable to… ?” It all sounds disjointed, false. One paragraph segways into another like a loping stitch that’s gone awry. The words melt away and I think of what I want to say. “No, fuck off.” “I suppose I could do that if I could drag myself out of doors.” “I’d much rather not have to deal with you or anyone else at the moment. Please go away.” My hands freeze above the keyboard. I can’t type a damn thing.

I’m hungry. I can’t be bothered to prepare anything, so I’ll need to buy something to eat. This means putting on clothes, brushing my hair, walking out the front door and going outside. I dread the myriad of meaningless interactions I am sure to have. The hallway is empty, but the elevator carries a passenger who smiles and says “Good morning!” The rules of etiquette require a response, so I raise my eyes briefly and gingerly pull the corners of my mouth upward. “Morning,” I respond. I hope he doesn’t notice that my hair needs a wash. I hope he doesn’t ask me how my morning’s been, or where I’m off to or any other pointless attempts at small talk. I stop holding my breath when the elevator hits the lobby. He nods and exits happily, a spring in his step and a doltish grin plastered on his face. My relief is short-lived, as now the office manager smiles her hello, and the maintenance man greets me with a genuine smile and an earnest “Good morning!” I half-smile and mumble “hi” and “‘morning” as I try not to flee to the front door.

The cold air hits my face with a sting and a slap, the sun so dazzling bright the world looks white. I squint and try to look down as I walk. The corner store seems miles away, a treacherous journey with people everywhere nodding, smiling, talking.

I reach the shop, pick a sandwich and get in line. Here comes the next charade, a puppet show in which I must perform, time and again.

She’ll say
“Hi! How’re you?”

I’ll say
“Fine, how’re you?”

She’ll respond
“Very well, thanks!” or “Good, thanks!” depending on her knowledge of grammar.

I’ll say
“So, um, just this,” and place my sandwich on the counter.

She’ll say
“Will that be all?” as if she cared what I buy or don’t buy (she doesn’t, I know she’s just following her manager’s script.)

“Yes, thanks,” I’ll say, and with some effort, turn up the corners of my mouth, as if to say “I’m a good customer, I know that’s a stupid question, but I know you have to ask it, and I know I’m not supposed to be annoyed by it, so here’s a smile to show you that I understand and empathize with your plight even though I wonder what sort of hell it must be like to have the same conversation with 300 customers every… single… fucking… day.”

She’ll say
“Great. That’ll be $4.95. Would you like a bag?”

I’ll hand her a credit card, decline the bag.
“No, thanks.” (Meaning: “I know you’re supposed to ask if I want a bag, but you’re really waiting for me to say I don’t, because I’m supposed to care about the environment, and it costs your boss money to give out bags willy-nilly, so if I actually take the bag you’ll look at me disapprovingly ever so subtly. You’ll glance at me, frown, and cast your eyes down furtively. Then the tone of your voice will sour just a little. And you’ll wonder what sort of asshole would want to clutter landfills and strangle seagulls with a plastic bag, and all for a fucking sandwich.”)

She’ll smile and say
“Great! Just sign here.”

I’ll dutifully sign.

She’ll ask
“Would you like your receipt?” (Meaning: “There’s a line and I really need to deal with the other customers. Just deal with the $4.95, will you? It’s not like we’ll accept returns on a sandwich.”)

I’ll say
“No thanks,” and raise the corners of my mouth again.

“Greaaaaat,” she’ll say, elongating the word as though it were one enormous melismatic syllable.

The show ends when she says “Have a nice day!” her pitch rising like a happy ending to a saccharine film.

I’ll dutifully respond “You too!” and match her tone almost exactly (though perhaps just an octave lower).

I’m next in line. Thinking of the upcoming performance, I sigh. Audibly. Glancing at the refrigerator case, a can of coconut juice tempts me.

I’m up. The juice isn’t worth disrupting the scene.

I must play my part and return to my cave.


on writing: to what end?

August 2nd, 2010

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The cold, white gaze of the virtual page can be crippling. The rattling chaos of thoughts and ideas make a racket in your head, clamoring to come out. Your fingers are their conduit, and your eyes are the witness for the prosecution. The same brain that thought up all this stuff to begin with is your judge, jury and prison warden. How should I begin? What is it you’re even trying to say? If you’re writing in the English language, god knows it’s been written before, and better, too. And how should I presume?

You can’t move forward, you can’t go back. Ideas cannot be un-thought. They must be nurtured, or left to rot. But there’s a tiny little marble of a being inside you that says “Look. There’s something I need to say.” Anyone who has ever knitted a sweater, written a poem, penned a song, painted a painting, snapped a photo, has felt that stubborn little marble in their gut. It won’t go away. It persists. If you push it down too much, it comes back up, sometimes all the way up to your throat. It says “Look. There’s something I need to say and I’m going to say it.” And you brace yourself, because that little marble means business. You can push it down with callousness, fear, laziness, self-deprecation, alcohol, but it will emerge, in serenity or violence.

And when it does, there it is–a hairball, an alien, a strange mutant child with no mouth, no arms nor legs. You must mold it into something sensible, something useful, something that justifies its own existence.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

Do you have the arrogance, the cojones to presume your progeny deserves to live? Whatever this thing is that you need to say, to whom are you saying it? Do they care to hear it? Should they? Or are you talking to yourself?

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

You write a sentence and erase it. You write another and erase that. Paragraphs appear and disappear. But for the cacophony in your head, they might never have existed. The words slow to a trickle–a thin, polluted stream. You stop and start, hesitate, begin again, turn away, come back, walk the dog, write a bit, read a bit, rot your brain a bit, turn away in disgust, come back again. Create and murder, murder create.

And then the judgment begins.

You are, in fact, Prince Hamlet. To be, not to be, you dither about debating yourself, uselessly fretting and agonizing. Hamlet did little more than procrastinate.

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

What is this stuff you’ve written? Is it true to what you’re trying to say? Do the words fit the sentiment, or are they full of bombast and pretense? Has your little mutant child become a porcelain doll? Politic, cautious, and meticulous. Are you dressing her up for the public?

Ridiculous.

You know that purse is just a sow’s ear.

Fool.

.

.

.

There are no muses.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

There is no supernatural voice whispering in your ear, no inspiration for which you thank god you’ve been blessed. You are not in thrall to a siren call.

The universe is far too vast to roll into a ball.

There is always an overwhelming question.

What can you do but ask?

How can you help but write your own answer?


cardamom hamantaschen cookies with kumquat walnut jam

March 3rd, 2010

No, that’s not a typo. Hamantaschen is a hybrid Hebrew-Yiddish-Persian word referring to cookies traditionally eaten by Ashkenazi Jews on the holiday of Purim. The holiday commemorates a particular, yet familiar, refrain in Jewish history: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

The longer version of the story involves the credulous yet powerful King Ahasuerus, his courageous Jewish wife Esther and the king’s evil, power-hungry prime minister Haman.

Read more at Examiner.com…


tuscan porchetta trots into bay area

March 3rd, 2010

At the recent Winter Fancy Food Show, it was my pleasure to sample a number of delectable pork products, among them various hams and porchettas. One of my absolute favorites at this year’s show was Piacenti’s porchetta, imported by The Rogers Collection based in Portland, Maine.

The relatively large booth displayed a number of imported food items, but only a few were laid out on the tasting area at the front of the both. Someone at the booth had neatly arranged small hunks of porchetta on a large white plate for the benefit of curious passersby. I speared one on a toothpick and sampled the wares.

Read more at Examiner.com…


some writers are more equal than others

February 3rd, 2010

Recently, Dianne Jacob—writer, journalist, blogger, teacher, writing coach, not necessarily in that order—posed an interesting question on her blog. With Apple’s new iPad coming out, will publishers rush to include video in articles intended for the web? Will writers be expected to create their own videos in addition to writing? Will web writers be paid even less than their print counterparts?

Says Jacob:

While it’s clear that the iPad is a cool new development, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for publishers or authors compared to print. According to the New York Times, royalties will initially be less. And ‘Publishers acknowledge that digital content should be priced lower than the print content,’ said Carolyn Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster.

Oh joy. Yet another digital medium where we can be paid less to do more.

My three questions for you are: Do you think publishers will pay us to produce video, or will it be a separate discipline, like photography? Are we writers willing to learn this skill? (For those of you already producing video, you’re ahead of the curve.) And, am I just being a crab about this cool new medium?

You can probably guess what my opinion is, from the title of this post alone. I initially responded to Dianne’s post on her site, but I think my comments were lengthy enough to warrant a post of their own. (Who knew I’d have so much to say?)

Says I:

I think it’s necessary to distinguish the medium from the technology used to access said medium. Writers who publish online are already using video as part of their work, albeit usually with other people’s videos. To my mind, the question is how does accessing an article online differ when using an iPad as opposed to any other portable device such as a laptop or smart mobile phone. The screen real estate is larger, and presumably easier to read (and watch videos). But I honestly don’t think the iPad has completely obviated the need for the newspaper just yet. I can read the SF Chronicle on the BART and leave it lying around for the next reader. I can also read the paper on an iPad, but I’d be worried about breaking it, dropping it or having it stolen from me. If I could get a daily newspaper printed on some form of smartpaper (like the intelligent, computerized paper recently shown in the Battlestar Galactica prequel “Caprica”), I probably would.

Still, mobile technology is laggy when it comes to playing video. I avoid watching videos on my iPhone because I can’t stand waiting for the damn things to load. At least a newspaper is still there to read when the BART stalls somewhere in Oakland just before crossing the Bay, as it invariably does. Most mobile devices still fail to get a clear signal under such circumstances. There goes your video and the article in which it’s embedded. Were you wanting to click to the next page? Ah, too late!

All that said, I do think writers who publish online might want to expand their skill set if only to stay relevant. Publishers will take any lame excuse to pay people less than they ought to; the print vs. web canard is just a symptom of the industry’s failure to stay current. It’s offensive and foolish to pay online writers less money while attempting to create a strong online presence. If the idea is to create a more compelling web experience, then surely the writing being published online should be worth the money that pays for it. You get what you pay for, and if the publishing industry is paying less for online work, they’re expecting less. Not the best way to “synergize” one’s web presence. The publishing industry needs to make a fundamental shift in philosophy: web publishing is not secondary, or less than print publishing. Rather it’s a different way of distributing information, which requires a vastly different approach to the readership, the “content” (I hate that term), profits, advertising, and so on. Publishers need to stop dabbling in WWW as though it’s some passing phase, a cesspool populated by idiots and twelve year-olds. People will pay for quality (video game industry, anyone?), and quality means paying people to produce good work, including writers, photographers and, er, the folks who make videos (videographers?).

Head over to Dianne’s site to read the other comments, and leave one of your own.


perfecting the potato pancake

December 30th, 2009

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Now that Chanukah is over, and those who eat them have presumably had more than their fill of latkes, I’m very late or perhaps one year early in offering up some tips for the perfect pancake. Perhaps small potato pancakes dolloped with crème fraîche and topped with salted salmon roe and chives are just the right appetizer for a New Year’s Eve party? Or not, if your body still remembers stuffing itself silly with the things just a couple of weeks ago. Either way, these notes will eventually come in handy.

My tips on latke making technique, in order to form a more perfect pancake:

  • Oil: Having experimented with different oils and fats, I’ve found that the cleanest burning oils with the highest smoking point are grape seed, sunflower and safflower oils. This year I used cold-pressed grape seed oil, a very viscous oil that smells of grapes and a little like chardonnay. Goose schmaltz might be tasty, but I haven’t used it to cook latkes. Other animal fats have proven unsatisfactory, as has clarified butter. Whatever oil you use, be sure it has a relatively high smoking point. An oil with a high smoking point can be heated to a given temperature–say, 425°F–without smoking. Here’s a useful chart that lists cooking oils in order of smoking points. [Ed. note: I now use palm oil to fry my latkes, specifically, this palm oil shortening (which is also ethically sourced). Most of the unsaturated fats are removed from ordinary palm oil, resulting in a colorless shortening without trans fats or hydrogenated oils. This palm oil has a high smoking point and cooks cleanly.]
  • Potatoes: Choose a starchy potato with a relatively low moisture content, such as the reliable Russet or Idaho potato. Soggy latke batter will yield soggy pancakes. Similarly, low moisture, high-starch batter will produce a more crispy cake.
  • Grating or processing: Does an authentic latke require bloody knuckles, or will the modern ease of a food processor suffice? Ask any latke enthusiast and you’ll likely get a thirty minute lecture on the topic. Having tried both methods, I prefer the texture of hand grated potato pancakes to that of processed. My favorite grater is the Kyocera julienne slicer, a ceramic mandolin that retails at around twenty five US dollars. The julienne mandolin produces thinly grated potato strings that cook quickly without remaining raw in the middle. They crisp up nicely as well. But I’m no pedant, nor a glutton for torture. If you’re cooking for twenty, by all means, use a food processor.
  • Getting the potatoes to stick together: I’m a purist. I like my latkes without any eggs. Why ruin the crunch of a good latke with fluffy eggs? Serve them on the side if you like, but there’s really no need to include eggs in your latkes. The trick to latkes that stick together without falling apart is, once again, low moisture and high starch content. After grating your potatoes and onion, squeeze out as much liquid as possible by placing the batter in a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl. Squeeze and knead out the liquid through the sieve, but retain the water in the bowl. By the time you’ve squeezed out all the liquid and seasoned your potato mixture, you should have a thick layer of potato starch sediment at the bottom of your bowl. Carefully pour off the water, but keep the sediment. Use a spoon to scoop up some of the potato starch and mix it back into your potato mixture. The dampened starch binds the potato and onion like glue, and the starchy coating helps the pancakes brown and crisp in the pan. As you form the pancakes, keep squeezing out liquid. Mix in more potato starch if the batter looks raggedy.
  • Preventing discoloration: Alternately grate the potato and onion. Mix the batter between gratings. The onion juices prevent the potatoes from turning odd shades of gray. You can also add a small pinch of baking soda to do the same.
  • Seasoning: I use about 1 heaping teaspoon of sea salt per 2 pounds of potatoes, and one medium or large onion. I use as much freshly ground white pepper as I feel like grinding in before my arm wants to fall off. If you’d like to put green stuff in your latkes, dill goes very nicely. But salt and pepper alone is classic and lovely.
  • Forming the pancakes: This is a bit tricky. You want to squeeze the batter before it hits the pan, as a last ditch effort to eliminate moisture and encourage potato cohesion. But you don’t want your latkes to be heavy and leaden, like your Aunt Mildred’s wayward matza balls. I like to flatten the pancake as much as possible after squeezing, then loosen it a bit so that it isn’t heavy. Don’t worry about creating a perfectly round latke. A more rustic pancake with unkempt potato hairs looks homier and boasts the coveted crisp, lacy edges.
  • Frying: A cast-iron pan is your naturally non-stick friend. It heats up slowly, but retains heat very well. Add more oil to the pan than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to deep fry your pancakes, but you don’t want the oil to be too shallow either. The pan should be at a constant medium-high heat. The oil is hot enough when it bubbles continually at the edges of your pancakes, it’s too hot when it begins to smoke. Monitor the oil and move the dial up or down to keep the pan at the right heat. Place the tip of each pancake in the pan using a spatula, then gently slide out the spatula so that the batter rests in the pan. This gradual slide into the oil does two things: the cool batter doesn’t lower the temperature of the hot oil and you’re less likely to sustain burns by inadvertently splashing yourself with very hot oil. Everybody wins.
  • Spacing the pancakes: The refrain I always heard from my dad whenever I helped him in the kitchen–don’t crowd the pan. Once more for emphasis, this time in all caps: DON’T CROWD THE PAN. Your pan should be large enough to fry as many latkes as you want to fry at once. To put it another way, only fry as many latkes as will comfortably fit in whatever size pan you use. In other words, the oil in the pan should stay hot enough to bubble and brown the edges of your pancakes. If your latkes start steaming, looking soggy or limp, or absorbing vast quantities of oil without browning, you’ve crowded the pan. Keep some space around each pancake. How much space and how many pancakes? When in doubt, just cook fewer latkes at a time. Alternatively, keep two pans going on two different burners.
  • Browning and crisping: A good, crisp latke just happens. No amount of checking, flipping, checking again will make your pancake brown faster. In fact, potchkeing with your pancakes will almost certainly guarantee a soft, wimpy latke. How will you know when it’s time to turn them over? They’ll be a medium-brown color around the edges. If a pancake is browned around the edges except for one area, you’ve got a cool spot on your burner. Gently turn the latke so that the soft edge is in the hotter area. When that part browns, carefully turn over the pancake. If the latke is merely golden and you want a little more browning, you can turn it over again after the flip side has browned.
  • Apple sauce: This traditional latke topping is very easy to prepare. Core and coarsely chop a few apples and place them in a pot. Squeeze over some lemon juice and add a little water. Heat on a low flame until it looks like apple sauce. Cool, serve. Really, that’s it. The apples reduce to about half their volume. If you’re serving a large crowd, chop as many apples as it takes to fill a medium to large pot. Conversely, for a small dinner, fill a small to medium pot with chopped apples. I don’t bother peeling the apples. You can remove the peels by pressing the resulting apple sauce through a large-holed sieve. The peel remains behind while the sauce goes right through. No need for sweetener, homemade apple sauce is quite nice on its own. Use a variety of tart and sweet apples for a more nuanced flavor. Season with a bit of ground cloves, cardamom, allspice and cinnamon, if you like.
  • Avoiding fried potato smells: Open a window and keep the fan on above your stovetop. There’s nothing worse than old fried potato smell, except perhaps old cabbage smell.

And remember, the first farkakte latke goes to the cook.


vegan hot chocolate that omnivores love

December 30th, 2009

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Vegan hot chocolate is not an oxymoron. It exists, and it’s delicious. Curious? Read my ramblings and find the recipe at my Oakland Cooking column on Examiner.com.


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