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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thai Curry In A Hurry

Thai Curry with Tomato Chutney 
Chicken off the grill


Ah, Thailand.  Friendly people, great food, excellent prices, which reminds me of a trip to Krabi, on the southern coast, by an azure sea, with a beautiful beach, and fragrant coconut oil spread deliciously over…ah,but that’s another story.   I will say this.  There were vast amounts of Singha Beer involved and my recollection is as fuzzy as a cotton picker’s navel. 
Ok, curry.  Thai curry.  How is that different from Indian curry?  Are you nuts?  Taken leave of your senses?  Everyone knows that Indian curry comes from London and Thai curry comes from a really cute chick wearing a sarong.
This time, let’s forego the distant travel (biting tongue, holding back tears) and bring Thai curry to our own kitchen.  But, before we get started, let’s get one thing straight.  There are as many different Thai curries as there are Thai cooks.  So mine isn’t the Thai curry you remember from the drunken weekend in Bangkok? Dry up, quit whining, and pass me an icy bottle of Singha. 
A recipe for Tomato Chutney follows the curry recipe.

The Curry Recipe:

5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, trimmed
5 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 Tablespoons peanut, or other vegetable oil (30-45 grams)
1 yellow onion, peeled and sliced thinly (onion about the size of your fist)
2 14 oz cans coconut milk (.8 Liters) Open them one at a time.  You’ll see why in a minute.
3 Tablespoons curry powder (or to taste) I use a mixture of hot and mild.
1-2 Tablespoons garam masala.   I know this is an Indian mixture, but I like it.  Don’t have any?  Just season as necessary with more curry powder.
            2 Tablespoons fish sauce
            1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
            Black pepper for the chicken

Garnish: lemon wedges, fresh cilantro leaves, dried coconut, peanuts, cayenne pepper

1.     Salt and pepper the chicken pieces, and grill them.  When they’re done, cut into one-inch cubes.  For my European friends, an inch is about 2.5 mm
2.     As the chicken is grilling, heat the oil in a pan, add the garlic and stir.  Add the sliced onion and cook until wilted.
3.     Add the chicken, the first can of coconut milk, all the spices, and the fish sauce, and cook until all the spice is blended and the sauce begins to thicken.  If you don’t have enough sauce, add all or part of the second can of coconut milk.  Taste and add more salt, or spice as necessary.
4.     Serve over rice and garnish individually.

Tomato Chutney

I like to serve tomato chutney with my curry, even though it is definitely not Thai.
Easy to make.  Difficult to forget.

            1 Tablespoon oil
            1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes
            1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
            1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 cans diced tomatoes, undrained
            1/2 lemon
            1/3 cup raisins
            1/2 cup sugar
            1/2 teaspoon salt

            Heat the oil in a pan and add the spices.  When the seeds start to jump, add the tomatoes.  Thin slice the lemon half and place the slices over the tomato mixture.  Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened.  Stir in the raisins, sugar, and salt.  Stir until all sugar is melted and the sauce is consistent.

            Taste a scrumptious bite of the curry.  Takes you back, doesn’t it.  Makes you wish you were single, I mean you had more than a single serving.  Several questions about my Thai curry are constantly thrown my way.  Will Thai curry cause your heart to flutter and your eyes roll back?  No, but it will make you forget Budweiser, fill your nostrils with a strong scent of coconut oil, and leave you yearning for the beach.  Will Thai curry increase your sexual awareness to the point that your dog whines, while your wife, and many of the neighbors pretend to be asleep?  Likely, but no personal experience.  Wink, wink.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Meet Me In Metz- The City of Dragons

Saint Étienne rises from the center of Metz 

Mac Chagall's famous glass

A chartcuterie  in the covered market

wines and cheeses abound

Coming out of the covered market - Place de Chambre

Time to pick a bistro

Quiche Lorraine!

Metz is a city sizzling with history, wine, food, and culture, just across the border from Germany…no, I mean just across the border from France…no, wait; now it’s in France.  Hard to keep track.  Metz has crossed the border more times than the German army.  Right now it is in France, or at least all the people speak French and don’t smile much.
Like most cities in this part of the world, the history of Metz goes back to well before Julius Caesar came, saw, and conquered. Metz was first fortified by the Celts around 110 BCE.  Roman, Frankish, French, German, and American armies have all seen battle here. You may have heard of the nearby Maginot Line, which the German Army overran in 1940.  In 1944, it was the Germans who had their backs against the wall. A vicious, three-month battle ensued, with German defenders holding on until George Patton’s 3rd Army broke through. 
Sitting at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille Rivers, Metz (pronounced Mess by the French and Matz by the Germans) was once a part of the Holy Roman Empire.  In the 18th Century it became a part of Lorraine (of quiche fame), which is also when The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became independent.
Now Metz is known by yours truly for it’s fabulous old style food market, it’s astounding cathedral, and for it’s wonderful bistros
First, let’s amble through the Saint Etienne Cathedral. Etienne is the French version of Stephen, pronounced et-t’-YIN, from the Greek word for crown.   Its nickname is God’s Lantern, named for having about 6500 square meters, or 70,000 square feet of stained glass.  The cathedral’s first stained glass dates to the 13th Century.  Note the deep blue, called “bleu de Chartres.”  Marc Chagall did the latest and most modern windows in 1963.  In 2008, vandals broke into the cathedral through a hole in the window (since repaired).
Lots of myths and legends surround the Metz Cathedral.  Myth, legend, truth?  You pick.  According to tradition, Saint Peter sent Clement to Metz in the 1st Century to spread Christianity.  There are several miracles surrounding Saint Clement.  He is said to have killed a dragon, The Graoully.  This dragon and a host of snakes inhabited the Roman amphitheater, poisoning the air with their breath.  After getting a promise from the locals that they would convert to Christianity if Clement dispatched the dragon, he walked into the amphitheater, was attacked, but made the sign of the cross.  This tamed the snakes, apparently including the dragon.  But, this tale has dragoned on long enough.  You can see representations of The Graoully in various places around Metz.  Don’t forget to visit the cathedral museums!
On to the famous covered market, adjacent the cathedral, in the Place de Chambre.  Begun in 1785 as the Bishop’s Palace, a little disagreement called The French Revolution stopped its completion.  In the early 19th Century it became a market and has remained so.  More than a market, it’s a step back in time, especially for Americans, who may be astounded to find sausages and hams hanging from hooks and patés that are not entombed in adult-proof plastic wrap.  Cheeses, vegetables, meats, fruits, seafood, all are wonderfully fresh.  Oh, ya gotta try some breads!  Prices are reasonable (if you don’t count what’s happened to the dollar).  Look around and you’ll see why.  Mostly locals shop here, unlike an unnamed market in Seattle, which attracts upwards of 10,000 tourists a day.  Big difference.  Metz market is a must see.  Of course, that’s just my ever so humble opinion.
Now we’ve worked up an appetite.  It’s time to thumb through the dusty memories of our high school French and do our best Maurice Chevalier imitation at a French bistro.  When hunger is at hand, don't’ limit yourself to the cathedral/ market area.  Come out of the covered market into Place de Chambre, make a right turn, then turn left about 25 yards later at the flower stand.  That lane will lead you to another open plaza, lined with wonderful bistos.  Restaurants are open for lunch from about 1130 to 1400 (2p.m.).  After that, best of luck finding more than a snack kiosk open.  The bistros open again about 1700 (5p.m.).  Best bets for my taste are the quiche Lorraine (After all you are in Lorraine!) and a  meat platter of local sausages and hams on a bed of sauerkraut.  The region is also famous for it’s Mirabelle plum brandy, and its wines.  If you're a beer connoisseur, try one of the excellent French beers, such as Fischer.
A final tourist tip for Metz.  On the side of the cathedral is another large plaza, the Place d’Armes, so named because it was built in the 18th Century to symbolize the four seats of power, the church, the government, the courts (justice), and the army.  Only the army has been replaced, by a tourist bureau. Sign of the times.  (Office de Tourisme Place d'Armes. )  The tourist office has a lot of great information about where to see the Roman remnants inside and outside the city, but best of all, they also have toilet facilities at a price of only 50 European cents!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Make Some Rosemary Vinegar!

Snowy rosemary
Worth waiting for!

Herbs are my gardening delight.  They put a smile on my face, like a cold beer in the hot summer, or a hot date in the cold winter.  I especially like Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) and grow a lot of it.   I like the aroma when I run my fingers through it.  Whoops, my mind drifted.  Stuck on the stuff about the cold winter.  Anyway, I just flat like the way a rosemary bush looks in my garden. Even snow covered, rosemary is beautifully verdant and redolent.  On those gray days of winter it perks the senses and carries the hope of spring. 
Hey, one more big, big reason I love rosemary.  For a thumb so brown it makes deadwood look lively, rosemary is a snap to grow, and propagate.   Containers.  Garden. Backyard.  Front yard.  As long as it’s got some sun and a smattering of water once in a while, it’s a happy, healthy plant.  The worst thing you can do to a rosemary plant is be too kind, and by that I mean over-watering.  If you’re container growing, let the soil get dry before you douse it.  And, for goodness sakes, don’t let your plant sit in water.
Just for convenience and because rosemary can take awhile to fill out and up, I plant mine from small, nursery grown plants.
I use rosemary for cooking.  A lot.  Maybe you do, too, but one flavor you may not have tried is rosemary-spiced vinegar.  Easy to make.
Take a gallon jug of apple cider vinegar (16 cups, 3.785 liters) and pour off 2 cups, or a little less than half a liter, saving it for another use.  Put two cups of pure water back in the gallon jug.  You’ve just reduced the acid content from 5% to around 4.3%.  I like my vinegar a bit tamer than 5% for salads.  Add a third cup of sugar (43 g) and stir until all the sugar dissolves.
Thoroughly wash and dry seven or eight healthy sprigs of fresh rosemary, the fresher the better.  When rosemary is cut and sits in the produce aisle, it loses some of its delightfully aromatic oil.  That and the price you pay for a few sprigs in a grocery store are two more reasons I like to grow my own.
Place the washed and dried sprigs of rosemary in the gallon jug of vinegar, water, and sugar solution.  Cap the jug and let it rest in a shady place for a couple of weeks.  Voilá!  You have just made more rosemary vinegar than you could use in a three star restaurant in a year.  I like to bottle it and give it as gifts.
Want a suggestion on how to use your newly made vinegar?  Read a previous post on making vinaigrette, but this time, substitute your homemade gourmet rosemary vinegar.  Yeah, yeah, you’ve just created a masterpiece.  Now wipe that smile off your face!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Is Talent Overrated?

Is Talent Overrated?

            Is talent overrated?  Author Geoff Colvin thinks so and wrote a book to prove his point, Talent Is Overrated. You’re asking yourself, as I did, what the hell is he talking about?  We’ve all seen “talented” musicians, and athletes.  We remember that one guy in our calculus class who aced all the tests.  We struggle with high school French and marvel at the woman who can speak five languages.  So, you still want to tell me ‘talent is overrated’?  I say bovine rectal secretion to that!
            Wait a sec.  Let’s take a closer look at Colvin’s theme.  He exams in detail the so-called geniuses in a number of fields, from music to athletics.  Take Jerry Rice, the magnificent receiver for the San Francisco 49ers.  He wasn’t the biggest.  He wasn’t the fastest.  So how did he become every defender’s nightmare?  Mozart wrote music when he was only a lad.  I couldn’t do that.  How did he manage it?  Everybody knows Bill Gates is a computer genius.  What’s the background on him?
            Geoff Colvin meticulously pulls apart every story and peers closely at the pieces.   The marvelous result is that he finds commonalities, which give us all hope that we can follow in the footsteps of the great and meet our goals and dreams.  There are physical limitations, of course.  If I dream of one day being six feet five inches tall, I can forget it right now.  Age and time are other limiting factors.  Certainly, if I have an IQ of 70, I simply don’t have the necessary brainpower. Also, if I’m 95 years old, I just won’t be around long enough to get my M.D.  Fortunately, I don’t want to be a doctor.
            What is ‘the best’, anyway?  Who’s ‘the best’ guitar player?  Depends on whom you ask.  Who’s ‘the best’ writer?  Matter of personal opinion.  Same with practically anyone or anything you can name.  I prefer the description, ‘among the best.’  I’ve heard a number of wizards with a guitar whom I number among the best, but who are never going to cut a record.  Luck certainly plays a part in success, but success is different from being absolutely amazing at something.
            Ok, enough ethereal hypotheses, let’s get down to some nitty-gritty.  At a church service sometime back, the preacher sat down at the piano and played flawlessly and fluidly.  Then he began his sermon, asking who in the congregation would like to be able to play the piano like that.  To the raised hands, he asked, “Now, how many of you would like to practice day in and day out until you’d practiced for 6000 hours to be able to play like that?"
            Colvin talks about the magic 10,000 hour rule and demonstrates it with names you’ll immediately recognize.   Practice is certainly a key to unlock extraordinary performance, but what kind of practice?  Ah, that’s one of the keys.
            I asked a reading teacher how she handles a child who is having a difficult time reading.  She asked me a question right back.  “What kinds of reading problems is he having?”  After that she barraged me.  Is he pronouncing the first part of a word, but not able to pronounce the second part?  Does he read words that make sense in the context of the sentence?  (An example might be a child reading ‘The Monday eats bananas,’ when the sentence is obviously ‘The monkey eats bananas.’)  Is the child reading with fluency or is he simply pronouncing each word:  The---   monkey---  eats---  bananas.
            A good teacher approaches a reading problem very directly and specifically.  Each different problem is separate and identifiable.   Colvin says the same thing.  Practice is important, but it has to be the right kind of practice and it usually requires a coach.  But, not always.  The rare person can guide himself.
            A good coach, says Colvin, will notice nuances, help fill in the gaps, and correct specifics in a way an individual alone cannot.  A receiver who constantly steals a glance at the defender, the instant the ball is thrown.  A language student who doesn’t quite pronounce a word correctly, or uses a word incorrectly.  A music coach who notices you hold your wrist just barely incorrectly when practicing finger movements.  When you work on specifics, you get better.  Desultory practice does little to help and by postponing progress may actually erode your resolve. A good coach will also push you, hard.  Very hard.
            A commonality among those we called talented is their willingness to work longer, and more consistently, well past the point that boredom or fatigue smacks most of us in the face and makes us quit.  I read recently that a championship tennis match lasted six hours.  Do you think that’s the first time those players ever played for six hours straight?  Do you think they’re not concentrating on their stance, their swing, and the movement of their wrist every time they hit the ball?  For six hours.  Sure, one had to win and one had to lose, but the winning or losing didn't diminish the years of effort that got them both to the championship match.
Geoff Colvin has written the kind of book I love.  He debunks commonly accepted knowledge and platitudes and makes you examine everything you ever knew about improving your performance and every downer thought you ever had about your own lack of abilities.  The next time someone tells you, “I just don’t have a talent for languages.”  You can ask them right back, “Oh, yeah?  Who’s your coach and how much time are you spending every day, every week, every month?”  They’ll probably change the subject.  Or they’ll lie.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Strolling the Streets of Heidelberg

View from the Castle

Some of the best strolling streets around!

Chruch of the Holy Spirit

Wonderful Pastries

Fresh fruits and vegetables all year 
One of the most famous pubs in the world

The Magnificent Castle




             For mere pocket change, you can jump a smooth, immaculately kept train, sit back, and watch the beautiful countryside stream by, then alight in one of Germany’s most picturesque cities, Heidelberg, a magical place that comes complete with a swiftly flowing river, an ancient university and an anciently matching downtown.  Much of Heidelberg's old section hasn’t changed since the 17th Century.  Do your job!  Get off the beaten track and get lost in those twisty, turny lanes. 
Have a quiet, unhurried lunch at a quaint restaurant, and let some of that famously delicious wine roll down your tongue.  Stroll the cobblestone streets.  See the old bridge (and the monkey), the Church of the Holy Spirit,  those waist altering pastry shops and open air produce vendors. Ho-hum, just another glorious day trip in Deutschland.
            No telling Heidelberg’s real age.  When the Romans arrived, the Celts had already settled and left.  When the Germanic tribes pushed south, the Romans pulled up their tents, stopped building roads and baths, stone cities, and Fiats and headed back to Rome. But, pre-historic people were here even before that.  In 1907, a jawbone of Homo heidelbergensis was discovered that dates to about 500,000 B.C.E.
            I know what you’re thinking.  If you can give us an age for an old codger born half a million years ago, can you offer a guess about the university?  And, we ain’t talkin’ about the one in Tiffin, Ohio!  Ok.  You win.  Heidelberg University was founded in 1386, making it the oldest in Germany.  Today, it’s a thriving, research oriented school, and Fifty-five Nobel Laureates are directly associated with either the university, or the city.  There’s a big foreign student population and you’re likely to hear dozens of languages all over the city. 
            But, there’s more to the Alt Stadt  (old city) than just the university.  As you might guess, where there are students, there is beer and Heidelberg has two very famous student pubs, Zum Roten Ochsen (The Red Ox Inn) and next door, the student tavern Stepp’l.  Bismarck, Mark Twain, John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe all tossed back a brew or six at Zum Roten Ochsen, so you’ll be in good company.
            Heidelberg’s place in history keeps growing.  Take the old bridge, actually named Carl-Theodor-Bridge.  Built in 1788 to replace many wooden bridges built and destroyed by floods over the years, it was again destroyed by German soldiers in 1945, only to be rebuilt in 1947.
            But, the centerpiece of Heidelberg is the grand and prominent castle/palace overlooking the Neckar River and old city center. Because the Königstuhl (king’s throne), the hill sitting about a hundred meters high, offers both a commanding view and relative security, the Celts, the Romans, and the more modern rulers all built fortresses, churches, and other buildings there.  The ruins you see were constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed over a period of over four hundred years.  The French forces of Le Roi-Soleil, Louis XIV, did real damage during the War of the Palatinate Succession.   One of the back towers looks as though it were cleaved by a giant sword.  Over the centuries, lightening strikes also took their toll.  When you visit, don’t miss the Grosses Fass (big wine barrel), holding 58,000 gallons, or 221,725 liters.  Next to the barrel is a wooden statue of Perkeo.  Ask about him. The Apothecaries' Museum is another charming spot of pots and potions.  Glance at the courtyard fountain, with columns from the palace of Charlemagne, who, in addition to all that killin’, plunderin’, and pillagin’, famously said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”  Still searching for that second one, bro. 
When you walk through the restored gardens, remember that the German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe walked there, too.  The garden may have been what he referred to when he wrote, “Beauty is everywhere a welcome guest.” The beauty of the castle continues with stage productions during the year, including The Student Prince.  (Check schedule).  To get to the castle, you can walk, or take the funicular (chain pulled) railway.  The castle is open 8:00 a.m to 5:30 p.m. daily, but check for the particulars before you go.
            Hey, stollin’ all those streets, seein’ those sights, climbing to the castle, all develop a healthy thirst.  Time to head to the Roten Ochsen.  Prost! 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Splendid Afternoon in Mannheim


Reiss-Engelhorn Museum

Forget gruesome pictures, the ticket is scary enough

Too inviting to resist

Big, tasty cappuccino

Rich coffee, amaretto, and whipped cream

            We hopped a train, sat back, and made a pleasant journey to Mannheim, one of Germany’s nicest cities.  Well over 300,000 souls call it home. It’s big, but spotlessly clean.  Unusual since it’s right across the Rhine River from the home of BASF, the biggest chemical company in the world.
Mannheim is not a new city, far from it, but during the Second World War, because the city was an irresistible industrial target, much of the grand old metropolis crumbled under the explosive weight of tons of bombs.  The city has been remarkably rebuilt and fortunately not all the beauty was erased.  One landmark, which has come to symbolize Mannheim, is the tall, art-deco water tower, or Wasserturm.  You can’t miss it, sitting downtown, in the center of Friedrichsplatz, surrounded by an open expanse of gardens and fanciful fountains.
            We visited Mannheim for a specific purpose. We were on our way to the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum to view one of the current exhibits, Schädel Kult, roughly translated as Skull Worship.  The exhibit covered every aspect of human skulls, from the first Homo sapiens, to the jungle tribes who captured, killed, decorated, transformed, honored, and used skulls to enhance their firesides.  Extensive exhibit. I learned more than the faint of heart (and I put myself in that food category) would ever want to know.  It wasn’t just the tribes of the South Pacific and the Amazon who developed skull cultures.  The Southern Germans and the Austrians did their share of painting the skulls of their ancestors right up until the early 20th Century.  Even today requests to “Gimme grand-pappy’s skull” are reported.
            But there is one thing the morbid part of my brain has always wanted to know.  How do you shrink a head?  I imagine teachers look at little Johnny and wonder the same thing.  The teacher’s next thought: how in the name of heaven can I pack readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic into such a small space?  I stand before you as a success story.
            In the Schädel Kulk exhibit, I discovered the answers to my burning question.  Briefly, and without fear of regurgitation, here’s the how- -and the skull has nothing to do with it.  First, remove the head from the body and the flesh from the skull.  Knives work best, steamrollers worst.  Next, scrap the inside of the head flesh and sew up the holes, like the eyes, the mouth, and that big gash you slashed in the back of the scalp.  Then, fill the human balloon head with very hot water, which causes it to shrink a bit. After that, fill the head balloon with hot sand and watch that beauty reduce to something you can carry in your pocket and chat with on lonely nights.  Decorate as desired.  Wonder why Martha Steward hasn’t covered this?
            That skull worshiping is powerful stuff and with dusk urging us on, it was time to explore coffee and pastry shops.  We found the perfect location to satisfy our drooling, caloric-lust on the circular avenue surrounding the water tower. Dolceamaro has it all.  Intimacy.  Spectacular bar.  Cozy corners. Wonderfully rich coffees.  Superb desserts.
            We did our best bohemian imitations, well, as bohemian as you can get speaking English, when everyone around you is wearing berets and switching from German to Italian, and goodness knows what else.  To hell with ‘em.  We can still impress people in Georgia.
But, I still have a question.  Do you think that that hot sand trick will work on my waistline?

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Tea Party With Jane

Note my genuine, small tomato paste can/cutter

Slow but sure; medium heat

Fit for Jane A and her fans

I awoke reluctantly this morning, drenched in dreams and silently yearning for another hour of sleep. My wife leaned my way and whispered she had a Jane Austen party to go to and would I make something kind of Englishy to wow the lovely ladies she hangs with.  She didn’t actually use the words “would you.”
“Sure,” I said, both because I’m a nice guy and because I’m terminally task oriented and dedicated to public service.
“I have to leave in about an hour,” she purred.  Which put the pedal to the metal on the “would you make” part of the conversation.
“Jane Austen is an interesting person in a spinsterish sort of way,” I murmured.  “Never married.  Published her novels anonymously, Sense and Sensibility being her first, and she died in 1817, at the age of 42.  Buried in Winchester Cathedral. Now please let her haunt my dreams a little longer.”
“We’re going to watch the six hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, but you’re not invited.”
What joy flooded my happy veins! One brief task and the scullery lad would have the rest of the day to amuse himself!  All I need do was stylishly create some biscuits, some jam, arrange them with delightful aplomb, peck the wife on the cheek, and hurry her off to the hencoop.
            With my heart aflutter I scurried to the kitchen.  Over the years, I’ve become adept at scurrying.  When I lived in the States, I was named ‘Best Scurrier’ in a three county area. 
Plus, my giant culinary brain already had a plan.  What is more English than a selection of dainty biscuits, and a pot of home made apple-ginger jam?  All of that can be made in less than an hour.
You already know the biscuit recipe and if you don’t, hold out your hand, while I fetch my ruler.  2 Cups flour, 3 Tablespoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and 6 pats of butter.  Blend well.  Add 1 Cup of milk to make a dough.
To turn the J.A. party into a rollicking good time, I decided to bake three flavors of biscuits:  sweet, savory, and cheese.  First, I divided the dough into three equal balls.  To one ball, I added 1/4cup of sugar.  To the second, I added a 1/2 cup of shredded cheese. (use sharp cheddar if you’ve got it)  To the final ball, I added generous portions of oregano, basil, and black pepper.  Hey, jump in and help!  Roll the balls out separately to about the thickness of your forefinger. After the sugar biscuits are rolled and cut, pat a little more sugar on top. You should come out with 6 to 8 small biscuits of each flavor.
I like to vary the biscuit shapes and for the dainty digits of the Jane A. aficionados, I made them smaller than usual.  The sweet and the savory biscuits were round and the cheese biscuits square. 
Now do your part.  Put all the biscuits on a non-greased baking sheet and slide them into a pre-heated 450ºF or 230ºC oven.  Bake for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make a very simple apple-ginger jam.  I used Pink Ladies, but would have preferred a variety more tart, such as Macintosh.  The more tart the apple, the deeper the apple flavor.  But, when you have exactly one hour, and the flames of a woman’s scorn are lapping at your heels, you use what you’re got.
            Peel, core and finely chop 2 apples.  Put them in a pan with 1 cup of white sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and turn the heat to medium.  Sprinkle on powdered ginger.  Finely diced fresh ginger would have been even better. (refer to last sentence of the previous paragraph)  Stir often and watch to see that the jam doesn’t get too thick.  This can be deceptive, as the juice flows out of the apples and the sugar melts, making the jam seem runnier than it really is.  Every now and then, put of a drop or two of the jam on the counter to test the viscosity.   When the jam is as thickened as you want it, it’s ready.  If it gets too thick, add a couple of tablespoons of water.
The oven timer rings.  Tasks complete.  Now what the hell am I going to do with myself for the whole day?  Ah ha!  She carelessly left me her copy of Sense and Sensibility.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lunch In Heidelberg

View from the Inside Out

A Wine Worth Mentioning

The Superb Ravioli

The Equally Grand Goulash

Jump a smooth, immaculately kept train for pocket change, sit back, read and watch the beautiful countryside stream by.  Get off in one of Germany’s most picturesque cities, Heidelberg, complete with a swiftly flowing river, an ancient university and an ancient downtown to match.  Have a quiet, unhurried lunch at a quaint restaurant, with superb food and wine.  Stroll the cobblestone streets.  Ho-hum, just another weekend lunch trip in Deutschland.
I could go on and on about Heidelberg, (and probably will when you least expect it and don’t have time to avoid it) but the quick answer is, it’s best just to wander the streets in the old city and find your own special favorites.

  One of ours is a small hotel and restaurant very near Heidelberg’s cathedral, The Church of the Holy Spirit (circa 1398).  The Hackteufel (Devil’s Cut) has all you’d want for an intimate luncheon for two.  Reeking with ambiance and old world charm, you walk inside and feel as if you’ve just entered the dining room of your warmest and most comfortable dream.  Low, tasteful lighting.  Full, yet subdued decorations.  A buxom waitress….wait, a sec, I mean a very demure, but efficient waitperson, who knew everything on the daily menu and had tasted enough wine to make me wish I had been there. 
In Europe, the wine is every bit as important as the meal and rightly so.  The wine list is also longer than the menu.  My wife ordered a Spätbugunder (Pinot Noir) Weißherbst rosé and I got a Portugieser red wine.  Both were wonderful.  I’ve never seen my wife quite so ebullient over a wine.  “Try this!” she said loudly enough to make the chef quiche in his pants.  Last time this happened was in church during a particularly raucous communion.  I tried the Spät and it was all she said and more.  Smooth. Beautiful floral nose.  Mixed fruits giving it a bare edge of sweetness.
For the main course, my wife ordered a minced lamb stuffed ravioli, lashed with delicate bacon, onion cream sauce and lightly oven baked with a mild, semi-hard Italian cheese, accompanied by mixed greens with vinaigrette.   This was a far cry from the Chef Boyardee ravioli of my misspent youth.  Far cry?  I don’t think the transatlantic cable would stretch that far. Light, yet flavorful, it gave a new perspective to ravioli.
I had a mixed burgundy goulash on a nest of spaghetti noodles.  Tender. Savory.  Luscious for lunch or anytime anyone lends you a fork.  This was the ‘special of the day’ and special it was!  I like my meat one of two ways, rare, or cooked until it’s falling apart.  The goulash was the latter and moreover, the sauce complimented the richness of the meat instead of simply masking a cheap cut.  Every bite delicious.
This was a lunch to remember and repeat….often, in one of the most romantic cities on earth.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Guacamole Olé

Guacamole comes from the Aztec word, ahuaca-mulli, meaning beat an avocado to death and eat it with chips, or drop by the volcano and toast a virgin.  Not sure which. My Aztec is as rusty as my grandpa’s liver.  Actually, in the early centuries (way before there were instruments of instant gratification, like Skype, and sexting), the avocado was hailed as an aphrodisiac, which partially accounts for it’s popularity among the Aztecs, the Spanish conquistadors, and men of all races and ethnicities over the age of fifteen.  It’s a myth, of course, much like finding the ideal mate, keeping all your hair until you’re ninety, or getting a doctor to tell you your cholesterol level is perfect.  Hey, wait a sec!  Avocado has only .7 percent saturated fat and no cholesterol, so eat avocadoes and concentrate on the other two.
Now that we’ve established that an avocado, the main ingredient in guacamole, is one slick, non-cholesterol fruit, what about the rest of its bonafides?   A serving of one ounce has forty-five calories, of which 39 are fat.  Good news.  Calorie-wise, it’s like eating healthy chocolate cake.
Back to Guacamole.  Always remember that there are two parts to a great guacamole, the guacamole itself and the chips.  Neglect the chips and it’s like trying to make a great sandwich with fluffy, white supermarket bread, or a fab pizza with a pre-fab crust.  So, let’s discuss the chips.  There is one way and no other.  You must fry the chips yourself.  If you don’t have a favorite brand of corn tortillas, try out a few brands and find one that’s not too thick and crisps nicely.  If your mate whines that it will take too long, and reaches for a bag of chemically enhanced, made by the ton, pseudo-chips, ignore, him, her, or them. (I already warned you it was tough to find the perfect mate.)

Chips. Cut the corn tortillas into quarters (see photo, or grab your third grade math book) and fry them in a little healthy oil in a frying pan or a deep fat fryer. On medium heat, they get crisp in a hurry.  Scoop the crisp chips onto a nest of paper towels to drain and sprinkle on the salt.  Takes almost no time and makes all the crispy, crunchy, flavorful difference.

Now for the green stuff.

2 or 3 avocadoes (Hass works best, but I like the slick-skinned Florida avocado as well)
3 Tablespoons finely chopped onions
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
2 Tablespoons French dressing
2-3 Tablespoons thinly chopped tomatoes
1 Tablespoon hot sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Note to my European readers:  how to convert American measures to European measures:

Put all ingredients in a food processor, or mash and mix by hand.  Turn the food processor on briefly.  I like my guacamole a little chunky, but if you like yours silky smooth, just keep on pressing the button.  Taste, and add more salt, pepper, and hot sauce, if needed.
Serve with your favorite beverages, and of course your perfect mate.  I was only kidding about not being able to find one.  Blush, blush.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fooled By Randomness

Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a disturbing book.  It asks questions we don’t want asked and hear answers we don’t want to hear.
Mr Taleb is an investor, par excellence, but an investor with a twist.  He despises risk and takes every caution to avoid it.  But, wait a minute; is this a book about investing?  Yes and no.  Part of the book uses examples from the world of stocks and bonds, but much of it does not, and every bit of it applies to your life and mine.
How about this question:  Does your boss talk utter nonsense?  Your favorite politician?  Let’s separate meaningful sentences into two categories, deductive and inductive.  Deductive would be something like:  Two plus two equals four.  From the inputs flows the answer.  In the case of inductive sentences, there is more room for discussion.  It rains in Spain.  Really?  A lot or a little? All over Spain? How do you know it rains in Spain?  Taleb examines the inductive side with something called the Dada Engine, which can be used to generate grammatically sound sentences that are meaningless.  How can you tell the difference, if the statement is inductive?  Taleb goes into some detail about how random bits can be strung together to mean nothing, but sound elegant.  He didn’t need to use the engine.  We get random gibberish everyday, from multiple sources, most of whom are in positions of authority.
Now, to steer toward investing.  We’ve all received a letter from an “expert” claiming to have the final word on making money.  But, do these experts have true expertise, or are they also random riders on the train to success.  Taleb takes a stab at the answer this way.  Given X number of investors, and the randomness of the stock market, invariably Y number of investors will make money and Z number will lose money.  X, Y, and Z will change as the market swings and investors join in or drop out.  Making or losing money becomes a probability, much like rolling the dice. No matter what you do, a certain number of times, you will roll boxcars and a certain number snakeyes.  But, what about the guy who rolls six boxcars in a row?  He is now an expert, yet the probability of his rolling another pair of sixes is exactly the same the seventh time as it was the first.  But, savvy investors make money all the time.  Not so fast, ace. As an unnamed investor said of another, “He has successfully predicted five of the last two recessions.”
But, you say, “This guy has a great record of predicting which stocks to buy.  He predicted the stock of X, Y, and Z companies would go up.  They all did!”  Taleb easily explains this and the answer will stupefy you.
Taleb doesn’t stop there.  He brings probability to the real world, such as the O.J. Simpson trial and life expectancy.  Taleb doesn’t read the newspapers anymore, or watch the news on TV.  Why?  Too much trivia, misinformation, and downright ignorance of probability.  Newspapers and TV upset him.
As humans, there are a couple of things we can’t do, rule out emotions, and consider all the possibilities.  When we experience bad luck, which Taleb might call the probability of failure, we only consider that we could have had good luck, or better luck, not that what happened to us was on the upper scale of all the bad that could have happened.  And, how can we control our emotions?  Truth is, we can’t really.  But, we can mollify the effects our emotions have on us.  Don't watch the news.  Don’t check stock prices everyday.
Read this book.  It makes you think and it’s good for investments, but it’s better for the soul.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Stuffed In the Name of Love

For this most happy day, one of those rarities named after a saint, but celebrated by non-Catholics all over the world, let’s break tradition and make stuffed mushrooms.  Go ahead!  Think outside the box of chocolates!
You know, not every culture thinks about Valentine’s Day in the same way.  In Japan, on V Day (as opposed to VJ Day) it’s the women who buy the chocolate for the men.  Men get to return the favor on White Day in March, or as we would choose to call it in America, if we had one, which we don’t, Multi-Culture Day.
Lots of symbolism with mushrooms.  Mushrooms, in some cultures, are phallic symbols.  All the more reason stuffed mushrooms are a great choice for V-day.  Many men really identify with the short and stubby varieties.  In China the mushroom indicates long life.  In some native cultures of South and Central America, as well as Berkley, California, they indicate, like, you know, really, really cool stuff, man.  I think they can be prescribed in California. Anyway, we’re not using those kinds of mushrooms.
Ok.  Enough history and worthless facts!  We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!  We need food!  Open a sturdy red wine and let’s get to the heart of the Valentine issue.  What kind of mushrooms are we going to use?  We’ll use agaricus bisporus, or as my beer swilling, stained t-shirt friends call them, button mushrooms.
Agarius grows in practically every grocery store.   Conveniently, they grow already cleaned and plastic wrapped.  But, just to be sure, we’ll wash them.

The Necessaries.

1 package button mushrooms (about 12 to 16, depending on size)
    (the brown variety works equally well)
1 Mexican style chorizo sausage or 2 of the smaller Puerto Rico variety
1/2 Cup breadcrumbs (I put stale bread in the food processor and make my own)
3/4 Cup shredded cheese of your choice
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Note:  Mexican chorizo is soft, the texture of American pork sausage.  Puerto Rican, or Spanish style chorizo is smoked and has a hard texture.  Use either one, but first remove the casing.

Preparing the mushrooms: Wash the mushrooms, take out the stems and set the stems aside.  Put a little bit of olive oil in a frying pan.  Now add the mushrooms, stem side up. Set the stove on medium to low.  You going to get the mushrooms to slightly brown and give up much of their water.  As the caps fill with water, turn the mushrooms over to brown the stem side.  When the mushrooms are slightly brown on both sides, they’re done.  (See Photo)

Heat your oven to 350ºF or 180ºC.

Preparing the filling:  Either finely chop the mushroom stems, breadcrumbs, and Puerto Rican chorizo together in your food processor, or finely chop them by hand.  Drizzle in a little olive oil. 
If using Mexican chorizo, fry it in a pan, breaking it up with a spatula, as you would hamburger.  When it’s cooked, add it to the breadcrumbs, etc.
Put the filling mix in a pan and briefly cook it to get the water out of the chopped mushroom stems. (See Photo)  When it cools enough, add your favorite cheese.  I’ve used cheddar, queso blanco, Monterrey jack, among others.

Stuffing and cooking:  Salt and pepper to taste.  Grab the spoon of your choice, mound the filling onto the mushroom caps and place them in a baking dish.  Put them in the oven and bake for about 10-15 minutes or until the filling is beginning to slightly brown.  (See Photo)  Serve hot!

Happy Non-Traditional, Very Symbolic Valentine’s Day

Monday, February 13, 2012

An Unlikely Hero


            In the ragged, hot summer of 1934, Tommy Brayfield sweltered in a cheap hotel room with his one true friend, a Smith & Wesson six shot,.38 Special, with a mother of pearl handle.  The window was open and a thin curtain chased a wisp of breeze in and out and carried away the smoke from the Chesterfield that hung off his lip.  Being skinny and missing breakfast didn’t stop him from sweating as he caressed the steel barrel with an oiled rag.  The gun was not a plaything.  It was his life, and he cared for it like it was something alive.  In a way it was.  Tommy carried it for a specific reason.  Sure, he could have gone bigger, or fancier, but the .38 caliber Special was what most police carried, and most soldiers.  Very common.  Hard to trace.   His stomach growled.He’d eat later, after the job was done.  “Steak,” he muttered aloud, “Rare and a full glass of whisky.”  His Adam’s apple bounced without touching the loose, white, but stained shirt collar. The collar was frayed in places.  It mirrored Tommy’s life.  But Tommy wasn’t much for introspection.  Still, he had his pride and especially pride in his work of killing people.  You gave him a job and the job got done.  Most of the time it was simple.  Money changed hands. You came, you shot, you left.           
          If it hadn’t been for that dumb bastard passing him on the street last night at the very moment, the very damn moment, he’d be back in Chicago now, with a full belly and a woman, instead of sweating like a two bit nag in this hick town.  He’d had a chance to do the job and he’d been ready to do it.  Shit, he should have just shot the mark and walked away.  Surprise and speed were the keys. Didn’t matter where and it didn’t matter when.  Chances are that other dumb bastard wouldn’t have gotten a look at him anyway.  This time he’d do it right. But last night still flickered and teased.  It ain’t all that tough, offing a rich husband.  Bam!  Sure thing.  Payday.  Not like that scary shit of driving into a hick town and knocking over a bank.  Dillinger and the boys could have that all to themselves; he’d stick with what he did best.            
          The daily paper rustled a little on the bed.  Headlines read, “Unknowns Rob Madison City Bank.” Tommy glanced at it and shook his head.  “Scary shit,” he said under his breath.
          Mr. Brady strolled into the Police Station, touched his hat and growled a terse good morning to Sara Jane, the Chief’s secretary.  She looked up from her typing.           
          “Chief Collins in?”  He rocked back on his heels, put one hand on his prosperous stomach, then moved his hand up and twisted the end of his waxed mustache. His eyes wandered to strategic places.
          Sara Jane ignored the glances and parried,   “How’s Mrs. Brady?”                                 
          “Fine,” was the terse reply, flavored with a hint of a scowl.             
          The private office was behind a big door, half of it frosted glass.  Curved black letters read, “Elmer G. Collins” and under that a straight line, “Chief of Police.”            
          The Chief got up when Brady walked in.  Big smile and a handshake.  Collins waved him to a hardback wooden chair and sat back down behind his desk.  “What’s on your mind?”           
          “It’s not just my mind, Elmer.  As you know, I’m President of the Merchants’ Association.” There was an imperial, monotone to Brady’s voice that grated, like shaving with a dull razor.  Maybe it was the way his judgmental eyes flicked around the room and the impatient way he shifted in his chair, as though nobody else’s time was quite as valuable.            
          “I surely do know that, and I also know you’re doing a fine job.”  Collins spoke up to cut him off before Brady could begin his usual pontification.            
          “Well,” Brady began again, “We’re coming up on another election.”           
          Another veiled threat, Chief Collins thought, but he didn’t say anything, just pursed his lips and bridged his fingers.           
          “As I was saying, you’ve been a good Chief.”           
          “But,” Collins said.            
          “Well, there’s been some banks robbed and some members of the Association have been getting a little nervous.  You know, robbing a bank is one thing, but scaring off customers is something else.  And, Madison City is less than three hours away.”            
          “Your wallet starting to feel a little thin?”             
          “It’s not the business....” His eyes darted around the room.  “But, they only robbed the Madison Bank a couple of days ago.”            
          “What is it exactly you want me to do?”           
          “We were thinking maybe you could increase the police patrols downtown.”            
          “Horace, I’ve got three men and myself.  All of us are downtown all day, unless something happens that calls us away.”            
          “Exactly, my point.  What if you get called away?”            
          “We’re never called very far or for very long.  My authority ends at the city limit.”            
          The arrogant tone again.  “We really need some protection for the citizens.”            
          Sometimes it’s easier to give an inch.  “Look, I’ll tell you what; until this business with bank robberies calms down, I’ll walk the streets myself.  We can stretch the patrols to a couple hours after dark.”            
          “We were thinking that maybe you should deputize some of the citizens.  Let them sit up in the attics around town.  Maybe let them carry rifles.”            
          Collins wanted to roll his eyes.  He refrained.  Brady might be a little short on courage and long on talk, but the Association all but ruled the town when it came to turning out the vote and paying the bills.  “I don’t like the idea of untrained men with rifles.”
             Miles away, Jackson, Billy, and Fred sat in a barn with an old Ford parked outside.  Jackson was counting, moving the bills into three piles.  “Looks like it’s gonna come out to four hun’ard apiece.”                     
          “Four hun’ard?”  Billy was incredulous.  “I could piss four hun’ard dollars worth of beer.”
          “Yeah,” Fred growled, “You was sayin’ lots before.”  Fred had problems with large numbers, so hundreds probably confused him.                            
          “I know what I was saying,” Jackson replied, trying to keep the edge off his voice, “But four hun’ard apiece is what we got!”  His pitch rose a little in spite of himself.  He shoved back from the table.  “You count it!”  It was a safe bet.  Neither Fred nor Billy could count past ten without taking off their shoes.            
          The conversation went back and forth, with nobody doing anything but complaining, until finally Jackson said, “Look, you want more money, you’re gonna have to rob another bank.”  It got real silent.                          
          “Where?”  Fred asked, unblinking. 
          “There’s a little town ‘bout three hours from Madison,” Jackson said.            
          “Whooowee!”  Billy pulled the silver revolver that was stuffed down his britches and rolled the cylinder.  “Whooowee!  Now you’re talkin’!”            
          Yeah, Jackson thought, now I’m talking, you cretin, but I'm talking to two useful idiots who are going to get me killed.  Billy forgot being upset about the lack of money from the last robbery and went back to grinning and polishing his gun.  The way he waved it around, somebody was going to get hurt.  With any kind of luck, it would be Billy.            
          Fred wasn’t the loose, gunslinger Billy was, but he didn’t test positive for intelligence either.  Periodically, Jackson thought of ditching the both of them, but right now, like them, he was broke.  Four hundred dollars wouldn’t last two months, then he’d be right where he started.  Broke.  He’d make this one last run with the two imbeciles and then cut himself loose.
          It was the Chief’s shift, around noon, while the other men took a nap, or ate lunch, and the sun turned the whole town into a skillet.  A thin layer of dust covered everything like tan ash, including the blades of grass around the courthouse.  Still, he liked the idea of getting out of the office and strolling.  A little sweat was good for the soul. At least he’d been able to convince that fool Brady not to have him turn Main Street into a shooting gallery.              
          The Chief was walking toward the bank, glancing back at Mr. Brady who was standing in front of his store.  He saw a man come out of the hotel and walk toward Brady, a skinny stranger, one hand on a bulge in his coat pocket.  His first thought was that Brady had out foxed him; hired his own guns to patrol the town.   Almost simultaneously, a car swerved around the corner and drove right between the Chief and the stranger.  It screeched to a dusty halt in front of the bank and three armed men jumped out, one of them waving a silver revolver.  Two made for the front door of the bank. Silver Gun stayed in the street. They had hats pulled down tight, the brims shadowing their faces.            
          Sweet kingdom of God, Chief Collins thought as he whirled to face the guy in the street, dropped to one knee, and tugged unsuccessfully at the pistol in his black leather holster.  Being out in the middle of the street in a policeman’s uniform suddenly made him as uncomfortable as a Baptist in a brewery.  “I’m a dead man,” is what he said out loud.  Nobody was listening.            
          Tommy Brayfield strolled out of the hotel and headed toward Brady’s Department Store with murderous intent.  The sun shone in his eyes, but he could make out the rotund figure of Mr. Brady standing in front.  Got the bastard now, he thought, and put his hand on the gun hidden under his coat.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chief Collins.  Shit, he said to himself.  Another needless complication to what should have been over yesterday.            
          Then a car swerved toward him, kicking up enough dust for a rodeo.  The car stopped in a squeal of tires and the next thing he knew, a guy was pointing a gun at him from a distance of about ten yards.  He drew his weapon and sent Billy a chest high shot that shattered ribs and ruptured several major vessels.  Billy pulled at the spreading stain on his chest and wheezed, trying to draw a breath that wouldn’t come.  He fired the silver revolver on his way to the ground, but his depth of vision wasn’t any longer than his lifespan.  The bullet went array, striking Mr. Brady exactly between his beady eyes, dropping him faster than nightfall in December.            
          Tommy Brayfield wheeled around toward Brady and took a few steps, but made the grievous error of swinging his gun in the direction of Chief Collins. The chief had heard the pops from behind the car.  Then several more shots from in front.  Now that skinny stranger stepped into view and was pointing a gun at him.  Who the hell could tell what was going on?  It was like a wild west show in the middle of his quiet little town and here he was rolling around like a dog in a sandbox.  With all the effort and grace of an etherized man trying to escape from a dentist’s chair, he freed his pistol and fired off a few rounds in the general direction of the melee.  He saw a man go down. Between the dust and the heat and the sweat, and having bullets whizzing by, it was all a jerky, blurry movie.  Although he didn’t know it, one of his bullets shattered Tommy Brayfield’s femur and the femoral artery.  Another ricocheted off the street and smashed a store window, scarring hell out of 77-year-old Gertrude Timble, who was in the process of buying blue yarn, but now wet her pants and fainted. The whole thing lasted maybe two minutes, until two men raced out of the bank, screaming at each other and ignoring Billy’s body that lay sprawled in the street. The car sped away. The Chief fired another shot, and had no idea where it went, but nobody fell dead.   The dust settled.  The streets were quiet again.  Three men lay bloody and unmoving in the dust, Brady, Billy, and some poor son-of-a-bitch who’d been walking his dog.
         The town mourned the loss of the President of the Merchant’s Association and most of all the death of the skinny stranger who it was said had killed one of the bank robbers and sent the other two running.  Some of the merchants said the Chief of Police must have taken Brady’s advice and hired an extra gun.  The Chief didn’t deny it.  The newspaper found out the stranger’s name and where he was from.  With Mrs. Brady’s overly enthusiastic blessing, a citizens’ committee collected money to have a statue put up that showed him pointing his pistol and selected an inscription that read, “I may be a stranger, but I come as a friend.”  Some called him a guardian angel.  Chief Collins gave another inch and didn’t disagree.