Sunday, March 25, 2007

I can't help myself.

I am the sonnet, never quickly thrilled;
Not prone to overstated gushing praise
Nor yet to seething rants and anger, filled
With overstretched opinions to rephrase;
But on the other hand, not fond of fools,
And thus, not fond of people, on the whole;
And holding to the sound and useful rules,
Not those that seek unjustified control.
I'm balanced, measured, sensible (at least,
I think I am, and usually I'm right);
And when more ostentatious types have ceased,
I'm still around, and doing, still, alright.
In short, I'm calm and rational and stable -
Or, well, I am, as much as I am able.
What Poetry Form Are You?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Allow me to properly introduce my new friend.

I didn't withhold the details on purpose; I must have been a little tipsy on lambwiches. The rice stuff I was going on about is sold under the name "Rice and Shine" by the fine hippies at Arrowhead Mills. Please do not confuse it with "Rice 'N' Shine," which appears to be an over-priced diet food. Apparently, its claim to fame is that it contains "Risolubles™," which I can only guess are some kind of quick-dissolving hilarity aid.

I've made the stuff a few times since my first attempt, and I'm now devoted. It's an elegant, quick, delicious, cheap whole grain. Hoo. Ray. Its only failing is that I don't know what to call it. Brown rice "polenta" is clumsy. Rice cereal sounds like baby food or breakfast. Rice mush? No. Rice gruel? Rice grits? No and no. And none of the puns that keep popping into my head: rolenta... po-rice... grice... um... rits... I got nothing.

So, readers, chime in. What would you call it? And I know you're out there... I can see you through my computer (well, Google Analytics can see you, and I can't stop pestering Google Analytics to rat you out).

Not Like Vomit in Any Way That Really Matters

On a good day, I love to cook dinner. I start at 5:30 or 6, and I listen to the radio as I wash and chop and stir and eventually, by 7 or 7:30, dinner is ready and the house smells good and we eat and I don't have to wash any dishes. On a good day, all those things make me happy, not just the last one. On a bad day, I don't even get home until 7:30, I'm already hungry and exhausted, and I can't imagine anything I want to do less than wash and chop and stir. This has been happening a lot lately, thanks to all the work I didn't do while we were away and now have to catch up on.

So I got a crock pot, thinking it would be great to come home to a house that already smells good and where dinner is already ready. I got a 6-quart Rival, and one of the reasons I picked it is that I get to call it a crock pot without anyone saying, "Actually, it's just a slow cooker. Crock Pot is a trademark of the Rival Corporation." Okay, not even my friends are that pedantic, but still. It says Crock Pot right on it, and somehow that makes me happy.

What didn't make me happy is that it's no less work to make a good meal in the crock pot. It's the same amount of work on a different schedule. The first time I used it, I figured I'd chuck the stuff into it right after breakfast, get dressed and go to work. By noon, I was still in my bathrobe, still unshowered, still chopping and browning and deglazing. Which, of course, is just when my friendly and well-groomed neighbor rang the bell (Hi, Jenn!). She managed to conceal her surprise at my condition fairly well. At least I wasn't holding a half-empty bottle of wine. I figure every neighborhood needs someone to set the bar low, and I'm happy to help. I've always gravitated more towards one-downs-manship than keeping up with the Joneses anyway. You don't really worry about letting yourself go if you never had a firm grasp on yourself to begin with.

I finally got everything in the crock pot, got myself looking more like a respectable member of society, and left the house, and I admit that I did feel a certain satisfaction whenever I remembered that dinner was cooking itself as I worked. It was pretty much ready when I got home, and the house did smell pretty good. But it wasn't until two nights later that I realized the true value of the crock pot. Those slow-simmered, stewy dishes that the crock pot specializes in freeze really well, reheat easily in the microwave, and are generally tastier the next day anyway (and with the crock pot, you don't have to be home all day to monitor a burbling dutch oven). My giant crock pot made about six servings of curry when it was only about half full. So one dinner's worth of labor gave me three dinners (for our two-person household), and could have given me six. Not bad at all.

More for my own reference than as a recommendation, here's what I made, minus an ill-advised red pepper. I don't know what I was thinking. I don't like well-done peppers, and what did I think was going to happen to that pepper over seven hours? It wasn't inedible, but I won't slow-cook peppers again.

Crock Pot (or Slow Cooker, if you must) Beef Curry with Garbanzo Beans

two pounds stew beef, extra fat trimmed off, and very well browned
3 small onions, chopped and browned
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 15-oz cans garbanzo beans, drained
6 small carrots, chopped into bite-sized hunks
1 tsp salt
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp whole cloves
7 cardamom pods
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons curry powder (or more to taste)
3 Tbsp flour and 3 Tbsp butter for beurre manié

Combine everything but the curry powder, cream, flour, and butter in large oval crock pot. Set it to cook for 7 hours on low. Leave the 2 tablespoons of butter out on the counter so it's soft when you get home. Once it's done, thicken it with a beurre manié, or however else you usually thicken things. Taste it, and add salt or hot sauce if it needs it. Fish out any cardamom pods, bay leaves, and cloves that you notice, but don't worry about finding them all. They just, um, add authenticity or something. Also, it's really hard to find them all. You're better off just warning people.

Either stir cream into what you'll serve tonight, or let people add their own at the table. I'm not sure how stable the cream would be through freezing and re-boiling, so don't add it to the whole pot if you're planning to have leftovers.

One last tip: don't serve this on a plate if your cat has been throwing up a lot lately. It's uncomfortably reminiscent of a certain kind of cat hurk. But, but, it tastes good! It's very nice! Where are you going?

Saturday, March 17, 2007


I have a food bias. I scoff at foods that are presented as "just-as-good-as" substitutes for other foods. Margarine instead of butter, tofu instead of meat, soy milk instead of milk, "Rice Dream" instead of ice cream, and all those strange wheat-free pastas instead of good old semolina.

I do know that some of those foods (tofu! rice noodles! maybe even soy milk!) are delicious in their own right, and have identities independent of what they're supposed to be standing in for. But in my head, tofu's good reputation is tainted by the travesties that are Tofu Pups and Not Dogs. Soy milk has a bad reputation because, well, I don't even like milk that much, and if all I ever hear about a product is, "It tastes almost like real milk! You almost can't tell!," well, I'm not going to be beating a path to the fake-dairy section of the market to try it out.

But I know I'm wrong about some of those things. I know I'm missing out. I know I have a bias, and I'd like to get over it already. So the other day, having breakfast with a gluten-free friend (you know what I mean), I was happy to discover that her Special Gluten-Free-So-it-Won't-Kill-You, Tastes-Almost-Like-REAL-Cream-of-Wheat Rice Cereal was delicious! Just plain delicious! Not delicious-for-rice-cereal, just plain tasty. AND whole grain. Man. I felt like I had discovered a new continent or something (I believe I've already covered how easily excited I am).

So I spent the next few days thinking of all the things I could do with my new friend Rice Cereal. It had a clear place in the polenta and grits family, but I was so excited, I wanted to push it even farther. I remembered that as it cooled, it had become quite thick and (ironically) glutinous in consistency. That reminded me of arancini and omusubi and I figured I could give something like that a shot. "Lamb-Stuffed Rice Balls!" is what I thought, and then I thought, "Why does all this stuff sound so much better in other languages? Stupid English." So maybe I should call them something else. But first I had to make them.

Shall I spin out the long, sorry tale? Shall I go into all the reasons I thought this was a good idea, and all the reasons I was wrong? Throw in a little suspense? A few laughs? Too late. We're all busy people, and I bet you'll appreciate it if I cut to the part where I was laughing resignedly to my brother on the phone, prodding a cooling, pasty, greyish blob of stuff that was never going to be made into balls of any kind, stuffed or not. I had called him, as I often do, for advice, once the time for advice is long past and all he can do is talk me down from the ledge of Plan A, and encourage me towards a safe, sensible, ground-level Plan B. Thank goodness I can be a bit of a disaster in the kitchen, or I wouldn't end up laughing with my brother on the phone so often.

So the menu departed from the ambitious and misguided "Lamb-Stuffed Rice Balls and Greek Salad", veered alarmingly towards the meager "Bread, Cheese, and Greek Salad," and ended up at the respectable "Seasoned Lamb Patties with Brown Rice "Polenta" and Greek Salad". And what do you know, it was quite good. The only sign of the averted disaster was the tremendous pile of dirty dishes created as I careened from menu to menu. My main Eater and Dish Washer accepted his lot gracefully, and I counted myself lucky.

"But where do the Lambwiches come in? I was promised Lambwiches." I hear you say. Well, I had to set the stage. I had to illustrate how my vagaries and whims and, uh, research, all result in News You Can Use. I do all this so you don't have to! So here, edited down so as to be actually helpful, is a recipe for the delicious lunch we had the next day (you can skip all the above steps, and you're welcome):

Lambwiches (serves 4 or 5)

1 pound ground lamb
6 cloves garlic (less is fine, but will be less delicious)
half a bunch of parsley, big stems removed
one small red onion, quartered and peeled
2 eggs
salt and pepper

1 small red onion
half an english cucumber
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
a pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon dry oregano

mini (3 or 4 inches across) whole wheat pita bread—two or three per person

Make the patties: Put the garlic, parsley and quartered red onion in the food processor. Whiz until minced (wheeee!). Mix the minced vegetables, the egg and the meat together by hand. Make small patties and sear them in a frying pan, on a grill, or in the broiler. You can do this well ahead of time and reheat them in the microwave right before you make the sandwiches (ground lamb seems fatty enough to survive this kind of mistreatment).

Make the relish: Cut the cucumber and red onion into batons (more or less) and mix them with the vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, and oregano. Ideally, let them sit for half an hour or so, stirring occasionally. It's nice if the vegetables get a chance to soften and become a little pickley.

Warm the pitas in the toaster or under the broiler, cut a slice off of one edge (halving them makes them too small to stuff), and open them up. Spread a layer of hummus all around the inside of the pita, and tuck in a warm lamb patty. Fill the rest of the space with vegetable relish. Set out other things, like sauteed eggplant and some black olives, but no one will eat them because they'll be too focused on their messy and delicious Lambwiches.

My gluten-free friend won't be able to enjoy a lambwich, but I thank her (and my patient brother) for helping midwife them into existence. Call this my IOU for a home-cooked meal for both of them. How about some braised lamb shanks and root vegetables over rice "polenta"? It'll be good, I promise.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Estamos en casa!

What's that math thing where you cover half the distance to your destination, and then half of the remainder, and then half of that, and so on? You continue getting closer and closer to your goal, but you never actually arrive. I have no idea what that's called, but it should be known as The Coming Home From Spain Phenomenon.

We covered quite a lot of territory at first. Got to the airport, got on the plane, and got across the ocean no problem. I'm especially happy about that last accomplishment, because if there's any part of traveling that you want to go smoothly, it's the vast-body-of-water-crossing part. I do pay attention when they demonstrate the yellow vests and the inflatable rafts and I promise, when the time comes, to remove my shoes and leave all hand baggage behind while I follow the floor level lighting to the nearest exit, which may be behind me. But, really. I can't believe that any of that will be the least bit helpful when something awful happens to the plane as we're going a kajillion miles an hour six miles above the ocean (I'm pretty sure those were the numbers on that helpful info screen). So, yes, I'm very happy we did that part without a hitch. But once we landed, there were nothing but hitches between us and home.

We stood in just enough lines (baggage, customs, security) that we missed our next flight by five minutes. The next flight wasn't for six hours, and since we could have hitchhiked home in six hours, we decided to instead take an earlier flight to a nearby city and take the bus home from there. All this decision making and plan-changing, of course, involved many different Airline Officials, and felt like wading through complicated, official porridge. But the officials, even while mired in porridge, were extremely helpful and kind, and we successfully flew to that nearby city, and were done with planes for a while. But then the bus was late enough getting to the airport that it just decided to be both the late-leaving six o'clock bus and the early-leaving eight o'clock bus, just to average things out and piss off a few more people.

Days later (I'm sure) we finally pulled into the dark, freezing bus station in our dark, freezing hometown. The first cab at the cab stand was empty, so after looking around for the appropriate amount of time (given the temperature, about forty seconds), and then hopped in the second cab, belted up, proclaimed our destination, and were about to get a little closer to home when (of course) the owner of the first cab barreled out of the station and requested that we get out, unload our bags, load them in her cab, and allow her to take us home and take our money, as was only right, fair, and proper. We're usually easygoing, tractable people (at least in public), but we had moved beyond usual. This poor woman, who had a point, was our Last Straw. We mustered up all our remembered skills from toddlerhood, set our respective jaws, and said, "No." And (eventually) it worked. Grumpy resistance pays off! Look out world!

So then, only about 45 minutes earlier than we would have gotten into town had we hitchhiked, we got home. After a month away from our native cuisine, we were good, loyal Americans and got Thai take-out for dinner. And then we went to bed.

Now, even after I've warmed up, eaten, slept a lot, and settled in, it still feels good to be home. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed my first trip to the grocery store. I knew what everything was, I could find everything I needed, and I could rest assured that the cheese was all industrially produced and free of anything offensive like listeria or complex flavor.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Last Miscellany from Spain

-The small food shops (butchers, bakeries, greengrocers) are staffed by women who look like they could be politicians. They are extremely, agressively well-groomed. They wear white smocks or pink aprons or other non-surprising food-service uniforms, but it's clear that their native dress is sensible navy suits with two-inch heels and tasteful gold jewelry. I've never before seen a woman with perfectly coiffed hair and flawless, understated makeup run a bloody piece of meat through a bandsaw.

-The hippest young women here have mullets with very short bangs. The most stylish old ladies have shockingly red or orange (or both) hair. There is a sliver of the population which is both past middle age and extremely trendy (I'm guessing they're gallery owners or fashion designers), and they have bright red mullets with very short bangs. In a month, I have seen five of them.

-My hair is chin-length and brown, I don't have bangs, and I usually dress in what The Great Sarah Vowell calls "the bruise pallet" of black, grey, blue, and brown. As soon as I open my mouth, it's clear I'm not Spanish, but apparently I'm not identifiably American either. So far, everyone who has guessed where I'm from has guessed France. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I didn't think I had enough existential angst in me to look French. Perhaps I have the appearance of existential angst covering my goofy Pollyanna creme center. Or perhaps it's my giant distinguished French nose.

-First Sign Of Globalization at the stadium during the game: In line for hot dogs (sorry, salchichas) at half time, some guys behind us were talking about market optimization and revenue tracking (or something) in Northern Californian accents.

-Second SOG at the stadium: After the game ended, we clapped the players off the field, people started making for the exits, the music came on, and it was Johnny Cash. Ring of Fire? Walk the Line? One of those—it was weird. But good! Who doesn't like Johnny Cash?

-At a huge, packed, dark, noisy book release party, the food was hard to get to, and not too user-friendly. Standing around chatting outside in the spillover crowd, we saw a pizza delivery guy drive up on his scooter, hop off, look hopelessly at the crowd and say, "Juan?" It was a classic tale of yearning and desire, illustrated. One guy really really wants to get rid of a pizza, get his money, and leave, and some other guy is trapped in a sea of patrons of the arts, desperately hungry. We never found out if the guy who eventually traded money for food was the same Juan who called in the first place, or just some opportunistic hungry guy, but within seconds of that box being opened, it was emptied. Maybe the pizza delivery company is onto something...

Friday, March 09, 2007

To Add to the Millionaire List: Second Home in Spain

We're getting ready to go home, and I think I'm almost ready. I've pretty much blown off work this week, in favor of sucking up as much tasty Spain as possible. Now that I'm so comfortable finding my way around the city, it's lovely to just wander down the sunny streets, stopping for coffee or a snack or a new t-shirt with skulls on it (it's fantastic—looks like a nice floral pattern from four feet away), not really caring where I'm going.

But I'm really ready to be back in my own house, where I don't have to be on my best-house-guest behavior all the time, where I can leave hair in the bathtub and leave dishes in the sink and burp out loud (more often). Sounds nice, huh? Wanna come over? No? Maybe another time.

I can't wait to be surrounded by fluent English speakers, but I'm going to miss all the Spanish-learning that's been happening in my brain. I can almost feel the renovations, and it's really sped up over the last week or two. I wish I had a voice-recorder with me, so I could make transcripts of all this stuff that I know I'll be missing soon.

Visca Barça!

I can't call it soccer, because that's the game where suburban American kids run around a field in a tight pack (presumably surrounding a ball of some kind) while their parents stand on the sidelines alternately drinking giant coffees and yelling, "Go, go, go!" at their kids. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I fully expect to be a coffee-swilling, yelling soccer-watcher one of these days.

I can't call it football, because that's the interminable TV show where giant black men either stand around waiting for something to happen or charge at each other as hard as they can while little white men with wires in their ears yell, "Go, go, go!" at them from the sidelines. Not that there's anything wrong with that either. They're all getting paid a whole lot of money, and I can't say I would pass up millions of dollars to run around in tight pants and be in soup commercials.

I can't be all ex-pat about it and call it futbol, because that's even worse than "amuse bouche" in terms of slap-worthy pretension. So I'm stumped. But whatever it should be called, it was fantastic. It was maybe the fifth professional sports game I've ever been to, but it's the first one that made me understand what all the fuss is about. The stadium holds 100,000 people, but it was a slow night, so there were only 70,000 there. Only 70,000 people all holding their breath together, all jumping up and screaming together, all chanting, "Hijo de puta!" together. I've never had so much fun swearing. And swearing is fun! I got so into it that I twisted my ankle leaping to my feet after a goal. I even found myself doing the back-seat-driver-shuffle with my feet, but instead of mashing on an imaginary brake pedal, I kept trying to nudge an imaginary ball.

The game we saw was an extra-exciting one, because there were four goals scored. I know the joke is that it's a boring game because nothing ever happens, but it's actually more exciting. There might not be any goals scored at all, or there might be one or two, so when one happens, it's a huge deal. All 70,000 people leap out of their seats simultaneously, screaming. There is hugging. There is even a little crying. There are flags as big as bed sheets. I was sitting next to a guy who clearly spends his days being very quiet and respectable, and for most of the game, he wouldn't do any more than mutter, "Venga, venga, venga!" under his breath. But he leapt up and yelled with everyone else at the first goal, and even threw his hands up for a moment before he composed himself. After sitting next to him for two hours, leaping and yelling and muttering together, I felt like we'd been through quite an experience, and I half wanted to kiss him on the cheek and wish him a safe trip home, but I didn't want to cause an international incident ("American Terrorist Assaults Local Accountant"), so I let him go without even a handshake.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Metro Strategies

Old metro-taking strategy: When exiting the train, step onto the platform in the midst of a scrum of harried, bustling Spanish commuters. Barrel along an underground tunnel with them, carried by the current. Come to a fork in the tunnel, with signs pointing to two equally unfamiliar destinations. Thoroughly annoy the horde when you stop abruptly in the middle of the passage and unfold your giant map. Flap it about, turn it upside down, and try to read 8-point type in a language you're only just getting the hang of. Give up, and decide to follow the herd to wherever they're rushing. If so many people are in such a rush to get there, it must be good. Carry on barreling down tunnels. Eventually, daylight will appear at the top of an escalator. Let yourself be carried up, and out onto a street you've never heard of, with no familiar landmarks, and facing who knows which way. The herd will be immediately absorbed into the city. You are now alone on a deserted, unidentifiable street. Walk to the nearest intersection to begin your research. Since whoever laid out the city had a very fancy plan that involved snipping off the corners of the blocks so they are more like very square octagons than very square squares, it's impossible to see the street signs for both intersecting streets simultaneously. You identify one street, but then you have to walk around a corner, pass two cafes and a flower shop, and walk around another corner and past a cellphone store until you can identify the other street. That done, you can now identify exactly where on the map you are. That might be handy if you were meeting someone, or if you were calling a taxi, which you now begin to feel might be the best way of getting to your destination, which must be around here somewhere. But you want to walk. You want to figure this out and be done with transportation already. So that means you have to figure out which direction you're facing. So you set out down one of the streets, making your decision of which one based solely on which street is sunnier (if it's chilly out) or which is shadier (if it's hot). One block later, the map and the city will start to agree with each other in a helpful way, and you now know that you have only to walk back up the block you just came down, turn right, go two blocks, turn right again, and you're done.

New metro-taking strategy: After nearly a month of the practicing the former technique, realize that, while you don't know the streets well enough to know where you are precisely, you do know the neighborhoods well enough that whatever direction you walk in, things will start looking familiar within a few minutes, and you'll be able to navigate from there, without ever having to look at the map. It's very freeing to leave the train, not even try to understand any of the signs, just following the flow of fellow-travelers, end up on the street, and continue strolling. There is no anxiety, no map, no back-tracking. You know the city well enough to know that there's no chance you'll accidentally wander into a scary neighborhood, but it's still unfamiliar enough that there's a lot of interesting things to look at as you walk. Like the beautiful scooter parked next to the dumpster. Like the old office chairs someone has left next to the dumpster, to wait for the garbagemen. Like how the chairs look pretty clean, and they're just the right distance from the scooter to offer a really good view, and they look comfortable enough to sit on for a while while you draw.