Wednesday, September 21, 2005

More Songs About Buildings and Avoiding People

Occasionally I read some epistle on the web bemoaning how technology is alienating us all. One example, the coffee shop that has shut down wi-fi on weekends because too many people were staring at their laptops instead of chatting with each other. Another is the now frequent charge that people using iPods to listen to music in public spaces are antisocial.

Guess what, folks? We were antisocial before the gadgets came along. I hate, hate, being at some public function, where I am sitting quietly enjoying the people watching, only to be approached by some nit who decides to 'rescue' me from my isolation by trying to rope me into some banal conversation. I would use my iPod as a buffer everywhere, except that even I sometimes think it would be inappropriate.

Sitting on a bench outside Renee's school, waiting for a ride, is not one of those occasions, though. I was able to relax and decompress to the soothing sound of Maaya Sakamoto on her singles collection, Hotchpotch. It reminded me of all those times I was standing at the bus stop in Akron, Ohio, listening to Camper van Beethoven on my portable casette player. Of course, then I thrashed about with the music, which served as an even better buffer to human interaction than the headphones.

Invisible Parent

This evening was a Parent's Night at Renee's school, where you meet your child's teacher(s) and get the buzz on how they do the things they do in the coming school year. It started around 7:20pm, Jean dropped me off at 7:15. She and Renee went back home since it was ostensibly just for parents (how's that supposed to work, if both parents want to come?). I found Renee's desk, and sat down, looking over her textbooks, scoping out the wall decorations, and finally, playing PalmJongg until the other parents settled in and the talk began.

Now understand, by 7pm I'm generally pretty done. My day is over, I'm pondering the day's events, kidding with my wife, and unwinding, in preparation for the next day. So I'm pretty toasted, and endeavoring to take a note now and then when some point comes up that seems important and is not on the preprinted outline, is a major effort. When Mrs. Houtz asks if there are any questions, I'm thinking "no, let's all go home now", but of course there are several questions, none of which interest me. I sit silently, pencil in hand, trying to look engaged.

Finally, it was over, and I'm making my way out of the room, thinking only of calling Jean to come pick me up again. Out of my peripheral vision comes Renee's other teacher, Mrs. Kronsub, hand extended. "Nice to meet you," she says. I reach out, grasp her hand, try to smile, mumble something, then turn around and continue walking. It's really only now that it occurs to me that she may actually have wanted to engage in some sort of social chit-chat. Oops.

So those of you who know me and are secretly wondering if I ever shut up, this is an example of how I always behave around people I don't know. Mr. Introvert. The Invisible Parent.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Creme Brulee!

After receiving positive feedback on my fourth batch of creme brulee at Tom's gathering, I thought I'd write down the specifics of the recipe and how I modified it. This will serve as well as a placeholder I can point Max to, since she expressed an interest in the recipe. Credit where credit is due: the original recipe comes from The Best Recipe (pages 525-526), one of the many fine books from the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine. I highly recommend this book, their magazine, and their television show, America's Test Kitchen. What follows is that recipe, modified over four trials, to get the results which resemble the dessert I had at McCormick and Schmick's.

I have four ramekins, each holding between 6 and 7 ounces (bought by my wife at Fred Meyer's). This turns out to be just right for the amount of custard produced by this recipe. Find an oven safe pan that will hold the four ramekins and enough water to reach the halfway point on each ramekin. Place a small dish towel in the bottom of the pan, and fill with hot water. Place into an oven and preheat to 295 degrees (the book calls for 275). Let the oven reach equilibrium.

In a large bowl, place six egg yolks. I save the egg whites in a separate container and make a fried egg sandwich the same day as my prep work. Whisk the egg yolks by hand for a couple of minutes. I'm not sure why this helps, but it does. Next, add six tablespoons of sugar. Whisk the sugar in until it is evenly distributed. Finally, add one and one half cups of cold heavy whipping cream. Whisk till there is a bit of air in the mixture, but don't try to whip it. When the mix is even, place it in the four ramekins (you can butter the ramekins with unsalted butter if you want to. The recipe calls for this, but I discovered that it didn't seem to matter}.

Gently lower the ramekins into the water bath, called a bain marie. Set your timer for 45 minutes. When the time has elapsed, check the ramekins. The mixture should still be loose in the middle. If it is not, you've overcooked it and should stop. If it is very loose, rotate the pan and continue cooking. In my oven, I found that an additional 15 minutes, for a total of an hour, seemed to give the best results.

While you're waiting for the custard, get out a cookie sheet, and line it with aluminum foil. Place four tablespoons of brown sugar on the foil, and use the tines of a fork to gently separate the sugar and spread it about the cookie sheet. When your cooking time is over, remove the bain marie, but leave the custards in the water until it gets close to room temperature. Turn off the oven and place the cookie sheet into the oven for twenty minutes. This dries out the brown sugar.

When the custard has approached room temperature, remove it from the water, and cover each ramekin with cling wrap. Place in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the brown sugar from the oven, and scrape it all into a sealable plastic sandwich bag. Roll a rolling pin over the bag until the brown sugar is a fine powder. Set aside until tomorrow.

The next day:

When you are serving dinner, sprinkle equal amounts of brown sugar evenly over the tops of the custards, and place the ramekins on a cookie sheet. Set your oven on broil and place the cookie sheet directly under the broiler. What happens next depends on your oven, how thickly you've spread the brown sugar, and whether the gremlins have visited overnight. Anywhere from one to three minutes will be required to caramelize the brown sugar. Take it out too soon and you get a gritty agglomerate on top of your custard. Leave it too long and you get carbonized sugar, which is not generally appetizing. Once you remove the ramekins from the oven, give them a couple of minutes to cool, then put them back in the refrigerator for thirty or forty minutes, to really crystallize the sugar. Then you can serve them. Be aware that if you leave the sugar capped ramekins in the frig more than a couple of hours, the custard will begin to absorb the sugar and make it soggy.

That's all I recall that went into fine tuning the recipe to work with my equipment. I fully expect that your experience will be different from mine, so be prepared to try a few times rather than giving up and assuming I've sabotaged the recipe to retain trade secrets.

Jerked Chicken

Jean found a recipe for jerked chicken in some magazine and we fixed it up this weekend. The main concept is a spice rub, applied both under and over the skin of a whole chicken (though cut into pieces). There was nutmeg, allspice, cayenne, salt, pepper and I don't remember what else. All this gets mixed in with olive oil and lime juice, then smeared onto the chicken, which is then baked at a high heat on a bed of scallions.

The recipe also mentioned a corn bread with scallions and minced jalapeno, so Jean made that part.

We served it up for lunch, with lime wedges for the chicken. It was a very interesting dish, but perhaps too spicy to do very often. By spicy, I don't mean hot, just bathed in spices. That gets a little overwhelming after a short time.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Biking Field Trip

Renee and I went to Champoeg Park today, with our bicycles on the rack. We rode the bike trail there for around ninety minutes. The curves, slopes and pathside drop-offs kinda got to Renee, I think. There was also a lot of bike traffic in both directions, and she had to get used to sharing the road, something she didn't have to do down at my workplace. As a result, ninety minutes was enough for her.

I'm not going back there the very next week, but we'll consider it for an occasional biking treat. My friend at work, Burr, also recommends Willamette Mission park, though it's maybe twice as far to drive. We'll see if that one's in the cards, before the rains come...

At Long Last

Five whole weeks have elapsed since I last attended a NOVA meeting, my usual outlet for socializing. Well, this Saturday was not a NOVA weekend, but it was the weekend of the Tom Jansen soiree. For all I know, it's still going on. Folk from up North came down to visit with Tom for the whole weekend, and I was invited. I'd been looking forward to it for weeks. I'd also been crossing my fingers, as I had no idea when Jean was going to get a job, and if she did, what her shifts would be. But luck was with me, and I was able to go.

I took my fourth effort at producing creme brulee, four ramekins of creamy custard. I also took a couple batches of my favorite homemade salsa. Both were appreciated. In fact, I've now got independent feedback that my creme brulee is actually pretty good. I feel vindicated, and I can now stop making it.

We watched Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, sat and talked for hours, and sampled Tom's bottle of Balvenie Portwood, which, by the way, is an excellent Scotch.

Adam, Max and Brian (and their offspring Ethan) were the Northern Contingent. Alan was the other local. Thanks to Max, I now have a loaner copy of 2046, over which I'm tickled, as I'm a big Wong Kar Wai fan. I also bought a copy of Bayside Shakedown on Max's recommendation. I added two that were on my list to the order: Magic Kitchen and Breaking News. These were both on my AX2005 shopping list, but I had to pass due to budget constraints. Now I got 'em! And they arrived the day of Tom's shindig, so I could give Max her copy of Bayside Shakedown. How's that for timing?

Anyway, next weekend is the NOVA weekend, and is elections for club officers to boot. And I most likely won't be able to attend, as Jean is starting her first weekend shift then. So for this weekend I am very grateful.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Nurse Jean

Jean got an offer for a nursing job today! She starts training next Monday. Her shifts will be three days a week, every other week, for starters. Sounds like an interesting if busy place, and she'll be able to practice a variety of skills. I'm very happy for her!

Sunday Biking

Renee and I both rode our bikes this Sunday. We started at the parking lot where I work, but I soon took her on a greenway that circles a farm field across the street. The loop measures around 1.5 miles, and she did great. When we were done, she wanted to keep biking, so we peddled around campus at work. Jean came down to visit us, but has no bike, so she kind of got left out in the cold. When all was said and done, Renee and I biked (casually, at a meandering pace) for nearly two hours. And she wasn't ready to quit when I called time, either.

If rainy season wasn't so near, I'd run up to Performance Bike and buy Jean a bike as well. But then I'd need a better bike rack for my car, too, and it all adds up too quickly! So for now it'll be just me and Renee.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Taylor's Gone

We followed all the advice given by the veterinarian, including a quarantine in the laundry room with her litter box for two days. When she was released, she was loving and needy, but within hours I found another piddle puddle on the futon. So now she's back at the no-kill shelter, and there's a smelly futon in the garage.

I'm gonna miss Taylor, but it's plain we're not equipped for a cat anymore.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Kristen Hersh

More reasons to wish I were in Seattle more often. Kristen Hersh is touring with her new band, 50FOOTWAVE, and played at two locations in Seattle Friday and Saturday.

I first saw Throwing Muses, her original band, in Cleveland, in a cellar bar on the waterfront (though not in the upscale Nautica district). Cripes, this was probably '88 or '89! I had already bought the untitled album I called 'Green', due to it's cover. Apparently, Throwing Muses couldn't get an American label at first, but caught on in Britain, and this album got mentioned in Mike Gunderloy's Factsheet Five magazine.

I fell in love with their strange and quirky music, the dark, alien wailing vocals. When I heard they were playing in Cleveland, I got my co-worker Christine to drive up with me. I had my album in hand, in hopes of getting an autograph, but the bouncers rebuffed me. Kristen was amazing, and just as alien and remote in person as on vinyl. She rocked back and forth while playing her guitar, hair sweeping side to side. Tanya Donelly, her half sister, was still with the band.

I've since bought a number of Muses albums, and one of Kristen's solo projects. Gotta say I'm tempted to pick up the first 50FOOTWAVE album now, too. We'll see, they've got three freebie tunes up on ThrowingMusic, so I'll be giving it a listen first.

Friday, September 9, 2005

Your Little Hoodrat Friend

Salon has a section called Audiofile, covering all things music scene. One feature I take advantage of is their Daily Download, which is just that, a sample of music made available for free on the web by artists and labels to promote themselves. I typically listen to each song once, and rarely a song or band grabs my interest. I got introduced to Four Tet and Nouvelle Vague this way.

Now I'm obsessing over a new song I discovered on Salon: Your Little Hoodrat Friend, by The Hold Steady. This song makes me think of a cross between Elvis Costello and The Ramones. That's not really accurate, I'm grasping at a description that somehow does this song justice. I know there's a good fit somewhere in my pop culture trunk, but I can't put my finger on it. If you've got thirty or forty years of musical culture, including some punk, in your history, download this song and give it a listen. Then tell me who it reminds you of.

I've also got their song The Swish, from their first album. As is so often the case, the first song grabs me much more than the second, and a little research indicates that most people think they've got one or two good songs. That's my fate lately, latching onto the One Hit Wonders (I had the same experience with The Tiny).

Oh, and I had to look up hoodrat. Feelin' old, feelin' old.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

2.1 Decades

Jean and I celebrate 21 years of marriage today. She's already asleep, Renee is in bed pretending to be, and I'll be retiring soon. How's that for romance? In reality, we'll be dining out Saturday or Sunday, when work and school make no demands of us. So for the record, I'm very happy that I'm still married to Jean, and I hope like hell to get another 21 years out of this relationship.

For the curious, the modern materials associated with this anniversary are nickel and brass. The gem is iolite (huh?).

Creme Closure

So I ate the last creme brulee from batch three. It turns out I didn't do so bad. The two which seemed done perfectly were, in fact, done perfectly. A very creamy custard, not runny, and not cheese-cakey. The third certainly seemed loose in the center to visual inspection, but on eating it, I found it was near enough to that perfect texture that I was satisfied. Number four, this evening, was the most suspect. It was not runny, but the center had a bit of 'juice'. Still a creamy custard.

I'd like for each ramekin to be filled with a perfect creme, but 3.5 out of four is not too shabby. I pronounce this experiment complete, though I may attempt to make a batch to take to my friend Tom's in a couple of weekends, so his friend Max can try it out. Hope I don't screw up that batch if I take it on.

I've been pondering what to do with the ramekins other than put them on a high shelf. Jean suggests individual apple crisps, Kelly wants 'tarts' and I'm thinking chocolate mousse. This evening Jean and I were watching America's Test Kitchen, and they made a dessert called Lemon Souffle. It sounded tasty, but I'm worried about the fact that they whip egg white and stir it into the mixture without any cooking. Is this safe?

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Taylor on Trial

Not quite three months into her tenure with us, Taylor has begun urinating outside her litter box. She seems to choose cushions and comforters, and so far we only have two locations. But this will not be acceptable. We knew it was a risk with a declawed cat, and now we're trying to see if we can train her out of it (unlikely, I suspect). She had a visit to the vet and he gave us some antibiotics in case it was a bladder infection. He also gave us some chemicals to kill the cat urine smell. Jean says we'll go all the way to the stage where we give her medication for anxiety, and if that doesn't work, it's goodbye Taylor.

Renee will surely be crushed, and I'd miss Taylor too, but we're not really the type of family that can comfortably live in a house drenched in cat pee. Wish us luck.


I'd heard Steven Gould's Jumper described as a 'young adult' science fiction novel, and though it's usually spoken of favorably, this categorization had led me to put off reading it. Considering that the central character is a runaway who has been beaten by his alcoholic father, abandoned by his abused mother, nearly raped at a truckstop, and who launches his independence by burgling a bank of nearly a million dollars, I can see why it's such a hit with young adults.

Seriously, this is a classic adolescent power fantasy, viewed through the filter of a rational science fiction writer. Gould tries to imagine what a smart teenager would do with the power of teleportation, short of becoming a megalomaniacal sociopath. Davey Rice of course, coming from a broken home, starts off a little rough, but is genuinely good-hearted, so the story doesn't take too dark a turn. In point of fact, other than the protagonist being a teenage male, I don't think this really is a 'young adult' novel. It's just a decent science fiction novel, and I can imagine myself reading the sequel someday.

Monday, September 5, 2005

Microwave Caramel

Shirley Corriher has a very interesting discussion of caramel, it's chemical composition, and how difficult it is to make. After all the caveats, however, she supplies a recipe which is supposedly very easy, and relies on the knowledge of chemistry occurring during the formation of caramel. Consider:

  1. 1/2 cup sugar

  2. 1/4 cup corn syrup

  3. 2-4 drops lemon juice

Put the above into a microwave safe two cup container (thoroughly mixed). Run the microwave on high until bubbles begin to form on top of bubbles. Then 'watch the mixture carefully'. As soon as it begins to turn tan, remove it. It will continue darkening once removed. If you don't feel it is dark enough, return to the microwave for ten seconds, and another ten if needed. Time taken depends on how dark you want the caramel, and the strength of your microwave. So, guess as best you can.

I tried this today, and in typical male fashion, decided that if it wasn't distinctly dark, it wasn't cooked enough, and kept putting it back into the microwave. Eventually it was dark enough, and I relented. I've never seen caramel preparation, only the candies and sauces labelled caramel. These are all opaque, but I suspect this is due to the addition of dairy products. My experiment was clear, and after it had cooled, was totally crystalline. It's a pain to cut a chunk loose, but definitely has a smoky caramel flavor.

I'm gonna try again some other day, and stop sooner. According to Corriher, longer cooking produces more, shorter sugars, leading to a denser crystalline matrix. So I took it to the limit, I suppose. I want to try for something more gooey next time. Dunno why, as caramel is not generally my choice of candy. Guess I just enjoy the chemistry!

The Chicken Variations

Today I tried a variation on the Marinated Pork Tenderloin recipe which was so successful the other week. The marinade this time substituted Jean's mother's barbeque sauce for the hoisin sauce found in the original, and I used the grocery store's generic boneless skinless chicken breasts, pitiful things really. As they did not have nearly the mass of a pork tenderloin, I had to guess at the temperature (chose 400 degrees) and the cooking time (12 minutes). They were a tad overdone, but still tasty.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Ride, Renee, Ride!

Weekend Two in the bike riding training camp. In addition to continuing our success in launching Renee by holding the bike up for her and pushing until she got up to speed, we also walked the length of the soccer field twice while Renee practiced propelling her bike scooter style, and doing my 'jumpstart mount'. The former is Jean's way of getting Renee used to the bike's balance, and working her way toward mounting the bike without help.

Renee crabbed, complained, and came close to tears on one occasion. I played 'bad cop' and told her that she could have a cry if she needed it, but that afterwards she was getting back on the bike. She had a few scrapes from knocking herself with the pedals when 'scooting', but nothing serious. She kept asking me how long we'd been doing this, and when we could go home. But over time, she showed gradual improvement at keeping the bike level while coasting. Finally, she put together Jean's scoot maneuver with my jumpstart mount and got onto the seat and pedalling without any help from either of us. And she just tore down the field without a pause! Man that felt good!

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, we did it again (she did it again), and then she lay on the grass panting and cheering. I was hooting and clapping. Felt like I was at Kittyhawk, what with all the wheeling hardware around getting ready, followed after long hard work with a 100 yard 'flight'. So I'm very proud of Renee, and now she's not so down on the whole bike riding idea. Funny how her attitude turned around after that successful mount.

Anyway, a couple of images at Flickr, including the banner.