Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cooking Is Not Always Cooking

I love to cook. I might have mentioned that before. Cooking is a process for me, a kind of yummy meditation. When I am in the zone I love to open a nearly bare fridge and make magic happen with the limited ingredients I have. Or, taking things that seem, intuitively, that they would be a good taste match and then figure out how to make it tasty.

There are some nights when my intuition completely fails me.

I am a Professional Corporate Cog. My job has it's interesting moments and it's so rapidly paced that it keeps my ferret brain active and focused, but it's also a 5o+ hour a week gig. Mondays and Tuesdays, I usually can eek out the drive and desire to make a meal when I get home, nothing super fancy, but something good. Cooking clears my head, it gets me out of Corporate Llama and helps me feel more like myself.

There are some weeks, like this one, where I leave for work in the dark and get home in the dark and the idea of having to do more than turn on the oven makes me want to cry. We don't own a microwave. I hate them. Other than for boiling water, there is nothing good or tasty about what a microwave does for food. It also keeps me from buying boxed food-flavored cardboard meals for those nights when food is a very far second in my list of priorities behind sleep or bourbon, not necessarily in that order.

My solution is to keep some oven-ready frozen food in the house, along with go-to comfort staples like Top Ramen and blue-box mac and cheese.

Last night, after getting home after 8pm, having left the house at 6am, I was starved but didn't even have the energy to abuse my bank account for the Zifty privilege. Popped a polish sausage out of the freezer, grabbed a box of mini frozen perogies (I'm a sucker for tiny foods) and a bag of spinach.

Perogies in the oven, sausage in a pan, to be followed by a little olive oil and the spinach and TA-DA foods. This is the difference for me between 'cooking' - which is a process and a joy - and "I made food hot" which is applying heat to food, most of which was created by a machine in some factory somewhere so that I injest enough calories to not starve myself.

These  two endeavors should not be mixed. If I am 'making food hot' then trying to 'cook' should be outlawed. The results are typically terrible. As is evidenced by the story below.

Perogies went in the oven. Sausage got cut up and browned on both sides. Then I made a terrible mistake. I stopped just making the spinach hot and started trying to make something that required 'cooking'.

I'm not going to go through the steps, it's really not worth it. What I put into the pan you see to your left -
raw spinach, a pan deglazed with cheap white wine, 4 cloves of roasted garlic and a whole egg chopped up. If I would have stopped at the wine and the garlic and the spinach, it would have been at least palatable.

It looked like dog food and had the visual appeal of snot. Upon tasting it also had the mouth feel of snot and tasted exactly what you think those ingredients sauteed together would. Not good is an understatement, it was absolutely inedible.

RIP perfectly good spinach and garlic and egg. I'm sorry I tried to force a relationship with you. It was never going to work for anyone.

Today, I expect that I will have a similar work day as tomorrow I have a vacation day scheduled. I make a firm promise that I will go get take out from Delia's before I torture any more perfectly unsuspecting food.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Stuff For Your Eyeballs : "The LEGO Movie" Review

"The LEGO Movie" is a kid's movie in the same way that the first "Toy Story" kid's movie - full of double entendres and references no "kid" under the age of 30 is likely to get. It's a winner, even if you don't have kids, if you ever loved LEGOs, go see this film. 

We went on a busy Saturday afternoon, the first warm weekend after Atlanta had been brought to a frozen standstill for more than a week- to say it was a full theater was an understatement. Kid-focused movies are the only ones I love to go to in full theaters. The kids get so excited, mine included, and make the best kinds of utterances. There is a, let's call it 'catchy' song (it's also in the trailer) that you will unlikely ever get out of your head, but all the kids were singing along. 

I had seen the trailer and figured, like other kid's movie trailers, that the best adult focused jokes were part of the trailer. I could not have been more wrong. We all laughed and laughed from beginning to end. The tone set in the trailer is the same throughout the movie. 

One part of it was certainly the expert animation. One part of it was certainly the writing. The best part, overall, was the cast. .... I mean really do you get a better comic cast? They do a great job of timing the well-written script. 

There is also the part that is you have to love LEGOs. In my house, they are a way of life. Robert and D'mitri both love LEGOs and always have. This movie does an excellent (and at times, heart-tugging) job of reminding youngest and the oldest in the theater why these tiny little bits of fit-together plastic are the foundation of some of the best family memories. 

From My Kitchen: Happy Pig Balls

Get your minds out of the gutter.... these are my signature finger foods. Pork meatballs meant to be eaten with your fingers or a toothpick it you are afraid of licking your fingers.

I call them "happy pig" because the pork we have gotten in the last couple of years has been from friends who farm hogs in Tennessee. Not only was the hog humanely raised, but the processor ground a high amount of fat into the ground pork and that higher fat content is keep to keeping these balls moist and adds a ton of flavor.

Tools to Use. 

Stand Mixer, with a Dough Hook
Saute pan
Oven, pre-heated to 375
Muffin tin, lined with foil (trust me, this saved a ton of clean up on the other end of the process)
Mixing bowls
Chef's Knife
Cutting Board
Small bowls for your mise

Your Shopping List. 

4 lbs. ground pork, high fat content (no less than 75/25) - if you can't find it, you can add raw bacon that has been put through a food processor)
1 medium apple, something dense and food for cooking - Ambrosia, Red Delicious or if you can find them, Arkansas Black
2 shallots
2 stalks celery
2 cloves garlic, roasted
Potato flour (this keeps it gluten free, but AP flour will work, so will rice flour)
Black Pepper
Ground Fennel
Ground Sage
Lard (or EVOO or butter, whatever you prefer to use to saute)

The Mise. 

  • Thaw the pork and mix with the dough hook until the fat is well incorporated. Leave this out while you complete the rest of your mise so that the meat is warmer than fridge temp. 
  • Chop the (peeled) apple, shallots, celery into small pieces. Put them each in separate small bowls. 
  • Mash the roasted garlic and mix with a little fat (lard, olive oil) to make a paste. 
  • Measure out a tsp each of the sage and the fennel seed. Grind them together in a mortar and pestle of food processor. 
  • Measure out a tsp of whole black pepper and grind course 
  • Measure out 3/4 cup of whatever binder you use (potato flour, AP flour) 
  • Measure out 2 Tblsp. salt and set aside, you might need more, but you don't want to unintentionally contaminate the rest of your salt. 

The Pre-Assembly. 

  • Heat the fat in your saute pan. 
  • Add the shallot, celery, roasted garlic paste and a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper over medium heat until the shallots are transparent. 
  • Add the apples and cook for 3 minutes until the apples start to soften. 
  • Take it all out of the pan and put it in a bowl, set it aside so it can cool. 
  • Once the apple shallot mix has cooled to at least room temp (I might use the freezer for this sometimes) mix the apple shallot mix with the pork and add the rest of the salt, the pepper, the fennel and the sage and the binder -- use the dough hook and the mixer. 
  • Cover it in plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least half an hour. The longer you let it sit, the better it's going to taste. 

The Assembly. 

  • Pre-heat the oven to 375
  • Using a tablespoon or a scale, roll about 1oz meatballs and put them in the foil lined muffin tins. 
  • Bake until they are golden brown on the top. There will be a ton of fat in the muffin tins (which is why you want the foil in there.
  • Take them out of the oven and transfer them to another plate. 
  • Heat a saute pan, and put the meat balls, brown side up in the pan to brown the part that was on the bottom on the muffin pan.
Eat these hot with some spicy mustard, or, make a gravy with the fat from the muffin tin and put them with some egg noodle and cover in gravy. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Revamping the War Room - How A Kitchen Gets Organized

My cleaning habits are a lot more Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and a lot less Suzie Homemaker. When I decide a space is completely unkempt, I tear it all apart and reset it based on how I am using the space, not how I thought I wanted to use the space the last time I freaked out and tore it all apart. Thankfully, all that personal mayhem happens without the aid of highly trained military-style assassins.

There is some method to my madness... 

5 Point Organizational Strategy:


1. Everything in plain sight. I don't do well with closed cabinets, drawers, closets. If I put things behind an opaque barrier I forget I own them unless it's something I use every day. Occasionally, opening a drawer or closet is like some weird version of Christmas morning. This results in my use of open shelves, clear plastic drawers, curtains that are easily tied back.

2. Everything should have a place and should be used regularly. I play a game with my son when we clean up his room. I pick up an object and say "What is this?" "Where does it go?" "Do you still play with it?". I do the same thing when I clean up my own areas. If I haven't used it, worn it or thought about it in 6 months, it goes to Goodwill, or, to someone else who will use it.

3. Abhorrence of tchotchkes. The only things I own that don't adhere to the form follows function rule if they hold some emotional or beautiful significance. 

4. No single use tools. As much as I hate Alton Brown's fat shaming, I do go in on his theories that no kitchen item should serve some single, specific purpose. The only single purpose item I have in my home is my bread machine. I make no apologies. 

5. Things with lids are stored with the lids attached. Years of baskets of lids, boxes of lids, falling lids, misplaced lids... no more. If a container has a lid, it's stored with that lid on it. If a container loses it's lid and is still useful, keep it. If a lid doesn't have a container, it's a useless bit of plastic. Toss it. This gets applied to other things with parts- my rice cooker, my stand-mixer, 

Okay, so maybe the process looks like military-style assassins came in and tore my kitchen apart, but I swear it's my own insanity that created this mess. 

The Process: 

1. Start from the top and wipe your way down. The mess above is a result of pulling all the shelving off the opposite wall from the one in the photo and wiping down the ceilings with a broom, the walls and the floor boards. Then spot mop that part of the floor, move the shelving back into place and wipe it down. Then, I figured out what I wanted to go on the shelving and put it all back in order. 

2. Take everything off every flat surface and wipe it all down. Counter tops, cabinet fronts, containers, pot holders, spoon holders, all of it. Just with a little warm water with a small amount of dish soap. 

3. Put it all back where it makes the most sense. Don't get caught in the trap of making things 'organized', make them 'functional'. For instance, I have liquid measure cups and small fingers bowls in a couple of places so if I need them while cooking I don't have to think about it, they are in all the places I will need them. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Photo Post: Walkabout Art

One of the things I love about living in Atlanta is that the weather is usually warm and there are sidewalks almost everywhere. There is also a lot of random street art to be found.

I'm sitting in my office today, watching the sleet come down, trying to stay warm in my drafty old craftsman and decided to look at some of the photos I have taken in my walkabouts around Atlanta.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New About Page

Look up... see that nifty bar up there. See where it says "About A Nerd Who Loves A Llama". That's the new About page, you should check it out!

Monday, February 10, 2014

From My Kitchen : Instant Gratification Gourmet Hot Chocolate

This recipe came out of a sudden, immediate, and undenyable desire for hot chocolate after I was warm and comfortably in my fleece pants and fuzzy socks. 

Sadly, when I opened my pantry the only raw coco I had was frighteningly out of date. I did locate a bag of jumbo semi-sweet chocolate chips. Cookies crossed my mind, but there are way more steps and dirty dishses involved in cookies. I wanted to sate the sweet tooth right then.

What resulted was a lovely cup of thick, sweet, decadant, spicy hot chocolate that is a dessert all by itself. A thickness somewhere in between pudding and a cup of the old faithful Swiss Miss.

Just the dreges left
The addition of salt, cinnamon and cayenne cuts the sweetness of the melted chocolate chips, but it would have been better with a little whipped heavy cream with a little vanilla and almost no added sugar. Next time, I'm also going to try a dark chocolate chip, like the Special Dark ones that Hersey's makes.

Tools to Use.
2 Quart Saucepan
4 Cup Measuring Cup
Your Favorite Mug

Your Shopping List

1 bag semi-sweet or dark choclate chips (keeping in mind that the darker the chip the less sweet your end product)
4 cups of whole milk. (Don't skimp on your milk fat, it's what makes it smooth and rich. Using dark chocolate almond milk would probably be tasty, if you want a non-dairy alternative)
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cayenne
1 tsp vanilla extract

  • Put the milk in the saucepan, on medium heat. 
  • Add the chocolate chips and start whisking. Don't stop. 
  • Once the chips have mostly melted, add the salt, cinnamon, cayenne and vanila. 
  • Heat the whole pan, whisking continously, until it's a little hotter than you might want to drink. 
  • Ladel into your mug and try to not making yummy noises at every sip.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In Atlanta, Racism > Gridlock

I have my own story from the total gridlock on January 29th and it has very little to do with snow and everything to do with living in a city that is determined to keep racism alive, even if it means sitting on a highway for 26 hours or sleeping in the aisles of a drugstore. 

Near the MLK Memorial, before the snow
We live downtown, but like most Atlantians we work north of the actual city. My one-way commute is 30 miles, out of the city and into one of the north suburbs. On a great morning, it takes me 40 minutes door-to-door, but I'm going against the main flow of traffic. On a bad day, in the afternoon, it has taken me 2 hours to make my way home. Did I mention that's all multiple lane highway? 

I spent my formative years in Berlin, Germany which, like many cities in Europe, is fully supported by a robust public transportation system. Travelling to places like Portland and NYC, I know the U.S. has cities where owning a car isn't the norm. Public transport shortens commutes, lowers stress levels and is better for the environment. Except if you live in Atlanta. 

My house downtown is a short walk away from a train station, but the train will only take me about half way. I make a transfer to a bus and then it's a quarter mile walk to my office. It should be a shorter, less stressful way to get from home to work. Except, I live in Atlanta. 

Using public transportation, on a good day, takes me just shy of 2 hours - the same as sitting in gridlock, except waiting on a bus or a train means waiting in the cold, or the rain or the heat. Most bus stops don't have benches or shelters. Buses don't run on time. And the fare for a system that isn't shorter or useful - $2.50 per trip. (for comparison, that's the same base amount you pay for the MTA in NYC, except that that system gets everywhere in the whole city) 

MARTA, Atlanta's underfunded public transportation, fails as a reasonable commute tool for most of Atlanta commuters. Why? Because racism and an inherent distrust of a fragmented system of city and country governments is more important to Atlanta voters than giving up hours and hours in their cars. In 2012, a 7.2 billion dollar referendum was voted down that would have started to bring rail service to areas currently not served or grossly under-served and would have made using the bus systems outside of the ITP (inside the perimeter) area reasonable. Articles reference concerns about government graft, which is warranted given Atlanta's long history of only electing officials who suck. 

This week’s weather fiasco in Atlanta, which stranded thousands of commuters on glassy-slick roads and gridlocked the entire metro region for the better part of 24 hours, was caused by a freak snowstorm, they say. And this is true, in the same way it’s true to say the Civil War started because some guys in Charleston, S.C., started lobbing cannon balls at Fort Sumter. But the real problem in Atlanta isn’t snow; the real problem is history. ( Slate, "What Does Racism Have To Do With Gridlock" )

What you know if you live in Atlanta, if you work in an office in the burbs and share water cooler gossip in a mostly white office like me - white people moved out to the suburbs in droves all through the 60's and 70's reaching a fevered pace in the 80's and they still desire 40 years later to keep their white, middle class enclaves as white and affluent as possible. Bringing MARTA to outlying areas of the metro-Atlanta area means easy access of the 'unwanted' (read: poor and minority) out to areas where they are quietly feared.

After the 26 hour gridlock brought on by a populous who freaks out at the mention of snow but doesn't support a government who would actually take preparing for it seriously, I was in a group of mostly strangers at an event in one of those far out suburbs. This is only days after many of them, including me, spent more than 6 hours, some as many as 20,  in their cars trying to get home and so it was the time to share horror stories. At the conclusion of the group share, I overhear two of the men talking about MARTA. The final comment, "I still won't vote for the rail, it will just bring our property values down." 

This kind of sentiment isn't surprising. "Bringing property values down" is a common euphemism for "MARTA means black people/brown people/poor people and *those* people bring crime because they are all criminals". There is an undercurrent of accepted racism and classism in Atlanta in a form that may be unique to Atlanta. It's the kind of racism that wrapped in the warm, slow drawl of the "Bless Your Heart" culture and hiding behind education and household income. 

Atlanta is different from other parts of Georgia, we consider ourselves metropolitan, diverse, cultured. It's really mostly the bullshit language of our privilege talking. We enclave inside the city in our mixed use communities and half million dollar McMansions. We are better educated, so we consider racism something of the past that isn't part of our self-aware intellect. We are wealthy, so we assuage our guilt by giving to the food bank, but cross quickly to walk around the growing population of homeless or impoverished. We have cars so public transportation doesn't register as a need. We don't use it now because we fear interaction with people who are visually different from us and because it's functionally useless unless you live and work near a rail line. 

As for my story, I spent 4 hours trying to get the 13 miles between my office and my partner's office. I watched the gridlock rapidly grow as the snow fell and all the offices in a city of 4 million workers closed all at once. We made the decision to leave the car in the parking deck of my partner's office and walk the half mile to the train station and hope to get a south bound train to the station near our house. 
GA400 less than an hour after the snow started.

We walked through intersections where no one had moved in so long that people had just turned off their cars. Folks standing on their door frames trying to see up ahead. I didn't have the heart to tell them that there was no end in sight. It was cold, I wasn't dress appropriately, even though I knew what the weather report had said. I've been in Atlanta almost half my life and it never would have occurred to me that it could get this bad. 

The train platform was nearly empty. Above us thousands and thousands of people sat in there precious, convenient cars with nowhere to go and no plan for what to do in a situation like this. Help wouldn't be coming for hours and hours. 15 min later, we were on a southbound train. 30 min after that we were huddled together at the Five Points station waiting on the last train to take us the 3 stops home. 45 min later we were walking up the hill on Moreland Ave towards our house, watching cars slip and slide an honk. My commute took me 6 hours and that was short compared to some. 
The best part of the whole experience was watching people at the terminals and on the train, people I would guess would otherwise sat stone faced and uninterested, interact and converse. Sharing stores of how things were where they had come from, asking about loved ones. Finding camaraderie in the knowledge that we were moving towards our homes when the rest of the city sat for hours. 

There are organizations within Atlanta who are working to provide basic transportation to Atlanta's residents. The website for Citizens for Progressive Transit isn't frequently updated, but there is a side bar on the left with some local organizations that are actively trying to make public transportation a reality in Atlanta. 
The view from my front yard just before they shut Moreland down.