Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Scenes from Living the High Life, Part Two

Thanks to a tip from Jerry the line cook, Wiley and I set off from the Avalanche Warning sign, at about 10,600 feet above sea level, directly through a beautiful montane forest rich in the heady scents of pine, juniper and flowers.

The forest opened up into meadows and semi-tundra at about 11,400 feet. That's the Continental Divide in the background, and AdventureDog in the foreground:

The further up we went (the trail was entirely uphill, not too steep but relentless), the more trees we saw like this one. Struck by lightning? Diseased? Just worn down to a nub by the elements? Who knows, but I love the eerie shape of it.

Another shot from the trail... today, when thanking Jerry for the tip, I learned that he skis down that ridge (in background) in winter. Awesome cook, sweet guy, gorgeous hair, but clearly not quite right in the head.

Here's another shot of the cirque (background) that Jerry calls his winter playground. In the foreground, you can see an old, unused aqueduct that used to bring the water from the mountains down to the plains. If you've got a good eye, you can see the aqueduct continuing along the bottom of the cirque, roughly in the middle of the photo (at that distance it looks almost like tire tracks from a car):

And finally, a close-up of some flowers beside a rushing stream. Awwwww:

Scenes From Living the High Life, Part One

My first two-day weekend (Monday and Tuesday) in a bit, and on the first day it poured rain the entire day! This in the land of "we never get rain!" Arrgh! The good news is it forced me to stay inside which led me, finally, to unpacking and organizing my kitchen. Now I just have the living room and den to unpack.

Tuesday was gorgeous, which led to this rash (ouch!) of photo-taking:

These horses hang out in the mornings in the paddock at the end of our street, where small town gives way to ranchland and the wild. The trail Wiley and I take on an almost daily basis runs right past them. On the first day, one of them was laying on its side and Wiley started barking at it. The horse rolled to its feet, towering over Sir Smalls, who wisely shut up and hasn't made a peep at them since.

These birds are all over the place here, along with both ravens and crows. After I described them to him, my brother said they were just run of the mill magpies, but I think they're quite beautiful, and much more well-mannered than the magpies of Moscow... well, everything is better-mannered outside 'scow.

This rodeo is a half-mile walk up a dirt road from my apartment... yes, you may recall, when I was living in the submarine-like studio apartment, that I lived next door to a rodeo. I did. This is a different rodeo, with, quite frankly, a better sign. I really mean to make it to one before the end of the season, but they're on Saturday nights which tend to be my busiest (and latest) at work.

I've been meaning to take a photo of this sign for a while because it cracks me up. I live in a place where official anti-avalanche dudes regularly fire Howitzers at mountains. How awesome is that? The sign also happens to mark the trailhead for a spot Jerry, my fave line cook at work, clued me into.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jolly Coppers

I'm not the only one who has interesting interactions with local law enforcement (the Sardinian trooper set to give me a ticket for doing, er, twice the speed limit but who instead gave me a smile and a wave because I attempted to speak Italian, the Tunisian cops who tried to pick me up, the Turkish cops who flanked me as "escorts" after I clocked a guy who grabbed me, my near-daily confrontations with Moscow's finest... and let's not forget the time LLQool and I were mistaken for terrorists in Scotland and detained. Actually, we were detained not once but twice on that trip. Good times.).

Dr. Virago, immersed in scholarly pursuits in Merry Olde England, land of the extra "e," just posted a particularly entertaining recap of her exploits running amok in Windsor Castle. Just reading it made me all warm and fuzzy remembering trips to one of my favorite islands. And jealous. Soooooo terribly jealous.

Uh-oh. I already have my Iceland hives (yes, I get hives on my neck when my need to travel to Iceland reaches critical mass). Now I'm probably going to get my London rash.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Panna Cotta Pandemonium

Recently I had to make a plated panna cotta dessert for a cast of thousands. Ok, not thousands, but about a hundred people.

For those of you saying "panna whatta??" don't feel bad. I didn't know what it was until I went to Cookin' School. I believe it translates from the Italian as "cooked cream," to distinguish it from "ricotta," which means "recycled cream" and Ray Liotta, which means "pretty eyes." But I don't speak Italian beyond "limoncello," so I'm not sure.

I do know panna cotta is essentially heated cream, a flavor base, usually something acidic like buttermilk and also gelatin. Yes, sorry veggie friends, as scrumptious as panna cotta is (made right, it's creamy but light and seems to float on the tongue), it does involve The Hoof. Or at least collagen sucked out of dead cows and/or pigs. I want to try to create a vegan version involving rice milk and agar agar, but keep forgetting to buy the agar.

Anyway, when I worked in Vegas, we made a lotta panna cotta for banquets. We would cook up a huge vat of it and portion it into silicon molds, cool it and freeze it. Because of the gelatin in it, you typically serve panna cotta as a stand-alone component, rather than in a glass or bowl, because it usually has enough structure (imagine a slightly firmer flan and you'll get the idea).

One trick I learned in Vegas was that, to make zillions of little panna cottas easier to transport and arrange on platters, you put a little piece of joconde* on the bottom of the frozen panna cotta while it's molded, so when you flip it out right-side up, you have a little base for it already in place.

(*"oh no, first she started with the fancy Italian words and now she's using obscure French terms! Let me ess-plain: jocone is just a classic kind of cakey thing, a very thin layer of nut-based cake often used for roulades (think of a giant version of a Swiss Roll or Yodel) or other desserts calling for, well, a very thin nut-based cakey thing.)

Because the only silicon molds I have at work are the two little financier* molds I own that I brought in, I made the panna cotta in sheet pans with the idea to flip it out of the pans and then cut it.

(* crap! More French!! Calm down. Financiers are just very traditional nut-based cakey cookie things, usually made with fruit inside.)

All was well with step one, the making and molding, such as it was, of the panna cotta, as well as step two, the freezing. The joconde started out beautifully. I was using a new brand of almond flour that I thought felt really moist as I was measuring it out, but it baked so nicely that any concerns I had disappeared. For a time.

When it came time to flip the joconde upsdide down onto parchment sprinkled with sugar (so it wouldn't stick) and peel off the paper I'd baked it on, the nightmare began. The joconde was super, super moist. Even fully baked, it was not the dry spongey cake I knew. It was a wet, soppy sponge that clung to the parchment, to my fingers, to my spatula. It was everywhere, in pieces ranging from the size of a dollar bill to a single crumblet.

Mon dieux! Merde! Zut alors!*

(* Crap!!)

I had too many other things to do and no time to remake it, so I took the panna cotta sheets out of the freezer, dropped the joconde crumbs on top of them, sprayed a piece of parchment paper heavily with cooking spray, covered the joconde mess with that and then grabbed "the Persuader"* and rolled it flat using as much pressure as I dared to without hurting the panna cotta.

(* Darth Chocolate, one of my favorite chefs at school, called the french pin The Persuader, which still amuses me to this day. And a french pin is just the kind of rolling pin that looks like a plain dowel with no curved ends or handles.)

And it worked. The joconde flattened out and took to the panna cotta. All was well. Crisis averted. Here's a shot of my panna cotta army, or at least about a third of it, as they were being taken out by the servers:

And here's a closeup of one of them... I'm particularly happy with my blueberry sauce, which I made on the fly with no recipe and a determination to use neither cornstarch nor gelatin. It was a gorgeous deep, deep purple-black color that reminded me of a shade I once dyed my hair in college... "Midnight Eggplant," as I recall.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things...

Anything with lime in it. Anything with ginger in it. Rum. Specifically Gosling's Black Seal Black Rum, which has been getting assorted pirates, rakehells and British sailors drunk for more than 200 years.

As some of you may well know, it's ginger (ginger beer), black rum and fresh lime juice that combine to make a Dark and Stormy, incidentally my favorite drink.

Tonight I made a DnS using super easy homemade ginger beer and I don't want to sound too pleased with myself or anything, but I do believe I acheived the Platonic Ideal of the cocktail.

Or at least the Piratical Ideal.

If you like ginger, you've got to try brewing your own ginger beer. Grate about 2 to 2.5 cups of fresh ginger (don't peel it!), put in a pot, add two cups sugar (I used organic 100% cane) and six cups water. Stir, bring to a boil and then keep it at a simmer for a couple hours until it's dark and syrupy. Store in fridge and strain the next day (I used a strainer and two folds of cheesecloth.) Store in fridge.

When ready to experience rum-laced beverage heaven, get a pint glass, fill with rum to taste (fellow pirates: not all the way!), add about a third of a cup of syrup and top off with club soda and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Then sit back, put up your feet and savor. While I think that next time I'm going to make the syrup with even more ginger (because I really like the bite of it), I have to say the clean, fresh taste of the ginger syrup was miles better than most commercially sold stuff, and was also less sweet.

So drink up, me hearties, yo ho!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Everyone's A Critic... Especially Me

Since I'm working on some writing projects again, my Inner Genghis-Khan-as-Editor has reared its ugly head and bad spelling and/or writing irk me even more than usual. (I'm not saying I'm perfect... I know I have errors in this blog, for example, but I don't present it as professional writing, either. And I think I do okay given its "stream-of-conscience," as I've seen it (mis)spelled, nature.)

As I was scanning the online reviews of the new X-Files movie (because yes, I Want To Believe), I found this little nugget, written, ostensibly, by a professional reviewer:

Superbly made with an edge of the seat tension that lingers, X-Files fans will be more than satisfied as the credible and incredible sit side by side in an explosive melee.

Nevermind that, as the sentence is constructed, the implication is that X-Files fans are superbly made.

Nevermind the unpleasant image of lingering edge of the seat tension (makes me think of hemorrhoids).

I just want to know... can anything "sit" in a melee, nevermind an explosive melee?!

Yeah, I'm being persnickety. If I were back in the newsroom, I'd stomp around muttering for a few minutes to get it out of my system, but as I am in my pajamas eating my fish curry (yes, I eat fish, and curry, for breakfast) and Wiley doesn't feel my pain, I needed to vent.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Great Culinary Adventures in, Uh, Weirdness

A couple months back, LLQool sent me a photo she took of a poster in a convenience store down South advertising the Budweiser Chelada... a heady mix of Bud, salt, lime and Clamato juice.

Yes, folks, you read right.

Clamato juice.

The thought of combining all that in a can and marketing it as something you'd want to drink both horrified and intrigued us. I can see a bunch of frat boys mixing it up at a kegger trying to make a signature cocktail (I mean, I know people who drink Red Bull with Jager and not only live to tell about it, but claim to enjoy it). But for one of the country's biggest brewers to market it nationally?


I saw it a couple weeks ago at the local supermarket, sold in singles. I had to try it. I opted for the Bud Light version because I didn't want to waste the calories, assuming I didn't spit it out.
"This any good?" asked the cashier, wrinkling her nose at the word Clamato splashed prominently across the can.
"I don't know, but it sounds disgusting."
She nodded, then gave me a look: "So why you buyin' it?"
Ah, my dear cashier friend, that would take too much explaining. Just put the Beermato can in my canvas Trader Joe's bag* and send me on my way.
(Aside: I picked up most of my canvas grocery bags over the years at Trader Joe's in Nevada, Illinois and New York, and was horrified to learn the nearest TJ's to here is eight hours away in Albuquerque (I know it's eight hours because I checked, thinking it might be worth a drive one weekend). I just assumed there'd be one in Denver or Boulder. In all seriousness, had I known the nearest TJ's was eight hours south and the nearest Ikea was eight hours west (near Salt Lake City) and there is no H&M for miles and miles in any direction, well, I might not have moved here. And, apparently, I am not alone in my yearning for cheap high-quality olive oil, affordable RGBH-free Gorgonzola, 100% pure Italian Blood Orange juice for a song and basement-priced pumpkin butter. Several times since moving here, as I carry my TJ bags around the store, I have been accosted by strangers who run up to me with a wild look in their eyes and ask, in the same desperate yet hopeful tone: "Is there a Trader Joe's around here?!" I say no, the bags are old and from elsewhere, and receive crestfallen silence in reply. I feel their pain.)

(Another aside: I don't drink Bud or Bud Light. Actually, I don't drink beer much at all, and when I do have something in that general category it's a Newcastle or Guinness or something else I can't see through. From my dim recollection of trying beers in college when I was attempting to be cool, all mass-produced American beers taste kinda like, well, lightly-carbonated pasta water mixed with the yellow Triaminic cough syrup.)

As you can see, the Chelada has a kind of eerie glow to it. I liked the look of it, actually, and thought it would be cool to serve at Halloween in a punch bowl with those plastic ice cubes you can get that light up inside.

(No, my glass is not dirty... I took a sip before I took the picture, so the bits on the rim are, uh, lime bits and residual Clamato. I guess.)

The taste... well... if you drained a can of tomatoes, took the liquid and lightly carbonated it, you would approximate a Chelada. No obvious beer taste (no pasta water or yellow Triaminic). Thank the gods no clamminess. Just kind of watery, slightly salty tomato-ish fizz.

Actually... I kinda liked it.

I'm not saying I'll trade in my black rum and Dark N Stormies anytime soon. Or my blood orange sage martinis. Or my Nutty Bushmen (Frangelico and Amarula... try it and thank me later). Or my Newcastles. Or my damn cheap red wine with cheetahs on the bottle.

But, well, offer me a ladleful from a glowing bowl at Halloween and yeah, I'd drink it.

Add some fresh tomatoes, garlic and onions and you've got a decent gazpacho too, I'm guessing. Freeze it into a granita and serve it with some chilled shrimp. Poach some tilapia in it and serve warm or chilled on a green salad with some good olives.
Uh-oh. I'm coming up with recipe ideas. I may... have to buy more.

Girl and Dog

I will say this: I live in a beautiful place. I've lived in some scenic places (downstate New York, Moscow, if you remove the Russians, New York City...), but this is probably the most gorgeous place I've ever lived, aside from Newfoundland (because nothing can compare with icebergs and 500-foot-tall fog banks).

I mean, this is what I see when I drive the 150 miles (round-trip) to the nearest Target:

Me: Isn't it spectacular, Wiley?

Wiley: Yeah, whatever... ooh! Is that deer poop? Yummy!

God Works In Mysterious Ways... and Meats

Jesus appears on a potato chip, his mom turns up on toast... but don't think American Christians are the only ones to witness the divine in the delicious.

No, now Muslims in Nigeria are getting in on the act. Read about it here.

I can't decide if my favorite part is that the apparent expert in divine meat products is a vet, or that local scholars allegedly see the boiled and fried meat as proof "Islam is the only true religion for mankind." One would hope the scholars will have a back-up justification for Islam's righteousness once the meat starts to rot.

Dr. Virago: given your recent ruminations on transubstantiation (yes, I'm reading the blog... I just don't feel smart enough to post a comment on it!), I ask you and your learned peeps to weigh in on this, er, meaty topic.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Transcendent Power of Metallica

Don't worry, non-metal friends, this post isn't really about Metallica, though Jaymz and the boys do play an important role in this guy's epiphany.

For those of you too scared or too lazy (hey, I understand) to click on the link without a better sell, there's a Capuchin monk in Italy (and not a young one) who, after attending a Metallica concert, embraced heavy metal and eventually formed his own band.

Yes, he is still a Capuchin monk, venturing out of his cloisters (if that's the right term... Dr. Virago, where are you when I need you?) only to, you know, warm up the crowd at the Monsters of Rock Festival.

I am not making this up.

From the clips on the BBC segment about him (link above), he sounds pretty good, and he certainly has the devil horn hand gesture down.

I just love that the Vatican is apparently letting him do this (mad props to you, Pope Benny!). I love that his music is apparently not a callow attempt to get youngsters to church more. He just seems to dig the metal.

As the guitarist for Monster Magnet once said as we stood together watching a fireworks show at a music festival, "Dude. That's awwwwwesome. Duuude!"


Monday, July 14, 2008

Must See Video

I know I said I'd be posting less, but you have got to see this. It's apparently all over the Net, but I found it through my iPal Tommy over at Macerating Shallots. Thanks, Tommy.

Here's the YouTube link, or watch it over at Tommy's site. As for me, I haven't figured out how to post direct links to YouTube videos, but it's worth the extra click or two for you to get there.

You can also see it at the guy's own website if you have Flash9 (click on Dancing 2008).

Not to be too embarassing, but the first time I saw it, I cried (in a good way). I am a sucker for that kind of music, but also seeing so many of the places I've been, from Dublin to Munich to the Ala Archa Gorge (yes! he went to Kyrgyzstan!) made me really nostalgic. The whole thing is filled with such guileless joy that it made me want to get up and dance.

Don't let me crying stop you from checking it out...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rocky Mountain Randoms - The Clafoutis Triumphant Edition

Victory, my friends. Victory at last.

We've been trying to put a rhubarb clafoutis* on the menu for a couple months now, with experiment results ranging from disastrous to frustrating.

(*Clafoutis, kluh-FOO-tee, is kind of a rustic mating of a baked custard fruit tart and a souffle. They're delicious just out of the oven, with a tender, puffy custard and tons of fruit, usually cherries, served in a ramekin or a tart shell.)

Lumpy and I must have made a dozen batches over the past several weeks, trying Chef's recipe, my recipe, baking at higher temps, baking at lower temps, with a water bath, without one, letting the batter sit, using it right away.

Every time, the batter either souffled magnificently and then collapsed like a Giuliani bid for the Oval Office or simply sank into itself and became a hard, eggy disc of disgustingness.


Damn altitude.

Finally, Witless of all people brought in a clafoutis recipe from one of her books that intrigued me immediately. There were no ground almonds as in several of the other recipes, and the proportion of flour to liquid was higher. It also called for kirschwasser, and I feel any recipe demanding the inclusion of alcohol is worth trying.

So, earlier this week, I sauteed some rhubarb, par-baked some pate sablee shells (pate sablee, or "sandy dough," is flaky but sturdy, something between a pie crust and a shell made of cookie dough... I like using it for tarts because it can take a lot of abuse and still taste elegant), whisked together the batter, at the last minute decided to add an extra egg, poured it in and held my breath...

And it worked.

Holy crap, it worked! The clafoutis didn't souffle up quite as much as at sea level, but after baking they didn't sink, either, and they had none of the nasty texture or taste of raw flour that the others had. When der ErlkonigRedux asked for the recipe, I knew I'd achieved the unachievable. Whoo hoo!

I actually took a victory lap around the kitchen, but subtly enough that I don't think anyone noticed.

Today I reheated one of them to see how the texture/taste might suffer, dusted it with confectioner's sugar and paired it with a walnut brown butter ice cream I'd made earlier in the day. Chef liked it enough that it's going on the menu next week, which both thrills me and fills me with terror... what if it was a fluke? What if the planets were in alignment just for that one batch? What if I go to bake off more next week only to have them turn into inedible hockey pucks of chewy egg matter??

St. Honore, watch over my clafoutis and keep them safe from the thin air...

In other news:

- I rode my bike to work for the second time this week yesterday. The ride to the ranch wasn't too horrible, though I still think of it as my own personal Bataan Death March, only on wheels. The ride heading home started out actually kind of positively. I made it up a big hill without having to stop and walk, and I felt pretty good about it. Then I turned onto the main highway that runs along an area of the valley called "the flats." Flat, paved highway good, right? Au contraire. I was cycling into a ridiculous headwind the entire time. I mean, crazy wind. It took me almost twice as long to bike the three miles of flats as it did to cover the three miles of hilly gravel and dirt road. Grr. I have a bruise on the bottom of one foot from slamming the pedal down so hard in an attempt to move forward against the wind.

Why do I do it? Because I hate it so much, I guess. Like Darcy says in that classic scene from the BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice": I will conquer this.

Whether it's clafoutis or finding a way to cycle without wanting to run myself over and end it all, yeah, I will conquer this.

- Some of you have expressed concern that I appear to hate living in Colorado, so I just want to clarify: there are a lot of things I really like about it here, and on the scale of places I've lived, Ski Podunk ranks higher than anywhere I've lived in New Jersey, higher than Warwick (NY), Virginia or Las Vegas. It goes without saying that it's way higher on the list than 'scow, though if I could separate Russia's rich archeological landscape from, you know, the actual Russians, it might get higher than Vegas on my list.

But I digress.

I'd say this place is tied with Madison (WI), though it falls short of Munich, Rhinebeck (NY), Milwaukee or New York City.

I am a lot happier now that I'm in a two-bedroom apartment with views of the Divide from my bedroom window, with all my stuff out of storage (and all over the new place as I've yet to organize it). It's nice getting direct sunlight and not having to listen to the boilers bump and grind all night (my studio apartment that I just vacated faced north, under a heavy overhang, and was above the boiler room so it was always dark and hot and noisy... come to think of it, it was like living in a submarine.) Wiley seems a lot happier, too, and we both enjoy finding new places to go walkies.

The hiking opportunities and the scenery here really are amazing, and I've already gone on at length about the wildlife sightings and cool geological formations.

(Best wildlife sighting so far happened while my laptop was dead... it happened on my birthday, actually, when Chef came over to me working at my station and said, in typical deadpan style, "there's a bear outside." I expected to see a tiny black speck on the other side of the meadow, like when people got all excited about a moose a couple weeks ago. Instead, I went outside and sure enough there was a black bear, an enormous black bear, loping around our driveway between the restaurant entrance and the dumpster. The maintenance guys were in pickups and golf carts trying to shoo it away. Eventually it barrelled off into the woods and sat behind a tree, scratching its ear and looking annoyed at the crowd of us standing there watching it.)

That said, the cost of living here is higher than I'd figured, especially for stuff like fresh produce. And as I've posted before, I'm whelmed by Coloradans' manners. Take my neighbors. I live in a four-plex apartment, with all guys in the other units. All four of them (two live alone, the guy above me has a roommate) watched me move in, carrying boxes for hours at a time over a week-long period (one of the supernice, superstrong maintenance guys at work moved my furniture for me, God love him... including my seven-foot-tall Ikea bookcases, which he carried single-handedly!).

Not one of my neighbors offered to help, or even said hello. One closed the door in my face as I labored with a heavy box (damn National Geographic collection!). Another actually stood hiding behind his truck (I saw his shadow behind me) trying to avoid making eye contact lest I ask for help. I mean, I wouldn't ask for help, but Jesus, is the thought of being neighborly so frickin' odious that a grown man needs to hide behind his truck??

My neighbors upstairs take the cake, though. One guy is very slick and chatty and never home. I've gathered that the lease is in his name (the landlord seems to think only one guy lives there... one guy with a Samoyed, which is what he told him). In any case, Mr. Absentia has not one Samoyed but rather two Great Pyrenese puppies around a year old. Mr. Absentia was away when I moved in, "visiting his ex-wife in Washington" according to his roommate, whom I'll call Glub because it suits him. Glub does not appear to groom, or even wash regularly, and moves at a rate that would make a snail roll its eyes. It appears to me that car salesman-y Mr. Absentia found Glub drinking in a bar or downing Chalupas at the nearby Taco Bell Express and said "hey man! let's be roomies!" and then saddled Glub with perpetual dog-sitting. (Mr. Absentia, for the record, is currently in Hawaii for two weeks, or so he told me before disappearing again.)

Glub, it would seem, not only doesn't like dogs, but doesn't know what to do with them. When I moved in, he was keeping the dogs out all day on the balcony, without shelter. Dogs being dogs, especially puppies, they pooped and peed when they felt like it. And all their poopage and peeage dripped down onto my deck, directly below. Not only did it stink to high heaven, but before I realized what was happening, some of my boxes and my bike pump got dumped on. Ugh.

Nothing was ruined, but as someone who tries to be a responsible dog owner, I got really wrapped around the axle. I went upstairs and yelled at Glub, who was apologetic but also seemed genuinely surprised that the dogs would poop and pee if left out all day.

Then Glub tried leaving the dogs in the poorly fenced yard behind our building all day. Several times I or another neighbor wound up running around trying to wrangle the dogs back after they jumped the fence or simply pushed through one of the gaping holes in it.

Again, Glub seemed shocked, shocked I tell you, that the dogs had gotten loose. Repeatedly. Several days in a row.

Glub has been keeping the dogs inside since then, but three times this week, now that Mr. Absentia is away again, when I got home and opened the hallway door, it stank so badly of poop and pee that I nearly passed out. I know it's not Wiley, so I think Glub is now letting the dogs do their business in the hall or something. Or maybe he's the one peeing and pooping. From the look of him, I wouldn't be surprised.

It's too bad, because they're nice dogs and I like them, even though their main leisure activity seems to be rolling a bowling ball around over my head and barking, for hours on end, when Glub goes wherever he goes at night for a cold one and a Chalupa.

Then there's Keith, my next-door neighbor, a portly trucker in his 50s who swaggered his way over John Wayne-style my third day here and announced "You better clean up after your dog. I've already had a few go-rounds dealing with them," waving his hand in the general direction of Glub and Mr. Absentia's unit.

I said "Yeah? Well, you haven't dealt with me yet. Hi, my name is [Pirate]. Nice to meet you, neighbor. And, by the way, what did you say your name was?"

He got all defensive and puffy in the way bullies get when someone slaps them upside the head and tells them "hey, you're kind of a jackass."

Anyway, rambling though they are, I think the above anecdotes illustrate why I'm not charmed by the locals. Some are nice - the librarian, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, was friendly and offered to help me fix my computer, and the chick who finally did fix it was also nice. But by and large, I'd say New Yorkers are a friendlier, more considerate bunch.

Yeah, that's right. Noo f'n Yawkers.

I like most of the people at work, but we don't share many interests beyond the kitchen. That's why your emails and blog comments and postcards and boxes o' booty have meant even more than usual. So thanks.

- A big plus of living here, and a big fascination for me, has been the hummingbirds. I've never lived anywhere where there were so many. I put up a hummingbird feeder on my now pee-free deck in hopes of luring them the way they're lured to the feeders all around the ranch. The first couple days, I got nothin'. Then I had one of the big red ones come and stick his beak on one of the feeding holes and dash away as if I'd put rat poison in there, leading me to run out onto my deck and shout after him "come on! It's organic simple syrup fer crissakes! That's not good enough for you?!"

For a while I had a complex that the 25% organic sugar, 75% water mix I'd made based on what I'd read was wrong, that they didn't like the taste or that it wasn't red like the commercial syrups you can buy to fill your feeder. Over the past week, however, I've been getting several repeat customers at dawn and again at twilight. They buzz past and around like tiny Apache 'copters, fighting each other for the syrup. Hey, it's organic, little birdie. Tell your friends.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

We Are Living In the End Times

This is completely off the subject of baking, pastry and even triathlons, but I had the most disturbing conversation today with Witless. We'd finished our work for the day, had set up mignardises for the night and cleaned our area, when we sat down in Chef's office (he was in a meeting).

Witless and I were mulling over ideas she has for her "dessert of the day" (every intern who does a rotation with me, lucky devils, has to present Chef and me with a plated dessert to serve as a special the last day of their time under my thumb... I mean, under my tutelage.). She actually has some good ideas and is thinking about seasonality and food cost, something none of the other interns did. She's still trying to use warm butter to make flaky pie crust, but that's another matter. I'm proud of the thought process she's got going on for her dessert.


She mentioned she was having a terrible time completing her extern manual because she's never done "freewriting."


"I learned to write using the Jane Schaffer Method."

The wha'?

"Haven't you heard of it? They're using it in schools all across the country."

Witless proceeds to enlighten me about this "method." Every paragraph has eight sentences. The first is a topic sentence. Then the next sentence provides a concrete detail. Then the next two sentences are comments, followed by another concrete detail...

She went on, in frightening detail that took me back to reading "Animal Farm," when the residents list the rules to the newcomer.

"So, what if you wanted a paragraph to be just one sentence, emphasizing a point or creating dramatic tension?" I asked.

Witless looked at me blankly. "You can't do that."

Oh. Sweet. Baby. Jesus.

She was struggling with her extern manual because no topic sentence was provided for her.

Let me explain, because she's got the same damn extern manual I had a year ago. Each week of your externship you're supposed to do a different module in your manual. The modules are numbered, titled "Food Cost Analysis," "Marketing Strategies" and so on, and at the top of each module is, dare I say, something of a topic sentence, such as "Discuss your extern site's marketing strategies, both internally and externally."

Answering these all-but-handed-to-her questions was apparently too much for the youngling.



I felt so sorry for Witless then. At some point, early in her young life, it was clear that some no doubt well-intentioned teacher had embraced the Jane Schaffer method like the Taleban embraced fundamentalism, and had beaten out of her any spark of creativity or independent thought.

I was so upset by her comments that after work I went online and did some research on this method. Thank the gods I went to school in the 20th century. Thank the gods I don't have kids. I swear I'd homeschool them. I may kidnap my friends' kids and homeschool them. Just a warning, guys.

I shudder to think about the millions of students out there learning to "write" based on a formula that demands mind-numbing conformity for conformity's sake. I weep for the millions who apparently will never know the pleasure of constructing a water-tight argument with a rhythm and pace of their own design.

I mourn those who will never dare to write a single-sentence paragraph for fear of being misconstrued.

On a related note, a couple weeks ago when Lumpy was still working for me (I haven't killed him... he's on garde manger at night now, switching spots with Witless), I told him to double a recipe. I can't remember which it was, but I know it was frightfully easy, no more than five ingredients, all of them in grams for gods' sakes. He reached immediately for my calculator.

"You don't need that. Just double it."

"Okay," he said, punching numbers into my calculator.

"Do it in your head. Just double it."

"Uh-huh," he said, still using the keypad.

I took the calculator away from him and said he wasn't allowed to use it to double a simple recipe, and as punishment he had to go do something tedious (I can't remember what... it might have been dipping petit fours in pate a glacer for a couple hours) and I would make the damn recipe. I mean, honestly.

I understand better now -- and I don't think I'm stretching too far on this -- how most of the country accepted the Bush administration's rationale for going into Iraq, why people seem content to have the media cover Paris Hilton's latest exploits and why, when I made what I thought was a brilliant reference to Djibouti while rapping for Keanu the line cook, I received a roomful of blank stares.

People, at least most of the people around me, especially the younger ones, seem to have lost or never developed the capacity to think. I'm not talking about intelligence, about people being smart or stupid, or having curiosity about the world. I'm talking about cognitive organizational and reasoning skills. You know, like "the burners shoot fire. Fire hot. I should not touch the burners." They've achieved that level, most of them, but moved no further on.

It's disheartening, to say the least.

Uh-oh, yet another single-sentence paragraph. I'd better log off now before my WiFi signal is traced and the Jane Schaffer Police come and break down my door with their jackboots and drag me off to a cell where I am forced to read US Weekly until I am capable of no thought more complex than coveting Kate Hudson's designer hobo bag.

(And by the way, the pro-Schaffer people I found online, and they are legion, seem to take the side that students are not capable of developing on their own as writers. That smacks partly of patronizing gibberish and partly of lazy-ass teachers who don't want to invest the time and effort into, er, teaching (most of Schaffer's biggest fans appear to be teachers). I'm sure it's easier to grade a paper based on whether the second sentence of every paragraph is a concrete detail, and I can understand underpaid and overworked teachers looking for an easy way out, but there has got to be another way. I think of Dr. Virago and all the effort she puts into teaching her students. I think of a handful of teachers/quasi-mentors I had at all levels who encouraged me to think outside the box and challenge myself to be a better writer. We need to encourage logic and reasoning and independent thought, now more than ever. Do they ever the Schaffer Method in New Zealand? No? Then I'm totally emigrating.)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Rocky Mountain Randoms - The "HA! Girl can cook!" Edition

So, here's a wee tidbit of updates until I get my blogging groove back, post-laptop crash:

- In an attempt to train for my next tri, I rode my bike to and from work today. It's a six-mile trip (each way, for a round-trip of 12 miles, the distance for bikes in a sprint triathlon), half on paved highway frequented by cyclists and perfectly flat (but windy). The other three miles are half paved hilly road and half hilly dirt and gravel road.

Every meter of it is hell. Even the flat bits.

I am the world's worst cyclist. As I told someone recently, the only thing thing Lance Armstrong and I have in common is surviving cancer. I'm trying, I really am, but I am slow and weaving and unsteady and miserable the entire time. I need an enthusiastic but patient cyclist to explain shifting to me, to reveal how one can stand up on the pedals without falling over, or let go of the handlebars to grab a water bottle or pick the bugs out of one's teeth, also without falling over. Sigh. I finally checked my times from the Danskin Triathlon. As expected, I was good in the swim, slow but not horrid in the run and only ten people from being dead last in the bike portion.


- On my Spectrum of Grossly Over-Generalized Opinions of People Based On Geographic Location, Coloradans rank only slightly higher than Las Vegans, mostly because the people here at least know how to drive. Coloradans generally interpret the "independent pioneer spirit" as meaning they'll do what they want, when they want. Case in point: the Denver Danskin Triathlon I did last week. Spectators were roaming around the transition area (closed, theoretically, to everyone but athletes) with dogs and strollers and not caring one jot whether they were in the way of a woman trying to rack her bike and put on her running shoes to finish her race. There were even several spectators who simply joined their wives/girlfriends/whatevers on the race course, clogging up an already narrow path. One guy biking the cycle course (clearly neither a participant nor volunteer) shot back at someone who told him to quit: "It's a public road!"

The women in the race also displayed more "mememe" attitude than other Danskins I've done. People were more surly about passing aggressively on the bike course (granted, like the run, it was a too-narrow out-and-back rather than a roomy loop, but still.). One woman wouldn't move over to the right when a faster cyclist was trying to pass. The faster biker was just shouting "on your left! ON YOUR LEFT! MOVE IT!!" until the slower (much slower) woman shouted back "I'm in this race too!"

Not at your speed, honey.

The triathlon got me thinking, in fact, about a recent book I started reading about, then stopped because I knew it would only irk me. The author cherrypicked stats and data to "prove" Republicans are nicer, more charitable and generally more decent humans than Democrats. Now, I subscribe to the position that jackasses come in all stripes and colors and political persuasions, but after the Denver tri, I'm not so sure... Colorado is, after all, the reddest state I've done a tri in by far. If anything, the people I encountered at the tri were more selfish, less considerate of others and generally crankier than in either Massachusetts or Wisconsin. Go figure.

Despite the less-than-wonderful experience at last week's tri, by the way, my enthusiasm for appearing in front of thousands in my swimsuit in exchange for free water bottles has not ebbed. I'll do one again. In fact, I am doing one again, at the start of August, back in Denver. Coloradans, it's a chance to redeem yourselves in my eyes and prevent you from sinking, as a group, to the level of Russian cops and urban Tunisian men on my Spectrum of Grossly Over-Generalized Opinions of People Based On Geographic Location.

And trust me, you really don't want to be stuck with the urban Tunisian men.

- Wiley is doing his best to adjust to our new apartment, which is in a town just south of Bullwinkle Ranch. We live in a bit of a white trash 'hood, with lots of trailers and half-assembled trucks in the yard, but it's quieter than our old place and much roomier, with plenty of walkie opportunities. But there are the dogs. Everyone here it seems has at least one dog, usually two or three or four, and, well, with the exception of a miniature Schnauzer with a Napoleon complex, Wiley, at 75 pounds, is the smallest dog in the 'hood. There are Labs and big mutts and many, many Malamute-type behemoths. Few are on leashes. Poor Plush Smalls was extremely anxious about going outside the first several days, but has slowly gotten used to three or four or six dogs running up to him all at once to sniff his butt. He's even made a few friends in the 'hood, which is heartening. But he's also developed an adorable morning ritual: every morning, he tentatively sniffs the air as I open the door and then sticks his head out cautiously. If he sees another dog, he slinks back inside. If the coast is clear, he jumps out, puffs out his chest and gives the 'hood a good, solid "WOOFWOOFWOOFWOOFWOOF!"

- We have family meal, like many kitchens, every night about an hour before service starts. One of the cooks, almost always Keanu, throws together the scraps, the random bits of things we're trying to get rid of and serves them up to the cooks and servers. Last week, I had to make a lot of pizza dough for an event. Chef told me to make a couple extra half-sheets for Keanu to use as family meal. I asked if I could make it instead, and whipped up a Central Asian style pizza.... spinach, garlic, onions and a lot of meat from the "mixed meat" container of all the ground scraps, heavily seasoned with cumin and curry and cinnamon and other secret spices, all the flavors I experienced traveling in the 'stans and to a lesser extent Turkey and the Middle East and, dare I say it, Russia.

While Keanu is an awesome cook, he never makes stuff like that; his family meals are always either Mexican or cheese pizza. The cooks kept drifting by as I worked, lured by the exotic scents. When I finally took it out of the oven, they descended on it with such fury that very few of the servers even got to try it. I saw a few of the cooks wolfing down four pieces each.

I asked Jerry, my favorite line cook, if he liked it and he was ecstatic. "Ha! Girl can cook, huh?" I said, much to his merriment. "Yeah, finally you made something worth eating!" he laughed... he, the guy who devours all my scraps and actually lingers around my station when I'm cutting brownies, knowing I'll give him the end pieces.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Long Road Out Of My Own Private Gulag

At last!! Today I was able to find someone in the Valley to recover my lost data files, after which I was able to restore my hard drive to the lean, mean, slightly unstable machine it is. I still don't have a tv, and haven't unpacked my stereo from whichever box it's in, but being back online is itself a delight.

I still have to re-load a bunch of plug-ins for this battle station to be fully operational, so you'll have to wait a couple days for a full update in the long, tedious detail you've come to expect, but in the meantime:

Here's a brief pictorial of my latest adventures, in the kitchen and beyond, accompanied by my loyal, panting yet pantless sidekick, AdventureDog:

I did dessert trios for a fancy-pantsed function a few weeks ago entirely on my own. The shot below is of the last few plates to go out. I'd already plated 60.

Here's me and Cerdic, my trusty Saxon warhorse (or, er, my bicycle) at the Danskin Triathlon in Denver at the end of June. I know my tri-suit is not the most flattering piece of clothing I own, but you know what? That thing on the green ribbon around my neck is a finisher's medal. Dat's right, homes, I finished my third triathlon, one I didn't train for aside from checking the air in Cerdic's tires that morning.

Today, on a day off (yay!) Sir Smalls and I drove to Rollins Pass, elevation 11,660 ft., where they used to drive cattle over the Rockies to their summer grazing spots, and walked a little ways on The Continental Divide Trail. Not to give too much information, but when nature called I debated whether to answer on the Atlantic or Pacific side of the watershed (the trail runs right along the Divide). This shot has a rather Sound of Music quality to it, doesn't it?

Much more soon, now that I'm back online! Whoo hoo!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Pastry Pirate Returns... sorta

Just a quick post to all who've been wondering where I am. I am in the library, using the computer like a commoner. Shudder.

I haven't been posting partly because, in the past three weeks, I moved to a new apartment closer to work, completed my third triathlon (and, even though I didn't train for it, I did spend an awful lot of time thinking "gee, I should train for that thing.") and, tragically, my laptop died. First I was getting the blue screen of death with a stop error code, but now I get the even more frightening, otherworldly white screen with gray font, prompting me for a password to my hard drive that I never had.

It's going to take some time to fix, if it ever can be revived, but thanks again for all the good wishes, e-mails, posts and ponderings "where the hell are you?" I hope to have things shipshape sooner rather than later, and to post at length about the tri, things pastry and my latest hiking adventures.

Till then, here's a line I love from an email the Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird sent, forwarding the e-newsletter from the guys who came up with Talk Like A Pirate Day:

You never really know if you can fly if you don’t throw yourself off a cliff from time to time.