Sunday, November 29, 2015

But before we get to Speakeasy Month

Today's entry will be a brief recap of Thanksgiving 2015. It's very important to stress the process of getting Thanksgiving 2015 up-and-running started sometime around February 2015.

If you are lucky, you will have a stationer nearby which carries Crane & Co. or similar. If you are diligent you will be popping by on a semi-regular basis, and if you are assiduous, you will head directly for the clearance bin to the exclusion of all other temptations.

For it is there, the clearance section, on some fine day/evening in February when you will find Thanksgiving stationery, forlorn and forgotten-ish, at +/-90% off. You should pounce. (You can then fret about the font -- as would the lovely and gracious Hannah B. -- for a few frantic hours.)
The same applies -- should you not have such accouterments at your disposal -- to tablecloths, napkins and serve/flatware (disposable is fine, provided they are attractive enough). (For these, I scour Williams-Sonoma, both my nearby stores and online, as they sometimes have different pricing and selection.)

February is the time to get this at ridiculous prices. If the inventory on clearance is large enough, and the prices low enough, you have my blessing and my example to grab every single last one of them. You may be unable to score such a bargain for Thanksgiving 20XX and then where will you be?

Weeping bitterly, as Scripture saith, leading a life of regret and remorse.

Anyway.

From such a happy February day, until November, you may rest easy; do try to put all of these where you won't forget.

Then, when Halloween is gone, you can start rehearsing. I normally make one of the components for a given dinner or lunch, and put my family through the test panel process for this year's variation on turkey (get a small breast, not a whole critter) or stuffing or mashed potato, etc. This will allow you to hone in on what you want to slap on your menu cards which you bought back in Feb. for 74¢ for a box of 12, instead of $16.99.

It's an inexpensive thought, but it lets people know, at an instinctive level, that you are going to give them a real treat and that you as host(ess) really care about them while they are under your roof (or airspace).

There are a couple of things to note from my previous Thanksgiving thoughts of 2006(!)...and they mostly center on the turkey.

This year, one of the turkeys proved to be the single best turkeys I have ever cooked. In fact, it's one of the best things I have ever cooked. So here is that, the abbreviated version:
  • Brine the turkey 24h. (If you have a frozen turkey, brining and thawing simultaneously is a GREAT way to do two things -- quickly! -- at once.) My brine is 1½ gal. water, 1 gal. ice (8 lb.), 2 c. kosher salt, 1 cup sugar)
  • Remove from brine and air dry in the fridge another 24h.
  • Mix some of the herb rub (Incidentally, for oven roast turkey the seasoning rub is 50% kosher salt, 50% dried herb mix [3 parts sage, 2 parts thyme, 1 part marjoram] with a teeny bit of baking soda added in to the skin side to help with browning and crisping of same.) with about 3T of softened butter.
  • Apply this between the skin and meat.
  • Season generously with the rub, inside the cavity and outside.
  • Sprinkle ¼t baking soda over the skin.
  • Place in the oven at 425°F (220°C-ish?) for the first 30 min, then drop the heat to 250°F (120°C?) and continue to roast until the white meat registers 160°F (70°C?) and allow to rest until the internal temperature drops to 130°F (55°C or so).
Hope that helps.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Speakeasy Month, 2015

The lovely and gracious Hanna B, clearly being one of those people whose nature it is to influence others to do as they ought, sweet-talked me into writing a couple of things which -- shock! horror! -- exceeded 140 characters. This reminded me that I have this blog, and that its flowers need watering and its floors polishing.

So, welcome back.

Having spent all of that Thanksgiving Eve (Thanksgive'en?) and most of Thanksgiving Day cooking, and then having spent all of Black Friday in a restorative stupor I remembered that Speakeasy Month is nearly upon us.

The Ghosts of Speakeasy Months Past have covered, the Martini and the Manhattan (and the relevant componentry) and for 2015, we will be going straight to the Sidecar.

So hang out and wait for that.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cheap excellentness, part 39283

One thing I am notoriously a fan of, is a bargain. I'd rather have the 2nd best if it offered 95% of the quality of the very best for 5% of the price. I like things that punch WAY above their weight.

So -- and I'll be brief here -- I have two suggestions in the liquor cabinet department.

First, rumwise. One of the very trendiest things are the various types of rhum agricole from Martinique or Guadaloupe. These are French territory and get the coveted AOC designation. These rums run to, um, a funk. They are distilled from fresh cane juice and, therefore, are grassy, earthy and sometimes oppressively so. But! A FORMER French territory also produces such rums (but can't legally use the rhum agricole descriptor) and I speak of Haiti.

The blanc is an in-all-but-designation rhum agricole. It has that earthy/grassy/funky thing going on but not in an off-putting way as some of its separated Gallic brethren. Oh, and if you're unfortunate enough to have to pay full-on MSRP you're looking at ma-a-a-a-aybe $17. There is no better choice for a 'Ti Punch, period.

The other choice (borne of a Twitter exchange with the estimable Doug) is my go to bourbon when I have to get bourbonic with the masses. Say, if you're having a Derby party for 8392 of your beloved's closest friends and their enormous hats.

This steal, pals, is Old Forester.

Not any fancy-pants super-duper single-shotglass version. Plain old, Old F. It goes for +/-$30...for a handle*. If you need to crank out a ton of bourbon based drinks for people with decent (but not exasperating) tastebuds, who will appreciate the good stuff but not necessarily the rarefied stuff...this is your choice.

-J.

*1.75L to you civilians.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The non-BBC Proms

Non-collegiate Numbah One Son news:

We are in that phase of his last year at school where all the...stuff...related to the activities of the "Graduating Students" is going on. Banquets, presentations, etc., etc.

With each, there is usually a letter sent home. This letter explains the details of that specific event. Attire, dates for sending in deposits (if any), contact persons and, where applicable, the rules and regulations governing the event.

One such event is his Sr. Prom, and the letter arrived a few days ago. Given the nature of the event, the letter was (not unexpectedly) somewhat longer than usual, owing to the rules-and-regulations portion which was of an ample and generous size.
In the process of getting all of the details of this event squared away, I sat down with Joey to make sure that all deadlines were met, that he was not out of compliance with any unforeseen rule. That sort of thing.

It was then I ran into what our boy described as "the Falcon rule."

One of the things I have always noted is that EVERY rule that at first blush makes no sense is there because someone with an exceptional mind took advantage of the maxim: "Nulla pœna sine lege." (Literally, "No penalty without a law (against it)." but more succinctly "It didn't say you couldn't.")

For example, when I was at school, in my second year, the student handbook stated that one had to wear "lace-up leather shoes" and then listed all of the UNacceptable forms of footwear: sneakers, deck shoes, etc. But then, in my THIRD year, that Forbidden Footwear list was amended to include -- and I am SO not kidding -- "bowling shoes."

Why?

Because some free-spirited bright lad had decided to wear such shoes the previous year and, when hauled before the Authorities to be arraigned on charges of Forbidden Footwearness, took the stand on his own behalf and noted that, wholly independent of the spirit of the law (a subjective thing, he surely argued), in the LETTER of the law, there was no expressly worded injunction against wearing bowling shoes and, as the Jesuits were fond of saying "That which is not expressly prohibited, is implicitly allowed."

Thus was born the Bowling Shoe Rule, which has been enshrined in the school's Student Handbook, even to the present day.

Anyway.

It turns out that last year, a certain young Mr. Falcon (then a teammate of our lad) saw fit to take for the evening, as his date to the Prom, a young lady some six (!) years his senior*. While her (and their) conduct before, during and after the event was entirely acceptable -- unimpeachable, even -- and her background was also unblemished -- save for her being in her first year of some master's program -- the matter drew the sharp and frank disapproval of several of the mothers chaperoning the event.

(Historians have not recorded what, if anything, chaperoning fathers, if any, may had had to say. Possibly an instance of suppression of dissent, although that would be mere conjecture.)

The objectors made their grievances with the obvious gap in regulatory coverage known to the Authorities and having prevailed upon them, we have now, enshrined in the letter to the parents of graduating students, The Falcon Rule.

Not that we were in the remotest danger of landing afoul** of it.

* That she was considered to be, and I quote verbatim, "rocket hot" is not, I explained to him whom I had offsprung, a relevant consideration for the Authorities in the formulation of policy and, possibly, may have added momentum for the decision.

** If a certain young man doesn't, er, "show some initiative, and SOON" we won't have to worry about landing afoul of even the most minuscule of rules.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Speaking of "deli"...

Today's lesson is "Kosher Dill Pickles" which is the only pickle worth ingesting.
Start with a clean and sterilized, large (24oz) Mason jar.
12oz, by weight, of pickling or "Kirby" cucumbers.
Slice them on a mandolin. Even a cheap one will work.
I wanted this batch as thin as possible. You do whatever. (You can also slice into "planks" or cut into "spears" etc.)
Clear your prep surface regularly by shoving the slices into the jar as you go.
You'll need garlic. 4 cloves if you're Iberic, 3 if you're Italian. 2 if you're a normal person.
Slice the garlic as thinly as you can without getting fanatical about it.
Add 2 t dried dill. (Make sure it's a fresh jar.)
1 T Kosher salt. (Do NOT USE REGULAR TABLE SALT. Don't be a cheapskate, Kosher salt is, like, only a buck for a silo.)
You'll need plain white vinegar. (If you can find the kind with "cultures" so much the better.)
¾ cup.
...and pour into the jar.
Top off with filtered, room-temperature water.
Shake furiously. Teenage boys you have offsprung may be conscripted for this purpose.
Put it in the corner, unlike Baby. 1-2 days to be "ready" about 3-4 to be ideal. (At which point I put them in the fridge.)
Note the color change. Pretty much ready, will improve with another couple of days, then on to the fridge. (If yours were sliced thicker, it may take an extra day across the board.)

-J.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deli salmon, for Hannah

The lovely and gracious Hannah asked for this and so here 'tis.
Find a suitable salmon fillet.
You will need 4 parts coarse salt (about 2/3 of the weight of your salmon fillet), 2 parts sugar (about 1/3 of the weight of your salmon fillet; I prefer dark brown sugar, but all I have was light brown "raw" sugar) and 1 part fresh dill, chopped. (Smoked salt will help add a bit of that smoked salmon "touch" should you want.)
Mix all your dry ingredients, and add a shot of liquor. I didn't want to open a bottle just for this, so I finished the bottle of a lovely smoky Scotch. You do -- you guessed it -- whatever.
You want something the texture of slightly damp sand. Add half of it to your plastic container.
Plop your salmon on top.
Pile on the rest of the cure mix.
Weigh it down with something heavy (the idea is to squish out excess water). The WAY-heavier-than-it-looks hideous platter your mother-in-law gave you three Christmases ago suggests itself. Then put to cure in your refrigerator.
Wait 24-48 hours. (36 is the sweet spot, IMO.) A shorter cure will yield a more supple result, a longer one a firmer one. Give the salmon a quick rinse and pat down with paper towels to dry.
Slice as thinly as your patience will allow.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

University admissions stuff that you may want to know.

...and they don't tell you because they don't (often) KNOW to tell you.

Anyway, this is stuff I've learned at the last minute, and I hope this helps someone. May it be imputed unto us as a righteousness.

(Non-USA readers: Welcome back and just sit back with a soothing beverage, marveling at this byzantine process. Oh, and ovah heah, we often use "university" and "college" and "school" interchangeably.)

This is primarily deals with getting those whom you've offsprung into very competitive universities. Relatively few schools fall into this category, so don't sweat it in EVERY case.

Anyway.

Start by selecting all the conceivable, possible places your kid would like to attend. Whittle that down by scratching out the ones you dislike. Then divide the list into "Dream," "Likely," and "Safety" schools. At NOS' school, they have a computer "scattergraph" that shows you at a glance the likelihood of your child being admitted to this or that university based on grades and standardized tests. These are the things we'll look at right off the top.

First, grades.

If you're lucky/smart you're reading this when your kid still has 3 or so years to start thinking of this.

Good.

I cannot overemphasize how much easier everything gets with a good grade point average. If you have to go all "Simon Legree's tiger mother" do it. Do whatever you have to, short of a felony, to get your kid to study and do well.

I've discovered, in the case of boys, that video games are the Anti-Christ, the sworn blood enemy of optimal academic performance. A little video game activity AFTER schoolwork and on weekends is fine, but if your son has a 75" HD TV with PS4, XBOX and Wii and surround sound, you have a very uphill fight. (NOS has none of these, Deo gratias.)

You'll have to check to see what assignments and tests are coming up, and make sure they are completed. In NOS' case, the magic bullet was making sure he studied for tests "the day before the day before." This puts the subject matter into long term, rather than short term, memory. This is key, because your average teenage boy has the short term memory of a goldfish entering rehab.

Second, the SAT. Don't waste your time on prep courses. The SAT is, at its core, an IQ test and its answers have a "pattern." The easier it is for your kid to "spot the pattern" the more accurate his (or her, I don't discriminate) guesses are, and the higher the score. My suggestion? Find a whole mess of Official SAT Practice Tests. Have your kid take the first one WITHOUT TIMING and OPEN BOOK. You want him to see where he "guesses/answers wrong" and what the testmakers thinking is IN REAL TIME.

I cannot stress this enough.

Once your kid sees how a given test is "wired" when he comes to a question he can't answer correctly in a few seconds, he will know HOW to eliminate the other answers. I guesstimate this is worth +/-250 points.

Oh, and many top-tier schools will also ask your kid to take "SAT subject tests." I very strongly suggest your child takes a given subject test the summer immediately following having completed that course in high school. If your daughter took biology in 10th grade, that's the time to take the corresponding test. Why? Because the material is fresh in her mind and if she takes it mid-12th grade, she'll have to study a LOT for that test and her odds of doing well are nowhere near as good.

Next we come to the dreaded essay. If your child is applying to a top-tier institution, this could be worth as much as the SAT and/or grades. One Very Big Deal University admissions person told me that 95% of applicants "flat-out cannot write, of the remaining 5%, 3% can write, but just in a 'grammatically correct way' and only 2% can write both correctly and well. That 2% gets admitted pretty much regardless of grades or SAT scores."

Some douchebag unscrupulous parents will write their kid's essay for him, or worse, hire a ghostwriter. Don't. The people at the admissions office who read essays -- and most of them do nothing but read essays -- are keen spotters of the "voice" of a 12th grader...or "mutton writing as lamb" as it were. My suggestion? Have your kid write the essay WELL ahead of its due date. A week later, have him rewrite it and then you edit it. Make suggestions, check for solecisms, etc. Don't CHANGE anything, but, rather, send it back with your notes and markups. Let him change it. Repeat 2-3 or times.

The essay (and this is why the few kids who can nail it get in no matter what) has certain things it must accomplish:

1- It must address the question. ("What do you consider the most important quality in a 21st Century global citizen?" or whatever.)
2- It must be grammatically correct. (Skip the artistic license for now.)
3- It must be a very engaging read. If the reader forgets he's reading "an application essay" that's a win.
4- It must, very subliminally, underscore all of the points which the admissions office considers favorable. (More on this anon.)
5- OPTIONAL - If you wish to lay claim to one of the various demographic groups that are treated with a measure of advantage, look for an essay question (usually they have three) that has wording such as "your culture" or "heritage" or similar. The essay should subliminally touch upon one's favorable demography without beating people over the head with it. Similarly, if seriously difficulties have beset your family that can be plausibly assumed to have affected your child and his/her performance it should also be brought up subtly at this point.

After this, look over the application materials. If a given university is "on the Common app" AND they waive the application fee, apply to it...what the Hell. But be warned, about half of the top-tier schools are NOT on the Common app for a number of reasons of varying levels of reasonableness and validity. It is what it is.

When you are poring over these materials, especially from the top-tier universities, be on the lookout for the term "holistic admissions." This means "we'll let your kid in based on whether we like him/her and not on any objective criteria." Which is a positive if your child is in a desirable demographic category, not so much if not.

This is where we hit some serious turbulence. I am not here to argue in favor or against these factors in the admissions process...just to tell you what they are, how they may affect you and how you can navigate them to your child's benefit. So don't get your ideological undies in a twist.

In schools that specifically tout their "holistic admissions" sex and ethnicity matter a great deal. They will emphatically deny it, but -- and I can't tell you how I know this to be 100% true, you'll just have to trust me -- that is the case.

Female applicants in the "STEM" areas have a colossal advantage, for instance.

Most Hispanics* have an advantage over their Anglo counterparts, African-Americans have an advantage over most** Asian-Americans. It is what it is.***

In these cases, what "holistic admissions" means to applicants is (and this is a direct quote from an Ivy-league admissions type) "We want to let you in, please give us an excuse."

This doesn't mean that if your child is a WASP from a nice suburban school he has no chance; not at all. But he or she should "compensate" with the other things mentioned herein.

Another crucial factor is "interest quotient" which is not merely "how badly does this applicant want to attend this august institution?" but "How is this applicant's seriousness of interest evidenced?"

Your child should start communicating with the admissions office and any persons affiliated therewith. Some have "student ambassadors" who sit in the admissions meetings and offer whatever insight into a given applicant and, although they have no vote, their input is taken very seriously and can often sway the decision. Your child should be in email conversations with these folks, asking about student activities, internship and practical-experience opportunities, asking questions about campus life, etc., etc.

A campus visit, if at all possible, should be scheduled and followed up with email conversations.

This will be helpful also should the university in question require an interview. (The further up the top-tier you go, the likelier this will be.) In the matter of the interview, you should conduct a few mock-interview rounds with your little darling. No so much that the responses sound "canned" and rehearsed, but so that the answers are fluid and devoid of the "uh...um" and "you know" and "like." The metric for success is that the closer this comes to a conversation the better, and the more it becomes an interrogation with monosyllabic answers, the worse.

Like in the essay, this conversation should touch upon "the good stuff" as noted above and as will follow.

The last thing to shore up are the extracurriculars. Ideally (and in the case of top-tier schools, it's practically an unwritten "must") your child will have:

1- An athletic activity (croquet, baseball, whatever)
2- A community service.
3- A leadership component (this, incidentally, is NOT the same as joining the Leadership Club)
4- A personal interest (the Kite club, the Astronomy club)

Regarding items 1, 2, and 4, the more years doing this your child has, the better...especially as it shows commitment. This is key.

There can be some overlap, of course (being elected president of the croquet club, for example) and where there is no ideal activity for your kid, have him/her start one, showing both the interest and the leadership.

Lastly, if you at all have ANY "ins" at a given university, it's okay to deploy these, but NOT HEAVYHANDEDLY.

Hope this helps someone!

-J.

* Cubans are, for the purposes of university admissions, the "wrong" kind of Hispanic. In those applications listing these as multiple choice and given that 90% of Cubans have family in Spain or Latin America, I suggest ticking the box that says "Hispanic/Latino Other."
** Filipinos, for the purposes of university admissions, are the "right" kind of Asian
*** Because some surnames are not obviously of a given ethnicity or someone may have one Anglo and one "ethnic" parent, it will be an OPTIONAL question on the application to state one's "ethnic self-identification."