Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It's getting better and better.

Over on Facebook I was having a bit of a conversation with someone (whom I shan't out) who posited the notion that I didn't care for change.

Which is true, sorta, in a complex way.

I'm not against change qua change. It's that almost all change is a running leap backwards. New Coke. Non-iron shirts. The new eBay interface. The new Google search algorithm. (I typed "terra cotta" not "Terrapin" you sniveling imbeciles...) Commercial air travel. And so on.

This is because people, in general, are not much to write home about, and when you put them in a committee format, invariably the stupidest idea carries the day. If you are, like me, saddled with an opinion on everything, well, life is pretty much a shoreless ocean of aggravation. It has been said -- correctly, might I add -- that if you are standing at the North Pole, wherever you go next will, invariably be south.

So it is with me and anything I happen to like exactly the way it is. I know it will be changed and I know I will be displeased with the change. I'm inured to it. Partly it is because I am at peace with the fact my tastes are decidedly not those of the majority (or even a significant plurality). This works out well when in the 1970s everyone is dressing like the road company from Leisure Suit Larry, but otherwise, as Number One Son says "it is a suck."

Change would be fine when I'm in charge of the changes. But until then, I gripe and moan to myself, mostly...with the odd kvetch on Facebook or here.

So, anyway, I promised a blog entry on things which are better AND, to make it extra-challenging, I decided to wall off "technology" as a category. That's a gimme (nobody will argue that the 1978 Fuzzbuster is comparable to even the lowest-ranked radar detector of 2012) and I don't do things the easy way. Here are my top 10.

1- Farmer's Markets are better. Some parts of the world didn't get them until very recently. To hear Californians tell it, they invented the notion of farmers selling their crops about 10 years ago. But down here, with an 11½ month growing season, we have had them since forever. But they're getting better by the day. The produce is more interesting, organic farming is becoming more efficient and more growers are hopping aboard.

2- Adult beverages. With some sad losses (Dortmunder Kronen, Killian's Irish Red Ale, and a few boutique wineries being among the sad exceptions.) the quality and variety of alcohol containing beverages is on the rise. Bartending and mixology (not the same thing, BTW) are seen as admirable professions. Distillers continually innovate and improve their products -- which isn't easy in a country with an irrational attitude about alcohol -- and their selections.

3- Fabrics are a LOT nicer. Manufacturing and tailoring are taking it in the shorts, though. They feel better, last longer and are more comfortable. Now, if we can just make USA workmanship cost-feasible we'd be all set. (As discussed previously, I have B² shirts that are approaching thirty years old and are indistinguishable from new.)

4- Finding cool human beings is easier than ever. In fact, it no longer sounds even mildly weird to say about a friend "Oh, we met on the Internet." The panorama of friends of your friends is now available to you constantly. And you often meet real gems.

5- Surfing is better, if you can find a spot...both in the lineup and in your schedule.

6- Stationery is better. Fountain pens are better and the handwriting experience is a grander and more momentuous occasion, now that everything is email and PDFs.

7- Fragrances are better. (Sorry if yours has been discontinued.)

8- Design is a lot better, especially at popular price points (cf. Michael Graves).

9- Coffee is a LOT better. Even so-so stuff like Starbucks is leagues better than what used to be available.

10- Animation is getting a lot better, even if traditional "drawn" animation is a bit wobbly these days.



We all carry baggage

If you want decent luggage, you will have to pay the equivalent of a kidney. If you want decent luggage and you foolishly bought one of those pathologically impractical Italian cars of which I'm always harping, you will need fitted luggage and then you might as well get a mortgage.

I always have a certain image in my mind, of a brief weekend getaway with my beloved. In this image "our" spot is The Breakers in Palm Beach. About two hours away, impossibly posh, and deluxe in all aspects. The visual is of pulling up in the impossibly impractical Italian sports car (which is why the short distance matters; a longish haul in one is a one-way ticket to osteopathy) and having the bell staff decant all of the luggage (which is why the brevity of the trip matters...that's all that will fit) and we go singsongingly to check in. Fade out.

If you know The Breakers or its ilk, you really don't visualize yourself luggaged with Harry Potter duffels or Dora the Explorer rollaboards.

So I am on a mission to find suitable luggage.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

It was Helan my face.

As the diligent among you might recall, I have been on a grooming kick of late. In specific, I've been working on my shave technique and my shave tools. The easiest item in a shaver's inventory with which to tinker is, of course, the shave cream.

Anyway, I had gotten an email from Caswell-Massey to the effect a major sale was going on their website. Being a cheapskate, I immediately clicked in that direction. My efforts were repaid with two things:

1- C-M's own Greenbriar brand shave cream which has an unobrustive fragrance (I call it "shave cream" scent) which I purchased for those times when I'll be wearing fragrance and I don't want to crowd it with a cream's lingering scent. Down to $2, seemingly on clearance.

2- Helan's Vetiver & Rum shave cream down from $13 to $5

Of the Greenbriar I will say it is a perfectly adequate cream. It lathers pretty well, gives a decent slickness to the shave and doesn't irritate. Also, it doesn't linger, being unscented.


The Helan was completely useless. The texture straight out of the tube was runnier than, say, Proraso. Regardless of the quantity used or the water:cream ratio, I found it impossible to get a decent lather going no matter what I tried. The best I could do was a sort of Pilsner-like froth that dissipated on my face almost on contact and provided none of the lubricity you want when dragging a bit of surgical steel across your face. By none, I mean exactly that...none. I nicked myself like a bastid.

The smell was/is quite pleasant, though. This is why I have resisted the impulse to let my kids use it as bubble bath.

Verdict: The Greenbriar is a good deal on sale (keep an eye out for their sandalwood, a fave scent of mine) but the Helan rates a big fat "avoid."


Thursday, July 05, 2012

4th of July grillingness

But only because Cate asked me nicely on Twitter (THIS IS A POST IN PROGRESS. More to come...).

This is the star of the show. Most butcher shops don't cut their beef in the "Continental" fashion, so you have to buy a few subprimals (Bonus: they are REALLY cheap) and break them down your own bad self. The French call this, I believe, "paleron" and it comes from the chuck, in Spanish it's called the "baby churrasco." If you want to have fun but a chuck roast, seam it out and there, like a coealacanth swimming off Madagascar, you'll find this hiding in plain sight. Juicy, beefy, tender and deeply flavo(u)rful.

Beyond the particular recipes, I have a system for grilling. First you salt (or brine, in the case of pork/poultry) the items in question. Let them rest, say, 30 minutes until a "sheen" of juices begins to show on the surface and then I hit them with a given spice rub. Here's today's:

(This is all by volume, use teaspoons, cups, whatever.)

3 parts granulated garlic (make sure you use the granulated and not the powdered stuff; the coarser the granule, the better),
1 part EACH black pepper and red pepper flakes (I tend to like a bit of heat, so I used flakes instead of a seeded dry chile...I might experiment with a varietal such as cascabel)
2 parts each coriander seed, dill seed, yellow -- I s'pose you could try brown, or a mix -- mustard seed.

Put all in a spice mill and zap 3-4 pulses...you want a pretty good crack, but not a homogeneous powder. Think ¾ powder, ¼ cracked pieces...in my opinion you get better adhesion that way.

Hit the beef with the rub, wrap tight in cling wrap and let it rest as long as you patience will allow. Overnight is best, but even 2-3 hours will rock your world. (Make sure the last 90 minutes of this rest are at room temperature.

Before you grill, give the beef a light coating of oil (if you're realllllly hardcore, you'll use 50-50 oil and fresh tallow) to get the best possible sear and crust.

Now, traditionally, the churrasco variants come to the table with a trio of condiments. Depending on the nation in which you are offered this beefy deliciosity, the three condiments will likely vary. So, I am offering you one from each country. Chimichurri from Argentina, spicy pickled onion relish from Nicaragua and straight-up American steak sauce.

1½ c combined flat leaf parsley and cilantro (coriander) leaves. I like a LOT of cilantro, so I usually omit the parsley entirely; you do whatever)
5 medium garlic cloves, mashed
¼ t  fresh ground black or white pepper
¼ c sherry, red or white wine vinegar
½ c extra virgin olive oil
water (to thin out the sauce to a drizzle-able consistency)
salt (to taste)
Put all the "dry" ingredients in a blender, turn it on and slowly add the vinegar and then VERY slowly add the oil. Add water in tiny amounts if the mixture is pasty. Season with salt to taste. If you intend to store this, adding a crushed Vit. C tablet will keep it bright, bright green for a long while.

Spicy Pickled Onion Relish
Quarter one large or two medium onions (sweet onions are ideal, and red onions will give a sensational colo(u)r, but will be much sharper in taste) and place in the jar of your blender (a food processor will also work). Add red pepper flakes to taste (this meant to be VERY spicy, so be mindful of that...I add TWO tablespoons) and enough plain white vinegar to come up halfway up the onions. Blitz until you have a barely chunky, runny relish-y mixture. Stash in the fridge until ready for service. The longer, the better.

American-ish Steak Sauce:
You will need to let the bourbon and spices infuse overnight. Again, I pulsed the spices in the coffee grinder spice mill a few times. You could, I guess, use a mortar and pestle.
½ c. CHEAP bourbon (use rum, vodka, etc.)
2 t crushed whole allspice
2 t crushed cinnamon stick
8 crushed whole cloves
½ c sherry vinegar
½ c soy sauce (doesn't have to be especially artisanal, just free of artificial ingredients)
1-2 tsp hot pepper sauce (I like classic Tabasco)
4-6 mashed garlic cloves
4 medium tomatoes, cored and cut up (if you have a food mill, this is ideal for these)
¼ c sugar (I prefer dark brown or "muscovado")
6 T sherry vinegar (yes, again)
½ c tamarind pulp, make sure it's lump-free and seedless. I suggest the Goya frozen stuff.

Put bourbon, allspice, cinnamon sticks and cloves in a measuring cup. cover loosely and leave at room temperature overnight (+/- 8 hours). Strain and set aside. Take ½ c. vinegar, soy sauce, hot pepper sauce, and garlic in a bowl. Process the tomatoes through a food mill (or a sieve or even a grater) to eliminate skins and seeds. Your goal is 1 cup of tomato pulp; set aside. Heat sugar and remaining vinegar over medium heat, until sugar dissolves and darkens to a caramel color, +/- 6-7 minutes. Add tomato and drop heat to medium-low and until the mixture is thick, +/- 4-5 minutes. If you want, remove the garlic from the soy sauce mixture, then add soy sauce (et al.) to the simmering pan, and bring to a boil. Add tamarind and bourbonized stuff, and simmer until slightly less thick than you like (+/- 10 minutes) because sauces like this will thicken up a good bit after cooling. Bottle this and stash in your refrigerator for up to two months, if it lasts that long.

But I digress.

One thing I'm doing these days, grillingwise is the "reverse sear." This means you cook the beef low-and-slow to your desired doneness, and then you let it rest and THEN you sear off the outside to get that crazy crust. Why? Because there are enzymes which tenderize beef at work here, and they do that voodoo only in the +/-100F to +/-110F zone, so you want your beef to spend as much time at this range as possible. Thus the low and slow. As a bonus, if you do this over real charcoal, you pick up the right levels of smoky taste. And here is one such beast, grilled -- perfectly, to medium rare, TYVM -- and carved. Kindly note the glorious medium-rareness extends throughout the whole cross-section, with none of that overdone, grey layer underneath the crust.

...for purely photographic reasons, I sauced my beef with the Argentine-style, cilantro-heavy, chimichurri steak sauce.