Feb 28, 2009

friday night taco (beta)

pancake sunday has a new friend. last night: a stack of freshly-warmed corn tortillas with spanish rice, black beans, shredded braised chicken, cilantro, chopped tomatoes and onions, lime, and shredded cabbage, and an enormous tray of enchiladas. and 24 coronas. the nap afterward was epic.

Feb 25, 2009

ideas in food

why do so few good cooks or chefs also write well? ideas in food embodies the philosophy of grounded, inductive, cyclic experimentation (much like robert irwin did), has really interesting ideas in food (and, of course, some quite beautiful photographs of those ideas realized), but the prose is turgid and pretentious to the point of unreadability.

elizabeth david, patience gray, and claudia roden (this fine new yorker article about her by jane kramer is well worth reading) all show that it can be done, and with grace besides. in case anyone thinks i only reference dead people, so does david patterson in this article for the nyt about the curious normalcy of san francisco food; particularly apropos since dinner club is planning an 7x7 blowout when i get there in march. (the anticipation is overwhelming.)

Feb 24, 2009

cause and effect

not so long ago, researchers (many of whom in the pay of the tobacco companies) still found it possible to claim that smoking and lung cancer weren't necessarily causally connected. in 1959, cornfield, haenszel, hammond, lilienfeld, shimkin, and wynder wrote a comprehensive, scrupulously researched paper revealing the shaky methodological ground on which these dissenting studies were built, and it is a spectacularly clear, well-written paper. for most of it, they restrain themselves from outright criticism even when richly deserved but, towards the end, clearly the temptation become irresistible:

A universe in which cause and effect always have a one-to-one correspondence with each other would be easier to understand, but it obviously is not the kind we inhabit.
a comparison to the people who insist that climate change is bogus would not here, i think, be invidious.

Feb 23, 2009

flavour update

yesterday, i went to toscanini's to meet ben and tory. the board was covered in bizarre and marvellous flavours including sherry (manzanilla), sage, and sour cream. the sage was great--distinct, unmistakable, not overpowerful. it was fresh, probably lemon sage, without the slight dustiness that other sages sometimes have.

Feb 22, 2009

soup of the motherland

not really, but close enough. i did the biweekly grocery run to harvest and whole foods (today in a cold but not unpleasant rain) and bought some pork soup bones and raw shrimp, both deeply discounted. i had a large pile of shells after shelling and veining the shrimp, so i browned them in some oil with ginger and the scraps of pork from the bones until there was a haze of crustacean-scented smoke throughout the house, then added water to cover and simmered them for an hour. this made some really magnificent shrimp and pork stock that will lie in the freezer awaiting the rainy days that we're expecting next week.

there was a bunch of broccoli rabe in the fridge, the heart of a napa cabbage, and some mushrooms. rearranging the freezer, i also found four pieces of flash-frozen haddock and two tubs of broth from the giant fish head i got from new deal some weeks ago. i took one of the tubs of broth and added a cup of the shrimp and pork stock, then braised the cabbage for 10 minutes. after that, the mushrooms and rabe went in then, a minute later, the thinly-sliced fish and shrimp went in for a few seconds before everything got poured into a large bowl over a mound of chopped garlic, ginger, cilantro, and shaved red onion. you just cannot beat this stuff.

Feb 21, 2009


our internet service has been cutting in and out for days, but today is blue-skied and bright so everything is alright: the windows in the dining room are east-facing, and working here between 11am and 2pm is a sun-drenched experience.

of late, i've been cooking with beans a lot, in no small part due to my subscription to rancho gordo's RSS feed. last week, a remarkably happy combination of red kidney beans cooked separately and then combined with cauliflower and carrots dry-braised with large quantities of ginger, cumin, turmeric, cayenne, garlic, and cilantro. there was also finely-shredded kale scorched in a very hot pan with crisp-fried pieces of the ham from tw and diana. this morning, when i got up, i took out the last chunks of frozen pork belly from the ham and browned them very slowly, then poured on some hot water to make a barnyard-y ham stock. when i poured that into a glass to cool, the layer of fat that appeared on top was more than 2 inches thick. after toasting some brown mustard seeds in oil, i added half a red onion and 2 cloves of chopped garlic, then a cup of navy beans that had been soaking since last night with water and stock to cover and--an hour later--a mass of chopped napa cabbage. it's been a while since i've had a better soup.

having cooked with 7 different kinds of beans in the last month, i've become more aware of the differences in texture and flavour between the different varieties. i'm particularly partial to the anasazi beans, which have a creamy consistency and a mild but savoury flavour. but, frankly, every bean i've tried has been unfailingly good. they require no salt in cooking--garlic, onions, a bay leaf, cumin, cayenne, water, and beans inevitably produce deeply-satisfying, resonant flavour (when i add stock, it gets better but not so much so that i'll go out of my way to make stock for beans). i figure the cost of each of the meals above at about $0.70 per serving. this makes me wonder why some people won't even consider a meal satisfying unless it contains a sizeable proportion of meat, regardless of what that meat actually tastes like or how it's been cooked. (it doesn't even taste very good unless it is quality meat prepared appropriately--which is not to say that it has to be a premium cut; high quality pieces of neglected cuts are inexpensive. it's probably strong cultural conditioning: explicable but incomprehensible.

Feb 18, 2009

the old days

In the old days it stayed light until midnight
and rain and snow came up from the ground
rather than down from the sky. Women were easy.
Every time you’d see one, two more would appear,
walking toward you backwards as their clothes dropped.
Money didn’t grow in the leaves of trees but around
the trunks in calf’s leather money belts
though you could only take twenty bucks a day.
Certain men flew as well as crows while others ran
up trees like chipmunks. Seven Nebraska women
were clocked swimming upstream in the Missouri
faster than the local spotted dolphins. Basenjis
could talk Spanish but all of them chose not to.
A few political leaders were executed for betraying
the public trust and poets were rationed a gallon
of Burgundy a day. People only died on one day
a year and lovely choruses funneled out
of hospital chimneys where every room had a field
stone fireplace. Some fishermen learned to walk
on water and as a boy I trotted down rivers,
my flyrod at the ready. Women who wanted love
needed only to wear pig’s ear slippers or garlic
earrings. All dogs and people in free concourse
became medium sized and brown, and on Christmas
everyone won the hundred dollar lottery. God and Jesus
didn’t need to come down to earth because they were
already here riding wild horses every night
and children were allowed to stay up late to hear
them galloping by. The best restaurants were churches
with Episcopalians serving Provencal, the Methodists Tuscan,
and so on. In those days the country was an extra
two thousand miles wider, and an additional thousand
miles deep. There were many undiscovered valleys
to walk in where Indian tribes lived undisturbed
though some tribes chose to found new nations
in the heretofore unknown areas between the black
boundary cracks between states. I was married
to a Pawnee girl in a ceremony behind the usual waterfall.
Courts were manned by sleeping bears and birds sang
lucid tales of ancient bird ancestors who now fly
in other worlds. Certain rivers ran too fast
to be usable but were allowed to do so when they consented
not to flood at the Des Moines Conference.
Airliners were similar to airborne ships with multiple
fluttering wings that played a kind of chamber music
in the sky. Pistol barrels grew delphiniums
and everyone was able to select seven days a year
that they were free to repeat but this wasn’t a popular program.
In those days the void whirled
with flowers and unknown wild animals attended
country funerals. All the rooftops in cities were flower
and vegetable gardens. The Hudson River was drinkable
and a humpback whale was seen near the 42nd Street
pier, its head full of the blue blood of the sea,
its voice lifting the steps of people
in their traditional anti-march, their harmless disarray.
I could go on but won’t. All my evidence
was lost in a fire but not before it was chewed
on by all the dogs that inhabit memory.
One by one they bark at the sun, moon and stars
trying to draw them closer again.
jim harrison

Feb 17, 2009

jim harrison

i can't stand his screenplays or the long books (i think these are just a matter of time), but his autobiography and short essays on food are more than satisfying--the best parts of these are the throwaway lines that i hope he spends hours refining. (it would be tremendously unfair if he just pulls those out, perfect and fully-formed like athena when she burst forth from zeus's brow.) he also enjoys, as i do, the parenthetical sentence. some scraps from the table:

Within either the classic Greek or Elizabethan concepts of drama, disasters of either business or marriage do not transcend the comic framework into the arena of tragedy. Tragedy is saved for those of "high degree" who fall from a "high place" because of hubris. (Marriage and business were not thought to be sufficiently high places, more like an ordinary porch with a bad step.)
"repulsion and grace"

I sat there and let the mud settle for an hour or so, finally so still that an iridescent-green hummingbird came within an inch of my blind eye, doubtless sensing the nectar there in the memory of childhood flowers.

the smog had cleared and the night's scent was oceanic, flower-laden.

You have to hold out for the wine, even blood, nights that are actually dark, bears that aren't teddy, gritty women like you really know, children who die contorted into question marks, the sun on people who have never bought lotion, the human voice not reduced to prattle, animals who have never been watched, the man who cuts all the ropes so he won't hang himself.
"heart food in l.a."

Due to lack of ambient light and air pollution, the nights remind you of your youth, the peerless air of the northern forest night. The stars were much closer then and you could see the cinders in their bright smiles and the Milky Way was a dense ermine floss, a cumulus of stars.

It is important not to miss the world that is actually there.

A phenomenal percentage of discoveries on the theoretical level occur to scientists at the moment of waking, when the most abstruse of concepts gather functional dream images around themselves.
"versions of reality"

Feb 14, 2009

haroun and the sea of stories

haroun and the sea of stories is one of the childrens' books that adults should read. when i first came across it in secondary school, it made me read everything by rushdie i could get my hands on. with the exception of the moor's last sigh, most of it was disappointing by comparison.

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become other stories; so that unlike a library of books the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

Feb 12, 2009

pancake poet

The heart of real buckwheats, after all, is fragile, gentle, slow-beating, and indisputably alive ... Made into a batter sparked to life with some sourdough starter, left to ferment and mellow overnight, then sweetened in the morning with a little molasses, and baked on a griddle, the resulting soft, flannel-textured flapjack, with its delicate flavor and nutty, tangy aftertaste, is the pancake ethereal.
john thorne, serious pig

Feb 11, 2009

table and ham

i went over to love+butter tonight so we could discuss the fancy new segmented table they would like to have built. we've probably worked out a rough idea of what they need, with a few neat little bits here and there from my thought-experiments with tables over the last 6 months of not having shop access. i'm pleased at the prospect of being involved (however minimally) in a table that uses steel as a main structural element, will break apart easily for reconfiguration and transport, and doesn't look like it came from ikea--in other words, what you get when modularity isn't a design afterthought. then they gave me some home-cured ham because i'm a starving student. nice.

empirical research update: the ham is superb thin-sliced across the grain, with cabot 1-year sharp white cheddar, cayenne, black pepper, and dijon mustard, grilled on iggy's sweet white.

Feb 10, 2009

true voyages

The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land with a hundred different pairs of eyes.
marcel proust

Feb 9, 2009

social organizations

'Society' cannot defensibly be represented by any schema which depicts it as a whole made up of parts ... The complexities of social organization can neither be bounded in delimited wholes not ordered in the unitary part-whole hierarchies which the schematism of our terminology invites us to construct.
fredrik barth, "toward greater naturalism in conceptualizing societies"

Feb 7, 2009

le poisson, le poisson

ladies, gents, i don't know about you but when i spend the day lurking about cambridge street, stopping into the mayflower poultry co. (live poultry, fresh-killed), the new deal fish market, and christina's exotic spices is practically inevitable.

they're not kidding.
at new deal, there was a line almost to the door, and the ice case was rapidly being emptied of fish so fresh the eyes were still clear. there was scorpionfish in a row being picked off by bouillabaisse makers alerted to the event (when have you seen unfrozen scorpionfish in your local fish market?). a japanese guy accompanied by two coughing children bought $126 worth of toro, $64 of hamachi, and 4 pounds of maine shrimp twitching in their clear plastic bag, all for dinner. when chris got to me, i asked for and received a pound of squid, a 2-pound pollock head they'd just cut off, and a pound of freshly-cleaned perch fillets. on the way out, i met tw, picking up his order of fish for dinner tonight (lamb, pig trotters, cod, etc). then, much further down the street, a packet of aji amarillo and a tiny jar of saffron from christina's.

with a fresh fish head, it was the work of moments to fill a stockpot with with celery, a bay leaf, a yellow onion, some kombu, and katsuobushi, and water to cover. for 2 hours, it filled the kitchen and the entire second floor with a deep and all-encompassing smell of fish, which i found pleasant and uplifting but the vegetarians among us did not. for dinner, thus, an enormous bowl, a tureen, of fish chowder in the style of my mother, stuffed with white rice, perch, squid rings, and massive quantities of cilantro, raw garlic, and ginger. with this meal of peace, restoration, and aggressive sulphur compounds (thank you, jim harrison), i hope to definitively usher out the sinusitis through which malign mechanism my left sinus cavity betrayed me all of this week and half of the week before.

craft in america

so, jason schneider, the boss-type from anderson ranch, has a bunch of pieces in a really sweet little show at the boston society of arts and crafts. i went to the opening last night and he'd come in from snowmass with erin and was there with a vast number of his family up from new jersey. the gallery was full of people who were actually buying pieces (noticeably, the functional pieces sold quickly, the sculptural ones did not). craft in america: a focus on wood was a little uneven, but had way more nice pieces than not. the ones which particularly appealed to me were:

  • jason's wall cabinet (i forget the name). it looks simple and goofy but is very complicated since it is a volume (with 9 inclusions) that curves in 2 or more planes simultaneously. it's one of his line of pieces made of laminated corrugated cardboard pieces that are then shaped and (sometimes, like in this case) filled with encaustic medium or plaster. the cabinet is a billowy-looking mass with sides that curve away from each other; there are 9 drawers whose faces are flush with the curving front (all made of ash, and the ones i sneaked a peek at were each perfectly-made). more of his stuff is visible here, though not the awesome cabinet.
  • matthias pliessnig's line of little doodads of wire, snapped and bent wood, thread, and other detritus. i passed these by the first time, but they repay extended contemplation and have a really marvellous sense of tension and whimsy in them. (see the range of them here.)
  • a strange ladder-like sculptural piece by ashley jameson eriksmoen. i don't know what it is or what it's supposed to do, but any piece that uses lap joints and secures them with rawhide and features unpolished brass has me at its mercy.
  • christine lee's three windows full of assembled shims. i like pieces like that, which make use of masses of similar objects. she flew in last sunday and began assembling thousands of these little wedge-shaped wood pieces on monday morning and finished the installation minutes before the show opened last night. more on her shim work here.
  • mark gardner's boat form. this was really remarkable: black walnut, turned first and then cut, polished, painted, and carved. the carving especially was tremendously repetitive and perfectly-done. beautiful from 5 feet away, 3 feet, and up real close too. (check out this detail of one of his carved bowls, and the rest of his portfolio).

Feb 4, 2009

google earth rocks

last night, at the cal academy of sciences (awesome old museum with phenomenal new building where andy ng works occasionally dressed as a giant ant, and source of the trinity alps sojourn resulting in the steven b craig endowment fund), google earth launched v5.0, featuring ocean in google earth--see the Official Word from Google about the new bathymetry baselayer addition, and the layer content collected for the launch.

steve miller, who is a truly great person i was lucky to work with a few times at the goog (he, needless to say, was not so lucky), has been the product manager on this for over 2 years so mad props, as they say, to him and to the rest of the ocean team (including, it turns out, nate johnson who is also truly great, and a past cubemate to boot) . i give thanks that the goog's still good for the occasional spasm of pride.


the representation and the represented! this is a great series of lego abstracts of ny institutions, which shows how much information you can remove from a thing and still convey meaning given a shared context.

and then i went and read the rest of christoph niemann's nytimes blogposts and holy crap! these are awesome. i cannot commend them too highly.

[thx sbl]

Feb 2, 2009

recently, i

  1. for reasons unknown, was invited to enjoy the pleasures of cathay pacific's business class lounge in chek lap kok, complete with noodle bar (yes, it is what it sounds like, if it sounds like free noodles.)
  2. was trapped for 12 hours in a plane populated entirely by old, coughing people and crying babies.
  3. was informed that i don't look old enough to be a graduate student. (and then was given a 50% discount on my haircut.)
  4. had a terrible sandwich at darwin's. (smoked salmon, lemon ricotta, sprouts. what was i thinking?)
  5. found, then lost again, my copy of the front door key.
  6. moved down one floor, into a smaller room with higher ceilings, lower rent, less closet space, and more windows. good deal.
  7. turned into mostly mucus. and then bought a bottle of buckley's cough mixture from skenderian, the only privately-owned, non-chain pharmacy i have ever seen. the tagline buckley's uses is "it tastes awful. and it works." at least half right.
  8. became mildly obsessed with heirloom beans and the lives of people who sell them.
  9. partly as a result of 7, made truly awful arepas and inflicted one on gwen at superbowl. having tasted the raw dough, i blame the masa precocido which is almost its sole ingredient.
  10. as penance for 8, made black-eyed peas with cumin, cayenne, bay leaf, garlic, and a small mountain of chopped cilantro, then poached a fresh egg in the beans. a restorative after wading through the handbook of symbolic interactionism. (why do so many sociologists think good writing is secondary to good thinking?)

new year, the second

[i started this in transit from singapore to cambridge, but the exigencies of life as a minimally-occupied student got in the way.]

in any case, just take vast quantities of food as a given.

i haven't been home for the chinese new year since 2000 owing to assorted poor excuses; first it was inconvenient class scheduling, then work obligations. this year, classes for the spring term start on the second day of the new year, so i got to be home on the eve of and the first day, which are the only two days that really matter.

when i was younger, i didn't quite grasp how unusual my extended family is. my maternal grandmother had 11 siblings, most of whom have 3 or 4 children, some of whom have had their own children (11 at last count); there are well over 90 people on that side of the family alone. most of the grandchildren are between 0 and 4 years of age and look the same. doesn't make it less embarrassing when you forget their name. i'm part of a middle cluster of about 10 cousins, the oldest 8 years older than the youngest.

other than one cousin who hasn't been seen in almost a decade, i'm the one who's made it back for the fewest of the new year gathers--it was stranger and more wonderful than i recall. when all the cousins were younger, the days when the family would gather together were intolerable. the new year week was a prolonged series of visits to relatives in order of seniority during which the adults would talk for hours about things that weren't very interesting and all the children would end up face-down on the floor, sullen with boredom. scratchy new clothes and social pressure to be on best behaviour made everything worse. don't even want to start in on the bizarre practice of giving red packets stuffed with cash, which are impossible to receive with good grace.

coming back to the family new year after a lapse of some years, i saw how they'd survived 8 years of people growing up, dying, going away. some things never change: the mad rush to clean the house on new year's eve (difficult, though not impossible, if you get back from reunion dinner 45 minutes before midnight), starting the new year with a sweet soup of assorted dried fruit and nuts, my dad scaring the babies with his beard. some things get updated mildly: instead of visiting each one of my 12 aunts and uncles in order of their seniority, we all just cluster at the biggest house (and it is an enormous one; so big it has wings and its own generator).

but the best thing is that the cousins now have actual things in common to talk about. at dinner, among the hordes of people (about 60-70 people showed up), we cleared off one of the many tables scattered about the house and spent a few hours catching up--one of them is in new york (i don't see her often though) and the others are in singapore. we are all so different from our parents that its a little startling. so that was nice.