Arx Hereticus

Welcome to the ramblings of a merry heretic, an ex-pat (Tex-pat?) American living in Maryland after having spent six years in Germany. Arx Hereticus is part travelogue, part cooking, part budo, part socio-political commentary and mostly just me BSing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy anniversary eyeball!

Okay it's a day late. Jan. 18, 2008, I was in the Universitat Regensburg clinic (hospital, really) getting my eyeballs punctured, lasered, cryo'd, reinflated. Oh yeah. There was that new lens thing, too, so the doc could see what he was doing.

Frakking miserable weeks of pain and weird sight followed, but in the end, my eyesight was better in that eye, and I wasn't standing to lose said sight.

BTW, that was also the year-and-a-half anniversary ... to the day ... of getting a new hip.

18 months ago, today, I was taking my first walk on the new hardware and crutches.

Today, I'm hiking and cycling in season, and walking to work when the weather allows.

Still have some limitations on movement (will never sit tailor-style again, for instance), but generally speaking, the hip is WAY better than it was in the months prior to the surgery.

The eyeball get dry a little quicker, but remains solid and sightful.

Can't complain ...

On being poor

Just wanted to post a link to John Scalzi's powerful essay "Being Poor" (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/) ... it's a powerful read. I try to re-read it a couple times a year to remind myself.

I grew up very poor, broken home, crappy end of the country, no real future or possibilities ... but due to some fairly incredible sacrifices by those who loved me, I wasn't that aware of it until I got older.

Not that my folks were angels, they could be as mean and stupid as anyone's folks can, but there was love, too. They weren't very good at being parents, but they tried hard with what they had.

Mom had a problem with alcohol and all its assorted baggage for many years, Dad had a problem with being there. I survived it all and am doing pretty damn good right now.

Growing up, I didn't think of myself as poor until - probably junior high school, and then it hit hard. Before, there was always food, always something clean to wear, always family and friends of the family around giving mom a boost.

I realized that my stuff was from the dime store or hand-me-downs, that we used food stamps, that Mom stretched our food budget in some amazing ways anyway, that my folks were 'low-class' (whatever the hell that means), that I'd never be popular, get a car for birthday or Christmas, never go to college, and that I was, indeed, poor white trash.

And increasingly, as I grew into my teens, the fact was hammered in. The rift between me and people lik eme and the rest of the world seemed to gape wider and wider. Some of it was teen alienation, angst and rebellion, sure, but I was acutely aware of the discrepency between me and my 'peers'.

As I got older, and Mom aged, her folks and then her sibs started dying off, and things got tougher.

She had a severe spinal injury about my freshman year, spent a year in hospitals, rehab or at home in bed being cared for by myself and my married older sister. Sis did what she could, but I was Mom's primary caretaker for a good while.

I learned to cook, to wash and iron clothes and clean house.

I never learned much about money and the intelligent handling thereof, because we hadn't any. It took her a year or so to get her disability straightened out, and we were pretty much SOL in the cash department for what seemed to be years, but was at least several months.

We dealt, due to help from family, kindness of friends, sometimes dumb luck. She got back on her feet, but never back to work. I spent the rest of high school on the wrong side of the tracks, and Mom mostly stayed one step ahead of the landlord, bill collector and bottle.

Looking back, I can see a lot of ways things could have been netter, but they could have been lots worse, too.

I left that world, pretty much just walked away as soon as I was of age. Made regular as possible visits to meet familial duty, but I was growing fast, learning fast and really, turning into someone else. Pretty much succeeded, in some very unexpected ways ... I wa snever part of that world again, and never will be. Not the poverty, I've been almost desperately underemployed a couple of times since, but always climbed out of the hole.

And the idea that that hole still exists, and could open up again is never far from my consciousness.

I do remember, and I read things like Scalzi's "Being Poor" and try hard to keep perspective. I work hard, earn good money, have had some real breaks ... but I also try to remember to pay it forward, if I may resurrect an old cliche.

Not always good at it, and the road to hell is well-oaved, but I do try. I give when I can, of time and money and knowledge. And I encourage and offer perspective and remind others that you don't have to continue the cycle that is poverty in America.

(Addendum: And I know very, very well, that even at the poorest of my youth or later years, I was still so much richer than many in this world will ever know or even dream of ...)

Bifteki

Half/three-quarters pound of good lean ground beef (or half that and half ground lamb!)
Quarter butcher onion, finely chopped
Good feta cheese (Trader Joe's has great feta)
Half a banana pepper minced
3-4 toes of garlic, finely minced
Paprika, coriander, dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp of good olive oil
1 goodly squeeze and drizzle of lemon juice
Dump all but feta in a big bowl, use two forks to mix thoroughly (or a pulse in food processer if you're lazy)
When well-mixed, form a football shaped lump on a bog sheet of waxed paper or plastic wrap
Flatten by hand, keeping an oval shape
Fold or lay wrap/paper over oval of meat and use rolling pin or wine botle to further flatten and thin, carefully keeping the edges clean and well-shaped
Slice or crumble feta (mores better) in the middle of one half of the meat
Fold meat over and crimp or mush edges together to seal
Add another tbsp or more of olive oil to hot skillet
Carefully add meat pie, brown one side well
Carefully flip, brown other side
I usually add extra salt/pepper to each side as it cooks

When done, remove and let rest

Drizzle a goodl dollop of dry white wine into drippings, stirring constantly to reduce, add wine as needed to create a silky, thickened sauce

Serve plated with chopped parsely (or cilantro if you want a more mid-eastern version) and drizzled with sauce

Accompany with a good dry white wine (if you can get Agiorithikos, GO for it)

Enjoy!

Bahārāt

Here's a recipe for a spice mix from the Middle East (from Apartment Therapy). I'd reduce or even delete the cloves, and punch up the heat a bit, but otherwise, it sounds quite nommy:


Bahārāt, which simply means "spice" in Arabic, is a all-purpose seasoning used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Although the particular blend varies by region and household, it always includes black pepper and typically has cumin, cinnamon, and cloves, among other spices.

Aromatic, warm, and sweet, a pinch of bahārāt can add depth and flavor to soups, tomato sauces, lentils, rice pilafs, and couscous. It can also be used as a rub for fish, poultry, and meat; mixed with olive oil and used as a vegetable marinade; and blended with garlic, parsley, and olive oil to make a condiment paste.

Bahārāt is sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores, but it can also be easily mixed in your own kitchen. We recommend starting with whole spices, which tend to be more flavorful, especially when they are toasted before grinding. Here is one recipe, but feel free to alter the ingredients and proportions to create your own signature blend. Other additions may include sumac, saffron, turmeric, and chiles. Turkish style bahārāt includes dried mint, and in North Africa the blend often has dried rose petals.

Bahārāt
Makes about 3/4 cup

  • 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon allspice berries
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 4 (3-inch) cassia or cinnamon sticks
  • 2 tablespoons ground sweet paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Grind the whole spices using a mortar and pestle, spice mill, or coffee grinder. (You may need to do it in several batches.) Add the paprika and nutmeg and combine.

Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Uncle Aldo's spaghetti gravy

1 or so pounds of good lean ground meat
I've used beef, pork, chicken, moose and venison for this - moose courtesy cousin Frank Gordon)
half a large onion chopped fine (not quite minced)
3-5 large toes of garlic, minced or crushed
1-2 med. meaty (rather than juicy) tomatoes (I used homegrown Romas) chopped coarsely
half a red bell pepper chopped small
salt and pepper to taste (I use sea salt and fresh ground mixed pepper)
Dried or fresh:
Sage, oregano, basil, rosemary, other herbs to taste (I added generous dash of Herb de Provence)

Sautee the onion, half the garlic, the bell pepper (I like to use a spicy red chili when I have it) in good olive oil, salt and pepper while cooking, till not-quite brown

Spice the meat with herbs and half the remaining garlic, brown with the base veg mix

I cheat here, Uncle Aldo made his own tomato sauce, I use a can of diced tomatoes (make sure there's no MSG or sugar in), and a small can of tomato sauce

Add in more herbs, salt and pepper to taste, periodically splash in generous amounts of dry red wine to keep wet. Use wine to keep cook lubricated as well ...

(A little wine for the pot, a little wine for me ...)

Perfectly, I'd cook it all day, adding wine and chopped fresh 'matoes as needed, realistically, about an hour

Serve over your favorite pasta or use Emily's spaghetti squash (which we are) recipe. See her for said recipe. Sprinkle with fresh grated parmesan or reggiano,or any good,strong dry cheese, sprinkle more herbs if it makes you happy, drink a good dry red wine or whatever tickes your palette.

(And yes, this is the way Uncle Aldo taught me to make it ... "A littla this, a littla that, how's it taste? Pour us another glass of wine.")

Kefta/Koefta/Kofta al la Schloss Gordon

My not-quite traditional Kefta recipe (one of 'em) for Janet:

This is actually an amalgam of a couple-three different recipes

Take a whack of ground meat (I lean toward ground lamb and lean ground beef mixed, have also used infidel pork and ground venison - Nom!) - 1 lb/half a kilo makes a good meal, for leftovers double.

Dump meat in big bowl

Add in:
A handful of finely chopped onion
3-4 toes of minced/squished garlic
Half a japaleno, minced
About a finger of minced or grated fresh garlic
A whack of C spices (in order of how much I use, most-to-least):
Coriander
Curry powder
Cinnamon
Cumin
Dark chili powder (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

(Occasionally, depending on fresh ingredient availability, I also use powdered garlic and ginger)

Mix well (I use two forks in a sort of slice-and-dice motion till thoroughly mixed, but bare hands are more fun)

Let meat mix sit to marinate while you:
Chop another half onion, coarsely
Chop come more garlic
Chop some more ginger

Form the meat into 1-1.5 in. balls or small sausages or patties, as you prefer (makes great burgers: grill, top with feta and serve in pita)

Saute a small amount of onion and garlic, add in meatballs when aromatics are sweated nicely

Cook through, browning all around, remove and set aside to rest

Throw a can or two of canned tomoatoes (add in fresh chopped from the garden if you got 'em), remaining onion and garlic, bring to high simmer, not quite a boil, and reduce heat

Add more C spices and cook down a bit

Put meatballs back in and cook on low for a few minutes (about long enough to check e-mail)

Stands alone as a sort of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern meatballs Arrabiata, or add in:

A tablespoon or two of (any or all):
Tahini
Peanut butter
Feta (or other crumbly cow or goat cheese)

Stir in to thicken and flavor.

Serve the whole mess over couscous, rice or hummus, or alone; add in chickpeas or fava beans as you like or not.

Top with Tahini, cacik/tzatziki (Ask Em for that recipe) or chopped cilantro/fresh oregano, or for bus-stop kefta, dish kefta-tomato sauce mix into bowls still simmering and crack a fresh egg into each serving while it's still simmering and let the egg cook up.

Making store bought steak taste like restaurant grade meat

Y'all know that generally speaking, the meat we buy in the grocery (to include Sam's and Costco-type operations, I presume) is actually a couple of grade below the cheapest stuff you get in a restaurant. At least, that's what all the food writers tell us ...

This trick/technique works great to enhance the flavor of steak, specifically, and I've also used it on slabs of pork tenderloin cooked steak-style, and can only guess that it ought to work on any cut of meat sufficiently thick.

You need to start with thick steak, at least 1" thick. No thinner than 3/4" ... the sirloins I cooked the other night were about 1.5" thick.

First, decide if you want any seasoning on your steak. Generally, Em and I use a garlic-rosemary seasoning so that'll be my example.

Get some chunky salt, sea salt or kosher or whatever, just as long as it chunks and not table salt.

Lay down a bed of the salt plop the steaks down on it, season the top with the garlic-rosemary mix, then layer more salt on top.

I'm talking bury the steak here, enough salt to cause a heart attack. Really, you want to bury the steak ... try to leave no meat showing.

Now, step away and let it sit for 30 min to an hour, thicker steak, more time. No more than one hour at any rate.

Go check your e-mail, update your FaceBook page or whatever.

When your timer goes off, dump the salt, rinse the steaks, pat dry.

Voila, They're ready to cook.

I've used this to grill and in the pan.

Why does this make steak taste better? It's teh Sceince!

The salt creates a fairly interesting physical/chemical reaction that exchanges water, drawing moisture out of the steak (in this case, through the seasoning) and then back into the meat (carrying seasoning back into the meat).

I stole the technique from a food blog, and was a little leery, but tried it and was thrilled with the result.

Another technique I say last evening on a cooking show looks interesting, too -- a method to simulate dry aging.

The chef basically pre-heated the steak (in a warm oven 275F IIRC) for about 20 minutes before pan-cooking in a heavy steel pan. Theory is that the pre-heating does something similar to the salt trick, and with the meat warmer internally, you can cook it hotter and shorter to get a good crusty finish with a better, less grey interior.

The steak au poivre we made this way:

Crush peppercorns coarsely, put 'em in a plate or dish, press the steak into the pepper top and bottom..

Melt a dab of butter and some good oil in a pan, brown the steak on both sides, remove and let rest (under tented foil or between plates to conserve some of the heat).

Reduce the heat, remove the pan, pour in about a half cup of decent brandy (the chef flamed the brandy, but when I tried it, the hot pan evaporated enough brandy instantly that it wouldn't flame) to deglaze, adding in a bit of cream to create a pan sauce.

Just before you're done with the sauce, add a shot of fresh brandy for flavor. Return the steaks and coat them in the sauce briefly, letting them warm back up, then serve with the sauce drizzled over.

Sirloin isn't a good choice for this, it's too lean, we had to add more fat (butter) to get the sauce happy.

Good eatin'!