Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sugar, Sugar, Sugar & Spice Pecans

This is my family’s favorite holiday treat. I also bake enough to treat the neighbors. It helps the neighborhood peace and goodwill, plus makes up for those tools you never returned, and your dog pooping on their lawns. They will begin saying nice things to you – like “I like your nuts.”

I’m not sure where I found this but it might have been an old LA Times Sunday Magazine edition about 10 years ago.

If recipes were more aptly named based on ingredient portions, this one should be renamed Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar, Sugar & Spice Pecans.

Yields about 5 cups.

2 cups water
4 cups sugar, plus ¼ cup extra (Yes, I know, this is over a quart of sugar)
4 cups pecan halves*
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg (spice rack stuff works fine)
½ teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Pour water and 4 cups of sugar in a large saucepan, heat to boiling. Add pecans, cook for 3 minutes. The sugar is magically liquidated. They will be coated in a syrupy glaze. They will be cheerful pecans.

As the pecans are hot tubing it with the sugar babes, in a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the extra ¼ cup of sugar, brown sugar, spices and salt.

Drain pecans, pour into another medium bowl, and then coat with the sugary, spicy mixture. Distribute pecans onto parchment-lined sheet pans. Arrange pieces so they are not touching (sort of). Finger licking allowed.

Toast in oven for 10 minutes (see tips). Remove from oven, cool completely and store up to 2 weeks in an airtight container at room temperature (as if they would last that long).

· Every oven is different. After some trial and error (mostly errors), I now bake at 400 degrees for 9-10 minutes. The goal is to avoid charring on one side, though a little matters little. (That would be the bottom side.)
· Parchment paper is VERY important. I learned the hard way.
· Don’t worry about total separation of the pecans. Pecans are affectionate nuts. Besides, they are just looking for their better halves.
· No calorie or fat counts provided. But as mentioned in my previous post, it IS a good thing that Christmas comes only once a year.

*Guys might be tempted to buy pecans still encased in nature’s shell. If so, I recommend spreading them out on the garage floor and attacking them with a sledgehammer. It helps release holiday stress.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Getting Lit

The annual outdoor lighting tradition is never a jolly chore, even if chugging spiked eggnog. But we have appearances to maintain in our cul de sac. Boycotting the fantasy façade would affect neighborhood karma, and the exchanging of tasty treats.

Domestic engineer guys just need to suck it up; the drill, not the eggnog. Your ATM machine loves peace and goodwill toward neighbors as well as arriving home and seeing her kingdom magically lit.

I deck out a fence, patio, balcony, trim, bay window, two posts, four bushes, and three hedges. I’m tired just writing this. The back of the house faces the street below, while the front faces the cul de sac. And we have a LONG driveway.

At each season’s end I bag the strands and label them, such as Back Fence, or Driveway - East Hedge.

Each new season I unravel the strands never remembering which end I began with or how certain sections connected. That combo package of the bay window and front posts always renders decidedly un-seasonal expletives.

If I were a real engineer or similarly anal, I would have diagramed the entire schematic into a computer file, printed and stored it with each strand and its proper bag. The replacement parts would be labeled and neatly stashed somewhere on or near the tool bench. Sure, and when pigs fly.

Then there are the sexually-active strands. No matter how carefully I layer them in the bags each year, they still entwine and nestle up during their annual hibernation. Untangling them is harder than separating slices of prosciutto.

Four hours after beginning, near dusk, I’m ready to power up, without fanfare. No Tim the Toolman exploding the fuse-box, or staging the ceremony to the soppy sounds of Debbie Boone’s You Light Up My Life. No, I connect them at five different fuse-box outlets, minimizing electrocution, while singing the Stones, “If you start me. If you start me up I’ll never stop.” Wishful singing. But like Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation, something always goes wrong. At least one strand refuses to cooperate, and lights my fuselage, enough to “make a grown man cry”. Apparently the strands’ planned obsolescence accelerates in the bags during hibernation, as well as bond with each other. I’d call the manufacturer but it’s a long distance call to China. Instead, I get lit.

The next day I make another Ace Hardware run and replace the defective fuses. It is a good thing that Christmas comes but once a year.

Don’t get me started on what the Christmas tree lights do with each other during the off-season.

Happy Holy, Holly Days!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breakfast of Champions

For the literate and/or the ancient, Breakfast of Champions has dichotomous meanings. For the ancient, it is an ageless slogan for a cereal – Wheaties, hyped on 1950s TV by Bob Richards, an Olympic pole vault champion. For the literate and somewhat less ancient, fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut borrowed the phrase to entitle a novel about decidedly non-athletic characters.

Recalling the Wheaties commercials will date yourself (and have a good time when you do – budumpbump).

But I digress.

I am a big breakfast champion. My theory is simple. If my last meal was consumed sometime between 6-8 PM the previous evening, waiting until Noon to power up with some protein starves the body. Granted, most of us could use some starvation now and then. But our body is not too crazy about that treatment. Just ask it. If like me, your body will talk back to you. Twelve hours between substantive meals is too long. A latte and a bagel just won’t get you past the mid-morning snack-attack urge.

Given the choice, I scramble in the morning. Sometimes I wait until nine or so, after feeding my coffee habit before 7:00. When I do, I am rarely hungry for loading up at lunch, and sometimes even skip it.

There isn’t much that cannot be combined with scrambled eggs. Egg scrambles are akin to casseroles. Once eggs get out from behind their shells, they are very user-friendly and compatible. You don’t even have to make a big production each morning and cook everything from scratch. Leftovers were made for scrambled eggs. Here is a list of ingredients I have included in scrambled eggs at one time or another:

Steak (any kind)
Salmon (smoked and regular)
Roasted red peppers
Sun-dried tomatoes
Onions (chives, yellow, and scallions)
Cream cheese
Cheese (mostly parmesan and cheddar)

With all of these flavors, who needs salt?

If you are cholesterol-challenged, use Egg-Beaters or your supermarket’s equivalent. In Southern California, the Safeway-owned Vons sells a brand called Best of Egg. I do not have a cholesterol problem but I still mix the Vons brand with 1-2 regular artery blockers. Do not scramble your eggs in butter or bacon grease. Use olive oil.

Frequently, when I wait until 9-10 AM, I go egg-less and just reheat some protein and vegetable leftovers. My body is not biased.

If this sounds like an Atkins morning, you’re right. Though not a devotee, I do agree with their program’s approach to jumpstarting my day. Pole vaulting is another matter. Heights make me queasy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kosher Turkey and Kosher Salt

Chalk this year’s Thanksgiving up to another notch on the learning tree. First, full disclosure - I am not Jewish. But I thought buying a kosher turkey seemed like a healthy idea. My local Trader Joe’s sold both a brined and non-brined kosher turkey. Since this was my year to switch from brining to a salted turkey, I bought a non-brined one.

Once home I searched fore and aft for the package of giblets, even sticking my head into the cavity. (It was a big bird.) No neck or giblets. Apparently those fowl parts are not kosher. I can live with that, though I’m unclear how turkeys live without them, or why the processor couldn’t have put the fowl parts into a hermetically sealed bag.

TJ’s loses a point from the consumer communication police for not informing us kosher-challenged Gentile-types.

Whole Foods gets a good-guy point for giving me a large neck and two portions of giblets, free of charge. Trust me, they made up for it from my other purchases.

Apparently kosher birds are already salted, but I had no way of knowing if it was as much as my salting recipe called for. Regardless, I followed the recipe – which called for kosher salt. Good call. The bird was the best ever – at least based on a survey of four.

I graded myself an “A” for the entire menu – based on the moans-and-groans meter. The frizzled leeks were fine, but next time I’m going for frizzled onions (sliced VERY thin, and deep-fried). I like leeks (onion’s second cousin) but I like the stronger taste of fried onions even better with this dish.

I used the turkey leftovers two ways – first as Turkey Salad Sandwiches (with pecans, red grapes, and tarragon), and second as a Turkey Pot Pie. Like the earlier “Not your Mama’s Green Bean Casserole” this could be renamed “Not Your Mama’s Turkey Pot Pie,” This recipe includes pearl onions, celery, cremini mushrooms, red boiling potatoes, leeks, and peas. It’s also a perfect use for leftover turkey stock. Now we have Turkey Pot Pie leftovers.

I’ve had so much turkey I’m beginning to sport a turkey waddle. (Also called turkey chin.) But that could be an age thing. I always thought waddle was how one walked when treating every day like a holiday.

I’m not sure about the weight gain on turkey day. I try not to torture myself daily. But it was a four-pounder holiday – the ultimate leftovers.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Our Fowl Play Day

One of the signs that you are settling in as a Domestic Engineer Guy is changing the Thanksgiving menu each season. My Thanksgiving menus have become “one and out” recipes. It is not about “been there, done that” or rendering a recipe into something only the dog would eat – been there, done that. It is hard to resist the annual deluge of Turkey Day temptations from the likes of Food Network, Bon Appetit Magazine, and the LA Times food section.

My bias remains for variations on American traditions, rather than something of foreign origin, or with sprouts, tofu, or couscous, decidedly non-guy foods.

I know that deep-frying a turkey is a guy thing, but I don’t recommend it, unless you have a back forty. Those firefighter folks suggest that if you are chromosome-bound to the dangers of turkey deep fryers, that you do it at least 20 feet from your house. A football field length would be better. If you go that route, check your homeowners insurance. If covered, at least you can dress up like a fireman, which was your career goal in elementary school.

Basically I move into the kitchen, open up a bottle of wine and sip my way through the day.

This year’s menu:
...Roast Salted Turkey. I have been brining the last few years. This recipe received more favorable feedback from LA Times readers than any recipe in their turkey history. Worth a try. I’ll partially stuff it with chopped onions, celery, carrots and a sprig or two of thyme. I’m still thinking about the gravy but leaning towards a recipe with turkey stock, pancetta, shallots, white wine, rosemary and sage.
...Not Your Mama’s Green Bean Casserole. I found this one on Food Network: green beans (I use haricot verts) shallots, two kinds of mushrooms, thyme, sage, sherry, cream, and frizzled leeks. Frizzled leaks? Frizzled is usually reserved for the cook. Frizzing is basically a frying technique. This replaces that canned French onion stuff.
...Bourbon-Walnut Sweet Potato Mash. This one is so sweet it will make your mouth pucker. Consume in small bites.
...Parsley, Sage, and Celery Cornbread Dressing. I was going to pass on the dressing, in an effort to minimize our waists and waste. Then PJ, the family traditionalist, threatened to go buy something in a Stovetop box.
...Pumpkin Cheesecake with Pecan Praline Topping. It is as good as it sounds.

I am still thinking about the wines for our feast, but something red. Hey, I’m a guy.

The common ingredient thread this year is sage. Sage is one of the healthiest herbs in my herb garden. Based on my herb garden, maybe next year I’ll do a rosemary theme. The rosemary bush is on steroids.

Yes, this is a 2-3 pound gain day. It’s a good thing we are only thankful once a year.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Basil Me

After returning from my recent trip to New Orleans, PJ expressed angst over envisioning my plane crashing, not because of losing me, but because she didn’t know how to make my basil dressing. It is always good to know where one stands in a relationship.

I confess to more than a fondness for basil. I would grow it in my herb garden except that I use so much that I would have to turn our entire hillside backyard into a basil plot. But then the dog wouldn’t have a place to dig.

I use basil lots of ways but two favorites are as a replacement for lettuce on sandwiches, and on beefsteak or heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with kosher or sea salt and pepper. Then there is pesto. I never buy pesto. My favorite lamb topping is a mint-basil pesto recipe.

I never buy salad dressings anymore. They are too easy to whip up fresh, whether a simple vinaigrette and all its variations, or my basil dressing, the easiest of them all. I read it somewhere and memorized it. If I can memorize a recipe upon one viewing then you know it’s easy. The basic ingredients are:

3 cups of lightly packed basil leaves (I discard the thickest stems)
2 cups olive oil

· Combine in a blender until finely chopped (do not puree)
· Pour mixture into a pan and heat over medium heat.
· Stir occasionally until the mixture bubbles around the pan sides.
· Remove from heat and let cool for about an hour.
· Line a strainer with two layers of cheesecloth and strain into a large enough storage container.
· Store the basil oil dressing in the refrigerator and use on any number of lettuce varieties found in grocery stores.

This quantity lasts us a week. You can vary these portions as necessary based on usage. It will solidify in the refrigerator, so take it out at least 30 minutes prior to use.

It is that simple. PJ takes half of the mixture to work along with other salad fixings. Sometimes I get the containers back.

After you try this you will understand her sense of loss if something happens to me.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back Online

My blogging has been a bit light of late. Okay, it has been nonexistent. I have an alibi. For several weeks the Fraternal Order of the Wedding Planners kidnapped me and forced me to channel Franck of “Father of the Bride” fame, though without the effeminate German accent.

The duel roles of planner, and father of the bride, temporarily sucked all of the scribing air out me. To say nothing of spending half my time in the kitchen, planning, purchasing, and preparing major feasts for as many as twelve.

For the record I am not switching careers, nor opening a wedding consulting practice.

I’m off to visit family and friends in Indiana this week. My blog will resume its regularly scheduled scribing next week.

Soon after I will be launching a new charitable website titled “Keith and Pam Wedding Debt Fund.” If that doesn’t work, I’m submitting a bailout bill to Congress.

Monday, August 11, 2008


I’m just easing into a Tom Robbins’ tome entitled Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. This is my first Tom Robbins book, best known for Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowgirls. Or maybe it was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Recumbent biking at the gym the other day, I came across one of those passages worthy of a dog-ear. Robbins’ lead character, Switters, was lamenting about the daily drudgery of showering, shaving, and brushing, wondering why someone couldn’t invent self-cleaning teeth. This character must have channeled me. Switters then said, “There’s birth, there’s death, and in between there’s maintenance.” It reminded me of one of my favorite sayings, “Life is one long, endless, forced march into enemy territory.” I’m more upbeat than that – but there are days…

Minimally the Robbins’ truism is a perfect metaphor for houses. They’re built and everything after that is maintenance, or they will implode. Properly maintained, houses out-live us. What’s that other relevant saying? Oh yes, “Life is not fair.” – author unknown.

I hand over much of our household maintenance to men-with-cracks. It has something to do with competence, theirs versus mine. Even so, domestic engineer guys should protect their live-in ATMs from having to deal with such eyesores.

Last week, one of the companies who had done some prior maintenance called to tweak us about an annual checkup. Not the plumbing checkup, but heating and air. For free, of course. I almost said “No thanks”. Then I remembered – we’re hosting our daughter’s wedding reception at the end of September. A household audit might lessen the possibility of the house imploding that weekend.

But in this play you know the outcome before the first act. The serviceman spotted six things that needed maintenance before I finished saying, “There’s the heater, and the air conditioner is around back.”

He frowned a lot, frequently reminding me that he was just giving me the facts (and figures he referenced from his fees-for-services corporate-rate-bible). His estimate for the “necessary” maintenance was over $850. After he added the discount. Where is the equivalent of an HMO for households?

I thanked him for his cheery prognostication and said I’d be in touch. It’s not that his frowning had no merit – it did. The heater is original with the house, now 25 years young. The air conditioner is a babe comparatively – 18 years old, barely out of puberty.

I called a good friend who is a stickler for due diligence of such services. He had earlier recommended a plumber who charged 40-50% less than the branded boys. Sure enough, he had a referral. They showed up and did the identical maintenance for $95.00.

I’m wondering if they do weddings.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shakin' in My Booties

We SoCal-types are so laissez-faire when dealing with our faults (some might say too lazy or too fair). We have so many that we can’t escape barbs and jars that come our way. Almost any fault map of Southern California looks like a vein road map of our bodies – lines everywhere.

I was forty minutes into my LA Fitness routine when the most recent quake hit this morning. I felt a bit of a movement and sensed an incoming. Seconds later, the gym jolted and shook. I, and about 50 other sweaters looked up, and around, and then continued our routines. Yawn. Only one, a forty-something woman, begin walking rapidly for the exit, phone glued to her ear. The local TV stations immediately switched into 24/7 Breaking News mode, while searching for any thing breaking.

The epicenter was about 20 miles east-north-east of Anaheim Hills, and initially registered a 5.8 on the scare scale (later downsized to 5.4). Cruise ships and Amtrak rock more than that. Regardless, I cut my workout a little short (it’s nice to have excuse now and then) because it suddenly dawned on me that a year ago we had tiled half the downstairs. Arriving home, all was well – no cracks to the naked eye. A couple of artifacts had fallen over as well as one DVD floor rack.

Later, before cameras, a Los Angeles city councilman calmly blathered that experts project within the next decade a San Andreas Fault fracture measuring from 7.9 to 8.1. That was unsettling. For the uninformed, anything over a 7.0 is a MASSIVE earthquake.

I recall that during my first year in Los Angeles, after an extended stay with a certain Uncle, I was rudely welcomed to SoCal with a 6.5 quake at 6 AM on my birthday. The epicenter was 30 miles north of my studio apartment in West Los Angeles. It bounced me out of my twin bed. I crawled back in and went back to sleep, only to later be awakened by a panicked call from my betrothed, PJ, from her dorm at UCLA. She was shook up a bit more.

In another 4-5 years PJ and I will be off to our sunset years’ nest, though it won’t be the faults’ fault. Where to, we do not yet know. But our research will include fault maps.

Meanwhile, I’m ignoring The Big One’s inevitability, while hoping it holds off until we get the hell outta here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

My Saturday Morning Grind

If your morning java tastes are now Starbucks-educated, you have options. Go online to Order a coffee roaster. I have the $75.00 Freshroast machine. $75.00? Work with me here. The Coffee Project sells over 35 varieties of green beans. Yes, coffee beans are green when harvested. I buy the organic Costa Rican La Minita. Green beans are half the price of roasted beans at any coffee cafe. If you drink a fair amount of coffee, the roaster will pay for itself in no time.

Soon you will have really fresh roasted coffee every morning. Think aromatherapy. On Saturdays I roast up enough beans to last a week and store them in an airtight ceramic container left easily accessible on my countertop. I was never much of a Starbucks fan, especially their coffees-of-the-day. After roasting my own for several years, there is no comparison.

For a finer, more consistent grind, use a burr coffee grinder rather than a standard grinder. They can be a bit pricey but you don't need the top-of-the-line. The Coffee Project offering is $149.00. I bought mine at Costco for under $50.00. Shop around. A burr has multiple grind-settings from coarse to fine. If you like the flavor of coarse sea salt, when a recipe calls for finely ground sea salt, you don't have to dash out and buy it.

If your wife comes down one morning and orders a grande, skim, decaf, triple-shot, sugar-free, almond latte, no foam, with two Splendas, and just a dash of nutmeg, tell her to get up 15 minutes earlier and stop off at a coffee cafe on the way to work. Then get very worried about what recipe requests may be coming next. You're a cook, not a barista. Since she barely makes it out the door on time anyway, those requests will cease.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Master of the House

Domestic Engineer Guys wear several new titles: Man of the Mansion, Don of the Domicile, Dean of Domesticity, and Master of the House.

The Master of the House title comes with several new benefits:

1. Time for computer solitaire.
2. Time to calculate your carbon footprint.
3. Time to watch the World Darts and Miniature Golf Championships on ESPN.
4. Time to catch up on the latest celebrity news - Tom cruises in Timbuktu, Brad pits in Patagonia, Britney spears brats in Bavaria, and Paris does the Hilton.
5. Time to balance your home's yin and yang and infuse it with cosmic dragon's breath.
6. Time to perfect your air guitar skills.
7. When assembling products made in China, you will have the house to yourself and can expand your colorful vocabulary. Just make sure you keep the windows closed.
8. Time to prattle and pontificate on that blog you've fancied yourself launching.

Like President Bush, domestically you now become "The Decider." These and other major decisions fall to you:

1. Stacking the dishwaher your way.
2. Which way the paper towels and toilet paper unroll.
3. How many clothes to cram into the washer.
4. Whether to iron from the tapered end or the squared end of the ironing board.
5. Bartlett or Bosc pears.
6. Paper, plastic, or BYOB (Bring your own bag).
7. When the bananas have turned and need to be tossed.
8. When something needs repaired or serviced, and offered a service time, you decide, morning or afternoon.
9. During the day the toilet seat stays up, though you might want to set a timer.

Don't become too smug. Your ATM gets home at 6:00, and she may have had a bad day.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Green Guilt Bumps

My most recent newspaper column was entitled It’s Not Easy Being Green. I’m learning how true that is.

Those long-lasting, plastic-replacing Vons supermarket bags I bought are still off the radar screen. In Forrest Gump-speak, I forget some.

During the first twice-a-week food foraging trips, I left the abode without the bags, requiring return trips. Wasted gas. Guilt bumps. Aha, I’ve got it. I’ll permanently place the bags in the backseat.

During the second twice-a-week foraging trips, I left the bags in the backseat - - something about out of sight, out of mind. That’s being charitable. Regardless, more guilt bumps.

Solution - - put the bags in the front seat. If that doesn’t work, I may drape them around my neck. They are a bit big for head-covers.

Vons shopping strategy now operative, my next brain fart was to forget to take a Vons bag on forays to non-Vons stores. I’ll give myself a partial pass, since it seemed gauche to take one food retailer’s bag into another food retailer. Truth is, they don’t care - - no alarm goes off. Still, feeling guilt bumps, I bought two Trader Joe’s bags - - snappier design anyway.

At this rate I’m going to end up with two-dozen bags with six designs. I may give some to PJ. She can accessorize them with her outfits when she ventures out. Why do you think they call them bag ladies?

Besides owning a hybrid, I was hoping this bagging strategy would assuage the guilt bumps I get each weekend when I barbecue. The billowing smoke sets off the alarm at the local fire station.

Efforts such as mine often seem much ado about very little. If the president of the United States in his closing sayonara to the recent Japanese-hosted G-8 summit said, “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter,” how do I slow that environmental tsunami?

Makes me just burst with pride and want to hum the national anthem.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Red, White & Blueberry

I love blueberries, so much that I frequently wear them, especially when I forget my splatter guard, aka apron. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: on cereal, ice cream, blueberry sauce on ice cream, mixed with cream, yogurt, blueberry pie, cobbler, tarts, cheesecake, and by the handful.

A few years ago Time magazine put out a spiel about the top ten foods that “pack a wallop”. Blueberries made the cut. Lab tests suggest that blueberries extend the lives of rats, though it’s beyond me why anyone would want to do that. The rats also showed balance, coordination, and memory improvement (like how to get in and out of your home’s walls). I could use improvement with all three of those skills.

Improved memory helps in lots of ways. Such as:
· Exams
· High school reunions
· Anniversaries and birthdays
· Finding your car in a parking lot
· When you forgot your grocery list
· Why you went into that room
· Finding your way back home

Blueberries also have, on a fresh weight basis, the highest antioxidant capacity of all the fresh fruits and vegetables tested to date.

One of my life’s philosophies is to celebrate and savor the small victories. If all you do is keep swinging for the bleachers, you will have mostly dour days. Scoring with a new recipe is a small victory. Scoring with a blueberry recipe makes my week.

I had been searching for a tart recipe that was simple and wasn’t overwhelmed by compote, glaze, or a vanilla cream filling. (Not that I dislike any of that.) Nothing on Food Network inspired me.

A few weeks ago a Los Angeles Times piece turned me on to a blog called Chocolate and Zucchini. The blogger is Clotilde Dusoulier. There’s link on the right of this page. I should hate her because she is much too bright and worldly at the sub-prime age of 28. She writes about all things food-related in all of Paris’ arrondissements. Her recent book is Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris.

Her latest blog included this recipe. I’ve converted the grams to ounces for metric system-challenged folks like me.

Tarte aux Myrtilles

Pie Dough
6 ounces flour
3 ounces sugar
3 ounces butter
Dash of milk

10.6 ounces fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon crème fraiche
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg

· Preheat oven to 400 degrees, grease a 9-inch tart pan or line it with parchment paper.
· In a food processor, mix the sugar and butter until fluffy. (Butter should be at room temperature.) Add in the flour until the dough forms coarse crumbs. Add a dash of milk, and mix again. Pour this mixture evenly into your tart pan, and press the dough down to pack it and cover the surface of the pan, forming a little rim all around. Put in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
· Take the pie crust out and lower the temperature to 360. Pour in the blueberries, and return to the oven for 15 minutes.
· Beat together in a small bowl the crème fraiche, sugar and egg. Take the tart out of the oven, pour the mixture evenly over the blueberries and return to the oven for another 15 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave it in for a final 15 minutes.
· Let cool completely, and sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar just before serving.

· I increased the blueberry portion to one pound. I need all of the memory help I can get.
· If you have bonded with your oven, you know that temps can vary. I only cooked the crust initially for 15 minutes.
· I’m going to try this with raspberries.

French cooking can be complicated, but at times deliciously simple, like this tart.

This will be our 4th of July dessert, but with the addition of a single raspberry in the middle. Happy Independence Day.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

More Stupid White Men

I strive to stay on the sunny disposition side of my live-in ATM, just in case I ever need a hall pass. My pot roast recipe usually scores a weekend pass.

This past weekend I used one - - a pass, not the ATM.

I’ve done lots of stupid stuff in my life. I try to forget them. But that seems to be one vault in my memory bank that is fully functioning.

If mistakes humanize us then I have enough humanity to last two lifetimes.

I don’t purposely stammer something stupid in mixed company. I don’t consciously entrap my house to implode at inopportune times, just so I can prove I’m not related to Bob Vila, and am then forced to hire men with butt-cracks. I don’t purchase complicated self-assembly products made in China so I can create new words to add to my extensive profanity vocabulary.

When Forrest Gump plopped down $25,000 for a shrimp trawler, the seller looked at him and asked, “What are you, stupid or something?” To which Forrest replied, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Guilty as charged, robed one.

This past weekend I consciously, knowingly, with faculties in full force, added to my stupid list. I joined two buddies for a golf outing in Borrego Springs, California - - where, by mid-afternoons, the temperatures topped 120 degrees.

At my age this qualifies for the extreme sports competition.

When Michael Moore wrote his bestseller Stupid White Men, we three were not what he parodied, but the title stuck as much as our golf shirts.

My friends shall remain nameless, to protect their collusion, though not their innocence. Let’s refer to them as Dumb and Dumber.

The Dumber label belongs to the buddy who left work Friday evening and endured four hours of LA’s going-home, snail’s pace freeways, so he could get up at 6 AM to play golf in temps that reached 110 by 10 AM.

The humidity was so low the sweat evaporated by the time it broke through the skin pores. It was dryer than a Steven Wright comedy routine.

I seriously considered tossing clubs into the water holes, even after good shots, just so I could retrieve them. But I saved getting sloshed for the cocktail hour.

The wily coyotes lolled in their lairs while the desert bunnies bounded freely. The roadrunners walked everywhere, mocking the coyotes.

We drank a water bottle per hole, never once using the outdoor bathrooms (shrubs and trees).

As the guys’ weekend cook (the only reason I keep getting invited back), I didn’t bother igniting the stove. I sizzled the steaks on the patio pavement.

I would like to say that my reward for such bad judgment was a stellar golf score. I can’t. Some of my golf shots are listed in the “What the Hell was That?” golf shot Hall of Shame. You can add golf to my long list of engineering tasks I have never mastered, domestic or otherwise.

By the time we left, a cold snap was forecast for the next day - - 105 degrees - - which at least I scored less than.

I think I’ll pass on the next June pass, and make a pass at my ATM.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I’m not sure what defines a gym rat. I am not one but I know my way around them, gyms and rats. My rat education came from years of barn duty on that farm in Indiana.

Domestic Engineer Guys need to be taut and toned, never knowing the physical challenges in store in the storage room, yard, garage, bathrooms, kitchens, multi-tasking, marathon grocery-gathering, or the discerning eye of the breadwinner.

Secretly, I’m striving to jam long enough to join Smuckers’ Centurion Hall of Fame, and get my chrome-domed-mug on the Today Show.

When I pull into the LA Fitness, Anaheim Hills parking lot in my 1997 Saturn stud-mobile, my parking choices are between Mercedes, Lexus, BMWs, and SUVs on steroids. There is barely enough parking room for my compact. I always gingerly open my door to ease out, fearing I will set off an alarm or end up being sued for a door ding. When backing out, I’m in the middle of traffic before I can see both ways. With gas now approaching $5.00 I foresee seeing again in the parking lot, and further than one car in front of me on the streets and freeways.

My routine usually includes 40-45 minutes on a recumbent bike (more conducive to reading), 15 minutes of stretching, 15-30 minutes on the treadmill, and 10-15 minutes on upper-body weight machines. I burn 600 calories twice during the week, and 800-900 on grind-day, Saturday.

Speaking of Saturdays, the Saturday morning kick-boxing class is the club’s largest class. I have never counted more than one guy gyrating in it. Guys, be very afraid.

On weekends there are three stations on the long row of TV monitors. Even though the average member age is probably early-40s, the genius programmers at LA Fitness always have one of the channels tuned to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It’s a nice compliment to the infomercials.

One day I found myself on the treadmill between a middle-aged man and woman. Both were scanning the Wall Street Journal, while I was digesting a cookbook. My faith in stereotyping stratified some when I noted an easy-on-eyes, 40-something woman on a recumbent bike raptly reading a Glamour Magazine article entitled “What a Great Butt,” while the 30-something muscle-bound, testosterone-hoarding guy next to her not-so-discreetly checked hers out.

Sometimes I pass the time reading t-shirt graffiti. There is always at least one guy donning a taunting t-shirt, ballooned by bulges, no doubt compensating for bulge-brevity elsewhere. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say - - drug-inducements. Once a guy strutted around with a shirt spewing, “I am not scared. I am not afraid. I am tough. I am an animal. I will eat you if I have to.” Now there's a conversation starter. These guys usually arrive and depart in super-sized SUVs.

For the record, aging boomers should not be wearing spandex or leotards to the gym. I-Pod users should not sing. Guys should stick with their favorite sports team attire. Friends or acquaintances should not broadcast the days of their lives, their children, or their scumbag ex-husbands. And what’s with the women wearing makeup?

My favorite time at the gym is leaving. Meanwhile, I am slim and compact enough to avoid door dings and lawsuits.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tools of the Trade

Putting together a kitchen toolkit list is pretty easy, though not cheap. There are lots of lists in cookbooks, on food magazine websites, and, of course, on the Food Network. On you will find a cook's equivalent to Craftsman Tools in a section entitled, "The Cook's Tool Shop." I get chills just thinking about it.

However, those lists leave out some essentials needed by a domestic engineer guy.

Broom and Dustpan - for the broken glass.
Paper Towels - for the spills.
Mop - for the really big spills.
Splatter Guard/Apron - unless you were never planning to wear that shirt again.
Burn Salve and Bandaids - for burns, scalds, and knife wounds.
Spot Remover - for the times you forgot to don the splatter guard.
Blow Torch - if your bride is particularly fond of that gridiron look on her beef, chicken, and fish.
Goggles - for chopping onions. Guys don't the kitchen.
Duct Tape - you will find some use for it.
Fire Extinguisher - burning down your house is not on the domestic engineer course list.
Homeowner's Insurance - does your policy cover grease fires?
Boat Motor - a really powerful mixer.
Cleaver - for the times you don't have the patience to finesse the separation of the chicken legs. Also used for cutting cheddar.
Hatchet - for cutting Gouda.
Chainsaw - for cutting Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Tool Belt - not just any tool belt but a double-sided one - one side for kitchen tools, and the other side for household emergency repairs.

You will also need a head cover. You're a cook, not a chef - so chuck the chef's hat. I recommend a bandanna. Kitchens get hot. Sweat is salty, but not an ingredient. If that pirate looks excites your bride, you might keep an eye patch handy.

Friday, May 30, 2008

"You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone"

Carole King's refrain bubbled up the other day while I was sniffing and fondling vegetables at my local farmer's market. I am a passionate consumer of fruits and vegetables, though the USDA's food pyramid's guidelines of at least five servings per day, weighs me down. Adherence to the food pyramid would easily layer on another ten pounds per year.

The City of Orange, California recently sanctioned a Thursday farmer's market in a mall's parking lot. Previously the closest sizeable market was 20 miles away. With gas in Southern California now at $4.20 per gallon and climbing, miles matter more.

The refrain recall connected me back to that small farm of my youth outside of Logansport, Indiana. Those were far from halcyon days, but they are remembered now more wistfully than not. Growing up, the naturalness of the four seasons and the annual evolution of plant life seemed integrated into who we were. We were our own farmer's market. Sitting down to eat what we harvested that day connected us to each other and to our environment.

We rarely think about that life until it is gone. This relationship with our nourishing land (assuming we are proper stewards of it) is an art now lost in most of the country, though there is a minor movement back. Barbara Kingsolver's (one of my favorite authors) latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle speaks to this.

My vegetable standards have risen in recent years, buying more organic items, and pondering the carbon footprints of supermarket servings. Most supermarkets import fresh or somewhat fresh foodstuffs from all over the world, year around. But if you're even remotely paying attention to that non-controversial global warming "controversy", you don't want to see a carbon-mapping of that food distribution system. You will have oil all over your hands.

My food and beverage shopping stops now total seven outlets, though 50% comes from one supermarket, which is also the closest of the seven.

It is tempting to turn our small backyard into a vegetable garden, building upon my herb patch, and lime and lemon trees. But I suspect my neighborhood association vigilante committee would turn me in for not seeking landscaping approval. Besides, our dog wouldn't have a place to dig.

This past Thursday at the mall market, I bought asparagus, arugula, heirloom baby tomatoes, broccoli, baby carrots, and strawberries, all organically-grown. Some vendors had traveled from as far as Fresno, four hours north. I have no idea how these vendors are selected or self-selected, but four hours seems far, and gas-guzzling.

If you are metropolis or suburb-opolis based like me, do some research and find the nearest and best farmer's market. Support your local, or somewhat local, farmers. They learned more in cow college than just coddling cows.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Barbecuing for Dummies

A phrase rarely heard in Southern California: "If you don't like the weather, stick around. It will soon change." The weekend prior to Memorial Day Weekend peaked in the high 90s. Memorial Day Weekend dropped to the high 50s. So much for our fantasy family backyard cookouts.

Undaunted, I cranked up the barbecue anyway, sticking my head inside the cover now and then to warm up. IMPORTANT safety tip: Never use the barbecue lid as an umbrella during a lightning storm.

This was weekend #2 bonding with my new "The Performer" Weber barbecue. On Thursday I purchased some trout at a nearby Farmer's Market. On Friday I barbecued it. My kingdom for a market that debones and filets trout. By the time I was finished deboning, the filets had the thickness of computer paper. We ate light that night.

Saturday night I anteed up some chips, the hickory kind, smoked sirloins, and then sauced them with a red wine sauce. I oven-roasted asparagus and topped with a dill hollandaise sauce. A California Syrah provided more sauce. The family food critics panned a new onion ring recipe. They were good, but I have learned to prepare to perfection an Emeril fried onion ring recipe. Sometimes it is best to not mess with success.

I also reprieved the artichoke recipe from the previous weekend, with weaker results. It was that old guy bugaboo - following directions. In the middle of steaming the choke, the barbecue needed lighting. I turned on the gas canister and pushed the button. No flame. Pushed again. No flame. The canister was kaput. How could that be? I had only used it twice. Barbecuing for Dummies would suggest reading the directions. I found my copy under a miscellaneous pile of papers. IMPORTANT suggestion: Once the coals are lit, turn off the propane. How profound.

I dashed to Ace Hardware, bought two canisters, and returned to an over-steamed choke. I still barbecued it, gingerly, sacrificing several leaves to the coals. This time we dunked it in a dill mayonnaise sauce.

Weber sells around 55 attachments/gismos for their Performer. I bought three. One is used to prepare whole chickens, working much like the trendy beer can method. On Sunday, I coated the bird with a rosemary-dill-garlic-sour cream mixture and let them get friendly in the refrigerator for several hours. Though I wrote earlier about preferring lump coal, if you need to sustain heat for an hour or longer, brickets are better - unless you prefer living on the edge and risking burn marks from removing the grate to replenish the lump. Burn salve is one of the essential stock kitchen items for guys.

So I flamed up first with lump, and then added brickets. White wine provided the moisture base for the bird once on the grill. I served it with corn-on-the-cob and Tomato-Watermelon salad with feta and toasted almonds. The suggested lettuce is Arugula. A blend of basil, mint and dill are also tossed in. This is an explosion of flavors.

I'm giving my Performer the day off on Memorial Day. I ran out of coals. You might wonder why I didn't buy more charcoal when I made the Ace dash. I have no good explanation, though multi-tasking is not a strength. Besides, I need a few days for the singed hair to grow back, and the burn balm to work.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Battling the Bulge

Domestic engineering duty from time to time may require some physical re-engineering. Domestic guys might need to shape up or face a bride telling us to ship out. If she is your ATM, accommodations must be made. Even worse, if, after your last physical, your doctor sent you an email saying, "Lose weight or die - - strong letter to follow", you may need some intervention, or hippo surgery. (That's my name for bypass surgery. Anyone who looks like a hippo, needs their food channel rearranged.)

Five years ago, I launched a battle against my bulge. I had tipped (over) the scales at 220. At 5' 11' that didn't make me fat, or so I thought. My kids weren't calling me Puff Daddy. Airlines weren't charging me for two seats. I didn't have to lie down after lacing my shoes. I could touch my toes without bending my knees. I had never been asked to be a sun blocker at the beach. I have fat femurs, not thunder thighs.

Then some very evil person invented a new weight scale called the Body Mass Index (BMI). According to this new natural law, I was obese at 220 pounds. Further infuriating, this new scale scion fixed my frame's high end at 179 pounds, meaning I could lose 30 pounds and still be overweight. I can think of other meanings for BMI, but I'd settle for its creator's forced consorting with a pile of Pacific walruses.

The seriously obese, like those competitors on The Biggest Loser reality series have it made - sort of. Those initial pounds disappear faster than my son when asked to take out the garbage. I have taken my sweet time on my way to at least a 30-pound weight loss. Who wants to give up sweets? Losing weight is not a pile of giggles, and it is very hard on our scales. The first 10 pounds were relatively easy, as was the second, though a bit tougher with age 50 in my rear view mirror. The last ten have become very clingy. No doubt they are confused, having bonded with me for so long.

See if your experience compares to mine.
1. Look at pasta, or a potato - gain half a pound.
2. Eat two cups of pasta, or a potato - gain two pounds.
3. Drive by a McDonald's and think about eating a Big Mac and fries - gain a pound.
4. Eat a Big Mac and fries - gain three pounds.
5. Drink 8 glasses of water in a day - gain a pound.
6. Drink two martinis, or two glasses of wine in a day - gain two pounds.
7. Walk a mile - stay even.
8. Reduce daily calorie intake to 1200 - stay even.
9. Fast for a day - stay even.
10. Run a marathon - lose a pound.

The answer seems obvious. A week-long weight-loss program might look like this:
Monday - consume 1200 calories
Tuesday - consume 1200 calories
Wednesday - fast
Thursday - consume 1200 calories
Friday - consume 1200 calories
Saturday - run a marathon
Sunday - fast
For the next ten weeks - rinse, repeat.

Too bad we can't talk our HMOs into a monthly colonoscopy.

I'll get back to you on my progress. Meanwhile I hear a good Sears' scale costs around 50 bucks.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Real Men Barbecue with Charcoal

If you haven't cursed at coals, singed lots of hair, blackened your face or inhaled the equivalent of a warehouse of cigarettes, you're a namby-pamby backyard gas-griller, and much to flawless to be any fun to hang with. No sauce stains adorn those creased jeans. Gassy guys even grill in their favorite Tommy Bahama shirt. I call them patio men.

We have a Honda Civic Hybrid so I figure I get carbon credits for all of smoking I do each summer.

The weather has been unseasonably warm this past week in Southern California, so I broke out the barbecue a bit early. Break in would be the more operative words. My last barbecue bit the "planned obsolescence" dust after last season - two years and a goner. Maintenance might have had something to do with it.

For Christmas I had wife PJ buy me Weber's new "The Performer", about $300 at Barbecue's Galore. It had sat assembled in the garage since then, mocking me. I actually rolled it out two weekends ago, just to break it in, but was foiled. The Performer uses charcoal but is engineered to use small propane canisters, which when engaged allows a regular old button to be pressed, which then shoots a flame into the bottom of the basin, where you stack the charcoal. Brilliant.

The manual states that it takes both 14.1 oz. or 16.4 oz. propane cylinders. Wrong. I already had the green, squatty 16.4 oz. size in the garage. Screwing is usually pretty easy for guys. My green, squatty canister refused to engage, either clockwise or counter-clockwise. (Expletive deleted) I jumped in my car and drove to that Galore place. The sales guy on the floor was the one who sold me the Weber at Christmas. I handed him my propane canister and asked him to screw it in. It didn't. He took one off the shelf and tried. No go. This flummoxed him greatly since he was selling a lot of The Performer, to say nothing about how I was feeling.

What are the odds that the manufacturer messed up two products, mine and the floor model? Some days we will take those odds. He mentioned something about a blue, smaller, skinnier canister. The following week I picked one up at Ace Hardware, took it home and tried screwing again. No connection. Screwed again. (Expletive deleted) I headed to the Galore place. With the gouging gas prices, this Weber was becoming a costlier purchase. This time a different sales guy was on duty. He took the blue boy and after several initial tries, finally got the sucker to screw in. I drove home, and girded myself with more patience, but still checked the neighor's backyard to see if there were any children in earshot. Several tries later - Houston, we have CONTACT! New stuff shouldn't be such a pain in the ass.

The trial dinner was a huge success. The lump coal lit almost instantly. (I am beginning to prefer lump, though some pieces can be like a lump of log.) I didn't use wood chips this first trial - that would have been pushing my luck. I barbecued Ribeyes (served them with deep-fried shallots), barbecued corn-on-the-cob (with a garlic/basil/butter sauce), and barbecued artichokes.

I had never prepared artichokes on the barbecue before. I clipped this recipe from a Bristol Farms' newspaper ad and adapted it some.

1. Steam the artichokes the way you would regularly for 45-50 minutes until fork tender. I used a combo of chicken broth and water, a quarter cup of white wine, and
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil. (If I'm not using the barbecue I also use a lemon, halved, 2-3 garlic cloves, several parsley sprigs, and a bay leaf.)
2. Meanwhile combine a quarter cup of balsamic vinegar, quarter cup of extra-virgin olive oil, and two minced garlic cloves in a large plastic sealable bag (when a recipe calls for mincing, I use my garlic press).
3. Allow the chokes to cool a bit, then cut in half, lengthwise, and scrape out the fuzzy centers. Don't touch those hearts! That's the filet of the choke.
4. Place the chokes in the bag and shake to coat.
5. Drain the chokes, season with salt and pepper and grill on the barbecue over high heat about five minutes, center side down, and then three minutes on the outsides.
6. Serve with a favorite choke dip. This recipe called for mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice, chopped basil, smoked paprika and salt and pepper.

This is the way I will do chokes this summer, though I will vary the dips. This dip was great, but we have several we love.

The best part - I didn't have any flare-ups, barbecue or language. Must have been the Syrah.

Signing on

While attending the San Francisco Writer's Conference in mid-February I learned that I was one of the few attendees who did not have a blog or a website. Zounds - - an active email address, cell phone, and Blackberry aren't enough?* Just what cyberspace needs, another blogger.

I harbor no illusions about the world waiting for my words of wisdom, though even a blind man sees clearly now and then. Let me be frank. I mean, let me be Keith. I'm interested in selling my stuff. No, this is not a link to EBay. My profile speaks to my writing, and this blog's focus, though I have eclectic interests, all non-fiction.

I tried fiction once, nearing 50,000 words. Despite my interest in reading good literature, my reading and my writing never neared the same page. Like my first career, I chucked it. Non-fiction feels right.

I learned a bit more at the San Francisco Writer's Conference, other than that the Top of the Mark is pretty damn cool. We non-fiction general market-types have our work cut out for us. Novelists have it so easy - - just be a great writer.

First, have a platform. Platform? Ideally I would have 50,000 loyal readers hanging on my every word. Since I am neither a doctor of something, a national politician, an American Idol finalist, a sports superstar, a billionaire CEO, a president's daughter, or Oprah's best friend, this is my platform launch. Tell a friend. Next, be a graduate of the Barnum and Bailey school of hype/promotion. Toastmaster of the year would be a plus, and five years of apprenticing with the William Morris Agency. Next, master cyberspace. Okay, I'm a work in progress. Next, be independently wealthy so that you can spend more money promoting your book than your publisher. Oh, and finally, write really well. It was good to learn that writing mattered.

Rubbing elbows with agents, editors and publishers for two days makes an old, newbie writer more nervous than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. The best that could be said for my experience is that I didn't hear those dreaded words, "Good luck with your book", at least not directed toward me. I even scored some nibbles, from agents, not appetizers, though those weren't bad either.

I will target a blog a week. Now and then, more. After all, I do have my domestic duties. And I'll get to work on that website. If a blog falls in cyberspace, does anyone hear?

For you English experts, be nice. I will be embarrassed enough when I re-read a post two days later and an error will be flashing and taunting me.

* I still don't have a blackberry.