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.