Archive for the 'Life' Category

New Puppy; Emerald!

Saturday, December 4th, 2010
Emerald Stares Back

Meet Emerald.

We picked her up from Lucky Paws Rescue last weekend.

Or, more specifically, she picked us out of the handful of people that showed up at an adoption event at Petco.

First, she was the brightest eyed, most inquisitive, puppy of the lot. She took keen interest in everything going on about her.

She also purred — yes, purred — while snuggling into my neck after I picked her up.

Supposedly, she is a Border-Collie / Black Labrador mix. We won’t really know until she puts a bit of growth on her.

Emerald Discussing Plans With Ruby

Ruby has been both quite patient with Emerald and also quite playful; they wrestle about quite often and Ruby is even sharing her rawhide and toys with Emerald!

I suspect, though, that Emerald is part pig. Both from the way she eats and because she both snorts and squeals when exploring and/or being picked up.

Now that Emerald is in the house, Ruby has taken to sleeping with Roger. Which is pretty funny given that our last dog, Janis Joplin, took to sleeping with Roger as soon as Ruby was added to the family. Apparently, the young dog sleeps with the old folks in the house while the old dog sleeps with the boy.

Go figure.

Unlike Ruby, Emerald is quite vocal. Unlike Janis, Emerald doesn’t really bark. It is much more of a sing-song kind of thing.

Emerald also hasn’t quite figured out the concept of glass yet, running headlong into the door a few times.

Emerald, The Hearth Ornament Puppy

Emerald’s current favorite place to sleep is on the hearth.

She’ll curl up like a cat, tuck her tail around her body and watch the world go by until she passes out.

Even in the last week, more of her body hangs off the edge than when we first got her.

When you pet her on the hearth, she’ll groan like an old man.

Odd dog. Just the way we like ’em.


Trader Joe’s & Sous Vide Cooking; Don’t Do It!

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Trader Joe’s has quite a few relatively high quality, often deliciously pre-marinated, foods vacuum packed and frozen in convenient plastic pouches.

Not surprisingly, I’ve seen it come up in a number of Sous-Vide cooking forums that said pouches are wonderful for water bath cooking; simply pop them in the water bath at the desired temperature and be done with it.

I even tried it myself with some tuna the other night. It was a pasteurization level cook, so the end result was closer to flaky cooked than red-raw tuna, but was otherwise delicious.

However, I — and others — have wondered if the wrapping Trader Joe’s uses is Sous-Vide safe. So, I contacted customer service and asked:

Is your vacuum packed frozen fish sealed in bags that can
handle sous-vide water bath cooking (i.e. a cooking bat at ~140 degrees
F)?

Given the growing popularity of sous vide cooking and the unbelievable
convenience/quality of your fish products, it would be helpful to mark
packages that can handle SV cooking.


The response from customer service:

Thank you for your inquiry. The packaging used for our frozen fish are
not approved for this cooking method. We do advise removing all
packaging before any cooking method.

Unfortunate, but it is what it is. I suspect this is more of a CYA response than an actual statement of cooking method incompatibility, but I’m not going to risk it. Nor will I assume that any of the meats (they have beautiful pre-seasoned frozen vacuum packed rack of lamb, for example) is safe, either.

I’m going to write a followup letter to Trader Joe’s corporate asking them to re-consider.

Precise Temperature Control Cooking; Sous Vide Water Oven

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Cooking food with heat is a far more subtle process than simply applying heat. Beyond that doubling the temperature obviously doesn’t cook something twice as fast, there is a vast array of stunningly complex chemical reactions that occur as food is heated.

Even the seemingly simple act of hard boiling an egg will cause the yolk and white to pass through nearly a dozen different phases as different temperature thresholds are crossed and different proteins and nucleic within the white and yolk are denatured. For an egg, the difference between clear, runny, jelly-like, and hard boiled is only a matter of degrees!

And some reaction can take quite a while, too. Making pulled pork, something for which I have a bit of experience, involves heating the meat to a temperature such that the collagen and fat effectively changes from a tough, chewy, substance into liquid or a jello like cloud of delicious. Done right, this can take hours or, even, days.

With a stove, grill or — even — an oven, it is extremely difficult to both maintain a constant temperature and not dry the food out.

Enter sous vide.

Sous vide means, literally, “under vacuum”. That is, in sous vide cooking, the food is vacuum packed, often with spices or marinades. The actual process of cooking, though, is generally done in a water oven; a device that can maintain a bucket of water at a very precise temperature.

Precise as in the ability to cook an egg to exactly 144 degrees throughout, just hot enough that the white is semi-solid but still runny while the yolk is nearly, but not totally, liquid. I.e. the perfect poached egg. Or 72 hour pulled pork at 141 degrees that comes out fork tender, medium-rarish, but with the flavor of ham. Or the perfect rare, fork tender, short rib by cooking at 138 for 48 hours.

“But, wait!, pork at 141?!?! Beef @ 138? The FDA says we need to reach ~160 for them to be safe!! You are gonna kill someone!”

Those temperatures are actually the instant kill temperatures for food borne pathogens. If you get the inside of a steak to 166, all bad critters will be dead. However, said same critters cannot survive at ~135 or above and, thus, if you keep the meat at said temperature for long enough, the bad critters will generally be just as dead.

This isn’t the end of the story and I encourage you to both read Douglas Baldwin’s Sous Vide for the Home Cook and, covering much more than just sous vide and the single most accessible and entertaining science oriented cookbook around Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food
(seriously — get this book — even if you have a moratorium on cookbooks, get this book!!).

I had the pleasure of hearing Jeff speak and having lunch with him. It was that conversation that convinced me to dive into Sous Vide cooking; it scratches all of the über-control penchant of my geekiness while promising to yield new potential heights to appease my chefiness.

At left is the SousVide Supreme, an appliance that quite conveniently maintains a bath of water at whatever temperature you want from less than 100 degrees up to just below boiling point.

There are also a number of homebrew solutions and lab quality circulators (no surprise, heating some live soup of pathogenic critters to ideal reproduction temperatures is a long solved problem in the lab). And you can go the PID controller route and whip up a hot water oven for ~$50 (link to an excellent write-up on doing exactly that).

I personally chose the SVS both because I didn’t have a crock pot and the good quality lab circulators are typically considerably more expensive. As well, the margin for error with Sous Vide can be pretty damned narrow when cooking at the border of pathogenic reproduction temperatures; best to have a dead accurate unit than one that is off by 5 degrees.


NOTE: Since writing this article, I sold my SVS to a friend and upgraded to the Polyscience Sous Vide Professional. While more expensive, it is both slightly more accurate and, the motivating factor, vastly more versatile. As an added benefit, there is no big, single purpose, metal tub. Storing the Polyscience circulator takes vastly less room and the device can maintain temperature on a truly huge tub of water (up to 30 liters). I have various sized Cambro food trays and, thus, I can choose a smaller container when doing a handful of eggs, a deep container when doing very veggies that like to stand up, or a really large 25L relatively shallow container when cooking 5 slabs of my now infamous 65 hour tropical BBQ pork ribs!


For vacuum sealing, I’m using a FoodSaver v3840 upright sealer. In hindsight, I would much rather have a clam shell vacuum sealer as they waste less bags and, though seemingly less convenient, are easier to align the bag for sealing purposes.

In the 2 weeks I’ve had the SVS, I’ve been able to produce some truly amazing foods (and one really bland bit of food). I’ve learned a lot and also come to realize that this is really an area of cooking for which there is no deep history or reference tome. A lot of times you are on your own. And as long as you follow the safety rules put forth in both Douglas’s and Jeff’s books, you’ll always be safe even if your meal turns out inedible (as Jeff likes to say, even the worst meal can be improved by a quick call to the local pizza delivery service).

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Onkyo TX-NR1008 AV Receiver; Amazing Features, Awful User Interface

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

tl;drThe Onkyo line of receivers offer an amazing set of features and excellent quality for an extremely reasonable price. The user interfaces of such equipment continues to suck. There is a web server.

As a part of our latest remodeling efforts, we are taking the “down to the studs” opportunity to mount a TV on the wall and have a couple of wall mounted dipole speakers installed in the proper spots to create a pretty good surround sound based media consumption experience.

As the last time I upgraded AV equipment was well prior to HDMI becoming standard, this also requires a new AV surround sound processor with HDMI switching capabilities.

Thus, this is some random notes on the experience and a sort of in line review of Onkyo’s 1008 Network Ready AV receiver.


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Delicious Bread Anytime

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

King Arthur Flour — an awesome company that makes excellent products — has the single best explanation of no knead bread I’ve found. Seriously. Go read that. Make it. Then get the book I mentioned below to expand beyond the basic loaf.


5MinuteBread2.JPG

Not long ago, I took on bread making and have had great success.


However, I don’t make bread that often because, by the time I decide I want some with dinner, it is typically too late to actually make it in time!

A friend had raved about a bread recipe that involved no kneading and keeping the dough in the fridge for use anytime, claiming the result was fantastic bread with less than 2 hours from fridge to table.

In particular, he recommended the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. With access to Crackazon Prime on my iPhone, I ordered the book.

And damned if it doesn’t work. At left is the first loaf I made using this technique. In the toaster oven, even.

The base recipe basically involves mixing — but not kneading or working — a dough from a base ratio of water, flour, salt, and yeast. This then goes into the refrigerator (I’m using a six quart Cambro food container
) for at least a day, and will keep for up to 2 weeks. As it ages, it will apparently take on more of a sour dough flavor.

When you want bread, you dust the top with flour, rip off a hunk of dough, let it rise on your pizza peel for ~40 minutes, and then bake it at 450 degrees for 30 minutes.

End result? A delicious bread with a crunchy crust, excellent texture, and great flavor.

The introduction to the book is a bit smarmy, what with the claim of a “revolution in baking, blah, blah, blah”, but the rest of the book is awesome. The first couple of chapters discuss ingredients and tools quite clearly while the next chapter lays out the base recipe.

From there, the rest of the chapters are full of all kinds of other bread and bread-like recipes.

Annoyingly, the recipes are all in “cups” and “tablespoons”, not weights or ratios.

So, if you do get the book, the base recipe is 708 grams water, 12 grams yeast, 25 grams salt, and 812 grams flour. Yes — it is supposed to be considerably wetter than a “normal” bread dough.



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Tomato Porky Thing

Saturday, September 4th, 2010
tomatoporkything.jpg

I tossed this together tonight and, though simple and fairly obvious, was just too good to not share.

Heirloom tomato season is upon us and I’ve been grabbing some beauties from my community garden plot.

A simple use that makes for a good all in one meal:

  • Slice the tomato into 1/4″ thick rounds
  • Place on lightly oiled (olive oil works best) cookie sheet or pizza pan
  • Place a couple of fresh basil leaves on each
  • Add a bit of meat. I used pulled pork (as I had made some earlier), but I’m betting ham or bacon would work exceptionally well, too. Chicken works quite nicely, as well.
  • Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Good thick layer. Maybe grate a touch of parmesan in there, too
  • Lightly pepper and add a touch of salt. I used porcini mushroom salt.
  • Toss into a warmed pre-warmed oven at about 300 degrees.
  • Wait a minute or so, then turn the oven over to Broil on high
  • Wait until all the cheese is melted and starting to bubble/brown

Delicious.


Dr. Seuss’s Pond

Monday, August 16th, 2010
Yellow Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) Taking Over Pond

We spent a good chunk of saturday wandering about mid-Missouri, touring the various homes and towns of my Mother’s family.

While wondering about Mom’s home town of Jamestown, Missouri, we found Cave Springs Road.

“Road” is a bit of an exaggeration; it is a rather winding gravel/dirt road through the hills and river bottoms of the area. It also happens to pass by one of my Grandparent’s old houses.

While continuing on said road, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and asked my sister (who was driving) to stop the car.

Upon seeing this pond, our cousin from Austria exclaimed, “This pond is being invaded by Doctor Seuss plants.”.

Yellow Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) Seedheads

The plants do look a bit Seuss-esque. Especially the seed pods.

They are American Lotus or Yellow Lotus. While considered a native species, they are extremely invasive and can easily entirely consume a pond in vegetative growth within a few years (depending on pond depth).

While “native”, the working theory is that these plants are not really naturally propagated nearly as widely as they are without human intervention.

In particular, much of the plant is edible. As far as anyone can determine, American Indians would carry seeds and/or roots of the plant as they moved about, planting any random ponds to establish a food source if the tribe happened to pass that way again.



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“So, I’ve douched Janis 4 or 5 times…”

Thursday, August 12th, 2010
Janis

I’ve been meaning to write a proper eulogy for Janis Joplin since we had to put her down (cancer @ 14 years) last fall. But I still can’t bring myself to do so. So, a short story…

While living in Connecticut with my sister Ann’s family, Janis got skunked one evening. Now, the best way to deskunk a dog is some combination of tomato juice and/or vinegar & water.

This led to my sister and my lovely wife Christine heading out to the drug store to pick up several boxes of douche to cleanse Janis’s skunky funk.

Upon returning to the house, Christine proceeded to cleanse Janis’s skunky fur with douche quite a few times, smelling Janis in between to determine how much more douching was required.

Not surprisingly, Christine’s skunk detection skills were stretched to their limits at the end of this and she needed a third party opinion.

So, marching downstairs, Christine asks of the first person she sees, “I’ve douched Janis 4 or 5 times now, can someone please smell her to see if the stench is gone?”

The first person, though, happened to be our cousin Andy. Andy had not, in fact, ever met Janis. Nor did Andy actually know that Janis was a dog.

Andy’s facial expression really can’t be described beyond the popular emoticon:

O_o


Galapagos April 20, 2010 (4 of 4): Walk On Punta Espinosa of Fernandina Island.

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) and Pelican

Of all of the excursions we took on this trip, I personally found this one to be the one that captured the essence of the Galapagos more than any other.

Life was abundant, the land was harsh, and the contrasts between lifeless and teeming were distinct.

This was also the hike that drove home exactly how harsh life on the islands can be for any given individual animal, while the population, as a whole, thrives. More on that in another post as the pictures are rather brutal.

Isla Fernandina is the most active volcano in the archipelago (and one of the most active in the world).

Thus, it is an island of many fresh lava flows intermingled with the green of new, and sometimes relatively old, growth.

As the rich sea upwellings strike the island, it supports a diverse and rich ecosystem at the shore.

Roger and Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)

Much of which we were about to see.

Looking across the lava flow and beaches from our Zodiac, it looked like the entire island was covered ancient weathered logs.

Not so! There were hundreds and hundreds of marine iguanas. Thousands, actually.

Piles of them everywhere.

And, oddly, in the late afternoon sun, they largely align themselves in the same direction towards the sun. As mentioned in a previous post, marine iguanas are cold blooded. They regulate their temperature by both pressing their bodies against the hot lava rocks and/or controlling the cross section of their bodies exposed to the sun.

As can be seen in this photo, the iguanas were entirely un-phased by our presence. Actually, the bigger risk was to us!

Namely, after the iguanas spend time feeding in the ocean, they sit on the rocks, warm up, and sneeze out salt water. If you are posing like Roger was in this photo, you run the very real risk of being sneezed upon!! No surprise, Roger spent a bunch of time trying to get sneezed on!

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Galapagos April 20, 2010 (3 of 4): Snorkeling off Punta Vicente Roca (Isabela Island)

Sunday, August 8th, 2010
Galápagos Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi)

Not only did we do a Zodiac tour of the coast line and cave, but we also hopped in the water for some snorkeling in the calm, almost bay-like, shallows near the shore of Punta Vicente.

This particular area is well know for the vast number of Galápagos Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi) that hang out in the water. As there isn’t much in the way of sandy beaches, this spot didn’t really seem to be an attractive nesting grounds.

At least not for the turtles.

The flightless cormorants, penguins and other birds could be seen nesting all over the cliffs and rocky beaches.

Unlike other areas of the world, the turtles in the Galápagos showed no real fear of humans. They were perfectly content to float about.

However, there was one very absolutely strict rule; do not approach or touch the turtles. On the other hand, if a turtle decided to inspect you, that was OK!

Galápagos Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi)

And inspect they did!

While Roger and I were diving down to get a closer look at the ocean floor, we turned to our right and this rather grand turtle had swam right up to us for a closer look!

This particular turtle followed us around for a bit, getting within a couple of feet even though we were trying to keep our distance.

While an incredibly impressive creature, this particular snorkeling spot had much more to offer.

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