Monday, November 23, 2015

The Dumbest Move We Could Possibly Make

A few months ago I tried to define the word "character:
"Character" is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise.
The people who propose abandoning our nation's core principles - when we're in no imminent danger, no less - have no character. Like many cowards, they've mastered the trick of sounding tough while displaying their cowardice. But make no mistake about it: they're pussies. All of them.

The French, who've suffered actual losses, are accepting more refuges now, not less. To quote from an excellent editorial by author John Scalzi,
Congratulations, America. We’ve successfully wrested the title of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” from France. Enjoy it.
As usual, the salient point is being lost beneath a lot of invective. Here's the fact that counts: the perpetrators of the French attack could visit this country without the slightest screening. They're not Syrians. They're not refugees. They're Frenchmen and Belgians, and we don't screen them! The Syrian refugees, by contrast, are screened within an inch of their lives, and they're the enemies of our enemies!

And what happened to our risk assessment skills? John Oliver, as usual, expressed it eloquently and wittily on his "Last Week Tonight" show:
"As reasonable adults, we accept tiny amounts of risk baked into our everyday lives," Oliver said. "We drive cars despite knowing around 30,000 of us die in them each year. We go swimming despite the fact 10 people a day die from drowning. Twenty Americans every year are killed by cows, but no one is saying we should expel all cows from the country!"
I'll gladly accept a one in ten million chance of being shot in a shopping mall by someone foolish enough to spend 18 months sneaking through the vetting process for a refugee visa (when there are far easier ways to get here) if it means maintaining our values as a country. Has everyone forgotten that people are getting shot all over the place here already? Come to think of it, those same aforementioned pussies don't seem very alarmed about that!

We need to extend open arms to the victims of our enemy (Daesh/ISIS). Duh! We need to be extraordinarily clear in delineating that this is a conflict between 7.2999 billion human beings versus a hundred thousand monsters, rather than needlessly make fresh enemies. Duh! And we need to recognize that playing into the hands of petty provocateurs by responding with bigotry and persecution against our Muslim friends and neighbors is the dumbest (not to mention most dishonorable) move we could possibly make.

Friday, November 20, 2015

"I Will Always Be Ignorant, But I Will Soon Be Rich"

Why do poor and working class Republicans vote against their own economic interests, going along with tax cuts for billionaires, dismantling of the safety net, annihilation of the Affordable Care Act, etc etc?

It's not a mystery. This puzzle was solved years ago. Poor Republicans are convinced they're just a few steps away from becoming rich Republicans (this is one of several reasons they flock to Donald Trump; they very closely identify with him as the guy they're destined to be: just as belligerent and as lazily uninformed as them, only with a huuuuge bank account).

But there's another question. Why do they hate "experts" of any stripe, be they journalists, professors, scientists, or anyone else with the stuck-up gall to proffer "facts"?

It's because such people don't reflect who they are, nor who they expect to ever be. A sizable chunk of the populace feels on the brink of prosperity, but can't even entertain the notion of being educated. And that's astounding, given that it's so much easier to get educated than to get rich.

On the other hand, what am I doing exploring quaint problems like this when American leaders are pointing to WWII Japanese internment camps as smart historical precedents? I'll just say this: if they start registering Muslims, I'll be first on line to sign up.

Also, remember: at times like this, even moderate Americans tend to shun Muslim businesses run by their friends and neighbors. Lebanese, Egyptian, Indonesian restaurants go empty. Consider joining me in going out for falafal for the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Italian-Japanese Sweet Potato "Chaat"

I bought a sack of homely-looking Murasaki sweet potatoes at Trader Joe's:

I peeled, sliced, oiled, and dusted them with cumin and black pepper, and threw them in a 425 degree oven. While they roasted, I plotted!

For an upcoming project, I've been writing about North Indian chaat. This is where they festoon crunchy/starchy items (like samosas) with various sauces, chutneys, and doodads...
" a five-year-old gone beserk in the kitchen. The chaat treatment turns blah snacks into filling flavor/texture riots."
It occurred to me that the chaat treatment could embrace any number of capricious additions. So I ransacked my pantry, and found some small San Marzano tomatoes (which may be immortal), tiny green chili peppers, cilantro, scallions, and a profusion of condiments.

I coarsely chopped the tomatoes, and (more finely) the peppers and scallions. I removed the cilantro leaves from the stems, and tossed it all along with the sweet potato chunks, lightly dousing it all with balsamic vinegar (well, not exactly balsamico; I used this balsamic must, which I see is no longer being the way, everything from Academia Barilla is fantastic; many people confuse it with regular Barilla, which is mass-market, but the Academia stuff is their prideful just-for-aficionados line).

The result tasted awfully expensive:


As a writer, as a community manager, and as someone who moves in many circles, and among some extraordinarily difficult people, I've been informed innumerable times about words, concepts, or references which offend someone or other.

Running Chowhound, I found offense-taking to be viral. Get people examining and broadcasting what offends them, and there will be literally no end to it. It will completely take over any discussion. It is kudzu.

But the strange thing is, though I've constantly been informed of other people's issues, hot buttons, triggers, and issues, no one has EVER asked about mine. In fact, no one's shown even the slightest interest. Isn't that odd? I've found myself commanded to fit myriad bills - cushioning, assuaging, and gingerly sidestepping a minefield of petty contention points, but my position as chai wallah to the piqued multitudes has been strictly unilateral.

Since no one's ever asked, I've never had cause to examine, much less broadcast, my own requirements for how people must discourse in my midst. Lord knows I have my preferences, but it would feel bizarre to turn those preferences into demands. Having realized all this, I've pretty much stopped giving a fuck about what offends anyone.

It sounds harsh, I know. So you'll be surprised to hear that I adhere quite closely to the yogic principle of ahimsa, or non-violence (of word and deed). I make it a top priority to at least try not to hurt anyone. Contradiction? No. The equation of umbrage with injury is ridiculous; it could arise only in a society so rich and so mild that actual injury is rare. Princesses in such places lower their thresholds to ever tinier peas of perturbation, until mere dust grains provoke howls.

Someone's issues don't need to become my issues, and it's pure narcissism to presume otherwise. What's more, as far as I can see, chronic offense-takers enjoy the friction. Why else would they make it a central preoccupation? In that light, I dutifully accept my occasional role to serve as the grist they so evidently crave.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


I'm kind of proud of a metaphor I buried in my Chowhound posting about my recent Dallas/Austin trip, so I thought I'd float it as its own posting. Speaking of two high-end Austin restaurants:

Juniper and Laundrette: chi-chi scenes serving Purina Trust Fund Chow. Both very good at what they do, I hate to be a downer. But this sort of place always leaves me a bit cold. Does anyone ever, ever, EVER shut their eyes and pound the table with their fist over the deliciousness at such places? They're like comedy shows where you never actually laugh, but frequently nod sagely and pronounce, grim-faced, "Funny!".
Understand that I'm certainly not damning all high-end restaurants. Some things can't be done cheaply, and I enjoy that part of the spectrum when it's good. Rather, I'm describing the genre of intense, reverential, slightly arrogant "tasting menu"-ish small plate operations (Momofuku and Luksus come to mind in NYC), which in my experience elicit far more analysis than inspiration. And per Leff's Sixth Law , if you're analyzing what you're eating, that means you're not eating something truly great. The very greatest things make you lose your mind.

It's not a matter of "comfort food" preference; i.e. massaging one's brain with dully nostalgic primal taste cues. I'm not tossing aside your black miso foie gras so I can strap on a feedbag of pasty mashed potatoes. I'm talking about the other extreme; of elevation. Toss back a sip of 1959 Château Margaux and just try to speak coherently about the experience in its immediate aftermath.

Austin/Dallas Trip

I want to write here on the Slog about the two most interesting places I found on my recent Dallas/Austin trip, but until I get to it, here's a massive rundown of trip highlights, posted to Chowhound.

Click the photos to expand them for extra porn.

Shrimp Enchiladas at Campuzano's Fine Mexican Food in Waxahachie.

Soggy Potato Chips with Canned Corn, Chile Sauce, and Cheese at Sabor Fresco
(the Jean Georges of junky Mexican street food) in Pflugerville, near Austin.

Pie at Lula Jane's in Waco

Burnt Ends App at 18th & Vine (a perverse Kansas City-style barbecue in Dallas)

Fried Okra at 18th & Vine

Monday, November 9, 2015

Salmon Pancakes

These aren't anything like conventional salmon cakes...or, really, anything else I've ever seen. I broil or grill a small slab of salmon with chopped scallions, chop the fish, and use it to make savory salmon pancakes (using superb Kodiak pancake mix, which is better than anything I can make from scratch). I got the inspiration from Jacques Pepin's Scallop Pancakes (admittedly an entirely different thing).

I've not yet worked out how to ensure they remain intact, but at least they taste good. However, sauce is needed. I got some suggestions at Chowhound
. Not all the replies appealed to me, but I "favorited" the ones that did.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Punjabi Joe's Ancient Lentil Tofu Soup With Saag Dregs

Last week, I cooked sarson ka saag (spicy puree of greens) and makki di roti (Punjabi cornbread). The next night, I perked up the leftovers by making Chicken Saag With Makki di Roti. Then, as the makki di roti were drying out, I made Tofu Saag With Corny Crackers.

And now, down to dregs, I heated a few tablespoons of Trader Joe's Lentil Soup With Ancient Grains (which is great on its own, but I also like to treat it as an ingredient), dumped in the saag dregs, along with some frozen mixed vegetables and artichoke hearts, a whole bunch of leftover watercress, and, once again, some tofu for protein:

Friday, October 30, 2015

Tofu Saag With Corny Crackers

Earlier this week, I cooked sarson ka saag (spicy puree of greens) and makki di roti (Punjabi cornbread). The next night, I perked up the leftovers by making Chicken Saag With Makki di Roti.

Today, I'd eaten chicken for lunch and didn't want to repeat, but I always try to eat a protein of some sort. So I cubed some tofu, braised it with cumin and jalapeño, then added it to the leftover saag. The makki di roti had dried out, so I made a virtue of it by grilling it (greaselessly) until quite dry, then I tore it up into pieces and floated it atop, ala corny crackers:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Chicken Saag With Makki di Roti

I previously explained how I'd cooked sarson ka saag (a spicy, garlicky dish of pureed greens) and makki di roti (corn roti).

And then there were leftovers! Here was my first variation:

I marinated (see my primer on marination) a couple pounds of chicken breast tenders in milk (sorry, ancestors), onion, saffron, cumin, and jalapeño for 45 minutes, then broiled until just barely brown on both sides. I chopped the chicken into bite sized chunks, added them to rewarmed sarson ka saag, and immediately served with leftover makki di roti, which I'd heated gently on the same cast iron griddle (no oil, just heat and a very watchful eye).

Using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods on a scale of 1 to 10, the previous night's efforts had rated a "7": Soulless but good (hey, it was my first time; I never expected to nail "good"!). Adding chicken (plus refrigeration's salubrious effect on the stew) bumped it up to an 8 ("Elicits vocal expression of pleasure. Appreciated with gusto").

As the French say, walla:

Since I'd used very little ghee, it was even healthy!

A note about chicken cutting. While I like vegetables cut professionally and evenly, I prefer bite-sized meat chunks cut more raggedly. I dislike the fibrous face of smoothly-cut cooked meats...there's a reason "pulled pork" (pulled everything these days) is so popular. Many creative triumphs stem from a willingness to try the wrong way!

Have a close look at the frontmost poultry in that photo, and I think you'll understand why I opted to hack it haphazardly with a dull butter knife. Same goes for the chicken in my very proud 5 minute taco recipe. You get better texture, mouthfeel diversity, and sauce-clingability with rough cutting.

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