Monday, September 29, 2014

Reheating Triumph, Recounting Failure

I don't mean to brag, but I'm a virtuoso of reheating. When I'm really "on", I can do more with leftovers than many chefs can from scratch. It's a product of necessity; having authored enough guide books and nabe-survey articles for my refrigerator to have hosted a dizzying assortment of greasy takeout bags and boxes, I've invested way more time and energy into learning to reheat than I ever did learning to cook. My analogy is to hip-hop studio guys who sample, mix down and otherwise reuse preexistent material. They may not be able to compose or perform, but they've developed an uncanny ability to repurpose and recycle.

I wrote an article about my reheating techniques several years ago, but have never posted it publicly. I guess I'm hoping to one day publish it as an article or book. But last night I killed it so utterly - putting together an excruciatingly delicious dinner from so-so leftovers in under ten minutes - that I feel compelled to share.

My fridge contained:
One overcooked chicken breast
One takeout container of slightly dry hummus
One takeout container of marinated portobello mushrooms
Some scallions

I cut thin 1"x 1" x 1/4" slices off the chicken breast. I chopped the mushrooms and three scallions. I briefly sautéed everything in a pan with just a bit of olive oil at medium heat. I didn't manipulate anything (leftovers don't like to be handled much), didn't even stir the ingredients. I added only black pepper. Meanwhile, I steamed the broccolini.

I spread the hummus around a plate. I dumped the chicken/mushroom/scallop mixture on top of it. I drizzled fantastic extra virgin olive oil on the broccolini, plus some Turkish Aleppo pepper flakes (from Penzeys). If I hadn't used a nonstick pan, I might have deglazed to make sauce. But, really, it wasn't necessary (and I didn't sauteé long enough to gather much browned protein, anyway).

Sometimes the whole exceeds the parts. I live for such moments. In fact, it's literally all I care about. To me, that's magic; that's why we want to be alive; everything else is a function of humans-as-livestock. And this turned out to be a rather extreme example. So much so that I'm questioning whether I should even post this, given how prosaic and uninteresting every move I've described above seems upon rereading (remember "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies", where I struggled, unsuccessfully, to explain how a guy wielding the recipe on the Quaker oatmeal box was consistently able to produce the best cookies I - or any of his friends - had ever tasted?). How do you explain magic? As the Von tale illustrates, you can't - least of all the magician responsible! The meta-secret is that the magician never reveals his secrets because he has no idea!

As I scarfed this dinner, it sounded like the soundtrack for a porno movie. The deliciousness was a "10". But as with Von's cookies, it's likely that you couldn't recreate it. In fact, I probably couldn't, either (unlike Von, who reliably rang the bell every time). 

I launched into writing this with great brio, confident I'd be sharing something of serious worth. But there's nothing here. I have no insights, no connections...nothing*. I just know that I was (pleasurably) run over by an aesthetic freight train of my own creation, yet, like Von, I have no idea what the hell happened.

* - some pretty good links, however...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Anti-Hounds

I haven't sweated Chowhound's dilution over the years. I never expected the site to last anywhere near this long (we're coming up on twenty years!), so its mere survival strikes me as pretty freakin' dayenu.

But when I see clots of site regulars indignantly and mindlessly railing about how there's nothing good to eat in some locale, when they haven't invested the least effort into sniffing out off-radar treasure - or even considered doing so! - it drives me crazy. How did it become comfortable (much less fashionable) to be diametrically anti-Chowhound on

I just interrupted some site "veterans" moaning about White Plains, NY (one of the best - and broadest - little food towns anywhere) by offering a litany of superabundant treasure they've missed. It won't go well, of course. They'll try one or two places, order cluelessly, eat naively (the Sichuan food's too oily/spicy!"), and happily resume their prejudices and false assumptions. Or perhaps not even that (consider how this played out). The only outcome beyond imagining would be for these guys to go out and jubilantly bask in all these great places. If that was their shtick, they would never have gotten to this point in the first place!

I've been making this point forever: the stuff that's pushed at you is the product of devoted pushers, not devoted creators. The best course is to resist the misdirection and proactively hunt for your own treasure; suss out the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who do earnest, loving, inspiring work. They're hidden, and uncovering them is your task, not anyone else's. If the only options on your plate are the shiny, obvious, talked-about and passively-received options, you will miss the greatness - and, just as sadly, you'll miss the chance to support the greatness, which is often plied from a precarious foothold. Cream does not often rise!

But, alas, once you've fallen in love with your prejudices and false assumptions, truth feels like poison. People would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Resurrection Wine

I used to play music in Lisbon with a Portuguese count (third in line for succession if they'd ever brought back the monarchy) who was a terrific guitarist. His name was a long series of generically European-sounding hyphenates, and he spoke English with an accent from a previous century, perfectly matching his flamboyant snow-white mustache. His family, among many other things, had produced some of the 20th century's best port wine.

And he taught me a trick. If you keep a wine long, long past its time - until well after its quality dips - it will often resurrect into something wonderful and different. It's just a question of patience. He even did this with white wines (never intended to be aged). I was once served, in his impoverished palace with copiously leaky roof, a good white he'd patiently laid down for decades which displayed the qualities of aged champagne - nutty and honeyed. It was great!

So this week I discovered that I'd inadvertently aged a case of "Sangre De Toro", a so-so Catalan garnacha no one considers a laying-down wine, for 20 years. Yesterday I opened a bottle, and it had real character! It could almost have passed for "stately"! Serious wine! The problem is that over-aged wines only enjoy fifteen minutes or so of grandeur before falling apart (if you swirl, they'll self-destruct even sooner, the wine already having been subjected to as much oxygen as it can stand)*. But within that short window, a decent wine can dramatically over-achieve (if not - if it tastes nasty or faded - just leave the other bottles alone for another decade).

I once got to taste an 1874 Bordeaux (which certainly was made to be aged). It fell apart in my glass within 3 minutes...but those three minutes were great!

* - If you quickly seal and refrigerate the remainder of the bottle, you might squeeze an extra day out of it.

The Minefield of Low-Hanging Fruit

Today's XKCD comic makes an interesting point:

I've spent a lot of time with computer programmers, trying to coax them into adding this or that feature. And given that it's incredibly hard for laymen to judge which tasks are easy and which are difficult, you can find yourself unintentionally pushing buttons.

For example, you might ask a programmer if he can add feature X, and he might reply, "No problem, that's easy!". You ask about adding feature Y, and he says the same. Then you raise the possibility of feature Z, and he snaps at you, because this one is really hard and would take a long time and be a major headache.

After being snapped at a few times, you learn to ask differently - in a timid, defensive crouch - because you lack the expertise to judge difficulty, and people, for some reason, can't handle even the mere mention of crushingly difficult tasks.

"Hey, Stu, it's not, like, necessary or anything, but I was just wondering if it might be a simple thing to add feature A?"

"Oh, that's no problem; yeah, I can do that super-easy!"

"Fantastic! Let's do it! Hey, I hate to press my luck, but if that was easy, how about this other totally-not-a-high-priority feature B? Hypothetically, might that be also be super-easy?"

"Yup! That's easy too! I'll get on it!"

"Ok, well, hah-hah, if I'm on a streak of finding nice easy jobs, might feature C also be something you could throw in without any trouble at all?"

"What are you, trying to fucking kill me? That would take weeks, and I'm already up to here with your stupid project! Please wait while I throw my coffee cup angrily at the wall and check my email to see whether any other job offers have arrived!"

It's like a minefield; stepping gently won't avert maiming explosions. One option is to simply stop asking for stuff, but it's dangerously tempting when some task proposals are greeted with such cheerful nonchalance. You find yourself trying to to add on as much "low-hanging fruit" as possible, but you're shooting blind, unable to gauge what's low-hanging fruit and what's crushingly impossible. And while the person you're talking to does have that expertise, he will exhibit the emotional steadiness of a first-trimester expectant mother. Even if he maintains a poker-face the first few times, you must know that, behind the mask, he is loathing you.

It's not just a problem with computer scientists. It's a bug in the human operating system. I've seen it with contractors, plumbers (at least ones who aren't on the clock), etc.. And I've even experienced it from the other side as a writer, editor, musician, and arranger.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Free Online Knife Skills Class

A chef and cooking teacher named Brendan McDermott taught a legendary knife skills class at Brooklyn Kitchen. It got super popular and was written up by WSJ and New York Magazine, but McDermott moved to Chicago before I could take it.

I just noticed, however, that he's recorded a video version, and it's viewable online for free at Craftsy, an educational site called (note:you may need to create a free account to view that link).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Viewing Tips

Add to my list of current TV fascinations "The Bridge", on FX. As usual, I agree with TV critic Alan Sepinwall in appreciating its beautifully drawn and acted characters, oddball sensibility, and evocative border atmosphere. In its first season, the series was saddled with the task of adapting a Danish serial killer story, a plot line that was a bit of a dog. The second season goes elsewhere, and has been vastly better and more ambitious. It's been slow-building, growing exponentially more wonderful each week. At this point, I think Sepinwall's right in comparing it to "The Wire" in its scope and patience.

The golden age of television has been zero sum; as TV's gotten great, film's been really stinking it up. It's been years since I left a movie theater thinking it had been worth the foray from my television set, though I loved Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance in "A Most Wanted Man". I did, however, enjoy a preview screening of "Art and Craft", which opens elsewhere this week. It's about an art forger who operates legally - he gives his work away, pretending to be a wealthy collector, so there's no issue of fraud.

The story is all kinds of whacky. The guy pushes paint around with his finger while distractedly watching TV and his current weapon of choice is a large format color printer (results from which he doctors in various ways), and there's no reason for his output to be anywhere near as sublime as it is. He's also paranoid schizophrenic, complete with highly dysfunctional affect, but as the story unfolds we see that he's whip smart and drolly self-aware; the real crazy is the egotistical out-of-work museum official obsessed with taking him down.

I'm a sucker for movies about art and creativity (my faves to date: The Five Obstructions, How to Draw a Bunny, Marwencol(available on Netflix), and Fairweather Man, about this guy...and then there's my own piddling and crushingly amateurish effort, "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies"). While I'm not sure "Art and Craft" is in the same league as the first four of those, it's worth watching.

Finally, for those more into Jerry Lewis than I am (i.e. just about anyone), and with a hat tip to Barry Strugatz, here's a freaky YouTube offering: a two hour cinéma vérité backstage peek as Jerry prepares for his 1989 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Why it's in black and white, I have no idea.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Get On Lipitor Now

I've read all the debate about statin drugs such as Lipitor. I know about the (small) possibility of muscle cramps and liver problems, and those are only the legit concerns. The Internet's full of humbug conjecture about how Lipitor's one of the big bads of big pharma.

Everyone I know with actual scientific acumen loves the drug. My long-time technical advisor Pierre says it may even grow back cardiac arteries around blockage. He says Lipitor is one's friend. And my doctor - ordinarily not the type to suggest frivolous medication - had urged it on me 15 years ago. I'd received a borderline high cholesterol reading, and she told me it's a really good drug which she really wanted me to take, and I asked whether I could try to address the problem with diet and exercise.

I lost a bunch of weight, the cholesterol came down to high-normal, and we let it go. Since then, my weight's been high, it's been low, my diet's been immaculate, and my diet's been dodgy. And, to make a long story short, last week I had a stent put in to relieve congestion in one of my blood vessels. My cholesterol, which I hadn't had checked in some time (hey, my diet and fitness were fine!), was through the roof.

No worries. The stent fixed things perfectly, and I'll have no lingering issues going forward. But only because I was lucky.

I'm now on the maxi dose of Lipitor, and cursing myself for having been such an idiot - for ignoring my doctor and my most informed friends. For the first half of the 20th century, we were all pill happy, what with all the medical miracles appearing all the time. Then the pendulum swung (as pendulums always swing) too far the other way, and many of us have come to treat our doctors as if they were trying to kill us with drugs. And maybe they are, who knows. But Lipitor is different. Here's the thing to understand:

Medicine has gotten miraculously good at treating cardiac issues. Better than you've even heard! I should not be alive right now. If alive, I ought to be hobbled. Instead, I'm bopping around, same as ever, running up steps and standing on my head. It's fantastic, it's downright futuristic! But it's only because the blockage happened to be noticed and reversed early. If it hadn't been, none of those miracle procedures would have helped. I'd have been 1923-style hobbled, or even dead.

And the thing about congestion is that you don't know if you've got it. I felt completely okay in the days leading up to the discovery. So it's a crap shoot. If discovered early, you might remain as futuristically vibrant as I've wound up. If not, welcome to 1923.

If (big "if"!) you have high cholesterol and/or family history, you have no way of knowing whether you have a ticking time bomb in your chest, and Lipitor is your friend. If your doctor has ever suggested Lipitor, and you've resisted out of pure obstinate anti-pill sentiment, don't be a moron like I was. Get on the pills and enjoy the privilege of good health. There are people out there trying to convince us that cholesterol's a red herring and Lipitor's a bugaboo. The thing is, though, that our hearts really like oxygen a lot. That's sufficient imperative to disregard the noise and the nonsense.

To repeat: I am completely okay. No restrictions, no recuperation. It's like nothing ever happened. So there's no need for sympathy, concern, wishes for a speedy recovery, or anything like that. Hey, welcome to the future (I'm feeling a lot less miffed about not having a jet-pack).

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