Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Book Report: Animal Farm

I was flipping through my Google Reader feed last week when I spotted a blog post titled "Some Ants are More Equal Than Others."  Had I come across this title a few weeks earlier, I would have smiled at the turn of phrase and moved on.  Having just finished George Orwell's Animal Farm on the plane back from State College, however, I knew where it came from and the deeper meaning implied by my very well-read colleagues.  So what I'm saying is, I'm probably constantly missing cultural references and not even realizing it. (As opposed to when I don't recognize the people on the cover of the magazines in the checkout line.  I know that I'm missing a cultural reference and I'm fine with it.)  This may be the first of several "classics" I'll be reading this year.  Many of them, along with innumerable movies and albums, are on the list of things Geoff can't believe I've never read/seen/heard.

Unfortunately, when you read the the classics after you have already heard about them for years, some just don't tend to have the same impact.  After hearing about Catcher in the Rye being banned for years in schools around the country, I was expecting something a little more salacious and mostly just wanted Holden Caulfield to quite whining (I wasn't a particularly sympathetic teenager).  When I finally read On the Road, my synopsis was "get a job, hippie." So I guess it wouldn't surprise you that my thoughts on Animal Farm were "Yep, the the ideals of communism were corrupted in the Soviet Union."  I suppose the story may have had more punch in 1945.

Are there any "classics" you were disappointed by?  What about ones that exceeded your expectations?  I found Where Angels Fear to Treat and Of Mice and Men unexpectedly moving.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pho Real

While enjoying our third meal of pho in Seattle in June, I said to my friend Laurel, "Why couldn't I make pho at home?"  To which she presciently replied "Well, making the consomme will take all day and is impossible to keep clear."  

I spent the vast majority of a Sunday simmering four pounds of beef bones and two pounds of ox tails with onions, star anise, cinnamon, and black pepper corns.  I strained it and refrigerated it overnight so that the fat would congeal.  The texture of the stock was fantastic thanks to all the collagen in the bones, but the taste.......well, there wasn't any.  Luckily, I had some Penzey's beef base in the fridge.  About a quarter cup saved the day.

Having rescued the stock, I turned to the (pre-soaked) cellophane noodles.  I thinly sliced the sirloin and arranged it over onion slivers over the noodles and then poured on the boiling broth. By the time it was cool enough to eat, the meat was just cooked through.  Topped with cilantro, basil, mung beans, lime juice, hoisin, and sriracha - it was a hot bowl of happy.

In the end, it was good, but no thanks to the recipe I used.  The stock took far too long and the sirloin was fine, but the star of the dish was the shredded ox tail I added in.  So here is what I would do next time:

Pho My Way
Serves 4-6

12 cups water
1/3 cup beef base (I like Penzey's)
2 yellow onions, divided
1 daikon radish
8 star anise pods
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tsp. cloves
6 large ox tails
12 oz mung bean threads (cellophane noodles)

bean sprouts
hoisin sauce

1. Day 1: Bring water to a simmer and whisk in beef base.  Add 1 quartered onion, roughly chopped daikon, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and ox tails.  Simmer at least 4 hours or until marrow in ox tail is translucent.
2. Strain stock and reserve ox tails.  Shred oxtail meat (there will be lots of tendons, work around them - it's worth it).  Refrigerate meat and broth overnight.
3. Day 2: Skim fat from the broth and discard.  The broth will have gelled - this is a good thing.
4. Bring the broth back up to a simmer with the ox tail meat and a thinly sliced onion.  Check for salt.
5. While the broth is coming back to a boil, soak the noodles in warm water for 10-15 minutes.
6. Drain the noodles and divide among bowls.
7. Pour broth over the noodles and top as desired (I like it with everything).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dam It!

One of my 29 by 29 goals was to start swim and bike training for a triathlon, but I got a bit ahead of myself and  completed my very first triathlon this weekend.  The Dam '09 is a triathlon that takes place just a few miles from our house, so it was a perfect first race for me!

I never would have been able to do it without Mike and Veronica.  They not only lent me a bike and took me to swim class, but we trained together on this very course so that I felt really confident (albeit still a little nervous) when the race started.

We started off with a 400m (1/4 mile) swim, the discipline I'm most comfortable with.  I was number 152 with people starting every 10 seconds so I had a bit of time to get nervous while I waited to start.  Thankfully, all of that disappeared when I got in the water.  I passed 5 people during the swim, but I was determined to stay on my pace and not go out too hard.  I didn't want to be tired going into the 10 mile bike course.

The bike was the most challenging for me because I'm not used riding with lots of other cyclists.  The course was three loops over the same route so I pretty much constantly had people flying by me.  But I just focused on my race and tried not to get thrown off by their presence.  By the time I got to the 4 km (2.5 mi) run, I knew I had it.  I was tired, but the end was in sight!!

When I crossed the finish line, I was all smiles.  Geoff was there to cheer me on along with Mike, Veronica, and some friends of Mike's from work who had also competed.  My grin was so big that it got comments from the announcer. 

I completed the race in just under one and half hours (the time is adjusted based on when you start the swim).  My favorite thing about triathlons is that it is an individual event with racers of every level so I could just focus on running my own race and meeting my own goals.

When I finished, I felt like I could do anything!!!!!  If only my legs weren't so tired.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Foto Friday {21}

Saturday August 20: Splish Splash
Sunday August 21: Now the TSA agents know what a badass Geoff is
Monday August 22: Zapatista
Tuesday August 23: Still Blooming in the Heat
Wednesday August 24: Forever
Thursday August 25: A Bit of Rain
Friday August 26: Carboloading
BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Visitors Brave the Heat

My parents and grandma braved the intense Texas summer to come visit us two weeks ago.  They drove down so they could stop and see family in Oklahoma and the next day we put them back in the car to drive back up to Austin.

We hit up IKEA in the morning for supplies for a fantastic trundle bed I'll show you how to make very soon.  Then we headed for the famous Salt Lick restaurant for BBQ.

The food was delicious.  We shared a combo platter with a bit of each of their types of open-pit cooked meats and the special - a brisket burger smothered in queso and roasted peppers. Messy, but oh so good.  Grandma, in her white shirt, spilled not a drop of sauce.  The rest of us were not so neat.

After lunch, we headed to the LBJ Presidential library which had quite a bit of biographical information, but also a great exhibit of the radical movements of the '60s.  It is on the University of Texas campus and free to visit so I highly recommend a stop if you are in the area.

The next stop of our jam-packed day was the Collings guitar factory outside of Austin.  They only offer tours on Friday afternoons, but if you can make it there, it is incredible.

Each guitar takes about three months to make, not including the careful drying and rehumidifying of the wood.  One very experienced man matches the front and back boards based on their sound quality before the blanks are cut. Just prior to final assembly, the pieces are returned to him for "voicing" and he shaves off minute layers from the inside of the guitar top.

In addition to making just 1200 guitars each year, the factory produces 600 mandolins.  The craftsmanship is easy to appreciate even for someone like me who knows nothing about guitars.

While we were finishing up the tour, Grandma was out in the lobby chatting with Bill Collings.  The owner was waiting to see how our tour went.

After dinner, we headed for the Congress Avenue bridge to see more than a million bats emerging to feast on the plentiful South Texas insects.  This spectacle goes on for the better part of half an hour.  If you have never seen this, I can't recommend it highly enough.  It is a bit surreal.

As I watched the ribbon of bats wind across the sky, I couldn't help but wonder what it would take to install a colony in our backyard to deal with the mosquitoes.  Saturday and Sunday, we took it a bit easier with trips to the farmer's market, cool projects around the house, and dinner with Mike and Veronica.   

On Monday, we visited the Witte Museum to check out their Amazon exhibit.  The focus was on the many dangers of the Amazon River.

Mom was so scared  of the piranhas that she headed back to land-locked Kansas the very next day!

The trip was short but lots of fun.  It was a great reminder to play tourist in our own town more often!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Foto Friday Twofer {19 & 20}

Saturday August 6: Fig Pizzas on the Grill

Sunday August 7: Stocking Up

Monday August 8: Evening in Austin with Matt and Nita

Tuesday August 9: Fresh Skein

Wednesday August 10: Failed Display

Thursday August 11: Grandma is Here!

Friday August 12: Sunset over the Congress Street bridge

Saturday August 13: Sewing Project with Mom

Sunday August 14: Green and Purple Okra

Monday August 15: Piranha Food 
Tuesday August 16: Clara puts Orang to Bed

Wednesday August 17: Atop Mt. Nittany

Thursday August 18: Thai Honeymoon Record Release Party

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Feeding Friendship: White Beans with Rosemary and Mushrooms

When Sarah picked rosemary as the theme ingredient, I thought, "Yay! I love rosemary."  But really, I don't cook with it as much as I should.  Two of my favorite flavors with rosemary are mushrooms and white beans, but that combination seemed a little to heavy for summer time.  So I lightened them up with some caramelized tomatoes.

I highly recommend roasting the tomatoes and making the stock ahead of time so that you can put together a quick week night dinner.  You could certainly use a store-bought chicken or veggie stock, but I save the tough bits of vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, and mushrooms as well as chicken trimmings for making stocks.

So that's it.  Roast about 3 pints of different colored small tomatoes with about 20 crimini mushroom cut in quarters.  Add to 4 cups stalk along with one caramelized onion, 1 can of cannelini beans,  4 cloves of garlic and about 4 sprigs of fresh chopped rosemary and simmer for as long as it takes to make cornbread.  Dinners ready!

Feeling thirsty?  Here is a bonus rosemary recipe: Boozy Watermelon Rosemary Lemonade  It's particularly good with a splash of club soda and served up alongside fig and prosciutto pizza with rosemary and caramelized onions.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tacos al Pastor

The most complex part of making tacos al pastor (Geoff's all-time favorite type of taco) was constructing the rotisserie, like so:

photo by Madhav Pai Licenced under Creative Commons
Just Kidding!  Obviously, authentic vertically spit-roasted pork at home isn't feasible.  But slicing the meat to about 1/2 inch think and cooking it over a very hot grill did a surprisingly good job of replicating the char and still yielded juicy meat.  

The internet (source of all authentic cultural information) indicates that this particular type of taco is a Mexicanized version of the gyro that came with Lebanese immigrants.  True or not, the marinade that I found at Mexico: Food, Drinks, and More  yielded deliciously vinegary and sweet meat.  I thinly sliced the pork loin before marinading to maximize the surface area and then grilled it alongside some onions.  

The meat was pretty tasty on it's own with just the grilled onions on top but I felt that the tacos really needed some more moisture in the form of a spicy avocado salsa.  (Really, I think anything is better with avocados.)

But the best topping (it's an easy meal to put together so go a little crazy with the condiments) was the pineapple salsa I made.  Just fresh pineapple, lime, onions, jalapenos, and cilantro.  Even if you don't make the tacos, make the salsa.

I also parcooked some ears of corn in the microwave before finishing them on the grill and then brushing them with a butter-lime-chile powder mix.  You know, because vegetables are important.

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