Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lost All Comments

I just realized that when I changed to the new template, I lost six years of comments. 


Monday, November 30, 2009

WEEK 5: Disaster Pie, or Butterscotch Cream Pudding Cookie Shit

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 6:10pm--copied from Facebook note.

**WARNING**: Rated FB-MA LV. Mature audiences only. Strong language, brief violence. Don't bitch about my goddamn language if you keep reading. It's been THAT KIND OF DAY.

After watching the Good Eats episode on pie crust about four times, I figured any pie woman worth her flour must make beautiful crust. From scratch. Refrigerated pie crusts are for sissies, and don't even get me started on that lifeless, frozen, crust-in-a-tin shit.

I copied the recipe onto an index card, straight from the show, in which Alton Brown used science and special effects to create the perfect crust. Two little pugilist puppets, one sporting an F for flaky, the other T for tender, popped up from behind to beat the shit out of AB at strategic moments as he explained coating flour molecules with butter and how to perfectly roll it all out. I had that goddamn show near memorized.

I awoke obscenely early, excited to bake the butterscotch cream pie recipe that came out so well a couple of weeks ago for Thanksgiving Day dinner tomorrow with the fam. Except instead of the vanilla-bean whipped cream on top, a vanilla-bean meringue would put the fresh whipped cream to shame.

I stuck my nicely chopped, flour-coated butter chunks into the fridge with the dry ingredients and the metal bowl and the rolling pin, and allowed everything to get cold while I reread the recipe six times.

The first sign of trouble: the food processor didn't have enough torque to chop up the cold butter. You're supposed to pulse, since running it steadily heats up the motor and melts the butter. There goes any hope for the fucking Flaky puppet.

I pulsed that goddamn thing like 50 times. The asshole butter, most of it in its original size and shape without discernible shape change, mocked me from inside the plastic bowl. I could picture the gluten molecules forming as I kept pulsing, the ones that would toughen the dough. And there goes any hope for the fucking Tender puppet.

So then the recipe demands you drop it all into the chilled bowl. I knew the tablespoon-sized lumps of butter were probably not right, so I pulled them out and broke them up manually. I hit the top of it with the spray bottle, correctly filled with crushed ice, water, and frozen apple juice concentrate. Then you fold the cold water/juice in with a rubber spatula, spray, fold, repeat, until you can grab a handful of it, squeeze it, and it holds its shape.

On the show, AB squirted/folded I dunno, four times. I was up to ten and had refilled the squirt bottle when I figured I just wasn't squeezing the handful hard enough. So I gave it another good soaking, compacted it all into a ball, and chilled it for 20 minutes, after which it was supposed to magically emerge looking and behaving like dough. AB said the resting period gave the moisture a chance to get all up in the molecules, or some such shit.

I pulled it out, and it was still dry. It didn't make sense. I'd FAR exceeded the water content in the recipe. And I was sure there was enough overhandling-produced gluten at this point to make pretzels out of it, but soldiered on. I soaked it again, put it back in the chillbox, and pretty much said Fuck It when it still felt dry 20 minutes later.

This shit was getting old. The lump of "dough" looked about twice what it should have, enough for at least two pies. I rolled it out.

See this shit?? The edges are dry as fuck, and if you look, you can see the rolled-flat butter pats.

I tossed it in the pie plate, did what I could to make the dry edges look pretty, lined the inside with foil, and tossed in the pie weights for the blind baking phase.

After 10 minutes, I pulled it out and removed the foil/weights. Holy fucking shit, are you fucking kidding me? There sat a pool of butter, right on the crust. I kicked the dog. Back in the oven for the rest of the pre-bake, no going back now.

Would it make YOUR momma proud? If so, slap that bitch and tell her to stick to sissy crust.  It looks like a fucking Lorna Doone some retard burned in the toaster.

I sampled a bit—very buttery, actually tasted pretty good. So I said Fuck It again, started in on the butterscotch and meringue.

Having made the butterscotch before, I actually know what I’m doing there. You cook butter and brown sugar together, then add evaporated milk, then add a separate mixture of more evaporated milk, hot regular milk, egg yolks, vanilla, and cornstarch. You stir this on medium for about 13 minutes, until it’s thick and silky. It’s pretty damn good and don’t even try to keep your fingers out of it.

I have these perfectly lovely vanilla beans from Madagascar, but they're about three years old.  Rock hard and bone-ass dry.  I had to simmer them in the butterscotch milk for about 15 minutes to soften them up enough to split and scrape out the seeds.  At this point, I've been making this goddamn pie for a couple of hours.

I’ve never made meringue, let’s be clear on this point. Seems simple enough, you beat some egg whites, a dash of cream of tartar, sugar, plus seeds from three vanilla beans in my version, until you get stiff peaks. Spread that shit on top of the butterscotch, bake until the top gets all golden-delicious.

Ladies, do you remember that nail polish when you were a kid that you brush on, then it peels right off? Did it ever cross your mind that 30 years later, you'd make a pie that would remind you of that shit?

I swear, this shit was only in the oven for about five goddamn minutes. I peeled that goddamn meringue off to find some shit had gone all liquid on top of my prized butterscotch and soaked all the visible crust. I sopped it off like you do with a greasy piece of pizza, dabbing at it with a paper towel.

The kitchen looks like some asshole opened up a fire extinguisher. It’s now almost noon. I’ve been at this shit ALL MORNING. Out of curiosity, I looked up the recipe online. And it was TOTALLY DIFFERENT. Apparently, the 2.5 sticks of butter from the goddamn show was about half a stick too many. My hero failed me!!

I opened the trash can, poised to toss the whole fucking mess in. But then I looked at the butterscotch. I took a taste. Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Rich and silky.

So I extracted the soggy bits of crust, wrapped the pan, and stuck it in the fridge. The butterscotch has to set up overnight.

The aftermath. It looks like someone's goddamn stuffed animal that spent a year outside in the rain.  Oh, and that other pie pan in the background with shit all sticking up out of it?  Was the first pie crust.  The one I rolled out before putting the second asshole back in the fridge with more cold water.  It tasted great, and so became dog biscuits.  Moonpie and Balzac were very pleased.

In the morning, seeded three more vanilla beans, added some sugar, and whipped up some fresh vanilla cream. Great thing about that shit? You can make enough to cover Disaster Pie all the way to the edges, just cover that shit right up. I called it a backwards-ass cobbler and brought it to Thanksgiving anyway.

Where it was devoured.  Folks even went back for seconds.  That butterscotch soaked into the butter-laded trainwreck, and with the cream on top, tasted pretty damn good!

Here's the other project for the day:  TURDUCKEN.

I've never roasted one before, and it took ALMOST SEVEN HOURS.  Thing about turducken, it's solid meat and stuffing, compacted together, all 15 pounds of it.

It emerged from the oven after we'd eaten the other turkey and finished dessert.  As soon as it landed on the kitchen island, all the men descended like buzzards to poke and pick at it.  It more or less fell apart when we lifted it from the pan to a serving platter, which was quite the operation in and of itself.

WOW it's good.  I'm still devouring the copious leftovers.

The Pie Chronicles, Weeks 1-4

I've been baking pies, one a week, since mid-October. Well, and there was this one September pie when peaches were in season.

It turned out so well, I vowed to bake more. Most of September, however, got sucked into a Moot Court competition, during which there were no pies, just a lot of late nights in my little garage apartment/office.

I became somewhat obsessed with pies in October, during which it rained over 9 inches, setting records, flooding cities, and driving us all indoors to seek comfort food.

I started with a lovely pumpkin pie, for which I roasted a sugar pumpkin. Have you ever roasted a pumpkin? Best to don your fencing getup, complete with heavily-padded gloves, facemask, the whole deal. Slicing that bitch damn near put me in the hospital and entailed a comic display involving some pretty colorful language, several knives, the countertop, and the floor, which worked best of all for finally smashing the damn gourd.

I think next time, I'll just put the whole goddamn pumpkin in the oven, slice it once it's softened. It's not the same as a jack-o-lantern pumpkin--sugar pumpkins have much tougher outer flesh. I ate the entire pumpkin's seed content (roasted, of course) while working on the rest of the pie.

Most pies made from canned pumpkin look and taste roughly the same, which is to say, pretty damn good. But after all that drama, this pie better be fucking amazing.

It was. The roasted pumpkin bestowed a much richer flavor and a toothy texture you don't get from canned. I whipped cream with powdered sugar and Amaretto, and dobbed it on top.

Then came the butterscotch cream pie. The recipe came from Cooking Light, and involves actually making the butterscotch--no nancy-ass, ice cream topping bullshit here.

The pie came out much better than the picture, which simply cannot do the vanilla-bean whipped cream topping justice. The butterscotch tasted silky and rich, despite my using that Splenda brown sugar for baking stuff.

Then on to chess pie, which I haven't had in years and reminds me very strongly of my late mother. She baked amazing chess pies, and in the chaos that followed her death, I never found her little box of recipes.

For the uninitiated, chess pie is a Southern classic. It's like the filling in pecan pie, that fabulous, gooey, set-your-mouth sweetness. You're supposed to serve it with strong coffee, which makes a gorgeous contrast, two completely different richnesses.

I couldn't decide between lemon and classic chess pie, so I made one of each.  I prebaked the crusts, and MacGuyvered a little trick to keep the edges from burning:

Alligator clips.

I won't waste good chess by contaminating it with lemon again. The lemon overpowered all other flavors, the crust went gummy, the filling a bit watery, and there was just no redeeming it.  I gave a little away and nibbled at it, then tossed it.

The classic chess pie, though, a whole 'nuther story.

It was perfect with coffee, but a tiny slice at a time proved all I could handle.

*Sidenote*:  These pies get distributed throughout Oxford, mostly to my family.  I've brought them to the law school and to work.  Last Christmas, I gave my Uncle Gene a gingerbread-of-the-month club, and it wasn't one of those always-disappointing mail clubs.  Gene got gingerbread little cakes (FABULOUS ginger cookies), several variations on gingerbread, and anything else I could think of.  I bought several large packages of crystallized ginger to use instead of raisins, with very tasty results. 

I got busy and kind of fell off, and then came the DC summer internship.  I was behind on my promise.  So he's gotten at least 1/3 of everything I've done, all fall, from the peach cobblers to all the pies, and I always bake up a storm of biscotti during the holidays.  He seems to really like the steady supply, and it all stays off my ass.

Onward to Week 4, key lime pie.  There isn't much to note on this one--it's so easy, a refrigerated pie, came out well enough.  It's basically just lime juice/zest, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks.  Nothing to get all excited about, as you can really only do so much with bottled key lime juice.  I'll work on this one when the weather warms back up and a cool key lime pie will refresh the palate.

This pie met an unfortunate fate.  Determined not to break my pie-a-week goal at only four weeks, I made it the night before driving down to New Orleans to meet up with an old friend for the weekend.  I left a slice for my cousin, and put the key lime pie in the back seat. 

It didn't travel well.  Thing about a refrigerated pie?  It needs to stay in the refrigerator.

The crust bugged the shit out of me.  It was a store-bought Nilla job, and completely fell apart on top.  The product design and quality are just piss-poor.  You have to ruin the edges just to get the plastic cover off the top.  Total crap.

I've also had some issues with the refrigerated pie crusts.  They are a bit too wet, and shrink up during the pre-bake.  And they just don't bring anything special to the party.

This Nilla crust bullshit was the last straw.  NO MORE, I vowed.  I have purchased my last crust.  Week 5=CRUST.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What I'm Doing This Summer

As I'm down to posting about once a quarter, I thought I'd post about my experience as a law clerk in the Department of Defense's Office of the General Counsel.  I'm in the Legal Counsel division, which puts out the considerable fires that inevitably crop up within the highest legal authority for the world's largest employer with two active combat operations underway.

The section as a whole deals primarily with Guantanamo. Which, as one could easily imagine, looks about like four monkeys, a football, and a can of Crisco.  I had a couple of research projects supporting it earlier this summer, but lately I've focused on KBR litigation.

For those of you who aren't familiar with DOD's alphabet soup, KBR is the Halliburton subsidiary that provides logistical support to the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are a whole passel of personal injury actions against them, the latest of which involves environmental exposure.
One line of cases stems from their operation of massive burn pits.  Plaintiffs allege KBR burned any manner of toxins in there, and those exposed now suffer from a host of respiratory problems (including lung cancer, in a couple of the cases), allegedly resulting from their prolonged exposure to the noxious smoke and fumes.

The other cases arise from a restoration project in southern Iraq of a water plant that was, Plaintiffs claim, covered in hexavalent chromium, a highly carcinogenic compound.  The National Guard soldiers tasked with providing security for the restoration project have sued for medical care expenses, past and future, and other personal injury damages.

Political question doctrine is a judiciary mechanism supporting constitutional separation of powers.  In a nutshell, it means if you get injured/killed by, say, a plane crash caused by an F-16 that clipped your wing because you flew into protected / no-fly national defense air space without filing a flight plan, you're out of luck.  Reason being, the court would have to question the wisdom of sending out the fighter jets to visually identify your aircraft as friendly, and the tactics employed by the pilots.  Which means, decisions made by the Executive branch.  Not allowed.

Battlefield contractors have often employed the political question doctrine as an affirmative defense to these suits, with mixed results.  Most recently, one case (Harris v. Kellogg, Brown & Root) arose out of the electrocution death of a soldier in the shower in Iraq.  It was all over the news, you know the case, Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth.

Political question defense failed.  The Western District of Pennsylvania found that no military decisions need be reviewed in determining if KBR was negligent in their performance of the electrical maintenance contract.  The jury would not, as KBR contended, need to question the wisdom of housing the soldiers at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex, or the decision to contract for "Level B" maintenance.  

One would assume that "Level B" translates to not getting electrocuted in the shower.  That's a gross oversimplification on my part, I admit.

On the other hand, see Carmichael v. KBR, decided June 30 of this year.  Carmichael is the first and only federal appeals court decision affirming a political question dismissal in a battlefield contractor liability action.  

SGT Carmichael was severely injured when the KBR fuel tanker in which rode overturned.  The accident occurred outside the wire during a treacherous convoy mission on a curvy, cratered road right through an area in which insurgent attacks were common.  

The Eleventh Circuit determined that the military controlled virtually every aspect of the convoy, which was essentially a combat mission.  As such, the decisions made by military commanders (route, speed, distance between vehicles--all potential causes of the accident) would come under review.  Executive branch decisions=separation of powers issues.

So do the environmental exposure cases look more like Harris or Carmichael, given the facts in each?  I won't comment on it here--buy me a drink and I'll opine on it.

What this all boils down to:  I'm getting to work on national-level, emerging legal issues.  It has been amazing.  I've learned more in the last seven weeks than in my entire second semester of law school.  Well, maybe not, but it sure feels that way.  

I love this job.  I actually look forward to work.  I can only hope like hell that I can find a job as an attorney that feels this satisfying.  

Friday, May 15, 2009

*Sigh* Call me the queen of unfinished business. Things got far too busy in law school to get my seed flats into the ground. Now that finals are over, it has rained nonstop, and I can't till. So I've settled on a bunch of containers sporting varieties of brandywine tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs. They'll come with me to DC. I leave in less than a week.
So the subject for today is Delta tamales.

I was first exposed to tamales in El Paso, TX, when I was stationed there at Biggs Army Airfield from 2000-2002. Gas stations and convenience stores there sell tamales much like similar stores sell fried chicken and tater logs here in Mississippi. And like the Mississippi counterparts, the pickins in such places constitute some of the best regional food available.

The El Paso tamales were fairly large, the fillings about the size of a deck of cards. They were creamy with seasoned masa spiked with chicken, green chiles, and queso fresco, which they called "farmer's cheese" in Colombia. It's like the lovechild of ricotta and mozzerella--very mild, a bit crumbly, and creamy when melted. I bought these tamales by the dozen and kept them in the mini-fridge in my barracks room.

Then there was the unfortunate Arizona stint, but Sierra Vista is a completly philistine, strip mall town. I had wonderful tamales in Tucson and Cafe Poca Cosa, which is a must-do in Tucson. It's run by a former CIA (the cooking school, not the Agency) instructor, and there is no set menu. She writes it on chalkboards, and it depends on what she finds fresh that morning. Her tamales were much sweeter than the green-chile variety, and studded with mole-drenched pork. They elicited the same response from every guest I ever brought up there with my repeated, "You've got to try this place." Silence always fell over the table, broken only by the occasional, "Holy HELL this is good," etc. This came about when I was in military intelligence officer training in 2002, then again in 2005-2007.

Fast-forward to 2009, and I've moved back to Oxford. Enter Honest Abe's tamales, built onto the Rebel Barn, which was the smart-ass response to the ordinance against selling cold beer. Rebel Barn was a drive-through, open on both ends, and they stored the beer in the carport you drove through. So in the short winter, you could buy cold beer.

I'm willing to wait for my beer to chill at home, since the trade-off is the best Delta tamales around.

Delta tamales are very different from their Hispanic counterpart, and a great example of how ethnic recipes evolve into something entirely new and more appropriate to its "new" region. Where the non-Delta tamales are steamed, fairly large, and creamy from the masa, Delta tamales are about the size and shape of a large cigar, boiled in wonderfully spicy broths that can vary from cumin to garlic and everything in between, and filled with spiced ground beef and cornmeal. They are also sometimes filled with barbeque pulled pork--I have yet to try these and plan to road trip to Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I am a barbeque stalker and the combination of pulled pork with broth and cornmeal sounds like a gift from divine Providence.

Last night, on a friend's recommendation, I ordered up a dozen at Honest Abe's here in Oxford, in the now-rennovated Rebel Barn. I wasn't sure why the guy told me to hold it level, as he'd ladled in the cooking juices. I began to understand as I placed them on the flat floorboard of my car and the enclosure immediately filled with the smell of garlic.

At home, I opened the box to see these string-tied packets of cigar-shaped corn husks soaking in reddish-brown broth. Sensing that the broth was part of the deal, I untied them, unrolled and disposed of the husks, poured the broth onto the plate, and heated up some corn tortillas.

Tearing off little pieces of tortillas and grabbing up the innards is how I ate them out west. Here, most people eat them with saltines. I swear by the tortillas, though, it's the only way to go. So that's what I did--little pieces of tortilla, grab up some innards, sop up some of the juice...and it was heavenly. I ate six and could have tucked into the rest, if not for the portion-conscious habits that have kept off the 20+ pounds I lost in Iraq. Instead, I ate the other six for breakfast.

That spicy, garlicy broth perfectly set off the somewhat solid log of cornmeal and spicy ground beef. The texture is just right. Tamales can be slimy if not prepared by skilled hands, and these spoke of a master's touch.

They ain't pretty. They ain't sophisticated. They have a cult following and they've been traveling around the Mississippi Delta since before the Depression (the first one). It is said that they originated from a Mexican migrant worker, then adapted to ingredients available in Greenwood, Clarksdale, and all over the Delta. Former slaves sold them from carts, folks started making them in their own kitchens to sell off the porch, and small mom and pops added them to their menus of steak and fried chicken.

Want more? Check these out:

Given that I didn't linger to find my camera and snap pics before I tucked in last night, I've tactically appropriated Gourmet's picture. I'll take pics of Honest Abe's next time I eat 'em.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

New Direction

OK, since I can't get it together to write interesting posts these days, I think I'll document the progress of my first serious gardening effort here. I've taken some before pictures and will post them with progress pics as I get more into it.

Step one is just plain, backbreaking cleanup work. The entire perimeter of the house is covered in dead leaves and pine needles. I *may* just hire someone to get rid of those--for the flower beds, a leafblower is really the best tool. I don't have one and don't plan to.

The other issue with the beds--they've been neglected for a few years. The vinca and azaleas were probably gorgeous when in their prime. Now, however, the azaleas look pretty tired, the vinca is getting choked out by weeds, and the honeysuckle has completely overtaken several azaleas and the better part of a wall. Time to get rid of it ALL, start fresh. I'll keep the two azaleas that anchor the front flower beds--they are enormous and sprout so many flowers in the spring, the branches look as though they'll break under the weight. Once they finish flowering, I'll cut them down to stumps and let them grow back in a smaller, more controlled fashion. They have gotten so big, they block the light and view from the den window and more importantly, the porch swing.

I even bought an inexpensive tiller. My plan is to get most of the heaviest work knocked out during each morning of spring break, leaving me the afternoons and evenings to study and write the monster Appellate Brief. After the heavy lifting is finished, I can take my time planting and mulching, one small bit at a time when I find a couple of hours.

I am spending the summer in DC, true enough. So I won't get to watch it all flower initially. However, I've only chosen flowers and plants that bloom until first frost--so when I return in August, it will all be in full bloom. With a heavy mulching, weeds shouldn't be an issue and all Emilie will have to do is eat the tomatoes and water every so often. I can plant a crop of late tomatoes, peas, and lettuce in August and draw it out.

I went crazy buying flower seeds: Madagascar Jasmine, morning glories of every hue, daylillies, new vinca, black-eyed susan vine, delphinium, sunflowers ("cherry rose" and the big, yellow kind), coleus, petunias for the window boxes, hanging strawberries and brandywine tomatoes that will come with me, basil, purple coneflower, orange blanket flower, Brazilian Fireworks, balloon flower, passion fruit vine...even kiwi vines that produce full-sized kiwis this far south.

I may or may not get it all in. I'm finding that I love the process, though, even the ugly job of weeding. I spent a couple of hours yesterday cleaning up my daylilly beds from last year--they were not mulched and were completely overgrown with weeds. Pulled the undesirables out, fertilized, and mulched. Something's eating them, though, so I need to do some quick research to find a remedy.

I think it's slugs. I remember slugs getting on my mother's strawberry plants. She gave me two jar-lids of beer and told me to set them out in the beds. I squatted there for a long time, watching the slugs mosey up to the lids, slide inside, and drown in the beer.

Sounds like some people I know!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's absolutely absurd, the way I react to thunderstorms. They make me giddy. I get all over, checking the radar about every ten seconds, just to make sure it doesn't miss us.

Case in point, I'm in the Law Library. It's 8 am and I should be reading Contracts, or yesterday's Constitutional Law notes. But no. It's fixin' to storm and here I sit by the window, just waiting on it like a rube.

How can it already feel like spring around here? The daffodils are up, it's about 70 degrees every day, and all the girls are wearing shorts and Uggs. Not this girl. Uggs are fugly and on principle, I won't wear shorts until it's, you know, NOT FEBRUARY.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to toggle over and check the goddamn radar. It's getting all dark out there and these things must be monitored.

Friday, February 06, 2009

I Got It(s)

It # 1: the internship. I'm so excited it's the only thing I can think about (outside school stuff) most days. I'll get to see many of the friends I made in Baghdad, and the work sounds like it'll be right up my alley. If the Obama administration pays attention to the scores of intelligence and legal professionals calling for a National Security Court, it would become my lifetime goal to practice in it. DOD would play a large legal role, no doubt about it.

It #2: I just got diagnosed with severe PCOS, polycystic ovarian syndrome. Which explains just about every health problem I've had since high school. I've been telling doctors for years that something was wrong, and they always chalked it up to, what, hysteria? If untreated, it becomes full-blown Type II diabetes and quadruples your shot at fatal heart disease AND certain cancers. I'm borderline diabetic now, and if it weren't for all the exercise, I'd be Type II already. I'm on several drugs, including Metformin, which is actually used to treat diabetes.

It took a referral to an endocrinologist to finally get diagnosed. Thank God for the VA and all that free healthcare I get.