Other bits and pieces

Monday, December 29, 2008

No Pressure

The weekend following Christmas was really great. I was off work for four days, and with Christmas behind me, was able to spend a prodigious amount of quality time screwing up various dishes. Diana gave me a pressure cooker for Christmas. I think this came after a recommendation from Lacy. I'd never even considered cooking with one before. My only experience with one was watching my grandmother cook with it when I was a kid. I just remember it was a funny looking pot that had a wobbly whistly bit on top. I really didn't know people even used them anymore. As it turns out there is a little known fact about pressure cookers: They are the coolest culinary device on Earth! According to the recipe book, this thing can cook pretty much anything from an anchovy to a water buffalo in just under two and half minutes. Don't have three hours to cook that pot roast? No problem, you can do it in 39 minutes. Only a chump waits four minutes for steamed broccoli, you can do it in two. This thing is the microwave oven of the 1930s. Just don't blow it up.

I used to lay pipe as a young man, so I knew a couple of things about pressure. I know, I know. That's not exactly going to get me into MIT to be a professor of...whatever that field would be called, but I knew enough to know that 15 pounds per square inch isn't a ton of pressure, but it's a lot more than I feel naturally comfortable with to have exerting itself against the walls of a quietly steaming silver pot in front of me on my electric range. The instructions say that you should heat it up until it starts spewing a little bit of steam from the steam valve. Then, you're supposed to reduce the heat and maintain a 'steady flow of steam' for the duration of the cooking. There are several warnings and cautions that follow, but not a lot that really defines how much steam we're talking about. After my first attempt at pressure cooking potatoes, I'll just say that I had too much steam—I think. I am not injured, but it scared the shit out of me when I turned the steam valve to 'release' and it was like one of those train engines from the old western movies when they pull into the station. That thing blasted a high-pressure stream of scalding steam at least 14 feet across my kitchen. That was after I turned the pot. At first it was shooting it directly at the back of the stove and all the stuff I had sitting on top. It sounded like the fucking space shuttle taking off. I could only stand there in awe trying to imagine the state of my four poor potatoes inside. They had to be squeezed down to a singularity! I was going to open the lid to find myself starring into an alternate universe created my my black hole spuds that have ripped through the fabric of space-time. But, when the steam finally eased off, and the little indicator went 'click' telling me it was safe to open my pot without having to dial 911—I found the potatoes not only visibly similar in size as before, but pretty well cooked.

Tonight I'm going to use it cook chili. If these are the last notes in this story, you'll know why.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fish on a Plane

....or, as Samuel L. Jackson would say, "Mother f%$kin fish on a mother F&^kin plane!"

I have not been looking forward to this trip at all. I travel a lot for work and usually it's not too bad. If there's a point based account, I've got one: frequent flier on most airlines, hotels, rental cars, even buses. My trips are usually 3-4 day conferences in places like Dallas, Sacramento and San Antonio. I've worked up a knack for getting good seats on the airlines that I like with as few stops as possible and comfortable layovers. This is not one of those trips.

Today I am traveling to Meridian, Mississippi. It's a small town just east of Jackson. I've never been there before—in fact, I've never been to Mississippi before. The airport, Key Field, only has a couple of small planes that come in and out each day. So, of course, that limited service drives the rest of my air travel. Due to my last minute reservations (which is always the case because I never know about trips until about a week out), there were no flights from Baltimore to Atlanta that would get me there in time for my flight to Meridian. So, I had to go through Chicago at 6:00A.M.

The trip did not start well. Anyone who travels by plane a lot understands the power of omens—especially bad ones. Multi-leg travel is a string of carefully choreographed events that can only take place in one of two ways: Perfectly, or very very badly. It's like a house of cards. The first card was being threateningly jiggled at the Daily Parking garage at BWI. I was parked on the 5th floor, and the elevator emphatically refused to visit my floor. Not a big deal. But, not a good sign either. This other guy and I took th stairs. After that, while checking in, I'm told that since my itinerary uses multiple airlines, I can't be checked all the way to my destination, and that I'll have to check in with Delta when I get to Chicago. Oh yeah...and the weather in Chicago is 9ºF with winds up to 35mph.

I figured I'd jump ahead of this game, and try to check in my connecting flight at the Delta desk at BWI. It's a long shot, but I have a little time to kill. This is what I learned. There is a mathematical formula that goes something like this: The IQ level in the room is inversely proportional to the square of the number of people trying to operate the self-check-in kiosks. I watched in abject awe while people tried to operate these simple machines with all the adroitness of a manatee playing a saxophone. The screen has big letters reading 'Press Start'. The start button is slightly smaller than Wrigley Field. There is an animation of a cartoon finger pressing the start button and being rewarded with a boarding pass. Finally, I get my shot at it. I confidently jam my credit card into machine...nothing. Oh yeah, I have to press the 'Start' button first. For the love of God. I get through, it doesn't have my itinerary. So what do I do, I try again. This is the human-machine equivalent of trying to communicate in Mexico by talking slower and louder.
“Do you have my itinerary?”
“Umm, do you have my itinerary?”
Oh yeah, and I forgot to press the 'Start' button the second time too.

At the gate, I fall back to my mission: the food. My plan is to attempt to find food along the way that I can eat. Not having a lot of faith in that idea, I've brought some reserves—leftover lasagna, three hardboiled eggs, and some sardines (I removed them from the tin so that the flight attendant didn't think I was going to use the sharp lid as a weapon. This causes a problem later on.). There was really nothing open at BWI at 4:45 in the morning, so I opted to go ahead and eat my eggs. I didn't think it was that big of a deal, but when you think about it, how often do you see someone in the airport eating hardboiled eggs out of their backpack? I got a few sideways glances, mostly from people undoubtedly considering the possibility that I'll be sitting next to them on the plane about the time those eggs start getting things going in my lower intestines. I just wished I had some pepper.

Once in Chicago, I discovered that not only am I on a different airline, my next flight leaves out of a different terminal. Yeah...not a different concourse, a different terminal. This means walking the epic 26.5 miles to get out of the airport, and taking a train thingy to the other terminal, check in, back through security and to this gate.

In an effort to reduce the invasiveness of the security procedure and avoid a full body cavity search, I like to stop before I enter the line and take everything I have except my boarding pass and ID card and shove it all into my backpack. As I was doing this entering the L concourse at O'Hare, I get passed up by a young couple that appear to be foreign-ish. I see when we get to the security goalie that they're traveling on U.S. passports even though this isn't the international terminal, but whatever. The amusing part came a few minutes later. Everyone who's been within missile range of a airport in the last several years knows that you can't have liquids other than the size they give you in hotels. Everybody knows this. Plus, it's posted on HUGE signs all over the airport. There's a guy wearing rubber gloves yelling this information to the passengers in line. Wouldn't you know it, every single bag these two put through the X-ray had more bottles of liquid than clothes. “What do you mean I can't have my 32oz bottle of 'This Just Looks Like Explosives' brand shampoo?

New learned fact: Sardines, even shielded inside Tupperware enclosed in a plastic bag will still stink. I found this out on the plane ride from Chicago to Atlanta. I opened my backpack to retrieve my lasagna leftovers when I was hit in the face by 'ode de fish cannery'. It was really bad—kinda funny too. See, the plane was only about half full. I had a nice window seat and it looked like there was going to be no one next to me. Then this GIGANTIC dude comes down the aisle and, of course squishes in next to me. (I was on the side that only had two seats) After the cabin door closed, I figured he'd move to one of the numerous empty aisle seats just like his on the 3-seat side that were not only unoccupied, but had empty seats next to them. He didn't. He just sat there, half-way in my seat. Why would he do that? Who does that? Who wouldn't want a little more space to themselves? So, when 13.5 minutes into the flight I opened my backpack and the unholiest of unholy reeking stenches wafted out of my bag (much worse than if I'd just farted in his face) I just sort of chuckled to myself and figured he had it coming. It was truly bad. When I got off the plane in Atlanta, it was as though I was dragging a string of week-old trout behind me.

My goal of hunting and gathering wild edibles along the way through the string of airports was an unmitigated failure. Every single eatery I passed, while appearing succulent, was riddled with pitfalls. The one thing I did note, was that several of them had fresh fruit. If I get in a pinch on the way home, I'll look into that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Day 4 The Edible Tatonka

Day 4

I just finished eating my lunch consisting of two patties of ground bison leftover from last night’s bison burgers. I bought the bison at the commissary. I’d seen it there before in this little freezer bin they have for things that they only get occasionally. I never know if I should buy food out of that freezer or not. On the one hand, the contents may just be things that are rare commodities, and so don’t warrant permanent space in of the nice, upright freezers. On the other hand, everything in there could be the freakish reject-o-meat from 15 other stores that no one in their right mind would buy. Next to the bison I was eye-screwing, rested a pile of frozen pig stomachs. There’s a couple of things I don’t know about pig stomachs: 1. Why, if it is no longer inside a happy, slop munching pig, is it wrapped up loosely in plastic and sitting in this freezer unit at a food store. And, 2. Please see 1. The presence of the pig stomach is not casting the warm rays of credibility to the bison meat, which didn’t even have a price listed for it.

So, naturally, I bought 3 lbs of ground bison. It was $4.99 a lb, which I didn’t find out until I was at the checkout; where I was being pressured to hurry by one particularly grumpy BBW and her three poorly behaved heffalumps. Being not a courageous man, I just paid the $15 and quietly snuck out the door. (after not allowing the 113 year-old bag caddy to carry out my single plastic sack, which earned me a ghastly gaze clearly decrying me as an evil man who hates old people and puppies)

The bison, though expensive, was pretty good. I made hamburger patties out of it (cuz, what the hell else are you going to do with 3lbs of ground up tatonka?) and we had burgers. Well, Diana and the girls had burgers. Not allowed what might as well have been cyanide-laced potato buns that everyone else was going to enjoy, I used the remaining two misshapen homemade tortillas from the other night and made this groovy quasi-Mexican/Greek/Navajo buffalo quesadilla burgerwich. It was good. I might have enjoyed mine more than the others theirs.

They weren’t bad reheated at work either. Though, I didn’t have any more tortillas left, so I just ate them at my desk with a plastic fork. The microwave rendered them a bit tougher than my fork, so I just stabbed them and bit chunks off. I was having a swell caveman time of it until my boss walked it to ask me some inane question about a performance report and spied me gnawing at this cut of dead buffalo like a saber-toothed marmot.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Snake Oil

I took Diana to MOM's (the organic market) today. I didn't really need anything since yesterday. I just figured she'd like the store. She did. While there, I had a mini-epiphany about my quest. Over the past two days I've struggling with some of the specific rules governing what I can get away with in terms of packaged good, I.e. canned beans, canned tomato sauce, etcetera. My premise thus far has been focused on the ingredients. If it's all natural, and has nothing in it that I wouldn't use in my own kitchen, it was fair game. At MOM's, I came up with something better: If there are two ways to consume a thing, I will pick the least complex of the two, or the more basic.

Diana has been trying to get me to start taking fish oil as a dietary supplement. Just recently, I agreed that it is good for me and would do so. So, we're at the natural store looking at the vitamin section. I had to ask the lady for help, as I have yet to become a fish oil expert. She took me around the corner to a couple of shelves exhibiting a veritable cornucopia of fish oil products and proceeds to direct my attention towards the most popular bottle of gel capsules. At this point I'm forced to pause. I can see bottles of fish oil capsules, but below them are bottles of liquid fish oil.

As I realized with what I had just come face to face, my stomach turned a little, and I think I may have thrown up in my mouth a bit. This was going to suck.

Immediately seeing my dilemma (A blind ferret could have read the expression on my face from space), Diana jumps to the rescue.
Diana, “No way. That's disgusting!”
Me, “I have to look at the ingredients of the gel-caps themselves.”
Diana, “It says glycerin and water. That's completely natural.”
Me, “I think I should get the liquid.”
Diana, “I'm not taking that”

See, on the one hand, yeah, the gel caps are pretty simple and they're made of stuff I can probably buy in that same store. But, the liquid is, without a herring's doubt, the less complex of the two. So will be buying liquid fish oil and taking it with a spoon. Diana purchased a bottle of capsules. Bitch.

And you thought the sardine burps were bad.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Day 1 of Rays all natural project

Day 1

Okay, I've got to figure this out. How do I go about this. What can I eat? What are the rules going to be? How long am I going to do this? How is my family going to play into this?

I guess the first thing to do is set out some clear definitions as to what I'm really trying to do.

1.Consume foodstuffs of a natural nature.
2.Natural will be defined as those not packaged, processed, or prepared in any manner inconsistent with home preparation using raw ingredients
3.Incorporate this behavior into my daily routines, including travel and holidays.
4.Time Period TBD But, I'm leaning towards a goal of 6 months to a year for a real proof of concept.

I'm going to need to make some lists defining rules for how processed foods can be. Some foods are obvious, some not so much.

It's all going to come down to the ingredients and preparation. I'll say that food that comes in a package can be consumed if it's ingredients are all natural, and that it's preparation is the same as if I'd prepared it myself. (or very close to it) Ingredients are going to be the big one. If it has xanthum gum, it's out. I don't have a ceramic canister of xanthum gum on my counter, so it's unlikely that I'd be using that as an ingredient in anything I'm likely to cook. I could say the same for monosodium glutemate, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrulose, and yellow number five.

I'm probably going to have to take trip the nature store.

Salad dressing will be easy. I make that myself already.

Pasta, for instance; everyone uses dry pasta. I can make my own, but I'm not all that inclined to, and I don't have the time (I don't think).

This is going to be hard.

There are some aspects of this that actually won't be that bad. My family already eats a reasonably healthy diet. I do most of the dinner time cooking, and I do it mostly with raw ingredients. As long as I'm the one making dinner, the ass-pain associated with avoiding packaged products should be pretty transparent to the rest of the family. I don't eat desert. That will make it easy to avoid the retribution from the girls in that I'm not going to have to re-invent that wheel.

Where it's going to be really difficult, at least from what I can see from here, is the other two meals in my day. I have a certain love affair with ramen noodles...especially for breakfast. So, I'm going to miss that.

So, day 1, breakfast...and the log begins. While my body is craving my pre-dawn ramen noodles I have to have something else. I like the hot brothy part, so I'll have a cup of tea. Not so simple..I like sugar in my tea. Table sugar is a highly refined material. Ah!..honey. That's natural. Nothing more natural than bee poop. I'll accept the tea bag. The tea isn't any different than how I would have it were I to grow, harvest, dry, smash and steep my own.

So, the beverage is out of the way, now onto something to eat. Without too much study, I can make this first breakfast pretty easy: Hard-boiled eggs. I can't live off of them forever, so for future breakfasts, I'm going to have to get more clever, but they'll do for this morning. The only problem with the eggs, is the cholesterol. So, I'll probably just eat the whites. I'm might also have some toast. Diana makes bread from scratch in the machine, and doesn't use a box. There might be an issue with how packaged the flour is, but I'm might be okay under the same premise used for the tea; namely, I don't own my own gristmill, so I can let the flour people take care of that... as long as there's no xanthum gum.

The eggs are cool. I'll go peel them now.

And of course, it can't be that simple. By my very nature, the first thing I do once I've peeled the eggs, is open the refrigerator and grab the hot sauce. Wait a minute...better look at the label. What in the blue blazes is cellulose gum? I better look that up. The Internet tells me:

Cellulose gum (CMC) is one of the most common hydrocolloid or thickening agent used by the global processed food industry due to its versatility, ease of use and effective cost-in-use.

Cellulose gum is based on natural cellulose strains such as for example the lints from the cotton seed and its main functionality is to add mouthfeel and texture, stabilize proteins, retain moisture and form oil-resistant films in a vast variety of food applications.


Are you kidding me? Hydrocolloid? Lints from cotton seed? Eww! See, this is where the project can be easy. I don't want to eat lint from cotton seed. Let's look at the Tabasco Sauce. Ingredients: Distilled Vinegar, Red Peppers, Salt. How much salt are we talking about? Back to the Internet.

There a great website I found called www.nutritiondata.com. It has nutritional on all kinds of products that don't have that information readily at hand, including a lot of your raw ingredients.

Basically, considering the serving size (which is driven by the heat level) Tabasco Sauce isn't really even food. 4 grams only contains 1 calorie and 28mg of sodium, which is 1% of your daily requirement. But, 4g is 1tsp. I'm not putting a teaspoon of Tabasco on my hardboiled eggs.

Bottom line: I don't think I'm going to agonize too much over the salt in Tabasco.

After finishing my four egg whites, I find myself craving more food already. It's been about 1 minute and a half. I think I need to go shopping! Now what do I do with these hard egg yolks?

A little later in the morning, Diana finally dragged her beat-up body out of bed. She crashed her Mt. Bike yesterday and is feeling the brunt of it this morning. As she's making coffee, I've undertaken the business of enumerating for her the many aspects of my new project. As we're discussing different foods, and looking at stuff in our pantry, we come across some startling realities.

First, many of the things I had considered natural and healthy in our pantry are not. We commonly employ canned raw ingredients in our cooking. We use canned beans, canned green chilies, canned tomato products (sauce, paste, diced tomatoes), and canned mushrooms. One common component in many of these canned products is calcium carbonate (CaCl2). As I'm reading all these cans containing CaCl2, I'm thinking this must be some essential element of the canning process. Ummmm....not so much.

CaCl2 , according to Dow Chemicals2, is used in a variety of consumer and industrial applications. It has been evaluated as 'a food substance of very low toxicity'. Oh well, that's nice to know. I'm thrilled to find out it's just low toxicity. Personally I'd rather not define the quality of my food by quantifying how poisonous it is. If it has toxicity AT ALL I don't think I want to eat it. But, it gets worse.

The following are the routine uses of calcium chloride. Note: I am listing these in the same order, as Dow.
Deicing agents sidewalks, parking lots, and road treatments
Road stabilization and dust control
Industrial processing as additives in plastics
Drainage aids for waste water treatment
Accelerators in concrete (to speed curing)
Oil and gas well fluids
Misc applications, such as tire ballast, water treatment, hydrocarbon desiccant,
refrigeration brine, food processing agent

To quote the father on 'Everybody Loves Raymond', “Holy CRAP!” It's the last use listed under 'miscellaneous'! I can't believe we're putting this into our bodies!

According to Dow, calcium chloride is Generally Considered As Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration3. In order to garner that pedigree, it basically has to pass muster as being something added to food intentionally that won't immediately kill you. While my research does not turn up any grassroots movements surrounding the conspiracy to poisonous all with this additive, I did discover that ingesting large amounts gastrointestinal ulceration. So, is it safe...more or less, but I think if I can avoid eating deicer I will.

The grocery adventure.

I took the girls with me to the grocery store. Well, first we went to the mall so they could do some Christmas shopping. Funny thing about this time of year; with all the Christmas shoppers, there are scads of merchants hosting little taste samplers of every delectable morsel you can swing a cat at. Go figure, when I'm at my weakest! But, I prevailed. I was tempted but turned my nose up at a sampler of smoothies, avocado dips, cheeses and crackers, etcetera.

After the mall, it was the base commissary. I sent the girls into the PX so they could wrangle some Christmas goodies for their father unhindered. I went grocery shopping. I always try to keep my grocery basket under 20 items at the commissary. That way, I can use the self pay thingy, and not have to feel guilty when I refuse to let the retiree take my groceries out for a tip. For those of you not in the military, you haven't experienced this. Basically, all the baggers work for tips. They are almost exclusively cranky retirees, or Philippino import wives. You tip them for doing what everyone not an invalid does for themselves at every other grocery store; carry your crap out to the car. I refuse to pay someone to do something I don't need them to do. So, when I get up to the register, I tell the beeper person that I'll be taking my own groceries out. That, invariably, earns me a stern stink-eye from the bagger. He/she knows they will still be bagging the groceries, but missing out on the lucrative $5 handshake in the parking lot. The best way to avoid this, is keep it under 20 items and check yourself out.
Anyway, I figure I'm going to need about 45 minutes to sort through, read the ingredients of, and select the roughly twenty items that will sustain me without any diglycerides. (Spell checker doesn't even like that word) 40 minutes later, I'm not even halfway done through the store. This shit takes a lot longer than I thought! I had to pay for what I had; 13 items, and rush out to the truck to meet the girls. Alexis, who hates grocery stores, was now pissed that we had to go back in and not only shop for food, but really shop for food.
Not surprisingly, aside from produce, I found very little at the commissary that I would consider useful to my cause. I am experimenting with canned fish. I'm not sure how I feel about it fitting with my self appointed guidelines, so I'll have to sort that out after some thought. I managed to find sardines that didn't have any additives. But, I was greatly disheartened to note that the only ones I could buy were the ones packed plain, in water. All the ones in nifty sauces were chopped full of things I couldn't even pronounce. I also bought some canned pink salmon, clams, and tuna.
After the commissary, we went to an all natural food store called My Organic Market (MOMs). This gave a little more hope. I was able to find tomato sauce in a can that was just made of tomatoes. But, it was expensive. I failed to obtain tortillas. They had all natural cheese, but it was very expensive. I don't know what I'm going to do about cheese. I like cheese, but it is very processed. I'm going to have to research it a bit and come to a decision.
I was excited when we arrived home to try my new all natural lunch; sardines and grits. It's like some frankenstein combination somwhere between Martha's Vineyard and Butcher Holler. I know; not a good combo. I'll probably develop some better eating routines the further I delve into this, but right now it's survival! I took the liberty of draining the sardines and heating them up on a plate. They weren't bad. Even plain, they didn't taste as overpoweringly fishy as I had expected. I enjoyed making the grits. This seemed more appropriate to my experiment given the cook time; 20 minutes. I can't help but keep thinking about the movie 'My Cousin Vinny' while eating the grits. Having no memory of ever having had a grit before, I was surprised to discover that I liked them. I put a little bit of pepper, and dash of sea-salt on them, and they were pretty tasty. The grits revelation was quite a relief. Here's something I can eat, whenever I have 20 minutes, a pan and some water, and that I like. Grits are acting psychologically like a culinary safety net.
I just burped sardine. Wow. That was nasty. I just grossed myself out. If you smelled that, you wouldn't have thought it came out of my mouth. I might need a separate bedroom, since I think gum and breath mints are probably off my menu.

Now I'm off to make some tortillas.

The tortilla quest went better than expected, which is to say it didn't go all that great, but I think we came up with something edible. They don't really look like tortillas. As usual, I underestimated something. This time it was how difficult the task of rolling little balls of dough into round tortillas actually can be. If you didn't know better, as an onlooker you'd think we were making models of strange cells for a biology class. We eventually worked out a pretty good system of production: Alexis would roll them, I would cook and flip them, and Athena would keep blowing the smoke away from the ever-screaming fire alarm in a vein attempt to keep it quiet. In the end, we had 12 amoeboid shaped pieces of nearly or over-done tortillas of varied thicknesses. They smell good, and we will eat them.
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