Sunday, December 9, 2012

Baking Day

It's only been fairly recently that I realized Americans really don't do butter tarts. You'd think I'd've noticed before now: since I moved to the States I've only seen and eaten butter tarts when I've been home visiting. Apparently they're a Canadian treat, who knew?

If you're not familiar with butter tarts, they're a delectable caramel confection, much like a southern pecan pie, but not as gelatinous. The filling is mainly butter and sugar. When I was growing up, they always had raisins in them, but they're not raisin tarts: the raisins are more of an adjunct than a main ingredient. The end result is a sort of caramel tart with a buttery, slightly gooey center.

From Baking day

Butter tarts aren't for the faint of heart. These little guys are pancreatic death bombs. If you've got blood sugar problems, or if diabetes runs in your family, or if you know someone with blood sugar problems, or if you've ever heard the word "pancreas"; you should probably avoid these guys like the plague. They'll kill you.

But today I was going to be deserted by wife and children for the day, so I decided to do some Christmas baking. And what says Christmas to an ex-pat Canadian, like fresh butter tarts? So I took out Mum's butter tart recipe, got my French press going, put on Christmas with the Academy, and settled in for a baking day.

The first order of business was baking some bread. I've experimented with bread off-and-on for the last four years: I've had some success with yeast breads, but sourdough hasn't been quite so easy. I began a new sourdough starter with the dregs of some beer I made last month, and it's been doing all right. We've made a couple things with it, and last night I decided to make some bread. It was looking pretty good this morning, having fermented all night, so into the oven it went.

From Baking day
It's not amazing bread, but it's the best sourdough I've been able to make yet. I think the problem is that I'm not letting the dough rise sufficiently after I shape it into loaves. I'm pretty good about letting it rise basically as long as it takes, but once I shape it I tend to throw it into the oven. I'm going to experiment with that a little more in the future.

Bread done, it was time to make tarts. I've never made tarts before, of any kind at all. I was planning on using a muffin tin to bake them, but Ames showed me this pan:

From Baking day

I said, "Oh! I didn't know we had a tart pan."

She responded, "This isn't a tart pan."

Not wanting to betray my ignorance, I merely nodded knowingly. I have no idea what kind of pan that is, and am too embarrassed to ask.

At any rate, I took our not-a-tart-pan and started assembling tarts.

From Baking day

The first batch didn't turn out the best. I made two rookie mistakes: first, I over-filled the tarts so that the centers overflowed the shells and left a real mess on my pans.

From Baking day
Second, I let them sit too long before I tried to remove them from the pan. This meant the sugar hardened into a sort of cement, and I ended up tearing several tarts apart trying to get them out of the non-tart pan.
From Baking day

So I made another batch. This time I greased the pan, carefully measured out a smaller portion of center per tart, and removed them while they were still dangerously hot. The result: I got a decent pan of tarts.

From Baking day
From Baking day

It was frankly pretty nice to taste something so like home. I'd forgotten how great these little guys are. All told, I made something like 30 tarts, and most of them are still intact. I think I'll need to make another couple dozen before Christmas.

Butter tarts out of the way, I got working on dinner: Chicken and Pastry.

From Baking day

Yeah, today was a good day.

There's still a lot of Christmas baking to do. I've not made Stollen yet this year, and I'm planning on at least one batch of ridiculously over-caramelled cinnamon buns. And it seems like I haven't made a pie in years.

But today was a nice way to get into Christmas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I've decided on my favourite pizza toppings. By far, I prefer plain cheese pizza. But if it's gotta be topped, my favourite is pineapple, black olives, green olives, red onion, and jalapeno. Go heavy on the jalapeno. And if you add slices of a garlic clove, it really does get just the tiniest bit better.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


It's already Thanksgiving. It seems like yesterday was New Years.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends and family!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Little Jerry's

I went to check out Little Jerry's, a new-ish restaurant in Tacoma. They've been getting some buzz on Facebook and Yelp.

Little Jerry's has a Seinfeld theme: all the items on the menu are named after episodes or characters on the show, the restaurant is decorated with Seinfeld memorabilia, and there are even J. Peterman catalogues on the magazine rack.

It's a tiny restaurant, and when our party of six showed up we were told we'd have to eat outside. I think we'd have been seated inside, except all the tables were full but two. We were just a little late. There's definitely a claustrophobic feel, but it's nothing too off-putting.

The menu is pretty much burgers and breakfast. Although the take-out menu didn't specify times, they stopped serving breakfast before we arrived. Zonked! I had planned on Eggs Benedict.

So instead of Eggs Benny, I ordered the "Mimbo", a cheeseburger with bacon and an egg, and two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a bun.

It was an epic burger: I couldn't actually eat it all.

For the rest of the day I felt like I'd eaten a shot put.

Their fries are easily the best I've eaten in Washington. They were mahogany coloured, with the slight caramel flavour of mature fry grease. They were the fries my grandfather made for family gatherings when I was coming up. The server assured me the fries were hand-cut daily.

The service was pretty slow; I'm not sure if they were slammed, or if they just haven't found their stride yet. It wasn't "I won't go back" slow, but it took us the better part of an hour to get our food. I'll want to go and try it again to see whether it was just the timing, or perhaps their kitchen had trouble with our party of six.

On a more esoteric note, I found the menu was incongruous to the Seinfeld theme. The menu was right out of a southern greasy spoon comfort-food kitchen (like the Penguin in Charlotte); but Seinfeld was all about New York. Don't get me wrong: the food was great and I definitely plan on going back; but it seemed like two restaurants: there was a lot of Seinfeld schtick up until the food arrived, then it turned into an "I dare you to" burger joint.

The verdict? I'm sure planning on going back. The Seinfeld theme might wear thin, but the food would keep me coming back. Regardless of the schtick, it was solid food: too much of it will kill you, but it tasted great.

I highly recommend this place. But next time, I want to get there early enough to get Eggs Benny.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


I love chili. A hot dog with a slice of cheese, a few jalapenos, and a slathering of chili might just be the perfect food. A bowl of chili and a handful of corn chips is one of the greatest Epicurean pleasures. But frankly, I'm willing to eat chili all on its own.

I took some chili to a church potluck last Sunday and some people asked for my recipe. Of course I haven't a recipe, but I've been having a hankering for chili anyway, so I just went ahead and made another batch today, taking notes.

I based my chili on a great recipe for Chile Colorado I found online. In fact, you probably want to make that Chile Colorado. It's fabulous.

Let's start with ingredients.

From Chili
Today I used about a pound and a half of ground beef (probably 80/20, I'm not too sure), a dozen New Mexico chiles, two onions, four cloves of garlic, three cans of beans, fresh jalapeno, salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and cumin. That's pretty close to the basic chili. I don't always use jalapeno, but I do like some sort of green in there for colour. Last week I used some very mild pepper that looked a lot like a poblano. Use what you like.

We start with the chiles. You can use basically any dried chiles you can get your hands on, but they don't all taste the same. My favourite is New Mexico chiles, but California chiles work well too. I've been known to throw ancho and arbol chiles in too, but I always use either New Mexico or California chiles for a base. In my experience, the New Mexico chiles have a richer flavour than the Californias, but they're noticeably hotter. If spicy food is your thing, the New Mexico are a great choice, but if you're more a "mild" person you might prefer the Californias.

I found this page helpful in listing different chiles and comparing them.

You'll want to wash and cut the chiles. A purist would seed them, but I usually don't bother. If you want to seed them, do it like this: cut off the stem, slit the chile in half, and scrape out the seeds and so on from inside the chile. Like this:

From Chili
If you remove the seeds, you'll find the chiles lose significant heat. But since my family are all into spicy food, I find it easier just to break off the stem and break the chile into about three pieces:
From Chili

When you've got all the chiles broken up and rinsed, put them in a pan with about three cups of water. I never measure the water, it's not that important. Then cover them, put them on the stove on high, and let them reach a boil.

From Chili
When you get a boil, take the chiles off the stove and let them sit for at least 30 minutes in the water. This will allow them to steep, and they'll rehydrate.

When you're waiting on the chiles, you might as well get everything else going. I used to brown the onions, then the beef, then add beans. But I realized I could cut down on grease if I did the beef first. That way, rather than draining the beef fat, I could just use it to fry onions and garlic in. It works out if you think about it.

So we'll put the beef in a heavy pot and get it going. I like to add some salt at this point, but I generally don't add anything else until after the meat is browned.

From Chili
Now when you're browning ground beef, the more you work it while it's still raw, the finer the browned beef will be. I like the meat to be really fine and distributed through the chili, so I work it a lot when it's raw. If you like chunks of meat in your chili, leave it alone and you'll get those chunks.
From Chili

Once the beef is thoroughly browned, take it out of the pan, leaving as much grease behind as you can. We'll use that to brown the onions. If you got lean beef, you might need to add butter, oil, or bacon fat here. They'll all work.

You'll want to get your onions, garlic cloves, and jalapenos chopped at this point. I normally use a mandoline, but today I just chopped with a knife. So I put onions, salt, some red pepper, and some black pepper into the beef fat and got them sizzling. Once the onions are translucent, you'll add garlic and jalapenos.

From Chili

When that all looks cooked enough, it's time to add the beef back in.

From Chili
I put a healthy does of cumin in there too: say a couple teaspoons. I don't know, I didn't measure.

When that all sizzles and you're worried about scorching, it's time to add in beans. Today I used a can of "Chili Beans" and two cans of black beans, but I rarely use the same combination twice. I really like it when I get at least three kinds of beans in there, but today I only had two.

I just dump the beans right on top of the meat and stir them in.

From Chili
I'll frequently rinse the bean cans with water and dump that in too.
From Chili

Now we'll let that cook while we head back to the chiles. Remember those? They're still steeping in the water, so we'll want to turn them into a paste. We'll need a blender here: I use a stick blender most of the time, but today I used the Bosch.

We'll take the chiles out of their bath and put them into the blender. They should be pretty well rehydrated at this point, looking a little bloated and cooked.

From Chili
We'll take them out of the water, not straining too carefully, and get them into the blender.
From Chili
Once the chiles are in there, they'll need some of their bath-water in there too. Not too much, just enough so you can blend them into a paste. I find you need about half the volume of the chiles in water, but it's best to go slow, adding more as you need it.
From Chili
Now you want to blend them into a smooth paste. This can take some time, but you'll want to do it right.
From Chili

Now we just add that paste back into the meat and bean mixture on the stove and stir it in.

From Chili
At first it'll be pretty brown, but after a few minutes it'll develop a nice deep red.
From Chili

Essentially you're cooking's done at this point, but it'll taste pretty rough for at least a couple hours. Let it simmer for at least two or three hours, then taste it again. It should start to taste pretty good.

I have to make a note of this: this recipe needs a lot of salt. The meat and chiles both seem to suck it right up. I probably have at least a tablespoon or two of salt in a batch, and I find myself adding salt through the day. Don't be shy with the salt: it'll make a world of difference.

So that's it: that's my chili. There's no tomato in it, and I find that makes it work really well in a Crock Pot, if you want to go that route. I find Crock Pots do murder to anything with tomato in it, but this chili works great in the slow-cooker.

Tonight we're having chili dogs, and I'm getting impatient!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Chicken and Dumplings

Everything I cook is comfort food. Among my favourites is chicken-and-dumplings. Really, this is the ultimate comfort food. A couple people have asked me for the recipe, and I told them I'd write down what I do next time I make it: it's not like I'm working from a real recipe here. Well... next time was yesterday; so I'm writing it down.

From Chicken and Dumplings

In rural North Carolina, people make "chicken and pastry," rather than "chicken and dumplings." What they refer to as "pastry" is a homemade sort of pasta made from flour, salt, and pepper. Ames makes it with her mother's recipe, but I've made it a couple times using the "Granny's Chicken and Pastry" recipe from Carolina Country. I've made some really good chicken and pastry with that recipe, but I've never been able to follow it exactly. The pastry dough in that recipe always comes out way too stiff.

But I admit I prefer softer dumplings to true Southern "slippery noodles," and so I've mucked about looking for a good way to make those. I've referred to Alton Brown's recipe from Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run, but I've never tried actually following it. My "recipe" is as follows:

Today I used a whole chicken, I generally just use chicken thighs:

  • 1 chicken
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 quart water
  • 1--2 quarts chicken broth
First saute the onions in a large pot. I like to cook them in bacon grease, but butter would work as well. Chop them fine, put them on to cook with plenty of salt and pepper (I never measure, I just use enough). When the onions are all transluscent, set them aside and put the chicken in the pot. I've done the chicken in the oven and on the stovetop: I'm not really sure which is better. Today I put a whole chicken in the pot, brushed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted it at 385F for an hour.

From Chicken and Dumplings

Once the chicken looked about done, I pulled it out of the oven and put it on the stovetop. I added the onions back to the chicken, put about a quart of water on it, and got it to a rolling boil for about 45 minutes. When the chicken was easily pulled apart with a fork, I removed it from the heat.

From Chicken and Dumplings

Now's the tricky part: we need to pull the chicken from the bones, and we need to make dumplings. So I generally take the chicken out of the pot and set it aside to cool. In the meantime, I get the dumplings going.


  • 2 Cups flour
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp shortening
  • rice milk
That's actually pretty close to Alton's recipe.

From Chicken and Dumplings

I mix the dry ingredients in the mixer and hit them with the whip attachment to get them blended. Then I cut the shortening into the mixture. Finally, I pour a small amount of rice milk (chicken broth, milk, or water would work just as well) into it until I get a sticky dough. This gets rolled out and cut into 1" X 1" squares.

From Chicken and Dumplings
From Chicken and Dumplings
From Chicken and Dumplings
From Chicken and Dumplings

There's never enough broth left from a chicken, so I always end up topping it up. I add about another two quarts of water and then add chicken base to make up a broth. If you have chicken stock lying around, that'll work even better. So now we've got dumpling dough cut into squares and about three quarts of broth: it's time to get them dumplings cooked.

From Chicken and Dumplings

The trick to cooking the dumplings is to get them into boiling broth as quickly as possible, without losing the boil. So I get the broth to a very strong rolling boil and start throwing dumplings in. I find I can easily throw in a handful at a time without having any trouble; but if the boil slows to a simmer, let it get going again before putting in any more. If you're making southern-style pastry, it only takes 15 minutes to get them cooked; but fatter dumplings take longer, say 30 or 40 minutes.

From Chicken and Dumplings

While the dumplings cook, get all the chicken off the bones. I probably throw away too little, but this time Ames picked the bones for me and the meat looked great. When the dumplings look done, add the meat back in.

From Chicken and Dumplings
From Chicken and Dumplings

So that's it. It's not really that hard, but it takes most of a day: there's a lot of "hurry up and wait" with chicken and dumplings. But it's the most comforting comfort food I know, and it's well worth the day's investment to make it right.

From Chicken and Dumplings

Postscript: I got the idea of roasting the chicken in the oven from an episode of "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" where they visit Dish, a restaurant in Charlotte about a mile from where I used to work. I generally do the chicken entirely on the stovetop, but when I saw this video, I decided to try the oven. There's an excerpt from it on YouTube:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pocket knives

A friend of mine gave me a pocket-knife several years ago: a Spyderco Endura. Very shortly after I started carrying that knife, I realized why so many of my friends carry knives around. It's just too convenient to have a sharp blade every where you go.

Of course I don't mean it's as weapon. I know a lot of silly people think that: the sorts of silly people that are afraid of guns, big dogs, and their own shadows. The fact is, a sharp knife is one of the most useful tools you can have in your pocket. I find myself needing a sharp blade several times a week.

I carried that Endura everywhere I went (excepting airports: I had to put it in my checked bags every time I flew). That finally came to an end last summer, when it fell out of my pocket at my sister's house and I was unable to find it. She found it a couple weeks after I came back here, but I've not had a chance to go home since August. Next time I'm on the Island I'll claim it.

Of course, that doesn't help me now. I've a backup knife my brother-in-law gave me just before we left the East coast. It's a Browning, but I have no idea what the model is.

From Pocket Knives

The problem is, the Browning is just not a comfortable knife. It's a little block-ish in my pocket, and the clip's a little loose, no matter how I've tried to tighten it. And the knife has a liner lock; I just don't like liner locks.

So I've never really warmed up to that knife.

I started thinking about a replacement for my Endura, and I finally settled on the Cold Steel Rajah III. It's a nice little knife: a folding version of their Kukri. The blade is curved with the sharp edge on the inside. It's only 3 1/2 inches long, but it's very broad. I've always wanted a kukri: this is the closest I was likely to get.

But when my sister found the Endura, I sort of shelved my replacement plans.

But this last Christmas, my buddy handed me a package from Cold Steel. Now that's a true friend.

From Pocket Knives

I've been carrying the Rajah for a couple weeks now, and it's been a great knife. There are some down-sides: it's a little heavy for an every day carry. Not ridiculously heavy, just heavy enough that you can't quite forget it's there. In fact, it's a little bigger than my Browning, but it does feel better.

From Pocket Knives

But aside from its weight, the Rajah is my favourite knife. I love the broad blade, the deep belly, and the drop point. Let's be honest, this is a beautiful knife. Actually, it looks like something Galadriel would give a hobbit.

Still, when I get my Endura back, I think it'll go back to its place as my primary carry knife. It's not that I like it better than the Rajah, but I think the narrower blade and the less bulky haft make it a lot more practical for every day use. But honestly, if I ever end up lost in the wilderness, I think the Rajah's what I want in my pocket.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I know he can get the job...

My parents gave me a gift card to Amazon. I've always got a few items in my cart there, so it's always appreciated.

I just received a DVD I ordered, Joe versus the Volcano. I am quite convinced this is among the best films ever made, perhaps the best.

It's not that there's an incredibly complex plot: the story is remarkably simple. It's not that it's terribly humorous: there are a lot of great one-liners, but the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. This movie is great because it tells a simple story very well. And it does so effortlessly.

Most people I've known who've seen this movie didn't like it. I understand that: it's a movie that's not easy to classify, which means it's hard to know what to expect. The first time I saw it, I wasn't sure what I thought. The second time, I was convinced it was brilliant.

The story is about Joe, a hypochondriac with a dead-end job in a depressing factory. His boss is an idiot, his co-workers are lifeless, and he's miserable. Then his doctor tells him he really is sick: he'll be dead in six months. So Joe quits his job. The next day, he's approached by an insane business man who offers to pay for him to live like a king, if he'll jump into a volcano in one month. Seeing no real point to his life, Joe agrees.

The story follows Joe on his journey to a small south Pacific island with an enormous volcano, into which he's planning to jump. Joe meets several memorable characters: the limousine driver who teaches him how to dress, the salesman obsessed with luggage, and the spoiled daughter of the businessman paying Joe. The characters are brilliantly done: drawn in bold strokes, but very simply. Each feels like a real person.

Ultimately, its Joe's journey to find a purpose for his life. He quits his job, goes shopping, sails to the South Pacific, is shipwrecked, and finds the best luggage in the world.

If you've not seen the movie, I recommend you watch it. If you've only seen it once, you need to watch it a second time. It's not the sort of thing you can really grasp the first time. To me, this is one of those movies that comes out of nowhere and stuns me. It's funny, quirky, a little strange, and a little exciting. The acting is great, the story is interesting despite its simplicity, and the characters are convincing. The photography is captivating; there is a whole host of symbols and images that appear and reappear through the movie. Well worth the $5 on Amazon.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Back to it

Working in higher ed has a lot of frustrations and aggravations that just come with the territory, but there are some definite perks. One is that my place of work basically shuts down for a little over a week every Christmas. That didn't prevent me getting called a couple times when the campus was "closed", but I still ended up with more than a week off.

It was a nice break: I made some beer, played the guitar and mandolin, cooked, read a little, and watched some movies.

I've been reading The Coming Prince by Sir Robert Anderson: it's well worth the effort.

I might try and actually finish more books this year: it seems I'm about 75% done a dozen books at any given time, and most just end up back on my bookshelf without my actually crossing the finish line.

Every year, my sister Shan sends me something cool for Christmas. Shan's what I might call a very gifted giver. She has a knack for finding that perfect thing you didn't know you wanted. She made my Bodum Cozy, she gave me the CD of Dylan Thomas reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales," and she gave me her own copy of The Grand Sophy. This year she gave me a copy of the BBC's adaptation of North and South.

Yesterday one of the kids was sick and I wasn't feeling the best, so we popped the new DVDs into the player, expecting to watch one of the four episodes. We watched them all in one sitting. Shan describes the story as "Pride and Prejudice for grown-ups." Is it my favourite 19th Century book adaptation? I don't know... I'll need to watch it a couple more times. It's definitely in the running.

I think I prefer it to BBC's famous and brilliant Pride and Prejudice adaptation, solely on the grounds that it is visually more pleasing. The P&P miniseries was really very well done, but the DVDs are awful: they're washed out and colourless. (I hear the Blu-ray version really is much better.) But I'm very fond of the 2009 version of Emma. I don't know if the melancholy brilliance of N&S can possibly overcome the much more cheerful--- but not totally insipid--- E.

Here's a question, if it's not insipid, does that mean it's "sipid"?

Finally, my neighbour bought me the Lord of the Rings, Extended Edition on Blu-ray last summer. We had said we'd watch them together, and we're still not finished. It's hard finding times when we're both free. We've made it through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. We were supposed to watch The Return of the King on New Year's Eve, but we got pre-empted.

This is a time when the "new and improved" really is. I watched the same sequences both on the older DVD version and the Blu-ray version, and I can actually see the difference. For example, the threads in Frodo's cloak are plainly visible.

Tomorrow it's back to work. Back to Perl and Java and Unix and Lisp and Spring and Hibernate and email and Oracle and GWT. I'm not really depressed by the thought, but it's been nice to get away from it for a while.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Back to real life

Well, 2011 is over and done. I was just starting to get fond of it.

Today being the first Sunday of the month, there was "eating at the meeting". We never made it all the way in: one of the kids was sick, so we turned tail and ran before we actually got to the hall. Of course I didn't know that yesterday; I finished 2011 barbecuing some chicken to take this morning. I must say the chicken looked pretty good.

From New Year's Eve 2011

On a more celebratory and seasonal note, my neighbour got hold of a rib roast and had us grill it for New Year's. I've never done a standing rib roast before, so I approached this task with some fear and trepidation, with my neighbour documenting the whole thing on my camera.

The roast was pre-seasoned, so I suppose I had it slightly easy. On the other hand, I've no idea how to reproduce the roast.

From New Year's Eve 2011

We started out by searing the roast on all sides.

From New Year's Eve 2011
From New Year's Eve 2011
From New Year's Eve 2011

Once properly seared, the roast was left on the grill with a drip pan under it. We kept the temperature between 270F and 350F. The roast was done in a little under four hours.

From New Year's Eve 2011

I took the roast off when the thermometer registered 138F. The temperature climbed to 145F over the next half-hour or so, which is a perfect medium rare.

The only real problem was, I had anticipated the roast taking a good hour or hour-and-a-half longer; so it sat out more than an hour before we carved it. But I needn't have worried. It all turned out fine.

To be perfectly honest, I've not been a huge fan of prime rib: I've always preferred either a roast (with Yorkshire pudding, of course) or a steak. But I have to say that this little adventure has piqued my interest. This is a little project I'd like to try again.

Best of all, Ames made her amazing potatoes gratin. Ah.