Friday, January 04, 2013

Mince Pies

My unusual holiday baking project this year involved making mince pies. While these little treats traditionally contained meat in the Victorian era, modern recipes usually use beef suet.  Beef suet is the white hard fat found above the kidneys. I procured mine at the Ventura Meat Company, which offers grass fed local meat and was able to provide me with an oversize pound and a half boulder of the stuff for about four bucks.   I also made a vegetarian-friendly batch with butter, setting up the perfect opportunity for a mince pie taste off, as well as a nice alternative in case my gastronomical fortitude ran out in the face of grated kidney fat.

The main ingredients of mince pies include the more palatable finely chopped apples, two types of raisins, dried fruit (I used ginger and cherries), and candied orange peel, all well-seasoned with clove.  The entire mix is stirred with sugar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and brandy.  The concoction is left to marinate in the fridge for several days before being entrusted to mini pie shells and baked.  I adapted a recipe from epicurious, which turned out great and had the added benefit of including standard American measurements.

A few years ago I attempted to make panaforte and  realized how difficult candied orange peel is to find.  Most of the stuff tastes like wax and boasts phosphorescent colors that make me cringe. If you live in Ventura, Trufflehound was nice enough to sell me some candied orange peel and theirs is delicious.  Normally, it is sold dipped in dark chocolate, but it is terrific for baking.

Assembling and chopping the ingredients for two batches took about an hour, and had me wishing I had pulled out the food processor.  For the vegetarian version, I simply froze a chunk of butter, then grated it until I had the amount of suet the recipe called for.  The butter grated quickly and easily. Your vegetarian friends would probably prefer you grate the butter first so that it doesn't mingle with the suet.

The process of grating the suet was pretty revolting.  The fat looks smooth, but it threatens to slip from your fingers and once you start grating you realize it is hard and a bit gristly.  I started out using a cheese grater attached to a tray, then moved on to a mirco planner, and finally considered finely chopping.  I managed to just scrape together a 1/2 cup.

Ah, the pie crusts.  I grew up on five minute pie crusts, so crusts have never been particularly traumatizing for me.  However, I really enjoyed and recommend this great tutorial on making pie crusts and rolling and transfering them (which always seems to get left out).   After the mince pie filling has soaked for a few days, I pulled out the food processor and made a batch of all butter pie dough.  I also made a rival batch by hand.  Then I filled some muffin tins with the dough, spooned in my mixture, and covered the mini pies with some dough cut out into shapes with a cookie cutter.  I used the shapes to differentiate between the suet and the butter pies.

Ultimately, we decided we liked the flavor of the butter-based mince meat better.  Using the suet was certainly interesting, but next time I will just focus on making the vegetarian version.  In fact, I still have a bunch of the suet-based mince meat in my fridge. I hate to throw it out, but I'm not sure this is something one lists on craigslist.  Perhaps I should just bring a jar to a British expat.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Aging Rock Stars

Granted many of them still look better in leather than I will look in diapers at their age, but aging rock stars really need to stop headlining huge stadium events of national and even international importance decades after their greatest hits.  I come to this conclusion watching the close of the London opening ceremony where Paul McCarthy stared out over is piano, pale and languid, with the facial countenance of an overly botoxed matron from Bel Air.  His voice set “Hey Jude” to the tune of a bad version of Happy Birthday where the song has been started too low.

After the painful Steven Tyler Super Bowl performance you would think Paul McCarthy would have been more careful. 

“What happened?” My brother-in-law gasped.  “Twitter said he was awful,” my husband helpfully offers.    “We should mute this” I say, “Out of respect.  No one should listen to this.”  McCarthy grunted out, “Take a sad song and make it better.” A truer statement has never been said.

Aging rock stars.  These men have demonstrated that even at their age, they still have capacity to embarrass their children.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reverse Psychology or How to Avoid a Grexit

Talk of a Greek exit from the euro is getting more serious with the collapse of the coalition government.  In a sign of the seriousness of the threat, Greece's potential move has even earned a clever moniker: the Grexit.  Yet resistance to the euro in Greece seems more than just a rejection of fiscal austerity.  While the euro ushered in a single currency across Europe, cultural differences and what it means to be Greek were never fully exchanged.

I was living in Germany when the euro came in, and remember paying in Deutsch mark starting at midnight on New Year's Eve, only to seemlessly receive change in euro.  While this exchange looked downright efficient in Berlin, an Irish friend complained that a midnight change over seemed like cruel and unusual punishment for drunken revelers and waitresses trying to make change during a night celebrated world-wide with heavy drinking.   Even the process of changing over to the euro revealed key cultural differences between the countries adopting it.

In the days following the transition to the new currency, Germans lined up outside of banks to change their money into euros.  The lines stretched for blocks, so I waited until about five weeks later.  Half a month before the deadline I was the only one to bring my money into the bank.  The teller, in all her German efficiency, chastised me for waiting so long.

When I traveled to Greece in the spring later, prices outside of Athens were still listed in drachmas.  The Greek shopkeepers couldn't even tell me how much items cost, and seemed to invent price conversions arbitrarily.  Here we were, five months after the changeover, and despite the widespread acceptance in France, the Netherlands, and Italy, except for in the capital of Greece the euro was nowhere to be seen.

At the time, the cultural nature of resistance to the Euro was so evident, that I joked the only way to get the Greeks on board would be to tell them that if they didn't want the euro, we would let Turkey have a shot.  Their rivalry with Turkey seemed the one cultural element more powerful than the Drachma.

Given the economic challenges facing Greek and the Euro nations, that trick of reverse psychology might be the only means powerful enough to avert a Grexit.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reality TV

I don't watch a lot of television, but when I do I rarely watch alone.  My viewing buddy is not a friend but the critical analysis in my head that judges and critiques who I think is watching any given show and why.  As a graduate student, I've stumbled onto television as a real time window into our culture, sort of an ethnography with ratings and production budgets.  Rather than focus on the programming itself, I find myself more interested in  the audience than the actors.

I call it the true reality TV, and I think the reality is that most people who watch TV are depressed. 

Below, I present some preliminary findings, as well as several emergent categories of television viewers, with some recommendations for future study.

The "Feel Better About Myself " Viewer:

Favorite Shows:   Rock of Love, Jersey Shores, Sixteen and Pregnant

This viewer watches trashy reality tv shows in the hopes of believing that their life is comparatively better.  By viewing boorish, drunken behavior served up for mocking in the privacy of their sad, depressing lives, these viewers feel better about their choices, status, and success (or lack thereof).  It's best not to explain the residual payment system under which the participants of said, "loser" reality tv shows are abundantly compensated.

RX: This viewer Society may be better off if this viewer went on Prozac or Zoloft instead. 

The "Validate My World" Viewer: 

This viewer seeks television programming that matches their emotional and existential mood.  They are drawn to dark shows that confirm their bleak view of humanity, and the threat said "humanity" poses to society.  For this reason, shows detailing the horrors of past wars, disasters, and epidemics are true "downer pleasers." While there are always problems associated with making predictions based on the modeling of past data, this type of viewer is so pessimistic about the future that any anticipated margin of error when it comes to history repeating itself is irrelevant.

Favorite Shows: Anything on the Military Channel, shows featuring World War I, World War II, and Sixteen and Pregnant.

RX: This viewer should consider exploring nihilism and investing in Gold.

The "It's All About Me" Viewer:

For this viewer, it's personal.  Bad things happen to them.  They want to relive the pain of past addictions, traumas and life lessons  while vicariously experiencing all the bad things that have yet to occur.  This viewer favors the genre of television that shows ordinary people in situations ordinary enough to have a built-in viewership, but extraordinary enough to stimulate a sense of voyeurism and advertising sales.

Favorite Shows:  I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant, Operation Repo, Hoarders, anything featuring debilitating yet rare diseases and medical maladies or on TLC.

Rx: None.  This person buys the majority of the products that simultaneously promise to fix their lives and support the entirety of television programming.

The Anestitize Me Viewer:

This viewer just wants something to entertain them enough to ignore their spouse, fall asleep, and make it through another dull day at the office.  Nothing too entertaining, thought provoking, or anger inducing or they might snap and have to do something about their boring life, like this guy.  Prime Time was invented for these viewers, who watch a lot of sitcoms and find that laugh tracks only reinforce their sense that they are spending their time in a normative, safe, and socially approved manner that can be discussed around the water cooler.  This viewer may have actually found Leno funny, but any feelings are hidden so deep inside that it is difficult for them to discern.

RX: Modern Family, Two and a Half Men, Any British television show remade to be safe for an American audience.

Future research should examine additional categories, as well as explore how viewers may cross categories over time.  The introduction of DVRs and time shifting may also alter the depressive viewing experience in ways that are currently poorly understood. 


Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Reluctant Bride

I never had the dream—the fantasy, of being a bride. I’ve known grown women who secretly confessed over a bottle of wine that they planned their wedding when they were ten, dressed up as brides for Halloween, and were so earnest in their longing for a wedding I envisioned them putting down their venue deposit with their allowance money. These same little girls loved tulle, and glitter, pink chiffon and sparkly lace—and I loved that, too, but without context: I never grew up dreaming about my wedding. Instead, I learned about the value of education, was told to “do what I love,” and that I didn’t need a man to complete me. In my feminist household, I wasn’t raised to distrust men so much as I was instilled with a healthy suspicion of marketers. The "m" word in my household was in fact money, which is not a theme for a wedding you will find celebrated on

While this would seem to leave me at a disadvantage when it comes to planning a wedding, from my research so far weddings don’t seem to have much to do with marriage. In fact, it seems like you don’t need a partner so much as a credit card in order to plan one.

Fortunately, I also grew up on the West Coast where a sizable demographic of aging hippies really takes the pressure off. As I told my uncle as he pestered me about marrying my live-in boyfriend of five years, my mother shifting uncomfortably in her chair, “I’m from California, only my gay friends are married.”

So a few years later when Dave and I did decide we did want to be married, it was trepidation for the trappings, not our relationship, that left me proceeding cautiously. My commitment issues are not with my partner—but with the process of getting married itself, with a healthy dose of skepticism for the institution itself. What does modern marriage even mean? In an age when women are more likely than men to earn a college degree, and the majority of married couples today cohabited first (Bumpass, Larry, Lu, Hsien-Hen, 2000), as we rethink marriage, shouldn't we rethink weddings, too?

Teh Internets, as I like to call it, have fortunately have offered an interesting albeit amplifying place to explore these fears. Just like your doctor rolls his eyes when you show up armed with your latest, hypochondriac self-diagnosis, sometimes even the wedding sites that mostly leave you feeling better, like or will cause you to sit up at night worrying about the implications for third wave feminism and liberal equity discourse. Of course, maybe that is when I should just relax and take a moment to breath. After all, I have matching table linens to chair covers to think about.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What if Your Starbuck's Card Threw in a Free Tip?*

I love my barista but it just is not convenient to tip in a credit card society, and I know that tips have declined as more of us whip out the card instead of pulling out a few dollars.

Which got me thinking, why doesn't Starbucks encourage everyone to use a gift card by offering that every time we load a gift card and pay with it, the crew working gets some token amount or percentage thrown into their pay that day? Ponied up by the company itself, of course. I don't mean charging the customer, but building it in as an incentive of using the card the way you did for the drink upgrades or free syrups. It would emphasize the company's focus on employees and social/corporate responsibility, make customers feel good, and incentivize the cards which I am too lazy to use.

Think of it as a barista appreciation program--and a way of keeping your employees happy while tying the community to their store and rectifying the slide in tips.

I'd love to know that I can tip for free as a perk of buying and using a Starbucks card and I don't think the cost to the company would be very much at all. I may be using my own card now, but this would get me to reach for that branded piece of plastic.

* P.S. I offered this idea to Peet's but they didn't do anything with it. Somehow with the store closings, Starbucks seems hungrier...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I'm getting a life and it's LOCAL!

I rode my bike to Ventura College today along Loma Linda. Starting off down the hill there was more than a little trepidation since I drove back from Peet's coffee in rush hour yesterday along Telegraph thinking, "I wouldn't want to ride my bike here!" And the Ventura County Star profiled the memorial bike rack outside that very same Peet's in honor of a bike rider who was killed in March.

So today I had a general sense of the direction and figured I could sort out all the details of my route later. I would head East and take whatever route would minimize inhaled smog and threats to my physical well-being. And I was really wondering how far 4 miles felt on a bike.

The ride actually wasn't that bad--and it was surprisingly easier on the way back once I knew where I was going and what I was doing. There were a few hills but most of the ride is relatively flat and the shoulder for most of it is wide with a bike lane and not too many parked cars. The swoosh of vehicles still makes me nervous and I am overly cautious about watching out for cars coming up on me and staying to the right while scanning for parked cars looking to throw a door open on me, but I felt confident I could make the ride safely and survive the 8 mile round trip ride five days a week.

Arriving at the college, there are bike racks and the bookstore was easy to find. I had forgotten the pain of paying for text books: the damn book and workbook cost more than the class! I did buy a bottle of water for $1 flat, which the clerk I agreed was the best deal they had going.

While the ride out took me 30 mins, it was only 22 getting home, so I expect I will start making up some time on the ride as I learn idiosyncracies of the route. I made it up every hill except my own final beast of an incline, but man, even though I run and walk and am in pretty good shape, this is either going to kill me or render me a late night infomercial fitness goddess.

I actually didn't head straight home after my ride, but instead rode down to Starbucks and on to the bike depot, where the lady was kind enough to show me how to get my clip on headlights off so I could remove my basket and take it with me. I still can't figure out how to put my lock in its holster, but I just throw it in the basket so I don't much care. Besides, she was busy with a man and his three triplets who came in honking every horn in the place so I left them to their cacophony and jetted off.

Back at home, I've suddenly become very interested in the location of every bike rack in the city. I tried to find a guide to local streets and recommendations on routes in the city but the only link I found was dead. Maybe it's time for me to start my own.

For what it's worth, Main St. is to be avoided at all costs--take Santa Clara instead. And 10 miles on a bike today made me very glad I replaced the seat.