Monday, August 16, 2010

My new Terry Pratchett tattoo, and why.

I recently got 2 new tattoos.  The first is one of my bike frame to represent the joy and happiness that cycling has brought me over the years as well as to partly commemorate the recent life transition I'm undergoing.

The second tattoo is a bit more complicated.  It's from the Terry Pratchett book "Thud!" which is a favorite of mine.  My copy is tattered and battered and dogeared and well-loved.  There's a lot in there that is clever, well-written, and speaks to me a lot.  Take, for example, this excerpt discussing the ways in which those who are different can sometimes choose to stand out in order to blend in:

Vimes stared at the man.  He'd never thought about that before.  But yes... Little fussy Otto, in his red-lined black opera cloak with pockets for all his gear, his shiny black shoes, his carefully cut widow's peak and, not least, his ridiculous accent that grew thicker or thinner depending on whom he was talking to, did not look like a threat.  He looked funny, a joke, a music-hall vampire.  It had never previously occurred to Vimes that, just possibly, the joke was on other people.  Make them laugh, and they're not afraid.

Anyway, the Summoning Dark.  It's one of the dwarfish "Darks," which have a variety of meanings and realities in dwarf culture.  Dwarfs live communally in mines or, just lately, in human cities, in crowded quarters underground (or as close as possible in the cities).  Dwarf mines, though, are a bit more complicated than human settlements.  Humans would never last in that kind of situation, but dwarfs have cultural coping mechanisms. 

Dwarfs didn't go mad.  They stayed thoughtful and somber and keen on their job.  But they scrawled mine sign.

It was like an unofficial ballot, voting by graffiti, showing your views on what was going on.  In the confines of a mine, any problem was everyone's problem, stress leapt from dwarf to dwarf like lightning.  The signs grounded it.  They were an outlet, a release, a way of showing what you felt without challenging anyone...

There are lots of dwarfish runes for darkness.  Some are simple, like the "long dark," the sign for a mine.  Some are ... mystical.  The Summoning Dark is the worst, scrawled by a dying dwarf, with his last breath, and it controls an

...invisible and very powerful quasidemonic thing of pure vengeance...

Which possesses Our Hero, the charmingly troubled and dark Commander Vimes, of the City Watch.  The Summoning Dark affects his mind, keeps him angry and vengeful, gets him to do things he may or may not want to do, and keeps him alive (though not nicely) when he makes some Bad Decisions, and eventually gets him to a confrontation with the Bad Guys in the story.

All of which brings me to why I felt this was a great concept for a tattoo.  When Vimes, no longer really in his right mind, confronts the Bad Guys, he also confronts the Summoning Dark.  In the end, Vimes overcomes the Dark and refuses its pressure to commit vengeful murder.  But not because he is pure, good, or otherwise above the darkness. 

What makes it special is that Vimes basically overcomes the Summoning Dark because his own Darkness, the Watching Dark, that he has created in his mind, is stronger and better at being Vimes than the Summoning Dark is powerful.  In the end, the Summoning Dark leaves Vimes, but leaves a mark on the inside of his arm.  As, is explained by one of the dwarf grags, "an exit wound, perhaps?"

I don't guess I need to explain in too much detail why this story speaks to me, after finally getting past two years of horrible job after horrible job, second-guessing myself and my intelligence, being bullied and letting depression and anxiety take over my life, and being kind of an asshole to everyone.  I don't guess I need to explain too explicitly why conquering the darkness by being more YOU than anyone else speaks to me.  I don't guess I need to explain too much why, in the end, "an exit wound, perhaps" is exactly the right tattoo to mark closing the door on the past couple years and moving on, with myself intact.

This is on the inside of my right bicep, not my inner forearm.  I just thought it'd look better.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Request for help!

One of my very best friends is working on her master's thesis and needs people to do a simple website viewing activity and complete a survey.  If anyone reading this hasn't heard about this yet, please take about 20 minutes out of your day to help an awesome woman with her research.  The world needs awesome writers like her!

Instructions are here.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Funny "foreign" food and why that construction bugs me

So I was thinking about my post yesterday, about how it bugs me when cookbook writers state that curry powder and garam masala are interchangeable.  And it occurred to me that the problem lies deeper than "WTF your recipe will turn out WEIRD if you do that, why can't anyone see that??"  The problem is that the recipe writers and developers seemed to figure it doesn't matter what an ostensibly "Indian" dish actually tastes like, as long as it's suitably "foreign."  It erases an entire country's culture, history, and various food traditions, squashing it all into the category of "foreign."  You see the same thing with recipes for things like "Asian noodle salad."

And that bothers me.  It bothers me because I feel that USians already tend to forget about the rest of the world.  It bothers me because we tend tolump people together in harmful ways.  It bothers me because food, culture, history, and identity tend to be wrapped together, and erasing food traditions erases people.  And I feel that mashing everything outside our borders into the category "foreign" is lazy at best and flatly xenophobic and racist at worst. 

Nobody has to agree with me, of course.  Nobody from outside the USA is obligated to feel offended at cookbooks, of course.  But as an example of how pervasive these kinds of attitudes are, it's kind of interesting.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


So yeah, I have a recipe in the works that I'm trying to get right before posting, and it's being....  Difficult.  I promise, soon, there will be a delicious recipe and discussion of Tempeh Tikka Masala (not traditional, no, but tasty nonetheless -- you cannot keep me away from dishes with tomatoes and cream!).

In the meantime, let's discuss spices and spice blends as used in Indian cuisine.

First of all, I am not, by any means, an expert in Indian cooking, as far as such a thing exists.  Like many other important culinary centers (China, Italy, France, Mexico), India has many regions, each with separate cooking traditions informed by history, geography, and climate.  I know that my experience in the amazing breadth and depth of Indian culture and cuisine is limited, being based mainly on the families I knew growing up and on reading as an adult; however, it's enough to be seriously bothered by some lazy recipe writing and lack of research I've noticed in many cookbooks and recipes.

Let's start with the basics.  Typically, supermarkets carry two different "Indian" spice blends -- curry powder and garam masala.  These are fairly "generic" versions of varied regional blends.  Curry powder is associated with the cuisines of southern India, and is typically made of a variety of spices, including (but not limited to) coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, and turmeric, which gives it its characteristic yellow color.  Garam masala is associated with the northern cuisines, and is typically made from "warm" spices that are roasted before grinding, and can include cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg (among others).  

These two spice blends have very different flavor profiles and uses in recipes.  However, most recipes written for American cooks seem to treat the two blends as interchangeable.  This sets my teeth right on edge, because the most cursory sniff of a bottle of each would reveal their differences.  A recipe for a tofu and sweet potato curry is going to taste much, much different (and potentially have a different texture) if garam masala is used as an equal substitution for curry powder.  Likewise, garam masala is typically added at the end of cooking, which preserves its delicate, roasted aromas.  Trying to do the same with some curry powder will leave you with harsh, raw-tasting spices.  I really cannot understand why anyone who goes to the trouble of writing, testing, revising, and publishing recipes would lead their readers astray like this. 

I won't lead you astray like this, don't worry!

Now, who wants some recipes?  These are my favorites, adapted slightly from Julie Sahni's fabulous and thorough book "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking," published by William Morrow & Co., 1985.

Curry Powder Master Recipe
1/2 cup coriander seeds
10-15 dry red chili pods (I use dried chiles de arbol, add/reduce to taste, I usually use around 8)
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
15-20 curry leaves* (fresh or dry, optional)
3 tbsp turmeric powder

1. If using fresh curry leaves, dry for about 5 mins in a dry frying pan over low heat.
2. Grind everything (except turmeric) in a coffee grinder or blender to a fine powder (depending on what you use, you might need a few batches).  Transfer to a bowl and stir in the turmeric.
3. Transfer to an airtight jar and store in a cool dark place.
 * curri or kari leaves are amazingly aromatic leaves, and are sold fresh and dry in Indian groceries.

Punjabi Garam Masala
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1/4 cup coriander seeds
1 1/2 tbsp cardamom seeds
2 whole cinnamon sticks, 3 inches long*
1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
3 tbsp black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
1/2 tsp ground mace or nutmeg (optional)

1. Heat a large, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes.  Combine all the spices except the mace, and add to the pan.  Dry roast until fragrant and a few shades darker (up to 10 minutes).
2.  Transfer to a bowl and cool completely before grinding.  Transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place.
* I have had a lot of difficulty using cinnamon sticks for this -- they do not break up well when ground.  According to Alton Brown, you're better off buying good quality ground cinnamon, for two reasons -- industrial grinding machines are capable of producing a fine powder, and because whole sticks are typically from a lower-quality portion of the bark.  Last time I made garam masala, I used about a teaspoon of cinnamon, and toasted it with the rest of the spices.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cooking with seaweed, part 2 - tofu noodle soup!

Here we go, time for another installment, this time using our lovely kombu dashi that we made. I love this soup, it makes me feel good and not too weighed down and, unlike a lot of things, does not upset my tummy in any way. Highly recommended after overdoing things the night before.

Kombu dashi (~4 cups, optional)
1 tbsp wakame seaweed
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tbsp sake, mirin, or vermouth (I seriously use vermouth every time any wine-type thing is called for. It's just easier that way.)
1 3-inch piece of ginger, cut into matchsticks
2 scallions, sliced on the diagonal
1 16-oz block Chinese-style (not silken) tofu, diced
2 packages ramen noodles, any flavor (throw those nasty packets away)
about 1 tbsp miso, or to taste

1. Before you start cutting things, take your kombu stock, fish out the piece of kombu, and discard. Soak the wakame in the kombu (or in 4 cups water) stock for 20-30 mins until you're ready to cook.

Here's what the wakame looks like BEFORE:

2. After you're done chopping everything, gently lift out the wakame and drain in a colander.  Then, strain the wakame broth through a couple layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter set in a chinoise.  The wakame will now look like this:

You can see how much just a tablespoon bulked up.  This is really all you need for a pot of soup, I swear, especially if you are a seaweed novice.

3.  Once everything is chopped and strained, set a pot over medium heat and bring your drained dashi and enough water to measure oh, about 6-8 cups, to a boil.  Add the soy sauce and wine, followed by the ginger and scallions (oh go ahead, add a minced garlic clove if you really must!).  By the way, don't fret if your ginger is slightly bluish -- that's just the variety of ginger.  Most supermarkets don't bother to tell you what type of ginger you're buying, but maybe they should, because I sure did spend a lot of time worrying about the blue ginger.

After that simmers for a couple of minutes, add the tofu.

4.  Add the wakame and simmer for a couple of seconds -- you don't want to overcook it, or it'll be slimy!

5.  Add the noodles -- remember, they need only 2 minutes or so. 

6.  Once everything is cooked, taste the broth -- if it needs a little more heft, take a tablespoon of miso and mix it with some broth, then add back to the soup and mix well.  I'm not sure why, but you shouldn't boil miso; maybe it will kill all those friendly fermenty bacteria, I'm not sure.  Maybe I'll find out and tell you all.  I also like to add some sriracha at this point.

7.  EAT -- I like to use tongs to grab a bunch of noodles and settle them in my bowl before ladling the broth, tofu, and veggies over it.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

More changes!

We have contributors, not because I am that busy and important, but because I have amazing friends with amazing stuff to share. Keep an eye out!

It's good to be the queen.

Just a friendly happy reminder, wherever you find me from (I comment lots of places under the name "Ethyl"), if you leave a comment I don't like, I'm'a baleet your pathetic ass. I don't waste my time engaging with trolls :D

And don't waste your time on "freedom of speech." I ain't the government and you ain't the public. This is MY sandbox. This is not a space for open and honest debate.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cooking with seaweed, part 1

So I've been learning about the different ways sea vegetables are used in cooking, particularly in Asian cuisines(although that is certainly not the only area in the world where sea vegetables are eaten), and I wanted to share some of what I've learned with you.

I cook with several different types of seaweed, so let's start with taking a look at them.

First up in kombu, a type of kelp used in Japanese cuisine.

Kombu is one of the main ingredients in the Japanese soup stock called dashi. Kombu is sold in a variety of forms, including the dried stuff below:

Next up is one of my favorites, hijiki:

Hijiki grows wild in Japan, Korea, and China, and for some reason many of the recipes I've seen that use it also include carrots. These recipes are delicious, though, so I'm not going to worry too much about that for now.

The last on my list is wakame:

Wakame is, according to Wikipedia, an invasive species, who knew? It is farmed in Japan and Korea, and sometime later this week I will have a recipe using it, including fresh ginger, tofu, and ramen noodles (there is more to ramen that surviving on a grad student's budget!).

It's important to note that all of these sea vegetables I use I purchase in their dried form and re-hydrate. Some of them, especially the wakame, really bulk up when you re-hydrate, so pay attention when I give you measurements! Sea vegetables are delicious and healthy, and I'm excited to share my recipes with you.

Oh, what the hey, let's start with an easy one, for kombu dashi. This is a vegetarian version of dashi, and really, all you do is lop off a chunk of kombu, and soak it in a quart of water overnight.

We'll use this dashi tomorrow in our ramen dish, so you'd better get moving on that if you want a delicious soup tomorrow!

New stuff in the works!

Well, Joelster finally talked me into getting a new camera, and so far I can't say it's been a bad idea. So look forward to some fun picture-assisted recipes, you guys!

Here's a preview of what is to come!

Am I making enchiladas verde? Or posole? You'll have to wait and see!

What's on the menu tonight? Jerk tofu and sweet potato skewers!

UPDATE -- I went back and tagged a bunch of old posts to make finding stuff a bit easier. I quit when I got back to where I wasn't posting so many recipes, because I figured it wasn't as necessary, and also, I got bored. But yay, tags!