Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (5)

Over the holidays, since I wasn’t going to be cooking a lot of my traditional holiday stuff with family, I decided to make myself a few special meals. And what better book than Smitten Kitchen?

#6: Baked ranchero eggs with blistered jack cheese and lime crema

This is one of those recipes that when I saw it, I immediately thought “Where has this been all my life?” Turns out, I feel that way even more after making it, not only because it was fabulous but also because it has sub-parts and techniques that I can repurpose for an easier, more yummy life, and it’s very easy to scale down if you don’t want to make all dozen eggs of it. The ranchero sauce is super easy — just blend chopped onion, tomatoes, and jalapeño in the blender, then reduce (mixing in beans optionally, although I would never skip the beans myself :). The extras are a tiny bit fussy, but can be made ahead pretty easily and really add to the flavor and texture of the dish — Deb knows how to step up the garnishes to take a great dish to Awesome! The simmered/baked egg technique worked out just perfectly — the addition of blistering the cheese under the broiler, which also finishes the eggs, is excellent. It comes out bubbly and amazing.

I executed this one almost exactly as described except for halving the recipe because a) there’s only one of me, and b) I only have a 10-inch skillet), forgetting to halve the tortilla quantity, and using pepper jack instead of plain jack, because why on earth not? I ended up overcooking the eggs slightly because I wanted to be sure they got cooked enough, but only a bit — so I’d suggest not being tooo conservative with cooking the whites during the simmer, unless you prefer hard yolks too. They’ll get a good finish from the broil. I used about 3/4 of the tortilla strips I made, so you can definitely up the quantity a bit if you like tortilla. Finally, I’d suggest monitoring the wateriness of your sauce carefully. I did reduce mine just as the recipe describes, but I like it more dry, so it was still on the watery side for my taste.

After I made this I realized I still couldn’t eat more than two of the six eggs in one sitting, and they will get overcooked if you reheat (as Deb warns, though it’s hardly a great catastrophe!), but I realized that in the future I can actually make the sauce ahead, then make tiny individual servings in my mini-cast-iron using just two eggs, a sprinkling of cheese and some garnishes (made ahead, with the tortilla strips refreshed in the toaster oven). So definitely don’t hesitate to make this if you’re alone, although of course it would also be great shared with two to twelve friends!

#7: Big breakfast latkes

Finally, a recipe I have every ingredient for! These are traditional latkes, onion and potato with flour-egg binding. Easy peasy, but on the obscure side, you should have a cheesecloth or ‘lint-free dishcloth’ to squeeze the liquid out of the potatoes. I decided to live with some lint in my latkes. The squeezing is apparently important to get the potatoes dry enough to fry well, so don’t skip it. Use paper towel if you have to. I was worried I was getting it too dry because it was kind of hard to mix the potato and onion into the binding, but once everything was well mixed, it was perfect.

Fried cakey things are not one of my talents, and I’ve only gotten into eggs for cooking more recently, so it was really fun to just take a run at the traditional. They came out absolutely great and the one I ate was fabulous with a fried egg on top (one of Deb’s serving suggestions). I wish I hadn’t frozen all my applesauce yesterday, because the remaining ones would be great that way. The ratio of potato to onion and the amount of salt and pepper was perfect. Yum.

#8: Sugar-snap salad with sesame-miso dressing

I made this a while back, and heavily adapted it to fit what I had in the fridge, which was cabbage and radishes and spring onions. Yeah, no sugar snaps — it’s winter. But I was convinced this was the perfect use for the veggies I had. And it came out very well. The dressing is awesome-tasting. It was filling without being heavy. So I’d say you can definitely adapt this for different veggies, although having a sweetish one would help to balance the tang and salt of the dressing. It was a bit fussy to make with cutting everything up, but once the dressing is made and blended it’s worth it. Definitely nice to use a VitaMix or something you have one, to get really smooth dressing. And it makes the cutting less important.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (4)

#5: Slow cooker black bean ragout

Apparently a ragout is a main-dish stew (related to the Italian ragu), usually cooked long and slow. Now you know!

This is a basic bean dish, probably not that different from one you’d find in any veggie or vegan cookbook, and that’s exactly what I wanted for post-Thanksgiving. It does come with some interesting suggested extras like lime-pickled red onions (I used the onions I pickled with the celery for the potato salad) and cumin crema (I used some of the Greek yogurt I had from the galette), and it was nice to be inspired to take the toppings up a notch. The result was tasty in an understated way and super easy — you just chop the onions and mince or crush the garlic, then put everything (onions, garlic, beans, spices) into the crock pot to cook. No presoaking required!

My crockpot cooked the beans in about five hours on high, and I turned it down to low while I made some rice once they were done, because I didn’t want to make the garlic toasts she suggests (the recipe also says you can put the beans in anything you want — including tacos, which after my breakfast taco experiences in Austin, sounds awesome). I served it over rice with scallions, cilantro, avocado (thanks to Whole Foods 5/$5 ‘Black Friday’ special), and the onions and crema.

One bowl of it was totally satisfying and tasty. I’m going to have it for dinner again tonight, and I’ll probably make it again in the near future, starting it in the morning and running it on low while I’m at work. I don’t often make full meals in my crockpot but I’d like to do more. And I’ve made black beans in the crockpot before, even from a cookbook recipe (Vegan Lunchbox, if I remember correctly) but I preferred this one to any other that I’ve made. So it definitely needs to go into the regular rotation, unlike most of the recipes I’ve tried so far which have been great but mostly on the complicated side (except the kale salad which I also want to make again).

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (3)

#4: Butternut squash and caramelized onion galette

This is one of the recipes that immediately hit me with a “Where has this been all my life?” kind of force. I love winter squash, lately I’m obsessed with caramelized onions, and anything that involves expanding my pastry dough repertoire is a fun challenge. I decided to make it for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s labor-intensive enough that I’d want to reserve it for a special occasion, but the results, at least in my opinion, are beautiful and very tasty: so worth it. I did see a few partial pieces left on people’s plates, but I also got a few nice compliments. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to some people’s.

The dough is made with a mix of flour, salt, butter, sour cream or greek yogurt, vinegar, and water. I’ve never made dough with something like yogurt or sour cream before, and I couldn’t tell you exactly what effect it had. Mostly what I noticed is that the dough was BUTTERY. My family pie dough recipe is shortening-based, and I usually use Earth Balance to make my pastry, so it was really noticeable to me — it tasted rich and decadent and even a little too much at times. It came together fairly easily — certainly easier than pie dough because you can just toss in the liquid ingredients and stir everything together, although requiring more effort to be worked down to the texture she specified (‘like couscous’). The dough has to be chilled for at least an hour and can go up to 2 days (I did mine overnight), so you definitely want to make it first.

I used kabocha squash instead of butternut, and found the prep a bit easier, but still labor intensive, because it has to be chopped before being roasted. I also ended up using Emmental cheese instead of fontina because (who’d have guessed?) Safeway doesn’t stock fontina. The assembly was pretty easy once everything was prepped, although I wish the recipe had reminded me to take the dough out of the refrigerator about the same time I started the baking/caramelizing, because it was a bit hard to roll out.

Nevertheless, the galette came out of the oven looking just like the picture, except without the egg glaze because I wanted to keep it egg-free (and I’m lazy). So overall, this was a huge win, and I intend to make more galettes in the future because they are awesome, although I may use a different dough to avoid the BUTTER situation and the necessity of buying ingredients I rarely use.

Mees 2: Was auto dominance inevitable?

One of the most interesting myths that Mees spends time debunking in this chapter is actually not that auto dominance was inevitable (since I didn’t believe that to begin with) but the idea that American public transit declined and died because of a conspiracy by the auto industry. His analysis is that the tram industry had serious problems at the time that it was purchased, converted to buses, and then dismantled by GM. There’s no disagreement on the latter points, but earlier reports from the government and other sources show that the tram companies had been privately run with an eye to the short-term profits of their owners, and were in dire financial straits by the time the takeovers occurred. In Los Angeles:

By the 1920s, it was clear that the Pacific Electric system would need substantial investment to modernize equipment, segregate servies from traffic congestion, improve level crossing safety, and duplicate single track sections. Cross-suburban routes to complement the mainly radial network, and extensions to new growth areas, would also be needed to compete with the car. But Pacific Electric lost money in all but one of the years from 1912 to 1941.

A report by engineering consultants suggested the implementation of a multi-modal system, with exclusive-ROW rapid transit supplemented by interurban trams and suburban buses. But it would have meant pumping money into the unpopular and fiscally unsound private railway companies, and was eventually abandoned in favor of an entirely public-section solution of building radial freeways, on the grounds that Los Angeles’s dispersed development pattern was more suitable for the automobile — even though that pattern was largely created by the tram network.

People disliked the railway companies because they had been providing increasingly poorer service for years and trying to raise prices as well. That doesn’t bode well for today’s transit agencies trying to get money to provide better service — but at least they don’t have the image of greedy private companies!

As a contrast to the perfect storm of economic and political factors in LA, and a supporting piece of evidence that auto dominance wasn’t inevitable, Mees also tells the story of a decline which was a conspiracy, that of Auckland public transit. It was a conspiracy not of the auto industry (there is none in New Zealand), but of government officials and planners: the Auckland City Engineer, the national Transport Minister, and a professor of Geography at Auckland University, who with other road supporters, created a stacked committee, referred an earlier rail and public transport plan to the committee, and declared Auckland unsuitable for public transit, despite the fact that at the time it had the majority share of travel into the city centre (58%). Again the justification was the dispersed nature of the Auckland area. They cited Ernest Fooks’ figures giving Auckland a density of only 4 people per acre, below even LA.

The only problem is that Fooks, in his book X-Ray the City, provided these figures exactly to demonstrate the fallacy of calculating density based on urban boundaries, which are arbitrary and don’t represent an entire built-up area. Portlanders know that our city includes Forest Park, which is entirely uninhabited by humans. LA and Auckland suffer from the same effect in the calculation of average density: large undeveloped areas. As the same committee had only four years earlier calculated the actual urbanized area of Auckland, it’s difficult to write this off as an innocent error.

The use of density is revealed once again as a convenient story. It’s a classic case of the fallacy of assuming that because A is correlated with B, A must cause B, and completely ignores other potential relationships and confounding effects, such as different policies and political environments that played a large role in transit investment and operation.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (1)

I just got the Smitten Kitchen cookbook and have been drooling over the recipes. I decided to make a few this week and see how it went.

#1: Fingerlings vinaigrette with sieved eggs and pickled celery

ZOMG, if you’ve never put eggs through a sieve (and really, who has?) you are missing out. This salad is awesome. I was skeptical about the pickled celery, but it does a great job of adding crunch while reinforcing the vinegary taste — there isn’t a ton of dressing for the amount of potato, so this works well. The sieved eggs merge a little with the dressing and get smeary on the potatoes. It’s good.

Variations: True to spirit — Deb’s recipes often come from pantry constraints and previous experience — I used the yellow potatoes from my CSA instead of fingerlings and just cooked them cut in half and then cut them into quarters on the plate to get similar sizing. My celery was smaller so I used 3 stalks (a measurement of quantity here would be great, but you can estimate by pouring the pickling mixture into a bowl and cutting about enough to fit in with it) and I used a small red onion (again from my CSA) rather than buying shallots (which are hard to find and more expensive). I chose savory and parsley for my herbs (optional), but I think chives and parsley would actually be ideal because I love chive with potato and the parsley is nice and fresh.

#2: Wild rice gratin with kale, caramelized onions, and baby swiss

I wasn’t as enchanted by this one, which surprised me because it’s full of things I love. I’m going to blame it on my execution, since even more than the other one, my pantry / shopping forgetfulness and some sloppy construction (lack of sufficient bowls) meant that I didn’t quite execute on this as intended. It was just a little thin and too oily and crunchy for me, although the flavor is good. I think just didn’t hit tonight’s cravings, too. I really wanted something hearty and thick, and without a sauce and spread across a too-large baking dish, this just wasn’t going to be it.

Variations/execution failures: I halved the recipe and used barley to make up the amount of rice I was missing (reasoning that it’s also nutty and chewy; this actually worked well and I’d probably do it again). I used more oil than called for with the onions, more kale, less broth, more cheese, and cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs (I just forgot to buy them, oops). I don’t have a smaller baking dish, so everything was spread out a little too much, and I didn’t pre-mix the gratin filling before putting it in the dish and carefully salt/pepper it so it would be evenly flavored, so I ended up with under- and over-seasoned spots. It’s easy to see how it ended up too oily and crunchy — although surprisingly, I really wanted MORE kale. Kale cooks down like whoa, so it almost disappeared into the onions and rice. If you don’t really like kale, you can go for the amount in the recipe, but if you like it, I suggest more. I think this would be great with some cooked butternut squash, too, either in chunks or as a sauce. That would add some smoothness and heartiness, and I think when I try again (which I will) it will be with that addition.

Also, I have no idea what the heck baby swiss is. I wonder if this is a misprint and it should be baby kale, caramelized onions, and swiss?

The professional hazards of a linguist: Chomsky

One of the professional hazards of being a linguist is being asked what you think of Chomsky.* I never have a good answer because we didn’t actually study Chomsky in school. The linguistics department at Rice does what’s called ‘functional linguistics’, and Chomsky is ‘formal linguistics’. The names have to do with having different opinions about how language evolved and is produced, and why languages are similar to each other, but the explanation is a little esoteric.** At any rate, we didn’t learn much about him, and I didn’t get any clear idea of what he thought until later, when I read an interesting book called The Linguistics Wars.

Today, though, I realized on re-reading The Most Human Human that the author captures a distinction in computer science that I wasn’t aware of, which has a lot of similarity to the way the formal/functional distinction plays out in practice (as opposd to the esoteric theory): the distinction between computability theory and complexity theory. In computability theory, your concern is determining what is possible or impossible to compute, according to the principles of computation. Complexity theory deals with whether you could actually build a computer that could compute something, in, say, less than the total age of the universe. Chomskyan linguistics is similar to computability theory, and the type of linguistics I studied is more similar to complexity theory. Chomsky wasn’t interested in linguistic performance — he’s very clear about that. He studied what is and isn’t possible in language, under very idealized conditions. In practice, it means he mostly studied nicely-written sentences, and determined if they were allowed or not, and what that means about the language. (So, also, he mostly studies syntax.) Functional linguists study something more like complexity theory: what people actually do, when they’re speaking and writing, under the often sub-ideal conditions of the world. So they study speech errors and hesitations and the circumstances under which a seemingly-nonsensical sentence might make perfect sense and a lot of things that Chomskyans tend to just say are irrelevant.

I find this comparison very helpful, because (along with a better grounding in Chomskyan theory that I got from reading The Linguistics Wars) it helped me get beyond my knee-jerk belief that Chomsky is clearly irrelevant. Computability theory is very interesting. It’s where things like the Halting Problem and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem live. But computability is sometimes not very relevant, if you could compute something but it would require more time than the age of the universe. Likewise, there are very large domains of linguistic endeavor that Chomsky simply ignored. Where I disagree with him is that he tended to think that these areas are not important at all — that performance is incidental — whereas I think it’s critical to understanding what language really is. So my answer is something like: Chomsky is good as far as he goes, but he doesn’t go very far in the real world — the way that computability theory is great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far in the real world in which you’d like your computer program to finish before next week (let alone before the end of the universe).

* Not the most common one, though; that would be the question “How many languages do you speak?” My answer to this is decidedly unimpressive.

** In short: Functional linguists think it’s because language serves a common function, regardless of its specific implementation (that function being human communication), and that it evolved from and/or is produced by a collection of adapted general skills. Formal linguists believe that languages are similar because we all have a specific brain module called a language acquisition device — ie, that language is a specialized skill, not a general one, and that languages are similar because they’re all produced by this special module. I think it’s possible that both are true, although having been educated by functionalists, I tend to wonder whether the formal bit is actually necessary.

Goodbye, Stacey’s

I happened to read today that Stacey’s Bookstore in San Francisco is closing.

Any bookstore closure is kind of sad, but this one has a particular sadness for me because that’s where I bought The Mindbody Prescription, which I used to get rid of my RSI totally. I bought the book in November 2005, on one of my first trips into San Francisco after moving to the Bay Area, and have been totally pain-free since June 2006 (more than two and a half years now). So the bookstore has some personal significance to me, and it’s weird to think of passing by there and not seeing it and being reminded of that lucky moment.

Hyperbolicity

It’s sort of unfortunate when people who may have a point undermine themselves with hyperbole, hand-wringing, and inaccuracy.

I got pointed via BoingBoing to what should have been an interesting article about the people behind the sources of Facebook’s funding. I’m no particular fan of Facebook, especially because it just seems to get more and more annoying over time, and certainly there are and have been privacy issues with it.

But I can’t take seriously an article that

1) originally connected something created in 1999 with “after 9/11” (there’s a correction on it now, but this isn’t just a misprint kind of error — it’s a fundamental conceptual error of the type that tends to be brought on by a desire to connect 9/11 to everything and/or a desire to see nefarious influence everywhere).

2) spends a lot of time hand-wringing about Facebook being “fundamentally uncreative” and disconnecting us from nature. This is just typical The Children Are Too Connected To Their Computers and What Is The Point stuff. Why use Facebook when there are books to read? he wonders. That’s not the issue. Facebook is completely different from books. If I want to read I read; Facebook is a vehicle for something entirely different — social connection.

3) uses the phrase “anyone can glance at your intimate confessions”. If you’re putting intimate confessions on Facebook (which people do) I must say I don’t have much sympathy for you. Facebook is essentially the public internet — and is basically about sharing and other people seeing what you do — even though there are some ways to limit information distribution. The phrase is used in the context of the ToU’s “if our privacy controls are circumvented we can’t necessarily protect your information” which is certainly unfortunate, but the head bit should be “weak privacy controls” not “anyone can glance at your intimate confessions”.

In general, the article raises the issue of Facebook’s connection to people I would characterize broadly as crazy libertarians, but it also conflates them with neocons (without taking any effort to convince you that it’s a valid connection). It uses rhetoric rather than actual argument to try to convince you that because Facebook was funded by these people and can be interpreted, in a certain light, as an experiment in realizing their world vision, it must be that we are helping them out in reaching their allegedly sinister goals. I wasn’t convinced of either the total sinistry of their goals (they range from the off-the-wall bizarritude of the Singularity to very unpleasant extremist capitalism) or of the fact that Facebook actually serves as either an an experiment or actual realization of them, largely because the points are implied and almost assumed. I suppose maybe for the usual audience of the Guardian that’s enough?

There’s also plenty of hand-wringing about the ad-supported nature of Facebook. I do think that this is a general trend that’s concerning — there are very few online social sites that are not ad-supported, and that basically means that all online community is also an opportunity for people to sell you stuff. But the same is true (as the article’s author indeed alludes to) of newspapers and magazines. Ad-supported media is not new and the amount of “OMG your social relationships are being used as marketing devices” seems excessive to me. I find guerrilla marketing and paid shills who act like sincere product users far more disturbing uses of the social network for advertising.

Maybe I’m too complacent about this, but ad-supported websites of all kinds are de rigeur, and I’m sure most of the ones that have any information about you via login use that information to target the ads (Google does, for example). Facebook does have a lot of people’s personal information, but I’m more concerned about the general availability of the information than about them sharing it with advertisers, honestly. At least I know what advertisers want — my money. The government? Random people? Not so sure about that.

It’s inarguable that you’re giving these people ROI (return on investment) through your use of Facebook, and you may quite legitimately want to avoid doing that. It does squick me a bit for sure, especially since the pointer from BoingBoing was about Facebook hiring Alberto Gonzales’s former Chief of Staff as their general counsel. Yuck. I can’t see that going anywhere good.

But it’s less clear to me that these people’s strange worldview and aims are necessarily furthered by Facebook, or that even if they are, that Facebook doesn’t have other uses that are completely legitimate and irrelevant to that. The guy may have founded PayPal as a way to escape monetary controls (see article for this contention), but most people just use it to send money to friends or people they bought something from, or set up an easy payment system for their website. Likewise he may have invested in Facebook because it instantiates a virtual, borderless world, but most people just use it to talk to their friends and share photos. The article, instead of being a consideration of the implications of the financial relationship (most interestingly through providing potential funding to the guy’s weirder organizations — not that he really needs more money to be effective given how rich he is), is a piece of poorly argued hysteria.

I’m currently having a similar problem with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I expected to like. It may be in part that unlike most of the first generation who had the book available, I was initially exposed to history that was being rethought to give more weight to what happened to the groups that weren’t writing all the books. So although some of what he writes about is new to me, much of it isn’t — it doesn’t feel revolutionary.

But even more so, I feel that he retreats from evidence into rhetoric; that he has a definitive agenda into which he’s trying to fit evidence, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves and guide his points. To his credit, he makes that explicit at the beginning of the book — and indeed I almost stopped reading at that point, because I’d been led to believe that it was a history book from a unique perspective, not an extended essay with a particular thesis (“the guys in power actually suck a lot” to put it shortly).

One example is his discussion of Native American social arrangements. While he seems to stick to the facts, there’s a definite gloss of romance over them. They were egalitarian! They cared about the environment! Europeans suck compared to them! He doesn’t, however, address the issue that the progress of farming tends to give rise to greater hierarchy (this is a Jared Diamond idea so it may not have been around when he wrote the book, but it does affect his point), meaning that given their own time, it’s entirely possible that the Native American cultures could have ended up much less egalitarian. And he doesn’t discuss the less savory aspects of various Native American cultures, of which there certainly are some. His evidence about their behavior is valid and I grew up with the new-standard narrative that yes the Europeans were absolutely horrible to Native Americans and that’s putting it lightly, but he tilts it just that little bit too far, undermining his legitimate points.

I need to read more of the book before I make any firm conclusions, but all the chapters have felt like that so far to me. Some very interesting evidence, interesting framework, just pushed a little too far for credibility.

WANT.

The first e-book reader I’ve ever seen that I actually want.

The content doesn’t sound very interesting (I prefer books to newspapers and magazines, so an e-book reader without a book supplier is less than exciting — and I want to be able to load my own stuff on, so no/minimal DRM and other nonsense) but the form factor is awesome. This is what I feel like everyone has (or at least I have) been waiting for in e-book reading — a device that is cooler than a book. And I’m kind of addicted to touchscreen technology, so the fact that it’s touchscreen is great.

And someday it might be flexible. Even better.

The only thing I want to know is how breakable it is right now. It looks like you could just snap it in half. If you’ve gotta put a huge case on it, the thinness and sexiness goes away.

But dude. Want!