Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tom Sawyer

No surprises here, but some good memories.  Actually, there were a few surprises, such as how much of the story I'd forgotten. And, I think, how the movie with that little red-headed kid differed from the book.  Worth a read, even for adults.  

The next bunch of books on the shelf I've read:

Ok, I didn't finish it.  I liked the movie quite a bit.  The book was good, and I should get back to it.

I first read this in 8th grade, I think, and I've been in love with Japan ever since.  It's a terrific book, loosely based on a Dutch sailor who landed in Japan just before Iyesu Tokugawa consolidated power as Shogun.  I've probably read it five times.  I've also read the rest of the Asian Saga:  Tai Pan, King Rat & Noble House.  (I didn't get to Whirlwind, which was about the Iranian revolution, I think).  King Rat stands out as the most serious of the bunch, but they're all very good.

Another terrific book that I read back in high school (or whenever it came out) and re-read recently. The story of a young homo sapien girl "at the dawn of time" being raised by an earlier humanoid species.  (Apologies for getting the terms wrong.)  It's very interesting if you like some insight into how the early hominids lived, communicated, hunted, made tools, etc.  I understand that Auel did quite a bit of research for accuracy, but who knows how much our understanding of these people has changed in the time since.  I read the next two in the series, Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters, but they weren't quite as interesting.  There was a big hiatus, I believe because Auel was ill for a number of years, and then the series picked up again.  I haven't read the latter books.  (And, yes, the movie was awful.)

I've read very few science fiction books.  I believe this is the total list:  Ender's Game, it's first sequel, Hive Queen and the Hegemon, Battlefield Earth, Neuromancer (or maybe Mona Lisa Overdrive?).  Ender's Game and Battlefield Earth were each terrific, although I didn't enjoy Ender's Game as much on the re-read.    When it was first given to me, I was warned that I would skip work in order to finish it.  I do think I stayed up all night.  I hear they're finally making a movie.

(Skipping a few travel guides.)

A Dance to the Music of Time is a 12 volume series by Anthony Powell inspired, as I understand it, by the painting by Nichola Poussin:

I read the first book (free on Kindle) and enjoyed it, but, I'm embarrassed to say, I don't really remember it.  Oops.  I'll get to the rest by the end of this project. 

Next up on the shelf:

This will be difficult.  I'm just glad Proust is on a different bookshelf.

Friday, May 18, 2012

God Is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World, Stephen Prothero

I'm fascinated by religion, although not from a religious aspect.  I'm an atheist.  But I read a lot about religion, especially Christian history, because the development of the theories and doctrines is so interesting.

God Is Not One is billed as kind of comparative religion "and Why Their Differences Matter."  The author presents it as a response to those who try to conflate all religions into a few simple concepts (do unto others; thou shalt not kill) so as to argue that all religions are essentially the same:  different paths up the same mountain.

It was ultimately disappointing.  It's little more than a Religion 101 primer on eight religions:  Islam, Christianity,  Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Daoism, and Yoruba.   It was interesting enough, especially since I have very little understanding of Islam, Confucianism, Daoism and Yoruba.  For Hinduism, I'd recommend The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger.  I can't speak to the "alternative" aspect, and I understand there is some criticism of how she presents Hinduism, but it seems to be a very good explanation of the basic concept.  (And I do recommend reading about Hinduism because it is so different from our Western understanding of religions.)

As for the content of God Is Not One, I, of course, can't quibble with any of the sections, except perhaps, Judaism.  I do feel that I have a pretty good understanding of Judaism, it's basic background and how it is practiced -- at least in America.  I certainly don't claim any great knowledge of the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah or that I have done any deep study.  However, I thought Prothero's description needed a whole lot more explanation to make it accurate.  Yes, I should explain myself, but I don't have time now.

My biggest complaint was the lack of direct comparisons between the religions.  This is a book about why the differences in the religions matter, but there are no sections expressly identifying and discussing those differences.  Rather, distinctions are identified within the sections on each religion, and often the discussion of the difference is done in a paragraph or just a few sentences.  There are 8 sections to the book, one for each of the religions, but nothing further.  For example, the book contains statements that Islam doesn't concern itself with sin and Buddhism isn't concerned about salvation.  Given Islam's belief in "paradise" and Buddhism's belief that proper thought/living leads to nirvana, I think the book would have benefited greatly from specific discussion of why the goal of "Paradise" in Islam isn't about living a sin-less life; and a better explanation of what Nirvana is and why it differs conceptually from a Christian heaven.

All in all, the book has good information and is worth a read.

Next up:  Tom Sawyer.  (Yeah, yeah, I should have read that 35 year ago.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Big Smoke (August 2004)

[This post was originally made on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board, but I've edited it a bit.  TVWBB is the place to go for information on making righteous barbeque on the Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker.  It's from my first big BBQ at the house in August 2004.  (Apologies.  Obviously, I'm new at this.  And for some reason, when I try to drag images to various places in the post, they wont stay there.  Not sure what I'm doing wrong.]

Coffee and Budweiser
The Meat:  Two pork butts, a whole brisket,
two racks of spar ribs and four chickens
All you brewers out there will recognize this, the soothing mantra of the art. Whatever happens, whatever goes wrong, if your mash temp spikes, if your cat eats half your hops, if you sneeze into your yeast, there's always one essential response: Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew.

I'm not sure what the analogous line is for smokers. (Perhaps some suggestions?) But what I say is, relax, don't worry, have an alcoholic product and jiggle the vents.

So I drive upstate on Friday night, and hit the local Adams Fairacre market. $312 later, I leave with two full carts. (Granted, they were smallish carts. A full 12* brisket, two 7.5* butts (unfortunately with most of their fat caps trimmed), 10 pounds of burger, 7 pounds of sausages, 4 chickens and piece of salmon for the Kosher contingent.

Let's not forget, flour/sugar/cream cheese/butter/etc. for the cheesecake and carrot cake; beans/parsely/pancetta/etc. for the white bean salad; 20 ears of corn and tomato for the, yes, roasted corn and tomato salad; and other stuff. The three cases of beer were purchased already.

After unloading, I went to a bar to get my self mentally prepared for what would follow.

Saturday a.m. -- I double check the importants: cold beer (check); coffee (check); two large bags of briquetts (check -- yes, I would easily forget this); smoker (check).

I trimmed and rubbed up my meat -- brisket, butts, ribs and chix.

Two Butts, Rubbed.

 As noted above, most of the fat cap had been removed from the butts -- but DON'T WORRY. 
Brisket; Rubbed

Swig down some Bud and chase it with strong black coffee. It's ten a.m. and I made the executive decision to save the morning bacon and lay it atop the butts for the smokes The ribs weren't in great shape either. 
Ribs; Trimmed and Rubbed

They were meaty, but oddly (poorly?) trimmed, with large hunks of strange bone on the non-sternum side. Oh well. I finished the bud and rubbed 'em up any way.

On the brisket, I used the Texas BBQ #2. There's a lot of sugar (turbinado?) in there, and it worried me cause I'm not a sweet guy. So I cracked another Bud and refilled my coffee and didn't worry. I used their #1 rub on one of the butts and Old Bay on the other. I used the #1 and some old Ms. Brown's butt rub (recipe on the TVWB site) on the ribs. The chix were a mixed bag with Old Bay on one, Lemon Pepper on another, and various pork rubs on the last two. Into the fridge with them all.

The rest of the afternoon was spent roasting corn on the stovetop, chopping parsely, chopping tomatoes, etc.

I lit the coals, Minion method. Since it was pouring outside, (it poured, non-stop from 11 pm Friday night to 4 pm Sat afternoon. My front yard was a lake), I set up the bullet in the old dog kennel. Good idea for keeping rain out of the bullet. Bad idea for keeping smoke out of the house.

The parents showed up because they wanted to see how the smoker works. The had already missed the mayem of the trimming. Now they managed to contain their joy and excitement as they watched me deftly place three pieces of meat into a large metal cylinder, stick in the probes, and afix the top. Sit back folks, that's it. There's nothing else to see, except smoke.

The smoke was exasperating. With two butts and a brisket in, (with warm water in the pan), it took forever to get the temp up. And the brisket temp rose almost as steadily as the smoker temp. 

Butts, In the Morning

But the folks were kind enough to bring up a 5lb bag of Jelly Bellys. The sugar balance out the beer/coffee buzz quite nicely. As we ordered pizza for dinner, I thought I should get some type of vegetable topping, what with all the meat I'd be eating the next day. I settled on sausage (I hear there's some kind of seed in there).

So then I made a cheesecake and a carrot cake. Both of which are good.

Brisket, in the Morning

I refilled the pan a few times, cursed at my ET-73, and the brisket was up at 170-ish after 6 

 Blah, blah, I left there, what the hell. I watched Atlantic City -- good movie, and napped. At 4:30 am I took off the brisket, wrapped it in foil and put in the cold oven. Back to sleep. At 7:30 I took off the butts, wrapped them in foil and putt them and the brisket in a cooler which had now been cleaned of some really disgusting fungus.

I wanted to fit four racks of ribs on the bottom, so I rolled them and stuck 'em with skewers. I got them on, and laid the strips of sternum/trim over the top. I had lit another chimney of charcoal and added it. Very proud of myself for lifting the top two sections without spilling water or hot fat on the fire. (More on that later).

Chicken Dance

Oh my aching calves. (Calfs?) So I couldn't get the temp on the top rack over 220. I figured that the ribs on the bottom would take forever, and decided to add some more coal. I carefull lifted off the top two sections, proud of myself for remember to use potholders. (I did try this once without protection, the fingerprints have almost reformed.) As I stood there, holding a levitated half-bullet, filled with four slabs of ribs, four chickens and a water bath, over a pile of red-hot coals, I realized that they only floor space was at 12 oclock. Without much thought -- remember, for the last 24 hours or so, I'd had about 14 beers, 4 pots of coffee, a pizza and 4.5 pounds of jelly beans, I leaned over the open fit pit and deposited the top sections on the other side. It was a little warm, and I recalled my history lessons and that in days of yore people were tortured by suspending them over pits of hot coals. Whoever came up with that method was a good torture-method-comer-upper. Now my back and calf muscles are killing me. But then again, they kept me from falling into the fire.

Then I made the Mac & Cheese. If you haven't made your own -- do it tonight. Go to the Saveur website and use their recipe. But instead of all cheddar, do equal portions of cheddar, gruyere and parmesan. (Real parmesan, not the stuff in a cardboard tube. And don't buy that pre-shredded processed cheese food. But you would never do that anyway, would you?)

Well, the guests trickled it at noonish. The food went out. 

Celery Salad

The Brisket was absolutely wonderful. Thanks so much mr TexasBBQ man. I thought it was a bit sweet -- it ended up with something like a glaze on top. But the whole brisket was eaten withint 15 minutes. It was perfectly tender, with good bite too it. The fat in the point was luscious and creamy.

The butts turned out great as well. I can't say that I noticed a difference between the two rubs, but I didn't worry. I had made two sauces (vinegar and tomato) from recipes on the site. The tomato went fast. I think the folks from Westchester aren't ready for vinegar sauce. (And -- a number of the guests told me that they had never eaten pulled pork or pork ribs before. And they loved them.) 

Roasted Corn and Tomato Salad

By the way, try explaining the smoke ring to someone who's afraid of meat. "Yes, it's cooked. Of course it's cooked. I know that's red, it's the smoke ring. I don't know. Smoke. I don't know, but it's cooked. Well how could it be cooked on the inside if it was still uncooked on the outside? Because that's the smoke ring. No, you don't have to worry about trichinosis, we're not living in the middle ages. No, it wont kill you. IT'S THE SMOKE RING. Go look it up on Google."

The ribs were great and the chicken was perfect. 

Brisket (brisket lose about half their size during the cook)

White Bean Salad

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: So like the idiot that I am, when I took the last of the meat off, I left the lid of the bullet off, instead of putting it on and closing the vents. There was already some acrid smoke in the kitchen from some cheese spillage in the oven. But soon there was a very funky burning smell in the house. AhA!!!!! The water pan, now filled with bubbling fat, was smoking. If this happens to you, don't do what I did. Wearing my Orka silicon gloves, I reached in to pull out the water/fat pan. Some spilled on the coals, bursting into flames. I was now carrying a pan of flaming fat. Luckily, the smoker was in concrete cinder block enclosure (known as Abu Gharib), so I left that to burn out. But what to do with a pan of burning fat? The one smart decision I made was to exit the house quickly. The one bad decision I made was to walk towards the water spigot. Repeat after me: DON'T POUR WATER ON A GREASE FIRE. Really, it's not a good idea. But I did it anyway. Cold water on hot flaming grease. Looking back, it's a wonder I have hair left. Although the flames shot up high enough to get everyone's attention, I wasn't even singed, and the house was fine. But it's not a game for children.
Alas, by six, the leftover porksicles, chix and butt were in bags. I didn't get any brisket or cheesecake. Never had to put the burgers or sausage on the grill. I should have made an extra mac & cheese just for myself. And I'm happy to say that most of the light beer was still in the cooler.

With Gazpacho