Thursday, December 25, 2008

First you make a roux

Theoretically, that's the first line in any Cajun recipe. This is on its way to becoming roux and then it will serve as the basis for a gumbo. Just oil, flour and heat. Oh, and a lot of stirring so the roux doesn't burn. For years I would baby the roux and it would take forever to darken properly, but I eventually learned to keep things pretty hot and rely on stirring to keep it safe. It's working.

The next step is to add the holy trinity: peppers, onions and celery. And then some sausage (very difficult to get real andouille up here in Portland, so I have to settle for something inferior but not necessarily bad).

Cayenne, bay leaves, salt and chicken stock. Now it gets to simmer for a few hours. Then some chicken, some seasoning and more simmering. That's pretty much it.

Then it will be gumbo.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More snow and more snow and . . .

When I came out of the apartment this morning to slog to work I was shocked by how much snow had fallen through the night. This just does not look like Portland. At work we had to shut down a lot of bus routes and I think the customer response to that is not going to be pretty. A lot of people are going to have (or have had) a really difficult time getting home from work. I just hope a lot more of them decided this morning it wasn't worth the effort to go in in the first place.

That car on the right, where you can see that it's silver? That's mine. It's not going anywhere any time soon.

Please melt!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Better not be a white Christmas!

It's December 20th at roughly 4 p.m. and it has been snowing since about 8 a.m. There still isn't an enormous accumulation of snow, but for Portland it's pretty impressive and the forecast is for more and worse to come, including sleet or freezing rain. And temperatures are supposed to stay low enough through the week to call for more snow (or snow mixed with rain) right up to and through Christmas Day. Bah. Humbug.

At least it's a weekend, so my demands at work relating to this weather have been reduced. There are a lot of people traveling on public transit today, though, because it's the last shopping weekend before the gifts fly on Thursday. I've been hoping and planning to host a Christmas dinner with my parents (86 and 91 y.o.) and my son Alex. The kid may be the only person to show up.

So, thanks, it's all very pretty but it's also cold and Portland doesn't cope with snow very well. I know there are people out there laughing at us, but they live in regions where snow is a normal part of winter and they're equipped to deal with it. I think the City of Portland has all of three snowplows. 50 miles south of here, from Salem on down, they've got rain and grass. Not a bit of snow. Humph.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Pounding in the kitchen

File this one in the "learn something new every day" drawer. For years, I've had a mortar and pestle in the kitchen, first a little one and these days a nice big stone device I got for pennies at an Asia grocery. I have dutifully used it many times to mash and mix and I've always thought it was a heck of a lot of work for so little payback.

I have a cookbook by Mai Pham, who apparently has a Vietnamese restaurant in Sacramento. Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table has some great recipes in it, most of them based on her research among street vendors on annual trips to Vietnam. Tonight I stumbled on her description of the mortar and pestle as the "one thing" to buy for a Vietnamese kitchen. And I ran across this: "When using the pestle, pound it freely in an up-and-down motion. Many novices make the mistake of pressing (as opposed to pounding) the pestle into the mortar, which tends to make the job harder and longer." (emphasis added) So, a novice, huh?

Since I was just busily stirring some garlic, bird peppers and sugar in what would certainly prove a pointless exercise, I gave it a try. Amazing. I could easily have gone through the rest of my life ineptly using one of the oldest tools in human culture. Thank you, Mai Pham!

Random Photo of the Day

Several of my co-workers have bought Smart Cars recently, and I have seen a couple of the cars around town in this particular color scheme. I'm obviously not the only person who was struck by the resemblance to a bumblebee. The license plate has a special joke, though, once you know that the owner is a bus driver.

Monday, December 1, 2008

OK, new rule

New Rule: no running out of Irish whiskey. More to the point, no running out of Powers Gold Label. There are clearly evenings in which nothing else will do, for sipping quietly after dinner, while watching a movie or reading a book, or when battling a nasty cold. Or all of the above.

Rant all you want about Scotch whisky and the superiority of peat monsters over the gentle Irish version, but there are times when a hairy single malt is just too much work to enjoy. Some times, one might crave "red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme" (thank you, Richard Thompson) but at others only a soft voice and a cool hand on the brow will do.

Powers is subtle, quiet and smooth. In fact, it perfectly defines "smooth" while studiously avoiding "bland." And they practically give the stuff away. Even in Oregon, land of the State monopoly, it's $21 a bottle. So there is no excuse for running out.

And if someone wants to give me a bottle of the 12 Year Old Reserve, I promise not to complain.

No mo' blow!

There's nothing that could solidify my hatred of leaf blowers more than having one screaming away outside while I'm home sick. The groundskeeper is just cleaning off sidewalks by blasting leaves and needles into the surrounding shrubbery as far as I can tell. This could just as easily be done with a good push broom and some sweat--much more quietly and with none of the unnecessary exhaust filling the air.

The facilities staff at work use these all the time to clear the parking lot and sidewalks, always very politely turning it away when I walk past. Get a broom!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

Part of the charm of the new apartment, at least to date, is that there are a lot of trees on the grounds, mostly conifers. Since the building dates back to the 1970s, I'm guessing many of the trees do as well, and the height of some of them certainly lends itself to that idea.

We finally have a break (probably brief) from the constant gray skies of a Portland autumn, and this fellow appeared to be enjoying the warmth of the sun as much as I am. I shot this through one of my bedroom windows (a bedroom, I might add, easily three times the size of my old one) after I spotted him dozing on a limb. Even the sound of the blinds going up and the window sliding open wasn't enough to rouse him. I'm mellowing toward squirrels now that I no longer have to worry about an attic under constant attack by the rodents.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I'm not crazy about unpacking, either

I just put all this stuff in the box and now I have to take it out? Arggggh.

The layout of this apartment is completely different from the old one, with strengths and weaknesses that are quite different. Trying to figure out where to put things in the new configuration is bad enough, but now I've got a big stack of essentially "new" U-Haul boxes that I can't imagine recycling and great wads of crumpled newspaper that need to be schlepped down a flight of stairs and well across a parking lot to be recycled. And I've discovered it's inadvisable to do this in the dark because some moron built a "trip the tenant" obstruction in the pavement right in the middle of the pitch-black enclosure. I'm lucky I didn't end up in the dumpster myself.

Yesterday was dedicated to cleaning, scrubbing, sweeping and mopping the old apartment to assure my deposit is returned in full--and the managers explained during the walk-through that the whole place would be painted, and then cleaners would come in after the painters, but I still had to return the apartment to pristine condition after living in it for 2.5 years.

And I can't find anything!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I still hate packing

I'm getting down to the last gasps, running out of boxes and long since run out of patience. What is all this crap!??!

Goodwill has gotten significant benefit from this move, believe me. Tons of clothes I'll never wear, glassware, furniture . . . and I found a beautiful dress shirt in the closet that I didn't know I owned. Score one for the closet.

What is freaking me out now, as I write this, is the knowledge that 48 hours from now I'll be ass deep in crumpled newspaper and broken-down cardboard boxes while I unpack everything I've so laboriously wrapped and stuffed and taped and heaved. I don't think I'll be wondering too much about "why the hell did I keep this?" because I've been fairly brutal in winnowing out the unwanted and unneeded. And there should be a lot more room for putting things away--more cupboards, more closet space, and simply more room. I'll be able to walk around my bed and tuck in the sheets on the far side!

It will be worth all the trouble, I know. But from right here and right now it seems like a long way off.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I'll be god damned

I don't have anything else to say. I am stunned and happier than I have been in many years. I've shied away from any political content to this blog, but this transcends politics. I have hope about the future of the country for the first time since the frothy childish faith I held in the 60s.

Congratulations, America.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

I hate packing!

(The rewards of hard work; see Update 2)

I'm going to be moving in one month, so I've already started boxing things up, sorting things out, throwing junk away and setting aside a lot of donations for Goodwill. I have just spent a good chunk of the day packing the living room books (which are most of the books that will be moving with me), knocking down the bookcases and setting aside books I no longer really want.

The 500 lb. gorilla is downstairs in the storage unit: decades of accumulated books that have rarely seen the light of day since . . . well, maybe never. I've been schlepping them around from basement to basement, adding to them when shelf space got low or a new book obsession displaced the old one and whenever it was time to move I've looked at them with dread. The new apartment is considerably larger than this one but the storage unit is small and those books are just not going with me. The good news is that I've combed through them over the last 2.5 years and have a pretty clear idea not only of what is down there, but how little attachment I have to most of them.

Still, this is going to require work. I've got to dig the book boxes out from under everything else down there (what do I need with an electric chainsaw?) and make a final pass through the books, perhaps ambitiously sorting them by topic, all the better to impress the buyer at Powell's. Fortunately, the basement can be accessed by a ramp around the side of the building, which means I can roll a cart down there, pile on the doomed boxes and them roll them out to the car (and roll them, one hopes, into the Powell's warehouse). I will be doing well if I get out of this with only one box that can't be gotten rid of. Well, two, because I know there is a box of paperback science fiction that I can't lose. And there are picture books from when the kids were little (that was my excuse).

And when everything in the apartment is sorted, packed, boxed (what about the booze bottles?) and the new apartment is ready, I won't have to lift a finger or carry any of the boxes up that flight of stairs to the new place--the wonderful people at Thunder Movers, who moved me into this place in June 2006, will knock down the bed, strap up the tv and the liquor cabinet and woosh! in no time at all I'll be standing in an apartment surrounded by unopened boxes, desperately trying to find the booze and the cocktail glasses.

UPDATE: It appears that my old friend, Mike Horvat, will be taking a lot of these books off my hands, driving up from Stayton, OR after I get through sorting them out. It probably won't completely free me from the book buyer, but one never knows.

UPDATE 2: Maybe it was something about the time change, but I had an ungodly amount of energy this morning and was feeling restless. As a result, I tackled the gorilla, got all of the boxes out of the storage space and sorted through everything. Gack. After a couple of hours, though, I had boxes sorted by category and ran across some treasures I'd forgotten all about. At the top of the page is one of them: the August 9, 1974 6 am final of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Outside of the usual yellowing of newsprint, it's pristine. I should get it framed.

What the . . . ?

Don't even ask how I stumbled on this, but the story is even funnier than the photo.
A mouse got sweet revenge when a cat who was chasing it got its head stuck in the jam jar the mouse was hiding in.

Confused cat Mindy was seen wandering down a road in Peterborough with the jar on her head - the tiny mouse just millimetres away from her jaws.

A worried motorist took her to a police station where officers unsuccessfully tried to ease the jar off Mindy's neck.

Eventually, the tabby smashed the jar on the floor of the station, releasing herself and the mouse unharmed.
The cat had a microchip and was returned to its family; the mouse amscrayed and is reportedly still somewhere in the police station.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Dog in the house

Since I'm moving out of this apartment anyway, I figured we could break the rules. NO PETS! NO PET VISITORS! Ralphie is spending the weekend.

He has a nice cedar-filled bed that he loves. Why, then, has he shunned it in favor of my favorite Afghani rug? I may need a stronger vacuum cleaner.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

Fooling with the digital camera at night. Moon and trees and breeze.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

My favorite cocktails, part 3

(Update below) The missing link: Martinez

The Manhattan is one of the oldest and finest cocktails and one of the first to combine base spirits with vermouth (Italian, or sweet vermouth). It was developed by someone (one of a number of possible bartenders) in a bar (one of a number of suggested locations, including the Manhattan Club) somewhere in New York City (which seems to be definite) sometime in the 1880s (or even the 1870s). The earliest recipes varied a lot, but the consistent components have always been: whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters.

There appears to be a general consensus that the Martini evolved from the Manhattan, although it may be difficult to see the connection on the surface. The Martini does have vermouth, but it's French (dry) vermouth and it uses gin rather than whiskey. And no bitters (although early recipes for the Martini actually included orange bitters). Without the missing link, it's hard to credit the lineage.

The Martinez is not only the transitional cocktail between the two, but it turns out to be a delicious drink on its own, and I can't understand how cocktail drinkers allowed it to disappear for generations. It substitutes gin for whiskey, adds a dab of sweetness from Maraschino liqueur (unnecessary with the sweetness of rye or bourbon), retains the bitters and adds a twist of lemon for the garnish. Gin and Maraschino make a wonderful pairing, as a lot of early cocktails attest. The Martinez is a beautiful drink, with a lovely amber hue; it's absurdly simple to make and even simpler to drink.

The Martinez (derived from Gary Regan's recipe)

2 oz. gin (Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray 10)
1 oz. sweet vermouth (Antica Formula)
1/4 oz. Maraschino liqueur
1 dash Angostura orange bitters

Stir with ice and serve in a chilled cocktail glass, with a lemon twist for garnish


Tried the recipe with Vya sweet vermouth replacing the Antica Formula. Vya's version (from California) is a really intriguing take on vermouth, with a rich spicy character that reminds me (in a good way) of fruitcake. The Martinez? It might even be better this way, with a tiny bit more depth. The spice in the Vya is an excellent pairing with the spice in the gin.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

My favorite cocktails, part 2

The Vieux Carré cocktail is one of those rare old drinks with a guaranteed provenance: it was invented in the 1930s by 'Walter Bergeron, the head bartender at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans, and is named after the French term for what we call "The French Quarter" ... le Vieux Carré ("Old Square")' -- according to the Gumbopages and everyone else.

Like The Last Word, it has a critical component originally developed by a religious order--Benedictine liqueur--but in the Vieux Carré, the liqueur is a tiny addition. It is very much a New Orleans cocktail, combining the French (cognac & Benedictine) with the American (rye whiskey), and the New Orleans specialty: Peychaud's bitters. Unlike a lot of cocktails whose provenance is not so certain, the recipe has been essentially identical no matter where I've found it. The only question that arises is whether to stir or to shake the drink. Ordinarily, I would err on the side of stirring, but shaking the drink does create a nice little foamy cap (the picture above is of a stirred drink).

In either case, the drink is disturbingly easy to lap up, just delicious.

Vieux Carré

1 oz. cognac (Courvoisier VSOP)
1 oz. rye whiskey (Rittenhouse BIB)
1 oz. sweet vermouth (Antica Formula)
1/2 tsp. Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Shake it or stir it with ice and pour over ice cubes in an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with twist of lemon.

Monday, September 1, 2008

My favorite cocktails, part 1

When I originally "planned" this post, it was going to be "cocktail", singular. In the last few weeks, however, my fascination with one particular drink hasn't ebbed, but the list has grown on me. So the next plan was to write a post about three cocktails. Or maybe four. With a beautiful photograph of each one, naturally, which was where the "part 1" came from.

In order for me to photograph a cocktail, I've obviously got to mix it. And after the photo session, what then? Throw it out? Are you insane?!!

So it's best I break this up and not end up face down on the Afghan rug.

The modern revival of the cocktail has several pieces. In addition to the crucial return to quality ingredients (no mixes, no faux "maraschino cherries", no crappy well liquors) and attention to detail, it has been about rediscovering "lost" cocktails or forgotten details about classic cocktails, and it's about creating delicious ways to combine ingredients in brand-new cocktails--like the mixologists at the recent competition here in Portland. Much of this innovation is chronicled online; in fact, I'd have to guess that the proliferation of New Mixology has been fueled to a great extent by the Internet and the ability to share ideas, recipes and enthusiasm with other professional and amateur mixologists around the planet.

The Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle's Pike Place Market was founded in 1998, at what must have been the beginnings of this movement. (At some point, and soon, I need to make a pilgrimage to visit, preferably with a soft bed and dark curtains somewhere close by.) credits the bartenders at the Zig Zag with rediscovering The Last Word from a 1950s' era book, The Jones Barguide. It's an unusual cocktail, combining as it does equal parts of four beverages, two of them extremely full-flavored liqueurs. A common first reaction on seeing the recipe is that it needs a significant adjustment, increasing the percentage of base alcohol and reducing the liqueurs--but it doesn't, and the first taste confirms it. As Drinkboy says: "You could consider it as being a gin drink for people who might not like gin. It's addition of Lime Juice, Maraschino, and Chartreuse to the Gin provide an excellent balance of sweet, sour, and herbals to this very approachable cocktail."

I have yet to see The Last Word on a Portland cocktail list, although Lance Mayhew produced a beauty for my son, Alex, and I at Fifty Plates (and it looks past time to update that website!). Alan Akwai came back from a trip to San Francisco reporting that the drink "was everywhere".

It's an impossible drink to describe. Either make your own or find a bartender who can. A final benefit of The Last Word is that it will be the only cocktail to make a dent in that ridiculously big bottle of Maraschino. Without it, the bottle would hang around the home bar for 20 years.

The Last Word

1 oz. Tanqueray No. 10 gin
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. Green Chartreuse
1 oz. Luxardo Maraschino

Stir with plenty of ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Following Lance Mayhew's lead, I garnished it with a homemade brandied cherry.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Well, foo!

I knew it was coming and I had a strong suspicion that the wedding would be the grand finale . . . but today's episode of For Better or For Worse, arguably the best comic strip in print, is Lynn Johnston's last. My mornings are going to have a hole in them for some time to come, because I've been following the stories of Elly & John Patterson, their kids and their dogs for years and years, and Johnston's ability to personalize this family (based on her own) has been a grand adventure in storytelling.

With the greatest respect to Lynn Johnston, I've reproduced the final strip here. If I've violated copyright, I hope she accepts my apologies.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mixology Competition

Today marked the second annual Mixology Competition as part of the fourth annual Great American Distillers Festival here in Portland. I was working as the timer in the competition -- each bartender had seven minutes to make the required five cocktails for the judges. The recipes had to include at least one of the alcoholic beverages featured at the festival, and included a lot of homemade ingredients like syrups, bitters and some very odd approaches to the simple (ha!) ice cube. Lighting conditions were awful, particularly since I didn't want to disturb the contestants with a flash. But this one I actually like.

I only managed one clear picture of a competitor, Alyson Dykes from the Teardrop Lounge. That's what I get for being a nice guy and not using a flash.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Even more too much television

Updates Below

It has been a matter of pride with me for years that I scorn "reality tv". Never watched it, never will. No survivals, no machine-made musical "talents", no auctioned brides. I'm a purist and only watch scripted stories.

Except, well, it finally occurred to me that for the third year in a row, I was eagerly looking forward to a season of Last Comic Standing. Which is, um, a reality tv show. I love standup comedy and was hooked the first time I watched the open auditions, held across the country in a number of cities, with long lines of would-be comics waiting for two minutes to convince a pair of judges that they were good enough to compete that evening against other comedians for a chance to end up (that first year) stuck with a dozen other comics in the Queen Mary, busily attempting to eliminate the competition. Part of the entertainment of the open auditions are the complete and utter weirdos that wander up on the stage convinced that their bizarre behavior is "standup". Mercifully, the judges cut them short in a few seconds and most leave the stage in the same confusion they entered. The comics that compete that evening and ultimately move on to the national competition are invariably people who have been working clubs for years and have learned how to write and present their own material.

There are always very talented people left behind at the local level and many of them are comics I find vastly superior to the judges' choices. And it seems that this year's finalists are weaker than last years, which were weaker than the previous year. Some of the finalists are truly bad, and it's difficult to understand how they managed to progress as far as they did. At this point, four of the original dozen have been eliminated, and they were all pretty damn bad.

A few of the remaining comics are very good indeed, and my personal favorite is the single woman to get this far. Iliza Shlesinger is very smart, very funny and leaves nothing behind when she goes onstage. I love how she brings a physical element to her comedy; in a strange fashion she reminds me of Dick Van Dyke's standup, with his cartoonish exaggeration of movement. Shlesinger is also gorgeous, and I think that this has been a factor in the show, as some of the less-secure males have "challenged" her as if she threatened them more than any of the men. There have been two challenges to date, with two comics sent home at the conclusion of each. Schlesinger won both of them. In the first, the audience gave her 68% of the votes. The second time she got 62%.

In the most recent challenge, she whipped on two of the weakest comics, one from England and the other from India. I was very pleased to see them go, because I didn't think either was funny and because they had both commented rudely about my favorite. B'bye! Iliza kicked your ass!

The only other finalist I think is really good is Louis Ramey. Good and varied material and a great delivery.

Update 1, July 24

Last night's episode began with an hour-long "challenge" at the Playboy Mansion, in which the remaining comedians had to compose a bedtime story for the "Girls Next Door", which is apparently a "reality" show involving three of Hef's "girlfriends". Hmmm. A reality show visiting another reality show . . . I'm getting in deep. This segment was fortunately on the TiVo, so I could zip through it to get caught up. Some of the stories were not terrible, although I was disappointed that Iliza passed up the perfect chance to do her "T-rex being hit by a rock" impression. (cue video!)

The usual scenario for the show would have called for a vote among the remaining players to determine who would go into a three-way elimination; this is the segment that Iliza had won twice. The guys had been strategizing the best way to handle Iliza now that she'd become (as one put it) a giant. Fortunately for me and my frustration, the format had been changed (maybe just because of her) and all seven had three minutes on stage and the voting took place as it does in the finals, with the viewers using phones and the Internet to choose their favorites. I got to vote for Iliza ten times! She did entirely new material and it was difficult to tell how it went over. It felt like new material that needed some polishing but she did seem to connect well with the women in the live audience. Louis Ramey's material was great. In fact, I would have chosen his performance over everyone else's, based just on last night. His stuff is cohesive, polished and funny. Most of the other comedians wandered around, jumping from joke to joke without much connection. C'mon, guys, it's only three minutes!

Now I have to wait a whole week to find out the results.

Update 2, August 1

It's looking somewhat chaotic at LCS, and according to this well-informed blogger, the entire show is a scam (which surprises me not at all).

NBC's Last Comic Standing claims on its own website to be a "search for the funniest comedian on the planet". It's not. The auditions are staged, the celebrity judges aren't judges, the footage is doctored to make a favored bad act look good, and talented working comedians are passed over for "characters" with no act and a big personality.
I've been wondering how the show coordinates the "live" performances over a period of many weeks, while maintaining the fiction that the "contestants" are still living in one house in LA. Or is it Vegas? All while maintaining careers that keep them living and working far away from either place. I'm not at all surprised that the "voting" being done by people at home is completely irrelevant to who wins. Didn't stop me from voting 10 times for Iliza, but still . . .

Last night, the eight comedians all performed their "last" acts, regardless of whether they'd (at least in theory) been voted off the show last week. Only after each act was finished did the hosts announce the voting results, and of course, it was scheduled so that the final two acts had one "finalist" spot remaining, and the result wasn't announced until both were done. Or, actually, after another commercial. Predictably, Iliza finished in the top five. Next week, NBC will spend two hours leading up to the announcement of which of the five "won."

This site has some really good critiques of the show and the comics, going back through the weeks (in the July archives). For the most part, I'm in agreement with them, although I like Louis Ramey's act more than they do; maybe it's because an "80s style" doesn't bother me. The earlier entries are really good on the subject of the acts already eliminated, mostly along the lines of "what the hell were they doing here in the first place?" And the critiques come from real stand-up comics, so they're well informed. I was especially fond of this one, in regard to pretty boy Jeff Dye, who I find enormously irritating:

Next, Jeff Dye. Wow, there is so little in this set, it's like watching a teen girl's boyfriend do a set for her friends at a sleepover. If he played the cute card any harder he would have to legally be considered a cast member of High School Musical. It's kind of gaggy to watch, and he did racist-lite jokes, but he's in the finals, and man, maybe it's all teen girls voting out there? Their fingers are small enough to text really fast, so watch out, this could be the biggest upset since Dat Phan.
And this earlier critique:

Jeff Dye. Jeff reminds me of Gary Gulman without all the annoying humor to get in the way. He's tall and fresh-faced, animated, and wears day-glo. But it's pretty much Britney Spears bubble-gum comedy. He did two extended jokes, one about "The Sound of Music" (really? he's half as old as that movie), and then something oddly mean-spirited about the homeless. But, clearly on to the finals. Clearly. It's the kind of vote that drives "real comics" crazy-- What? That guy? This is insane!-- but he's doing what the genre of TV wants from him, and I see him surfing on down the pipe, not a ripple in sight.
But my favorite comment of all was in regard to the then-upcoming visit to the Playboy Mansion:

Next week's comedy challenge just might be sad and poignant-- the show travels to the Playboy mansion where, it appears from the tease, the comics will be asked to entertain what may be three of the dumbest and most humorless people on the planet-- Hef's girlfriends. Anyone who has ever seen The Girls Next Door will sympathize. The worst part? You don't want to make Kendra laugh. That laugh just goes right through you. It's like a rusty chef's knife going right through your solar plexus.
Ah, and thank god for YouTube. Here's the evidence.

It's so annoying, in fact, that there are YouTube videos of young women demonstrating their "Kendra laugh." None of them, sad to say, is in her league.

Update 3, August 9

Iliza won! I can't really say that I'm surprised, but I was certainly relieved that another stupid act didn't win this year. The final "episode" was truly appalling and supremely not funny, but her short bit was well done and the award almost made up for some seriously awful comedy. I have a feeling this is going to fall off the TiVo season pass list for next year; it just wasn't as much fun watching it. Kudos to Iliza and I can only hope that some day she'll do a show here in Portland so I can see her live.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Drinking in the UK, Part Four (the road to Islay)

Actually, not much drinking in this entry because this was a travel day, driving from Glasgow to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. The island is pretty much the most southerly and westerly of the Hebrides, home to eight distilleries, and graced with an amazing and rich history. When I first began planning the Greatest Vacation Ever, months before my trip, I had toyed with the notion of traveling awhile in Germany or Belgium, settled on a trip to Ireland, and finally decided on Scotland. Thinking of Scotland, one (well, me) naturally considers visiting a distillery or two and the opportunity to visit one location that had some of the most distinctive whisky in the world, all concentrated in a smallish island, became the focal point for the trip. After making the decision to travel to Islay, Glasgow followed, because it was the most logical jumping off point for the trip.

I should probably have called this "Driving in the UK, Part One", because this was my introduction to the craziness that is driving among Brits. The nice people at the rental agency, out at Glasgow Airport, offered me a relatively inexpensive upgrade to a Mercedes, which was not only a lovely little car, but had the decided advantage of an automatic transmission. A stick shift is my norm, but with everything else topsy-turvy on the road, I appreciated not having to learn how to shift with the wrong hand.

The early part of the journey was custom-made for a beginner in the UK, starting as it did with what was effectively freeway driving, from the airport into the city. Nothing particularly odd or difficult, other than the decidedly odd experience of being on the wrong side of the road. Traffic wasn't too bad and I could noodle along in the slow (far left!!) lane, while I got the hang of it. I did have to drive through the center (oops, "centre") of town, but only on major roads. Traffic lights were reasonably normal, other than a sort of countdown thing done from a red light--and I love the fact that the Walk sign stops traffic in all directions at an intersection. Markings on the street were different but not unintelligible and, in general, wayfinding signage in the UK proved to be excellent. There was nearly always good notice about which direction I would be taking and I learned to really appreciate roundabouts. I had great opportunity to figure roundabouts and signage out, because immediately outside Glasgow traffic bogged down in a long construction zone. Ordinarily, I would have been chafing at the delay but for a learner, it was a great help.

Outside the construction zone, things changed dramatically. For all the traffic cameras on the highways (marked in advance, to allow drivers a chance to slow down), Brits drive way too fast. Bad enough they're on the wrong side of the road, but everyone seems to be in an incredible hurry, even though it's a wee little island where nothing is very far from anything else. And somewhere along the line, some lunatic British engineer decided that country roads needed curbs (sorry, "kerbs") rather than shoulders. My dad had warned me about this and I had silently snickered at the notion that it would be a problem, but zipping along at 60, with crazy Brit bastards screaming around curves at me from the wrong side, I skidded along more than a few completely unnecessary concrete incursions and was soon fearing a blowout. Thank goodness for German craftsmanship and sturdy tires (sorry, "tyres").

All of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that once you're off the motorway (which is most of the time), there are no straight lines in British roads, especially driving over to and down the Scottish coast. Nothing but twisty, winding roads once I'd gotten past Loch Lomond (remarkably unpicturesque big flat lake surrounded by flat ground--nothing at all like I'd imagined Scotland). After that, the geography changed considerably as I drove through the mountains and over to Loch Fyne. And that's another thing about the Scots. You would think that a country so rich in language could come up with two different words for two completely different bodies of water, effectively a lake and a fjord. Some lochs are salt water and others are fresh but they're just "lochs".

This is a map of my route, up the A82 and then down to Kennacraig on the A83. Kennacraig is too small to show up here, but it's the point along the coast near the lower left, where the dotted blue lines head out into the water--that's the route of the ferry to Islay. Lots of photos of the lochs here. The geology of Loch Fyne and even much of Islay reminded me of nothing more than Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, except there aren't a lot of castles around Puget Sound.

The weather was spectacular, with brilliant sunshine sparkling on the Loch, and lovely little towns--so very very not American-looking--scattered along the route.

Waiting at the ferry terminal at Kennacraig was also remarkably familiar to me, after years of similar waits for the ferry to visit my sister and her family on Lopez Island. There were a lot fewer people waiting for the Isle of Arran than the long lines at the Anacortes ferry terminal and the ferry was very different than the "super ferries" used by Washington State. Oh, and I had a reservation. Much better than the stress of worrying about getting well up in the line or having to wait for the next sailing. Which, in this case, would have been the next day.

That's the Isle of Arran in the top photo. It looks much more like a ship than a ferry, and has to deal with much rougher seas much of the year than those on Puget Sound. As the ship pulled in to the dock, the bow pivoted up out of the way and the loading ramp dropped down. It was a lovely ship, very spruce, with a nice bar (ah, so there was a bit of drinking: one of the Islay Ales on tap). I settled in for the two-hour trip and we finally arrived well after sunset.

Dark. Very very dark. Once I'd followed the rush of locals driving off the ferry into Port Ellen, I find myself virtually alone on the narrow road. Outside of the few towns along the way, there were no lights. No street lights at all and under a thick overcast. All of that wayfinding signage I'd appreciated on the "mainland" was gone and there I was, alone in the pitch dark. For what must have been the first time in my life, I had prepared myself thoroughly before coming to a new place, pouring over maps of the island and devouring Andrew Jefford's superb book, Peat Smoke and Spirit, which is a thorough study of the island's geography, history and, of course, whiskies. I had my route from Port Ellen, through Bowmore and up and around Loch Indall, through Port Charlotte and down to my b&b at Octofad Farm burned into my brain. Fortunately enough, there aren't a lot of roads on Islay so even a tourist completely in the dark would have a difficult time getting lost. There just aren't a lot of options. On the other hand, I hadn't expected the road, once south of Port Charlotte, to turn into a one lane path. With lay-bys, just in case there was traffic coming the other way (there wasn't, not this time) and very few signs. I stopped at one well-lit farm, thinking it might be Octofad and was chased off by a sheep dog. At last, there it was, a warm light in the window and a small car park out front. And a warm welcome from Cathy, my landlady for the next few days. I was finally here, finally on the mythic island of Islay. It wouldn't be until the sun came out the next morning that I discovered that the one lane road ran right along the rocks plunging into the loch. And sheep, lots and lots of sheep, most of whom found the road a handy route from forage to forage.

Random Photo of the Day

A tough day, apparently. It has been exhausting standing around and it's time for a nap. This is one of my friend Bob's chocolate Labs, although I don't remember if it's the male or the female. Both of them are, uh, "large". Big-boned, no doubt. Bob was celebrating his 60th birthday with a party at home and the dogs had to stay awake longer than during a normal day.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Finally, a Martini I like!

I have tried, really, but Martinis just haven't done it for me. It's true that I haven't tried all the possible gins in the world, but most I have tried turn the drink into a big juniper bomb, and I'm just not that fond of juniper. It's not that I don't like gin, but I prefer it combined with other flavorful ingredients, so that the juniper and other botanicals enhance those other flavors rather than overpowering the drink.

Tanqueray Rangpur Gin was a revelation for me. It has limes, along with ginger and bay leaves, added with the traditional botanicals during distillation. It's lighter and fruitier than many other gins, especially the standard bottling of Tanqueray. I wanted to mix it with something, but I didn't want to cover it up too much, to get a better notion of the flavor. I figured, what the hell, make a Martini. A "50's" style Martini at that. I'm a big fan of the vermouths coming from the California winery, Vya, because both their dry and sweet vermouth have a lot more character than just about anything else I've tried that didn't come from Carpano. (The sweet vermouth reminds me of Christmas, maybe like a plum pudding, and it makes a killer Manhattan.) And I finally landed a bottle of Angostura Orange Bitters, perfect for the older style of Martini. It's a very simple drink and far too easy to drink.

Rangpur Martini
3 oz. Rangpur gin
.5 oz. Vya dry vermouth
2 dashes of bitters

Stir with ice and serve in a cocktail glass with a twist of lemon.

My favorite baseball player

Fourth of July was a good baseball day for me. The Mariners actually beat a team that wasn't also terrible, which was a very nice change. After that, I got to watch the Cubs beat the Cardinals in St. Louis and, best of all, Carlos Zambrano was back pitching after having been out with a shoulder injury and was in great form. I love watching Carlos Zambrano play baseball. I've never seen anyone play the game with more passion than this big (6'5") Aztec-looking man from Venezuela. He throws with his entire body and then bounds off the mound, exhulting when he wins and agonizing when he loses. And, unlike a lot of pitchers, he can hit (currently at .360, which is better than just about the entire Mariners team) well enough that he is even used as a pinch hitter.

Mostly, though, I just love watching him loving the game and playing it with a huge heart. Chicago fans are lucky to have him.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Watch Too Much TV

Way too much TV. Now that the regular season (such as it was, given the writers' strike) is over, I can't look forward to Lost, Heroes, Supernatural, or Ugly Betty for months. It's time for the true summer season that has just as many new episodes and shows as the old traditional September to May season I grew up on. And, of course, a lot more networks on cable, some of which have a lot more freedom in what they present because they're not going out over the airwaves polluting the minds of little kids. Just mine.

(If this was a normal summer, of course, I'd be spending a lot of evenings watching baseball games but with the way the Mariners are "playing" this season I can't stand to watch most games past the first couple of innings. Once they're down by 10 runs going in the third inning, much of the joy is gone.)

At any rate, I got really excited when the TiVo let me know the new season of Rescue Me was coming up. Denis Leary's drama? comedy? about a firefighter and his dysfunctional life is easily one of my favorite television shows of all time. When the first episode appeared on the "now playing" list on the TiVo I settled down with snacks and a drink and WTF? It's over? Did it record wrong? Maybe it was somehow queued up at the end of the show rather than the beginning and I only caught the last five minutes. Uh, no. It was a six-minute show. The next one is five minutes. Denis Leary is trying to ruin my life. Ooh, very clever. The website for the show calls them "minisodes". I call it sadism. At the end of the latest "minisode" they announced 20 brand-new full-length episodes. Coming in 2009.

So on to the new season.

I can easily imagine someone pitching this show to a producer. "So, there's this cop, and he's kind of like, well, a maverick. He does things his own way and is always bumping up against The Man. And he's got a screwed-up brother who's always getting into trouble. . ." And the producer, who thinks this is a really good and original concept, says, "OK, but instead of a guy, let's make the cop a hot blonde!" And since the cop is now a woman, the brother turns into a sister and we have to throw in a lot of family stuff, 'cause that's what women do. So we've got the flaky sister and let's have a flaky mom. And instead of a cop, she's a federal marshal in Albuquerque, which turns out to be the elephants' graveyard for witness protection, where witnesses and criminals come to die, usually because they've done something really stupid. And she's not only a maverick, she's a misanthrope (true to the cop cliche) except maybe she likes her baseball player boyfriend. And her partner. Kind of.

Honestly, I only watched the pilot because I've been carrying a torch for Mary McCormack since she played Kate Harper, the Pentagon liaison or whatever the hell she was, on West Wing. So far, that's why I've kept watching the show because it's really standard television cop fare. No great insight, no astonishing dialog, no reality. But McCormack does cranky and sarcastic very well and she's big enough that she's convincing when she smacks a bad guy and knocks him down. Without that torch, I'm not sure why anyone would watch the show, but USA network seems to be more willing than most to give a show time to build some momentum. Maybe they'll let McCormack do a full 12-episode season and maybe the writing will pick up. I'm not holding my breath.

And then there's Swingtown, which might have been ABC's attempt to cash in on the critical success of Mad Men. While Mad Men is edgy and dark, pointing some very cruel light on the early 60s, Swingtown is murky and, well, dull. Part of the problem might be that the swinging social life of the suburbs in the early 70s is inherently boring, and not at all helped by the really bad music and hideous clothing styles of the period. It's also more than a little disconcerting, at least for me, that one of the leads is Jack Davenport, last seen hamming it up on the really funny and sexy British show, Coupling, and the very English officer in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They couldn't find an American actor?

Molly Parker
may be the most convincing character (oy! a Canadian!), probably because she got the whole "smoldering sensuality behind the prim façade" thing down pat in Deadwood. The truth, though, is that I've given up on the show after a few episodes because it is booooring. I might have been able to survive the awful soundtrack if I cared at all what happened to all these couples and their kids but the truth is that none of them is either likeable or interesting. Pfft. Cancel the Season Pass on the TiVo. Just freed up an hour each week and allowed for an extra three minutes recording My Boys, which is much more fun.

Fear Itself is a modern version of The Twilight Zone, with a dozen one-hour horror films. Each has its own cast, writers, directors and no connection to the other films except what is clearly a decent budget and some real effort to make the stories interesting and scary. I've only seen the first two episodes so far, but they've been pretty good. They were characterized by decent scripts, decent acting and some truly creepy (and occasionally gross) effects. The first episode was definitely not Rod Serling material (definitely "horror" rather than "terror"), but the second definitely has his touch for cautionary lessons in life. With Supernatural in summer hiatus, Fear Itself will be my best source for the creepies.

So I appear to be batting 1 for 3, with a maybe. Clearly, there will be less distraction from the TV this summer than there has been. Although the Mariners have actually won a few games recently . . .

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My Big Project

I have something like 500 LPs in boxes down in the storage unit, and haven't played any of them for a very long time. I've been dragging those boxes around entirely too long, actually, and I've contemplated hauling them to the record store many times. A lot of those LPs, though, are either unavailable on CD or grotesquely expensive and available only as imports. My taste through the 70s and 80s tended toward obscure and limited, so mostly it's the former. Almost a year ago, I bought the turntable above, which is specifically designed for digitizing vinyl, using a USB cable to connect to my PC. Yesterday, I took it out of the box and installed the open source recording software. Today I've started finally recording LPs.

Although the software ostensibly can clean up noise on the LPs (pops & crackles), I'm starting with the easy stuff, Europadisk Audiophile Pressings of Richard & Linda Thompson I bought in 1983 when Carthage Records released them. (I bought the records based on a Rolling Stone review that gave all the re-releases five stars except for one four-star release. It was my introduction to Richard Thompson.) I played the LPs once, while copying them to cassette tape and they've never been played since then, so their condition is superb. There are a couple of little pops between tracks in the two LPs I've digitized so far, but otherwise the sound is great.

Once the entire LP is recorded, I can use the software to identify the spaces between tracks and (manually) label each track. Eventually, I'll convert the files to a format that can be imported into iTunes and played on my iPod. Since I'm all twenty-first century and all, I'm not going to bother burning CDs, although that is definitely an option.

There is no way I'm recording 500 LPs. The next part of the project will be sorting through all those boxes and determining which of them is worth copying; it's not a quick process, although in theory I can record at 45 rpm and then convert to 33 rpm. Getting one of these LPs completely recorded, cleaned up and converted for the iPod is likely going to take a full hour. I'm not planning on 500 hours of it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

It's a beautiful time of year in Portland, sunny and mild. Lilacs are blooming, the white dogwoods are blooming, and the pink dogwoods will open completely within the next few days. A wonderful day for a bike ride (or even two!) to get me out of the apartment into the fresh air (and away from watching an awful awful baseball team on television).

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

I've never been completely convinced that Wood Ducks were real birds. There was a small flock of them at the Rhododendron Garden in SE Portland, mixed in with a zillion mallards, Canada Geese, Buffleheads (very shy) and Cinnamon Teal. Those are all unquestionably birds, with their occasional splashes of color all looking their best at this time of the year. Wood Ducks, though, don't have any clear relationship to the rest. They peep, for one thing, rather than quack or squawk, which is suspicious on the face of it. But the main thing is the males, like this one. How could a color scheme like that (with big fake red eyes!) possibly evolve? It seems far more likely to me that there are sweatshops somewhere in Asia cranking out Wood Duck robots and hand painting them in this ridiculous outfit. The peeping is just the product of bad robotic programming and now they're stuck with it. If Wood Ducks began quacking like real ducks, people would be suspicious and might try to eat one. Good luck with that.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Selling books

In the early 70s, my best friend Andrew and I were stuck in California's armpit, Modesto. We were both obsessed with books: me with science fiction, primarily, and Andrew with anything related to art, drawing and cartoons. This isn't an obsession well-served in Modesto, especially in those days and we made regular pilgrimages to Berkeley, where Telegraph Avenue was a book-lover's Eden. The core of the apple, as it were, was Moe's with other lesser bookstores in orbit around it. Although I live in a city that can boast the largest bookstore in the universe, Powell's, nothing can ever supplant Moe's as the greatest bookstore. Moe's had everything (although compared to Powell's it was pitifully small) and an incredible turnover of used books; one could safely visit on a daily basis (except if one was stuck in Modesto) and find new treasures every time. And, wonder of wonders, Moe's was always open. Always. Which meant (at least in memory) dropping in at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning. Andrew's books were upstairs somewhere, mine scattered throughout the funky old building.

The ritual of the pilgrimage required preparation for days in advance, painfully picking over the existing collection to determine what might be sacrificed to the cruelty of the book buyers, in the expectation of finding something even greater and more astonishing on the shelves at Moe's (and to a lesser extent, Shakespeare & Co. and other little nooks and crannies around town). For the book-obsessed, letting go of a book is painful, but knowing in advance that it could never be a simple trade, but rather an inevitably humilating experience made the sorting process even worse. Ah, yeah that one's kind of a stinker, but that just means no one will want it. And this one is great, but it's too esoteric and no one will want it. Maybe better to keep it . . . Andrew always had a worse time of it than I did, because it was easier for me to let go of a novel once it had been read, but his books were resources, reference material and there was always something in each that needed to be preserved.

The first stop was always Moe's, even though their bookbuyers were the cruelest and most particular of all, because the goal was always the same: credit at Moe's. Credit at other stores was a pale imitation, with their inferior stock (although in any other town they would have been treasures beyond compare). The buyers didn't speak much, just flipped through the pile of books unloaded before them, rapidly assembling two piles. Even after years of this, the sting of rejection and disappointment never softened: the Out stack was always taller than the In stack. Always. And the offer was always presented without argument, take it or leave it. X dollars cash, X+Y dollars for credit and it was never what we knew the books were really worth. And the offer was always accepted, with eagerness, because it was something, and that was always something much more than either of us had in our pockets when we walked in.

Next stage required putting all the Out books back in the box, pocketing the credit slip, and heading off to the next store, where the buyers were a little more open, a little less cruel and somehow a lot more human. And, usually, there was necessarily a third store and on the really bad days, a few books to stick back in the trunk of the Rambler to drag back to Modesto. Then off to Moe's, to prowl and dig for treasure, to always use all the credit acquired and whatever cash wasn't absolutely necessary to eat on for the next few weeks. And we always drove home happy because there always were treasures at Moe's that hadn't been there the last trip.

I faced a Powell's bookbuyer this weekend, with a big paper bag filled with books I knew were worth selling: good novels and interesting nonfiction. And there were two stacks. And the Out stack was bigger than the In stack, and it stung. Buyers are no longer supernatural, though, with the uncanny ability not only to judge the value of the book but whether it could find a place on the shelf unoccupied by another copy of the same book. Books all have barcodes now, and barcodes can be scanned and software can determine whether the book will sell, whether there's room in inventory and how much to pay for it. Powell's, it turns out, has separate inventory at all of its stores, so my books were not just being weighed for inventory-worthiness but inventory-worthiness at that store, chosen because it was close to home. The In stack was really short. I can haul the Out stack to a Powell's warehouse and maybe the barcodes and the scanning and the software will shrink it. Or not. The cruelty of the bookbuyer is immutable.

And afterward I really missed Andrew, who has been dead now for 24 years. He's missed a lot of books, and cartoons, and drawings by checking out early. And I've missed my best friend.

Full Sail Nut Brown Ale

I tend to shy away from brown ales brewed in the US because so often it seems as if the brewer missed the whole point. So-called "brown ales" are often bland, too sweet, or ruined by a burnt character from too much roasted malt. I took a chance, though, with Full Sail's Nut Brown Ale because they're such good brewers and the Brewmasters Reserve releases are always worth tasting.

While I can't be positive who brewed this, it has John Harris written all over it. There aren't too many other craft brewers I know who can so consistently hit a beer style and the Nut Brown is perfect: creamy, rich, with an intriguing blend of malt and hop flavor and just the right toasty edge without the unwanted roasty or burnt quality. At 6% abv, it's maybe a bitter stronger than one would expect from a brown ale, but the alcohol is thoroughly disguised by the malt. The beer makes a nice change from all the hop killers churned out here in the PNW.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mixology Monday

Beginning some point last fall, under the pernicious influence of my friend Ryan and Eugene's (Oregon's?) best bartender, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, I picked up the cocktail bug. I was particularly struck by Morgenthaler's enthusiasm for creative interpretations of classics, for innovation, and for an insistence on using only the best ingredients. The pursuit of that last component had even driven him to producing some of his own ingredients. What eventually became obvious was that Morgenthaler, while terrific, isn't unique: there is an entire movement of cocktail enthusiasts, both professional and amateur, on the same path. Unsurprisingly, they're linked together by the Internet, as a glance at Morgenthaler's blog roll will reveal.

Oregon, not so oddly, seems particularly active. The bartenders themselves have formed The Oregon Bartenders Guild, which recently launched an online forum open to professionals and amateurs. And, like the microbrewery movement of the 1980s, Oregon is also bubbling with craft distillers producing distinctive and characterful gin, vodka, whiskey and rum.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to Mixology Monday, a monthly event hosted by a round robin of bloggers, each time with a new "theme" for cocktail submissions. I've been following the event with some amazement, fully convinced I'd never actually participate. But Anna Australia's selection of fruit liqueurs happened to coincidence with some of my own tinkering, so here I am. The April Mixology Monday is here.

Part of my cocktail experimenting has involved getting outside my comfort zone. For some reason (probably due to a bad hangover, as these decisions always seem to derive from), I've been avoiding brandy for years. Much to my astonishment, I fell in love with the Sidecar, which has become (with the Manhattan) pretty much my go-to cocktail. When I ended up with two different bottles of Calvados (hmm, sounds like they were found on the stoop rather than purchased), I wondered if it was feasible to substitute apple brandy for grape brandy and still end up with a Sidecar. Turns out the answer is a resounding "maybe." The results can be good, but (as pointed out by someone in the OBG Forum) it's not a Sidecar. And, in my own opinion, lemon juice doesn't sit as well with Calvados as it does with brandy.

Along with one of those Calvados, I picked up a bottle of Mathilde Orange X.O., a really delightful (and inexpensive) French liqueur with a Cognac base. I tried several variations combining the X.O. with Calvados and ended up substituting freshly-squeezed Valencia orange juice for the lemon juice in the original recipe. Subsequent experiments involved a 50/50 blend of lemon and orange juice or cutting the X.O. in half with Pedro Ximenez. The lemon was all wrong, and my independent panel of tasters (my kids, but they're old enough to drink!) decided the Pedro Ximenez was murky and too "molasses". The final recipe was essentially identical to where I started out. Research after the fact turned up some very similar recipes, including Regan's recipe for a Calvados Cocktail in which he used the lemon juice I threw out.

Normandy Bates Cocktail

2 oz. Calvados
1 oz. Mathilde Orange X.O. liqueur
1 oz. freshly squeezed Valencia orange
2 dashes Fee's orange bitters

Rub the chilled cocktail glass with orange peel. Stir the ingredients with ice, strain into cocktail glass and garnish with orange peel.

I like simple, if only because it's easier to remember.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Ha! Did you see those chickens run?

Ralphie and I drove out this morning to visit Bob and the chickens at the farm. Ralphie loves places like the farm because there are so many smells that he never sniffs in town. Bob's gigantic chocolate Labs were interested to have company so short and were very polite.

The chickens are all fully-grown now, and the hens have been cranking out an amazing supply of delicious eggs. White eggs, brown eggs, even green eggs, all delicious. There are currently two roosters, but the Alpha rooster has gotten himself in trouble, attacking Bob and his wife, Pattie, and a threat to the grandkids, who love to visit the chickens. The rooster is headed for the stove, which ought to teach somebody something about the perils of aggression. Should be good eating, too.

Meanwhile, the hens are being productive (yes, I know, that's a golf ball). Here are two of the Leghorns in their boxes. The hen on the right startled and took off, and left an egg behind. Bob reports that they're all regularly producing about an egg a day, which is apparently pretty good for beginners. (More chicken photos here.)

Ralphie thought the chickens were worth running after, and the chickens thought the idea sucked. Ha ha, Ralphie. Now you're on the wrong side of the gate. Obviously, lessons about aggression are lost on a dog.

Later, we wandered down to the pasture to get a look at the new calf, born just yesterday. Unfortunately, the mom and calf were well out in the field, too far away for good viewing, but the distance suited Ralphie just fine, because cattle are BIG. The last time Ralphie visited the farm, he was just a tiny puppy, but the cattle are just as big as ever. On this occasion, having a gate there was welcome.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I like crows

I've been observing crows around town for a few years, in part because they seem to be taking over and crowding out other birds, and in part because they're intriguing creatures. They're much smarter than most birds, and clearly adapt well to an urban environment. I was pleased to learn that some of my "observations" had turned out to be accurate. From what I'd seen, for instance, crows spend most of the day foraging alone or with one or two other crows. Then as dusk approaches, they gather in much larger flocks high in the trees. It's not always the same trees, although they do seem to show preferences for areas where there enough trees to accommodate the whole crowd. When they get together in the evening, it looks (and sounds) as if they're each broadcasting all the details of their entire day, all at once and at top volume.

At times, I've seen these gatherings reach into scores of crows. One time last summer, there was a gathering in the trees outside my home and the volume of noise was so great that I had to go outside to look, and discovered at least one of my neighbors had also been drawn to the front door. Incredible. The group, incidentally, is known as a "murder" and reportedly can include crows in their thousands.

Crows apparently have a very tightly-knit family, in which some members serve as "helpers" to breeding pairs. What I've also noticed about them is an enormous number of calls; it's not unusual to observe what sounds like an actual conversation among several of them. According to one of my bird books, they can live as long as 20 years.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

One is the loneliest number

How pathetic is this? All alone at the dog park? What happened to all those fair-weather dog owners that were around only a week ago. Fooey. Of course, it was cold and gray and wet today and there was a nasty breeze blowing, but we're dogs. What do we care?

Fortunately, Ralphie wasn't alone for too much longer. The park never reached the teaming-horde stage, but eventually there was a quorum of five or six dogs, so we stuck around for an hour. It was a big day for huskies and other furry breeds. Ralphie had a pretty good time after all.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

We've been having interesting weather. Last week it felt like Spring was in the air, but now Winter has definitely grabbed us by the, er, ankle. I didn't see snow today (although there was a brief hail storm) but there were reports of it this morning all around the region and predictions of more tonight. This was shot at about four p.m. today. Beautiful white cherry blossoms against the dark bark and the equally dramatic clouds building in the background reflect the contrast in the season.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

Spring has sprung in Portland. This cherry tree is just outside my front door, and all over town the daffodils are being joined by flowering trees. I still haven't seen tulips blooming, but they are almost there. Yesterday was a glorious sunny day (although the morning started out in the low 30s) and today is back to grey and wet. I guess it must be March.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Aikido teacher

We hosted an Aikido seminar this weekend at my dojo (pictures to come). K. Chiba Shihan was scheduled to come to Oregon for what may well have been the last time since he's retiring after 50 years of Aikido training. Unfortunately, he was very ill and couldn't travel, but we held the seminar anyway, with a number of excellent senior instructors in attendance. This is Fleshler Sensei, who has been my teacher since he came to Portland in the late 80s. Since I have a nasty cold, I had the opportunity to take photos rather than have my body thrown through the air. Some would say that was a good trade-off, but I chafed at the bit. Still, I did shoot nearly 1,000 pictures during the seminar and one or two of them are pretty good. At some point, I'll post more but I wanted to acknowledge my debt to my teacher as a gesture of thanks.

About those lemons . . .

Last night I served the lamb tagine that was the target for the preserved lemons. It was a fairly complex (and expensive) dish, done with lots of spices, crookneck squash, Kalamata olives and 16 wedges of the preserved lemon and four pounds of lamb shoulder in big pieces. We had a great dojo potluck the Saturday night of a big Aikido seminar.

The tagine was a hit. In fact, I was lucky to get any myself since it was mostly gone by the time I got into line. Several people asked me later if I'd tasted the lamb dish and then wanted to know how it was done. I love cooking for people when they appreciate what I've done!

Somehow, after spending the entire day photographing the Aikido seminar, I neglected to take a picture of the tagine. Damn.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Random Photo of the Day

Compared to the Midwest and New England, of course, we never had a real Winter. But it's definitely edging into Spring here in Portland. The flowering trees are beginning to fill up with color, and daffodils have come out of nowhere to bring bright yellows to an otherwise grey day. I'm not entirely sure what this flower is, but it's definitely a harbinger.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Back for pastrami

My friend Ryan was up from Eugene last evening, so after a tasting of 1993 Jos. Christoffel jr. Riesling - Spätlese I'd been saving to share (wonderful complex wine that kept opening and unfolding rapidly in the glass), we headed down to Kenny & Zuke's for pastrami on rye. Remarkably for a great Portland restaurant, it was about half-full. It may have been the only good place in town where we didn't need to wait 45 minutes to be seated. The pastrami was incredible, just as tasty as the first time I visited but much more tender. Ryan and I were both very pleased.

We were just as lucky at our next stop, the Teardrop Lounge, a short distance away in NW Portland. We arrived to find the place less than half-full and had the opportunity for a short conversation with the bartenders before grabbing the last available four-top. The Teardrop is part of a new wave of bars serving innovative new cocktails and solid interpretations of old favorites, built from the best ingredients, some of which (like the Teardrop's jalapeño orange bitters) are house-made. Ryan and I were joined by his wife, Jenaya, and her mother. Shortly after they arrived, the bar hit its stride and it was soon packed to the rafters.

We tried an array of house cocktails (check the menu on their website), all of which were interesting concoctions. Even though the place was jammed, the waitstaff was very attentive and efficient; the bartenders were extremely fast. I finished with their take on a Sidecar, built from Germain-Robin's excellent brandy (although I'd been given the opportunity to make my own choice).

The Teardrop has high ceilings and a very open feeling, even when it was packed. Our only grievance was the really awful music (bad disco?) pounding through the room. And, well, not a cheap tab but given the location and the attention given to high-quality ingredients, it wasn't at all unreasonable.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My appliances are dying

(Update below) I have a National rice cooker that I bought some time in 1980. Before I bought it, I was terrified of cooking rice at the same time I was living in Berkeley and deeply invested in learning to cook Asian (mostly Chinese at the time) cuisines. Living in Berkeley, in fact, it was impossible to avoid Asian food even if I'd wanted to. Dining out was the primary social activity among everyone I knew, and delicious and inexpensive Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese food was omnipresent. Inspired by what I was eating, I was determined to learn how to prepare it at home and the groceries in Oakland's Chinatown were a short trip away. But rice? Rice sounded incredibly arbitrary and difficult and while I was chopping and prepping dishes for the wok the last thing I could worry about was whether the water had boiled away in the rice, or the heat was too high or too low . . .

Of course, actual Asians had solved this problem years before and invented the electric rice cooker. Throw rice into the bowl, rinse, rinse, rinse, add cold water to the first knuckle, return bowl to cooker, add lid, push button and go back to whatever you were doing. The bimetal switch would detect when all the water had boiled off because the temperature would start to rise, and it would switch off the cooker with an audible snap. Wait 15 minutes for the rice to steam and voila. Or whatever the Cantonese equivalent of voila might be.

Since 1980, I've cooked literally thousands of batches of rice with this thing. I've replaced the power cord and the knob for the lid. The plastic lever for the switch is cracked and the whole thing is remarkably grungy. But it's still cooking rice. The problem is, it's no longer simple to clean. The rice sticks and leftovers don't want to come out. Cleaning the bowl has become a real chore. I just hit the "1-click" at Amazon for a new Panasonic rice cooker which looks to be just as simple and primitive as my National. No "warmer", no vegetable settings (Yoicks! You can spend a lot of money on a "rice cooker"), and it cost less than $25. I've got my fingers crossed that it's pretty much the same unit with a shiny coat (and a nonstick bowl). The old rice cooker is going in the back of the cupboard; there's no way I could actually throw it away.

And the coffee maker died. Well, it didn't exactly die, because it can still brew coffee, but there has been a disconcerting amount of hot water on the counter afterward. Turns out it's leaking out around the power cord, which is more than a little unnerving. A Gevalia brewer, it isn't nearly as old as the rice cooker, but it's been pretty reliable and, best and critical feature, it brews into a thermos carafe. No hot plate burned coffee for me. The new one just arrived: a fancy Japanese unit with a stainless carafe and a timer! I kind of like it. And I didn't have to suffer through a month's supply of Gevalia coffee to get it, which is a bonus.

Update: Both the coffee maker and the rice cooker have arrived and been put to good use. The lid on carafe apparently has to be set in the correct position, or the hot coffee has nowhere to go except down onto the counter, but otherwise the luxury of having it start brewing while I drag myself out of bed is worth the cost. The rice cooker seemed tiny when I first opened the box but it's actually perfect for the one-person batches of rice I need and the glass lid means I can watch the rice cook! Friday nights will never be boring again.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rocky Butte

Since it's 50 degrees in the middle of February, and the sun is shining out of a clear blue sky, I thought it was a good idea to get outdoors for a bit. So, after living in Portland for 24 years, I finally got around to actually visiting Rocky Butte State Park, which turned out to be nothing at all like I expected. Well, it was high up and provided a panoramic view of the Columbia River, Mt Hood, and Mt St Helens (and IKEA and a lot of industrial land and two freeways), but I anticipated something wild and more natural. Instead, I drove up a long winding road, through a tunnel, alongside a number of stilt houses eagerly awaiting a good quake, and some of the biggest and ugliest McMansions I've seen in town.

Then, at the very top, I found the Joseph Wood Hill "Park" which was originally the site for a military academy built in the early 20th century. What it looks like, really, is an old stone fortress. Guarded today by the biggest Great Dane I've ever seen. The forest-y portion of the park is downhill and to the east and for all I know there are trails through it. In general, I wasn't overwhelmed.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Time to Howl!

Another day at the dog park, with lots of canine buddies to play with. Not blistering heat, but still warm enough to bring out the crowds . . . and no rain. A good day to howl.