Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's that you're eating?

green lanterns and globalls

"What is it?"

"One of Green Lantern's giant, glowing balls."

No, seriously. This:

GloBall flash

is food.

Last year, I read In Defense of Food, and one of the tips the book gave on eating better was not to buy or eat anything that your great-grandmother would not recognize as food. This snack cake, a marketing ploy between DC Comics and Hostess:


is probably that author's worst nightmare. Geeky internet readers, on the other hand, have been buzzing about these cakes for at least a week, and given:

1) My inherent geeky nature
2) My love of comics


3) My love of high fructose corn syrup I totally had to seek these out.

I finally found them tonight, and I brought a box home to photograph, dissect, eat, and judge. It's almost like I bought these for science, not just because I like cake and comic books and would jump at the chance to combine the two and shove them into my mouth. So, what did I learn?

Hostess GloBalls are disgusting.

On the plus side, they actually do look like something Green Lantern might create with his ring:

green lantern dome

On the minus side, instead of being filled with Justice League members, the GloBalls are filled with a dry, stale cupcake beneath a layer of marshmallow that's roughly the consistency of rubber sealant:

inside the globall

As an overweight person with a lifelong history of eating junkfood and things that are bad for me, I can assure you that this was the worst snack cake that I have ever eaten. It doesn't even taste like anything! It's a flavorless mouthful of dry sawdust cake floating in squishy creme and surrounded by a hunk of equally flavorless marshmallow that you have to gnaw through and then somehow manage to grind to death between your molars just so that you can swallow it without dying.

I'm now trying to decide which of my enemies to give the rest of the box to.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

patchwork bear

I saw this in the dumpster when I took out my trash, and it filled me with inexplicable sadness:

patchwork bear

Why is he in the dumpster? For what crime was he thrown into the puddle at the bottom of the dumpster, to sit in the rust amid the beer boxes and cigarette butts and discarded pieces of my neighbors' lives until the truck comes to take everything inside away?

He's not missing any limbs. He's not leaking stuffing. He's not even stained, from what we can see, so why was he thrown away?

And why do I feel so sad about it?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I think it's the French word for delicious

Before I saw the recipe for "Cassoulet Chowder" in my slow cooker cookbook a couple of weeks ago, the only other time I had heard the word "cassoulet" was when it was one of the dishes that Queen Latifah ordered off of Chef Didier's special tasting menu ("No substitutions!") in the movie "Last Holiday". It's the first dinner at the fancy hotel, where she eats all alone in the red "Helloooooooo sister!" dress with the pashmina, and when the chef is in the kitchen expediting her meal he yells, "Un cassoulet!" and then decides to make it himself.

Of course, this scene offers no indication of what un cassoulet actually is. I never bothered to look it up, but now that I've eaten my slow cooker cassoulet chowder, I'm pretty sure that "cassoulet" means "Oh, God, I want to pour the entire slow cooker into my mouth at the same time". Wikipedia suggests that cassoulet is "a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole", which may also be correct.

The cassoulet recipe intrigued me because it called for three different kinds of meat, and after last weekend's all vegetable soup I felt like going in the opposite direction. Two of the meats, chicken and ham, were pretty easy to handle, because you can buy them pre-cooked and just dice them up. The pack of brown and serve sausages, on the other hand, seemed a little more daunting.

brown and serve

I've never made breakfast sausage. I would normally look at that pack and think, "How hard can it be?", but every time I think that something explodes or burns or turns to sludge in my kitchen, so now I approach all new foods with some degree of caution. The instructions said to place them in a skillet and brown them over medium heat, turning often with tongs. I have tongs, a skillet, and a stove, so I figured I could handle this:

sausage, pan, tongs

The instruction to put them in the skillet first implied that I should start the cold meat in a cold pan, like bacon, so I arranged the sausage, turned on the stove, and turned my attention to the pinto beans.

The recipe said to use dried pinto beans and soak them overnight, but that seemed like a hell of a lot of extra work, and I was already browning sausage and dicing meat and slicing carrots and stuff, so I looked at the bag of dried beans and thought, "How many beans do you think are in there?" Then I bought two cans of pinto beans, rinsed and drained them:

pinto beans

and dumped them in the slow cooker. I always rinse canned beans before I use them because they always seem to come packed in some kind of slime. I don't know what it is and I don't want to.

After the beans, I checked on the sausage, which was more gray than brown:

browning sausage

It didn't look anything like the picture, so I left it to brown some more. In the meantime, I peeled and sliced one and a half cups of carrots, which turned out to be about three large carrots. After I threw those on top of the beans, I measured out the tomato sauce, and poured that into the food processor. The totmato sauce was going to be my accomplice in destroying the onion:

puree the onion

I was going to just throw the onion in there by itself, but every time I do that a problem arises: the blades of the processor are not flush to the bottom of the bowl. They can't be, or else nothing would get chopped. Unfortunately, that means that slippery disgusting chunks of onions can slide under the blades and not be totally pureed into nothingness the way that I would like for them to be. If, on the other hand, the onion pieces were suspended in a viscous liquid, the circulation of the liquid around the spinning blades would keep the onion from escaping pulverization and there would be no chance at all of me biting into a stray piece.

Shut up. This is totally normal.

Anyway, once the onion and tomato sauce were taken care of, I poured them on top of the carrots and beans, added the garlic powder, and discovered that I had no bay leaves even though I thought I did. I threw in a pinch of dried basil instead, and turned my attention back to the sausage:

browned sausage

It looked done, so I put it on paper towels to drain, and continued slicing things. The ham and chicken were diced and added:

ham and chicken

and then the sausage:

added sausage

After that I poured in some red wine (I had some merlot around that needed using up) and four cups of water, set it on low, and went to football.

Florida showed up to kick our asses and to taunt our fans with their taunty cheerleaders and taunty Gator mascots:

florida mascots

but I have a newsflash for Florida: We ate your taunty mascot at lunch on Friday.

gator cake

He was four feet long, and made of cake, and he was delicious.

And speaking of delicious, I found a slow cooker full of delicious cassoulet chowder waiting for me when I got home:

cassoulet chowder

You should make some. You'll need:

2 cans of pinto beans
4 cups of water
12 oz package of brown and serve breakfast sausage, cooked, drained, and sliced
2 cups cooked chicken, cubed
2 cups cooked ham, cubed
1 and 1/2 cups of sliced raw carrots
8 oz of tomato sauce
1 small onion, chopped (or processed into oblivion)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 bay leaf or some dried basil
3/4 cup red wine

Dump it all in the slow cooker on low for 8 to 10 hours. If you want it to thicken up a little, take the lid off and cook it on high for another half hour before you eat any, so that some of the water boils off. Stir it before you eat it, because the beans settle toward the bottom.

It's delicious.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Gays Come to Riverdale

Comics are solicited months in advance, so it's been quite a while since the publishers of Archie Comics announced that they would be introducing their very first gay character. It was such a big news story that CNN burst into their daily Lindsay Lohan prison watch to report it, and now, months later, "Veronica" #202 is finally in stores, so I went out to find it.

This was easier said than done. My comic store, which caters to the serious graphic novel aficionado (unless they want trade paperbacks, which are for some reason not kept in any kind of order; I like my new store, but good God, is alphabetical by author really that difficult?), does not carry Archie Comics. Borders, on the other hand, tries to be all things to all people, and is more than happy to carry Archie Comics next to the CD's, DVD's, books, magazines, greeting cards, fresh pastries, candles, handbags, toys, coffee, umbrellas, calendars, and makeup. Not to sound all Andy Rooney or anything, but when did bookstores stop carrying books?

Anyway, I took my brand new copy of "Veronica" #202 home and read it, not really knowing what to expect. I haven't read an Archie Comic since I was little, and vaguely remember them as a place where everything seemed to be stuck in the 1950's and Archie, for some unknown reason, had trouble choosing between a hot girl with middle class parents and an equally hot girl whose father is a millionaire. The idea of the writers sticking a gay guy in what I remember as being a comic version of "Happy Days" seemed like a potential recipe for disaster or a well handled educational experience.

It turns out to be a little of both.

Let's go ahead and meet the new guy, shall we?

meet the hot new guy

I've heard he's hot.

Our story opens at Pop's, the Riverdale malt shoppe, where Veronica has stumbled onto a hamburger eating contest:

burger eating contest

Who knew that the citizens of Riverdale were such vigorous fans of competitive eating?

Anyway, Kevin is proving here that he's not just pretty, but also smart. Anyone who's seen "Never Been Kissed" knows that the instant way to high school popularity is to challenge a popular boy to an eating contest at lunch time and then beat him:

kevin wins

Sure enough, everyone loves Kevin immediately, especially Veronica, who explodes with enough love to make Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" look like a wallflower with a schoolgirl crush:

veronica in love

Veronica is so instantly in love that I think her shirt changed color in that scene to match the crazy hearts in her crazy eyes. Over the next few days, a deeply smitted Veronica pursues a somewhat friendly but disinterested Kevin, becoming increasingly frustrated as he plays hard to get.

Except that he's not playing. Kevin really, really isn't interested in Veronica:

kevin's gay

I give Archie Comics a lot of credit here, for two reasons. First, nobody asks what "I'm gay" means, keeping this from veering into the territory of an after school special. Second, Kevin turns out to be the nicest character in this story, because he immediately wants to explain himself to Veronica and let her down easy. Jughead convinces him not to, though.

Because Jughead is a total bastard:

jughead has a mean streak

The worst part is that Jughead's reason for this is that Veronica called him a total failure for losing the hamburger eating contest. For this, Jughead is going to dick around with a teenaged girl's emotions, and then laugh about it. These two things aren't even close to equal. It's kind of like Veronica punched Jughead in the arm and he responded by hitting her in the knees with a baseball bat. Jughead convinces Kevin that he should let Veronica down really easy, so Kevin tries to drop some hints:

nope, no girlfriend

Unfortunately, they fly right over Veronica's head, but Betty picks up on it almost immediately.

This is unfortunate because Betty Cooper, all American girl next door, takes advice from Satan:

angels and demons and bettty cooper

Yeah, Betty, you go, girl. Go straight to hell! Demon-Betty convinces Betty that she shouldn't tell Veronica, either, because as long as Veronica is tied up with a futile pursuit of Kevin then Betty can have Archie all to herself.

Welcome to Riverdale, kids. Keep your friends close and your frenemies closer.

Veronica's pursuit of Kevin becomes so desperate and frantic that eventually Betty has a change of heart, breaks down, and comes clean about Kevin. She can't bring herself not to be a little snotty about it, though:

betty tells veronica

Still, Veronica takes it pretty well, and she and Kevin immediately descend into a charmingly stereotypical friendship:

mild stereotype

So, what have we learned?

1) Cross Jughead at your peril. His response to gentle taunting brings new meaning to the term "scorched earth". Jughead won't TP your house. He'll burn it down, bulldoze the remains, and then salt the earth so that nothing ever grows there again.

2) Straight people are perfectly willing to behave in a completely unethical manner to win. Betty thinks it over for a whole four panels on a fraction of a page before she decides to sell out her friend to land a man. The only person in this book who consistently wants to do the right thing is the gay guy.

3) There are black people in Riverdale now. I saw at least two in this comic.

4) Reggie seems to have vanished. When I was little, Archie Comics had a strange romantic quadrangle going where Betty and Veronica fought over Archie while Archie and Reggie fought over Veronica when Archie didn't also want Betty and Betty didn't sometimes end up with Reggie and Reggie wasn't dressing up as a girl for some unknown reason. Given the way the rest of this comic went, I figure they either decided Reggie would complicate the story too much or that Reggie is buried under the floorboards in Jughead's basement for taking the last ice cube out of Jughead's freezer and not refilling the tray.

5) Kevin Keller, competitive eater and semi-pro glutton, is a huge drama queen. This reaction is completely disproportionate to fruit-filled candy:

kevin hates fruit

Wait, wait, what am I saying? He's a hot gay guy who hates fruit and loves candy.

He's pretty much my dream guy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Unanticipated Delays

Since we have a whole bunch of home games in a row, and I'm working at all of them until November, I've been eyeballing a few new slow cooker recipes to try. The advantage to using the slow cooker on game days is that when I come home tired I have a hot meal waiting rather than just carb loading on mac and cheese or binging on whatever I find in the cabinets. The disadvantage to the slow cooker is that sometimes there are unanticipated delays, and some recipes don't handle that as well as others do.

Case in point: yesterday's California blend soup.

I had no idea that there was such a thing as frozen "California blend vegetables", but the recipe said they would be in my freezer section, and there they were in a clearly labeled bag of broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. I assume these are all grown in California, hence the name of the blend, but that's just a guess. Anyway, the recipe told me to throw two and a half cups of still-frozen blend into the slow cooker:

frozen blend

and then to slice up half an onion and throw that in, too:

frozen blend with onion

I would have pasted that onion down to fragments in my food processor under normal circumstances, but the soup gets pureed at the end so I figured big chunks wouldn't hurt me in this case. As I've said before, the texture of onions is disgusting, and biting into one is enough to make me stop eating something.

After that was added, the recipe called for half a cup of water, but I used half a cup of vegetable stock instead. Any time a soup recipe calls for water I tend to use vegetable or chicken stock instead because it adds more flavor than plain old water does. If I made soup with beef in it I'd probably use beef stock, too, but I'm more a chicken eater. The last ingredient was half a teaspoon of chicken bouillon granules, which I stirred into the stock before pouring in.

After that, you were supposed to ignore it on low heat for six hours, the idea being that the vegetables would slowly sweat out their juices like that time I made the fennel apple soup from "Top Chef" but without me having to watch them.

Soup ingredients in the pot, I got on the road to Neyland Stadium:

south stadium hall

to be at the game with my fellow Vol fans:

vol fan mobile

Some of us, clearly, are bigger fans than others. That is the most heavily decorated Vol-mobile I've seen since the guys who owned the Jeep with horns:

big orange army

moved away.

Despite the sunny afternoon weather, though, a thunderstorm rolled in right around kickoff time, and the stadium had to be evacuated due to lightning. In all, there was almost an hour of delay before the game resumed again, which meant that my soup ingredients spent close to eight hours in the slow cooker rather than the six that the recipe called for. That meant that when I got home, they had sweated out so much liquid that they were turning brown:

eight hours later

I was still tired and hungry, though, so I figured that since nothing was actually burned I might as well just go for it, so I ladled all of the warm ingredients and liquid out of the slow cooker and into the blender, added a cup of skim milk, and blended the hell out of it.

Now, you might remember that the last time I pureed hot soup in a blender there was kind of an explosion, but I learned a handy trick from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa on The Food Network, (also known in some circles as "Fartin' Garten" due to her rumored gas problem; the internet is both a terrible and wonderful place, isn't it?), a few weeks ago. After you put the lid on the blender, take out the little cap in the middle of the lid, then cover the hole with a dishtowel:

blended california blend

The steam can still escape, and the towel keeps soup from splashing all over your kitchen.

With everything pureed, I poured myself a bowl and topped it with cheese:

topped with cheese

It tasted pretty good, and it's almost all skim milk and vegetables, so it has to be good for you. I'm not totally enthused about the color, but I have to assume that it would be a little brighter, or maybe just greener, if the vegetables weren't brown. Next week I'll try to pick something less time sensitive, in case the game gets delayed again.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

questions from the weekend

I saw things this week. Strange things. Things that left me with questions.

1) Why is there a head in the back of this car?

car head

We went over some serious bumps while driving behind these people on the way to the game against UT Martin (a shutout, but a disgrace, since rumor has it that Martin was recruiting walk ons the week before the game just to have a full roster of players) and that head didn't move. There's either a lot of tape, or that thing is attached to the back dash of that car.

And if it is attached, why? I probably have no room to talk since I have a toy on the dashboard of my car, but a cosmetology school model head? That seems excessive, even to me. Unless it has a name, I guess.

2) Why would you waste an entire bag of gummi worms?

melted gummi worms

What kind of monster throws candy on the ground and lets it rot? Won't somebody think of the children, with their bright eyes and scrawny arms and mouths full of perfect white teeth? Don't they need a giant bag of chemically engineered fructose and vaguely fruitlike flavoring? This seems like a horrible waste, but it was also odd and kind of intriguing. Why aren't there any bugs eating it? Or animals? Aren't there hungry squirrels or ants or rats or something that aren't getting enough high fructose corn syrup?

And where did the bag go? Did they melt together in the bag in the hot sun, and then someone dumped them out? But if they did that, shouldn't the bag be there, too? Why would you throw one away and not the other?

3) How is this toy somehow less spooky in the picture than it was in real life?

finger puppet

I saw this finger puppet in one of the stores on Market Square, and I think I might have actually shuddered, if only for a second. There was a finger puppet of Satan in the same store that was somehow less disturbing than this puppet. Why would you buy this for a child? That thing is nightmare fuel, pure horror in rubberized form. It's totally appropriate for a child you don't like, I guess, but why not just give them socks or vegetables?

4) Shouldn't this be in a refrigerator?

unrefrigerated bacon

Vacuum sealed raw meat creeps me out. I know it's supposedly perfectly safe and all that, but even in the vacuum bag there can be temperature fluctuations, long slow sleaks (entropy will eventually fill any vacuum), and it just looks gross. Anything that unruly children in Mast General can pick up and hit each other with and then put back when their lazy mother finally notices that her bratty kids are treating the store like a playground is not fit to be served at a meal.

But don't you want to slap someone in the face with a pack of raw bacon now, just to see what it's like?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Grape Pie Disaster

Sometimes the things that I cook come out really well, or at least passably decent, and I get to coast for days on a smug sense of accomplishment and pretend that maybe someday I, too, can cook like a Top Chef. Sometimes I even convince myself that I have some level of kitchen skill, and I decide that I'm going to creat my own recipes. In some cases, like the blue cheese and bacon mac and cheese or that time I invented Spam and cheese tarts, it turns out really well, but other times experimenting in my kitchen goes horribly awry.

Case in point: The Grape Pie

We had a cookout at Ben and Elizabeth's house a weekend or two ago, and I brought a fruit platter. I thought the platter might not be big enough, though, so I bought some extra grapes, too. Well, we ate almost the whole fruit platter, but there were a lot of grapes left:

leftover grapes

About two pounds of grapes. Now, I like grapes and all, but the bottom half of that bowl was going to go bad and rot in the refrigerator while I slowly picked over the top half. The only way I could eat that many grapes was to transform them into something else, but what? I went to the cabinets and discovered that I had pie crust mix, and then remembered that I've eaten grape pie at restaurants before, and it was delicious. Sure, I had no recipe, and I've never in my life made a pie from scratch before, but how hard could it be? They just did it as a quickfire on "Top Chef" a month or two ago.

"They" being professional chefs, some of whom still failed the challenge. Ignoring this I blithely sailed ahead and mixed up my crust. Following the directions on the box, I divided the dough, floured the counter, and tried to roll it out:

pie crust before rolling

This is harder than it looks. For starters, you should shape that ball into a disc before you even touch it with the rolling pin. Otherwise, this will happen:

rolled piecrust on counter

That doesn't look so bad until you try to put it in the pie pan, and the pan is round and the dough is not:

problem with the pie crust

Fortunately, pie crust is somewhat pliant, and you can work wonders with your fingers:

repaired pie crust

Now I just needed to make the filling and then top the pie and bake. I've never made pie filling before but I've dumped it out of the can, so I was aware that pie filling usually consists of fruit in syrup. I assume the syrup comes from sugar and fruit juices, so I cut all the grapes in half, tossed them with a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and dumped them into the pie. In my head, this whole syrup thing would magically come together while the pie baked. This is exactly the same mistake that Tracey made during the pie baking quickfire on "Top Chef", but somehow this slipped my mind until after baking.

Having learned from the first crust round, I quickly did the second one, cut vents in the top, draped it over the rolling pin, and then unrolled it onto the top of the pie, just like I've seen on the Food Network:

top layer of crust

The box of crust mix said that it would be done when the crust was golden brown and the juices from the filling were bubbling. Those seemed like easy indicators, so I checked it every ten minutes until it looked done:

baked pie

I noticed when I took it out and peeked through the vents that there was some liquid in the pie. A lot of liquid. Like if you tilted the pie back and forth, you could see a lake of fluid washing back and forth over the grapes in there. You know what my filling recipe was missing? A thickener. Some cornstarch, some flour, something. I still though I could save it, though, by putting the pie into the refrigerator. Somehow, in my head, this would magically cause the filling to gel.

This did not happen.


Collapsing crust, filled with loose grape halves tumbling across the plate and vague purple liquid. The grape pie was an utter failure, even worse than the hunchbread.

Orange garlic chicken, on the other hand, was a smashing success!

All you have to do is mix the sauce:

orange garlic sauce

dump it over the chicken in the slow cooker:

orange garlic sauce in the cooker

and ignore it for six hours. Add in some instant mashed potatoes:

orange garlic chicken

and I have self esteem again.

Also, I threw out the grape pie.