Friday, October 23rd 2009

How hot is your head of state?
posted @ 6:53 am in [ ]

Sure, you know what his or her policies are like, but how does a given head of state rank as a hottie? Now we can know! Think Obama beats out some of the mere 14 folks ahead of him? (I know I do. I mean, Lukashenko? Come on…) You can leave a comment making your feelings for our fine, fine, superfine head of state known. I’d like to see Rafael Correa try to look as good frolicking shirtless in the surf. Actually, I think I rather would like to see that. Plus, Putin ranks at number 18, in a tank top in a black-and-white shot that looks like it’s about to launch a saucy pictorial, perhaps entitled: “Putin: This one’s for the ladies!” Maybe in the next shot (not seen) he’s signing bills in his underpants. Hawt!

Tuesday, October 20th 2009

Oakland Local
posted @ 9:02 am in [ ]

A very groovy thing happened yesterday. Oakland Local went live. I did a tiny bit of work on this for the creators — just on the blogroll — and I was really impressed by the vibrant community and all the great stuff regular folks are doing there. If you’re in Oakland already, you’ll be glad you are. If you’re not, you may just want to pick up and move there.

Co-founder and all-around fun lady Susan Mernit writes:

As you know, I’ve been working on launching Oakland Local ( a news & community site for Oakland focusing on social justice issues including climate change, air quality, food access, arts as activism, and identity, race & ethnicity. We have a New Voices grant from J-Lab, funded by The Knight Foundation, as seed money.

Oakland Local is launching in partnership with 35 local nonprofit, neighborhood & community organizations — we combine postings of their news and information with blogging and with reported stories from a top quality news team (Susan Mernit, Amy Gahran, Kamika Dunlap, Kwan Booth, Ryan Van Lenning and others). We are media partners and collaborators with,, The Center for Investigative Reporting, New America Media, Endless Canvas, Youth Rising, Youth Radio and Youth Outlook as well. Our site offers forums, a directory of 320 local nonprofits and a blog directory of 180 active local bloggers as well.

On twitter we are @oaklandlocal; our facebook page is

We have some great stories live and welcome your comments, ideas and feedback. The mobile site will be upgrading in a couple days, very basic right now.

Do go drop by. Everything Susan and Amy touch starts to glitter with coolness immediately.

Tuesday, October 6th 2009

The deal with risotto
posted @ 2:38 pm in [ ]

I recently made some risotto that was pretty well-received. Some folks asked me for the recipe, which was very flattering, but I don’t really have a recipe. I barely have a procedure. I doubt any two risottos I make come out quite the same, so I’m not even sure I could reproduce any given batch. I may not be able to say exactly how I made some risotto, but I can at least provide guidelines for coming up with one’s own procedure that’s at least as good as whatever I was doing.

There a few things you need to know about risotto, after which everything else is pretty loose.

1. You absolutely must use Arborio (or Carnaroli) rice. It’s the short-grain unique starchiness that makes that creamy texture while it cooks. Uncle Ben’s or the stuff you get in Safeway in a plastic bag marked simply, “RICE,” will not work.

2. Once you get the rice home and before you start trying to cook it in liquid, you prep it a little bit. Generally that means heating and coating it so it accepts the liquid better. I like to use a few tablespoons of olive oil, an onion, a few cloves of garlic, and pretty much everyone uses dry white wine. Anything else you throw in there need only be compatible with the flavor you’re hoping for in the end. It’s hard to go wrong with leeks or scallions, fresh herbs, etc. So you throw that stuff in a pan and cook it for a little while, maybe 5 - 10 minutes, until it’s more or less cohesive (if you have onions in there, so they’re translucent or caramelized, as you like them), and then you put in the risotto rice and coat it with whatever nice stuff you put in there. It’ll start to look a little shiny and translucent. You want that.

3. The essence of risotto is ladling liquid slowly into the rice and letting it cook in. Stock is probably the best liquid to use: chicken, vegetable, beef, mushroom, whatever you think will work. Sure, bullion cubes dissolved in boiling water count. You could even use water in a pinch. So basically, you have two pots going at the same time. You have the pot with the actual risotto happening in it (simmering gently), which you’re stirring fairly frequently, and then another pot really close to it that has the hot stock in it and a ladle. Start with a couple of ladles of stock in the risotto (or enough just to cover it), and then whenever it looks like it’s about to absorb what’s in there already, add another ladle full. If you didn’t add a bunch of stuff to the pre-risotto mixture and/or you want some other stuff in there, this isn’t a bad time to add it. You can put it in the stock or directly into the risotto. It doesn’t really matter — it’s all going to end up in the same pot. If I’m making mushroom risotto, I often like to have some of the mushrooms in the initial onion/oil/coating mix and some sitting in the vegetable stock, too, that gradually end up in the risotto. If I’m putting leftover vegetables in there, I just put them in the risotto pot when it’s in this stage, so the vegetables don’t get too mushy. Play around with it. See what you like.

4. Add the cheese and stuff just before you serve the risotto. As you begin to run out of stock, and the risotto is about the creamy texture you’d like, and al dente (that is, not at all crunchy and not yet squishy, but firm), it’s time to wrap it up — usually after around 30 - 40 minutes. Pretty much all risotto recipes call for about a cube of butter, fresh ground pepper and maybe a bit of salt to taste, and some sort of grated hard cheese (Romano, Parmesan, Asiago, etc.) right at the end. Serve it right after you stir those things in.

5. Risotto doesn’t re-heat super-well. You never get back that steamy, creamy moment when it first comes off the stove. You can microwave it, but it’ll be kinda clumpy. You can reheat it on the stove with more stock, but it’ll be kinda loose and gloppy. You can make only as much as you think you can get down the folks you’re feeding right then, you can freeze it and use it for something else later, or you can just put up with not really recapturing that trademark texture.

So that’s what you really need to know.

As far as how much rice to how much stock, that seems to vary wildly depending on altitude, climate, weather, how hot you’re keeping the stock, etc. I guess I usually start with about a 4 cups of stock for every 1 cup of the rice and make adjustments as necessary.

With regard to what you can put in there, I really think you should use anything that seems like it would be good. Just keep its usual cooking time and style in mind. So for example, if you want to put shrimp in there, which cooks in about a nanosecond and has a pretty light flavor, you’d probably want to add it toward the end of the risotto procedure, and directly into the risotto pot, so it cooks but doesn’t have time to get overcooked and mealy. You could also use shrimp stock and cook them in that toward the end. If you want to add something like beef, you might want to let that hang out in the stock and stay wet, slowly joining the risotto over time. For things like fresh herbs, you may want to put those in the coating mixture at the very beginning so their flavor soaks in at every stage.

If you can’t stand winging it in the kitchen (and there’s no shame in that, really), I’d recommend Lidia Bastianich for further reading about risotto. She has a PBS cooking show, a good website with recipes, and she knows what to do with even leftover risotto.

Happy experimenting!

Monday, October 5th 2009

Dispatches from two miles above sea level
posted @ 3:22 pm in [ ]

One of our priorities before the snow gets too deep is to get a bunch of wood prepared for the woodstove. There’s a fair amount of dead wood lying around the property — in my seasoned opinion (pun intended), more than enough to feed the woodstove through an entire winter — and probably enough left over for weekly bonfires after the snow melts. So for the next few weeks (weather permitting), I’m replacing my workouts with wood gathering. It’s decent cardio and strength training, it’s free (in fact, actually saving money), it’s outside, and it’s gotta get done anyway, so it doesn’t even make me feel like I’m taking time out that I should be using to take care of the ol’ to-do list. It’s a somewhat urgent project.

My first such outing was this morning. It was snowing, but it was more like “altitude snow” — it didn’t really mean it. The temperature was probably in the 50s or so, and I was quite comfortable with just a heavy flannel shirt over my clothes. None of the snow stuck, and it even seems to have melted off a bit in the last few hours (good news for tomorrow’s workout). I walked around the property, pretty close to the house, and dragged all the nonliving wooden objects I could find, from fallen saplings to superannuated saw horses, down to the cutting pile.

When I say “down to the cutting pile,” it’s because the property slopes rather sharply. In some places, it’s at about a 45-degree angle to the dooryard, or steeper. In those spots, I gained an appreciation for Scottish sports, which involve finding the heaviest [insert natural object here: log, stone, enemy's severed head, etc.] you can find, and throwing it as far as you can. I can’t throw a small dead tree very far, but I can drag it to where I want it and push it over, and I can heave it pretty squarely on a large pile from above and off to one side. This year, giant woodpile. Next year, Highland Games. Maybe I’ll enter the severed-head flinging competition.

When I came inside, my work gloves muddy but not soaked through, the dogs were all over me. “You have been rolling in some primo stuff! Where is it? I wanna roll in it, too! Is it all in one place? How come I don’t know where this awesome rolling pile is? Wait, I wanna smell it again! Mud, rotting wood, moss, a few creepy crawlies, a dash of random poop from the woods, stuff that’s been lying around for a long time… Oh yeah, that’s good. That must be why you’re in charge around here. It’s not just because you mastered the treat box. You really know what you’re doing!” It was very respectful and impressed, with the slightest hint of jealousy.

Tomorrow I plan to collect all the kindling and tinder I can before it gets buried under snow. There’s nothing like a wood sledge here, because it’s Colorado and people don’t do things like scavenging the forest for firewood. Even if I had some sort of draggable wood transport thingie, though, it would spill most of its load on the wild and unmanicured landscape. I plan to use a tarp with a piece of rope or bungee through its grommets like a big blue woven plastic sack and drag that around the property, filling it with little sticks and odd bits of wood. Should be a good workout.

I’ve really missed living in the woods.

Sunday, October 4th 2009

Notes from the geriatric pet ward
posted @ 11:39 am in [ ]

Titania’s littermate Petra is getting pretty long in the fang herself. She’ll be eighteen in May, which I think means I should register her to vote — by mail, probably, so nobody will see she’s a cat, or perhaps by Acorn, which might not care. Being from Woburn, originally (a fine blue-collar suburb of Boston), she would certainly want to be registered Democrat. I just have to get her to make it until she’s old enough that she can help me commit election fraud.

Petra is still lovey and sweet and soft, and she sleeps on my head most nights, all night. She does however have some health issues that are, at the moment, giving me more trouble than they are her. She has high blood pressure, which is under control with a daily pill fragment. She also has a hyperactive thyroid, which is stable with another daily pill fragment, but not optimal. Apparently, treating the thyroid too aggressively makes it harder on her kidneys, which are also on their way out. We give her subcutaneous fluids for that, and I feed her a low-protein diet.

All in all, though, Petra is very much herself, and I would never have known anything was wrong, but for some blood work she had at the vet’s about six months back. She eats almost aggressively, like she just killed that pouch of “with Beef and Gravy” singlehandedly. (Because, you know, in the wild, felis domesticus attacks and eats cows — or whatever sawdust and retired circus animal mixture is “with” the “Beef” and “Gravy.”)

Petra even seems to have put on a little bit of weight in the last couple of weeks. When she was younger, she had a propensity to be kinda pudgy, which was fine by me, because it made her sort of plush. She has very soft, almost velvety, short fur, and likes a cuddle, so when she was a bit more plump, she was not unlike a living, interactive Gund. Although she was never hefty enough to concern the vet, we did sometimes call her “Fat Petra,” and refer to her like a mob boss (Titania was known as “Consigliere Stripes,” and then briefly “Consigliere Coconut” after she jumped up on the kitchen counter while I was setting down an empty coffee cup and smacked her head squarely on the bottom of it, making a hilarious coconut-hits-ceramic sound. Fortunately, no cats were injured in the making of the bizarre noise.) We would talk for her in a voice that was what we imagined Brando’s would be like if he were a small, female tabby cat. “I see you have some chicken there. There’s a bad element in this apartment, you know. If you give me some of that chicken, though, I’ll make sure nothing else happens to it.”

In those days, I fed the cats wet food once a day — at six o’clock — and the rest of the time, they had kibble if they wanted it. It seemed to help Petra regulate her intake pretty well. These days, though, she’s much older and stringier and I’m really pleased when she seems to have put on a few ounces. I pretty much feed her whenever she wants, and I try to pick out things she’ll tear into like a hapless Serengeti wildebeest. I was musing about that this morning. I used to say things like, “It’s not time yet,” when she would begin pestering me for dinner around 4:30 (otherwise known as “pester o’clock,”) and now it’s more like, “Here, gorge yourself on this pail of smelts.”

The next oldest quadruped member of the household is a twelve-year-old yellow lab mix named Dodger. He’s a good dog, feeling his age somewhat. He sometimes reminds me of a crotchety old man. He has sort of a howling whiney bark when he wants to be fed or let out or attended to in some way that is so very close to yodeling, I bet he could do it if he knew what he was shooting for. “You’ll get fed when you learn to yodel,” I say sometimes, but then I feed him anyway and rub his ears. Other times, it just reminds me of a canine Gran’pa Simpson: “I have to pee. Let me out. It’s cold out there. I wanna come back in. I’m bored. Let me back out. I want a treat. What time is it? Maaaaaatlooooooock!”

The next-oldest pet is A’Tuin, the Red-eared Slider turtle. He’s at least eight or nine, but apparently those can live into their mid-thirties in captivity, if nothing’s trying to eat them, so he’s still a youngster. Riff Raff the dog is six or so, and Jackie is about to turn five, so they’re about where I am: between young and middle-aged.

I think it’s feeding time. The dog is almost yodeling.

Thursday, October 1st 2009

You’re never too old to freak out your mom
posted @ 9:11 pm in [ ]

Here is a freshly tested way to freak out your mom. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have been surprising that that was the result, but it was inadvertent at the time.

Step 1. If your mom calls while you’re driving on the highway and you are near your exit, wait until you are safely parked off the exit to return her call. Tell her about that, just to be reassuring that you are a safe and responsible adult and that she will continue in blissful genetic obsolescence as a result.

Step 2. If you happen to have brand-new hella badass snow tires and live at an altitude of approximately 10,500 feet, where it has been steadily snowing for the last 24+ hours, ideally if there is also a High Wind Alert in your state that is being covered on the national news, let your mom know you are beginning your ascent at a responsible speed while you’re talking.

Step 3. Sprinkle the conversation with frequent weather updates as you climb a winding mountain road with a sharp elevation gain and multiple switchbacks. The road will be much more narrow, darker, more winding, not have any guard rails at all, double as a training strip for speed skaters, and possibly also be haunted and infested by bears if she hasn’t seen it yet. Don’t wonder what you did if she becomes nauseous and has to hang up. You know what you did (well, by then, anyway).

This works because your mom is not your dad. She doesn’t want to hear about you testing out your hella badass snow tires for the first time and how you’re kinda hoping you’ll be driving home up a luge track so you can see what those badboys can do. She certainly does not want to hear about the scenic snow cloud squatting on the mountaintop ahead and utterly obscuring it, and how you’re going to drive into that snow cloud in several minutes’ time, because you live there now. It is not an adventure for her. Instead, perhaps discuss what is waiting for you beyond a romantically snow-shrouded sleigh ride home: a well-sealed house with redundant heating systems and green plants and pets and warm socks and soft slippers and cocoa and what-not. Blofeld’s chalet, not the running shoot-’em-up chase down the ski slope where even James Bond gets buried in an avalanche.

Sorry, mom. (But seriously, those tires are the shiznit.)