2018 Cooking Update

It’s been 2.5 years since I discovered Amazingribs.com and Meathead when I was trying to figure out why my BBQ wasn’t as good as the best BBQ joints I’d visited. Last year I ordered the 2016 and 2017 Annuals from Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country as well as getting into Chris Kimball’s spin-off Milk Street. This year I continued my journey with the purchase of a bunch of cookbooks in a Humble Bundle sale as well as ATK’s Dinner Illustrated and Milk Street’s Tuesday Nights, both of which focus on weeknight meals that can be completed in 1 hour or less. I also began to take some steps towards being able to cook intuitively via Samin’s Salt Fat Acid Fire which I haven’t read, but I did see the Netflix show of the same name.

Grilling, BBQ, and Smoking

The prior 1.5 years were about learning my outdoor cooking techniques. There was a LOT I didn’t know about the science of outdoor cooking. Steve Raichlen and Meathead Goldwin were my tutors in this realm and dramatically increased the quality of the food I was cooking. But I was mostly still cooking the same food I always had – burgers, steaks, ribs, and pork shoulder. I did experiment here and there such as when I made prime rib on my kettle for Mother’s Day on my mom’s request, but that tended to be the exception, not the rule.

working on the Mother’s Day Prime Rib

This year was a year of expanding my repertoire. I didn’t do any new BBQ or smoking recipes in 2018, but I tried a lot of new grilling recipes. Here’s a list of what I made this year: Bacon & Egg Quesadillas, Kuwaiti Shrimp, St. Louis Pork Steaks, Grilled Bacon, Smoky Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Spicy Relish, Tacos al Pastor, Sea Bass, Fajita-flavored Fish Tacos, Curry-Spiced Tuna with warm black bean salad, ATK’s grilled chicken fajitas, Tandoori Style chicken, ATK recipe for chicken drumsticks, Mike’s Rib eyes with award winning rub, Bourbon Burger w with caramelized onions and dijon horseradish sauce, Texas Burgers, Tex-Mex Burgers, Two different bratwurst recipes, two different Italian sausage sandwiches, kielbasa spiedinis, and two different grilled cauliflower recipes!

America's Test Kitchen Beer Braised Bratwurst
America’s Test Kitchen Beer Braised Bratwurst

Of the new recipes I grilled this year, the biggest surprises were the various sausage recipes. Apparently, I’d always been served sub-standard bratwursts and italian sausages. But both Meathead and America’s Test Kitchen led me to great success with their various braised bratwurst recipes. ATK’s was more mustardy while Meathead’s was braised with BBQ sauce. 

Given how hard they are to grill, I was most proud of the seafood I grilled this year. I overcooked the tuna the first time around, but the second time it was great. And I’ve never enjoyed eating whole fish as much as I did when I grilled the sea bass filled with aromatics. Finally, it was great to learn how to grill shrimp without toughening it up.

Indoor Cooking

This year I continued to gain more confidence in the kitchen as well as use new tools to enhance my food. The best money I  spent this year was getting a grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. In fact, I’ve used it almost infinitely more for grinding pork than I have used it for baking. While many people like the “life hack” of using a food processor to grind meat – it just doesn’t yield the same results as using a grinder. It also saves me a ton of money since pork shoulder is about $1/lb at Costco while ground pork is $5/lb.

This year I made an incredible pound cake recipe (especially a lemony variant on the recipe), olive oil cake, meatball subs, Thai-style pork burgers, indoor burgers, Japanese-style breaded chicken cutlets with tonkatsu sauce, Za’atar chicken cutlets, cumin-crusted chicken thighs with cauliflower rice, chicken and cauliflower tikka masala, Japanese fried chicken, roast chicken with rosemary and garlic, roast chicken with lemon-thyme pan sauce, chicken enchladas with red sauce, Chiang Mai chicken, chicken mole poblano, pan roasted chicken breasts, fried chicken sandwiches, chipotle chicken tacos, southwestern chicken and biscuits, harissa roasted potatoes, hash browns, mushroom pork omelet, ground pork tacos, carnitas, pinchos morunos, Cuban style pork shoulder with mojo sauce, English muffins, donuts, corn tortillas, lemon-dill biscuits, heavy cream biscuits, Southern-style cornbread, beer batter cheese bread, ground beef enchiladas, picadillo, chili con carne, beef enchiladas, Georgian chicken soup, Korean pork and kim chi stew, beef and barley soup, french onion soup, chicken ramen, curry braised eggs, migas, sweet-and-spicy ginger green beans, roasted cauliflower with curry and mint, skillet roasted brussels sprouts with lemon and pecorino, brussels sprouts with garlic chips, brussels sprouts with bacon, semolina polvorones, peanut butter cookies, and oatmeal raisin cookies.

The breakout star was the southwestern chicken and biscuits. It is a favorite of both Danielle and I and we’ve made it about 4 times this year. It was also the year I gained lots of experience with soups and stews. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for a food category that I once shunned. I’m hoping to try many more during this winter season. It’s also been a good year for learning how to make authentic Mexican food and great quality Tex-Mex. The beef enchiladas have become a huge hit here, for example. Finally, I didn’t realize there could be so many ways to cook Brussels sprouts. There was nothing wrong with the way we used to just roast them in the oven. But all these different recipes allow us to take the same vegetable and gets lots of different flavor profiles so that it can compliment different dishes.

Cooking in 2019?

So what do I see for myself in 2019? Well, first of all, I’ve got a list of hundreds of dishes I’d like to try; so there is a lot of new food to try. I’d like to explore salads the way I explored soups this year. I’ve got 20 or so salad recipes I’m interested in. I want to push myself some more on the grill and BBQ. This year I added a lot of global recipes from Raichlen’s Planet BBQ and it’ll be interesting to try some of those recipes. I’m also hoping to get a rotisserie to explore how that changes things. Finally, I’d like to experiment with improvising in the kitchen. This year I bought some Za’atar specifically because there are a few Milk Street recipes that call for the herb mixture. But I’ve already started experimenting with adding a couple pinches to my salads to great results. I’ve also added it to some garlic bread and that’s been great. I want to start taking more starting points and creating dishes around that.

The only thing I know for sure is that the future is going to bring more cooking and more sampling of new, tasty recipes and sharing them with the people I love.

Review: Beyond Lies the Wub

Beyond Lies the WubBeyond Lies the Wub by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As expected from a Philip K Dick book, that was trippy. Talky in the style of golden and silver age science fiction, but I have a fondness for the style as some of my first science fiction exposure was in that style.

Not a bad plot, it’s a quick read and available free from Project Gutenberg.

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Review: The Secret History of Star Wars

The Secret History of Star WarsThe Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book upended the way I’d thought about the Star Wars movies and stories for the past 20 years. First of all, given George Lucas’ original intention of having an endless James Bond-like serialized series of movies removes any arguments I had about what Disney has been doing with what has frankly been a mostly neglected franchise (film-wise) since the first movie came out in 1977. Second, the book explains why Lucas changed his mind – a combination of his divorce draining him of money and the movies draining him of life. Third, and the biggest reason Kaminski wrote this book, it dismantles the legend of episodes 4-6 (as we now know them) having been the middle of a story that Lucas always had in his head. The truth is both better and worse; especially as we see other ways the story could have gone if he hadn’t been drained by the experience.

Finally, I listened to an audiobook read by Josh Robert Thompson and that is one VERY talented voice actor. He has voices for every quote in the book. I’m not going to say his voices would stand up to scrutiny side-by-side with the people he’s impersonating, but some of his voices are so good that I thought at first he was playing back interviews with the folks – particularly Lucas and Hamill.

The book whipsaws between fascinating and boring as Kaminski is as detailed as if this were his PhD thesis paper. So after a while the evidence can get tiresome to hear (especially when it’s repeated in different chapters), but it does make the book stand up to scrutiny in a way that it needs to when dealing with the Star Wars fandom. The only other criticism is that I wish the book had been updated with an epilogue post-Disney buyout. I know it doesn’t fit with his thesis, but I think it would have been a nice cherry on top after all the talk of movies 7-9 and what could have been.

I’m a passing Star Wars fan (loved 4-6, suffered through 1-3, and haven’t seen 7,8, or any of the side movies). If you like Star Wars anywhere from that much to being a true fan, I recommend the book to you and the audiobook is GREAT to listen to.

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Review: Sex & Violence

Sex & ViolenceSex & Violence by Jimmy Palmiotti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent Humble Bundle featured a sampler for Jimmy Palmiotti’s Paperfilms indie publisher. I was intrigued and went to the site where one can buy DRM-free versions of the books. Pulp is a lot of fun and it has a long history with comics so I figured I’d check it out.

Indeed, this is some grade-A pulp. Two stories are contained within and both contain sex and violence. The first is a Taken-esqu romp through the seedy part of Portland The second is an homage to Rear Window.

There isn’t anything groundbreaking here, but if you want some good old-fashioned pulp, it’s not a bad place to get some.

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Review: The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over on the Cosmere subreddit (one of the good ones in which most people are very nice and just getting together to geek out on something), when I finished The Final Empire they warned me that The Well of Ascension was kind of stationary – not as action-packed or information-heavy as the first book. I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As I’ve remarked countless times, most trilogies have a first entry that kind of stands alone and the second one ties strongly into the third one. (EG The Matrix, The Hunger Games)

That said, this was a very rewarding book for a number of reasons. First of all, Elend, Sazed, and Vin grow as people. They went through a lot in book 1 and the relative stationary plot in book 2 allows them to process what they went through and grow. Second, Straff Venture is elaborated upon as a person. He’s still mostly a 1-dimensinal villain, but he was a fascinating character to read. I can’t remember if the guy who plays the Lannister Patriarch died in real life, but that would be an awesome actor for Straff Venture. Third, the stationary pace allows for more learning of the world. We get to learn a lot about the Kandra and are introduced to the Koloss. We learn more of the Terris breeding program. We even possibly learn where the first allomancers came from. Zane is also a great tragic character. (view spoiler)

Once again, due to his great abilities and strong use of alpha and beta readers, Sanderson has produced a very tightly plotted story where no detail is wasted. The BIG reveal at the end with Sazed coming from something planted right at the beginning of the book was as great as any Greek tragic prophecy. Everything follows from something planted earlier in the story. It makes anxious to get to the end of the trilogy to see how this extends to the trilogy as a whole. (view spoiler)

If you are into Science Fiction and Fantasy books because you love the world building – you love things like the Simarrilion and GRRM’s histories of Westeros written as if by Westerosi historians – you’ll enjoy this chapter of Mistborn Era 1. If you’re just here for allomantic carnage – there’s some of that, but it really is full of history and political maneuvering.

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Review: Chester 5000 XYV: Isabelle & George

Chester 5000 XYV: Isabelle & George (Chester 5000 XYV, #2)Chester 5000 XYV: Isabelle & George by Jess Fink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought the first book was a great example of how erotic fiction could also be a work of art. Jess Fink did so much with so little. Despite a lack of dialog, a great story was told and titillation was had.

This one builds on the last and goes in a slightly different direction. The first book is an artful story of love. This book attempts to do more and so while it loses the beauty in simplicity of the first book, it gains in demonstrating how a complex story can be told without words. (and also be erotic)

The story is mostly a prequel, but the ending does take place after the first book. It does fill in a bit more about why the original protagonist was so tired.

If you liked the first one, you’ll like thit one.

disclaimer: I was a Kickstarter backer on this book

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Review: Chester 5000 XYV

Chester 5000 XYVChester 5000 XYV by Jess Fink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The old cliche is that no one watches porn for the story. But books and comics have always had the ability to be more cutting edge; perhaps because the budget is so much smaller, making the stakes lower.

Somehow, Jess Fink elevates things in Chester 5000 XYV. It starts off with the unusual setting of steampunk Victorian times. While I’m sure tons of erotic fiction has been written to take place in Victorian times, it’s still a fascinating period considering the attitudes of gender roles and sex at the time. But what I think really makes this book special is it’s lack of dialog. There’s something special about a silent comic that requires extra emotion to be expressed with half of what makes up a comic missing.

Outside of that, there’s the story which tells the tale of newlyweds who seem to be sexually incompatible. It’s a story that serves as more than just the motivator for the sex, it is also a story about the need for better communication in a story with dialog. And, for extra fun, it had the classic question of whether robots can love and be like humans.

I can think of a few Goodreads friends who would probably enjoy this book – like Karen B. But if you’re not afraid of dirty pictures, it’s a great, fun little story.

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Just switched to Twenty Nineteen Theme

I’m not sure I like how the main blog page looks. While it seems to copy something like Ghost or Jekyll (some of the WordPress competitors popular among the technical set), It has something of an unfinished look to it. I do really like the way individual posts look, particularly when they have a featured image set. And, to some degree, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and other sites – users are much more likely to land on a blog post than on the main blog page. But right now I’m not sure I’m happy with the theme. I may switch back early next week. If I stick with Twenty Nineteen, I’ll make my usual post about changing themes that contains some screenshots to remember how the blog looked with Twenty Sixteen.

Review: Amberville

AmbervilleAmberville by Tim Davys
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the top five weirdest books I have ever read. It takes place in a world of stuffed animals, but that has both almost no bearing on the story and is key to the main plot. What I mean is that it’s never revealed that actually they’re toys in a toystore or a messed up version of the 100 Acre Woods. The fact that they are stuffed animals is not part of some plot twist. (The thought that it might be a twist kept distracting me the entire time trying to find out the clue) But at the same time, the entire plot of the book, which in a way I don’t wish to spoil, revolves around life and death depends entirely upon the fact that, as stuffed animals, they can’t be killed in the ways that we can.

Contributing to the strangeness of the book is the fact that it shifts from omniscient 3rd person to first person POVs in various chapters. Two main characters are always in first person and a few auxiliary characters are in first person. But the bulk of the main protagonists have 3rd person omniscient POVs. Part of the trick there is that it’s generally assumed that 3rd person narratives are reliable narrators. But it eventually becomes clear that some of the first person chapters are unreliable narrators. And the reasons for the unreliability are quite varied.

Speaking of which, the narrative winds back and forth between the present and past, filling in little details here in there and eventually revealing an almost Fight Club level twist partway through the book.

It’s a meditation on the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves. It considers whether there is redemption or whether people are just evil or good. Church and state and power are examined. Hero worship. It’s a dense book for so strange a premise that I thought would be mined for humor.

If you want something different; perhaps something Weird (as in the genre) – you should give this a shot. And push through the seemingly cookie cutter-ish first few chapters until it flips you around and makes you start questioning everything.

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Review: Murder at the Vicarage

Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, that was nothing at all like I expected. I’m not entire sure what I expected, having never read anything by Agatha Christie. Mostly I expected it to be stuffy and I expected it to suck. It was written so long ago, I was sure all the tropes would be stale. But I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit with thie book I’d gotten for free during a Barnes and Noble free book Friday many years ago.

First of all, although this is from the Miss Marple series of books, Ms. Marple is not the main character. Not only that, she’s not a lead noir detective. The story takes place in a sleepy English town full of old lady busy-bodies and a few members of the younger generation. Ms. Marple is one of those old ladies, she just happened to be sharp as a tack and good at solving mysteries. At the time this book was published, the reader might not have had a clue (depending on what was on the outside or jacket flap. Instead, the main character is the vicar of this town. It was fun being inside his POV as he is witty and you get to see the sarcastic thoughts he can’t voice on account of being the vicar.

It was full of lots of entertaining side characters, particularly the vicar’s wife. Overall, it was a pretty modern-sounding book. There were just a few little phrase changes that dated the book. Things like “making love” meaning flirting rather than having sex. And some of the things the men said about women – while there might be some who still think that way, are pretty darn outdated. The only trope that has become overused with time (but might have been new when this book was published) is that of a mystery in which nearly everyone has acted suspiciously and so you’re constantly being tossed back and forth at who could possibly have been at fault. While life is rarely ever tidy, this is bang-slap on the other end of the spectrum.

If you’re looking for a pretty quick mystery read, fully of witty characters, I think this would be right up your alley.

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I Fight Dragons and MC Lars Futourama Tour

I hadn’t seen I Fight Dragons on tour since Warped Tour three or four years ago (I missed an opportunity to see them at MagFest a couple years ago), but I really enjoyed that set and I’ve been enjoying their work on their new album. They’ve been sharing the progress of songs from acoustic roughs to rhythm roughs, and so on. It’s been a lot of fun to see how the songs evolve. Tickets were only $15 and it was at the Metro Gallery in Baltimore, so I figured I’d go check it out.

Rare Candy
Rare Candy

For quite some time now I’ve really been enjoying discovering new, local bands by getting there when the show starts and this show did not disappoint. The Baltimore locals in Rare Candy were the opening band. They do rock covers of old video game music. The set opened with Mario castle music and ended with an amazing cover of music from Donkey Kong Country. I ended up nabbing their CD that had the most games I enjoyed from my childhood including Mario Kart, Sonic 2 and 3, Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario World. I’ve got a few different video covers that I’ve bought over the years from bands like Tanuki Suit Riot or The Oneups. Each one brings a slightly different interpretation to the cover. What I enjoyed the most about Rare Candy was their rock sensibility. In fact, this is one of those times where I enjoyed the live set more than the well-mastered CD. The guitars (rhythm and bass) both took center stage at the concert and really just added a deep menace to the Mario castle songs. It was a LOT of fun.

The next group was a rap group that I didn’t enjoy, but part of that was just the mix making it a bit hard to follow all the lyrics. From what I could hear it sounded like they were doing some neat wordplay.

MC Lars
MC Lars

Then it was time for headliner #1: Mc Lars. For the most part, the only exposure I had to his music was Download this Song from a Nerdcore collection I got a few years ago and in the I Fight Dragons concert video where he joined them on stage for The Geeks Will Inherit the Earth. I was impressed and entertained by Mc Lars. Like MC Frontalot (and unlike MC Plus+), his rhymes seemed to celebrate geekiness and spread a general positivity. Sure, to some degree the posturing of Mc Plus+ and SpamTec is more in the spirit of the branch of rap that is about machismo and declaring that you’re awesome and everyone else sucks.

MC Lars
MC Lars

But I find that to be tiresome and I tend to listen more often to more positive tracks. So it was a relief that MC Lars just wanted everyone to have a good time. I didn’t know he had a song about Edgar Allan Poe, but it was pretty appropriate to be in Baltimore for that one. The highlight of his set was when he had a skanking (ska dancing) contest on stage in which no one really lost. He ended up giving everyone at least a CD for participating and the winners (there were four) got t-shirts.

I Fight Dragons
I Fight Dragons

Then it was finally time for the band I came there to see – I Fight Dragons. They had a killer set – I enjoyed it a lot more than their set at Warped Tour. Part of that was because for Warped Tour they were on the stage where each band gets half an hour. Here they did more like 45 minutes or so. The set was a great mix of their music from their earliest stuff through to a song from the new (as yet unreleased) Patreon album and some B-Sides from The Near Future. The energy was great and it was a tiny club where anywhere in there was a great place to be standing. As I predicted to some Lars fans I met there, MC Lars joined them for The Geeks Will Inherit the Earth. But the best part for me was when they officially ended their set with The End from The Beatles Abbey Road album. It provided a chance for the drummer to have an AWESOME drum solo and it was the perfect song to end the set with. Plus, while the original version is great, it works well with a harder rock set of instruments. Then they did a couple encores which was really great – especially since lead singer Brain Mazzaferri’s vocal cords were giving out since we were the last stop on the tour. It really showed the band giving their all to their fans. I appreciate them even more for it.

Overall, it was a great concert. I recommend the Metro Gallery as a great venue because no matter if you’re at the stage or in the back you’re not very far from the stage at all. (However, because it is so small, you probably want to wear some ear protection – even if you plan to be in the back) I’ll probably end up checking out some more of MC Lars’ stuff and I’ll be keeping an eye on Rare Candy.

Twin 3rd Birthday Portraits

Just as with the farm portraits, this year both kids were enthusiastic about the portraits. I was bracing for Sam to once again hate the idea of portraits, but his urge to do what his sisters were doing was stronger – or maybe he’s just over whatever he hated about it last year. I’m really happy with how the portraits came out this year – particularly for Sam. It helps that the little guy is ALWAYS smiling (unless he’s been told he can’t do something). Here’s my favorite Sam portrait:

Sam third birthday portraits

And here’s a gallery of a few others from that session:

Maybe it’s because, in direct contrast to Sam, Stella always seems so serious, this one is my favorite from the session (the faves are the ones that will be printed out for my office):

Stella third birthday portraits

And here’s a gallery of some others:

It probably helps that they’re not both the same gender, but we try to give them independent identities instead of a strong twin identity. Still, I think it’s important to capture the bond, especially before they get too old to want to take photos together. Here’s my favorite one of the two of them:

Twin third birthday portraits

By the way, part of the reason why that’s my favorite is because it happened spontaneously. I didn’t tell them to do that. I didn’t even tell them to hug. I just told them to be near each other. Here are a few more group portraits:

Frankly, it’s cliche as all get-out, but I cannot believe they’re already three. I feel like I just took them home from the hospital the other day, barely larger than a sack of potatoes. And now they’re talking and asking for things (and sometimes DEMANDING things!) and asking about how things work and why things are happening. Seeing them interact with each other is incredible – and one of the few things I’m getting to do for the first time because Scarlett didn’t have a sibling for me to watch her interact with. They’re very protective of each other and I hope that bond continues.

Twin third birthday portraits

Twin third birthday portraits

2018 Pumpkin Patch Portraits

Another year and the kids grow older. Last year was a disaster – the twins did NOT want their photos taken. We didn’t get any good portraits. This time everyone was game and we got good portraits – at least the first time around. When we reconvened a little later, the kids were over the idea of pumpkin photos, or at least Scarlett was.

This year the kids were actually strong enough to carry pumpkins, so they did enjoy adding to the chunk of pumpkins that were used for the portraits.

Kids hunt for pumpkins
Kids hunt for pumpkins

Stella brings a pumpkin
Stella brings a pumpkin

This year Scarlett felt too old for the hay maze while the twins loved it.

The kids were all finally old enough that everyone loved riding the horses, especially Sam.

Sam rides a horse
Sam rides a horse

Stella's turn on the horse
Stella’s turn on the horse

Stella's turn on the horse
Stella’s turn on the horse

I’m not sure for how many more years we’ll continue the tradition – part of me hopes it can go past the point where they’re ironic portraits of teens or young adults way too old to be taking pumpkin patch photos. Because if we’re doing that, we’ll have successfully taught the kids not to take themselves too seriously.

But, no matter what else, when it’s time to go and someone wants one more picture – at least one kid’s going to be upset about it.