30 November 2010

Roll my blues

This post goes out to Darrell, who broadly suggested I blog about food. Though broad, it's a pretty good suggestion, and it's one I plan to continually follow up on. (In answer to your question, Darrell, no. I have not read In Defense of Food, though I have read The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

Since I moved to the DC area, I've made breadmaking a focus in my home culinary practice, trying to recreate the warm taste of home that I remember from my formative years. It took a little over a year of baking before I began to feel like I was doing it well, and I think I'm continuing to improve.

One of the recipes that has come to be a standby in my repertoire is for homemade rolls, and it's one that consistently gets rave reviews from those who eat them. The recipe comes from Sue Marten, a woman that was a good friend of my mom's and that was pretty influential in my childhood (as Primary president as well as a Cub Scout den leader). It's actually pretty simple and relatively easy to follow:

1 1/2 cups warm water
1/3 cup of honey
1 tablespoon of yeast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup of melted butter (or other oil)
1 teaspoon of salt (or 1 tablespoon if using all whole-wheat flour)
4 1/2 cups of white flour or whole-wheat flour or some combination of the two

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease an aluminum baking sheet.

Stir the honey into the warm water until it's mostly dissolved, then sprinkle the yeast on top. When the yeast begins to activate and grow, stir in the eggs and melted butter. Then add in the salt and stir in the flour, one cup at a time. Stir only until the last of the flour is combined into the dough, then sprinkle with a thin layer of flour and lay a cloth over the top. Let dough rise until doubled in bulk. Punch it down and form the dough into rolls, laying them out onto the baking sheet. Sprinkle very lightly with flour, cover with the cloth, and let rise again. Bake for 10-20 minutes, until the tops of the rolls are lightly browned. Cool a bit and serve.

One Thanksgiving I accidentally made the rolls too big and they ended up having a diameter close to that of my palm. I thought it was kind of funny to have such huge rolls until I realized that the leftovers were the perfect size for making turkey sandwiches. Now I make them too big every year so I can slice the extras in half and stack turkey and lettuce between them for the next few days after. I even made another batch of huge rolls on Sunday so I could have more sandwich material.

Incidentally, this year my brother Scott told me that he thought this batch of rolls was the best I've ever made. We discussed what made them good and I think I've determined that the difference came from using a new type of honey--a jar of apple and peach blossom variety that I picked up at the Arlington Farmers' Market. It might be worth a try to experiment with other types of honey to see if it makes a difference in the outcome of the rolls.

Roll my blues away...

29 November 2010

Don't call him Shirley

Many of you may already be aware that Leslie Nielsen died yesterday. Having had some impact on my enculturation as a kid and the development of my sense of humor, I thought it appropriate to write a few paragraphs on the man and his career.

Nielsen did some great work in the field of comedic film, but like any actor he also performed in some really lousy movies. This may have been unavoidable in the last couple of decades, having fallen in as a regular in the Zucker Brothers' films (once a great parody team, now factory engineers of vapid no-brain spoofs). What I'd like to do here in this post is talk about three great works that Leslie Nielsen has left us to admire, lest anyone be tempted to remember him for his role in Superhero Movie. Shudder.

Airplane! (1980) I probably don't need to trump this or worry that it will be forgotten, but I had to mention it first because it is by far my favorite work that Nielsen was involved in. It was also his first major comedic role, setting the stage for the career he'd be known for. My mom recorded this off of television when I was 9 or 10 and my developing sense of humor encountered it at just the right time. I loved the movie as a whole, but to me Nielsen stole the show with his deadpan performance as Dr. Rumack. "Captain, how soon can you land?" "I can't tell." "You can tell me--I'm a doctor."

Police Squad! (1982) Few today remember this short-lived television show with much laud (it got canceled after six episodes), but it was a hilarious work of comedic genius. All the one-liner rapidity and comedic timing of Airplane!, wrapped up in a 30-minute television show. It is renowned in some circles as one of the few shows on TV never to have jumped the shark. One of my favorite gags on the show was the "freeze frame" at the end over which they ran the credits. Rather than broadcasting a still, the actors all just froze in place, sometimes in the middle of pouring liquid (which proceeded to overfill the cup and run everywhere), sometimes in the middle of booking a criminal (who looked around confusedly for a moment before slowly slipping away from the frozen cops and running off).

Police Squad! also laid the foundation for the much better known film The Naked Gun. Not many people pay attention to that movie's subtitle: From the Files of Police Squad! Personally, I think the series was funnier overall than the movie, not to mention a bit cleaner. But then you don't get to watch O.J. Simpson... Oh wait. Maybe that's a good thing.

Forbidden Planet
This was Nielsen's premiere role in film--and a lead role at that! Don't watch this movie expecting the deadpan, wise-cracking Leslie Nielsen you've come to know. He's completely straight-arrow and no-nonsense in this film, the captain of a starship sent from earth to a distant planet to investigate the disappearance of an entire colony. He plays opposite the formidable Walter Pigeon, working off a script that was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest. Forbidden Planet was one of those early sci-fi films that set the standard for all other sci-fi films to follow. It's also notable as the premiere performance for Robby the Robot, an iconic cinematic automaton who continued to appear in science fiction spots for the next five decades. In the movie's titles, Robby is credited as "himself." And Nielsen got to star alongside him.

28 November 2010

A tale of two turkeys

Thank you all for your suggestions for future blog posts. What I did not tell you when I made the request is that I intend to write up a post based on each and every one of the suggestions I received (JBod's second suggestion is likely eclipsing his first one, for the record). So my goal is to get my fingers flying and write a post every day this week. Starting today, with a suggestion from ANJ to blog about the Great Turkey Experiment my brother and I pulled off for Thanksgiving this year.

Two and a half weeks before 25 November, my brother Scott sent me an email titled "Interesting Method to Cook Thanksgiving Turkey." The email contained a link to a Huffington Post article with detailed instructions on brining, rubbing, perching, smoking, and grilling a turkey in spite of many traditional methods that produce dry or otherwise undesirable meat.

Everything about the method looked good to me, but I kept going back to the explicit instructions NOT to stuff the bird. Which makes sense for this recipe. But the unfamiliar reader here must understand that for a Gillins, a Thanksgiving turkey is really just a vessel for creating moist, flavorful stuffing.

I pointed this out to Scott, and he saw my point. We then agreed that the only way to proceed was to cook two birds--one traditional, the other new.

I picked up two 10-pound, free-range turkeys from Whole Foods (no performance-enhancing moisture injections in those birds) on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I made two separate batches of brine (one the recipe from Alton Brown we've been using for the last three years, the other the one from the Huffington Post article). I set each turkey to rest overnight in separate containers, as depicted below:*

Thanksgiving morning Scott and I set to work preparing each bird according to its prescribed method. I left partway through the process to donate blood (the American Red Cross really, really wanted it). When I got back, one turkey was stuffed and in the oven, the other perched over a gravy pan, hot coals, and smoking wood chips outside in my grill.

The grill-smoked turkey required a little more effort than the oven-roasted one. Scott had to add fresh, hot coals three times during the cooking process and all-in-all it took a little longer to cook. But the results were well worth the work.

We pulled the stuffing out of the oven bird (delicious as stuffing from inside the cavity always is), then set to work carving each turkey up. I cut an entire half-breast off the smoked turkey and sliced up three slivers for me, Scott, and Scott's wife Marilee to try.

Many of you who know me well understand that I have an affinity for hyperbole. I use it from time to time as I see fit. However, I mean no exaggeration when I tell you that that smoked breast meat was THE BEST TURKEY EVER. Under the browned, crispy skin was a rosy, smoke-infused meat that retained more juices than I'd ever seen in a roasted turkey. The smell was tempting, the taste irresistible.

I carved the rest of that half-breast and the majority of a thigh, then set in on carving the oven bird. It seemed to have no flavor. I ended up slicing up one half-breast, but I didn't bother with the rest, knowing where my attention would be during the dinner.

After our dinner was over and Scott and I laid on our backs for a while, we went back into the kitchen to divide the two carcasses between us. With a few hours of objectivity now between me and my first try of the two meats, I took a taste of the oven-roasted bird. It actually tasted quite good. It was reasonably moist, had a nice flavor, and it was pretty tender. Then I took one more small bite of the smoked bird--it was simply superior. I conducted my first taste test in an order that was unfair to the oven-roasted bird. If I'd given it the first shot, I would have appreciated it for what it was. Putting it second in the line-up was like having the Beatles open for your cousin's boyfriend's Oasis tribute band.

The future of Thanksgiving is undecided. Now we know how great a turkey can be, but stuffing is still the king of dishes at our table. The next 12 months will be filled with careful deliberation--and possibly some heated debate--as we decide how the next Thanksgiving turkey will be prepared.

*I intended to take pictures of the entire process and the end results for comparison, but I only got these two preliminary brining shots. Ah well.

17 November 2010

Two things

Thing 1:

I never got back to you, dear readers, about the results of my mosaics project vote-off. So technically the Beatles won out, what with a couple of Facebook votes and a text message that put the U.S. cover of A Hard Day's Night over the line.

However, when I showed up to class with a large printout of the image, my teacher immediately nixed the idea, saying it would be too difficult for a beginner such as myself.

So you would think I would default to the roots... but no. I went a totally different direction. Well, not TOTALLY different.

Behold: The Apple Records logo! A-side and B-side! Yeah, it's still The Beatles, but a bit more abstractly. I'm doing both images side-by-side--sort of a diptych, but without the hinge.

The project is coming along nicely and should be done in a few weeks. I'll be sure to post pictures when I'm done so you can all see the results.

Thing 2:

I have fallen out of the habit of writing. And I'm not just talking about the gross understatement that that would be about this blog. I mean that since I graduated in May, I have done almost no writing at all. Maybe chalk it up to wanting a brief break after all the paper writing that made up my graduate career? Whatever the cause, it is time for the dearth to end and for me to start composing again. I've been pondering ways to get back into it, and it seems to me that blogging would be a healthy exercise.


In order to jump-start this renaissance, I am proposing to allow you--my few, faithful readers who have decided to revisit this page--to choose a series of topics for me. The idea is that your topics will stretch me and help me to think outside myself again--to think more like a writer, that is. There is no limit to what you may suggest as a topic, or even as a genre. Fiction? Sure! Biography? Definitely. Poetry? I'm willing to give it a shot. Literary criticism? Try me.

Please place your suggestions for topics and/or genres in the comments below and I'll start working on them as soon as time permits. You know, if I happen to have some downtime at work or some oddity like that.