Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Opinions on Food

Actually, I'm not just talking about food here. I'm largely using food as a metaphor, but it is also the focus of today's thoughts.

There is a sandwich restaurant in Utah called Gandolfo's. I don't think they're based out of Utah, but they're all over the place here. Personally, I find them to be horrible. Not so much that I wouldn't eat a free sandwich from there if somebody else drove out there, picked it up for me, drove back and gave it to me. This is occassionally the case at work, when we're stuck in a meeting that lasts through lunch and the boss decides to buy us dinner. Don't think I'm ungrateful when he chooses Gandolfo's, because I'm not. But if I had to spend the money and/or make the effort to buy a sandwich, I would just as well go to Subway. Of course, there are several other sandwich shops in the area that I would go to first (The Italian Place, Sensuous Sandwich, Quiznos, and on very rare occassion, Hogi Yogi, but only for their Stacked Club). But even Subway ranks well above Gandolfo's on my list.

Now, this is what's known as opinion. For those of you that missed the "fact vs. opinion" day back in Kindergarten, opinion is the one that's entirely subjective. That means that just because I don't like Gandolfo's doesn't mean I'm calling you a horrible person because you do. And conversely, just because you like it and I walk in and say I find it to be horrible, it's no reason for you to get all defensive and start treating me like I'm arrogant because I went to cooking school and all that. If you do, I'll likely just laugh at you anyway.

As you can guess, a similar experience happened to me today. The experience in and of itself wasn't really blog-worthy. But it reminded me of several past experiences. I remember being a wee chefling in my first weeks of cooking school, utterly fascinated with all of the things that I had been learning. On one occassion, I was talking on the phone to a friend back home about some of the things that I had learned. Amid my excitement, I was suddenly taken aback a little bit when she replied to one cooking technique, "well, that's not the way I do it."

What had just happened? Well, it turns out she had a certain method that she had been brought up with, that she had always used, that she had never questioned. And suddenly, here was her high school friend, Big Bad Cooking School Guy (TM), telling her that she was wrong, had always been wrong, and so long as she continued in her degenerate ways, she would continue to be wrong. This of course was not my intent. I had merely meant to express my excitement for my newest trick that I had learned.

As I made my way through cooking school, I began volunteering to teach classes to local church groups. I would always have my camera with me, and somebody taking pictures of me cooking. It was great portfolio fodder. And as I taught my classes, I found the same thing over and over: almost invariably, there would be one or more women that had established themselves as the expert cook or cooks, that fancied themselves the one that everybody else in the church group would turn to for advice. These were usually the women that had already sent most if not all of their kids off to college, after slaving over a hot stove for them for 20 years. They knew how to cook. And then suddenly this Big Bad Arrogant Chef (TM), who's half their age, comes along and starts misinforming them and their flock with this "cooking school" nonsense.

Here's the thing. I'm not the greatest cook in the world. In fact, before I went to cooking school, I was somewhat closer to being the worst cook in the world. That's part of the reason I went to school: I wanted to learn. I spent a lot of money to learn, and it took a lot of time. In order to graduate, I had to serve an externship at a real restaurant (or a bakery, in my case). My boss and his boss got to yell at me a lot, especially when I first started. I still remember the first time the Executive Pastry Chef told me that I was "never going to make it as a baker if [I] did it that way". It wasn't the last. She doesn't just cook for her family every night. She cooks for thousands of people on a daily basis, and has been doing so for at least a couple of decades.

So when she suggests I try doing something different, I don't think it's too much to ask to try it. If her suggestion works out worse for me (not that it ever has), at least I have that piece of knowledge tucked away in my brain. And when I tell you how I like to do something, and it differs from how you've always done it, well... maybe it's worth trying. Just once. I got to cook for thousands of people for a few months too. And if you end up not liking the way I do it, then at least you have that piece of knowledge. You may still go back to how you did it before. You may even develop a new technique that's better than your old one or mine.

It doesn't stop there. You don't even have to have a Big Bad Arrogant Chef (TM) like me attempting to dispense advice to you. Maybe you could try a few things on your own. Do you really need to put ranch dressing on your salad every single time? Try the honey mustard vinaigrette. Maybe you'll like it. If you don't, don't count it as a loss. Count it as gained knowledge.

I have a pretty decent-sized list of foods that I don't like. I decided in cooking school to remove any and all items from that list that I had never actually tried. While things like avacados, ranch dressing, "fry sauce", caviar and sour cream are still on the list, things like bleu cheese, buffalo (technically bison) and deer have moved over to my list of things that I quite enjoy. And even though I don't normally like avocados, I have managed to locate dishes that I do like them on. And I must say that the sour cream topping on the world-famous Deer Valley cheesecake is worth it. But ranch? Give me a break. And pass the bleu cheese dressing.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Weekend Challenge 3 Results

It is a sad day for the Weekend Challenge. I was worried that people might not be able to come up with enough pumpkin recipes, and boy was I right. I even posted a huge article about how to work with pumpkins, just to give everyone a little push. And how many people submitted recipes? Zero. My vegetarian friend Charles did mention he was planning to post a recipe for pumpkin lentil soup, but apparently building fences takes priorities. Maybe if we're lucky he'll post the recipe anyway.

Well, I posted a few more pumpkin recipes this morning. My favorite is the pumpkin ice cream. Now, I thought it would be fun to make a pumpkin ice cream. I figured it would be a nice seasonal recipe that people could make once a year, just as one of those "it's that time of the year" things. I managed to surprise myself on this one. In fact, I was really surprised. I hadn't had an ice cream this good since, well, my ginger lemongrass ice cream. When I open up my own place and start selling frozen desserts, these two ice creams will be on the menu. My vegetarian friends loved it. My in-laws came over and had some yesterday, and they loved it. Even my wife, who was not in the mood for ice cream loved it.

So if you get the chance, whip up a batch of pumpkin ice cream. Or some pumpkin hash browns or pumpkin curry. It's all easy stuff to do. And this weekend, I'll try to go a little easier on ya'll.

Working with Pumpkins: Part 2

So what did I do with the leftover pumpkin from my first pumpkin article? Hash browns. Remember back when I made hash browns with sweet potato instead of regular potatoes? It's the same kind of concept. This time I went with half of a sugar pumpkin, diced and steamed. I sauteed it in a little oil (I think I went with peanut oil again), until it had some nice color going on it. I added some diced smoked sausage while I was at it, and let that get nice and caramelized too. Funny thing about smoked sausage is, it's one of those foods that actually tastes better with some black on it, just so long as there's not too much black. I added maybe half a cup of diced red bell pepper, and about a quarter cup of diced jalapeno. This was also about the time that I added a couple of splashes each of Worcestershire sauce and chipotle Tabasco sauce, and a few shakes of chile powder.

Now, up to this point I had been making a pretty standard hash brown recipe. But I was about to deviate with a technique that I've been using a lot with my hashbrowns. I added about half a cup of chicken broth. One might think that this would make the potato (or pumpkin in this case) soggy, but that's not the case. You see, the potato/pumpkin is pretty well-cooked on the outside, but it's still kind of raw on the inside. The problem is, if you let it keep sauteing like this, the outside is going to get burned before the inside finishes cooking. The water in the broth drops the external tempurature of everything in there, while still being hot enough to cook the inside. By the time the liquid has evaporated, the inside of the veggies are cooked, and the outside has just another layor of additional flavor. I cook until the liquid has completely evaporated, and then let it saute just a minute or two longer to crisp up the outside of everything again. Then of course, I serve with grated cheddar.

And yet, my pumpkin experiments were not over! I had another creation in mind. Something... Italian. The problem was, I was out of steamed pumpkin. But that's okay. For this dish, I needed to use raw pumpkin. But I didn't need very much of it. So despite the diminished size, I went with one of the tiny, ornamental pumpkins. I plucked the stem off and cut it in half. I scooped out the seeds, peeled it, and then diced it.

While I was doing this, I had a pan heating up over medium. I added a wee bit of oil and a cup of arborio rice, and toasted it a bit. I also had another pan with three cups of vegetable broth heating up on another burner. That's right, I was going to make risotto. Now, risotto's an easy recipe, and yet it never seems to work out for me. The reason is simple: it takes at least half an hour to cook, and I'm impatient. This time I used a timer. I added a cup of hot stock to the rice and gave it a stir. Then I set my timer for thirty minutes.

Now, chefs will tell you that risotto needs to be stirred constantly the whole time it's cooking. That's not entirely true, but it does need to be stirred a lot. This is markedly different from a standard rice pilaf, in which you want to stir as little as possible. With pilaf, excessive stirring makes for gummy rice. With risotto, stirring causes the rice granules to rub off against each other, which actually forms a nice little creamy sauce. So you need to stir. But you really only need to stir about half the time. Keep stirring until the water looks nearly evaporated, and then add another quarter cup or so of hot broth. If you play your cards right, then it should take about half an hour to stir in all of the broth. Sometimes you need more broth, sometimes you need less, so you may want to have more than three cups of it standing by.

At about the 15 minute mark, add the diced pumpkin. If you add it right away like I did, you'll still have a pumpkiny risotto, but you won't really be able to see the bits of pumpkin, because they'll have dissolved into the sauce. It still tastes good, but the chunks are nice to look at. If you add pre-cooked pumpkin instead of raw, it will dissolve a lot quicker, even if you add it at the 15 minute mark.

When you've reached half an hour, take a taste test. Is the rice still crunchy? If so, you've got more cooking to do. But chances are, it'll be nice and creamy. Go ahead and stir in a quarter cup of Parmesan cheese (yes, the stuff in the green tube is okay, but only if you don't have the real stuff) and serve, with a little more grated Parm on top.

Now we've tackled pumpkin steamed and well, not quite raw, but not pre-cooked at all either. But there's still one more step to go: roasted. Go ahead and grab another sugar pumpkin, break the stem off, and chop it in half. In fact, you may even want to go with quarters on this one. Carefully! The bigger the pumpkin, the more unweildly. Now, brush it with melted butter, or if you're lazy like me, spray it with cooking oil. Sprinkle with Kosher salt and toss it into a 350-400F oven (cut side up) for, oh, one to two hours. Don't pull it out until the flesh is fork-tender. Like steaming, this will concentrate the flavors without washing them away in boiling water. But unlike steaming, this will also add enough heat to caramelize some of the pumpkin, which is definitely not a bad thing.

When it's nice and tender, go ahead and pull it out and let it cool for a few minutes. Don't let it cool too much though, before scooping it. Now, a certain very famous chef recommends using an ice cream scoop to get all the meat out, and that's not a bad idea. But I found that for me, it was faster and easier to just don my calloused chef's hands and peel the skin away from the flesh, instead of the other way around. Okay, so I got help from a paring knife. But I also had far less veggie meat stuck to the skins, and it took less time.

Now that you have all the meat out, the best thing to do next is puree it all in a food processor. It may be soft and tender, but there's still a lot of fibrous tissue left there. However, I don't personally have a food processor. But that doesn't mean I don't need to take care of that. I just decided to save that step for later. I did take the liberty of mashing it all up with a potato masher, however.

With that done, it was time to make ice cream. That's right, pumpkin ice cream. The goal here is to make a frozen version of pumpkin pie. And what, in essense, is pumpkin pie? It's a custard pie. All we need to do is convert a baked custard into a stirred custard, and then churn and freeze it. Let me start with a list of ingredients:

3/4 cup white granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon cream of tarter
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 pint whole milk
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
5 egg yolks

Now, pumpkin pie usually uses what kind of sugar? Brown sugar, and occassionally white sugar. Something inside of me told me to stick with white sugar. But that doesn't mean it has to stay white. I put the sugar, the water and the cream of tartar in a saucepan with a heavy bottom and let it come to a boil. Now, you don't want to move the pan at all until steam stops rising from it. In fact, don't mess with it until it starts to caramelize and get brown. At this point, there may be spots in the pan that are hotter than others. When you get to this point, things are going to happen pretty quickly. Go ahead and pick up the pan and swirl the melted sugar around to distribute it. You can use a wooden spoon to stir it instead if that makes you feel better. I tend to move the pan on the heat and off again a few times, just to keep it from burning. Eventally it will turn to a nice mahogany color. As soon as you start seeing little wisps of smoke, it's time to make your next move.

Move the pan off the heat and pour in the heavy cream. This will cool things down considerably. Go ahead and pour in the milk and put it back over the heat. The sugar will have hardened, so you need to dissolve it again before you do anything else. When it is all dissolved, go ahead and add the pumpking and spices. If you haven't pureed the pumpkin before now, then now is the time to do so. Pull out your trusty immersion blender (dirt cheap at most department stores) and give it a whir, until all the pumpkin fibers are obliterated. This won't be necessary if you'rve already purees the pumpkin, or you cheated and used canned pumpkin.

Now, by this point the milk is probably already at a scald. Go ahead and pour a little into your egg yolks, whisking the whole time. After a moment, pour in a little bit more, still whisking. Then start whisking the pan of hot milk, and pour the egg yolks into it. For the uninitiated, this is called tempering the yolks. Keep whisking the mixture on medium heat until it thickens a little. Then move the pan straight to an ice water bath and whisk until it cools. Move the cooled mixture into a resealable plastic container, and move that to the fridge overnight.

The next morning, you will notice a very thick and viscous mixture. This is perfect for churning. Go ahead and churn in your ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer's instructions. While this is happening, get ready to up the ante. Use the time to roughly chop about half a pound (that was half a box for me) of ginger snaps, and to open up a jar of Nutella. When the ice cream is frozen, fold in the chopped ginger snaps first. When you don't see any dry pieces of cookie, fold in about a cup of Nutella. Don't stir, and don't try to integrate. You're looking for swirls here. Dump it all back into a half gallon container and put it in the freezer for a few hours to harden. If you did this in the morning like I did, then by dinnertime you will be met with the most delicious Pumpkin Gingersnap Nutella Swirl ice cream you have ever tasted.

Now, I think that's going to be it for my pumpkin adventures for this year. I'm all pumpkined out. But I think I did come up with some excellent pumpkin recipes that are easy enough for just about anyone to make.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Weekend Challenge 3

Hey, it's that bat time again! It's time for...

The Weekend Challenge 3!

We're going to go Iron Chef-style this week, with a theme ingredient: PUMPKIN!

Who knew I would have such ulterier motives when I posted about pumpkins? But let's face it, pumpkins really are versatile. Anything you can do with just about any other squash, you can do with pumpkins. Need I list off all the options? Of course not. You're smart people. Plus, I already listed them off in my previous post. If you run out of options, just ask yourself: what can I cook with yellow squash? Or zucchini? Or butternut squash? Then just use pumpkin instead and see how it goes.

Let your imagination run wild. And if your imagination gets eaten by a bear in the wild, then feel free to post your favorite pumpkin pie recipe. I'm always on the lookout for good pumpkin pie recipes. But I will award bonus points (for whatever they're worth) to anything that goes exotic. The more exotic, the more imaginary bonus points I will award. And yes, pumpkin seeds are fair game too.

You have until Monday morning to come up with something and post it to my comments area. You can use any cooking method out there, or you can even go raw. Actually, with pumpkins, I don't think I would recommend going raw, but hey, it's your choice. You have three days, people! Allez Cuisine!

Working with Pumpkins

I love pumpkin. A lot of people don't really think about it, until they get to the pumpkin pie for dessert on Thanksgiving. And a lot of people just plain hate it. Me, I love it. For me, there's never a bad time of year to eat pumpkin pie, or anything else made from pumpkin for that matter. It's such a versatile ingredient. In addition to the standard pumpkin roll, bread and of course pie, I've also seen pumpkin soup, tempura, flan, cheesecake, muffins, pancakes and even lasagna. So I decided that before it goes out of season, I'd better get down to cooking some pumpkin.

Before we get started, let's talk about the three main types of pumpkin that you're likely to see at the store. You've got the big ones, the really little ones and the inbetween ones.

You never see the big ones used for anything but Jack-o-lanterns. That's probably at least partly because the smaller a pumpkin is (or so I've heard), the sweeter and more flavorful it is. Yes, that means the smaller ones are the sweetest. But alas, they are pretty small. That leaves us with the inbetween ones, called pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins.

I started my adventure with a pretty average-size sugar pumpkin. First step: whack off the top! While you're at it, go ahead and whack off the bottom too. Be careful! Pumpkin is softer than some other squash, but that doesn't mean it's like butter. I just laid mine out on its side the cutting board, and sliced off the ends with a sharp kitchen knife. This was not a scene from Psycho, and I didn't look like some crazed butcher hacking away with a cleaver. Just go easy, making a nice, clean, safe cut with a sharp kitchen knife.

Now, with both the ends removed, go ahead and scoop out the guts into a bowl. Don't throw them away! Roasted pumpkin seeds are good snackin'! We'll get to that in a moment. We still have a lot of them to scoop out. You can use a good spoon or even an ice cream scoop to get that squash clean. Make sure you get as much of that fibrous gunk out as possible. I'm sure it's good for something, but you don't really want it where we're going. I even went so far as to cut my pumpkin in half to make sure I got it all. Since there's a nice stable base on both the top and bottom now, it's a pretty safe cut. Now you need to get that stuff on the outside off. I'm sure there's lots of chefs that will tell you lots of ways to do it, but I just used a vegetable peeler. It's actually pretty soft.

Now, there's a couple of things you can do here. I've seen Emeril cut these into fingers, dip them into tempura batter and fry them. Personally, I like dicing them up and using them for other things. The problem is, they're still kind of hard. My pumpkin happened to be pretty ripe, and therefore softer than usual, but it still needed a little more softening. My favorite solution: steam!

Everyone has a steamer basket hanging around in their kitchen. Well, except for my brother. He apparently doesn't have one. Those of you who don't, head down to your local supermarket, pick up some cheap aluminum pie tins, poke a few holes in one of them, and pow! You have a steamer basket. Just make a snake out of aluminum foil, coil it on the bottom of a pot, and lay your perforated pie tin on top. Well, go ahead and add some water to the pot first, just about an inch or so. Then put your pie tin or steamer basket on top. If there's water touching the bottom part of the basket, there's too much.

Now, once you've sliced or diced up all your pumpkin and brought the water to a boil, go ahead and dump it all in there. Or maybe just half of it. To be honest, even a sugar pumpkin has a lot of meat. If you have too much in there, then the pieces on the bottom will overcook while the stuff on the top stays hard. I went with two different installments, just to be safe. Cover and cook until fork tender. For those not in the know, that means that when you stick a fork into it, the food yields to gentle pressure, but isn't mushy. In my case, that only took about five minutes. Be careful when removing the lid! I'm sporting a nice little steam burn this morning to remind me of my carelessness last night.

Now that the pumpkin is fork tender, what do you do with it? Well, it depends on whether you're planning on using it now or saving it for later. I had plans to use half of mine that evening, and save half for the next evening. So when my first batch came out, I dunked it in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Then I moved it to a plastic container and dropped it off in the fridge. But the second batch, that one I had immediate plans for.

I heated a skillet to medium-high, added a wee bit of peanut oil and my half of a sugar pumpkin, diced, along with about a quarter teaspoon of salt. I love pumpkin, but it does tend to be pretty bland without any seasoning. I sauteed for a couple of minutes until I got some nice color, and then added half a cup of diced red bell pepper, and a quarter cup of diced jalapeno. I continued to saute, making sure I had a good bit of color on everything, but in particular, the pumpkin. That's when I added half a cup of chicken broth, one 6.5 ounce can of coconut milk and two teaspoons of curry powder. I brought this to a simmer and let it cook uncovered, stirring occassionally, until the liquid had reduced most of the way.

Now, while all of this had been going on, I decided that I wasn't about to have curry without some kind of rice to put it on. Inspired by my most recent visit to Bombay House, I heated a pan to medium, with a little peanut oil in it. I added a cup of white rice (yeah, I know they use Jasmine rice, but I'm out) and a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds. I sauteed it all until it was nice and toasty, added my cup of chicken broth, brought to a boil, covered it, and let it sit on low heat for twenty minutes. Then I pulled it off the heat and let it sit for another ten minutes before uncovering it. I laid out the rice on a plate, and dished out some pumpkin curry next to it. The resulting dish was... well, let's just say we were lucky to have any leftovers. It was really good.

What about the pumpkin seeds? Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about them. First, you need to separate the seeds from the pulp as best you can. This isn't an easy prospect. I got the big pieces out, and then I got a brilliant idea! I took the bowl with the seeds and remaining pulp, and filled it halfway with water. As I swished the water around with my fingers, I found that the seeds tended to float to the top, while the pulp tended to sink to the bottom.

This made it relatively easy to get the seeds out. I pulled them out, dumped them onto a sheet pan, and tossed them into a 350F oven. I would occassionally pull it out and give the seeds a stir. Roasting them took about 20 minutes, give or take. At one point, I gave them a spritz of water and sprinkled them with cinnamon. I figured the water would help make the spice stick to the seeds, and I was right. When they were nice and dry and cinnamony, I pulled them out and let them cool on the sheet pan before moving them into a little serving bowl.

The seeds were good. The curry was good. And I still have pumpkin left over to play with tonight! Truly, this whole pumpkin thing works out really well for me, every time.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why I Love Perl

Okay, so there are lots of reasons why I love Perl. I'm just going to tell you about the most recent one. If you haven't noticed already, I tend to be a bit of a shutterbug sometimes. I love taking pictures. I take pictures of my food on a regular basis, I take pictures at the Utah Bakers Dozen meetings, sometimes I even take pictures of just random objects.

This Monday was the most recent Utah Bakers Dozen meeting, and I showed up with my camera. There were a variety of desserts there, most of which had recipes. Some people brought multiple copies of their recipes, some people brought only one. I was sure to grab a copy of each recipe that had multiple copies, and photograph the ones that only had one copy (isn't 5 megapixel great?). The next day I retyped all of the recipes (I haven't been able to find Linux drivers for my scanner yet) and posted them on the UBD site. I also snapped off about a hundred photos of food, some of which weren't all that great. Having removed the photos I didn't want to show anyone, I still had about 60 photos, give or take. I wanted to post these on the UBD site (along with photos from past meetings), but there was going to be a lot of work involved.

I wanted to attach a UBD logo in the corner, just like I do with the images in my wallpaper area. I also wanted to make three different resolutions available, plus the thumbnail. And then there was the problem of making index pages for everything. Now, I had been through several different web-based gallery programs, and none of them really impressed me. Most were overly complex for what I wanted to accomplish, and still didn't offer all of the options that I actually wanted. The best one I found was Apache::Gallery, which Jayce uses on his site. I liked that it was written in Perl. I liked that it pretty much takes care of itself once you get it running. There were only a couple of problems with it. First of all, I didn't like having to disable DirectoryIndex. I don't use it at the moment, but I've used it several times in the past and I didn't want to limit myself. Plus, there was still the problem of the logo in the corner. Part of the reason I post photos is to provide content to keep people coming back to the site. Branding my photos would ensure that they knew where the photos came from, and hopefully encourage them to come back. And last, but not least, I couldn't get it working and I didn't want to spend the time fighting with it. I've found that when I start out fighting with a program, I tend to keep fighting with it until I give up and find something better.

Obviously, it was time to take matters into my own hands. I'd already used Image::Magick in the past, so I decided to use that. The idea was simple: write a script that takes each photo, stamps my logo in the corner and write out all the resolutions that I need. That didn't take long at all. But then it occurred to me that I would still have to create HTML indexes for the images. Why not have my script build a table for me? I could cut it where I needed to and then paste the tables into a pre-made template. Building the table was easy. And then I thought: wait a minute, why am I cutting up the table and pasting everything manually? It only took a few more simple steps to tell the script to create all the pages for me. Before long, I had the script pulling images from a source directory, writing new files to new destination directories, each numbered with the page of images that it held (/page1, /page2, etc). It was writing the index pages out with links to the other pages at the top and bottom of each page. It was doing all the work for me. Now I have a pretty nice-looking gallery of images from Monday's meeting posted.

Of course, there was a catch. All of my tweaking took time. In fact, I daresay it took about the same amount of time to write, debug and tweak my script as it would have to manually add my logo to each image, save out various resolutions and write the index pages. On the other hand, I didn't have to suffer through the tedium of doing all of that manually, and I got to give my brain a little excercise. Even better, when I process the next round of photos, it will only be a couple of minutes worth of actual work. With the first set of photos, I broke even on the time. But I have officially saved myself from hours of tedium and boredom that could be spent doing other things that I actually want to do, or at least should be doing.

There are a couple more things that I like about my little script. First of all, my little server isn't very powerful. I don't want images being generated on the fly, each time somebody wants to download something. In fact, I don't think I want a whole lot of pages generated on the fly. Text processing doesn't take up a lot of overhead. In fact, it generally takes almost none. But the more hits you get at a time, the more it takes. Static pages have less overhead than anything else, they're faster than anything else, and they're easier for search engines to index. Of course, that generally means more files to manage, but I'm willing to accept that for now. I'm dynamically generating the static pages anyway.

The script is admittedly still a bit rough. There's one minor bug that I know about, and several things that I would still like to make it do. Harley suggested that I release it to the public. Actually, he suggests I do that for pretty much everything I write. It's the whole open source thing, you know. Maybe I'll go ahead and release it when I have it a little more polished.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Weekend Challenge 2 Results

I decided to go a little easier on you folks this time around. Oddly, I didn't get as many entries as the first Weekend Challenge, despite the relative ease. I did get one entry emailed to me, along with a photo, but the person who sent it failed to also post it in the comments area. Remember, the rules do state that you need to post your recipe in the comments area, where everyone can see it. Hopefully that person knows who he is (since I sent him an email and all), and will post his entry as soon as possible in the comments area. As soon as he does so, I'll go ahead and post his photo.

My entry was pretty straight-forward. I diced up three roma tomatoes, added a couple of tablespoons of roasted red peppers (in the form of canned diced pimento), a chiffonade of a couple of leaves of basil, about a tablespoon of crumbled feta cheese, a clove of garlic minced very fine, a splash each of Balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch each of black pepper and Kosher salt. Pow! Fresh Mediterranian Salsa!

What can you do with such a thing? You can pile it onto bruscetta, you can dip pita chips into it, you can use it as a condiment for just about anything Italian or Greek, or you can do what I did. I took some cucumber, cut it into half-inch rounds, cut off the peel with a round fluted cutter, scooped out a little bowl with a mellon baller, and then filled each one with my fresh salsa. You've got to be careful scooping them out, so that you don't cut through the bottom. You also need to make sure not to pile these so high with salsa that people can't see the sides or pick them up.

And now for your entries! I really liked Tensai's stuffed tomato entry. It's important to not with this sort of thing that you really need to be using large globe tomatoes (or slicing tomatoes, as he calls them). Another thing that you need to remember is that when you stuff something like this, you do need to make sure that the filling is fully cooked. Remember: when stuffing things, you should be reheating the stuffing, not cooking it. Another thing I liked about his entry were the jalapenos. I love hot food. Kudos to Tensai on his recipe.

Art's entry was even simpler. Her chili took just a few minutes of prep time in the morning, little more than tossing a bunch of ingredients in the crock pot and letting it sit all day. Her chile cornbread reminded me of a similar recipe that we used to make when I was working at a bakery. It also reminded me of Business Management class in cooking school, when we were discussing menu descriptions. One student used "sweet" in her cornbread recipe, and another thought that it was redundant, since cornbread is always sweet anyway. Neither considered that there is also such a thing as savory cornbread, which I prefer far and above sweet cornbread. My thanks to Art for her Chili and Cornbread meal.

Charles' dip was also a nice entry. In fact, he only used one additional ingredient: red onion. Were I making this dish for my wife, I think I would probably leave the red onion out, but if she weren't around, I wouldn't hesitate to put it in. At the end he says to throw it all in a bowl, grab a bag of tortilla chips and dig in. I'm the sort that would cook it all first, minus the cheddar, and then pour over a pan full of chips covered in cheddar, before baking at 350F for five to ten minutes. Either way, I think you'll be happy.

Thanks to everyone that played! Tune in this Friday for another episode of The Weekend Challenge!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Weekend Challenge 2

Hey, kiddies! What time is it? That's right, it's time for...

The Weekend Challenge 2!

You have the following five items in your kitchen:

  • Tomatoes
  • Chiles (your choice)
  • Cheese (your choice)
  • Basil
  • Garlic
They were fresh when you bought them, but you've had them for a few days and now you know that if you don't use them, you'll lose them. You need to make a dish or even a meal using all of these ingredients. Fortunately, your kitchen is pretty well-stocked this week, so you have plenty of other ingredients. You can add any other ingredients you want, but you have to use these five in whatever you make. What's it going to be? It looks like something Italian is in order, but I will give you bonus points if you can pull off something a little more exotic.

You have until Monday morning to come up with something and post it to my comments area. You can use any cooking method out there, or you can even go raw. You may not want to get too close to your guests after serving them raw garlic, but it's your call. You have three days, people! Good luck!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Updates and Slides

Life is just strange sometimes. Somebody posted an anonymous request for my slides from last night's AWStats presentation. I don't know who would be interested in such a thing, but I did promise to post them, so here they are. You'll need OpenOffice.org installed to view them, but of course you have that installed anyway. If you don't, why not download it now? It's free, multi-platform and it doesn't have any spyware crap.

I'm a lot more excited to post some new wallpaper! Looking through my photos, I found a few more that I thought might make some keen wallpaper. Unfortunately, none of these ones are of food or mushrooms. In fact, I had to create two new categories for them, Nature and Miscellaneous. These photos are from all around the country, but mostly in Utah and New England. Don't worry, I do have some more food photos taken, and a couple of them are wallpaper-worthy. But I need to hold off on them for a couple of weeks, until I make sure I have all the permissions worked out with where I shot them. Hint: they involve apples.

For now, here's a couple of samples of today's posts:

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Theories on Frying

Frying is an interesting thing to me, especially deep frying. The fat is like a pan that can completely surround every molecole of exposed surface area, including the little nooks and crannies. It is a cooking method in which part of the cooking equipment is actually edible, and becomes a part of the food being cooked. How cool is that? Steaming is close, but not really quite the same.

Bearing that in mind, I have heard several cooks proclaim that other cooking methods technically qualify as deep frying. For instance, if you take a potato, you coat it in oil, and then you toss it in the oven, the oven is actually heating the oil, which then cooks the potato. This is partially true, and I used to even believe that this was a form of deep frying. I am now starting to reconsider.

You see, there's more to deep frying that just hot oil encapsulating the food being cooked. In fact, there is a lot of oil. And that oil is being kept in a container of some sort. Either that container itself or a heating element inside of it is being heated, which heats the fat, which cooks the food. How does this differ from my baked potato example? One word: air. In the oven, there is a lot of air between the heating device and the food. As it turns out, air isn't very dense. It doesn't really hold onto heat very well. And when you open that oven door, a good deal of that heat will escape, even if you've been preheating the oven for three days and the walls are nice and hot.

I'm a big fan of oven fries. My recipe is simple: wash some russet potatoes, slice 'em into wedges, toss them in oil and spices, and bake at 400F until fork tender. How simple is that? And yet, I discovered a problem recently. Normally, especially if I have a lot of potatoes, I just toss them all on a sheet pan and bake them more or less however they fall. One day I decided to stand the potatoes so that they were sitting with the peel side on the pan. This would expose the least amount of pan to potato, which would cut down on burned spices. Or so I thought.

The resulting fries were disappointing, to say the least. Some were well-cooked, but most of them were hard and raw-tasting. If I'd been a customer at a restaurant, I would have sent them back. In short, they sucked. I decided to try something different the next time around. This time I decided to lay down the wedges on their sides. After 20 minutes, I turned them all over onto the other side and gave them another 20 minutes. This would provide direct contact with the pan on 2/3 of the surface area. I was running a chance of burning my spices, but now I had science at stake. After 40 minutes of baking, I would stand the wedges on the backs as I had done the first time and let them finish like that.

The results were staggeringly different! The sides of the fries had a deeper, more golden brown color. Each one was perfectly cooked and had the same fluffy potato goodness inside. The oil seemed to have protected the spices, which weren't even remotely burned. Even better, they achieved this level of greatness after only 40 minutes! The first batch had taken well over an hour, and some of the fries were still hard! Still, potatoes aren't the only ingredient in question here. I had to test bacon.

Something that I learned just before heading off to cooking school was how to cook bacon the way the pros supposedly cook bacon. Take a sheet pan, put a cooling rack on top of it, and then line the cooling rack with bacon. Toss it in a hot oven and let the excess fat drip away while the bacon baked its way to a crispily lean deliciousness. Unfortunately, this method always seemed to produce limply palid strips of greasiness when I tried it. The only advantage was volume: it's much faster to cook large volumes of bacon this way, unless you have a commercial griddle hanging out in your kitchen. Most people don't. Actually, come to think of it, there's a second advantage too: your bacon ends up straight. This is mostly a cosmetic advantage.

I prepared another sheet pan. I had used aluminum foil on the last one to eliminate cleanup, so I decided to use the same conditions. I had no delusions of no-mess cleanup with the bacon, but I did hope that there would be less scrubbing involved than without the foil. In fact, I had baked bacon last week without foil, and would eventually find with this that there was in fact less scrubbing, even if the bacon fat did find its way under the foil. But I digress. I lined the pan with a pound of bacon, directly on the foil. With the oven set to 500F, I tossed the pan in and checked it every few minutes. I would occassionally pull the pan out and flip the bacon with my tongs.

This produced the straight strips of bacon that I was used to with the cooling rack method. But it also produced crisp pieces of bacon. In complete defiance of Alton Brown's warnings to the contrary, I laid out my bacon on paper towls to drain off the excess fat. Despite the paper towels supposedly holding the fat up against my bacon, it was still markedly less greasy than the cooling rack method. It was crispy, flavorful and good. Even better, it didn't have grid marks from the cooling pan. And just like with the cooling rack, I was still able to drain away the fat easily once the bacon was removed from the pan.

Now, under the above theory about "deep frying" potatoes, I think that cooking bacon with just about any method would qualify as deep frying, just because bacon contains enough fat that it might as well be coated in it. However, using the air to heat that fat seems to be an excercise in failure in several instances. What is really needed is direct contact. This is why cake decorators use a heating core when baking unusually large cakes: the core provides additional direct heat contact to the middle of the cake, which certainly would be gooey were it left to the air to do the job. So apparently it's time to reconsider this theory of what qualifies as deep frying and what doesn't. If you're baking it, then call it baking. If you're braising or steaming, that's what you need to call it. A coating of fat may provide some advantage, but it's not deep frying.

AWStats Presentation Tonight at PLUG

Tonight at the Provo Linux Users Group, I will be presenting on AWStats. I will be covering a few basics with it, and then getting into some of the cool little features that not a whole lot of people really know about. The meeting technically starts at 7:30pm, but I recommend getting there by 6:30pm to see Fozz's presentation on the Catalyst web framework.

Head over to the PLUG website for additional information and diretions.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Weekend Challenge Results

Well, this has apparently been a lot of fun for some people, and certainly for myself. The Weekend Challenge was really meant to be more of a mental excercise than anything, and I know that a lot of people really enjoyed that. I had a couple of people ask me if they could use vinegar because they keep it in their spice cabinet. I had a couple more people ask me if they could use flour. A common thought among most people was, "this dish would be really good if I could add x and/or y ingredient."

Before I get to the entries, I'd better tell you what I came up with. My list was deliberately vague in a lot of areas, and much more open than I think some people realized. For instance, I allowed any cooking fat. Why one might have bacon fat laying around with no bacon may remain a mystery, but that's the cooking fat that I decided to use. I started with a chicken breast that I had thawed overnight in the fridged. I diced it up, salted it and sauteed it in the bacon fat in an attempt to give it some real color, but not overcook it. As it turns out, I had too much fat and I ended up not getting any really good color. I removed the chicken from the pan and set it aside.

Next up, I added in a small handful each of frozen carrots and broccoli. I let those sweat it out for a few minutes before tossing in a couple of handfuls of frozen diced potatoes. I cranked the heat to high and sauteed, in an attempt to give it all a little color. Again, it didn't quite work. I lowered the heat and added a can of "cream style corn". I had been hoping for something a little creamier, but that was not to be. I also added a couple of cups of chicken broth and let it all simmer for a while. The broth made it pretty loose, but it tightened up after a few minutes. I finally added the chicken back in and stirred to warm it up a little. I even added a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. Voila! Chicken Corn Chowder!

After taking the picture, I added in some crumbled bacon. It was good on its own, but now that the challenge was over, I decided that I was finished with rules for the day. It ended up being a relatively simple dish that I may spend some time improving on. My wife even expressed interest in making it herself, and believe me, she doesn't like to cook much.

Now, looking at the entries, I found some interesting things. First of all, Harley's entry reminded me of a casserole I made just before getting married. In fact, were he to mix in cream of muchroom soup, replace the string beans with broccoli and replace the pineapple with shredded cheddar, he would have had exactly the same casserole. In fact, said casserole won 2nd place at a cookoff, so I think it's safe to say that people like it.

Art had so much fun, she submitted two entries. Her first entry was based off of a dish that she had made her family recently. She told me in email that she had to leave out soy sauce and vinegar because they weren't on the list. And yes, apparently it was a hit with her family. The interesting thing to me was that she assumed that you just knew how to make rice. In fact, Harley did the same thing too. Then again, anyway that's been reading my blog from the beginning would probably have a pretty good idea of how to cook rice anyway. Same goes for the potatoes in Art's second entry. I liked that she added cocoa powder to her Mexican Hash. I'm always up for a good molé. I think though that were I to add corn to the crockpot, I would wait until the end of the cooking process.

The thing I liked about TuxGirl's entry was that it was based off of exactly the sort of situation I had in mind when I came up with my ingredient list: her cupboards were next to bare, and these were the only ingredients left. Seeing as she was in school at the time, and most certainly a starving student, shopping was likely out of the question. Her dish, which also assumed you know how to make rice already, also looked kind of like a Mexican Hash, but with rice instead of potatoes. In fact, it reminded me of several similar dishes I have made in the past using leftover rice.

What caught me off-guard with Tensai's entry was that he actually went so far as to create three seperate dishes, the last of which made a couple of assumptions about the contents of his spice cabinet that I would not have guessed (nor allowed within the rules), such as eggs and bread crumbs. But hey, this is a friendly little excercise, hardly a competition. I've never been a big fan of making chili with "flying meat" (fowl) in it, but if I was stuck with this list of ingredients, then I don't think I'd mind his suggestion. I would, however, eschew the broccoli. Nothing personal, I just don't like the stuff. I think I might like his Korokke, however.

I think this was a successful challenge, and I'm already planning another for this weekend. Since Ali and James gave me such a hard time, I'm tempted to do something like require wheat flour and continue to disallow vinegar. We shall see.

Friday, October 6, 2006

Weekend Challenge

I thought this might be something fun to try. Depending on the response I get this weekend, I may try this every weekend. Get ready for...

The Weekend Challenge!

You only have the following ten items in your kitchen:

  • Canned or frozen corn
  • Canned or frozen beans (your choice)
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Canned pineapple
  • Canned or boxed broth (your choice)
  • Long grain rice (white or brown)
  • Frozen cubed potatoes
  • Frozen broccoli
  • Frozen carrots
  • Frozen chicken breast
You're hungry. Maybe you have friends coming over. Maybe you just need to feed your family. You don't have to use everything on the list, but you do need to make something and you don't have the means to go out and buy any more food. Fortunately, you also have your spice cabinet handy and even a little cooking fat (again, your choice). What are you going to make?

You're welcome to use any cooking method you would normally use. You could even use the deep fryer if you thought it would do you any good. You have this weekend to come up with something and send the recipe back to me. On Monday morning I will compile the recipes and post them here. If there are too many, then I will choose my favorites and post only them.

For now, go ahead and use the comment form to send me your recipes. Good luck to you all!

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Quick Curry Veggies and Shrimp

We all need to eat. How often we eat depends largely on where we live in the world. In some areas, people place a huge focus on lunchtime, and really don't eat the rest of the day. In other areas, lunch is important, but dinner is the main event. Some areas never even bother with breakfast. In America, the standard is three meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some people add "snack" in there somewhere, and certain fast food restaurants are trying to convince us that there's a "fourth meal" that happens late at night when we really should be eating. Regardless of when we eat, there's a certain amount of calories that we need to consume on a daily basis. If we eat too many of them, we gain weight. If we don't eat enough of them, and certainly of the right kinds, then we get malnourished. This is especially important for expectant mothers to remember.

This is why I make my wife eat more than just a candy bar for dinner. She doesn't usually want to eat dinner at all, so I have to try and convince her otherwise. Last night I came up with a quick and easy meal for her that I knew she would love, and that I would hate. That's okay, I already had my own dinner covered, and it didn't include broccoli.

I hate broccoli. I don't like the flavor, I don't like the texture, and there's plenty of other veggies out there that work just as well. I do enjoy the occasional cauliflower. My wife loves both, and so a while ago she bought a bag of frozen broccoli and cauliflower. Regardless of how much I like or dislike them, I do have a favorite method of cooking them: steam. I also know that there's a spice blend that goes really well with them, but especially with cauliflower: curry. And what else also goes nicely with all of this? Shrimp.

This is one of the quickest and easiest meals I've ever prepared, especially off the cuff. I took a small 7-inch non-stick skillet, tossed in a handful of frozen veggies, gave it about a quarter inch of chicken broth, a couple of teaspoons of Madras curry power and three pieces of frozen shrimp. I slapped the lid on and brought it to a boil. Since I was using a clear lid, I was able to look at the shrimp and tell when it was done. Since shrimp gets rubbery when overcooked, I pulled it out as soon as it got pink, and set it aside. I let the broth reduce down to almost nothing, put the shrimp back in, turned off the heat, and stirred occassionally until the liquid was pretty much gone. I poured into a bowl and brought it to my grateful wife.

The whole process took somewhere between five and ten minutes. I had a lot working to my advantage here. First of all, because everything was so small, it didn't really matter so much that it was frozen. The fact that I was cooking it with steam, which is actually a pretty gentle method, didn't hurt either. I didn't really need to stir the curry powder in, because the steam was all over the place, and it was taking the curry with it. The broth was already salty, even though I was using a lower sodium variety, so I didn't have to add any additional salt. And because I let the broth reduce down all the way, the chicken flavor concentrated and infused itself into the rest of the food. And of course, because everything was just sitting in my freezer, there was no prep time involved. It was quicker, easier, tastier and a good deal more healthful than a number of microwave dinners out there. Bonus for some: it was also low-carb. But it would be really perfect served with rice.

So stop limiting yourself to bad food or no food, just because you've had a long day and are too tired to prepare anything. Keep some frozen veggies on hand and maybe some frozen shrimp too. Try making up a big old batch of rice on the weekends and portioning it into little containers. If you're going to microwave something for dinner, it might as well be something that you prepared yourself. Then you'll have a few carbs to go with your shrimp and veggies.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Utah Bakers Dozen: Pumpkin Desserts

The next Utah Bakers Dozen meeting is coming up! This meeting will be on Monday, October 16, from 3 to 6 pm at the Kimbal Distribution Center (2233 South 300 East, Salt Lake City).

Mary Cech, author of Wine Lover's Dessert Cookbook and the forthcoming The Art of Savory Baking and Pastry, will be talking about custards and high altitude baking. Everyone is invited to bring their favorite pumpkin dessert and the recipe to share with everyone else.

Details and a flyer are available at the Utah Bakers Dozen website.

Crossroads Plaza Rewritten

And now for a bit of local news for Salt Lake City. I remember one day in New Hampshire, as I was just becoming acclimated to my temporary home while in school, but still feeling homesick for my real home in Salt Lake City. The news was apparently rampant in Salt Lake, and yet I had not yet heard until that point: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had purchased the Crossroads Mall, aka Crossroads Plaza.

This was the mall of my childhood. Well, one of them. When I was a very wee lad, we lived down the street from the Fashion Place Mall in Murray, UT. When I was still in my pre-teen years, we moved to Magna, UT, where the closest mall was Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City, UT. But on those special days that we got to go with dad into work, we were literally within walking distance of the Crossroads Mall. I still remember fondly going there early in the morning, when the only store open was Orange Julius, and buying chocolate-glazed chocolate donuts for breakfast. I remember working as a gopher (go fer this, go fer that) at my dad's office in my high school years, and walking over to the music store to purchase They Might Be Giant's Miscellaneous T album. More recently, I have fond memories of going to Agnes Poetry's in-store performance at the Borders store at the mall. And every so often, my wife and like to head down to that area to walk around the mall and just enjoy being there together.

When the LDS church made their announcement, I was a little surprised. Their reasoning made sense to me: the current owners were no longer interested in owning it and had offered it up for sale, and the LDS church purchased it in an effort to maintain the beauty of the area near the famous Temple Square across the street. No church tithing money was used to make the purchase. As it turns out, the LDS church owns a variety of private businesses, such as Bonneville Communications, which runs local TV and radio stations KSL. Such businesses were the source of the purchase money.

As time moved on and I graduated from school, I moved back to Utah and still made various trips to the area. There was a new mall in town, the Gateway Mall, just down the street. Several stores had already migrated to the Gateway, and Crossroads wasn't offering any new leases. Then one day at the Hot Topic store at Crossroads, a clerk explained to my wife and I that the majority of the stores would be clearing out. In fact, only high-end retail was expected to remain. In my mind, that meant that the beloved mall of my youth was about to become very boring. Still, in retrospect, I don't suppose the LDS church had really released a whole lot of official detail on the future of this property.

Now, a good three years or so after the purchase of the mall, the LDS church has announced its plans for reconstruction and renovation. The plans include a retail spaces, including a few national department stores such as Nordstrom and Macys. There will be new office space , and even some residential units. There will be underground parking, pedestrial walkways, gardens, fountains, a mock city creek, and even a grocery store. Not unexpected for property owned by the LDS church, the stores will be closed on Sunday, but many restaurants may choose to remain open on that day. The plan includes twenty acres of development, and will take five years to complete.

I'm still a little in a state of shock. I haven't even finished reading all of the news and releases about the project, and I'm still taken aback. Several historic old buildings will be torn down and replaced, as it would be significantly more expensive to just renovate them. The face of Salt Lake City has already changed a lot, even just in the decade since I graduated from high school, and it has more change to come. I already wouldn't recognize a lot of it if my childhood self was to suddenly be transported from the past into today. I'm sad to know that so many memories are about to be demolished. And yet, I'm not entirely disappointed.

Anyone who has visited Temple Square in Salt Lake knows the LDS church's penchant for beauty. The somewhat recent construction of their Conference Center north of Temple Square is a thing of wonder. While many may expect what in other areas would be a giant bunker of reinforced concrete, a harshly square example of minimalist architecture, the Conference Center is in fact a beautiful structure, littered with trees and other decorative vegetation. The inside is even more beautiful, and surprisingly more spacious than one would even expect looking at its outer walls. Around the same time the Conference Center was built, the LDS church replaced a section of Main Street with a walkway full of flower gardens, fountains and statues. Every year for as long as I can remember, the LDS church has decorated Temple Square with Christmas lights, and scores of visitors flock to the area to see them. The Main Street plaza and the church office buildings to the east are also decorated with lights, and visitors can now walk freely amongst all of it without having to wait for lights and risk crossing what can frequently be heavy traffic.

Yes, the LDS church knows what they're doing with it comes to things like this. Whatever they do in this project will be a sight to behold. In my short lifetime alone, Salt Lake has shifted from an old, dirty collection of buildings that some may call ugly, to a modern, clean, and undeniably beautiful area. Somebody around here knows what they're doing, and I think I'm going to have to be content to let them keep doing it. I'm entirely convinced it isn't Mayor Rocky Anderson. Somebody with a lot more vision has been following a more straight and narrow path, and I hope they never stop.

Monday, October 2, 2006

More Tux Cakes!

When I originally posted the Tux Cake tutorial, I never really expected anyone to actually make one of their own. Sure, I expected a few people to like it. How could you not like a 3D cake in the form of a penguin? I had people linking to me from not only the United States, but also Hungary, Poland, Italy, Germany and even a few places in languages that I couldn't identify. But that was a crazy project. Who in their right mind would actually want to go through all that just to make their own? But just a couple of weeks later, I found an interesting link in my web stats. As it turns out, somebody else was crazy enough to make one. Kudos to GreyDreamLand for his efforts! I am truly impressed.

If anyone else decides to make a Tux Cake of their own, go ahead and drop me a comment on this post and I'll link back to you on the last page of the tutorial. Thanks again to everyone that visited and enjoyed the tutorial!

Bacon Canapés

Once a month my wife and I head down to her parents' house, along with her sisters and their families, and we have dinner. Each family is assigned to bring a certain item, and this month our item was some kind of appetizer. Any kind, really.

My wife told me to just buy something. Apparently her mom told her to tell me that I didn't have to make anything, and that we could just buy something. I think you all know me well enough by now to know that I wasn't too keen on cheating like that. But when I searched my brain for ideas, I came up empty. Undaunted, I headed to the grocery store with my wife in search of, well, something. Anything. But I couldn't even find anything pre-made that sounded good, much less any ideas for something to make. I was being pretty moody too, so that probably didn't help.

Then I saw it: a package of little toast crisps! What a perfect canapé base! What I needed was something to pipe onto them. Some kind of savory mousse. Maybe a cream cheese mousse. What could be more perfect? I headed down to the pickle isle and found a little jar of diced pimentos and a jar of green olives. With any luck, I could process these into a paste that would go smoothly into the cream cheese. Last but not least, I grabbed a little half-pint carton (why don't they just call it a cup?) of heavy cream and headed home.

The next day, a couple of hours before we were to leave, I started on some bacon from the freezer that I had out thawing. I laid the strips out on a sheet pan and put them into a pre-heated 500F oven. Every few minutes, I would pull the pan out, give the bacon a flip, and then put it back in. Every couple of times I did this, I would also drain the excess fat into a grease can. On another day I might have saved this for a bacon vinaigrette or something, but not that day. It took more time than frying the bacon in a skillet, but I soon had long, straight, crispy slices of bacon cooling off to the side on paper towels.

While the bacon baked, I turned my attention to the olives and pimentos. For those of you who don't know, pimento is really just another word for roasted red pepper. I pureed about two or three tablespoons of pimento and a small handful of olives together in a food processor, and added about half a block (that's 4 oz) of cream cheese. It was a little on the bland side, so I added half a dozen capers for seasoning. The salt from the capers was just about perfect, and while the concoction was a little more olivey than I wanted, it still tasted fabulous.

Now it was time to try and make a mousse. The cream cheese mixture was a lot softer than I wanted, so I stuck it back in the fridge for a few minutes. Still, I knew it would be too soft to just pipe with a star tip like I wanted. I needed extra help. It was time to employ gelatin. Fortunately, I keep sheet gelatin in my pantry, but you can use powdered gelatin too. It just won't be as easy to work with. I wasn't working with very much, so I decided to just use one sheet. I put it in a metal measuring cup with a little cold water to soften (bloom). When it was nice and soft, I wrung it out , dumped out the water, and added a little cream. Just a little. Those of you out there stuck with powdered gelatin (and that will be most of you), just let your gelatin bloom in the cream.

I put the measuring cup over very low heat and gave it the occassional stir, until all of the gelatin had dissolved. I let that cool just slightly, while I turned my attention to whipping the rest of the cream. My (metal) bowl and beaters had been hanging out in the freezer, so they were nice and cold. I started whipping the cold cream, and then slowly drizzled in the stuff with the gelatin. I whipped to medium peaks, and then folded the whipped cream into the now slightly-chilled cream cheese mixture. It was still too soft! I put the mixture into the fridge for a little while, with the hopes that the gelatin would do its thing.

While that chilled, I went back to the cooled bacon. It wasn't perfectly crispy, so I could still cut it with a knife. I cut it all into squares, and then counted out enough squares so that each toast crisp would have one. Then I cut all the rest of the squares into little bits. I pulled out the mousse, moved some of it into a piping bag with a star tip, and then put a little dab on each toast square. I put a square on each piece at an angle, and then piped a little star onto each one. It worked pretty well for the first one, and even for the second one. But by that point, little pieces of olive and pimento had started to clog up the tip, and the weak mousse started to come out in little almost star-shaped blobs. Eventually, most of those blobs lost their star shape. Still, they looked kind of cool and I didn't have much of a choice, so I stuck them in the fridge and let the gelatin finish firming up. Well, after sprinkling them with the bacon bits, of course.

The trip from our house to my wife's parents is always scary for me when transporting cold foods. Chilled desserts are like geeks; they need to be kept out of direct sunlight if at all possible. Fortunately, the gelatin had finally set up enough that nothing melted onto or off of anything, and the twenty minute drive went without incident. Everyone loved them, and nobody said anything about them having blobs of mousse instead of stars. And come to think of it, it wasn't really mousse, was it? There were still bits of olive and pimento throughout it all.

There was plenty of the non-mousse left over, and I kept it in the fridge in the hope of using it elsewhere. When I checked on it this morning, the gelatin had firmed it up enough that it was the perfect consistency for piping. But since there was so little in there, it was still soft. In retrospect, I suppose I should have made it a few hours earlier. Something to remember for the next time, I guess.