Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Houston

It is a tale of horror. It is a tale of woe. It is a tale that you may not wish to read if you plan to travel soon. But be comforted, my friend. For this is not a tale of ordinary circumstances. It is merely the story of my worst trip ever.


It all started Saturday night with a toothache. It had been a small, distant pain whic I expected to be able to sleep off. By bedtime, it was a chisel of agony digging into my jaw. I had taken a melatonin pill and and allergy pill, which normally knocks me out pretty effectly. By midnight I was literally in tears. Through a combination of Advil, strategically-placed ice packs and my wife rubbing my neck, I was finally able to fall into a fitful, restless sleep which was ended at about 5:30 in the mornign, half an hour before my alarm was scheduled to go off. The pain had mostly subsided, but traces still lingered in the background. Another dose of Advil made me forget the pain, for the moment.

I arrived at the airport at approximately 8:30am, giving myself more than enough time to catch my 10:30 flight to Houston. As I arrived at my gate I discovered that the flight that shuld have already arrived at that gate was still en route. Ignoring the omen, I bought an awful breakfast sandwich from an airport restaurant and sat back to enjoy my book. The flight finally arrived, but the delay had already caused problems for the next flight, which was the one scheduled before mine. Shortly after 9:30, it was announced that the flight to Houston had been cancelled, and that all of the passengers had automatically been rebooked. We merely needed to check with an agent to confirm the changes and receive our new boarding pass.

Rather than enduring the rapidly expanding line at the counter for my gate, I walked halfway down the terminal and found a Delta counter that was manned, but had no line. The woman informed me that the 1:20pm flight to Houston wa already overbooked, and that I was all set for the 4:56pm flight. I also needed to wait 10 minutes for her to be able to rint my boarding pass, for security reasons (apparently they can't do it at the counter more than 6 hours ahead). I had the option of calling my wife, having her drive an hour from our home to pick me up, and then drop me off a very short time later to go through security again, or just wait it out at the airport. I had my book, I had my computer, and I wasn't about to make her go through the trouble. I decided to wait it out. Besides, Delta had already given me free meal vouchers for lunch and dinner.

When I finally got my boarding pass, I discovered two things. First of all, I had made it to Silver Medallion status. One of perks of any "medallion" status was my second surprise: I had been upgrade to first class. For free. I was in Row 1, Seat A. I looked forward to my first taste of The Good Life (TM). Unfortunately, my upgrade in class did not guarantee an on-time departure, any more than it did for coach class. By 3:30, our departure time had already been delayed to 6pm. By 4:30, it had been delayed to 6:45. Upon asking the woman at the desk, I discovered that our intended plane had been changed, and that we were waiting for a new plane to arive from a different location. It did finally arrive, and we began boarding by 6:40 (with the departure time still set to 6:45). We finally got off the ground at around 7:30 (mountain time) giving us just enough time to make it to Houston a little after 11:00 (central time).

First class was nice. The flight attendant got my drink order the moment they were allowed to walk around the cabin, and she made sure my glass never emptied. I had plenty of leg room, free headphones for the in-flight movie, a complimentary pillow and blanket already at my seat, and there was even a chilled bottle of water waiting for me when I sat down. I lost count of the number of times the flight attendent brought by the snack basket, even though I waved her off after the first one. Everything else, from what I could see, was still identical to first class. The sound quality was so bad on the movie, I was lost within 10 minutes. For those of you who have seen Ocean's 13 (or 11 or 12), you know what sort of a disadvantage that put me at. There was a family with screaming children in first class, and my toothache was back. I was glad to be landed.

I made my way to the rental booth with little difficulty. Then lone agent at the counter was already helping another customer, so he suggested I try the machine. Within minutes, I was in the parking lot looking for my "economy" car. They were apparently all rented out, so I had to go back and find the agent, and have him direct me to another car, since the lot itself was not staffed after 10pm. He directed me to a Pontiac and I cringed. My confidence did not rise when I discovered that it would not start. I walked back to find the agent again, who seemed slightly exasperated with me by this point, and he decided to try starting the car himself. When he had proven that perhaps I wasn't lying/incompetant, he told me to "just take the PT Cruiser".

A lot of reaers by this point are thinking that perhaps my luck is finally kicking in. That's probalby because you haven't driven a PT Cruiser before. Not only is it a horribly ugly attempt at making a modern-day car look like a cool gangster car from the roaring 20's, it is also the second most uncomfortable car I have ever rented (or been in, for that matter), and it has the worst configuration that I've ever seen. When I return it on Friday, I will not miss it.

My next surprise was to discover that my GPS was having difficulty finding a satellite. Fortunately it kicked in before I got too far from the airport, and I discovered that I was already going in the right direction. Unfortunately, it did not warn me that my route involved two toll boths, both of which were $1.50. Thankfully, I still had a roll of quarters from my recent trip to Boston (where the most expensive toll I saw was ony $0.75), and I was able to get by with no real difficulty. But there were still problems to come.

As it turns out, the roads in downtown Houston are currently under very heavy construction (I-10 in particular), and many of the exits had changed or disappeared entirely. As I got closer to my hotel, my GPS seemed to be more and more useless. I had already driven half an hour from the airport to the general area where I needed to be, andI spent another half hour trying to reach my hotel, which sat on a one-way frontage road next to an especially large interchange. When I finally checked it, it was after 12:30 and I was too tired to bother with anything but popping more Advil and sliding into bed. I had not been able to sleep at the airport or on the plane, and I was exhasted.

Monday morning started too early. When my alarm went off at 6:30, I was in for a brand new round of discoveries, starting with a broken shower. I bathed myself as best I could with the slow trickle of water (and what appeared to be a fully-functioning, but inordinately slow-to-fill jacuzzi), and then called down to the front desk to complain. They promised to fix it during the day. I prepared my belongings and headed downstairs, hoping that the drive to the training center would not be bad. By the time I reached the lobby, I had discovered that the road that the training center was on was not in my GPS. I asked the front desk if they had any maps, and they did not. I tried checking Google Maps on my phone, and it just sat there and said, "Looking...."

Knowing that the training center was close, I asked the man at the desk if he knew where Woodway Drive was. It ended up being a major enough road (with its own freeway exit) that not having it in my GPS (which was loaded with 2007 maps) was a pretty major oversight on Garmin's part. The directions were simple, and the training center was extremely easy to find. When I walked in at 7:30, they had already been open for half an hour. Since the client had sent me the wrong roster last week (I guess this week's problems started well before Saturday night), I was relieved to find that the training center already had a correct roster printed out for me, waiting in the classroom.

The training center was on the ball. There were free drinks in the fridge (which thankfully included my beloved Dr Pepper), and unguarded donuts in the break area. I had no hardware problems, making it the easiest classroom setup that I had ever had. It seemed that my bad luck had finally ran out. As it turns out, it was just lulling me into a false sense of security.

During my second lecture, I switched over to text mode (CTRL-ALT-F1, also known as the first virtual terminal in Linux) to demonstrate to my students. When I switched back to my graphical environment, my monitor suddenly decided that it couldn't handle the resolution. Fortunately, the projector still worked, and I spent the rest of that lecture, and the one after it, getting a crick in my neck from having to look at the screen in front of the class instead of my own monitor, until I finally beat the configuration into submission during lab time.

Because the Ramada is on a one-way road, my students showed me the correct backroads to use to get back to it, easily avoiding the freeway altogether. When I got to my room, my first item of business (before even taking off my backpack) was to check the shower. Still broken. I called down to the front desk to get an estimate as to when it would be fixed, and less than five minutes later I found two repairmen knocking at my door. While they were checking out the shower, a hotel manager came knocking to let me know that I should be expecting to see the repair staff soon. In mid-sentence he saw them already at work, and he conversed with them shortly. He apologized for the inconvenience and then excused himself. Two minutes later he was back to check on things. I was informed that there was a problem with the pipes inside the wall, and asked if I would mind moving to a room with a working shower. I graciously agreed, and the three of them left, the manager promising to return shortly with a new key.

It would seem that while regular maintenance is not their strong suit, their response time is outstanding. Not five minutes later, I received a call from the front desk asking for confirmation to move me to a new room. I took the opportunity to note that the description in Expedia said that there would be a kitchenette as well. There was a nervous pause before the woman informed me that they had no rooms with both a jacuzzi (which was also in the description) and a kitchenette. It would seem that somebody had misrepresented their rooms to Expedia, which does not surprise me in the least. She sounded relieved when I told her that I didn't care about the jacuzzi, and that all I was interested in was a mini-fridge and a microwave. She let me know that they would be right up with a new room key.

The manager returned to my room 10 minutes later with a new key, for a room just down the hall. He needed to take a moment to check on other rooms, and told me that he would be there shortly. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door and found a full kitchenette, complete with two counter-top burners, a full-size fridge, a mini-bar fridge (which was empty), a microwave, a full-size kitchen sink, a bar-style counter and two barstools. There were even dishes, cookware and utensils in the cupboards. The kitchenette shared a room with the living room, complete with a desk, couch, TV and double-doors opening into the bedroom, which had its own TV. Each room even had its own heating/cooling unit.

The first item of business was to check the shower. Nothing else mattered if I ended up smelling bad in class. I noted immediately that the bathroom light was already on, and that there was already water on the walls of the shower. It would seem that the manager tested it before coming to give me my key. I tested it again myself, and it did seem to work. I thanked the manager for his help as he scrambled around the room to replace a couple of burned out bulbs that I never would have noticed myself. I would later discover that the couch had no springs left in it, but I was already in a much better position than before anyway.

So it would seem that my bad luck might actually be slowing, and my first trip to Houston is starting to become enjoyable. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about the trip back home, but it no longer seems as bad as it once did. Despite what was turning out to be the worst travel week ever has turned into something quite liveable indeed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bay Leaves

I thought I'd take a moment to talk about one of a chef's best friends: bay leaves. When speaking in culinary terms, bay most often refers to a certain member of the laurel family (you know, the crowns of laurels that the ancient Romans would often wear on their heads). This Mediterranean bay leaf is an excellent addition to a variety of dishes, from soups to rice. One must be careful however to remove the bay leaves before serving the dish. Count 'em going in, and count 'em coming out. This is because the bay leaf tends to stay stiff, even after several hours of cooking, and is in fact (so I've heard) the number one cause of choking in restaurants.

There is another type of bay leaf, the Californian bay. This is not really even a bay leaf, but in fact a member of the eucalyptis family. Those of you familiar with this family won't be surprised to learn that Californian bay tastes a lot of like menthol. For this very reason, you should be careful when a recipe calls for bay leaves, to add Mediterranean bay, and not Californian bay. This is very likely also the reason why the beans and saffronned rice in today's catered lunch tasted like a Mexican cough drop.

I don't suppose it would surprise you to learn that said catering company also forgot to bring serving utensils in which to transport any of the food from the chafing dishes to our plates. Then again, perhaps the beans and rice dish was just for presentation. It certainly wasn't suitable for eating.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

America's Stonehenge

Recently my wife and I spent a weekend in New England. There were a lot of places that I wanted to visit, but time was limited. I decided to take Nat to see one of my favorite places, America's Stonehenge, in Salem, NH.

No, this is not the one built out of cars. This is a real henge, made out of stones, presumably by ancient space astronauts (my personal theory). While the stones are probably not nearly as large as its more famous brother (sister?) in England, I would say this site is probably far more interesting. Not only was part of it used for calendaring, there are various walls, man-made caves, and even a sacrificial table.

The day was hot and sticky, and I wished several times that I had opted for a t-shirt, rather than my favorite bowling shirt. Fortunately the rest of my clothes were up to the task, and we enjoyed the short hike to the site. I had been there once before, and knew what to expect (other than the heat). We both had copies of the self-guided tour paper with us, and my wife made sure to read each descriptor, while I largely ignored it.

There are two parts of the site that are truly interesting to me. Yes, the calendar aspect is kind of cool. But I really find the Oracle Chamber and the Sacrificial Table fascinating. It would seem that the site was designed for the masses to be kept at a safe distance while religious leaders had closer access to work their wonders. There are large stones that seem strategically-placed with this in mind.

The Sacrificial Table is easily visible from above. There are grooves cut into the stone, which are stained with blood. Whether this blood is human or animal, I don't know. Perhaps the ancient space astronauts were sacrificing one of their own.

Before you get to the table however, you get to walk through the Oracle Chamber. My wife, not knowing yet what this room was, did not want to go inside. She got all sorts of freaky-weird feelings when she got near it. I explained to her what it was, and her fears seemed to dissapate. There was a space inside where a person could hide, and a "speaking tube" that led from the Oracle Chamber to underneath the sacrificial table. It is thought that a priest would hide in the chamber and speak, as if a metaphysical being, through the tube to the masses gathered outside.

As we left the site, we walked by the alpacas who live onsite. My wife made sure to mention several times that llamas spit, and that we should keep our distance. I think it was a reference to something.

If you ever find yourself near Salem, NH, you should take a couple of hours and head on down to the henge. The people there are nice, they sell cold bottled water (recommended) and the site itself is fun to walk through and theorize about its origins. You might even want to pay attention to the guided tour. You might learn something.

Cake Mecca

This week's trip to Tyson's Corner, VA was already ramping up to be a series of disappointments. I had hoped to be able to hang out with a friend from cooking school that I hadn't seen for about four years, but their plans fell through a few days ago. I had also hoped to hang out with a friend that had been in my last class in Baltimore, but he ended up being in London this week instead. Two of my fellow instructors were scheduled to teach in Baltimore this week, and I had hoped to meet with them a couple of times. They found out at just about the last minute that their classes were not to be.

The downside was that I was going to have to entertain myself this week. Not a big deal, really. I've only been to one other training location before where I already knew locals, and that was just outside of Boston. The upside was that I had nothing to distract me from my most important mission this week: I had a bakery to stalk.

Despite the fact that there are two airports within minutes of my hotel in Tysons Corner, I was flown into BWI airport, maybe 45 minutes away on a good day. I did not go directly to Virginia. I headed towards downtown Baltimore. It would seem there was an Orioles game today, just another obstacle on to the way to my destination. I was not to be deterred. I found my way to Remington Ave, to the location of what is currently my favorite TV show.

The voice inside my head (really the voice of my GPS unit) told me that my destation was just ahead, on my left. At first, I didn't believe her. And suddenly, without warning, I saw it. A building that, despite looking vaguely like a castle, seemed to almost blend in with its surroundings. I parked across the street and pulled out my camera. I was at Charm City Cakes.

I only stuck around for a few minutes, enough to take a few photos and wish that Duff Goldman was about to choose that moment to head over Dizzy Issie's for a drink. It was not to be. I suspect he was either sleeping in, or gallavanting around the contry at some cake competition. I suppose it's possible that he was downstairs working on a cake, but the characteristic black plastic on all of the windows kept me from seeing inside. I get the feeling from the show, Ace of Cakes, that Monday is the day that everyone meets on Monday to discuss the week's cakes, and then they typically have them all finished and delivered by Saturday night. Sunday is probably Duff's only day off, and I wasn't about to disturb his well-deserved rest.

As I made my way back to the freeway, the game traffic threatened to keep me from leaving the city at all. Eventually, I found my way to I-95 and headed down to Virginia. Downtown Baltimore traffic was scaring me, and I was glad that I had chosen Sunday to make my journey. Perhaps on my next journey to the area, I can make my pilgrimage with a local behind the wheel instead of myself. Maybe I'll even be able to come down during the evening, and see Geoff or Mary Alice headed out on their way home. And with luck, I can convince them to sign something instead of calling the cops on me.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Great Olive Oil Tasting

There's a little background on this one. Back in my darker days, before every episode was basically phoned in, I used to watch Emeril Live. Because he is of Portuguese descent, he likes to extoll the virtues of Portuguese olive oil. I started to wonder, is there really that much difference between extra virgin olive oils from different countries? And is Portuguese really all that and a bag of chips? It was time to find out.

Even before I started to travel a lot, I had begun my quest. It's easy enough in this country to find Italian olive oil. As I found out, Spanish is pretty easy to find too. And because I always pick up a bottle of Greek olive oil at the Salt Lake Greek Festival, that was already taken care of. But as it turns out, Portuguese was pretty difficult to find. With my first class on the road, I started looking for Portuguese olive oil. I found a few other nationalities, but nothing from Portugal.

Eventually, I went to Tony Caputo's in Salt Lake and spent much more money than I would have liked on a bottle of what looked to be very nice Portuguese olive oil. I was finally ready to have a tasting. This evening, our friends Charles and Kristen came over to taste oils with Nat and me. They told me they were happy that they had officially moved up to "upper middle class" by going to an olive oil tasting. Even with all of my excitement, there was a moment just before the tasting where I suddenly got worried that it would all taste the same, and my efforts would be for naught. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. The oils were as different as the countries from which they hailed.

We did not do a blind tasting. I don't think we really had a whole lot of preconceptions, so I think that was okay. The oils are listed in the order in which we tasted them. Just in case the taste of any one oil was affected by the one before it, we did a second run through in reverse, with a sip of water in the middle of it all. Because we are aware that brand names can be as different within a country as between the countries themselves, I have listed the brands below the countries. Tasting was conducted by dipping cubes of standard (and therefore reasonably flavorless) grocery store French bread in little bowls of oil. I took a few short notes on the first pass, and then the second. I should also note that each bottle was labelled as extra virgin, first cold press.

Tangy. Thick and flavorful. Second time, very fruity initial taste, aftertaste was heavy and oily. Almost gritty. Greasy. Much too thick, almost chewy.

Lighter flavor, except Kristen. Sharper. Second time, tangy, spicy, citrusy. A little smoky.

===Greek Flag===
Label specifies Kalamata olives. Richer. More refreshing. Lighter, but better flavor. Actually tastes like olives. Whispier. Not thick, but intense. Second time, very rich. Tastes like olives. Nat doesn't like olives and she still likes it. Nat's favorite.

Milder. Kristen thinks it tastes like car oil. Burnt. Like the Greek, but not nearly as good. Second time, started out bland, but still awful. Last place.

Sweet. Almost floral. Had to have been planted with flowers. Second time, still very sweet. Not acidic at all. Kristen's first place.

===Villa Flor===
Slightly lighter color. Very light flavor. Almost citrusy. Almost like it was mixed with a lemon or orange. Second time, less citrusy. Nat thinks it's still pungent, Kristen thinks it's very bland.

===Mustapha's Moroccan===
Tastes like fennel or licorice. Second time, licorice is still very immediate. Joseph's first place. Charles' first place.

===Napa Valley Naturals, Private Reserve===
Bitter and dirty, especially the aftertaste. Tastes like Californian olives. Disgusting. "Tastes like hippies." Second time: starts okay, still ends up tasting very bitter and dirty. Nat refused a second tasting. Second to last place.

===Red Island Australia===
Very spicy. Just a little sweeter. Definitely has bite. Second time, started a little sweeter, but ended spicy. A little fruity, somewhat floral. Charles tried to refuse a second tasting.

It would seem that Emeril isn't all that far off. While his wasn't everyone's favorite (despite the fact that it was the most expensive), it did seem to win Kristen over. I feel like hoarding the Moroccan stuff, I loved it so much. I suspect that if Kristen didn't dislike licorice so much, she might have named that one too. The Greek stuff was pretty awesome. I would probably name it my personal second favorite.

I also found it interesting that nobody chose the Italian as their favorite. In fact, I would say it was pretty average, despite the fact that so many Americans consider Italy to be the only country that can make olive oil. It was also interesting that the Turkish was unanimously chosen as the worst (it really did taste like a garage) and that the Californian (which came in a wine bottle, being from Napa Valley and all) was a pretty close second. I had to take a drink of water after these, because they made my tongue feel numb. In fact, the dirty finish of the Californian oil seemed (to me, at least) to intensify any harshness that the Australian oil had.

It wasn't the most scientific tasting, but I think we all learned a lot from it. I may have to have a different set of friends over in the future to do another tasting. Maybe a blind one. I can't think of any other way to get my wife to subject herself to the Turkish and Californian ones again.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Feta Grep

Yesterday I taught a cooking class of sorts at the Utah Open Source Conference. The topic was "Applying open source to more than the computer industry", which is probably just about the closest we could come to relating open source to cooking, at least for the moment. Because the Greek Festival is this weekend, and most of the attendees for the conference won't be able to make it, I decided to bring some Greek food to the geek festival.

In the space of 45 minutes or so, I cooked two dishes. One was my black bean hummus that I previously published. Another was a dish that I had cooked at home a few times, but did not yet have a name for. I was asked to give away a free book, and thanks to a suggestion from a classmember, I decided to give it away to the person who came up with the best name for my dish. Greg Hendricks, the lead developer for Testopia, came up with the name, "Feta Grep". As promised, here is the recipe.

Feta Grep

2 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, medium dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds ground beef (or 1 pound ground beef + 1 pound ground lamb)
4 roma tomatoes, medium dice
2 tablespoons Greek oregano
1/4 cup fresh chopped flatleaf parsley
1 to 2 lemons, juiced
Kosher salt to taste
black pepper to taste
pita bread
feta cheese

Saute the onion and garlic in oil for a couple of minutes with a bit of salt. Add the ground meat, and season liberally with additional salt and pepper. Brown the meat. Add the tomatoes and the Greek oregano. Cook for a couple more minutes, stirring occassionally, and then add the parsley and the juice of a lemon. Check the flavor, and add more lemon juice (or salt, pepper or Greek oregano) as needed. Serve on pita bread with a generous sprinkling of feta cheese. Do not stir in the feta while it is cooking. It will actually taste better if added when served.

Note: I seem to have underseasoned the mixture during the demo. Remember to check your seasoning as you cook, and don't get caught up in talking to an audience of 30 people or so, like I did.

As I was busy cooking, I wasn't able to take any photos. But I did see some cameras in the room. If anyone has any photos that I can post, they would be appreciated.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Micro Greens

I don't own a gun. But I'm seriously considering buying one, if only so that I can pistol-whip the next guy I see or hear suggesting the improvement of a dish by the addition of micro greens. Such a suggestion does not make you or your review of a dish or restaurant sound more intelligent.