Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recipe for Disaster

Have you ever come across a recipe that is so obviously bad you wonder why anyone would create it, never mind publish it somewhere? I found one in a home décor catalog recently that had me alternately laughing and gagging.

The recipe is titled Oriental Salad, although the only “Oriental” ingredients are soy sauce and bok choy. The directions invite us to toss together 1 head of this Chinese cabbage, chopped “fine,” and 2 bunches of scallions, chopped, as well as 4 ounces of slivered almonds. So far, boring but not awful, although there will be nearly equal amounts of cabbage and onion. To this, we are supposed to add 2 packages of ramen noodles (about 6 ounces total), without the flavor packet, after mashing them and then sautéing them in ½ cup of butter, i.e., one whole stick, one-quarter pound. Good lord! That’s enough butter to lavishly lubricate a pound of cooked pasta. And what exactly is the point of sautéing the ramen in butter?? (That much butter would be more like poaching them.) That’s not how you cook dried noodles, even those that have been parboiled, as ramen have (that’s why they cook so fast), and butter in no way qualifies as an Oriental ingredient.

Now we move on to the dressing, and it gets much worse. The recipe would have us mix 2 tablespoons of soy sauce with ½ cup olive oil, ½ cup cider vinegar, and 1 cup of sugar. Where do I begin to catalog what’s wrong with this? First, the proportion of oil to acid is wrong; the usual ratio is 2 or 3 to 1, not 1 to 1. Then, there is nothing Oriental about olive oil or cider vinegar, and there will be nothing Oriental about the flavor. Two tablespoons of soy sauce is too much salt. There’s way too much dressing for the amount of solids. Finally, a full cup of sugar is such overkill it will render the entire mess inedibly sweet to anyone over the age of 5.  The directions tell us to pour the dressing over the solids and let it “set—the longer it sets the better it tastes (overnight is a good time frame).” After 24 hours, the chopped cabbage will be thoroughly wilted and so enveloped in fat and sugar as to be irrelevant, and the sharpness of the scallions will be lost. The crunch of the bland butter-coated ramen will compete with the crunch of the bland almonds, and the only discernible flavors will be sugar, fat, and salt.

Let’s transform this recipe into something both edible and Oriental. We can start with 1 head of chopped bok choy or napa cabbage and 1 bunch of chopped scallions. We’ll add 1 cucumber, split in half, seeds scraped out, and sliced into ½-inch half-moon pieces, to add juiciness and freshness. To make it an entrée salad, we can add about ½ pound of diced cooked chicken seasoned with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. For the dressing, we’ll use ¼ cup of rice vinegar, ½ cup of peanut or other flavorless oil, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of sugar, I tablespoon of sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon of ground ginger. We’ll omit the almonds but retain 1 package of ramen noodles, sans flavor packet, and break them into small pieces. Instead of sautéing the ramen, we will let them soak in the dressing for 1 to 3 hours to soften before tossing them with the other ingredients in a large bowl and serving immediately. And there you have it, a delicious salad with about 80% less fat, 94% less sugar, and a great deal more flavor, suitably adult and recognizably Oriental.

I am dying to know if the perpetrator of the original recipe ever actually prepared this salad and ate it—and really thought it was not only okay but worth sharing. Years ago, the New York Times outed Emeril Legasse as a fraud whose recipes seldom worked and who relied on showmanship to build his following of, we can only suppose, noncooks. Did it have any effect on his popularity? No. I find that sad.

This is article 25 in a continuing series. © 2012 Christine C. Janson

Heck of a Barbeque

Abbreviations can cause confusion when it comes time to turn them back into standard words. For instance, barbecue is commonly “abbreviated” BBQ, a great boon to those paying for neon signs. Unfortunately, people grow accustomed to seeing a Q, and when it comes time to spell it out, the result is barbeque. This word, however, is not pronounced bar-buh-kew; it is pronounced bar-beck. If you disagree, I want you to start saying an-tih-kew for antique, ob-lih-kew for oblique, teck-nih-kew for technique, and sta-chew-es-kew for statuesque.

There is no Q in barbecue. The Q word pronounced kew is spelled queue. (I swear. If you want to add -ing, it’s queueing. Really. If anyone ever asks you to name an English word with five vowels in a row, you’ve got the answer.) Alert readers have realized by now that the first and last words in the title of this piece rhyme. Let that rhyme be a reminder of how not to spell barbecue.


This is article 22 in a continuing series. © 2010 Christine C. Janson

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Snakes and Mice and Bones, Oh My!

Today I startled a 4- to 5-foot-long rat snake on its way into my garage. I stood still once I noticed it; it had already noticed me and gone still, assessing my threat potential. After about 30 seconds it decided all was well and continued on its way. I have had rat snakes living in my garage before and welcome this one, as I have trapped 13 mice in my kitchen in the last 4 weeks. I'd much rather have the snake feed on them than toss their dead bodies into the small-animal graveyard at the edge of the woods off my deck.

I'm uncertain of the size because coiling makes estimation of length very difficult. My field guide to reptiles says rat snakes range from 42 to 102 inches, so this would be a small one. They are harmless, nonvenomous, who kill like constrictors. My cat had a run-in with one about 5 years ago. I noticed her being very still and focused out on the deck. When I went to look I found her facing down a 6- to 8-foot-long black snake that had raised the front half of its body straight up, head drawn back in an S curve, mouth open. The snake was about 6 feet away and neither creature was moving. I told my cat she was probably safe from this snake, but there are nasty ones up here (timber rattlesnakes) so I preferred that she be very respectful of the species in general, and I carried her into the house to watch from behind the slider. The snake maintained its defensive posture for nearly a minute before standing down and slithering away beneath the deck. I have since found rat snakes curled up on the cinderblocks inside the garage and climbing the rock wall just outside it on several occasions. We cohabit quite nicely.

Mice are a different matter. I don't like to kill, but even one mouse will trash your entire kitchen very quickly. They are filthy creatures, and I have learned not to tolerate them. I use old-fashioned spring-type mouse traps because they are reusable and because they kill quickly and cleanly. I bought a sticky trap once, but it had two major drawbacks. The gluey substance on it gave me a sinus headache, and once the mouse had got stuck on it you were supposed to just throw it away. Poor mouse might take weeks to starve to death or suffocate, futilely attempting to escape every moment. When I had trapped the mouse on this thing, I could not just throw it in the garbage. I actually took it outside and one by one unstuck the little pink feet, then threw the wee gray thing with all its toes intact into the yard. Call me a softy. Then I threw the foul-smelling trap into the garbage bag in the garage to get rid of my sinus headache.

Not sure why I suddenly have so many mice invading my kitchen in the summer when I had none all winter. Mouse invasions are sporadic: none for months, and then a slew. One winter I trapped 8 and the cat caught 12 over 3 months. I knew the cat was getting old when I realized it had been 2 years since she caught anything. She was the major reason for the small-animal graveyard. It seemed disrespectful to throw her catches into the garbage and absurd to actually bury them, so I chose a shady area full of low-growing shrubs about 8 feet from the deck and simply tossed them in that general direction with a short prayer to the Mother Goddess to take her beautiful creature back to her loving bosom. Over the years this space has received many birds, many bats, a number of voles, several flying squirrels, and a praying mantis.

About a year ago, while clearing the path around the house that passes this part of the yard, I decided to investigate the area for the presence of small bones. I found none. Not one. Dozens of creatures went to their maker in this space, and there is no evidence of it whatsoever. Even small bones would take more than a few years to disintegrate entirely. Where are all the bones?? All I can think is that one or another of the carnivores inhabiting my property smelled fresh kill and carried it off to feast. Or perhaps the turkey vultures came when I wasn't looking. There are plenty of them hereabouts; the area just to the north of me is called Buzzard Flats (great country name, ain't it?). Would I really not notice a turkey vulture (wing span 6 ft) descending within 8 feet of my house? Mysteries are everywhere in this world.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Aerodynamic Haiku

Hawk hangs unmoving

Buoyed and tethered by wind

Then loosed, soars once more

"Real" Housewives?

In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe refers several times to rich women as being "starved to perfection." In light of the explosive growth in cosmetic surgery since that book was published in the 1970s, I have updated this phrase to "starved and carved to perfection." The Real Housewives franchise prompted the thoughts that led to this updating.

I have never actually watched an episode of Housewives of any locale, just caught snatches in passing by and read a few things in TV Guide, so these remarks are not based on deep research, just on superficialties. But if anyone deserves to be judged on superficialties, it's the women who appear on these unreal reality programs.

These women are not real housewives in any sense of the word. They are, most of them, very rich and very bored. They are also the products and the victims of the modern beauty industry. They are practically interchangeable in their overdone, overpolished "perfection." No part of their bodies is spared. They have been waxed and peeled and lasered. They have been dyed blonde, streaked, curled, hair-extensioned, blown out, and hairsprayed into unnatural immobility. Their faces show evidence of surgery and Botox, carved and injected into a similar unnatural immobility. Many of them have ruined their mouths in search of beestung lips. They are bronzed and blushed and mascara'd and linered until nothing real is left to see. The bodies of a few look normal or even pleasingly plump, but the majority are stick thin. Not one of them is, to my eye, attractive despite or even because of all the effort and pampering.

When I speak of starved and carved, I am referring specifically to the predominant look of anorexia so sought after in this country and perhaps in others, abetted by surgery to make sure the bones revealed are aesthetic, noses and jawlines in particular. Breast augmentation is a godsend to these anorexics because with a boob job, you can be 30 pounds underweight and still wear a C cup. (Anyone who gets herself made bigger than a C cup is not interested in looking good and will never look elegant, as any well-dressed woman will tell you.)

I don't know the ages of the "real" housewives, but most of them have the sad look of women trying desperately to be younger than they are. Despite the "tasteful" makeup, the engineered faces, and the carefully unelaborate coiffures, I find many of these women plain at best. Nothing wrong with being plain, but the endless pursuit of "beauty" saddens me.

I would like to live in a world where women didn't feel the need to wear makeup, to enlarge their breasts, to wear 5-inch stiletto heels. I wouldn't dare tell anyone not to; I'm not a dictator. But I hate the image of these starved and carved Barbies all over the media, broadcast and printed, where young girls see them and think they represent beauty. Appearance is only one kind of beauty, and a minor kind at that. The facade constructed by these women is the opposite of beauty; it is sham. Which is an antonym of real.