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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The dinners this week

After being away for much of the last two weeks, I'm back in the saddle, culinarily speaking.

Last night, I made herb crusted salmon, with brown rice and peas for dinner. The salmon recipe came from Bittman's "The Minimalist Cooks at Home" and proved to be quite good. I try to fix fish on a reguar basis and my son loves the "Emma's favorite salmon and potatoes" from the same cookbook, but I find that we have it a bit too often. This was a great alternative.

Tonight -- or should I say "all day today" -- I'm fixing barbecue and coleslaw. For those of you who might not understand such things, barbecue is a noun, not a verb. It is pork, not beef. It has a tomato-based sauce, not vinegar or mustard. All else is heresy. I'll be blogging about the barbecue in a separate post.

Tomorrow, we'll have minestrone and a garden salad with fresh Italian semolina bread. The minestrone recipe comes from the Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook and looks like it'll be quite good.

Thursday and Friday will be leftovers of barbecue and minestrone, respectively. On Saturday, my son will be off with friends, so I'm starting to think about maybe making scallops, which my wife adores and my son loathes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

UCC runs "Steeples" ad

Today marks the beginning of a two-week ad campaign by the United Church of Christ, showing the "Steeples" ad (above) on BET, Bravo, CNN and TV One.

I think that this is a good thing, basically. Really, though, I don't much care for the "Steeples" ad. The message is great, but the content is just a bit too saccharine for my taste, sort of like the ads the the Mormons used to run back when I was a kid. As a member of Generation X (albeit a rather senior member) I prefered the edginess of the "Bouncer" and "Ejector" ads, which show how churches DO reject people and then proclaim an extravagant welcome within the United Church of Christ.

Back before the "God is Still Speaking" campaign began a couple years ago, I showed the "Bouncer" ad in church and heard from people who didn't like it because they couldn't relate to the notion that people often feel rejected by churches. Later, when I showed the humorous "Ejector" ad, I heard similar complaints, but those complaints, again, tended to be from the more venerable members of the congregation, not from the younger generation to whom the advertisements were targeted.

I like "Bouncers" best, but I know that I'm only one person. Perhaps you feel differently. I've set up a poll and I'd love to know which one of the three ads most speaks to you. let me know.

UCC "Bouncers" Ad

UCC "Ejector" Ad

"From Amistad to Guantanamo" at Trinity United Church

Yesterday was the final installment of an adult education program that I have been teaching at Trinity United Church in Warren, NJ. The series, "From Amistad to Guantanamo: Justice Ministries in the United Church of Christ" detailed the development of justice work in the UCC, moving from the grassroots organization of the Amistad Committee, through the efforts for equal rights for women, people of color, LGBT people, and a host of other issues. Finally, we discussed ways that individuals and congregations could integrate the Bible's call to do justice into the daily practice of our lives.

I enjoyed being at Trinity these last few weeks. It is a smallish congregation with a warm heart. The choir is very good and the sermons were all inspiring. As an added bonus, each week that I attended, I got to hear from a different preacher. The pastor's father, The Rev. Dr. Richard Armstrong preached the first week. The pastor, Rev. Elsie Armstrong Rhodes, preached the second week, and one of the interns, Jared Stephens, preached yesterday. I particularly enjoyed hearing the voice of the next generation of pastoral leaders as Jared and the church's other intern, Joy Klingeman, led worship.

One of the added benefits to leading the program at Trinity is that my son traveled there with me each week. With our busy lives, it is sometimes hard to find time to spend together, so the hour's drive each way has been a great way to connect with him and, as an added benefit, he's a terrific roadie, setting up the computer and digital projector for me, making photocopies and collating them, dismantling everything after the program and schlepping things back to the car. I think I'll keep him. Next week, Ian and I'll be back worshipping in my home church, so the whole family will be back together again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Washington D.C. with Amistad

I spent much of this past week in Washington, D.C. with the Freedom Schooner Amistad. This is the second occasion since my return from my sabbatical that I have been able to spend time aboard.

I arrived in D.C. on Monday night, arriving at just the right time to get caught in the traffic jam on I-95 that resulted from the opening of the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge to let Amistad through. Rumor has it that this is the first opening of the bridge for a vessel since the new bridge opened, so I am particularly pleased that Amistad got to inaugurate the bridge and am sort of ironically pleased that I got to get caught in the backup, especially since I still made it to the marina in time to catch docklines.

One of the planned highlights of the week was that Amistad was to play host to the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the Congressional Delegation from Connecticut, but the intense legislative schedule generated by our country's financial meltdown made it impossible for our legislators to visit the vessel while we were docked at the Capital Yacht Club. I am, however, grateful for their diligence in their work and trust that they may find other opportunities to visit Amistad when they are able to carve out a bit of free time.

Since our schedule of visitors ended up being lighter than expected, the crew was able to tackle a variety of maintenance tasks: the usual scraping, sanding and varnishing, as well as inspecting and maintaining rigging in preparation for next month's Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.

The members of the yacht club were very kind to the crew. We were invited to participate in the Tuesday Night Spaghetti Dinner and got to know many of the folks who make the yacht club their home. I never had the opportunity to puchase a beer with my own money while we were there, and I expect that the other crewmembers had similar experiences.

It was particularly nice to have my father visit the ship while we were at the Capital Yacht Club. He came aboard on Wednesday morning and I got to give him a tour of the vessel. Then, as it was my "duty day," he joined me in the galley for a while, washing dishes while we caught up on the events in each other's lives for an hour or so before he had to go back ashore.

As the the weather forecast was anything but encouraging, the crew ended up dragging out the jury-rigged awning that we had used in Sierra Leone to keep the sun off the deck. It was a dubious affair when we put it up in Africa and hadn't improved with six months in the lazarette, but we managed to get it hung up over the main hatch, adding two other tarps and duct tape to creat an "elegant" arrangement that managed to perform its function without looking too prissy. That evening, we hosted a birthday party for the captain's sister-in-law and the boat was full of very interesting folks, who huddled under the awning to stay out of the sometimes torrential rain.

On Friday, we moved the ship a few hundred yards downstream to the Gangplank Marina. The U.S.S. Sequoia, which served as the Presidential Yacht for Presidents from Hoover through Carter, was docked at the next pier over. (see photo) We opened, in the rain, for visitors from the public and had a steady, though light, stream of guests throughout the day.

In the evening, my cousin, Jeff, and his partner, Terry, came to visit the ship, then they whisked me away to their home, where I spent the night. We watched the presidential debate and stayed up way too late discussing our thoughts about the candidates, then the next morning was a late-waking, coffee-drinking, lounging-about pajamafest, with lunch out at about 3:00, and my departure for home soon after.

It is good to be home, but I'm definitely looking forward to meeting Amistad in Baltimore in a couple weeks for the schooner race. Maybe we'll even win!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dinnertime in the City of Brotherly Cheesesteaks

While driving home last night from a meeting in the Baltimore area, I was talking on my cell phone. I was being safe and using the headset, but I guess I was distracted enough to miss the split where I-95 goes up to Philadelphia and the I-295 heads up to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Jersey Turnpike. Rather than turn around and go back the way I came, I decided that it made just about as much to continue up I-95 and cross into New Jersey up near Trenton.

As I was approaching Philadelphia, a thought ocurred to me. Here I was, entering the City of Brotherly Love right at dinnertime. What serendipity, seeing how one of my favorite foods is the Philly Cheesesteak!! Whenever I see a cheesesteak on a menu, I stop reading, since I'm on something of a quest for the Holy Grail of Cheesesteaks. Of course, it might be that I stop reading the menu because my eyes kind of glaze over as I drift off into Cheesesteak Anticipatory Fantasyland. Sadly, I find that, more often than not, I'm disappointed with the cheesesteaks that I end up with.

So there I was, cruising into Philly. I called home and asked my wife to check the internet and let me know where I needed to stop for the best Philly Cheesesteak in Philly and she quickly gave me directions to Pat's King of Steaks, (click here for other people's reviews) on Passyunk Ave and 9th Street. My first problem was parking. The narrow streets were full of parallel-parked cars and I had to drive around for several minutes until I found a spot I could squeeze my little station wagon into before walking a couple blocks back to the restaurant.

View Larger Map

When I got there at about 5:30, the place was already mobbed, with a line wrapping around two sides of the triangular building. The open-air restaurant claims to be the birthplace of the cheesesteak, so it wasn't a huge surprise that it was so busy on the last Saturday of the summer, particularly with the St. Padre Pio festival going on just a couple blocks away. During the half-hour wait to get to the order window, I got to do some people-watching. A crowd of motorcyclists came roaring through. A family with a small boy stood behind me and the parents did their best to keep thier child from coming unglued as his patience wore thin.

When I finally made it to the window, I ordered a "Provalone pepper steak with onions" or "wit," as the sign spelled out phonetically. From there, it was on to the second window for french fries and a rootbeer, then finding a spot to sit so I couldenjoy my cheesesteak.

I've had better cheesesteaks. (The best ever was in Stroudsburg, PA, at a now defunct lunch counter in the back of an appliance store, with a sandwich made of New York Strip steak, gruyere, and exotic mushrooms!!!) but Pat's was tasty. The steak, itself, was quite good; thickly shaved (or is that thinly sliced?) top round, not the formed and pressed beef like I've often found. The onions were very lightly grilled, and were still rather crunchy, which was unfortunate. The peppers were placed on top of the meat, rather than being mixed in, and the provalone was in the form of several slices that formed the bottom layer of the sandwich. The bread was nice and chewy. In retrospect, though, I should have gotten the Cheese Whiz instead of the provalone, as the processed cheese goo seems to be the "traditional" version of cheese for the sandwich. Maybe next time. Unless, of course, I make my own, in which case, I might have to use gruyere and maybe some exotic mushrooms.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kimberly in the Kitchen

I'll be away for much of this coming week, eating shipboard chow while the Freedom Schooner Amistad visits Washington DC for the Congressional Black Caucus, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the US Congress' Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves so my wife has returned to the kitchen, with the following plan. Thanks, Kimberly!
  • Wednesday, September 17: Roast chicken (How to Cook Everything) , steamed green beans, baked sweet potato
  • Thursday, September 18: Matzo ball soup (Vegetariana)
  • Friday, September 19: pinto beans, cornbread, salsa
  • Saturday, September 20: leftovers
  • Sunday, September 21: Barbecued chicken (Jane Brody), cole slaw, mashed potatoes
  • Monday, September 11: leftovers

Friday, September 19, 2008

What to get the man who has everything?

I recently celebrated a birthday. Fortunately, or unfortunately if you happen to be a gift-giver, I've reached the stage in life where there are few things that I really need. I've also reached the point where I'm picky about what I want, which makes me really difficult to buy for.

So, as my birthday was approaching, my wife asked me what I wanted. I had a couple thoughts spring to mind. First, I wanted an épée, but that's not the kind of present a woman should give her husband. Well, maybe there's nothing wrong a woman buying one for her her husband, but I decided to spend the birthday money my mother gave me on one.

What did I tell Kimberly that I wanted? A skillet. Now I know that giving your husband a skillet for his birthday seems like almost as bad a mistake as giving your wife a vacuum for Christmas, but that's what I really wanted, but not just any skillet. I wanted a big skillet. Make that a B I G skillet, made of cast iron. Our sauté pan has gotten to the point where its nonstick coating doesn't work, so we needed to get something suitable and I love cooking in iron.

When iron is properly seasoned, it's nonstick. It doesn't give off any gasses like teflon coated pans do. It adds healthy iron to our food. It doesn't contribute to Alzhimer's disease like aluminum. It heats well, distributes heat beautifully, lasts forever and makes a formidable weapon in the event that I should ever have to face down a burglar.

So what did she get me? She got me a Lodge 15 1/4" cast iron skillet. It is simply amazing. I love it. Can you tell?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Last week's eats

This past week's cooking was fairly sporadic, with my wife being away in Virginia, transplanting daylilies to her parents' property. Somehow, cooking for my son and me is never quite as much fun as cooking for the whole family. The menu for us guys was, therefore, fairly simple:
  • Wednesday, September 10: Roast chicken (How to Cook Everything, p. XXX), steamed green beans, baked sweet potatoes (Roast chicken is one of my son's favorite meals, so it tends to roll around fairly often.) Stock made from chicken bones, oninons, carrot and garlic and frozen for later use.
  • Thursday, September 11: Leftovers
  • Friday, September 12: Red Beans and Rice (Saving Dinner, p. 16), garden salad
  • Saturday, September 12: Leftovers
  • Sunday, September 12: Leftovers
  • Monday, September 13: Broccoli and Pasta
  • Sunday, September 14: Latkes (Joy of Cooking (1997 edition) , p. 410) and garden salad

My wife and I got the Joy of Cooking when we were first married. The 1997 version is a significant revision of the previous edition, in that it included many of the foods that had become available in American groceries in recent years. At the same time, the 1997 Joy of Cooking also omitted many of the 1950s recipes that included ingredients like canned cream of mushroom soup. We love this edition and were saddened to see that the even 2006 75th anniversary edition has gone downhill. We ran right out and bought a copy of the 1997 edition to give to my son when he's old enough to need his own cookbooks.

One of my first memories of latkes (potato pancakes) was when I was an adolescent and my family had some friends who fell on hard times and needed a place to stay for several months. One of the side benefits to this arrangement is that, since Sally was Jewish and didn't go to church with my family, she would often have a meal ready for us when we returned home on Sunday afternoons. Often, she would make latkes, served with applesauce and sour cream. Yum!! Since then, I've had lots of varieties of potato pancakes, some made with mashed potatoes, as Sally made them, and others with shredded potatoes. I've decided that I like the shredded best, but I've still never met a latke I didn't like. Also, making them this week gave me a chance to put my new skillet to good use.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I'm NOT dead

I expect that you remember this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

After his obituary had been published by the New York Journal on June 2, 1897, Mark Twain wrote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Twain managed to hang on until April 2, 1910. Last month, Apple founder Steve Jobs was the victim of a seventeen-page premature obituary sent out by the Bloomberg Financial Newswire. It seems that it isn't that uncommon for living people to have their obituaries printed by mistake. There's even a fairly extensive list of premature obituaries at Wikipedia.

It shoudn't have come as any great surprise to me, then, when I went to the mailbox the other day and found a letter from the United Church of Christ addressed "To the Family of Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith." I was curious, so I made the self-serving determination that, since I am a member of my own family, I was entitled to open the envelope. What I found surprised me.
The letter read, in part:
Dear Friend,

Please accept our deepest sympathy on the passing of your loved one.

We would like to pay tribute to the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith in the 2009 Yearbook of the United Church of Christ, available next spring.

Please take a few moments to fill out and return the enclosed form. Your assistance will be greatly appreciated and will give all those who read this section of the Yearbook the opportunity to remember and celebrate your loved one's ministry...

I could hardly belive what I was reading. Me?? Dead?? I've often given a polite smile when people trot out the old saw about reading the obituaries every morning and then getting out of bed if they don't see their name, but this had me worried. Maybe I was dead.

After all, it is has been a difficult couple months and the aging process seems to have jumped into high gear. I've celebrated a birthday. I've received an AARP card AND I've gotten new glasses. They aren't bifocals, but the prescription is stronger than my old glasses. Maybe the people at the denomination's headquarters knew something I didn't. I called the phone number on the letter to check out what was going on, but ended up having to leave a message on voice mail. Since it was a Friday, I knew that it would be several days before Cleveland could verify my life status.

I was delighted when my son came home from school, because he took one look at me and told me that I was definitely alive. What a relief!!

"But maybe the yearbook office is just really efficient and they just sent the letter out a day or two early," he suggested helpfully. "Maybe you're going to get hit by a bus tomorrow."

Now I was really worried. I didn't mind being dead so much, as long as it meant that I had gotten the dying part over with already, but I wasn't particularly looking forward to meeting my end beneath the wheels of a runaway bus. By exercising extreme caution, I managed to live through the weekend and was ecstatic when I received a phone call from the Yearbook Office on Monday morning, informing that there had been a clerical error and that I was, in fact, alive and, as far as they knew, am scheduled to remain so for the forseeable future.

So I guess I'll have to come up with another reason why I haven't written anything for two weeks.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dinner Menu for September 4-8

  • Thursday, Sept. 4 - Emma's Favorite salmon and potatoes (Bittman's Minimalist, p. 70) green salad
  • Friday, Sept. 5 - Thai pork stir-fry with bok choi, red peppers, fresh basil, sugar snap peas and coconut milk (based on Bittman's Ginger Chicken, The Best Recipes in the World, p. 313)
  • Saturday, Sept. 6 - Pasta with chicken and spinach, green salad
  • Sunday, Sept. 7 - Mexican Pepper Casserole (based on Moosewood p. 137), green salad
  • Monday, Sept. 8 - Leftovers

The Fruit Hunters

The book just about jumped off the shelf.  "Read me!," it seemed to be saying, "I'm about all kinds of things that interest you.  Travel, food, adventure!"

I picked up The Fruit Hunters by Adam Leith Gollner and flipped through it.  Sure enough, it looked interesting, but I already had my arms filled with other books that I had picked up in the used books section of my local Barnes and Noble. 

A couple weeks later, I found the book again on the "New Nonfiction" shelf at the library.  This time, I wasn't about to let the book slip through my fingers.  I checked it out and took it home, filled with thoughts of my own experiencess with exotic fruits in China and Africa and wanting to see what Gollner had to add to my store of knowledge.

As it turned out, Gollner offered a multifaceted view of fruits, covering his own travels to places like Thailand, the Seychelles Islands, Borneo and numerous fruit markets and farms in the US and Canada.  He discusses apples, oranges, peaches and bananas, but also has extensive sections covering lesserknown durianscloudberries, grapples (which are pronounced "gray-pulls," are artificially grape flavored apples and seem truly foul) , gojis, dragonfruits and x-rated coco-de-mer (I warned you...).  I was particularly intrigued by the Miracle Fruit, which is practically tasteless, but which, for several hours after eating it, makes anyything sour taste sweet.  Of course a cranberry-sized fruit that sells for $3.00 each had better do something interesting.

While reading the book -- well, not actually WHILE reading it, but during the overall time that I was reading it -- I came across two of the fruits that Gollner discussed: pluots and dragonfruits.  Of course, I couldn't pass up the chance to sample them.  The pluots (crosses between plums and apricots) were delightful, with spotted skin and a rich, red flesh that was sweet and juicy.  I wish I could have said the same for the dragonfruit.  The dragonfruit was beautiful, sort of scaly and red on the outside in a dragonish sort of way, with a snowy white interior studded with countless tiny black seeds.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that, somewhere in the world, dragonfruit are eaten when at the peak of ripeness and that they have an intoxicating flavor and scent, but the specimen we got at the grocery was unimpressive.  In fact, in was quite disappointing as it was nearly unflavored and unscented.

I've always been a fairly adventurous eater and enjoyed trying durian while I was in China, even though it really does taste like rotten-onion-custard.  I've enjoyed eating jackfruit fritters made by a Filipina friend and also a variety of tropical fruit that is called an "apple" in Sierra Leone, but which is completely different from what I would call an apple.  I've always wanted to try breadfruit.  While the dragonfruit was disappointing, I'm looking at things a bit differently in the produce section, keeping an eye open for new adventure.