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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cajun Catfish Sashimi

I love Japanese food. I grew up with teriyaki steak being one of my favorite treats. Later, I became a huge fan of sushi and sashimi.

Of course, there are some kinds of fish that I like better than others. I love tekka (tuna) raw, but I prefer my salmon well-done. This past week, I prepared catfish sashimi for my family, except that it wasn't supposed to be catfish sashimi. It was really just an exceedingly unfortunate meal.

I was setting out to make blackened catfish, which is quite nice when it works out properly. Because of the large amount of smoke that is produced in cooking the fish at such high heat, I typically set up the Coleman two-burner propane camping stove and do the cooking outside. This is the stove that I set up every Christmas when I make corn fritters. I've used it to make Navajo fry bread and beignets. It is a great piece of equipment and it probably gets used more just outside our kitchen door than it ever does on actual camping trips.

The other night, though, was a problem. I was planning on making six pieces of fish, which meant that I needed to use my BIG SKILLET. Unfortunately, it was one of the first cold nights of the season, so the skillet, even with the burner cranked up to high, didn't manage to get even close to as hot as it should have gotten. To make matters worse, it is getting dark a lot earlier than I'm used to planning for and we don't have a very good light on our side porch. All of this made for a perfect storm of problems and I ended up following my recipe but the end result was undercooked fish. Yuck. Fortunately, the microwave worked well enough to finish cooking the fish in just a couple minutes, but the overall effect was disappointing.

It should have been wonderful. In the past, it has been. But I've learned my lesson: the superskillet has too much surface area to keep hot on a cold night. Next time, I'll cook the fish in two batches in a smaller skillet.
Here's the recipe I used. If you follow it (indoors, with a good exhaust fan, or outdoors on a warmer evening or with a smaller skillet), I guarantee a great meal.

Blackened Catfish
(also good with Grouper, Snapper or Redfish)

2 lbs catfish
1/2 lb unsalted butter
1/4 c lemon juice
1 T crushed red pepper flakes
1 T thyme
1 T basil
1 T black pepper

Combine all ingredients except fish and heat over low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to sit until cool.

Dip fish in butter mixture and refrigerate fish for one hour. Reserve remaining butter mixture.

If cooking indoors, remove batteries from your smoke detectors. Seriously. Don't forget to put them back in when you're done cooking.

Place dry cast iron skillet over high heat for 5 minutes, until skillet is very hot, nearly smoking. Place fish in skillet and cook for 2 minutes per side. (There will be lots of smoke.)

Remove fish to a platter and put remaining butter mixture in skillet and cook for a minute or so, until the butter browns. Serve fish with a drizzle of browned butter and spices.

A proud fencing dad

My son, Ian, has been fencing since he was five years old, when he begged me to start a class for him at the Pocono Family YMCA in Stroudsburg, PA. I had only been fencing for a year or so and my instructor, Bernd Weishaupt, helped me start a kinderfencing program where Ian would be able to learn the fine art of swashbuckling.

When we moved to New Jersey, Ian and I started fencing with the Modified Academy of Fencing. This has been a great experience for both of us. I have taken courses in sabre fencing and Ian has really grown a lot as a foil fencer. This fall, I started teaching again, working with the beginning foil program on Thursday nights.

Over the last few years, one of the problems that Ian and I have had is that the MAF fencing tournaments have always been scheduled on days that we couldn't participate. This year, though, things were different and both Ian and I were able to participate in foil competitions this past spring.

This past Sunday evening, MAF held its annual awards dinner and Ian and I were present to celebrate his success in the tournament, where he took first place in his age group. In addition to receiving a gold medal at the banquet, Ian also was presented with the Excalibur award, which goes to fencers who were undefeated in the entire competition.

Unfortunately, I don't have any photos to show now, but I should be getting some from Julie Kimmel, the club photographer, soon. Check back to see Ian receiving his awards (and a picture of me receiving the sportsmanship award, too).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Proposition 8 and Rainbow Flags

This monring, I received an email from a reporter from The Town News, asking about my take on the recent anti-gay state constitutional amendments passed last Tuesday and about churches flying the rainbow flag at half-mast in response.

Here is my response to her question:

While churches, as 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, are not allowed to endorse political candidates, it has long been recongnized that it is entirely appropriate for churches to engage in the political process around issues, with the civil rights movement being a classic example.

The United Church of Christ has repeatedly voiced its support of the right of same-sex couples to marry, most explicitly at our General Synod in 2005 with the resolution In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All. It is important, however, to point out that General Synod speaks to our congregations, not for our congregations. Other denominations, such as the Episcopal Church and the Metropolitan Community Church, also have long histories of supporting equal rights for LGBT people. There are also strong equality movements within other mainline Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Reformed Church of America, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and many others.

Those of us who see the right to marry as a basic human right are, of course, disappointed by last Tuesday's ballot initiatives that have denied that right to same-sex couples. I am particularly disappointed by the passage California's Proposition 8, which is the first time that a state has revoked the rights of its citizens after those rights had already been recognized.

Despite the passage of the anti-gay ballot initiatives, I am encouraged by the exit polls, which show that those who favored eliminating the right to marriage were, overwhelmingly, aged 65 and older, while those who supported the right for all people to marry were overwhelmingly younger voters. Additionally, Proposition 8 passed by a smaller margin than did Proposition 22 (California's original anti-gay-marriage proposition that passed in 2000 and was overturned by the California Supreme Court). This gives me hope that, with the passage of only a short period of time, intolerance based on sexual orientation will no longer be socially acceptable and that these discriminatory ballot initiatives will be reversed.

While saddened by the states that have codified discrimination, I am pleased about the recent decision of the Connecticut State Supreme Court to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry and the decision of Connecticut's voters to reject attempts to amend their state constitution to deny equal marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Flying rainbow flags at half-mast is a powerful symbol of sorrow over the discrimination that was written into law last Tuesday. I am always pleased to see churches that fly the rainbow flag as a visible symbol of the inclusion of all people in the church and I am hopeful that churches that have just started to fly the rainbow flag will continue to do so. While we mourn for a season, I look forward to the flags flying proudly at the top of their staves as churches continue speak out for justice and equality for all people.

In addition to my answer, I'd like to refer you to the pastoral letter from the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, the full-page ad that the UCC ran in three of California's largest gay community publications and an article about the ad in United Church News.

Risen from the ashes

This past week, Kimberly, Ian and I had the opportunity to eat at one of my favorite breakfast places: O'Rourke's Diner at 728 Main Street in Middletown, CT. For many years, O'Rourke's was THE place to go for breakfast in central Connecticut, that is until the tragic fire on August 31, 2006 destroyed the landmark building. With no fire insurance, it looked like O'Rourke's was down for the count, but the residents of Middletown chipped in to raise the $350,000.00 needed to rebuild and the restaurant reopened on February 11 of 2008.

O'Rourke's has been rebuilt in the same style as before the fire, as a classic, tin-fronted diner from the 1940s and Brian O'Rourke, chef and nephew of the original owner, continues to serve up delightful (if slightly pricey when compared to more plebian diners) breakfasts and lunches.

When my family went to O'Rourke's at 11:00 on Friday morning, we stood in line on the sidewalk for several minutes before getting a table. Once ensconced in a booth, we spent some time pondering over the offerings before finally settling on our choices. Kimberly, who was forced to eat eggs every morning as a child and hated them, even doused in ketchup, had a bit of a challenge, since most of the breakfast options at O'Rourke's involve eggs. She ended up getting blueberry pancakes with fruit syrup and clotted cream.

My son and I are both happy ovivores and found ourselves almost overwhelmed by the number or unusual combinations that Chef Brian's menu offered to us. Ian, who is usually very happy with a standard diner breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and homefries, realized that this was no time for the "usual" and opted for the "Dubliner" breakfast, consisting of a corned-beef hash omelette with Irish bacon and a side of fingerling potatoes with Irish soda bread and jam. I couldn't resist the special of the day, the "surf and turf" breakfast that consisted of a crawfish frittata and duck hash. (There was also a "surf and surf" option, with the frittata being accompanied by salmon cakes, but I'm a sucker for duck.)

While we waited for breakfast to arrive, our server brought us samples of fresh bakedgoods and they were all delightful, but we had no intention of filling up before getting to our meals. After only a short wait, our breakfasts arrived and they were ever bit as good as we had hoped.

Kimberly's pancakes were delicous, though a bit sweet for her liking, almost like dessert. The fruit sauce had whole raspberries in it and the dish was topped with a generous dollop of clotted cream.

Ian enjoyed his "Dubliner" breakfast, noting that the omelette was good and devouring the potatoes, though he grudgingly let me try a bite of one of them. He liked the hamlike Irish bacon, but was too full to try the soda-bread toast, which I managed to snag off of his plate before our server cleared the table.

Several of the staff at O'Rourke's had highly praised the duck hash, and they were right. It was well-seasoned and had plenty of duck breast meat, along with chunks of beef, potatoes, carrot, broccoli rabe and turnip. Still, I found the real treasure of my breakfast to be the crawfish frittata. It was rich and flavorful, with just the right seasoning to highlight the flavor of the crawfish tails that made up a generous portion of the dish.

My wife and I "accidentally" ended up back at O'Rourke's for brunch on Saturday, too, when we tried to go to the Tibetan restaurant down the block and found that it had closed. Back at O'Rourke's, Kimberly had the Irish bangers and homefries while I ordered the Cajun Firecracker omelet. Again, we were both pleased with the food and the service. This time, our server went out of his way to suggest condiments to improve our meal. (Who ever thought that horseradish sauce would make andouille sausage taste even better??)

We're glad to see that O'Rourke's is back in business and are looking forward to trying even more of Chef Brian's inspired creations next time.

Whizzing through Connecticut


After a whirlwind four-day trip to Connecticut, my family and I are home and (sort of) recovered. We went up on Thursday morning, stopping in New Haven for lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Guadalupe La Poblanita (Yum!!!). After eating ourselves silly, we went to the Atticus Bookstore Cafe, where we did some shopping and got some coffee for an afternoon pick-me-up. Then it was on to the Yale Center for British Art, where we spent a pleasant hour, with Kimberly looking at portraits and me immersing myself in the maritime art on the fourth floor. Ian, on the other hand, was ready to move along on our journey.

Next, it was on to Portland, CT, where we were staying with our friend, Eric Anderson, the other Boy in Hat. The main purpose of our visit, ostensibly, was for a Boys in Hats concert at the Oxford United Church of Christ, where Eric was interim pastor several years ago, so Eric and I managed to work a bit of rehearsal time in on Friday, then it was off to a 20th Anniversary of Ordination party for Peter Allen. I've known Peter, at least a little bit, since I was his parent's pastor at the The Congregational Church of Green's Farms in Westport, CT, back in 1999-2000.

Saturday was the big day for the concert and Eric and I spent the afternoon finalizing our set list, then we convoyed out to Oxford and set up for the concert. We were still setting up the sound system when the crowd started to arrive and the first folks in were a half-dozen folks from the Congregational Church of Naugatuck, where I had served from 1997-1999. This group of folks (pictured at right) have been fans for years, but this time things were a bit different, as they were all wearing ID badges with a Boys In Hats photo on them and reading "Official Groupie, Naugatuck Chapter." The concert went well. Eric has been very busy writing songs in the past year and we had four of his songs as part of our program.

On Sunday morning, I was back at Oxford to preach, followed by a giving a presentation on Amistad's Atlantic Freedom Tour. After having lunch with the confirmation class, Kimberly drove us home, while I dozed in the passenger seat. Fortunately, I don't have to go out of town again until... well... Friday.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The best kind of pirates!

I am a fortunate man in many ways. Being married to a morning person who is also a reader who out-voraciouses (if you'll let me coin the phrase) me means that I often wake to find interesting tidbits in my email's inbox.

Kimberly has been sending me articles about pirates lately. She's sent me articles about real-life Somali pirates who have been raiding shipping in the Gulf of Aden. She has sent me an article about the controversy between historically accurate pirate reenactors and Jack Sparrow want-to-bes. I assume that sending me these pirate-related articles is a not-so-subtle attempt to keep my feet on terra firma instead of being out on the high seas, making her a schooner widow. Either that or she's trying to suggest that I turn in my clerical collar and stole for a cutlass and a brace of pistols, a trade-in that would almost certainly improve my family's bottom line.

This morning, though, Kimberly hadn't bothered to email the article du jour, but had simply left it up on the computer screen so I'd see it the minute I walked into the office. How could I miss such a photo?

The article, from the Arkansas Times, wasn't so much about pirates as it was about a creative response to bigotry. The pirates in question are "Pastafarians," adherents of the tongue-in-cheek "religious" group who worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Church of the FSM was originally started as a humorous response to the Kansas School Board's decision to teach creationism alongside evolution under the guise of "Intelligent Design." Pastafarians insisted, in the interests of the state not supporting one particular religion, that THEIR version of the creation story be taught alongside the Judeo-Christian version.

The article that Kimberly had left for me was how the Pastafarians in Little Rock, Arkansas, had creatively rallied against the religiously-inspired hatred espoused by the members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and its pastor, Fred Phelps. Westboro Baptist Church, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is monitored by the Anti Defamation League, has become famous for picketing funerals of AIDS victims and military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church's websites, and (and, no, I'm not going to give you live links for them!), are full of vile hatred targeted at gays, Jews, blacks, liberals, the U.S. Military.

I first encountered Phelps, who is a disbarred attorney, back in the early 1990s when I was a seminary student in Missouri. He and his congregation, which is mostly composed of his family members, were picketing the Missouri Baptist Convention's annual meeting (because Southern Baptists aren't conservative enough for him!). I made the zealously youthful mistake of trying to engage him in dialogue and nearly got maced for my trouble. He's such a sweet guy...

The Pastafarians, however, seem to have figured out how to beat Phelps at his own game. Clad in piratical costume (one of the "requirements" for true Pastafarians), they waved their own signs declaring "God Hates Shrimp" and "God Hates Poly-Cotton Blends," citing the Book of Leviticus as their proof texts. By citing the same set of Biblical texts that Phelps cites to condemn homosexuality, the Pastafarians managed to successfully point out how Phelps (who was probably wearing a poly-cotton shirt) ignores the context of Biblical texts and how he centers his hate speech around his own personal prejudices.

Three cheers, along with a "Yo ho ho" and a couple bottles of rum for the Pastafarians for so creatively (and effectively!) standing up against hate!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Donkeys, Elephants and Pandas. Oh my!

Election day is almost here and I'm definitely going to the polls to vote for my favorite candidates. I hope they win, but I'm also genuinely looking forward to having the whole thing over and done with. As a former Political Science major, though, I've got to admit that I'm always interested in the political process and the ways that candidates represent themselves to the public.

This morning, as I was returning home from church, I drove past an interesting thing: a giant inflatable panda holding a campaign sign. "A panda?" I asked myself, "Did I see that right?" Donkeys and elephants are no surprise, but what polical party uses a panda? Thoughts began to whiz through my brain. I whipped around the block and pulled out my cell phone for a quick picture, just so you would know that I'm wasn't hallucinating.

Sitting at the stop sign, I saw that this was the campaign headquarters for three borough council hopefuls who, it turns out, are Republicans. "Why, then, the panda?" I continued to wonder. Perhaps, because Dumont is a solidly "blue" town, these candidates didn't want to use the elephant out of concern that it might alienate democrats who might vote for them. Maybe, because the candidates are styling themselves as reformers, they didn't want to depict themselves as too closely allied with the party that has held the U.S. Presidency for the last eight years.

I have to admit that I don't know anything substantative about any of the Dumont First candidates or, for that matter, about their opponents. I am entirely ignorant of the local politics in Dumont. I couldn't care less who wins those borough council seats. Still, that panda bothered me. As I drove home, I began to free-associate.
  1. Pandas come from China, so maybe the Dumont First people were trying to suggest that the Chinese government was endorsing them. Probably not.

  2. Pandas are an endangered species. Could it be that the Dumont First group is trying to say that environmental protection is at the top of their agenda. I kind of doubt it.

  3. One of the Olympic mascots was a panda, so maybe they were using a panda to carry some of the Olympic spirit to their campaign. Could be.
  4. Maybe the campaign folks wanted to have a big, tacky inflatable thing on their lawn to attract attention, but weren't able to find much that wasn't an obvious Halloween or Christmas decoration. Bingo!

Then I began playing word games and that's where the panda poo really hit the fan, so to speak. Maybe this unfortunate political mascot wasn't a panda bear at all, but a "pander bear." Perhaps the group's slogan was "We'll panda to your special interest." Of course, no politican would actually be so brazen as to actually use a slogan like that -- even if it were true!

Still, the whole thing got me thinking. Symbols shouldn't be chosen lightly. Even though Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the United States' national bird, the bald eagle won out. The industrious beaver is Canada's national symbol. Russia has the bear. England's symbol is the lion. India uses a tiger. Even mythological creatures are represented by Scotland's unicorn and China's dragon. Those are all good choices.

Political party mascots should be chosen carefully, too. The origins of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant lay with political cartoonist Thomas Nast, rather than with the parties, themelves, but they are sturdy symbols. Teddy Roosevelt chose the bull moose as his party's symbol. The Libertarians use a penguin and the Independence Party of Missouri have a buffalo.

If I were to pick a mascot for a political party, what would I pick? I can think of a whole bunch of really bad choices: a weasel; a raccoon, with its bandit's mask; a flounder; a snake? My problem, though, is that I don't think I could find giant, inflatable varieties to put up in front of my campaign headquarters. I might end up with something like Snoopy flying his doghouse, but I certainly wouldn't pick a panda.

Autumn means apples

With Autumn upon us, my thoughts have turned to the ingredients of the season. I've been cooking pork roasts, making beef stew, chili, and other heartier fare. With the days getting shorter, I've also been getting a bit nostalgic, remembering the change of seasons when Kimberly and I lived in Connecticut.

When the first autumn of our married life rolled around, Kimberly and I went apple picking and, of course, that involved buying plenty of freshly pressed apple cider. We drank cider until you could just about see the delicious, rich, thick, brown liquid sloshing around in our eyes . All fall, we would buy locally produced cider in the grocery store, drinking it straight or mulled it and drinking it hot.

All that cider put me in mind of a vacation that my family had taken to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, back when I was a teenager. One of the fond memories of that trip was buying cider from an Amish family that were selling it at a roadside stand. We were staying in a pop-up camper that had a tiny refrigerator, so the cider never got refrigerated as it would have if we had been at home. A couple days after we had purchased the cider, the plastic jugs containing it had gotten a bit distended from carbon dioxide given off by the wee beasties that were doing their divinely ordained work of fermentation. When we drank that cider, it was extra-crisp and delightfully fizzy. (For those of you who might be shaking your heads and saying "tisk, tisk," at the notion of a teenage boy drinking this cider, the alcohol content was also very low, probably less than one percent.)

Anyhow, during that New England fall when Kimberly and I were newlyweds, I decided to make some hard cider, adding a bit of yeast to one of the cider jugs and replacing the screw-cap with a balloon, so that I could monitor the level of fermentation and allow the gas to escape. Each day, the balloon would magically inflate and each night, I would let the carbon dioxide to escape, until, one day, the process stopped. The alcohol content was high enough and/or the sugar content was low enough that the yeast just gave up and died. Now, I had hard cider that was worth the name.
I filtered the cider through an old t-shirt and put the clear, amber liquid back in a clean jug, but the process was only partway finished. During the colonial era, hard cider was often distilled into applejack by the process of freeze distilling, rather than by the better-known evaporation method. In freeze distilling, the water in the hard cider freezes before then alcohol, so the spirit can be drained off. Fortunately, the weather was cooperating that the temperatures had dropped below freezing, so I wrote my name and apartment number on the jug with a sharpie marker and set it outside to freeze during the night.

In the morning, I went out and found just what I had hoped for: slush at the top of the jug, with liquid below. I brought the jug in, poked a hole in the bottom with a knife, and caught the liquor in another container. With great anticipation, I tasted the applejack. It was definitely appley and certainly had a kick, but the flavor was a bit off, probably because I had used regular bread yeast instead of a brewer's or winemaker's yeast. The rest of the applejack went down the sink and I never got around to trying to make it again.

Fast forward to the present.

Just a few weeks ago, my family went apple picking at Prospect Hill Orchards in Milton, NY. It was a warm, sunny day and we quickly filled our buckets with enough apples for our family plus several buckets full of apples for my wife to give away at the Shade Tree Commission's table at the borough's "River Edge Day." We drank apple cider and enjoyed cider doughnuts before coming back home.

When I began planning the menu for the week, I knew that I wanted to cook with some of our fresh-picked apples. Having gotten somewhat tired of the salmon and potatoes recipe that is one of our regular grocery-night dinners, I decided to reprise a French fish recipe that I haven't made in years.

The recipe couldn't be easier and tastes great with flaky-yet-crisp fish and tangy-sweet apples:

French Fish with Apples
4 firm white fish fillets (I used tilapia, which worked well. Sole is too flimsy.)
6 apples of your favorite variety (I used six different kinds, just on principle.)
2 eggs, beaten
flour for dredging
4-6T butter
panko (Japanese bread crumbs) for dredging
juice of one lemon
2T apple brandy (Calvados is typical. I used Laird's Applejack, which made in New Jersey and is the original colonial era producer of the product.)

Peel and core the apples. In a large skillet, melt 2-3T butter over medium heat. Add apples and cook, turning occasionally, until apples begin to brown, approximately 15 minutes. Transfer pan to warm oven.

Rinse and pat dry the fish fillets. In second skillet, melt 2-3T butter over medium-high heat. Add salt and pepper, to taste, to flour and dredge fish filets in mixture, then in egg, then in panko. Place in pan and cook for 4-5 minutes, until fish is mostly cooked. Turn and cook for a few minutes more until fish is done.

Remove apples from oven and mix in lemon juice and brandy. Spoon apples over fish and serve immediately.