Thursday, April 8, 2010

New Idea

Well, this isn't going so well.

I'm really bad at this whole blog thing. The problem is, I can't think of anything to write. That's where you come in, dear readers. Name a topic. Give me something specific enough that I can write a fairly concise article, rather than a book. I'll do some half-hearted research and throw something together in far too short a time. Don't expect anything academic; I'll forget to cite a source or two, and it may or may not be because I just pulled something out of my ass. This may be because you picked some boring dry old bugger, and I need to add some drama to make things interesting, or it may be because I got lazy and didn't feel like doing any more research.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How to cook a steak indoors

Lots of people screw this up in a number of ways. Usually, by not using enough heat, or a heavy enough pan. Here's how to do it right.

You need:
- A steak [1].
- Salt and pepper [2].
- Neutral oil with a high smoke point [3].
- Good butter [4].

Optional, but highly recommended:
- Fresh thyme.
- Fresh rosemary.
- Garlic.

- Get your steak out of the fridge so it can come up to room temperature. When it's not frigid, pat it dry and season it with salt and pepper.
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Get out your grandma's old well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, and put it on high.
- Put a good coating of oil in your pan. You don't want a little dinky pool, but you don't want to deep-fry the steak either.
- When the oil is *almost* smoking hot, gently lay the steak into the pan. Don't fuck with it; just leave it be and occasionally lift it up a tiny bit to peek under to check on the progress.
- Smash a couple cloves of garlic with the side of a knife, and slip them out of their skin. Plop them into the pan, off to the side somewhere. Toss in a sprig each of thyme and rosemary.
- When the steak is nice and brown on the bottom, flip it over. Pile the garlic, thyme, and rosemary on top. Put a nice big pat of butter on top, too.
- Shove the whole thing into the oven.
- After a couple minutes, the butter should be melted. Pull the pan out of the oven, tuck the herbs under the steak, and spoon the butter/oil/juices over the steak. Shove it back in the oven.
- Pull it out and poke it now and then.
- When it feels like the flesh between your thumb and index finger when your hand is in a loose fist, it's done (should take about five minutes in the oven, but it depends on the thickness). Pull it out of the pan and put it on a cutting board to rest for ten minutes tented with foil.
- Eat.

If you want to make a fancy sauce, while the steak is resting, do this:
- Set the hot pan over high heat.
- Pull out the bits of garlic, herbs, etc. with tongs.
- When the meat juices have browned a bit and stuck to the pan, pour off the fat.
- De-glaze with a splash of red wine.
- Drop in a cube of frozen super-concentrated beef broth [5]. Pour in any juices from the resting steak.
- Off the heat, stir in a pat of butter.
- Season with salt and pepper.

[1] The steak should be reasonably thick, but nothing crazy. If you're trying to do this with a really damn thick steak, like one of those two-inch filet mignon things that seem to be popular, this method won't work. If it's over an inch thick, don't bother trying to do this; it will be raw and cold in the middle. Maybe you like that, but I don't. I like ribeyes about an inch thick.

[2] Don't use table salt. It has sodium silicoaluminate in it. Do you know what that is? I sure as shit don't. Kosher salt is readily available and reasonably priced. The frog-eaters make a decent sea salt that comes in blue (fine) and red (coarse) cardboard tubes with a whale on them. There's also fancy fleur de sel stuff that's great for finishing, but totally over-the-top unless it's a special occasion.

[3] I keep two oils around for cooking---a cheap, Lebanese extra virgin olive oil for lower-heat stuff, that I buy in vast quantities, and a smaller bottle of safflower oil that I use for stuff like this and for stir-fries when I want a high smoke point.

[4] I don't use much butter. When I use butter, it's for the flavor of the butter, so I get good butter. Plugra is good and reasonably available. There are much pricier boutique butters out there, but they're a waste for cooking. Use them for spreading on good bread. And buy unsalted butter for cooking, especially baking, so you can control the seasoning.

[5] Keep this around. I'll explain it in a future post and put the link here.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

It's 2010, and that means it's time for me to promise to update this thing more often, then stop doing so after a couple of months.

Anyway, I think what I'm going to do is combine this blog with my food blog, so it will just be one rather eclectic blog. All this means is that the food posts that I don't post on Tiny Kitchen in Dearborn will be food posts that I don't post on here instead. That way, I have twice as many posts to not write, but I'm only procrastinating on one blog rather than two. That made sense, right?

I'll probably have a few book review posts on here in the near future, and many of them will be cookbooks, so I think that's a good tie-in to combine the blogs. I might also re-visit some of the stuff I've done over on Tiny Kitchen, take better pictures, and post them in here.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Christmas Bomb Worked

The bomb on Northwest flight 253 was not a failure. It worked quite well.

You see, terrorists aren't trying to kill people, they're trying to cause terror. A packet of PETN the size of a sanitary napkin taped to some guy's junk doesn't need to explode to cause terror, it just needs to get past security, then cause an uproar on the plane.

Oh, Obama will make a few speeches, a few appointed officials will play musical chairs, and we'll have a few more reasons to hate flying. We'll spend a few billion dollars on some new mandated machines at the airports that are designed to sniff out crotch bombs (and give fat bonuses to the execs at the companies that make them). In the end, though, we're as safe as we are now. The next bomb won't be PETN. We'll be expecting that, and it's apparently too hard for the nincompoops Bin Laden manages to brainwash to set off, as proven by this guy and the shoe bomber. Meanwhile, the terrorists are rolling around laughing at the stupid Americans getting their panties in a bunch over a pair of explosive BVDs, whilst plotting for the next way to smuggle bombs into densely populated spaces.

How do we know what the terrorists will do next? Here's an idea: hire Tom Clancy to come up with ways terrorists could attack us, and then hire a few fortune tellers from Detroit's Greektown to cast stones on the likelihood of them being carried out. Build machines to install at the airports to detect signs of these plots. Arrest anyone who fits Tom's character descriptions, and send Jack Ryan to kill Bin Laden.

Or we could listen to reason.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Arlen Specter

Since when does being a moderate Republican make someone some sort of fringe weirdo? Are people so ignorant of their own party's history? It seems that a lot of people are jumping on Specter for not having been a "real Republican". Where does this thought come from?

Up until Ford dropped Rockefeller for Dole in '76, the moderate and conservative parts of the party were pretty evenly matched. Goldwater pushed the conservatives a bit higher in the mid-'60s, but through the '40s and '50s, the moderates were pretty much in charge. Since the '80s, however, the conservatives have been solidly in charge of the party, and the moderates have been pushed further and further into the corner. At some point, the conservative Republicans forgot the moderates ever existed, even though there are still a few of them hanging on.

Moderate Republicans aren't some sort of rebel faction of the Republican party; they're just a few old guys who still like Ike.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Recently, I have been trying to improve my penmanship. In so doing, I realized why I always seemed to have trouble with cursive writing; I don't think my teachers were teaching it correctly.

Look at any turn-of-the-century penmanship handbook, and you will see hundreds of exercises simply to train the hand and arm movements required to write quickly and legibly. Hundreds of identical strokes, all at the same angle, with the same pressure, moving always with the arm, not the fingers. These train the muscles of the arm to produce consistent letter forms, quickly and smoothly, which is essential to penmanship.

This was never taught. Instead, we took the printing we learned in earlier grades, added tails to the letters, and mashed them together. Each letter was distinct, without flow. Strokes were taught only as they pertained to an individual letter; when a letter was broken down into its component shapes, those shapes were immediately assembled back into that same letter, without touching on re-use of those shapes in similar letters.

I see this same problem in software development. A problem is broken down into smaller problems, but these small problems are rarely studied in isolation. We break the problem down, solve the small problems, and re-assemble them. Forgetting that we already solved two-thirds of the small problems elsewhere in the project, we solve the same problem in five or six different ways, some better and some worse, some beautiful, some sloppy and unmaintainable.

What we need to do is solve these small problems. Solve them over and over again, so that we may refine them and practice them. Eleven letters in Spencerian script share the same initial stroke; practicing just that one stroke will improve the implementation of each and every one of those letters. Perfect solutions to common sub-problems, and all problems that share them will improve.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Desserts in the Desert or: Why the English Language is Hard to Learn

You thought remembering when to use "their", "there", or "they're" was complicated? Well, here's a set of words that will really make your head spin. Even if you're a native speaker of English, you probably don't even know about the existence of one of these words, as is made clear by the number of times I have seen the misspelled idiom "just desserts" in the writing of my peers.

I'll start my explanation with two Latin words, serere and servire. Now, serere is a useful word. The root simply means "join", and is used in words such as our "series". Servire also serves us well, as you can see here[1]. This pair of words, after getting thoroughly sloshed on their way through France, have become a confusing mish-mash of English words. Four of these are the subjects of this post.

"Desert" is a rather innocuous word. You probably think you know everything there is to know about it, but you're probably wrong. In fact, there are three homographs---words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings, and may or may not be pronounced the same---here. Taking our old friend serere, we can add de- to the beginning; this gives us "deserere", or "un-join", meaning to leave---desert. An area which is abandoned or deserted by life is then a desert. Luckily, these words do not share a part of speech, so confusion between them rarely occurs.

By now, you're probably wondering where our second Latin root, servire, comes in. This word means "serve", and we can add the same de- to it, giving us "deservire", or "un-serve"; when you clear the table after a meal, you are "un-serving" your guests (or masters, as the Latin for "slave" was servus). Eventually, there came to be a tradition of serving a treat at the end of a meal---a dessert, if you will.

Finally, let's come back around to the misspelled idiom, "just desserts". The correct spelling is thus: "just deserts". In this case, desert is a homophone of "dessert", and also derives from servire, specifically from the word "deserve"; it means "something to which you are entitled due to service". Historically, this would generally be a good thing. You served well, and deserve a reward---your "just deserts". Limiting those deserts to cake and ice cream seems rather droll[2], don't you think?

[1] Yes, that was a pun.
[2] And if you're wandering in the desert, you really ought to eschew sweets.