Tuesday, June 28, 2011

EDU: Texas Pulled Pork with Chipotle Barbecue Sauce

Lately, I've been trying to simplify things in the kitchen. Most people believe that you can get away with one three knives (Chef's, paring, bread), and I've been trying to extrapolate this even further, relying on my cast-iron Dutch oven and pan to do most of the grunt work, instead of trotting out pot after pot. Utensils are another area where gadgetry can make thing more complicated than they need to be. My parents have a garlic 'finger-trap' that peels the garlic and then another yo-yo-esque contraption to grind it up. While I lust over it at times, if one truly want to improve their cooking skills, the hard way is the only way to bolster the fundamentals. This recipe would certainly be described as pulled pork the 'hard way' but the results were spectacular, and the work involved made the end result all the more satisfying.

Note: This recipe is courteous of the Homesick Texan blog that has oodles of recipes of this caliber.

Step 1: Prepare the rub

Coffee-chipotle rubIngredients:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup of finely ground dark coffee
1/4 cup paprika (smoked is preferred but regular is fine)
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon chipotle powder
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons allspice

I had made pulled pork once before, but in a slow-cooker after covering it in Root Beer. It was really good, but I wanted a recipe that would be a bit crispier and smokier, in line with more traditional recipes. This rub wasn't time consuming, but I had to hunt around for a few of the ingredients. The coffee and chipotle powder were unique additions, and while I didn't notice the coffee in the final product, I'm sure it enhanced the smokiness of the chipotle. 

After preparing the rub, I put my 4lb bone-in Pork shoulder in a large freezer bag along with the rub, and shook it vigorously until it was thoroughly caked. There was a healthy amount of rub left over, but the recipe mentioned to simply save the rest rather than try to slather it all on. I then wrapped the shoulder in Saran wrap and put it in the fridge for 6 hours. This was around 2:30pm. The recipe called for 8 hours in the fridge, but I really couldn't push it that late, as I would be doing the final steps before work the next morning, and the old 'I was pulling pork' excuse raises its fair share of eyebrows.

I took it out around 8:30, and it was quite juicy. I unwrapped it, placed it in the Dutch oven fat-side up, and put the whole thing in the oven at 250.

While things got down to business in the oven, I started out on the homemade barbecue sauce. I had purchased a bottle of sauce from TJ's, but I decided if I was going to go through this whole process, taking a shortcut on the last step would be sacrilegious. So I set out to make the sauce. I'm glad I did.

Chipotle barbecue sauceIngredients:
1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 half a medium onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup yellow, ball-park style mustard
1/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup brewed coffee
2 canned chipotles, chopped
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup lime juice
Salt and black pepper to taste

Much like the rub, I had a lot of these ingredients, it was simply a matter of getting them all on the same team. I did have to get a few things: molasses (I usually hate molasses, but now I can see their merits), more ketchup (2 cups is a LOT of ketchup) and canned chipotles (of which I used maybe 1/4). Sauteing the onions until translucent, followed by the garlic, I added the rest of the ingredients and simmered the whole thing on low for about half an hour. 

 Color me stupid, but I was flabbergasted with how much this looked and smelled like real barbecue sauce! I suppose I had never sat down and considered what actually went into a BBQ sauce, but I would have scarcely guessed ketchup, molasses and mustard. I now feel silly for putting mustard AND BBQ sauce on a burger when I now realize I was double-dipping on the same condiment. Live and learn. After a little hand blender action, this sauce was pureed into the sauce-like consistency we know and love.

This is the point where I went all Ron Popeil and left things cooking overnight. I set my alarm, (recipe said 8hrs, I did closer to 9) and went to bed. When I woke up at 5:30, I thought I had died and gone to hog heaven. I took the crispy-looking pig out of the oven and let it sit for about 45 minute while I went back to bed and felt bad for my roommate having to smell it when he put on his morning pot of coffee. When I woke up at 6:15, the pork was waiting just as cute as can be. 

I grabbed a pair of forks, hoisted the shoulder into a bowl and got a-shredding. The bones slipped out smoothly, and the forks were more than capable tools for the job. In about five minutes, I had four pounds of glistening, crispy pork. The darker portions are actually the caramelized brown sugar and toasted coffee from the rub, NOT evidence of burning as you might think. If I had read more closely, I would have found that this was noted in the recipe. Whoops.

After stirring in the sauce, the Chipotle Pulled Pork was complete. Of course, it was also 6:30 in the morning, so I packed some into a tupperware, grabbed a bun and brought it for lunch, hoping it wasn't a complete failure. 

As things so happened, my fears were unfounded. It was delicious, and others agreed. The pork was moist and crispy, the sauce lightly sweet with the distinct smokiness of chipotle and a hearty kick. It really was fantastic, and I had it again that evening with Milwaukee's finest and again for lunch the next day (sans beer, of course). Give it a try, it's well worth the effort, and not really much effort now that I think of it, just patience and trust in your oven not to burn you alive in your sleep. That's it!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Devastation on Beacon Street

Two weeks ago, I blogged about a small herb garden that I had started on my deck. I had low expectations, but was pleasantly surprised with the vivaciousness of my little seedlings. In fact, in the days that followed, several more green sprouts peeked out of the soil, and I began to research when I should start weeding out the smaller guys. I was even surprising myself with my diligent watering schedule and my paternal attachment to their success, but on Thursday afternoon I discovered an unsettling scene:

Complete at total destruction. Plants uprooted, soil strewn about, no sign of life. Little herblings that yesterday had been vying for space were now laying on their sides, stalks bent and twisted.

After the shock and anger subsided, I was on the case. I made sure to thoroughly document the crime scene and avoid contaminating evidence. I examined the surroundings, paying close attention to the significant amount of dirt on the railing and going downstairs to look for any plants that had been discarded off the deck onto the lawn below. I found nothing. After further investigation, I could not find any variety of plants "missing", though some certainly seemed to have been targeted specifically (Dill) and some emerged mostly unscathed (Basil). In fact, when I attempted to recreate the event, I concluded that it appeared as though the Dill section (3rd quadrant) had been dug out with a spade-like tool, leaving a deep crater behind.

With few leads, I had no choice but to make up a list of suspects and whittle things down one-by-one:

Suspect A: Birds (Black-capped Chickadee, specifically)

-Fucking EVERYWHERE around my house
-Love to eat seeds
-Can FLY (reach decks with ease)
-Unafraid of humans (ballsy)
-Nesting season in June (mouths to feed)

-Unlikely to afflict the large-scale carnage I discovered
-Not sure if they like herbs
-Birdfeeder on other side of deck

Suspect B: Eastern Gray Squirrel

-Enjoy seeds and nuts, sometimes even BONES if Wikipedia is to be believed.
-Extremely nimble, can scale decks easily
-Paws and snout extremely adept at digging
-Cold, dead eyes
-Also unafraid of humans

-More of a gatherer/hoarder than a random destroyer
-Unlikely to have thrown dirt onto railing with tiny paws
-Usually found with the pigeons and the homeless man down the street

Suspect C: Roommate

-On deck frequently
-Deck door open day of crime (Not a very hot day)
-Leaving apartment in August (Skipping country? Check extradition laws)
-Hands can easily scoop dirt and crush plant life

-Never acknowledged herbs
-Spends most time in room
-No garden tool at scene of crime

Other Persons of Interest:

Needlessly destructive
Can be assholes

Prefers rodents

-Soil splatter pattern

-No evidence of fire/charring
-Did not rain that day
-Planter was not obliterated

As of this post, the investigation is still open and I am following up on any and all leads. If you noticed suspicious activity on Thursday June 23rd, please contact me so the parties involved can be brought to justice.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Miracles of Science: The Waterless Urinal

I'm not a Germophobe. I am a staunch proponent of the ten-second rule, and think Purell is thinly-veiled  placebo mucous. Even with these eyebrow-raising standards, I still think public bathrooms are the vile cesspools that subscribe to the 'out of sight, out of mind' theory of cleanliness. As long as everything is whisked of down a ceramic hole in a timely fashion, everything is hunky-dory. While this may be appropriate for something like the toilet where you can flush from afar with your shoe, but at the urinal, your options are nil. The handle is too high to depress with anything but your hand, and if you try to maintain a safe distance your face gets precariously close to the bowl. Without knowing the flush velocity, you are taking some serious risks. And don't even think about 'letting it mellow'. Disgusting and only an viable in the event of a water emergency. You flush and get away as fast as possible. Time and again science has tried to solve this conundrum with infrared flushing sensors or 'reduced-water' systems, but splashing remained a very real threat. Short of a giant trough (which opens up another can of worms), something drastic needed to be done. Allow me to introduce the waterless urinal.

The future is here. A sleek, stylish engineering marvel promises to make the restroom a place of pastoral relief again. Speaking from personal experience, it is nothing less than a miracle. It uses a unique liquid displacement mechanism to remove waste without water or any flushing. It has a uniquely conical shape that guarantees an obtuse splash angle and efficient disposal. There are no urinal cakes, no detonation timers and no outhouse bouquet. It can save 40,000 gallons of water a year PER FIXTURE. If there were a Nobel Prize for plumbing, it would be a shoo-in. Every bar on the planet has an obligation to make this investment if they care about the health and comfort of their patrons. Until that blessed day, I'll keep visiting the ones at Donohue's every Sunday night.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Worth Your Time: The Weeknd - House of Balloons

Today's post is the first in a series of entries made to go hand in hand with my 'Frugal Gourmet' pieces. Instead of pointing you towards cheap, fast, delicious food in the area, the 'Worth Your Time' segments will share 'free' things, that are worth your valuable time to seek out. Free usually comes with a hitch or a serious compromise in quality (see pathetic corporate excuses for frisbees/pens or "free" t-shirts banks give out on college campuses if you sign up for a credit card). There will be none of that here. I have no patience for that tomfoolery. Consider today's post Exhibit A.

The Weeknd is a mysterious 20 year-old from Toronto. His mixtape "House of Balloons" has been the Buzziest thing in the blogosphere since it dropped for free at the end of March, and while I have enjoyed it thoroughly over the past 3 months, cool summer nights have really made it shine. I've come up with a short questionnaire to gauge whether or not you will enjoy The Weeknd's music.

1) Do you like Drake's production but wish he wasn't such a mopey baby?

2) Do you like The Dream's voice but think he is a major perv?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you will probably fall for the charms of this mixtape. Abel Tesfaye pairs The Dream's voice with Drake's industrial sound to make songs that exist in a cloud of sex and substance abuse. Somehow it's still tasteful (most of the time) and seriously catchy. He has promised more mixtapes this year and has been working with huge stars in recent months, but he'll find it hard to top the sneaky brilliance of his debut.

Get it for free here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8

First thing's first, Super 8 is not a monster movie. But then again, neither was ET, and that didn't seem to hurt its receipts (it made nearly 800 million dollars worldwide, #4 all time). But still, ET didn't have to deal with the monstrosity that makes up a successful ad campaign these days. 'Exclusive' clips and teaser trailers often leak out years before a movie comes to fruition. Blogs report breaking news from the set and take contraband photos to satiate fans and maintain excitement. Through this exhausting promotional process, a crucial part of the film experience is lost; mystery. I'm sure JJ Abrams did his best to protect Super 8 from this fate, but concessions must be made, and the studio cut a trailer that made the film look more like Transformers than Close Encounters, which is a shame because it deserves better. I would be a hypocrite if I railed against the 'spoiling' of films by powerful studios and then proceeded to give away the plot of the film in this review, so I will steer clear of details, and instead explain why I think it is a great film, Spielberg homage or not.

The most affecting sci-fi gets that way by projecting the story through children. The circumstances are variable and irrelevant. Finding buried treasure, making a zombie film, retrieving a toy all inevitably lead to the discovery of something much bigger, and it becomes the kids responsibility to inform the adults and save the world. Donnie Darko, The Goonies, ET, The Iron Giant, even Home Alone follow this formula, and succeed because of it. Super 8 introduces these elements as well as any of them, and uses it effectively to balance the two converging story lines. Admittedly, adventurous kids alone doesn't make a film, but Abrams wrings some fantastic scenes out of these young actors, and once the actual 'sci-fi' starts, we'd almost prefer just to stick with the kids for another 90 minutes.

Surprisingly, even as the plot continues to expand and envelop a larger cast of characters, the kids remain front and center, and the film never becomes a string of ham-fisted dramatic scenes a la War of the Worlds. Abrams smartly keeps the family dynamics ambiguous and allows us to piece it together scene by scene. He also resists artistic flourishes or disorienting camera angles, instead using some manipulative and borderline distracting music and Spielberg's patented refracted light effects that come across more endearing than cliche. The acting across the board is fantastic, and the action scenes are well choreographed and fully realized without feeling like sensory overload. Despite the familiar material, Abrams has several tricks up his sleeve, many of which he refreshingly uses to empower the kids. There are no frustrating scenes of kids desperately trying tell their parents what they've seen and being sent to their room. Each character has a functional brain and pieces clues together, intersecting briefly to share information and then diverging again. It shouldn't be surprising when characters aren't paper-thin caricatures, but it is. The story resolves neatly and admirably, without shortcuts or contrivance, and although I can't promise you unscathed heartstrings, Abrams earns it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Repeat: Other Lives - Tamer Animals

I used to think The National had a completely unique sound, one that was impervious to imitation. Not only does Matt Berninger's detached baritone emote adult melancholy like none other, but combined with the tumbling slap of Bryan Devendorf's drums, they produce an atmosphere that fans can recognize instantly. Well, The National, consider yourself hacked. The Oklahoma 5-piece Other Lives have cracked the code to your sounds and began producing moody tracks of their own.

'Tamer Animals', the newest single off their sophomore release of the same name, is the purest distillation of what I'm talking about. While Jesse Tabish's voice sounds more like Paul Banks of Interpol than Berninger, what surrounds him is pitch perfect. The off-balance drumbeats and reverberating piano mirror each verse beautifully, and although backing vocals are called in to give Tabish some depth, I can't say I blame them; few voices can make a listener to 'sit up and take notice' like Berninger's. When all is said and done, 'Tamer Animals' is something would have played quite nicely on High Violet, but instead finds itself nestled in the center someone else's record. National, consider yourselves flattered. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Urban Herbing

(Author's note: Not my garden.)

A couple weeks ago, I got a crazy hair up my butt and decided gardening would be a gratifying and practical use of my free time. I had scant idea how to garden, or even what supplies were necessary, but I had an image in my head that I could not shake. It was of me waltzing out onto my porch and plucking fresh basil and parsley and whipping up some fantastical dish to the delight of my crowd of guests. Learning how to be a better cook or to figuring out how I to entertain more than 2 people in my kitchen was irrelevant. The herbs come first, and everything else will fall into place. I believe it was James Earl Jones who said "if you grow it, they will come", but don't quote me on that.

Anyhow, to make a long story short, I poked around my neighborhood flower shop and came home with a long plastic planter, a 16-quart bag of soil, and an 'Easy to Grow Seed Collection'. Inside this seed collection were five herbs that some Renee chick seems to think are 'kitchen essentials'. They have also been 'specially chosen' to grow well in containers and pots, which sounds like utter bullshit and will make the situation that much more tragic when they shrivel and die. These herbs were Basil, Chives, Cilantro, Dill, and Parsley. Of course, these names alone could never suffice, so Renee waxed poetically on the back of each packed about why this 'Perfuma di Genova' basil makes your grandmothers basil look like a limp weed. I bought the variety pack partly because I didn't want to put all my seeds in one basket if it failed, partly because it was cheaper  to buy the variety pack than a couple packets separately, and mostly because I got a little carried away. I placed the seeds on my bookcase and the planter and soil on my deck, and there they sat for two weeks.

Fast forward to last Tuesday. I finally got up the gumption to plant, and plant I did. I read the instructions, but frankly, they were kind of silly: plant Basil approximately 2-3" apart, in Early June to the depth of 1/4". Listen Renee, I'm not trying to step on your toes here, but who goes around digging little 1/4 inch holes for Basil in the wild? No one does, so that's not going to happen in my garden. I can take it from here. Most of the herbs had the same basic instructions anyway. Space them a couple inches apart, about half an inch deep sometime in early Summer. I decided to give each herb half a row of my planter, and squeeze the last herb in between somewhere. Here is a picture of the soil just before I cut the ribbon and went to work.

Pristine, bathed in golden sunlight. I felt a bit like Columbus discovering America. So as I was saying, I had the presence of mind to give each herb a distinct area, but in retrospect, I made a few critical errors in the process. First, I have no idea which herb is in which quadrant. I suppose I will find out by seeing what sprouts (or doesn't), but still, it feels a little amateurish. Also, I was a little too stingy with the seeds at first. And by stingy, I mean, one seed per hole. I had rationalized this completely in my head, as I didn't want to overcrowd the little guys. It wasn't until later that the 'sperm' analogy hit me and I realized I should be stuffing 10 seeds in each dimple. Whatever herb I put in that first quadrant, I apologize. I hope it was dill, because I don't intend to 'pickle' anything this summer. Here is a picture of the seeds in my hand. So much potential, so much dirt.

Here is a picture of the soil after seeding. If you can squint, you might be able to see the seed shaped nodules. I pushed those down shortly after.

Finally, just one more picture of the seeds. These were good looking seeds.

 So after seeding, I had to decide where to place this planter. There are a lot of trees in my backyard, so sunlight isn't necessarily guaranteed, and if these seeds are going to die, I'll be damned if it'll be due to lack of sunlight. I decided on the railing, as it gets a lot of sun, and I thought the planter was heavy enough to weather any errant wind gusts or curious birds. I also didn't water it at first, because the soil felt pretty moist and I didn't want to overwhelm the seeds on their first day.

I realized quickly that I didn't have anything that could be used to 'water' the seeds in the traditional sense, and even I knew that pouring water out of a cup would be disastrous. So I dug around in the basement and found a watering can. It's a little leaky, but it does the job. I also found some pelletized plant food that I sprinkled on top of the soil for good measure. Plants can't be overfed.

The next few days went something like this.

1. Go outside.
2. Stick finger in soil.
3. Estimate soil hydration.
4. Water (or not)
5. Reposition planter in sunlight

In my estimation, I've watered the seeds 3 times in 8 days, not counting rainstorms or other erroneous moisture. During these 8 days, I've tried to bring up gardening in casual conversation to try and pick up some pointers. Needless to say, it's hard to steer conversations towards gardening, but the more I learned, the more my expectations dwindled. It turns out that the reason they sell those dinky herb plants is because growing herbs from scratch is not as easy as one would think, and require more attention than I am interested in giving. Still, I continued to water diligently and gaze lovingly at the barren soil with positive vibes. The seed packets implied that the first signs of life appear after 10-21 days, at which point you need to start playing 'herb triage'.  Well today has marks 8 days, and look what I found this afternoon:

Well I'll be darned. Looks like someone has a green thumb after all. If that isn't the cutest sprout (chives?) you ever did see. And that's not all. Look at this handsome devil:

Now I'm no horticulturalist, but that looks like the makings of a tall and handsome basil plant. I'd say enough for a 3 grams of pesto. The rest of the herbs are lagging behind, but I gave them a good water today, and laid on the sarcasm real thick in the hopes that I can shame them into germinating. I'll update this when I have more to report.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

With only 5 films to show for a 40 year career, it's no wonder that Terrence Malick feels it necessary to fill his films with some pretty heavy stuff. Unlike his contemporary Woody Allen, who, with nearly 50 films over the same time span, can afford to spend a film (or two) on comparatively trivial things, you get the feeling that with Malick, every frame has been meticulously crafted for maximum effect, and if something doesn't make sense or feels cliche, it's likely due to your own cynical or critical shortcomings. Despite my description to the contrary, he is about the furthest thing from David Lynch I can think of. In place of the Lynchian sense of imminent doom and ominous non sequiturs, Malick's films possess a sense of wonder and awe with the world at large, that feels culled from the mind of a child. It is fitting, I guess, that his most ambitious film to date- one that attempts to answer the boldest questions of humanity, does so via a slice of 1950's Americana through the eyes of three young boys.

The word 'review' seems hollow in this context, just as the term 'film' does to describe Malick's projection of light and sound. The Tree of Life is best experienced as uncritically as possible, simply allowing the experience to wash over you and absorb you into its undertow (as New-Agey as that sounds). The film is not exempt from criticism, but deserves to be taken as a whole, and not on a scene-by-scene, line-by-line basis.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play the parents of three young boys growing up in Waco in what appears to be the 1950's. Between these scenes, are episodes featuring the oldest son in a 'present-day' metropolis, wandering disoriented, and a 20 minute detour presenting the origin of life that defies explanation or synopsis. The majority of the story revolves around this small Texas family, and how they maintain a uncertain balance between 'nature' and 'grace'. Naturally, the father is the one responsible for instilling virtues of 'fierce will' while the mother speaks to love and compassion. When these scales tip, as they frequently do, the parents respond in kind to reclaim the equilibrium. It is these family scenes that are the most evocative. How Malick coaxed such amazing performances out of these children (even the toddlers and babies are remarkable) is beyond my comprehension. Desplat's triumphant score and Lubezki's masterful camera work pull you wholly into this world, chasing behind children as they amble through houses and backyards.

The heaviest thematic elements surround the unanswerable, inevitable questions directed to the heavens in the wake of tragedy. The "Why's" that persist and haunt a person the rest of their lives, and can shake faith in some while reinforcing it in others. Malick shows us that within the beauty and order in the world, there lies the potential for devastation at any moment, and at any scale. Is the loss of a loved one any more tragic than the mass extinction of the dinosaurs? How can we justify a shrug over tears? In the end, I don't think Malick wants us to be these tender souls, perpetually in mourning, nor does he want us to be callous to the world and ignore and dismiss beauty simply because it is temporary. What Malick believes, and what The Tree of Life instilled in me, is a reverence for life precisely because it is so fleeting.