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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

7 Minutos

Siete Minutos

My standards aren’t very high when I go to see a movie in Spanish. It’s basically more of a language exercise than entertainment, but it’s not like I don’t want to be entertained in the process. I go to a little movie house in my neighborhood called Cinestudio d'Or which shows a double feature for 2.50€. Cheap tickets are a definite plus when you are thinking about seeing a movie that you know probably won’t be very good. It’s not like I think American movies are any better and I never pay to see them. I just like sitting in a theater and being forced to listen to Spanish for a couple of hours. Going into a nice, air conditioned movie theater is sort of nice on a very hot afternoon especially if you bring in an ice cold can of beer.

7 Minutes begins with a pretty unoriginal premise and then goes straight to the clichés we all expect from “romantic” “comedies.” I like to put both of those words in separate parenthesis because they are rarely romantic or comic. This movie does little to change my mind on the subject. Why every writer and director wants to be like Woody Allen is a mystery to me seeing how he hasn’t made a good movie in over a generation. At least this movie didn’t have some talentless fuck from the recent cast of Saturday Night Live or one of the other small stable of actors that Hollywood puts into every “romantic” “comedy” they crank out every year like strings of lousy sausages.

I hate being a critic, at least about individual works. I certainly don’t mind slamming the entire movie industry. I enjoyed this movie simply because I liked the fact that I could understand about 93 percent of it. ¿Bastan 7 minutos para encontrar el amor de tu vida? (is 7 minutes enough to find love?) refers to the speed dating session a group of hopefuls attend at the opening of the movie. Like just about all American movies of this genre, it seems that Spanish directors also feel the need to pitch their idea with a silly gimmick. Whatever (lo que sea is how I think that is translated into Spanish), at least I made it to the end, which is more than I can say for the Turkish movie dubbed into Spanish that was the second half of the double feature.

Besides the language lesson, watching Spanish movies—good and bad—strengthens my cultural literacy here in Spain. The cold beer was great after a long bike ride earlier in the afternoon. Besides, I just like going to the movies.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

More Thoughts on the Tour de France 2009

¡Mark Cavendish racking up stage win número cinco!

More Thoughts on the Tour de France 2009

I have thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Tour de France after suffering through three years of drug scandals. I have to admit that being able to watch Lance Armstrong again was definitely a big reason for me to tune in this year. Ever since he was matched up with former Tour winner Alberto Contador on the Astana team sparks have been flying as to just who would be the leader of the team and who would take on the grunt work of being a domestique. Both Contador and Armstrong aren’t the kind of athletes who are used to taking a backseat to anyone and the conflict between them seemed to be about the only thing the press here in Spain really cared to cover during these first two weeks of racing.

For the most part the Spanish press treated Armstrong like a foreign invader or an unwanted houseguest. On the other hand, I just don’t think that Astana team director, Johan Bruyneel, really has Alberto Contador’s best interests at heart. He is, after all, Lance Armstrong’s longtime associate and friend. I think that both Armstrong and Bruyneel just expected Contador to take a back seat on the team. Contador isn’t just some young upstart; he’s a past Tour de France champion so why the hell should he even be on a team that has another rider vying for the top spot? Contador took an inordinate amount of shit from his teammates for an attack he made late in the day on stage 17 in which he left Andres Klöden behind. This left both Klöden and Armstrong off the podium at the end of the day and put in their place the two Schleck brothers who were riding with Contador in the breakaway. There is no doubt that Contador made a tactical error in his ill-planned effort to drop the two Schleck brothers but I think he more than made up for this in the next day’s individual time trial.

I wanted to see one of two things in this decisive time trial: either I wanted Lance to come from behind to take the stage and assure himself a comfortable position on the podium, or I wanted Contador to blow everyone else off the course and prove, once and for all, that he is the best rider in the race. I got option number two and a bit of option one. Contador won the stage by beating the world’s best time trialist, Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, by three huge seconds. All of Contador’s detractors can now politely shut the fuck up. He just about sealed his victory in the general classification and should breeze into Paris with no problem. Armstrong ended up overall at number 3. Now there is the problem of keeping Armstrong in the running.

Lance helped himself out in the time trial even though he came I 16th overall—not a very Armstrong performance. As I said, he did well enough to fight his way over Frank Schleck for third position. Whether he can keep that today in the grueling Mount Ventoux stage on the eve of the ride into Paris is another matter. It will make for a very interesting fight for third position and possibly even second if Andy Schleck has any problems. Andy Schleck is an excellent climber so I don’t see him unraveling today.

Lance was able to pick up four seconds in Friday’s race over his next rival, Bradley Wiggins, because organizers said that the peloton was split up enough at the end to give separate times. Lance will need every second he can get to begin Saturday’s tortuous climb up Mount Ventoux. It has been great to see Wiggins, an ex-Olympic pursuit rider—adapt his style to road racing. He has done an excellent job. He is a good time trailer and a great climber as well. He has all of the necessary elements to win the Tour some day.

The green jersey is still in contention as Mark Cavendish pulled off a surprise victory on Friday—if you can say that a rider who has won four previous stages is a surprise. It’s just that few people were predicting a sprint finish expecting there to be a successful breakaway leaving the sprinters somewhere back on the steep climb of the day. Cavendish gutted it out over the mountain and had a tremendous finish to give him five stages this year. Not a bad Tour for the kid from the Isle of Man.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer Menu

If you had to plan an ideal menu of Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine it would probably come close to what we had this past weekend at the country home of a couple who recently left my hectic neighborhood of Ruzafa for the peaceful hills of an agricultural community south of Valencia. It’s a startling contrast whenever I spend time at their place where I will spend days without hearing a car horn or a jack hammer—two instruments that are major contributors to the soundtrack of life in the city. We have always eaten well when we spend time together but these last few days were exceptional. I haven’t visited them in months and it was like we were making up for lost time in the kitchen and on the patio grill.

I had bought a huge supply of tomatoes which are on sale all over Valencia in the usual summer gold rush manner. I hauled almost four kilos of them along with me for the weekend. Upon arriving I almost immediately started making gazpacho. This is a dish that belongs in your refrigerator all through the summer months. It is also easy to make and open to a lot of personal interpretation and adaptation. It’s impossible to mess up and the only cooking required is when you drop the tomatoes in hot water to remove the skins. The important thing to remember about gazpacho is that after it has been left in the fridge to chill you will want to take it out and adjust the seasoning. My huge batch went from bland and uninspired to delicious after I added quite a bit more olive oil, garlic, and salt after leaving it overnight to chill.

One of the things that I most missed about Mediterranean cooking when I left Greece many years ago and returned to the United States were grilled sardines. I don’t think we have the tradition of eating these little fish except in canned form. It just so happened that my friends had just visited their local fish merchant and picked up about three kilos of very fresh sardines. Although the people along the Mediterranean think rather highly of sardines they aren’t willing to pay much for them. They cost about 2€ a kilo. The modest price of this variety of fish means that they sell quickly which insures that the quantity you buy is always fresh. Anyone who has done a bit of angling knows that fresh fish are harder to scale than older stocks; a small price to pay when preparing sardines—and cleaning three kilos of sardines is quite a bloodbath. I rarely ever cook sardines at home, mainly because I don’t have a grill and also I don’t want to drive my neighbors away with the smell they make while cooking. Grilled sardines are one of the few reasons I ever bother to go to a restaurant in Valencia. Of course the odor isn’t a problem when you have a grill on the patio of a country home.

We cleaned the fish and then sprinkled them with very coarse salt before placing them on a double-sided grilling rack over a hot charcoal fire. High quality charcoal is something my friend takes very seriously so he buys it in huge 40 kilo bags from an Argentine who supplies a lot of backyard barbequers in his area. When the sardines come off the grill you simply splash on a bit of olive oil and you are ready to serve. I don’t even bother with lemon. These sardines are about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length so they have a healthy backbone. With smaller sardines I just eat them bones and all but on these the meat separates easily. After a swelteringly hot day the heat had waned considerably and we were able to eat outside on the patio. Other factors in our favor were the Mediterranean summer dining rules which allow you to begin an evening meal at 1 am. This was going to be a tough meal to top and it was only Friday.

I’m the kind of guy who brings along his own chicken when you invite him over for the weekend. Friday afternoon I had cut it into pieces and seasoned it with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, and garlic. I drizzled olive oil over all of it and put it in a covered glass dish in the refrigerator. On paper this doesn’t sound like the most imaginative dish I the world but it is amazing the results you get with a good charcoal fire. We had this chicken for lunch the next day and it was slow grilled to absolute perfection. The gazpacho came out well, if I do say so myself. A slice of bread and a glass or two of wine (who’s counting?) and we had another great meal.

There is a wonderful community swimming pool just a few blocks down the street so I headed down there a bit after lunch. As much cycling and running as I have been doing lately haven’t really prepared me to take my position on the podium of World’s Underwater Swimming Champion, a post I held for many years—at least in my own eyes. I could barely make one lap of the pool (25 meters? perhaps less) underwater without drowning. I used to be able to make it twice this distance. I am just out of practice as I haven’t been snorkeling since I moved to Spain and it’s been a long time since I really worked to improve my underwater swimming skills. If I ever want to be a Navy SEAL I had better get cracking.

None of us were even thinking about dinner that evening until late into the night. Of course, there was enough gazpacho to withstand a month-long siege but we didn’t have anything else planned. I made an appetizer with some of the leftover sardines. I just mounted them on a thin slice of bread in the Spanish manner of montaditos. Along with a glass of white wine we were off to a good start to another fine meal.

My host whipped up a dish that should be in everyone’s repertoire: pasta aglio olio: pasta in a sauce of olive oil and garlic. This Italian standard has been mastered by every resident of that peninsula and has made into way into the diet of just about everyone else living on the Mediterranean. It is as simple as it is delicious. Boil pasta (tagliatelle in this case), heat a good amount of olive oil, add minced garlic, and toss the pasta in the oil. I make it with red pepper flakes as well. We served this with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese. People tell me that this is a late night dish in Italy, usually served after you have been out all night dancing or whatever. We call it “drunk food” in American where we are a little less moderate in our intake of beer, wine, liquor, shots, tequila, more beer, another round of shots, etc.

As he made the pasta he also started a huge pot of fish stock to be used with Sunday’s traditional Valencian rice dish. The stock contained two heads of rape (monkfish?), some galeras, a truly terrifying version of shrimp, and langostinos. A good stock is crucial for a successful Arroz a Banda that we would be making for tomorrow’s afternoon meal.

I feel stuffed just writing all of this down and I still have another big meal left to describe. I have previously posted a video for Arroz a Banda so I will spare us all this meal. I would like to say that he changed his recipe a bit this time around and added cuttlefish to the dish. I think that it is safe for me to say that I ate rather well last weekend.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ten Reasons To Be In Spain

1) Sometimes a guy just likes to take a leisurely stroll down a quiet cobblestone street while being pursued by a herd of homicidal bulls. That guy isn’t me because I was born with certain birth defects which preclude my participation in these events: a dominant cowardly gene and an excess of common sense. There is no known cure.

2) 82.3% less news about Michael Jackson (and there was plenty about him in Spain).

3) This may seem astonishing to many of you but as a male of the species I really don’t find nude women on the beach to be repugnant. I think that I could live without the naked, fat, 60 year old foreign tourists but you have to learn to take the good with the bad, the ugly, and the “Oh my God I wish I had never seen that.”

4) As far as consumer mentality goes, Spain has helped me to realize that life isn’t better just because you have a choice of 95 breakfast cereals at the supermarket. I don’t even like cereal.

5) Like almost all Spaniards, I have learned to have a healthy respect for food. People here won’t even eat a bag of potato chips without first decanting them into a nice serving bowl. I have learned that Menú del Día translates into English as “Two hour lunch with a nap afterwards.”

6) Vacations in Spain are an art form. We don’t even have a word in America for puente which in Spain means to milk as much out of a day off as humanly possible. A café in my neighborhood run by a Chinese family put a sign in their window that said they were taking off two hours early on a Saturday night to celebrate Chinese New Year. Most Spaniards needed three days to do that holiday justice.

7) 86.3% fewer serial killers than in the USA.

8) Two ice-cold quintos (small, 1/5 liter bottles of beer) for 1€ at a bar in my neighborhood (I have never claimed to be a complicated man).

9) I can buy a pig’s head at my butcher. I have never bought a pig’s head but I like having the option.

10) Honestly, I can’t be bothered to find out about anything in Spain I don’t like. You'll have to give me more time here for that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tour de France 2009

We are well into this year’s Tour de France with two members of the Astana team sitting high in the standings. Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong are teammates and seem to be at each other’s throats if you believe the press coverage, especially here in Spain where Armstrong is seen as a sort of unwanted stowaway on the Astana express. Which rider will come out as the overall leader after 21 stages? All I have to say is that there aren’t too many folks who have made money betting against Lance Armstrong.

I think that Armstrong’s relative lack of cycle training in the past couple of years is going to work to his favor as the race grinds on. He is going to find himself in better and better form as the kilometers pile up. He will use the early stages like a training regimen and when the race turns once again to the grueling mountain stages in the Alps he will give Contador the fight of his life—or vice versa.

As much as I would love to see Lance win another Tour, what I most want to see is an exciting race. This is what the Tour desperately needs after the last three years of doping scandals. This was what the Tour needed when Armstrong won his first Tour which came in the wake of a drug scandal. He ushered in a lot of great publicity for the Tour by winning after his successful fight with cancer. His subsequent victories created an interest in the Tour in the vast and theretofore untapped American public. Many Americans followed the Tour on a day-to-day basis for the first time—at least in Seattle. I’m sure that many Americans have tuned in again this summer.

I think Lance will win it on the penultimate stage of this year’s Tour on Mount Ventoux, with a final climb of 21.1 kilometers (13.1 miles) at average grade of 7.6%. That last uphill should be a desperate struggle between the two teammates and one that I hope will go down as one of the finest moments in Tour de France history.

(If you are a bike fan and have important things to do today, things more important than watching video clips of past Tour de France moments, then do yourself a huge favor and don’t follow the link I provided.)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Summer Menú del Día

Of course by “lunch” here in Spain we don’t mean lunch but the big midday meal they eat no earlier than 2 o’clock and as late as five or six on the hottest days of summer. And “lunch” is also being redundant as Menu del Día always refers to the midday meal. In most small Spanish restaurants they have what is called a Menu del Día which is a fixed price lunch where you have several choices between the three courses you are served, along with beer or wine and coffee. I have some very good friends visiting today so I am planning our Menu del Día.

As much as I like booze I don’t like to drink alcohol during the day. If I’m forced to drink anything I prefer it to be something light—maybe a glass of white wine sangría which will go well with this menu.

Papas Aliñas (Andalucía Potato Salad)

This has instantly become my favorite dish: potatoes marinated in olive oil and vinegar. This recipe comes from Andalucía as you may recognize by the way it is written. Up north we call potatoes “patatas” but in Andalucía—as well as everywhere in the Americas—Spanish speakers call them “papas.” You start by boiling small new potatoes in salted water until they are very tender. Before they cool completely peel of the skin with your fingers. While the potatoes are still warm pour on a bit of olive oil and then refrigerate. Hard boil a few eggs and refrigerate. Slice an onion thinly, marinate in wine vinegar and chill. Mix these three ingredients while adding more oil and vinegar. Add fresh, chopped parsley. What you are left with is a very satisfying potato salad.

Insalata Caprese (Tomato, Mozzarella, and Basil Salad)

I like to stack the these three ingredients on top of each other like pancakes and then serve with a balsamic vinaigrette thickened with corn syrup. I don’t remember where I learned how to do it this way but it sort of dresses up this simple classic. Nota very Spanish dish but at least its Mediterranean. Any excuse to use all of the great tomatoes I have is welcomed.

Pollo al Ajillo (Garlic Chicken)

Heat olive oil and add a couple of crushed, unpeeled cloves of garlic. When the garlic has browned add skinless chicken and cook on both sides but not too thoroughly. Remove chicken and reduce the heat. Add 3-4 cloves of finely chopped or pressed garlic to the oil and place the chicken pieces back in the pan. Make sure there is not too much oil in the pan (a couple of table spoons is about right). Add a cup of red wine to the pan and simmer. I like to serve this dish at about room temperature in the summer.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Never Go Limp

This was the subject line in an email I saw as I was deleting everything in the spam folder in my Gmail account. I was almost tempted to open it just because I think those are three words that every man should learn to live by. They make more sense than “Remember the Alamo” or “Live Free or Die.” “Carpe Diem” seems like poor advice if you just aren’t up for seizing a day because you have the flu or a bad hangover. I have three words for “E Pluribus Unum”: WTF. But “Never Go Limp” are words I can support with enthusiasm.

I don’t think that the authors of this adage mean it literally. Even the hucksters who create spam email realize that you can’t always be rock hard. I don’t mean to put words in their mouths or in their annoying emails but I think what they mean to say is that you should “never go limp” when you don’t want to be limp. Consider a situation in which limpness is a bad thing. Now consider the same situation where you are always in a state of non-limpness. I think that we can all agree the lack of limpness in said circumstances is a good thing and infinitely preferably to the dreaded flaccid state. OK, this is getting totally off the subject, and not at all what I was referring to in the last sentence, but if you had to name the limpest state in America what would it be?. Answer: Florida. Get it?

I also don’t think these guys are necessarily always speaking about the male erection; I’m sure they are referring to a more universal sense of standing up and sticking out, or being rigid and unbending, of being…or maybe they are only talking about boners but I must seek out the truth no matter where it takes me. I need to know what they had in mind but I have already deleted the email and can’t get it back.

I just think that it is important in this age of frivolity, of celebrity Twitter and reality TV shows, of gutter press and trashy novels, it is important in our times to seek out the true voices of wisdom and reason.

I know that most of these bogus emails all emanate from the same server hidden somewhere in the deep outreaches of Eastern Europe so all I have to do is wait for another spam to enter my account. Quickly my inbox begins to fill with spam and I choose one with the subject line of “Get Hung Like a Horse Today!” I find the exclamation point to be a bit hyperbolic but the email will serve my purpose of tracking down the sender of “Never Go Limp” and will allow me to answer my existential quandary over their precise meaning.

I tracked the IP address to a site in Kerch, Ukraine. I imagine that these brave souls are unable to write freely in their own country which is why they send out their spam to the rest of the world. No man is a prophet in his own land. They probably live with the constant fear of the secret police raiding their hideaway. They remind me of our own founding fathers but instead of freeing a land from tyranny they are peddling bootleg sexual dysfunction drugs and porn web sites. Struggle on, valiant warriors!

I was able to find an email to which I could send a poignant question or two to the authors of this heady bit of prose. Using an online translator to phrase my inquiry in their language I wrote the following:

Dear Ukrainian Gangsters,
What do you mean by "never go limp?" Is this more of a philosophical, non-literal approach or is it just about the penis?

Their Response: Want big hard cock? We got for you. 100€

OK, not exactly the sort of profound response I was hoping for but it serves as a starting point to extract the true wisdom of the Ukrainian mafia. I search desperately for any possible double entendre in their reticent reply. A person capable of penning such a fiendishly clever quip like “Never Go Limp” has probably cloaked the true meaning in layer upon layer of subterfuge and deceit. The profane and ungrammatical email from the Ukrainian gangsters was a cunning ploy to further bury the true meaning. I feel like Hiram Bingham as he first came upon the overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu. Come to think of it, that mountain at Machu Picchu looks like a big boner if you think about it.

I was convinced that there was a deeper, truer meaning to these words. After weeks of research employing the leading cryptologists from the National Security Agency, numerologists from the CIA, and a fat lady who reads tarot cards in a booth at the mall I came face to face with the reality that “Never Go Limp” means “never go limp” and nothing more. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed but I’m still having it made into my vanity license plate.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Take Your Twitter and Shove It: An Argument for Being Less Connected

 If you're old enough to remember VHS players, the big joke back then was people who were too stupid to program their machines so they had a flashing 12:00 on the time display. I never learned how to program a VHS recorder; I never even tried. There really wasn’t anything I wanted to record so why bother? I have had bike tires that have lasted longer than the VHS recorder era so excuse me if I feel vindicated in my refusal to master this bit of “modern” technology.

I’m not anti-technology. I’m not exactly standing breathlessly on the cutting edge of modern innovation but I’m certainly no Luddite. I have a laptop, a cell phone, and an MP3 player just like everyone else on the planet. However, every so often something pops up on the cultural horizon that I just know that I can live without—at least I know that I can hold it at bay longer than most people. I just don’t think that letting yourself get carried out to sea with every single tide of the technological/marketing zeitgeist is the way to live your life.

First of all, I don’t have the slightest idea of what this new phenomena is. I queried it and here is the first thing that popped up: Twitter is a free social messaging utility for staying connected in real-time. I didn’t bother following the link because that one sentence already gives me more than I really ever cared to know about the subject. “A free social messaging utility for staying connected in real-time.” Excuse me, isn’t that what human speech is all about? And what does “staying connected” mean…exactly? Do you mean that human speech, letters, telephones, text messaging, and emails aren’t enough these days to “stay connected?” If you want the truth I only need about half of those tools I mentioned in the last sentence.

I often think that we are already too connected, way too fucking connected. We are so connected that we have lost a good portion of what it is about us that makes us interesting and unique. Instead of facilitating self-expression and creativity, most of these new tools of communication work to pound us into conformity while extinguishing anything that can even remotely be thought of as individuality—whatever the hell that is in our era of the orthodox tyranny of mass marketing. If anything, these new innovations have lowered our collective ability to relate to one another and have reduced all of human communication to a single sentence: RU GOING 2 THE MALL?

My answer, in a nutshell: Fuck no I’m not going to the fucking mall.

I was talked into creating a Facebook account a little while back and promptly deleted it about three days later after being totally freaked out by the whole thing. I realize that shunning Facebook just shows my advanced age and puts me in the same discarded ice flow where they put the old ladies who can’t open email attachments or answer a cell phone. At least on this drifting coffin of ice I won’t be bothered by appeals to join in the Twitter happenings of some celebrity.

I said the same thing about cell phones a long time ago although I knew that they weren’t going to go away. I resisted right up until cell phones became a lot less expensive than home phones. I have always hated text messaging, and although I still think it is retarded I use it here in Spain because everyone I know uses texts instead of calling because it is a lot less expensive. It’s not like I’m like some crazed Japanese soldier holding out on a Pacific island who is still fighting the Second World War, I just don’t believe in jumping into some new fad just because it’s out there. If Twitter has any merit it will be here after I have gone through a couple of pairs of bike tires. Or it may go the way of the VHS recorder.

P.S. WTF! While searching for the appropriate photo for this essay I plugged “12:00 VHS Recorder” into Google Image. For some of the matches I got a picture of OJ Simpson, a dead deer, a fat guy in a little coat, James Bond, a couple of pictures of girls in bikinis, and a lot of other completely random crap.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Youtube: The Spanish Grandmother I Never Had

I didn’t have a grandmother around to teach me how to cook. Growing up we were taught in my family to be very self-reliant. Need some washing done? Here’s the machine, here’s the soap, get cracking. Hungry? You know where the kitchen is. I moved into my own apartment when I was 17 and that pretty much sealed my independence. Most of my early culinary education came through the exigencies of my meager budget in college. I ate lots of bean and potatoes. These are still my two favorite food staples. Along the way I have picked up a few recipes here and there, usually a reflection of where I have lived and traveled: South America, Greece, all over the States, a lot of vacations in Mexico, and now Spain. My kitchen is like the food court at the U.N.

Most of what I learned about cooking has been through trial and error—just about the worst educational tool in my opinion. I’ve had few actual teachers. The internet has changed that problem. Now whenever I am attempting a dish for the first time I will find several recipes at different web sites and then I will scour Youtube to actually see the dish being prepared. With this method I have been exposed to some of the best cooking teachers you will ever likely find anywhere. The best cooking videos out there will walk you through a dish so well that even on your first attempt you will be able to proceed with utter confidence. Adiós trial and error. Don’t let the kitchen door hit you on the ass on your way out.

Just the other day a friend of mine returned from an extended trip to Andalucía. He was raving about a dish he found there called Pollo al Ajillo (garlic chicken). Perhaps it was his mouth-watering description or maybe I was just hungry at the time but I vowed then and there that this would be the very next thing I cooked at home. We had other topics to discuss that evening besides Pollo al Ajillo so I never got the specifics of how to prepare the dish. No problem, I have my Youtube grandmother at home to walk me through it.

My first attempt at Pollo al Ajillo was very acceptable. My Youtube tutor for this Spanish classic was very thorough and clear on every step in the process. I actually started to make one of my crappy videos to document it but my battery died in my camera. I have at least a half a dozen rechargeable batteries and it turned out that they were all dead. I guess I didn’t learn that whole “Be Prepared” thing from my years as a Boy Scout. I learned a lot of other cool things in Boy Scouts so I’m not going to beat myself up over not having any charged batteries lying around the house.

I talked to my friend later about my cooking venture and he suggested another way to make it by flouring the chicken before you fry it in the oil with garlic. Fortunately, I had the good sense not to cook all of the chicken yesterday in my first go at this dish—not because I was showing restraint but because my skillet isn’t big enough to hold an entire chicken. I will try it again today but this time with breaded chicken pieces.

I suppose it takes a certain amount of skill in the kitchen to be able to judge whether or not the instructional cooking video you are watching is worth its salt. If I am making a classic Spanish dish the first thing I seek out is authenticity. I don’t think that I am being a food snob when I say that keeping to the Spanish traditional way of making a dish is important to me—at least it is important when first learning something new. After you have mastered the original recipe then you can feel free to improvise but you need to build the foundation first. So don’t serve me scrambled eggs with potatoes and tell me it’s a tortilla de patatas.

I suppose that Youtube isn’t as good as having a Spanish grandmother to walk me through all of these great recipes, but it’s probably the next best thing. Unfortunately, Youtube doesn’t have a little dog to play with as do most Spanish grannies.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

How to Make a Frappé (Greek Ice Coffee)

This is better than Starbucks, I guarantee it. I have talked about frappés for a long time. I can’t believe that nobody makes them here in this part of Spain. If I had a café I would make them and the place would be mobbed. Here they just pour a coffee over ice which isn’t nearly as good. If you order one of these in Greece make to ask for very little sugar. If you don’t you will get about an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and it will feel like a biker has kicked you in the pancreas when you finish drinking it.

As I have mentioned before, I don't know how this French word made its way into modern Greek or why the Greeks don't have their own word for it. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Finding Solutions for Problems We Have Already Solved

This is a rather meandering reflection on a number of issues which—I’ll be the first to admit—doesn’t do justice to any of them. I do think that it is useful, from time to time, to lay out exactly where you stand. Exactly where I stand is pretty much the exact same spot I’ve been standing over the course of my entire adult life. I think a lot of Americans didn’t really think about politics—one way or another—until after 9/11 and then a lot jumped on the neo-con band wagon because it made them feel good about not having given a shit about politics of about never having expressed their so-called patriotism in anything other than symbolic terms. There is nothing wrong with that except when they are worng wrong on so many issues you need to come to their senses and change.

If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything else in our daily lives it is when we look for solutions for problems we have already solved. Here’s an example. Our cars burned too much gasoline so we built engines that use much less fuel and we have developed tremendous mass transportation options, at least in many parts of the world. Then why are we still agonizing over what to do about our profligate energy usage in America? Why do we still drive cars which get atrocious gas mileage? Why are we still seeking solutions for this problem we basically solved a generation ago? That question is strictly rhetorical; we continue to seek solutions because we don’t have the moral wherewithal to implement the answers we came up with decades ago.

Why do we still use plastic bags when we have already decided that they are an ecological nightmare and we have dozens of satisfying alternatives? Just outlaw the damn things already. Today. When you go to the supermarket tomorrow you’ll either have to bring you own recyclable bag, buy one there, or carry your shit home in your arms. That was an easy fix so why I the hell are we still using plastic bags?

Global warming, climate change, or whatever you care to call it, is irrefutable at this point. There are few scientists outside the employ of the petroleum industry who don’t see this as one of mankind’s biggest problems. A big part of the problem is being caused by automobile emissions which is why the powerful oil industry is so violently opposed to any change to the status quo and has hired a stable of scientists to valiantly stand up against the vast consensus of the world’s climatologists. That really isn’t the way science works, I’m afraid.

You can’t seek an alternative theory just because you don’t like the conclusion reached by the rest of scientific community. You are certainly free to try this tack but you can’t simply ignore the facts while you seek out an alternative that is more supportive of your world view and completely devoid of evidence. I’m certainly not a climate scientist but I do read. Everything that I have been reading in all of my source material leads me to believe that climate change is a serious problem we should be addressing on many fronts. Not to think this way either makes you ignorant or irrational. Period. The deniers of global warming are always quick to hold up a single, flimsy study that supports their claims yet they ignore the other 99.99% which refute them. Which leads me to the next issue.

Why are we still—at least in America—squabbling over the teaching of evolution in schools as if this concept is at all controversial? It’s like the religious nuts want to find a better solution than the one science has provided. Their rallying cry is, “I didn’t come from no monkey.” Well sleep well tonight because you didn’t come from a monkey. However, human beings, like every other life form on the planet (and the universe if Einstein was correct) did evolve from some other form. If this conflicts with your religious beliefs then you should modify your stupid beliefs to reflect what science has proven.

Why do we continue to prosecute the “War on Drugs” when we realized decades ago that we lost and that the way to help alleviate the drug problem is with education and treatment? By imprisoning drug offenders the only thing we achieve is to further criminalize these people by warehousing them in our horrifically violent prisons. I don’t think that any non-violent offenders should be put in prisons, especially American prisons. Of course we don’t jail drug offenders if they are people like Rush Limbaugh and others of the elite. They usually receive treatment. Why? Because treatment works and prison doesn’t. Now we are working to amp up the war on the U.S.-Mexico border which is costing thousands of lives every year and is working to completely destabilize huge swaths of the Mexican government. Our failed anti-drug policies have already destroyed Colombia and now we are pursuing the same insane policy in Mexico.

Why do we still think that we can win guerilla wars in hostile areas when history has dealt us defeat after defeat? Just listening to the U.S. generals prosecuting out war in Iraq and Afghanistan you just have to wonder if any of them have even heard of Viet Nam. They are mouthing the same platitudes about warfare as the American generals in our failed war in Indochina. It’s not like that is ancient history.

Most European countries have solved their health care problems; at least they have solved the major issues. If you look at the list of the world’s top health care providers they are all state-run systems. So why do we in America think that we can somehow do things differently and cling to our privatized insurance system which has proved to be costly and largely ineffective? Once again we are trying to find a solution to a problem that has already been solved in many parts of the industrialized world. Why don’t we look at the country that provides the best healthcare for its citizens (France) and try to copy it in America instead of continuing with an utterly failed policy of private insurance providers?

Before building our cities in America we should also look to successful models of cities and duplicate them. Instead we build cities that best serve the needs of the retail industry without any regard to the needs of actual human beings. Most new residential and commercial development in America caters to the automobile, not pedestrians. To a lot of people there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the needs of humans and the needs of the automobile: people drive cars therefore we need to do everything in our power to facilitate the flow and parking of cars. Of course, this goes contrary to the factors that make up a good living environment for humans. In fact, it is almost diametrically opposed to what makes a place livable. For much of suburban America it is urban design by Target® and Pizza Hut® which aren’t exactly the most trusted names in city planning.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to design a city around another highly successful ideal of what a city should be? Many European cities made the mistake of making too many accommodations towards the automobile a half a century ago. Many are working furiously to undo those mistakes. My own neighborhood of Ruzafa here in Valencia is trying to roll back the mistake of allowing cars to dominate the manmade landscape of the area. A new project here is removing a lot of street parking while making sidewalks wider and putting in bike paths. I can’t wait to see the result. In this case, we’ve had the solution for centuries. The car was simply a mistake, a dead end, a wrong way we followed for too long and now it’s time to find our way out of the mess.