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Friday, August 28, 2009

Annie

I don't need to explain to you why I am posting a couple of songs form Annie. No one is making you watch these videos.



Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Socialism 2009

I would guess that most Americans view socialism as a bleak and oppressive form of government something along the lines of 1984. That view may have held some credence in 1984, back when the Soviet Union was still terrifying the right wing in America. Even back then the right wingers had it mostly wrong. They could not see the communist block for what it was: a decaying and impoverished idea that had long since failed and was on its way out. This 1984 mindset among conservatives of that era is what blinded American policy. Among other American foreign policy failures was our inability to see the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as it was happening, let alone predict it in any meaningful way. Our belligerent attitude towards Cuba has propped-up the Castro regime for over 40 years. This entrenched way of looking at socialism has continued to pollute the minds of many Americans when it comes to issues like socialized medicine. Forget about the fact that all of the world’s successful health care systems have heavy socialized tendencies; just the word “socialism” is enough to send about half of the country into a fit of apoplexy.

What people don’t really understand is that socialism in democracies is just a way for communities to act as a collective entity in order to carry out societal objectives. In every American class on basic economics we are taught that the free market system will provide for every need of the citizen without having to rely on the government—just for a minute forget about the fact that in a democracy the government and the people are one in the same. We have seen only too recently that what’s good for General Motors isn’t necessarily what is good for America. Americans also need to understand that if they don’t like the workings of a particular company they have little say in the matter—unless they happen to be major share holders.

Drive around just about any American city and the first thing that you notice is that most new growth is simply driven by the needs of individual retail outlets. Suburban sprawl is the norm in most U.S. communities with little or no sort of central planning. Growth simply means adding more and more strip malls, fast food chains, and big box stores. Residential areas just tacked on to these growth spurts like some sort of vague afterthought. The people of these communities have next to no say in the matter of how their cities take shape. If anyone says that this is the way urban planning should work I seriously doubt that they have seen any other way of regulating growth. In this model the government (read: the people) have about the weakest voice in the process. The government is at the complete mercy of the proclaimed exigencies of the business community. Merchants claim that this strip mall version of America is the best way to do business and that any sort of regulation will hurt sales. Who are the people to argue with the leaders of Home Depot, Target, Walgreens, et al? Of course, none of the people from these firms that are making these decisions actually live in these communities but so what? They know what is good for all of us.


We just had the European Grand Prix here in Valencia this past weekend and it gave me a good excuse to explore a newer area of town that I don’t see too often. In the two and a half year that I have lived here I have seen explosive growth in Valencia which was initially spurred by the America’s Cup sailboat races and then the Formula 1 Grand Prix which was unveiled last summer. There is a large expanse of land ripe for development in this area of town and private builders have been seizing land as fast as possible. The local government has been several steps ahead during this race to develop the port area. The infrastructure that is already in place is quite impressive and shows the work of very far-sighted planning and not just a view towards the next quarter’s profits.

You can call it socialism; at least that’s what the ruling government party is called (although the PSOE is not in power n Valencia). What it shows to me is a government that is out to provide what is best for the citizenry and then cater to the needs of business—not vice versa. Long before the private sector enter this area, city planner had already mapped out mass transit networks, pedestrian routes, bike paths, parks, and sensible growth patterns. When you look at this area it seems like it will be a very nice place to live and do business. You would be amazed at what a little socialism can do.

I defy anyone to show how this form of intelligent central planning is somehow anathema to human freedom or individual expression. This is what American conservatives say about European socialism after all. Socialism is a system in which the individual is crushed under the boot heel of the collective…I don’t know what…the collective monstrosity of government, I suppose. Socialism in their dim view is National Socialism, Nazis, and the horrors of the former Soviet bloc. In their way of thinking anything that in any way obstructs the path of unbridled private enterprise is a form of tyranny; it’s as if they equate free markets with freedom and that any attempt by a democratically-elected government to impose the will of the people on industry is contrary to the American way of life. American conservatives believe that any government-imposed restrictions or limitations on business are a blow to personal freedom.

So what have the European social democracies sacrificed as they have embraced more socialist policies than we here in the USA? Perhaps Spaniards pay a lot more in taxes than Americans but they have a much better health care system and much less income inequality. AS far as individual rights are concerned, it would be easy to argue that the Spanish enjoy a lot more in the way of personal freedoms that Americans. None of these countries in Europe are truly socialist which ultimately means that the workers own and administer the means of productions, they have simply sought to collectivize the effort in certain areas of society, such as mass transportation, health care, education, police, fire protection, road building, and defense. You’ll notice that the USA also has socialized education, police, defense, and fire protection. Just don’t say that around a conservative unless you want them to drop dead of heart failure (let’s hope they have good insurance).

I just don’t see how a community can look out for the best interests of the citizenry unless it is through a collective effort planned by the government. How else can you do it? Look around at the suburban sprawl that chokes the life out of countless American cities and tell me that there isn’t a better way to build cities than simply relying on the self-interests of the business community with no regard to what the people want and need. If you are looking for an example on how to manage growth, you could do a lot worse than Valencia.



So the sinister socialism that the stupid hicks are protesting against in the American town hall meetings turns out to be European countries that provide bike paths and mass transportation for their citizens. Surely Americans won’t allow that evil to take root on our soil. What will come after bike paths, good bus systems, and free health care? You just know that they will come after our guns. Could you imagine a country without assault weapons? Ugh, I shudder at the mere thought of it. So keep screaming at the top of your lungs like the moronic primates that you are, people. And by no means travel to Europe to actually see for yourself the horrors of Holland and France or any of the other hellhole dystopias the Right has been warning us about for decades. Why should we change when we already live in paradise? Instead of Candide we have Rush telling us,"Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes" (all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Here Is Our Health Care Plan





The congressman brings up the point I have made from the beginning: just what exactly do the insurance companies bring to the table? They have CEOs making tens of millions of dollars a year, figures no government bureaucrat comes near. The companies make billions in profit without so much as providing an aspirin as far as giving treatment. Medicare, like Social Security, has an extremely low overhead—something like 4% as he mentions in the video. What private company would be willing to administer a program for such a small percentage? I like his plan of simply offering Medicare to more and more citizens to where it eventually (in the near future) will cover everyone. People will still be able to use private insurers (although these companies will probably make a lot less). How will we pay for it? First of all we can start with lowering operating costs by forcing drug companies to charge less (like Wal-Mart does). Let’s get this thing started and stop messing around with the Obama plan.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Health Care USA



Bill Maher’s program hit the nail on the head with a special report by comedian Dana Gould. He noted the difference in tempers between the mouth-breathing morons disrupting health care town meetings and the working poor lined up for free medical and dental treatment at the LA forum provided by Remote Area Medical. The anti-Obama-care crowds were unruly retards, uninformed white trash, and brown shirts in waiting. The overwhelming sentiment is that our new president is a liar. Of course, these same hillbillies think of Clinton as the greatest liar in human history but seem unaware that it was George W. Bush who told the major lies about stuff that really mattered.

As Gould points out, the crowds waiting for health care were peaceful and reasonable. They stood in line for hours for health care that they can’t afford under our present system that excludes tens of millions citizens

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Canon of American Food (continued)


4) Chili

Against my better judgment I suppose that I absolutely must put chili on my list of American food. At least it gives me another reason to post this great picture from The Simpsons that I painstakingly lifted from their chili cook-off episode. I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the stuff which is a bit ironic since I Iove beans and anything spicy. I don’t dislike chili, it’s just something I could easily live without. I have only made it a couple of times and I’ve never felt compelled to master this dish. To me chili is about as interesting as a peanut butter sandwich. I’ll leave its praise, intricacies, and higher qualities for the aficionados.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

That's Entertainment?

So you think you can watch paint dry? Really, because this guy over here says he’s pretty good at it. In the spirit of entertainment how about if we have a little competition to see just who can watch paint dry the best? We’ll have our panel of celebrity judges decide the winner. Our gimmick is that one out of the three celebrity judges is dead. On tonight’s panel we have Carol Burnet, Abe Vigoda, and Ted Knight. Surprise! They are all dead. What’s that? Wait a minute, Abe is claiming that he isn’t dead although he isn’t making a very vigorous case for it. We'll give Abe the benefit of the doubt but we're keeping a close eye on him. Isn’t this show exciting!

America’s Next Top Wal-mart Greeter. We can’t all be top models although you’d never know that if you have ever talked to a group of teenagers—either they all are going to be top models or professional athletes or movie stars or just stinking rich.

Here’s an idea for a really dumb show: We have people who really don’t have a lot of talent but mostly look good sing songs we really didn’t like much when the original artist sang them? What? There already is a show like that? Shit, I was just kidding.

Or how about this one: “Celebrities are paired with professionals in a ballroom-dance competition, with one pair typically eliminated each week.” They are kidding, right? This is a real show and people are free to change the channel if they want, or is this show in China and they force everyone to watch it? Actually, Dancing with the Communist Party Chiefs might be fun. By “eliminated” maybe they mean executed. That also might make it fun and it sounds like it’s something they do in China.

OK, I’m just thinking out loud here but what about Celebrities and Housewives Wrestling? I think it would go over well among a certain portion of the viewing audience and it would be very tastefully done, of course.

*I realize that filing this under humor is being a bit generous but I don't know what else to do with it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Canon of American Food (part 2)

3) Meatloaf

Meatloaf can be crap and it can be sublime—we’ll try to shoot for the latter. One problem when looking for a great recipe is that there is a big, fat sweaty guy called Meatloaf who comes up whenever you do a search on Google or Youtube. Why did his mother have to call him Meatloaf? I hope he didn’t get that way by eating meatloaf. If he did he must have ate a lot of it. I’m not proposing that people eat meatloaf every night but it should be in your kitchen’s rotation of favorite dishes. If it isn’t then you aren’t making it right. This series is really difficult to write when I am hungry and right now I sure could go for a cold, meatloaf sandwich with potato salad. If I had the ingredients for it I’d make it right now.

I’m not going to bother with a recipe for this one. There are lots of good ones out there. I chose this one because it is fairly simple yet had a couple of interesting touches.


My humble addition to the meatload legacy (I misspelled meatloaf but I like "meatload" better in describing what I made).

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Canon of American Food (part 1)



The big difference that I see between Spanish and American societies is that we are constantly reaching for the next rung on the socio-economic ladder. We are taught to be unsatisfied with what we have. We should have more and better things: a bigger house, a nicer car, better schools for our children, and countless other figments of our consumer imaginations. This isn’t to say that the Spanish are not seeking upward mobility, but they seem content to take in the view from whatever may be their current vantage point. Americans often feel that life will somehow be infinitely better if they can only replace a few durable goods or alter a few hereditary traits. Perhaps we are just showing the symptoms of an accelerated culture, a society Spain will soon become as their own economic future brightens. It may be that American society was more like Spain before we became the world’s leading economic power.

Nowhere is our disaffection with our own lives more evident than in the way we feel about our bodies. If you have ever been to more than one garage sale you know that one constant bit of merchandise will be discarded bit of trendy exercise equipment. What most of these failed body builders don’t seem to realize is that their lack of fitness isn’t because of something they aren’t doing—exercising or dieting—it’s because of what they are doing—basically living completely unhealthy lives. One of the best pieces of exercise equipment ever made are good walking shoes yet walking seems to be an activity that we leave behind in middle class American life. It is almost as if there is a stigma attached to walking; it’s like hanging clothes on a line to dry—it’s just not done these days unless you can’t afford an alternative. Walking is for poor people.

Drive everywhere, park as close to the entrance as possible, pull into the drive-thru, and at the end of the day you reach the safety of your attached three-car garage. It’s as if we define success by how few steps we have to take in our daily lives. It almost seems as if the biggest reason to get rich is that being wealthy means you can take lots of shortcuts in life and get everything done faster. In many cases doing something in a hurry is completely contrary to assuring any sort of quality.

Think of food as an example. What is worse than fast food or industrially prepared food? America’s move into prosperity went hand-in-hand with an acceptance on our part of a diet that is just awful. Frozen, freeze-dried, canned, boxed, prepared, and drive-thru are not good things when it comes to your sustenance. If you don’t have the proper amount of time to prepare food the way it was meant to be then perhaps you should reconsider the rest of your daily schedule—you probably need to cut out a few inessentials in the pages of your day planner. Instead of trying to make enough money so that you can eat in great restaurants for every meal it would be a lot easier to learn how to cook a few things.

Somewhere in the rising tide of American prosperity we seem to have lost anything remotely resembling a national cuisine. With the country’s newfound wealth in the post WWII era we abandoned our kitchens. I wasn’t alive back then but it seems like cooking became something old fashioned and a task not worthy of the middle class. Cooking was from for grandmothers with one foot still planted in the old countries. Whatever culinary traditions we had back then were quickly buried in the rush towards what people thought was modern society. The next generation of American food was ushered in on a TV dinner tray. What did we give up in order to have a frozen Salisbury steak in less than 20 minutes?

We were a country of immigrants with a vast amount of culinary wealth to draw upon. We haven’t lost any of this diversity in food but we have failed to develop a tradition of American cooking, whatever that might be. We have taught our children the American history we feel is necessary to become a responsible citizen but we haven’t inculcated them in just how they should go about their daily lives. If we were to develop some sort of national cuisine I feel that this would improve the bonds between us as American.

I see this as an incalculably large factor in the national character in many countries, especially in the Mediterranean basin. Food plays such an important part in the daily lives of Greeks, Italians, French, and Spanish, to name just four nations. Not only have their long culinary histories played an integral part in shaping their national identities, but the food they eat gives people an identity. This may be true in America among part of the populace, people who cling to their ethnic roots, and there are regions in the country that have very traditional dishes and cuisines, but it isn’t a part of our national character which I think is unfortunate.

“What is do Americans eat?” is a question I am constantly asked—a simple enough question but one that is difficult for Americans to answer; not so for the Spanish, the French, Italians, or Greeks. Their national cuisines are shared by all with no regard for class or social status. Food is their common denominator, their lingua franca, and as important to their feelings of national identity as our stories of the founding fathers. They are defined by what they eat. Their meals frame the structures or their days. The importance of food in their lives would be difficult to overstate. Food can be simple an inexpensive but they see to it that meals are a daily celebration. I see this as one of the biggest differences between out cultures. I also think that the care and respect given to food in these cultures has enriched the lives of the people in ways that it is difficult for Americans to understand.

If you are looking for an example of a lifestyle to emulate you could do a lot worse than the Spanish. I think that one of the biggest factors in how they have perfected middle class existence is the way in which they treat food in their society. Food dictates the rhythm of daily life in Spain from the time they wake up I the morning until they go to bed at night—or early in the morning as the case may be. Meals are an all-inclusive ritual practiced daily by all Spaniards with little regard for class or income. A lot of Americans still view wine as some sort of luxury (unless they oppose it outright on religious grounds). This just isn’t the case in most European countries. In Spain wine is seen more as a birthright than a luxury. There is much more wine to be found at extremely modest prices in Spain than in America. The average Spanish person wouldn’t dream of paying what most Americans spend on a bottle or glass of wine in a restaurant.

Maybe I haven’t been in Spain long enough to know better but it seems like shopping for food is something that can actually be enjoyed here. Instead of just another household chore to suffer through, people here seem to view grocery shopping as a challenge in which they must pit their wits against merchants in order to get the best ingredients at the most favorable price. Where Americans are used to going to a single supermarket for all of their foodstuffs, the Spanish are more likely to shop in big, open-air markets, corner green grocers, neighborhood bakeries, as well as the bigger supermarkets. I don’t think I am unusual in that I tend to shop only for one meal at a time. Either I have something in mind to cook before I leave the hose or I leave the menu open and take a look at what things look good on that particular day.

“What am I going to eat?” is a question we all ask ourselves every single day. As Americans I think that we need to define just what it is we eat. After all, we have some of the best agricultural land in the world and a bountiful supply of some of the best raw ingredients for cooking. We can begin by making a list of the top American dishes which will provide an easy answer when we are questioned by foreigners about our diet. I will only include dishes that can be prepared with ingredients found all over the country and that reflect the natural bounty found in America. These are every day dishes that are inexpensive, delicious, and uniquely our own.

1) Fried Chicken

I always used to say that if I ever lived within a couple of miles of a Popeye’s Fried Chicken I would weigh about 400 pounds (I tip the scales at 350). The same thing goes for Ezelles Chicken in Seattle. That place was always such a pain in the ass to get to that even a lard-ass like me could rarely be bothered to venture up the hill to get some of that glorious, mouth-water, super-savory chicken. I can’t even finish writing this now as just the thought of fried chicken is making me deliriously hungry. Spain isn’t the best place to find fried chicken, I’m afraid.

Ingredients
• 1 broiler/fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces
• 2 cups low fat buttermilk
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• Flour, for dredging
• Vegetable shortening, for frying

Place chicken pieces into a plastic container and cover with buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.
Melt enough shortening (over low heat) to come just 1/8-inch up the side of a 12-inch cast iron skillet or heavy fry pan. Once shortening liquefies raise heat to 325 degrees F. Do not allow oil to go over 325 degrees F.
Drain chicken in a colander. Combine salt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Liberally season chicken with this mixture. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess.
Place chicken skin side down into the pan. Put thighs in the center, and breast and legs around the edge of the pan. The oil should come half way up the pan. Cook chicken until golden brown on each side, approximately 10 to 12 minutes per side. More importantly, the internal temperature should be right around 180 degrees. (Be careful to monitor shortening temperature every few minutes.)
Drain chicken on a rack over a sheet pan. Don't drain by setting chicken directly on paper towels or brown paper bags.

2) Cajun Red Beans and Rice

I love beans of all kinds. They have been the main staple in my diet over the course of my entire life. They are laughably inexpensive yet full of protein and vitamins. I loved that story from Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat where Danny and the gang steal food for the woman’s children who had previously survived on a diet on beans and tortillas. As soon as they started eating the exotic fare the bums had rustled up for them they began getting ill. I could easily live on beans and tortillas.

I probably feel the same way about cooking beans as Miles Davis did about playing a jazz improvisation: you never do it the same way twice (I think that I just said that I was the Miles Davis of beans?). I use a pressure cooker when I make them now that I have discovered this marvelous invention. Instead of taking several hours I can now make a pot of pintos in 18 minutes.

Ingredients:

4 cups red beans
3 quarts water
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
4 bay leaves
1 cup chopped sweet green pepper
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 teaspoons dried thyme - crushed
1 pound andouille sausage - cut into 1/4 in.pieces
1 good ham bone and small chunks of ham
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
Tabasco
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 stick margarine

Soak beans overnight and rinse.
In a 10 quart pot combine beans, water, ham bone with ham, onion, celery, and bay leaves.
Bring to a boil; reduce heat.
Cover and cook over low heat, for about 1 & 1/2 hours or until beans are tender.
Stir and mash some of the beans against side of pan.
Cut sausage into bite-size chunks and brown in a frying pan. Add garlic, green pepper and a bit more onion to this. Add this to the beans.
Add parsley, thyme, salt, Tabasco, margarine, and pepper.
Cook uncovered, over low heat until creamy, about 30 minutes.
Remove bay leaves.
Serve over white rice (thank god for rice cookers).

To be continued…

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Old Mexico


If you are going to bother to wear a hat, don't mess around.

What could be better than being at home on a Wednesday evening cooking Mexican food and blasting Vicente Fernández? I was going to put in a link to his Wikipedia article but at this point if you read the crap I write and you don’t know who he is then you just aren’t paying attention. Maybe you have been too busy text messaging about this week’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance to remember who Vicente Fernández is? If this is your case then you are hopeless and I give up. Just don’t blame me when you go to Mexico and people treat you like the ignorant American slob that you are. It’s called cultural literacy and without at least an inkling of knowledge of Vicente Fernández they probably shouldn’t even let you pass through Mexican customs.

OK, I’ll be the first to admit that the food I am making isn’t authentic Mexican cuisine. I am just making a big pot of pinto beans with hot peppers and pork. I am also trying to make up for a recent error I had in the kitchen when I attempted to make a dish with achiote.* I was instructed to grind the seeds in an electric coffee/spice grinder but since I left mine in Seattle I thought that I would just use my trusty mortar and pestle. Unfortunately, the seeds of the achiote are as hard as rocks so I had a very hard time with the dish I made last week. I went to the grocery store where I bought the seeds and asked if they had achiote in powder form. The woman who owns the shop told me that you don’t need to grind the seeds. You can fry them in oil and then just use the rendered oil to cook whatever you had in mind.

I have been shopping in this little store since I move to Ruzafa almost two year ago—how time flies. The owner is really cute and helpful. She’s from the Dominican Republic. When I first went there I was just a gringo who spoke a little Spanish, now I am trading recipes and teaching her about Mexican cooking. It is cool for me to actually experience how my language skills have improved—it helps to slightly offset all of the times when I am completely frustrated with my progress or what I feel is my lack of it. As of late I have been trying to make some new headway in Spanish. For a while I was seriously neglecting my reading which I feel is the best way to forge ahead.

I recently bought some flour tortillas in her shop that were cheap, fresh, and very good which has inspired me to make more Mexican food. Without tortillas that is kind of a difficult task. You can buy good tortillas in the major chain grocery stores here but they are expensive as all get out and I just can’t justify their purchase. Mexican food is peasant food, after all, and I mean that in the best way. When Spanish people ask me what I miss most about my country I tell them that I miss Mexican food. I lack a lot of the basic ingredients here to make some of my favorite dishes, things like pozole and mole. I can make authentic Mexican food if I have all of the basic ingredients. I can’t get chipotle peppers, maíz blanco, corn tortillas, jalapeños, and several other essentials, at least not all the time. It’s not like making Spanish food is such a hardship, but some day I will visit Mexico again and I want to keep my stomach trained for the food.

*A rust colored seed that is harvested from the annatto shrub to produce the Achiote spice. Native to Latin America, Spain, and East India, the Achiote seed is protected by a pod containing 40 to 60 red seeds. The triangular-shaped Achiote seeds are surrounded by a red pulp that is separated from the seeds and pod when they are harvested. The pulp is processed to produce a commercial dying agent while the seeds are dried and made into a rust colored paste that is often used for coloring foods such as rice, smoked fish, butter, or cheese. Cheshire, Edam, Leicester, and Muenster cheeses are commonly colored with the rusty-toned paste to enhance the appearance of the cheese. Also used as a spice for flavoring foods, Annatto seeds provide a sweet and somewhat peppery taste when added to various food dishes.

To prepare the Achiote, place the seeds into the liquid ingredients being prepared or add the seeds to hot water to obtain the color and flavor desired before using the mixture to color rice or as a stock to add flavors to other foods. In addition to foods, this seed and pulp are used to color candies, cosmetics and textiles. Achiote or Achote is the common name for the spice made from this seed in Mexico and Latin America, while in the Philippines the Annatto seed is known as Atsuwete or Acheute and it is also commonly known as Anatta, Annato or Annatto. To store, keep the seeds in an airtight container away from heat.
Thanks to recipetips.com

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Papas Aliñás



This is my new summer favorite. I have made it about five times since learning about it just a couple of months ago. Here is the definitive version presented by my Andalucian-Australian friend, Juan. ¡Buen provecho!