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Posts published in “Recipes”

[twenty twenty-four day ninety-two]: that which was foretold has come to pass

centaur 0

Tabbouleh has indeed been made from the tomatoes. I have always been self-conscious about what I cook - I rarely do traditional recipes on the nose, for example using heirloom tomatoes and cinnamon, cumin, allspice and nutmeg in addition to salt and pepper - but I do work at them. I'm using Aunt Nagla's parsley cutting technique and chef Nicola's lemon-soaked bulgur wheat technique and my wife's green onion recommendations to leave in the leafy greens and the traditional lighter olive oil that my parents used. And I spice to taste before finishing - the last bite of which literally made me stagger, it was so good, to me at least.

But whether people actually like it is an open question. This time, for Easter, on the potluck planning thread, someone asked for it specifically, someone else gave me the thumbs up when I said yes, several people complimented me while we were eating - and the family ate almost the whole bowl.

So they didn't NOT like it, impostor syndrome be damned.

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day ninety-one]: someday, son, this will all be tabbouleh

taidoka 0
We need tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes.

Actually, it will become tabbouleh, vegan kibbey nayye, tomato sandwiches, crazy susan salad, and maybe burger garnishment.

But the principle stands: I am creating some buffer, as I had before GDC, in case Easter goes kazoo. So, please enjoy this variety of tomatoes (heirloom NC, heirloom Mexico, on-the-vine stripped of the vine, and conventional slicers).

-the Centaur

Pictured: um, I said it.

[twenty twenty-four day fourteen]: there’s no such thing as an “egg vegan”

centaur 0

My wife eats vegan almost exclusively, and I often try to eat vegan when I'm with her. But she's experienced a lot of difficulty in finding vegan food, even at restaurants that claim to serve it; it's not resistance to veganism per se, but a strangely baffling lack of understanding that vegan means "no animal products".

On our recent trip to Asheville, we got a BIG set of clues as to why this is happening: purely by chance, a number of people inadvertently exposed to us why there's so much confusion around the concept of vegan as "plant based food".

First, there's no such thing as an "egg vegan" - but, apparently, there are a lot of people who are going around claiming that they are, and confusing the heck out of restaurants because of it. At one restaurant in Asheville, the host stand told us they had a "vegan southwestern benedict" but there was nothing vegan about it: it had eggs, butter and hollandaise sauce (which is egg AND butter). Our server then let slip that many people claimed to be "egg vegans" and this dish was aimed at them.

Well, maybe they THINK they're "egg vegans," but there's no such thing: the word for someone who eats eggs is "vegetarian", or if you want to get specific, "ovo-vegetarian". Regardless, the FOOD is not vegan if it has eggs in it, so it is really unhelpful to people who have chosen to be vegan, or who are avoiding eggs for health reasons, to mislabel food with eggs in it as vegan.

"Egg vegans" remind me of another group of people: those who say "they're mostly vegan, but they eat fish". The word for that is "carnivore", or if you want to get specific, "pescatarian". I actually knew a real vegan who added fish to his diet for about a month for nutritional reasons, but he was clear to everyone and himself that this was a departure from the vegan diet.

Second, some people literally do not understand that vegan is different from vegetarian - and if that person owns a restaurant, he's going to have many unhappy customers. At one Japanese restaurant we visited this weekend, there were dozens of "vegan" items marked as such on the menu - but a kindly waitress stopped by our table and warned us that the owner did not know the difference and repeatedly labeled food with butter and eggs as "vegan", despite being told otherwise.

This reminds me that some people do not understand that any animal products makes a dish not vegan. My wife's mother frequently tried to get her to eat food cooked with a ham hock in it because "it's just for flavor". The P.F. Chang's we used to go to put fish flakes in most of their vegetarian items, which makes them not just not vegan, but not even vegetarian. And so on.

Third, even when a restaurant is trying, vegan and vegetarian are confusing because they both start with VEG and end with N - and there's no standard abbreviation for either of them which can be used to unambiguously label a meal. I've seen "V", "VG", "VE" all used to refer to both vegan and vegetarian, and if you look around I bet you'll find some menus using "VN" for both purposes. Regardless, at one or two restaurants this weekend, even the waitstaff got confused as to what was vegetarian or vegan due to the "V/VE" issue.

And finally, sometimes the waitstaff just gets it wrong. And at another restaurant this weekend, the waiter didn't write our order down and completely messed it up in her head - but fortunately came back to ask before passing the wrong order to the kitchen. As another example, the staff at a very vegan-friendly local pizza joint told us that one of their pizza sauces was vegan, only to discover months later that it was not.

So it's seemed strange to us that some people can't seem to wrap their head around what vegan is. But if some people are running around claiming to be "egg vegans", the owners are mislabeling the meals, the meals are not labeled clearly enough even for the staff to tell, and sometimes people are just mistaken even when they're trying to get it right, it seems more clear why things get messed up.

But really, vegan is just plant based food, and if it's not plant based food, it's not vegan.

-the Centaur

P.S. Fine, fine, bacteria and fungi aren't technically plants, but they're vegan. Just nothing with a face or a mother, and nothing from something with a face or a mother, okay?

Pictured: Sunny side up eggs, bacon, and French toast, NONE of which are vegan.

[ninety-one] minus one-four-two: we have opinions on tomatoes

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So my wife is back from her business trip, and we and our housekeeper made a lunch of tomato sandwiches out of the remaining tomatoes that from my last grocery trip prior to Sandi's return.

My wife is actually hesitant to buy tomatoes, as she's gotten a lot of poor ones, and I realized that my youth growing up as a child of a produce wholesaler - from an ethnic community that has heavily tomato-flavored dishes - may have left me with some definite opinions about tomatoes.

We all discovered we had firm opinions about tomatoes: that heirloom tomatoes are generally more flavorful, less meaty and dense, and generally better for sandwiches because they're often wider and less juicy than their beefsteak companions.

Regardless, tomatoes may be on their way out this season, but they're still good now.

Get them while the getting is good.

-the Centaur

Pictured: End-of-season tomato sandwich, and a hummus-lettuce-tomato salad.

[eighty-eight] minus one-oh-six: in my quest for the perfect tomato sandwich, i have inadvertently recreated the BLT

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OK, full disclosure: this is more like "the perfect sandwich using tomatoes, if you know you're going to be eating out for a few days and want to empty out your refrigerator so don't buy anything too fancy" than the actual perfect tomato sandwich. I go through phases where I eat in most of the time and where I eat out most of the time, and near the end I try to make sure that I use up everything that I have.

Tomato sandwiches are perfect for this: I almost always have bread or or buns or croissants at the house, but will often be left with a few extra tomatoes and some lettuce if I have previously made tabbouleh. But, by themselves, tomato sandwiches can be a little boring. So I started looking up recipes, and found one which involved sautéing a bunch of herbs as a garnish - but which I can simulate pretty effectively with a bit of veganaise, dill, salt, pepper, and onion powder.

Leftover tomato can be turned into a mini-salad (upper right, above) with a little salt and pepper and any remaining veggies or lettuce you have. Personally, I like toasting the thick "Nature's Own Perfectly Crafted Multigrain" bread better than the hamburger buns you see above, as you can spread the lettuce and tomatoes out to create a wider sandwich that's easy to eat. It also seems to go better with a nice peaty Scotch like Ardbeg than it does with a margarita, but on all of that, your mileage may vary.

Regardless, I was again cleaning out the freezer of frozen stuff, mostly breakfast items, and found some vegan bacon, which I thought, "hey, that will add savory, I am a genius"! Only when I was done with it did I realize I had simply re-invented the good old bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich that my finicky tastebuds had steered me away from as a youth. Well, they're not steering me away from it now.

Oh, the recipe. Makes two sandwiches:

  • 4 slices Nature's Own Perfectly Crafted Thick-Sliced Multigrain, or bread of your choice
  • 1 beefsteak tomato, or tomato of your choice
  • 4 leaves of Bibb or Butter lettuce, or lettuce of your choice
  • Veganaise, or spread of your choice
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Dill Weed
  • Onion Powder
  • Optionally, 4 slices of vegan bacon, or, just bacon

Wash and clean the lettuce leaves. Slice the tomato to create four thick slices from the middle. Chop up the ends, salt and pepper them, and add to a small bowl as a mini salad with any other veggies you have, such as leftover lettuce. Toast the bottom slices of bread and spread on the veganaise, then season the veganaise with salt, pepper, dill weed and onion powder. Layer on the tomatoes, two slices per bread, and salt and pepper them as well. Then add the lettuce. (Note: if using wide bread, line the tomato slices up, then add the lettuce, but if using hamburger buns, you can stack tomato-lettuce-tomato-lettuce). Optionally add tomatoes and close off the sandwich. Serve with your beverage of choice.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a lot of tomato sandwiches.

Happy (Belated) World Vegan Day!

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Okay, I couldn't leave "vegetables are what food eats" up long and still feel like me, so here, enjoy some tasty and delicious vegan food from November 1, World Vegan Day! Above are very delicious vegan desserts; below, what I normally see described as pumpkin steak and cauliflower steak... ... though technically speaking neither are steak, and Millennium's menu only described the pumpkin above as "steak," just referring to the below as "roasted cauliflower"... ... but either way, all of it was highly delicious! -the Centaur  

Practically Vegan Scallops and Grits

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I'm not vegan - I'm a carnivore. But there are lots of reasons not to eat meat: many different schools of dietary science recommend restricting your meat intake, meat preparation often involves unnecessary cruelty to animals, raising animals for meat causes more environmental damage than plant harvesting, and it's more expensive.

Plus, my wife is almost vegetarian, so avoiding meat when we are together makes it easier for us to share.

But one of the Southern foods I love, shrimp and grits, is not vegetarian. I love it for the flavor, and for the science: shrimp and scallops are both small food items, so they cool rapidly; embedding them in a bowl of hot grits both keeps them warm and imparts flavor to the grits. And besides, man, come on: cheesy grits and hot sautéed shrimp or scallops. How can you go wrong?

But I'm always thinking of how to adapt dishes so my wife and I can eat together. And it struck me: one of the things we love to eat is baked cauliflower. My wife chops cauliflower up into small florets, brushes them with a little olive oil and a little seasoning to taste (paprika, seafood seasoning, even wild and crazy things like allspice or nutmeg might work) and cooks them until they're turning crispy.

So why can't that be put on grits in place of shrimp?

We talked about it and agreed to the idea. A simple salad - organic greens, mango, walnuts, inspired by a salad from Aqui - grits, and vegan attempts at scallops and shrimp. After we agreed to the menu, I researched recipes online, found a mushroom based scallop recipe, and called back to confirm with her what she wanted. We cut out a few things from the recipes she didn't want (the cheese, etc) and I picked it all up.

What can I say? It turned out awesome. We both went back for seconds, and were so taken by the shrimp and grits we forgot to eat the bread we'd prepared and she actually never got to her salad before she was full. (I ate mine, though. :-) Here are the pieces of what we did, and then I'll tell you how we put them together into a meal. All of the below served two people, and we were overly full.

Mango Walnut Salad

We always eat salad; I in particular need it with almost every meal, or it doesn't go down well. Even in full on carnivore mode, I'd rather have steak and salad than steak and potatoes. To partially recreate my favorite mango walnut salad from Aqui … the ingredients:

  • 1 package organic greens (preferably washed, but hey…)
  • 1 mango
  • 1/2 pint strawberries
  • Chopped walnuts
  • Dried cranberries
  • Sweet dressing (preferably mango, but what floats your boat…)

Wash or otherwise prepare the organic greens. Dice the mango. Wash and slice the strawberries. Assemble the salad by adding greens, walnuts, cranberries, mango and strawberries to taste (Obviously, we did not use all the ingredients; my wife will be eating from the above for several days, as is her habit). Add dressing to taste or make the dressing available on the table (axually, me and my wife often eat the salad dry, but that's an idiosyncrasy from training ourselves to use very little dressing).

French Bread Toast

One good addition to shrimp and grits is toast. We don't even use cheesy toast or garlic bread, just a good french bread. Ingredients:

  • 1 loaf French bread

Slice off several pieces; do so diagonally if you want more surface area. Toast until your favorite degree of brown. Not hard. Don't forget to eat this as you are scarfing down grits later, or you will be sad that you have missed part of the experience.

Crispy Cauliflower Vegan Shrimp

These don't taste that much like shrimp, really, but they serve the same role in the dish and they're awesome. Ingredients:

Preheat an oven to … uh, I dunno, my wife cooked this. Preheat it to something or other that's really hot. (UPDATE: my wife says to heat it to 450 to 430). Chop up or break up the cauliflower into small florets, a bit larger than a shrimp. Let it dry before you put the oil on or it is soggy (but that doesn't taste bad either). Put the cauliflower in a bowl and add enough olive oil to coat them without making them soggy - just kind of drizzle it on and stir it around real good. Add spices - use seafood spices if you want a shrimpy taste. The great thing about cauliflower is you can use almost any seasoning you want. Paprika oddly doesn't have much flavor, my wife claims; dill is better, but the ones listed above are her three favorite. Place tray in oven. Leave for ~1 hour-ish, removing when the cauliflower starts to crinkle up. You have a LOT of leeway on this, as roasted cauliflower is edible and delicious all the way from almost purely raw to shriveled and almost burnt.

King Oyster Mushroom Vegan Scallops

These are the thing that make the dish. I adapted the recipe King Oyster Mushroom Vegan Scallops to make this and it was awesome. We used only four oyster mushrooms and were sad; we should have used 8. Ingredients:

  • 8 "king" size oyster mushrooms
  • 1 Shallot or other oniony thing
  • Ground pepper
  • Soy sauce, tamari sauce, or an equivalent salty marinade
  • Honey, brown sugar syrup, or other sweet taste
  • High heat safflower oil

Lightly wash and pat dry the oyster mushrooms; they need to be very dry to absorb the marinade. Shallots as we used them are orangey garlicky looking things; chop up one or one half shallot clove into very tiny bits. Add the mushroom pieces and shallots to a bowl and drench with enough soy sauce to either cover them or mostly cover them so you can repeatedly drizzle the sauce over with them with a spoon (we did the latter). Add a small amount of honey, or more if you want a sweeter taste. (The original poster recommended other optional things like liquid smoke, which are out of my cooking league at this time). Add ground pepper. Let marinade for 15-30 minutes or so, until the oyster mushrooms are picking up the color of the marinade. Then we're ready to cook, though we want to time it to finish up with the grits and other stuff.


Take a pan and heat it to high heat with a dollop of high heat safflower oil. Add the mushroom discs, flat side down; don't stir around too much or you will "disturb the sear". After a minute, flip the mushrooms and let them sear again. Then add the rest of the sauce. This is the point where big boys and girls who read Cook's Illustrated can add a splash of white wine or liquid smoke to get a more complex flavor.

"Next is the most important part to good scallop mushrooms" says Kathy of the King Oyster Mushroom Vegan Scallops recipe, and she ain't lying. Turn the heat down to medium high and tilt the pan so the juices and 'shrooms pool together and use a spoon to lift and pour the juices over the mushrooms. The heat will continue to evaporate the sauce; I guess this is what big boys and girls who read Cook's Illustrated call a reduction, but I just call it thirty one flavors of delicious. Keep doing this until the sauce is almost gone and the "scallops" are nice and dark and cooked.

Oh, on timing, you want to do this whole step almost last. I'll get to that in the next sections.


Get a package of grits, boil water, add grits. Follow the package. Butter and such are not necessary; you'll have topping. Oh wait, thanks to a blog post crash I can now ask my wife what she did. Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white corn grits
  • 3 cups water

We did old fashion grits rather than instant grits, probably because I was at Whole Foods but it turned out to work out really well for us. Follow directions, but basically, it's boil the water, add the grits, turn the heat down. It depends on the grits you get.

Topping for Vegan Shrimp and Grits

When I have shrimp and grits at a place like Nola, the grits are usually drizzled in some kind of barbecue sauce and/or the shrimp and grits are drizzled in some combination of barbecue sauce and a salsa like topping. When I looked online, I found a recipe which seemed similar, Vegan "Shrimp" and Grits, but it was tofu based. From it and my leftover ingredients I improvised the following topping. Ingredients:

  • the rest of that shallot you used earlier, or a similar oniony thing
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 white onion
  • Olive oil
  • Soy sauce
  • Salsa

Chop up the shallot really fine. Do the same thing to the garlic. Dice the onion. In a saucepan, add olive oil at medium high heat, then add your onion mixture. Cook until the onions are golden brown or at least translucent. Then add the soy sauce and flinch back from the spray of oil. The boiling liquid will cook the onions the rest of the way (seriously, I'm not joking around about the soy and the flinching; I do this for other dishes too and it's a perfectly legitimate if messy cooking technique). Add the salsa once the mixture has started to reduce. We went heavy on the salsa and reduced it until it was thick, but in hindsight when I eat this the sauce is often runny enough to pour out over the grits and give them a good flavor. You might achieve this with more soy or Worcestershire sauce.

On timing, I actually did the king oyster marinade first, then used the shallot while making this, then came back to finish off the sautéing of the "scallops." So now's a good time to talk about how to put this all together.

Practically Vegan Scallops and Grits

Prepare your salad first and set it aside. Cut your bread and set it aside, preparing to toast it at the last minute. If you're making vodka mango smoothies to go along with your meal (recipe not shown), do that in advance too. Start the cauliflower. Chop and prepare the marinade. Start the grits. Chop and prepare the topping. Around this time(ish) take the grits off. Pour the finished topping off. Sauté your mushrooms. When they're almost done, start toasting your bread. Take the mushrooms off. Scoop grits into your bowl. Scoop scallops on top of the grits. Scoop cauliflower on top of the grits. Add your topping to taste. Add your toast pieces. Make sure you have forks, knives, salt, pepper, and optionally Tabasco.

Bring out your salad bowls along with your bowls of vegan grits, serve, eat, and bliss out.

The yums. Definitely doing this again.

-the Centaur

Afterword: Why "Practically" Vegan?

Well, my wife feels like she's about done with animal products, except for eggs that she can verify the source of from local farms, or the occasional cheese or daily product as part of a vegetarian meal at our favorite local restaurant, but I'm not vegan, and I didn't take any special steps to make sure the ingredients for these recipes were vegan.

So the practical upshot is, I can't guarantee these recipes are vegan. The source recipes are vegan and we're pretty sure all the ingredients were plant products, but I am not a vegan, and I can't guarantee that some non-vegan items didn't slip their way in there.

After-afterword: What's up with this blogpost?

If you read it earlier, and it was weirdly truncated, it was because of some weird interaction between WordPress, Ecto, and me slamming my laptop lid when I thought Ecto had finished uploading my blog entry. The downside is I had to rewrite half of it and it's much less funny when I'm not typing at 500 words a minute trying to finish before Coupa Cafe closes. The upside is my wife was behind me while I typed, cooking another iteration of this meal for her late-night dinner, and she filled in a lot of the things that I missed and corrected some things I got wrong.

Pound Cake, Interrupted

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Pound cake is practically my favorite food. It's right up there with Lebanese favorites like tabbouleh and kibbey nayye and right up there with my favorite dessert, the Panera Bread cinnamon roll. But not all pound cakes qualify: I like slices of large ring pound cake in the style carried by Ingles grocery store in Greenville, South Carolina.

As I've moved from city to city, I found substitutes - the Kroger ring pound cake in Atlanta and the Safeway ring pound cake in the Bay Area. For a while, however, Safeway stopped carrying this item, so I started baking my own pound cakes for my evening ritual: two slices of pound cake, one glass of milk, and a book, just before bed.

Someone asked me about a good pound cake recipe, but as it turns out I haven't made pound cake in a while as (a) my oven failed just before (b) Safeway began selling ring pound cakes again right around the time (c) my first novel got published, at which point writing sucked up the time I spent on other hobbies.


Wow. That last bit is really true: I just don't have as much time for karate or cooking or anything else because I gotta write, not just for enjoyment but because people want to read my stuff. But (b) is the controlling factor, because I gotta have pound cake, and I could make time if I had to since I have a doorway to extra time.

But I can share the recipes that I was working on before the oven failure. The following is a "ring pound cake" that was my most recent success that didn't involve Splenda, which I'd been experimenting with, off and on, to try to reduce the calorie count of my cakes. What follows, however, is (nearly) pure butter sugar flour eggs joy:

  • May 18, 2009: Experiment: Six Egg, Three Butter Stick Pound Cake: SUCCESS
    New recipe, not as sweet as last time but structurally better.
    • Recipe: Interpolated between "Butter Sugar Flour Eggs" and "I'm Just Here for More Food" by Alton Brown
      • Three and a half cups of allpurpose flour
      • Six large eggs
      • Two and one eighth cups of sugar
      • Three-quarters pound of butter
      • One half teaspoon of salt
      • One half teaspoon of baking powder
      • One teaspoon of vanilla
    • Preparation Tricks:
      • Used a deep bowl big enough to handle all batter, which speed up mixing and made things cleaner.
      • Let butter sit as long as it takes to soften on its own, or you won't be able to make it fluff.
      • Beat butter to a whip before adding sugar, one cup at a time
      • Beat egg yolks, egg whites and vanilla together for mixing into creamed butter.
      • Sift non-sugar dry goods (salt, baking powder, flour) together 3 times.
      • Alternate adding dry goods and buttermilk to the batter.
      • Let cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes.
      • Rack cool for at least 15 minutes.
    • Texture: smoother, heavier, close to what it ought to be, a little flakier this time
    • Flavor: sweet but not too sweet, smooth
    • Crust: decent texture, now darker with +2 minutes to cooking time
    • Structure: firm, though still has a slight ridge developed when cooling in the pan
    • Comments: People preferred the flavor last time, the structure this time.
pound cake 2.0

My previous best recipe is similar. I adapted one from “I’m Just Here for More Food” by Alton Brown, a chef well known for his excellent, scientifically-based cooking. After cross-referencing against the Joy of Cooking, I felt safe leaving out the vanilla on the suspicion that last time’s funny flavor wasn’t just the Splenda but my fairly old vanilla flavoring (which I found was labeled “bourbon vanilla” which made me even more suspicious.) This left the recipe:

  • Three cups of allpurpose flour
  • Three large eggs
  • Two cups of sugar
  • One cup of buttermilk
  • One half pound of butter
  • One half teaspoon of salt
  • One half teaspoon of baking powder

Preparation involved a $25 handheld motorized mixer from Fry’s
. Also I used a few tricks:

  • Use a motorized mixer (handheld or standup)
  • Allow butter to warm to room temperature by itself – no heating in the microwave
  • Mix the butter and sugar and blend until fluffy with no sugar grains visible in the mix
  • Beat egg yolks and whites together and mix with butter and sugar blend in 3 batches
  • Sift all the dry goods (salt, baking powder, flour) together 3 times
  • Alternate adding the dry goods and buttermilk to the mix
  • Carefully flour the pan to prevent sticking.

The oven was preheated to 325, baking was 1 hour, and the cake was allowed to sit a bit before being taken out of the pan.

Results: Yum. The texture was light and flaky, on the edge of being too flaky. The flavor was good, though slightly bland – it could have used more vanilla. The crust had a good texture, but it could have been a bit darker.

See my blogpost for more details. These are the last things I have records of trying.

Maybe it's time to try again.

-the Centaur

Try to eat less than a million bananas a year

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Why? Bananas are naturally slightly radioactive. While it's unlikely your body could retain all that radioactive potassium in those bananas, if it did you'd absorb enough radiation to cause an increased cancer risk: xkcd radiation chart There are disputes about those figures, of course, but at ~105 calories a banana, you're getting roughly 143 times your daily allotment of 2000 calories, so probably you should cut back anyway. -the Centaur P.S. One BED (Banana Equivalent Dose) is 0.1 microsieverts of radiation. XKCD claims that 100 millisieverts of radiation is the lowest dose linked to increased cancer risk. Take that with a grain of salt ... but do the math.

Independence Day Menu

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pre-mixed independence day tabbouleh

Tabbouleh and butter lettuce, veggie burgers in wraps with smoked Tabasco and coleslaw, sweet potatoes with honey, my loving spouse, and a couple of episodes of Black Lagoon: the Second Barrage.


† you may increase or decrease the amount of these ingredients ... a lot
‡ these spices are optional

Rinse the bulgur in water and leave soaking in 1.5x cups of water for 30 or so minutes in the fridge; optionally add the juice of a lemon to the water. Wash the parsley and chop as fine as possible (tip: separate into small, manageable bunches, roll the bunch tightly and hold it, cut with a knife to discard the stems, turn the bunch a quarter turn, and cut again as finely as possible; continue turning and cutting until the bunch is consumed and then chop any stragglers). Wash the green onions, cut off the roots and the frayed ends of the greens, and chop as fine as possible. Wash the tomatoes and dice them as fine as possible. Remove the bulgur and drain in a fine collander.

Combine the parsley and green onions in a large mixing bowl. Add the bulgur to the mixing bowl by taking a handful at a time, squeezing out any remaining moisture before tossing in; you may add more or less bulgur at this stage to your preferred texture. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Add the spices to taste. Add the tomatoes and stir until thoroughly mixed; you may add more or less tomatoes at this stage to your preferred texture. There should be a reasonable amount of juice at the bottom of the mix at this stage. Add lemon juice and olive oil to taste, alternating one to two large tablespoons of juice with oil so the mix never gets overwhelmed. Add any remaining spices to taste.

Serve in a bowl on top of leaves of lettuce, or however you want.

-The Centaur

P.S. For the recipes for the burgers, coleslaw and potatoes, you'll need to ask my wife. :-)

Pictured: the tabbouleh, just after tomatoes are added but before mixing.

Tricking Yourself Into Doing The Right Thing

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Ribeye Steak, Tabbouleh, and Cognitive Neuroscience

Sometimes it's hard to do the right thing. For example, I enjoy eating dinner out. There's nothing wrong with that; but it's always easier to eat out than it is to fix dinner, as I can have high-quality healthy food made for me while I read or write or draw, whereas cooking at home involves shopping, cooking, and cleaning that I'm fortunate enough to be able to pay other people to do (and that through the absurd good luck that the rather esoteric work I was most interested in doing in grad school turned out to be relatively lucrative in real life).

But that's not fair to my wife, or cats, nor does it help me catch up on my pile of DVDs or my library cleaning or any of a thousand other projects that can't be done out at dinner. Sometimes I deliberately go out to dinner because I need to read or write or draw rather than do laundry, but I shouldn't do that all the time - even though I can. But, if I keep making local decisions each time I go out to eat, I'll keep doing the same thing - going out to eat - until the laundry or bills or book piles reach epic proportions.

This may not be a problem for people who are "deciders", but I'm definitely a "get-stuck-in-a-rutter". So how can I overcome this, if I'm living with the inertia of my own decision making system? One way is to find some other reason to come home - for example, cooking dinner with my wife (normally not convenient as she eats early, while I'd normally be at work, and even if I did try to get home her dinner time traffic puts me an hour and a half from home; but we've set a time to do that from time to time) but she's out of town for business in New York, so I don't have her to help me.

So the way I've been experimenting with recently is treating myself. Over the weekend I made a large bowl of tabbouleh, one of my favorite foods, and pound cake, one of my favorite desserts. The next evening I grabbed a small plate of sushi from Whole Foods and made another dent into the tabbouleh. I had a commitment the next night, but the following night I stopped to get gas and found that a Whole Foods had opened near my house, and on the spur of the moment I decided to go in, get a ribeye steak, and cook myself another dinner, eating even more of the tabbouleh.

The tabbouleh itself is healthy, and maybe the sushi is too; the steak, not so much. Normally I wouldn't get another steak as I'd had a few recently, both homecooked and out at restaurants; but I wanted to overcome my decision making inertia. It would have been so easy to note the presence of the Whole Foods for later and go eat out; instead, I said explicitly to myself: you can have a steak if you eat in. And so I walked in to Whole Foods, walked out a couple minutes later with a very nice steak, and went home, quickly cooked a very nice dinner, and got some work done.

Normally I prefer to eat about one steak a month (or less), sticking to mostly fish as my protein source, but I'll let my red meat quota creep up a bit if it helps me establish the habit of cooking more meals at home. Once that habit's more established, I can work on making it healthier again. Already I know ways to do it: switch to buffalo, for example, which I prefer over beef steak anyway (and I'm not just saying that as a health food nut; after you've eaten buffalo long enough to appreciate the flavor you don't want to go back).

So far, tricking myself into doing the right thing has been a success. Now let's see if we can go a step further and just do the right thing on our own.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a ribeye steak, fresh fruit and mint garnish, tabbouleh in a bed of red leaf lettuce, and Gazzaniga et al.'s textbook on Cognitive Neuroscience.

TV Dinners: Doctor Who and ‘wichcraft

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doctor who enemy of the world and a sandwich

From the Doctor Who - Lost In Time DVD Set: Enemy of the World, a bit cheesy in parts but proving that Doctor Who can handle intrigue, Patrick Troughton can indeed act like two completely different persons, and Jaime McCrimmon (pictured) can be written as sharp and resourceful rather than a complete idiot. Overall, the Lost in Time collection both shows both the creaking corners of the old Doctor Whos as well as stunning moments when the show was just "on", as sharp or sharper as anything on the air today. Hint: almost anything involving the Daleks usually has a nice, tangy metal edge.

bacon, egg and frisee sandwich on ciabatta with gorgonzola

From wichcraft restaurant's cookbook of the same name, a bacon and egg sandwich with olive oil / red wine vinegar tossed frisee on a split ciabatta roll toasted on the inside with a thin layer of gorgonzola cheese, proving that you can make a sandwich into a gourmet meal. And that I don't particularly like gorgonzola, but that's not the fault of the sandwich; it actually went quite well with the rest of it.

-the Centaur

What Do I Actually Know How To Cook?

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blearweh: lebanese baklava
As I was reorganizing the Library I decided to add a section for "Cooking" and found I had posted only pound cake recipes. That raises the question ... what do I actually know how to cook? I came up with the following list of things that I can cook sufficiently well worth recording:
  • B'learweh - Lebanese Baklava, a flaky pastry
  • Tabbouleh - Lebanese parsley salad
  • Kibbey Nayye - Lebanese steak tartare
  • Lebanese Red Wine Vinegar Scrambled Eggs with Lavash
  • French Toast
  • Olive Oil and Garlic Marinated Buffalo New York Strips
  • Kafta - Lebanese Meatballs
  • Lahem Mishwa - Lebanese Shish Kebabs
  • and of course, Pound Cake
There's a subtle theme there. There are a few other things that get made in our house that I make to other people's recipes - Hummus, Cleveland Burgers, "California Dreaming Style" Grilled Chicken Salad - and a few other things that we eat that my wife or friends typically prepare. I'll try to go through these recipes and post as many as I can.

-the Centaur

Pound Cake Alchemy

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So I've mentioned before that I like pound cake, and that I'm working on a recipe. To make this go faster, for a few months I made pound cakes at home, cut them in half, and served half to my coworkers. Based on feedback from me, my wife, my friends, and coworkers (too dry / too moist / just right; more vanilla / less vanilla / you use vanilla?), and based on events during the cooking (collapses, crust cracks, etc.) I made changes to the recipe, which I tried the next time.

At first I thought of this as the scientific method, or at least engineering. And in one sense it is: I'm doing the minimum required to perform science, which is identifying a subject matter, establishing a procedure to study it, taking careful notes about the study procedure, and recording the results. And I'm doing the minimum required to perform engineering, which is identifying the is

But later I realized that my procedure is more like alchemy: tweaking something again and again without a true theory in the hope that tweaking it will somehow make gold.

To truly make it "scientific", I'd need much more. At a minimum, I'd need to make my independent and dependent variables explicit. The independent variables are the things that I control, like the recipe, whereas the dependent variables are the outcomes, like whether the cake collapses and how it tastes. To determine the true sources of power, I'd need to change just one independent variable at a time, such as the number of eggs. To control for confounding factors in ingredients, I'd need to make two cakes at the same time, one "control" cake with the old recipe and one "experimental" with the new recipe. Furthermore, the evaluation should be double blind: I should give slices of the cakes to someone without either me or them knowing at the time which recipe they got, so taste and texture would be evaluated without the knowledge of how the results "should" turn out. Each recipe comparison should be done multiple times to control for the small-n factor. And going beyond this, other things ought to be varied, like temperature, cooking time, egg and flour varieties, etc...

Ultimately, the goal of many such experiments would be a working theory of pound cake baking: what pound cakes are, how they are baked, and what role each ingredient and each baking step has in producing the cake. Only with such a working theory could you actually do true engineering. Engineering is not science; its goal is not understanding. Instead, the goal of engineering is to take a problem description - produce a good pound cake that satisfies my late-night sweet tooth - and use the best available understanding to produce the best possible solution to the problem. Unlike a scientist digging into the unknown, an engineer's task is to think through all the implications of the known for any potential solution to the problem. With a working theory of pound cake baking, an engineer can tell me how large a cake I can bake, whether it is feasible to bake a cake in the ovens that are likely to be available to me, and perhaps even the optimium size of pound cake for the heating characteristics of my oven. If this was a real engineering problem, a well-trained engineer would automatically go further, inquiring about the rate of pound cake consumption and the expected shelf life of baked cake, and might end up suggesting that I bake a smaller (or larger) cake so that I get the most pound cake for the least baking effort, while still ensuring that I eat it all before it goes stale.

Obviously, I'm not going to do all that. I'm going to tweak my recipe until it works right, then bake that cake and eat it. But if somehow I get tossed over into the Groundhog Day universe, I've got a plan to make the Best. Cake. Ever. All it will take is ten thousand trials...

-the Centaur

Pound Cake Reloaded

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So I tried making pound cake again, this time with success! I even brought it in to the Search Engine that Starts With a G to get comments from my coworkers, and none of them died (that I know of) and some of them even liked it (as reported on an anonymous form)! Even more of a success!

Here's what I did differently.

pound cake 2.0

First, I changed the recipe. This time, I adapted one from "I'm Just Here for More Food" by Alton Brown, a chef well known for his excellent, scientifically-based cooking. After cross-referencing against the Joy of Cooking, I felt safe leaving out the vanilla on the suspicion that last time's funny flavor wasn't just the Splenda but my fairly old vanilla flavoring (which I found was labeled "bourbon vanilla" which made me even more suspicious.) This left the recipe:
  • Three cups of allpurpose flour
  • Three large eggs
  • Two cups of sugar
  • One cup of buttermilk
  • One half pound of butter
  • One half teaspoon of salt
  • One half teaspoon of baking powder
Preparation was much easier this time with a $25 handheld motorized mixer from Fry's
. I used a few tricks this time:
  • Allow butter to warm to room temperature by itself - no heating in the microwave
  • Mix the butter and sugar and blend until fluffy with no sugar grains visible in the mix
  • Beat egg yolks and whites together and mix with butter and sugar blend in 3 batches
  • Sift all the dry goods (salt, baking powder, flour) together 3 times
  • Alternate adding the dry goods and buttermilk to the mix
Also, I was more careful flouring the pan to prevent sticking. As before, the oven was preheated to 325, baking was 1 hour, and the cake was allowed to sit a bit before being taken out of the pan.

pound cake 2.0

Results: Yum. The texture was light and flaky, on the edge of being too flaky. The flavor was good, though slightly bland - it could have used more vanilla. The crust had a good texture, but it could have been a bit darker.

pound cake 2.0

This was a good cake, but I got even better feedback from my coworkers and from myself. The cake needed vanilla, a slightly better mixing, and a slightly better cooling procedure. Nevertheless, the pound cake served its desired function:

pound cake 2.0

I will follow up soon with the details on how I tweaked the recipe until it was "perfect".

-the Centaur

National Pound Cake Day and More

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Thanks to Nancy Kress's blog, I just found out today, March 4th, is National Pound Cake Day.  Who knew? Well, apparently lots of people.  I haven't found out who invented this day based on one of my favorite foods ... but thanks!

Wonder if there's a National Kibbey Nayye Day?

-the Centaur

P.S. In researching this article, I was amazed at the bugs that crawled out from the rocks I turned over.  When looking for National Kibbeh Day I found this lovely bit of prejudice by the prolific Hytham Hammer on the Urban Dictionary:
kibbeh / kibbe
minced meat dish with almonds.
the damn Lebbos think that's a 'national' dish..well, fuck that. It's origins are North African... and yeah, it's taste-o!
Ok, Hytham, thanks for writing the entry.  But let's clear up a few things:
  1. I don't know what dish you're referring to, but kibbey as made in Lebanon does not contain almonds.  In Syria they sometimes put pine nuts in it, but in Lebanon a more typical recipe is: meat (lamb or mutton, or top round beef), bur'ghul (crushed wheat), minced onions, salt, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon.  Occasionally people add minced red peppers, allspice or mixed spice, and when I make it I do try those from time to time.  No almonds, unless you are talking about stuffed kibbey balls, which can contain almonds - in the filling, not in the kibbey, and saying kibbey requires almonds is like saying pizza requires anchovies just because you liked your mom's anchovy calzones. 
  2. "Lebbos"?
  3. Look, I don't care if the dish originated on Mars, it's still the national dish of Lebanon in that we eat it raw more than just about anyone else.  More generally, EVERYONE in the Middle East region has their own version of what EVERYONE ELSE eats, relabeled with their own names - good luck figuring out who invented what.  If you paid attention to the cuisine of the region rather than practicing some form of "my guys are the best" cultural imperialism, you'd find that out immediately.
  4. On the note of "my guys are the best" cultural imperialism, I reject it in all its forms. Send me your recipe - if it's better, it's better!
  5. Yes, it is tasty!
Hoy.  Suprises, surprises.

Pound Cake: One Pound Each of Butter, Sugar, Flour and Eggs

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pound cake, soy milk and book spread

I enjoy a couple of slices of pound cake and milk as a late night dessert, but have difficulty finding pound cake that meets my standards. Forget the "loaf cakes" made by the big commercial bakeries: they're not bad, but they're not what I'm talking about.

ring pound cake

I'm talking about ring pound cakes. My neighbors made a dense, dry pound cake around Christmastime that was very good, but my favorites growing up were cakes you could get from Ingles: ring-shaped, light-textured, with a fluffy yellow center wrapped in a dark brown crust.

Usually there's only one store in any given region that makes these, the others sticking to loaf cakes. As I moved from Greenville, South Carolina, I found Kroger in Atlanta and later Safeway in San Jose had cakes that were similar, with slight variations in density and crust.

But there's something wrong in our modern commercial paradise: in the pursuit of the dollar or fashion businessmen tweak their good products until they become crappy and then discontinue them. I'm sure that's happened to all of you; and sure enough it happened to my pound cake.

First, Safeway started selling them only as half rings. Then they cut back on quantity. Then they replaced them entirely with "vanilla loafs" pre-cut entirely too thin. Whole Foods had decent-flavored loaf cakes, but they too have started pre-slicing them and cutting back on quantity.

I don't know what people have against pound cakes, but I can't find them locally baked, not even at bakeries - only icing-covered disasters, pudding cakes, and other variants, or alternatively Entenman's not-bad-but-not-good-enough butter loaves.

So, I am working on a pound cake recipe.

I made my first pound cake years ago, back in Atlanta. I was using the approximate "one pound" recipe: a pound of sugar, eggs, butter and flour. I didn't have a motorized mixer, and the hand mixing and stirring didn't cut it. It's fair to say this was a total FAIL. The flavor and crust were good, but the texture was dense as a brick and it was too hard to eat.

More recently, I tried again. I had planned to try this with sugar first, then introduce Splenda on the next cake, but dumb me forgot to buy sugar thinking we had some, which I discovered halfway through prepping the recipe. I adapted the recipe primarily from "Butter Sugar Flour Eggs" with a little help from the 1997 "Joy of Cooking":
  • One pound of unbleached allpurpose flour
  • One pound of eggs, separated
  • One pound of butter
  • Two and a half cups of Splenda baking sugar
  • 1/4tsp vanilla flavoring
  • "Just a pinch" of nutmeg and cinnamon
Preparation was much easier with a $25 handheld motorized mixer from Fry's, which cost less than the ingredients of the cake itself (to be fair, I think I bought other staples the night I bought the pound cake ingredients). The "trick" recommended by "Butter Sugar Flour Eggs" was to beat the egg yolks and egg whites separately; this worked out so-so in the egg whites step. In "Just Here For More Food" Alton Brown recommends a different method, which I will try next time.

pound cake and cookbook

That's right, all of the shots of pound cake shown in this article were from my first try of this recipe. It was a beautiful looking cake. The texture of this cake was slightly dense, but smooth and serviceable. The crust was very slightly dry but serviceable. The flavor I have to say was poor - it was in the right ballpark, one might even say it tasted right, but it had a chemical aftertaste. And I'm sad to say I don't think it was the Splenda ... I may have simply added too much vanilla extract.

two slices

I've been consuming this cake for a while for my late night reading sessions, but I finally broke down and got the Whole Foods cake for comparison, having one slice of each. Ah, drat - the Whole Foods cake was much better, both in texture and in flavor, though it didn't rise to the level of the long lost Ingles, Kroger or Safeway ring cake.

one slice

Oh well. Better luck next time.
-the Centaur