Thursday, July 26, 2012

1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6(3H,7H)-dione 3,7-dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione. Gotta love IUPAC nomenclature, no really, you do.

In a couple of weeks, I will mark the 9 year mark in my hot, steamy, passionate love affair with coffee. Past ruminations on this blog have included snippets from my time working as a coffee roaster/barista, and I recently suffered through an experience which forced me to wrestle with my relationship with coffee. 

This summer I've been taking part in numerous and wildly varied clinical research studies. The reason behind this is two-fold: first, compensation can be quite good, but also my academic curiosity and ability to see what it's like on the other side of the consent form, I believe, is going to be valuable moving forward with my career. 

This morning I arrived home this morning at 2:30am after spending 36 hours in a sleep deprivation study, which not only included two constant-posture sessions (meaning I was unable to leave my hospital bed for 8 hours, and then another 12 hour span) but also rendered me caffeine free the whole time. Halfway through my head was pounding, and it was all I could do to not jump out of bed, kick down the door, declare myself done with the study and sprint to the nearest, horrible hospital coffee cart. I pushed through though. 

This is the half-bag Sivetz fluid bed air roaster that I had the privilege of playing with for many  years.

I remember my first day working at the coffee shop. I arrived mid-morning to commence training and my introduction to the art of espresso making began immediately. Prior to that morning, I had, once in awhile, enjoyed the random cup of coffee -- in no way was I a daily drinker. I also couldn't have outlined the subtle differences between a dry and a wet cappuccino, much less the differences between a latte and a cappuccino. 

Another shot of the half-bag roaster, along with a white-elephant gift from a few years back. 

 Lisa, who had been working at the shop for years before I arrived, began by demonstrating the differences between good and poor espresso shots -- by pulling them and then having me drink them. This continued until I had so many shots that I had to run to the restroom and vomit. So. Much. Espresso. 

This is a shot of the shop I used to work at, taken by a friend not too long after I left for California. Notice the custom made, automatic, compressor run tamper. Also, harder to see and behind the tamper is the single dose grinder, which eliminates having grounds sit in the grind chamber. The perfect tamp, every time.

From that day, nearly 9 years ago, I have had coffee nearly every day. I'm guessing that there has been less than 20 days in that span of time where I have not  had my daily dose, meaning that for the last 3265 out of 3285 days, I've relied and looked forward to my cup of coffee, in varied forms, to get me started. 

While I was stuck in that tiny little hospital room, with no access to internet, no phone and with enough light to make reading barely tolerable, I was feeling so bad, and in retrospect, it was not all due to my lack of caffeine, but at the time it was all I could really think about. That, and waiting for the moment when I was going to be released, of course. I began to think about my future as a doctor in residency, and the long hours that will be required (not as long as they used to be, but nevertheless, sleep deprivation still plays a part in that phase of medical training) and all I could think was that as long as I could have some coffee, I could do anything, for any length of time. Of course, this is not true, but without coffee, in my state of severe dependency on caffeine, functioning for more than 24 hours without it is extremely difficult. In fact, today, after a long, revitalizing sleep and three strong cups of coffee, I began to look up the mechanisms of caffeine withdrawal. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of disagreement in what, why and even if it is a real thing (the nay-sayers are obviously not caffeine addicts!) Perhaps the most surprising is that there is a proposal to include caffeine withdrawal in the latest DSM. I had to chuckle, as ridiculous as it sounds, I was significantly impaired yesterday afternoon and into the night as I had to stay awake without having any caffeine and how I was feeling falls under the inclusion criteria that the DSM puts forth. Here is a description from a study concerning caffeine withdrawal:
Of 49 symptom categories identified, the 10 fulfilling validity criteria were headache, fatigue, decreased energy-activeness, decreased alertness, drowsiness, decreased contentedness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and feeling foggy or not clearheaded. Other symptoms thought likely to represent valid symptom categories were flulike symptoms, nausea-vomiting, and muscle pain-stiffness.
There is no doubt that I met all these symptoms. I was even spending time worrying about what I would do if I found myself in some sort of survival situation, say, I don't know, an apocalyptic scenario where I was running for my life and I had to make due with no caffeine for days on end. How would I manage? If and when that does happen, I'll be sure to have a stash of "no-doze pills" in my survival kit. 
Grounds left over from an aeropress made cup of coffee. Maybe one day, when I can afford to have a La Marzocco machine installed in my kitchen along with a professional burr-grinder I won't use my aeropress on a daily basis, but until then, I'll be making these little cakes everyday.

Perhaps it is telling that I'd rather have caffeine pills than instant coffee packets as well -- I've definitely made the transition into coffee snobbery. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Volcanoes, Log-jams, Dams, Bridges, and Earthquakes.

I am enamored with contemplation, which is just a fancy word for daydreaming, but these days I feel compelled to find a highfalutin label for everything -- so I'm sticking with contemplation.

When I was a child, I often liked to imagine that I was the first person to set foot on a particular piece of land. I don't mean that I thought I was discovering new continents, but I was a pragmatic enough of a kid to think that perhaps, just maybe, nobody in the history of the earth had stood exactly where I was standing. Usually when I was off building forts in the urban forests that still are found all over Portland, I would imagine these things. And, I guess in the way that one cannot ever stand in the same river twice, I am right (thinking of the earth in orbit, and our solar system's movement in the galaxy, and then our galaxy's movement in the larger universe, we are always somewhere unique in space) but, again as a practical child, I was thinking as far back as the Native Americans (of which, the greater Portland area had a population of hundreds of thousands only 200 years ago) and maybe, dinosaur hunters before that! I still wonder if I've ever actually had a foot print on a piece of land that had never seen a human foot. More importantly, this is the first instance that I can think of where I was really thinking of history in a way that was personal.

This has continued, in that I've increasingly become interested in the past of the places (and the people) where I spend my time. Of course I am intrigued by the different dynasties of Egypt, the rise and fall of the Roman empire and the narrative of how the United States came to be -- but all this seems academic when compared to finding out how the neighborhood, house and school I spend my time in came into existence -- and the story of these places extending back as far as my imagination can take me. An extension of this is imagining the natural history of a given place. On May 18th, 1980 Mt. St. Helens blew it's top, forever altering part of the observable landscape of my childhood. 

I don't remember the mountain without having a flat-top, but for whatever reason, pictures of the "pointy" version of Mt. St. Helens seem so interesting. 

This photo below, which is the one I had used before the current title photo (I feel compelled to change it with every post) got me thinking about natural history. 

This photo is not one that I took myself, but it is of a place that I've been to many times: Oneonta Gorge, which is in the Columbia River Gorge, just east of Portland. I picked this photo not because I planned on using it in my next post, but after staring at it, I got to wondering when exactly this photo was taken, and I engaged in some google-fu and found some interesting things. This blog makes a compelling case for clearing the log jam, which as far as I can tell, seems to be right where the photo above is taken. Check this comparison out, using a different, older photo with one post-log-jam-formation:

This clearly isn't the same photo as the one I used before, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were taken by the same person, during the same day. In this picture above, on the right, that shows the log jam, the sheer size and potential danger involved in crossing it is hardly properly communicated. This video does a nice job of not only demonstrating the pitfalls of crossing the log jam, but why this particular place is one of my all-time favorites. 

Supposedly the log jam is the result of 3 large boulders (the size of small school buses) falling off the cliff walls, near each other creating, a choke point, and then all the logs that fall into the gorge are no longer able to make their way down to the Mighty Columbia, but are instead piled up into the mangled mess we now have. In 1996 (the year I graduated high school!), in the spring, there was so much rain that I remember downtown Portland had a wall of sand bags nearly as tall as me along the sea wall where the Willamette River flows through the city. This rain (again, I couldn't find absolute documentation) and subsequent flooding is what caused the huge boulders to be sheered off the cliff walls. I can't help but wonder if the water in this small, short, narrow gorge was dozens of feet deep, and that is what caused the boulders to be loosed. If that is the case -- that would have been a tremendous and fearsome sight to behold. 

Further east, past the end of the Historic Columbia River Highway, there is another wonder of natural history. But, this one is under a hundred feet of water. Celilo Falls was a place where migrating salmon could be plucked out of the air, and was used as such for hundreds if not thousands of years until the construction of the Dalles Dam, in 1957. Here are some before and after shots of the larger area:

Here is the landscape now. The green space on the left is what is called Celilo Park. 

These dams are hydroelectric, and as such, may have a role in providing the very current involved in running this computer, as much of the electricity is "shipped" along high-voltage lines through Oregon, all the way to California. Even more interesting (in my opinion), since this blog is hosted by a Google owned entity (Blogger), and because all of the websites and images in this post were found via Google search, the data most likely was routed through or originated from one of the world's largest server farms, which is found in The Dalles, Oregon -- which of course is where The Dalles Dam is, which provides the cheap and abundant energy to power such a huge data center. 

The point of this is not to damn the dam, but because this place is no longer accessible, and just as the top few thousand feet of Mt. St. Helens is no longer there, I am intrigued by what can no longer be experienced -- or at least, a reasonable similar experience. We all want what we can't have, to a degree. 

A similar dynamic, (in my warped mind) is being played out right now in San Francisco. The eastern most span of the I-80 Bay Bridge is close to being replaced by a span that is being built right next to the current, working one. 

This, of course, is not natural history -- at least not completely, as earthquakes are definitely natural, and the Loma Prieta Quake is definitely in the past. Every time I drive on this bridge, which as been frequent this summer, I can't help but imagine what it was like to have part of the upper deck collapse during the earthquake. 

All of this provides good fodder for my active imagination. When the new span is finally in use, a major part of Bay Area history will be gone -- not only from the earthquake, but a bridge that has seen so many millions of people back and forth across the Bay, and that has dominated the skyline for so many decades will be changed. And, that is the crux of it all: change. I'm glad to be alive during a time of photographs, tremendous collections of books, archives and documented oral histories -- and of course, all of this is increasingly at my fingertips -- all thanks to the dam which flooded the great Celilo falls. A good lesson which reinforces the principle which states that everything comes at a price. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Come Take a Ride on the Citric Acid Cycle!

There are so many food blogs out there right now.

 It seems that there is a never ending appetite for food based television.

Increasingly, people are taking their diet into their own hands and realizing that they really do need good, wholesome food.

So, if there are so many others with admittedly more skill, experience and talent than I in regards to culinary capability, why do this at all? The simple (and only necessary) answer is that I enjoy it. And, if some other people may benefit or find inspiration, that is just gravy, delicious, thick gravy.

Every time I consider what meal I should document and use for a blog entry, I definitely try and keep the cost, effort and required preparation and cooking time within the same parameters that I would for a "normal" meal. That said, meals vary wildly in these aspects in our household and it is hard not to try and come up with something special -- something worth writing about. Most of the ingredients that I've featured are things that we would normally keep in the pantry or the refrigerator. This is the goal of cooking in our household regardless of blog writing and picture taking, to eat well, healthy and within a reasonable budget.

I really love steak. I know right? What a surprise. Grilling a top-sirloin or New York Strip Steak is always a pleasure, and something that I've learned to do quite well over the years. I'm sure that soon enough, I will have a blog post all about an expensive cut of meat, grilled to perfection.

However, tonight, I am trying to take a lower quality cut of meat into a juicy, tender, grilled beef steak.

To do this I'm primarily using acid. Luckily, we have an pre-packaged little citric acid bombs all over in our yard in the form of lemons and grapefruits. I used 3 large lemons and one grapefruit. I squeezed them all, and zested one of the lemons.

The marinade:

  • 3 large lemons (squeezed -- zest of one of the rinds)
  • 1 medium grapefruit (squeezed)
  • 5 garlic cloves (diced)
  • 2 medium shallots (diced)
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • large pinch crushed red pepper (variable)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 0.5 cup parsley (rough chopped)

I'd like for the steak to sit in this acid bath for 24 hours, but we're gonna go live with only 8 hours of marination. This site talks about the negative aspects of marinading for long periods, but in my experience, I've not had a problem with this particular marinade and having the meat dry out. In fact, I've used a similar marinade with thick cut top-sirloin steaks, and the consensus was that it worked very well -- perhaps the salt and soy sauce counter-acted any "burning" of the meat by the acid, granted I wouldn't keep the expensive meats marinating for 24 hours, though. I'm not really sure, but the end results have proved delicious. 

Setting the meat aside for a moment, I'd like to introduce Larry's Produce. Many of you who live north of San Francisco undoubtedly know about Larry's, but for those who live within a reasonable driving distance of Fairfield and have never been to Larry's, you must make an effort to visit. For the same reason I love most farmer's markets, I love Larry's. Indeed, there is more variety than even the largest farmer's market can provide and the price is much lower than any farmer's market I've ever been to. The only downside is that the place is always so busy! This morning I visited Larry's and having only been there a few times prior, I'm still not acclimated to the price difference, and this morning, per my usual routine, I usually have a rough running estimate of the total bill. I picked out and filled a large bag and only stopped shopping because I was thinking that I was pushing $30. My bill came to $11.20. I was tempted to put the bag in the car and come back for another round -- the only problem being that my wife and I can only eat so much before it starts to go bad! 

I'm not sure what the cost was for the three-dozen or so okra (the plural of okra is okra, not okras, as I initially wanted to write) but I'm sure it was minimal. I spent nearly two years living in Tampa, FL, and even though Florida (especially Tampa) is not usually considered the South, it was as close as I had come to living in a place that held to the southern traditions of cooking -- and ever hope to come again! I came to love okra -- steamed, fried and grilled okra is one of the handful things that I am thankful for, from my time in Florida. Usually okra is breaded and fried, which is tasty, to be sure. However, I'm going to grill the okra. For 8 hours prior, they will be sitting in a bath of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a touch of salt. In order to not break with blog format, here is the ingredients list:
  • 24 okra
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 0.25 balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Just like the steak and it's marinade, the okra need to be stirred around so that the flesh are evenly subjected to the juicy goodness. 

I don't always think that a protein need be accompanied by a starch, in fact, increasingly I have eliminated rice, pasta, bread and potatoes, not because I think carbohydrates are inherently bad, but because, like most things, they need to be eaten in proper proportion (which is not what the food pyramid provides for.) There is no doubt in my mind that much, if not all of the excess adipose tissue that I've carried around in wildly varying amounts in my life is due to an "addiction" of sorts to carbohydrates. Usually craving for jelly beans, gummy bears or tortilla chips is how it manifests. While many people have taken partisan positions on low-carb diets, I would argue that there is not a "one-size fits-all" diet that should be pushed, but I will say that many of the people in my life are carbohydrate abusers, as I am also wont to be. If I were to push for an answer to this problem, I would point most people to look into what is known as the "Paleo Diet/Lifestyle." 

The topic of a not-so-far-into-the-future-blog-post will be concerned with the age old question that pits the physiology of machines in human form versus a dynamic qualitative requirement and is distilled into a simplified form of caloric intake of any form is the only rule that governs the dynamic system that is the human body and one where more than a simplified "energy in/energy out" rule abides. Of course, the most immediate solution for most people I know, including me, is eating less and moving more. Everything else is just academic and suited to variance for each person's needs and requirements.

All that aside, I love a crispy sweet potato, either in french fry form or grilled. I was hoping to try a different way to grill the potatoes, in that I was hoping that boiling the potato and slicing into, but not all the way through, but I encountered some difficulty with the logistics. More on this later.  

As I've mentioned before, I am enamored with basil, and I am really enjoying the garden's basil bounty thus far. Along with the olive oil that I've drizzled over the sweet potatoes, I've concocted a lime juice. basil concoction. It is really simple, and here are it's constituents:
  • 0.25 cup olive oil
  • ~teaspoon salt (I didn't measure, just used the shaker to cover all the potato)
  • ~teaspoon black pepper 
  • 1 lime (squeezed)
  • .25 cup Asian basil 
  • 0.25 Spicy basil (this basil is truly and surprisingly spicy! It's leaves our a fraction of the size of a classic Mediterranean version, but if you ever come across some, I highly recommend it.)

I must admit, that I fought (and it was truly a battle) against including garlic with the sweet potatoes. One of the things I've become more aware of is how easily I add too much garlic. As a true American, I fall into the trap of thinking, if some is good, a shit-ton must be better! This time, I made the right decision, as I think the garlic would work with a standard, white potato, it is not the best option for the sweet potato, especially in light of all the other powerful flavors that are involved with this meal. 

These were large sweet potatoes, and as such, I grossly overestimated how long to boil them. I had them in boiling water for 35 minutes, which left them nearly completely cooked. This meant that the ends were mushy, and the skin came off when I tried to slice them. I was able to keep one potato in the form I described above, but because of the mushiness, I feared fanning the potato as planned, and was left with a sub-par product. The other potato fell apart during slicing, which meant that slices  -- plain, ordinary, boring slices would have to do. 

The grilling and the final dish was, if nothing else, a good looking affair.

Round Tip Steak has it's place, and utilized properly is a satisfying cut of beef. Perhaps my aim was too high (it definitely was) in trying to turn this cut of meat into a steak dinner, well, more importantly a stand alone steak dinner. The good thing is that we have much leftover steak, and it will see a good life in a steak and eggs breakfast tomorrow and then a steak burrito for dinner tomorrow. This is all well and good, but a leftover top sirloin would also serve this purpose, with a better first showing. With a cut this thin, grilling was a dangerous proposition in the first place -- and I was well aware of this -- but even what I tried to keep to just a "searing" on the grill left me with a grey, well done piece of meat. That said, it was surprisingly tender, which I attribute to the acid trip it took earlier today. 

The okra was also mediocre, in that my marinade was hardly detectable after grilling. I'm not sure I would do this exactly the same in the future. I would enjoy exploring options for infusing more flavor into the seed pod during or before cooking. I also might like a sauce to drizzle over them when done. By themselves, they weren't good enough for our liking.

The delectable orange tubers, despite being boiled for too long, were tasty and crunchy -- which is just what I was going for. The brightness that the lime brought to the sweetness of the potato was excellent and the spicy basil (which really, I can't recommend enough) with some salt and pepper was something that I'm looking forward to and will be combining these elements again. 

This is what my wife had to say about the dinner: "um, yeah, the steak was a little lemony, but, yeah, it was good."

Not exactly a glowing endorsement. Not that I'm arguing with her, though.  

Overall rating:  C+

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Duck. Duck. Duck. Duck. Duck. Duck. Salmon!

Salmon has long been my favored fish. I remember, as a child, visiting the fishery at the Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River from which two things have stuck in my mind: the sturgeon which look like modern day dinosaurs, and the salmon migrating back up the river, to spawn and die. Seeing the fish leap, fight and put forth such a tremendous effort, flailing on a fish ladder has stayed with me.

Thinking back to the times of the Native Americans, and the people that lived around what is now the Portland, OR area during the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I can't help but think that I could have seen the value of the mighty salmon fish, unlike the people of the expedition, but I would've probably eaten Rover anyway. This, from the PBS interview with Dayton Duncon, discussing the expedition:
The Columbia river system is like the... Let me start again. Back up a second. Lewis and Clark and their expedition ate their way across the West. They'd had buffalo, elk, antelope, big horn sheep, they'd even tried a prairie dog back in, back on the Great Plains. They'd eaten berries and everything, they'd tasted everything. And now they were in the greatest salmon fishery the world has ever known, the Columbia River basin. And there's salmon beyond belief. Clark saw some houses where he thought ten thousand pounds of dried salmon must be resting there. And instead, what did the men want to eat? They didn't want fish, they wanted meat. That's what they were used to eating--nine pounds of meat a day back on the Plains. There's no meat to be had, so they started buying dogs. They'd come into an Indian village and they'd trade whatever they could to buy dogs. They'd be sitting right next to the river bank where the salmon are, are, you know, swarming, and they'd have, you know, dog for dinner. You know, they were wiping out the canines of the Northwest as they moved through. Lewis said that he and most of the men liked the taste of dog after a while. Clark was the only one who said, "I find that I have not reconciled myself to the taste of dog."
I'm not claiming to know the what should be done about the dilemma and damage all of those hydroelectric dams have done, but considering the important role they play in electricity production, we obviously can't just blow up all the dams. But, it is a shame to think of the fish runs that used to exist in the lower Columbia River.

Once in awhile we get frozen salmon fillets to eat at home, but this weekend, my wife and I went all out and picked up 2 lbs of wild caught salmon (from, yes, you guessed it: Costco) in lieu of treating ourselves to a sushi dinner extravaganza -- which is our usual manner of celebrating, as it is our anniversary. So, the pressure is on to make this a worthwhile dinner, and I'm aiming high with this one.

First, things first. Here is the ingredients list for the three main components of the meal.

Grilled Leeks:

  • 2 large Leeks, cleaned, with dark green section removed and sliced in half-inch increments, perpendicular to the length of the stalk
  • Bacon fat (I fried 5 slices of bacon, to be used in the risotto, so this made sense to use)
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
I took the outer couple of layers away, as these are usually too tough to eat. Before I laid the leeks,  on the grill, I soaked them with the grease sprinkled the salt and pepper on them. 

Bacon, Caramelized Onion and White Wine Risotto:
  • 5 slices thick cut bacon
  • 0.5 yellow onion 
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 0.5 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup white wine (two-buck chuck from Trader Joes is just fine)
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 0.5 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
  • Pinch of fresh thyme, dill and rosemary
  • Pinch of salt and pepper
I've made risotto in the past, but it has been a long time. I made sure to get the proper rice, as this is very important. Usually, we cook with jasmine rice, which I love, but for risotto, jasmine rice, won't do at all. I also figured, adding bacon would ensure it being tasty, if not executed exactly as it should be. 

Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon, with a garlic, lemon, dill and sage rub:
  • Water soaked Cedar Planks (I soaked the planks for nearly 4 hours)
  • 2 lb wild salmon fillet
  • 2 fresh lemons (3 tablespoons of zest, and squeezed)
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 0.25 cup minced dill
  • 0.25 cup minced sage
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 0.5 tablespoon pepper
  • Pinch of red pepper

My wife has this meal head and shoulders above the other efforts from the past few weeks. I enjoyed making it, as it was a little more out of my culinary comfort zone. The risotto is excellent. The only minor, very small thing I would do differently is add a touch more salt than I did. I was hoping the bacon would supplement the saltiness more than it did. However, I would be proud to serve this risotto to just about anyone. Delicious. I have never grilled leeks in this manner before, and the only major issue was that I only used two leeks! Due to the strong flavors in the risotto and in the salmon rub, it was good that I kept it simple. Lipid, salt, pepper and heat. That is it, and that's all they needed. The salmon worked out well too. I'm glad I didn't have the fish sitting in the marinade/rub longer than I did. Salmon doesn't really need marinade like some cuts of meat do, and that principle holds up here. I let the salmon sit in the acidic oil for, at most, 30 minutes, and it worked perfectly. One one of the fillets I ate all the herbs and garlic, and on the second one, I scraped it off. Both ways were good, but I love strong flavors, so this is no surprise. The dog ate both of the skins, and she had only positive things to say. 

Overall grade: A+, as in, there were no major flaws and no room for improvement. 

Follow by Email