Saturday, June 21, 2014

Midyear Migas

Sorry about the long silence. It's been over a month since my last post. At first, I was holding off until the second half of the dancehall tour happened, but circumstances intervened (Steve's now got his own dancehall to manage!), so that's on hold. Then things started going south around here, and since I like to keep the tone of this blog away from complaining and doom and gloom, I (wisely, I think) refrained from posting any of it. Suffice it to say that the book I spent a year researching and writing a proposal for, a proposal my agent loved and submitted over the course of nearly a year and a half to over 20 publishers and imprints, failed to find favor with any of them. Since one reason I moved back to Austin was that the arts library at the University of Texas has much of the stuff I'll need to write this book, I began to wonder why I moved back. I don't have much in the way of a social life here, I've lost all interest in live music, and only one of the people I've invited over for dinner accepted.

But there are things that'll be turning around in the next 30 days, unless my landlord decides not to renew my lease (somebody tell me why I took the 8-month option instead of the 12-month option, please). In that case, since I still don't have a credit rating and nobody will rent to you without one, I'll be on the street, my stuff in storage. I'm hoping that doesn't happen: my course at UT starts up again on August 1, and there are already six people signed up, and there's a project in the works that should be unveiled before that that I hope will solve all the current problems. But more on that when I'm ready to unveil it. All I know for certain is that on Monday I go to the dentist and wind up with new teeth, so for the first time in a decade, I'll be able to bite and chew like a normal person. Which means I can take on some barbeque and not have to arrange dinner around its chewability factor.

Anyway, excuse the absence, and let's move on to the very few things there are to write about here.

* * *

First, yes, food. I continue to navigate my way around American foodways, and continue to be confused. Not, of course, that anyone seems to cook any more. Too many times, I've headed off to the supermarket and returned with stuff that's already prepared, or half-way so, and heated it up and dumped it on a plate. That's in part due to the fact of the audience of one, but also due to the fact that too many times I head to the market with no idea of what I want to make. See dental problems, supra.  Now, I'm writing these words after returning from the closest farmer's market, Sunset Valley, which is held on Saturdays. To someone who went twice weekly to the market in France, it's a huge disappointment in terms of variety. Of course, I'm grumpy enough to wish that the musicians would just go away, ditto the handcrafts people and the prepared-foods people. I've heard that Tacodeli is a fine place indeed, but I don't go to the farmer's market for tacos.  Or kombucha on tap or all the other gluten-free, vegan, blahblah stuff. I want fruit and vegetables. 

Of course, I may not know the cycles of the growing season yet (and the Austin Chronicle discontinuing Kate Thornberry's farmer's market because the crazy dame asked if she could be paid for it doesn't help), so every couple of weeks I head up there to look around. Occasionally I get eggs, and then I walk around seeing who's got what. Lotsa squash today, and some of the most overpriced tomatoes on the planet: so-called heirloom tomatoes were €3.50 a kilo in France, and here they're $3.95 a pound.  Plus, nobody seems to know what kind they are. Bah. Looks like there's some okra already, but that's not high on my list at the moment. At least the ragged grey bundles of kale are gone. So the result of today's expedition is shown below. 

One humongous bundle of basil ($3.50!) and one tiny melon ($3!). But some of that basil will become pesto, and the main reason I bought the melon was because it was the first one I saw that wasn't the size of a basketball (you think I'm joking? Okay, a soccer ball. Seriously). Those cost a buck more, but I doubt they have much flavor. At any rate, there's far too much of them for me to use up, so later this afternoon, I'll go buy some Mexican ("key") limes to squeeze into the center of half of that some morning for breakfast. Still, compared to the bounties I used to photograph in France, this ain't much. 

Next impossible-to-figure question: why is there only one kind of juice in the store (orange), which exists in about 40 different forms (with pulp, some pulp, no pulp, added calcium, etc etc)? What's the deal with pulp? Who cares? Why put calcium into orange juice? Why can't I buy less than 1.75 liters? I sit back and remember being able to get mandarin juice, pineapple-lime juice, strawberry-orange juice, blood orange juice, and many other flavors, all in one-liter containers, made by Tropicana, an American company. Ah, well, maybe some day. 

* * *

Speaking of cooking, since I notice that Mick Vann has posted a couple of long pieces on his knives (here's the first of the series; there are two more), I'll post a shorter one on mine. When I left France, I was using three knives, two Henckels, a big chef's knife for chopping and a smaller one for mincing up garlic and carving tomatoes and the like, and a beautiful Japanese knife that was razor sharp, which I used for turning, for instance, herbs into powder. The Japanese knife had a serious injury early on in France as I cut into a saussicon sec from the market and hit the metal brad that's used to seal it closed, which had inexplicably migrated into the meat. This hurt, I gotta say. I'd bought this knife in the market in Kyoto at the legendary Aritsugu store, and I'd taken exquisite care of it up to the moment when it hit that metal and the edge got dinged badly. 

Then, when I moved, I wrapped those three knives up and shipped them with the rest of the kitchen stuff, which, since it took months for the movers to get here, meant I needed knives in Austin. Fortunately, in King Tut's Tomb, aka the stuff I'd had in storage for ages, there were two Chinese knives, bought years ago and almost never used. One was a cleaver, the other a flesh-cutting knife.

Meat knife, cleaver (L-R)
Now, there had been times when I wanted a cleaver, and all of a sudden I had one. To my great surprise, it did great service when it came to, for instance, chopping stuff really fine: ginger, garlic, onions, etc. I haven't dismembered a chicken with it yet, and I don't know if it'll do that, but I use it pretty much exclusively for chopping at the moment. And since I've been doing a lot of Chinese food here since I moved back, it's come in very, very handy. Enough so that the big chef's knife more or less just sits there.

The other knife, though, its acquisition lost in the haze of time, was a revelation. When I was at Aritsugu in Kyoto, there was a saleslady who spoke impeccable English. I was admiring a number of knives there because I was looking for, well, what I got: a fine-chopper, but razor-sharp enough to cut tough stuff like meat. She explained that the vast majority of what they carried was for sushi, and so the blades were shaped for that: |/. The straight edge helped cut thin, even slices. (For comparison, a French chef's knife would be \/, and the cleaver ||.) They only had one or two French-style blades, and she showed them to me and I chose one, which she sent back to the master to hone perfectly. (She also asked if I wanted my name in Japanese for free and for reasons I still can't figure, I declined). Anyway, this knife-of-unknown-origin is clearly a |/, and when it comes to slicing meat for Chinese food, it just glides through it. Flank steak is no problem, and it laughs at chicken.

If it helps, the meat knife seems to be a Shigemitsu from Sakai, Japan, which means I probably bought it in San Francisco's Japan Center in 1970. The cleaver is a Three Rams brand, no doubt acquired in San Francisco's Chinatown at some point, or maybe at Austin's legendarily smelly, cramped Oriental Market on Airport Boulevard.

And a little secret: I had a friend who was a chef for many years, and every day he took to work a nice selection of really beautiful knives, all in a cloth doohickey with slots for each of them that rolled up and was tied shut. Then he would proceed to use two, maybe three, of them. "They don't respect you if you don't have an impressive collection," he said, "but hell, how many do you need?" Exactly.

* * *

Finally, a cretur update, which the delicate may wish to skip. 

As the weather warmed up, I began to notice a small grey gecko living in the wood trim of the garage, who'd walk around close to the house and gorge himself on ants from one of the anthills near the front door. He'd disappear fast when I walked by (although one time he was so busy gobbling ants I almost stepped on him). But he vanished, and one morning I found an odd turd in the driveway. Not quite an inch long, but pretty fat, and in the shape of a J. I wondered if that might have been the gecko, but also worried what kind of animal might have deposited it. I do have something of an attic in this place, and would prefer it keep devoid of opossums, raccoons, and squirrels, not to mention rats. 

So imagine my alarm when another, identical, J appeared on the back deck. I enlisted some more savvy friends to help me figure what it was, and it took no time at all: toad. Really? A toad with an intestine big enough to leave that? Dang. Anyway, I haven't yet laid eyes on Turdy, as I've been calling him, but it did remind me of the evening I was sitting on my porch in my old place here, enjoying a summer storm passing over, and listening to the stereophonic frog chorus that lived in two nearby culverts. One was tenors, one basses, and they'd alternate and then sing together. I can't imagine any female frog in Texas resisting them. Anyway, my ears were open, and I heard this intermittent squeaking sound, like someone making annoying noises on the outside of a balloon. Squeeeek. Long pause. Squeeeeeeek. What was weird was that my ears told me it was coming from a few inches away. The next time it happened, I found it: there was a crack in the concrete of the porch and something was emerging. More of it appeared with each squeak. Finally, there was a huge push and a toad emerged, fully three inches long. How it had pushed itself through that crack I don't know, but I saw it happen. It sat there, inflating a bit and, after a couple of tentative steps, hopped off to the nearby creek in search of what the frogs were in search of. I've since read about toads who've lived in suspended animation for upwards of a century, sometimes put as a joke in a cornerstone of a building. Many of the ones who do this are the famous Texas Horned Frog, or horned toad, as depicted on Texas license plates. What's ironic about that is they're just about extinct. I've been in their habitat a lot and never seen one outside a zoo.  Anyway, Turdy likes it near lights that attract bugs, evidently, so he's welcome to hang, even if I don't see him. 

And, just to reinforce stereotypes, I found another cretur a couple of weeks ago. When I moved in here, I sprayed the garage with some kind of fog that, it alleged, stayed live for months. Sure, I told myself, as long as it kills what's already there I'm cool with it. But it appears that it does work, because one fine morning I found this dandy, who hadn't been there the day before. 

Yes, that's a quarter
Everything is bigger in Texas! Admittedly, I drove over him with a handcart as I was trying to get a bookshelf into the house, but it didn't hurt him much except to detatch one of those huge antennae. These roaches are so-called tree roaches and are much happier outdoors than they are in your kitchen, and will frequently run for an open door or window if given encouragement. You do not want to smash one, since they contain, um, plenteous soft filling. 

* * *

So there we have three short items on the year's longest day. Wish me luck for Monday, and stay tuned; there's about to be some action around here. 

1 comment:

  1. We've got wood frogs here in New Hampshire; their croaking sounds a lot like chickens clucking. But the amazing thing is that in our deep winters, they freeze almost solid. Really: hard as a rock. Then in spring they thaw out, enjoy the warm weather for a few months, then go back into the deep freeze.

    The will to survive truly knows no bounds in Nature.

    /Steve Bj


Site Meter