Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter in Downtown Oakland

I have a great love of city streets. A good day for me is a day of wandering, with food and drink, and whatever else comes my way. Or that's what i keep telling myself. Here's a look at an afternoon in Downtown Oakland.
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Downtown Oakland is no crown jewel of American city centers. On a recent wander, I was struck by all the unused space. On a weekend, you'd think the bomb had been dropped.
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All this wasted space. Office workers are at home in the depressing suburbs, and maybe their cars have only moved to one of the many mega stores and their parking lots. With the work week finished, there's absolutely nothing happening downtown.
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There's very little going on, but there's always more than enough parking.
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I'm of two minds about this. One: it's depressing that such a large area of town is a deserted concrete wasteland. But: I also do kind of enjoy the desolate and crumbling city. These depressing scenes can be really fascinating.
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These scenes say as much as or more than any article in a newspaper about all the fashionable parts of town. But in the end, it can all be a little soul sucking. When the days are short and cold, and there's nothing going on, it can fill me with immense sadness.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

A Death in the Family (Warning: Graphic Images)

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Friday afternoon when it was time to put the chickens away, all three of them were missing. It was about an hour until dark and we were clueless. We figured that they had gotten spooked and all gone up as high as possible. Eventually we found Pepper way up in a tree and got her down and into the coop. We searched all over and in the neighbor's yard but couldn't find Naked Neck or Big Mama. Not good. With the light fading we called off our search and decided to look for them in the morning.

When morning came around Naked Neck had returned and was wandering around the back yard like her normal skittish self. Big Mama was missing. That is, until I found her body, or what was left of it near the edge our lot. A wild animal, likely a raccoon, had helped itself to our chicken's flesh.
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A couple months ago when Big Mama started to molt, she stopped laying. It was at this time that I jokingly suggested using her for soup. One of my roommates would have none of it so I dropped it.
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This represented a problem for me though. Many animals are abused to provide us with meat, milk and eggs. Having our own chickens has meant that we get to enjoy their eggs, and in return we give them a pretty good life. The depressing alternative is usually to live in very cramped quarters, maybe have their beaks removed, and be pumped full of drugs so they provide the materials for our omelets and eggnog. But what's the right thing to do when they stop producing? A petting zoo isn't really the most sensible solution. In this case something else took care of the problem.

And so the raccoons tore Big Mama apart and we heard nothing from inside the house. I could have given her a better death, and I might have used all the parts. Instead I buried the gutted and headless carcass next to the catnip.
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Maybe the chickens were spooked into the trees and were hoping to wait out the danger until the morning. Or maybe they just decided to call it a night early and fly up into the tree for no particular reason. If so, it was a deadly mistake.

I'm sorry Big Mama, you didn't deserve this.
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chilaquiles at Cafe Siena

No trip home to Eugene Oregon would be complete without a trip to Cafe Siena. Cafe Siena is an excellent little cafe next to the University of Oregon campus that serves up Mexican inspired breakfast as well as crepes and Northwest inspired fare.

As much as I like Cafe Siena, there's really only one thing that keeps me coming back: The chilaquiles.
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Anyone familiar with Mexican chilaquiles or even their very similar Tex Mex cousin knows the basis for the dish is leftover tortillas. Well, these chilaquiles are a very unusual masa casserole, baked all together and served up like you might serve lasagna. As unorthodox as it is, it's a rich delicious meal great after a night of drinking, and still great after a night of not drinking. Either way, a rich and spicy plate served up with a cup of coffee is one of my very favorite breakfasts in the world

Unique take on the classic dish, or simply a less common style? Maybe someone out there knows, or maybe I just need to do some more research.
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I'm already looking forward to my next trip home.

Cafe Siena
853 East 13th Avenue
Eugene, OR 97401-3706
(541) 344-0300

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Phad Thai

For many, Phad Thai is the first dish that comes to mind when Thai food is mentioned. It took me some time to actually eat any when I moved to the kingdom. Eventually though, I knew exactly how I liked it and where to get it. It was a taken for granted meal and nothing more. Sure, I loved it, but I also love drinking water. Phad Thai was and is a simple street dish that you would never really bother making in your own home. That is if you lived in Thailand. Twenty, twenty-five, or thirty baht gets you a lovely plate of noodles and you're happy. End of story.

Trouble is, on occasion, I crave a plate of these lovely noodles in America and am left perplexed. Much like Thai coffee, many recipes for Phad Thai abound, and there are a lot of crap recipes. The are many reasons for this: ignorance, access to ingredients, or even pickiness.

Now I was going to write a long(er) diatribe about the state of American Phad Thai, but Chez Pim already did so I don't have to. Read her post, follow her recipe, and if you've got another minute or so to burn, you could aways come back here to read my ranting and look at my pretty pics. I like Chez Pim's recipe and description maybe only because she seems to approach her cooking of this dish like I do many things. The ingredients are a bit flexible, the rules not concrete, and there are some great rather crazed descriptions. Familiarity and intuition are key.

If I were to take a guess, the two most important missing ingredients usually missing from Phad Thai in America are tamarind and dried shrimp.
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The tamarind gives that special tartness that is often lacking here, and is often replaced by a terrible sweetness. Even worse, another one of the key ingredients, dried shrimp, are often left out.
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Hi little guys! These things are very salty and very necessary to balance you flavors. While these are not the only ingredients, they seem to often be missing in many thai restaurants.
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My first attempt was a tad embarrassing. Too many noodles, not quite enough flavor. It was here that I once again reminisced about one dish street stalls. Street stall that serve one thing and one thing only are my favorite as they do one thing and must do it well or risk poor sales. Technique is key, so practice makes perfect. My subsequent attempt was better still.

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The flavors were all there, but maybe a tad undercooked. Getting better.

The following day I made it again and frankly was happy with the result. Sure I forgot the bean sprouts and pickled turnip but I'm working on it.
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If you're still reading perhaps you're looking for a nugget of advice so here you are: My advice to you is to kill yourself. but if you can bear the pain of life just a bit longer, perfect your phad thai technique, then leave behind a beautiful corpse. If you believe in an afterlife congratulations, you've earned your way in for spreading joy and happiness with your noodles. If you are sensible, you've simply made your vessel all the more delicious for the worms. Happy cooking folks.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Healthcare For All

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The role of organized religion in American society is a touchy subject when you are supposed to have a separation of church and state. Unfortunately things are not always so cut and dry and religion does enter politics rather frequently. Last November some of our good(?) state's churches stepped in and did their part to help keep other citizens from marrying in California. Imagine: people so put off by other peoples' lives and loves that they fought to keep them from being recognized by the state and enjoying the same rights as themselves.

And now we have health care. I walked by The First Congregational Church of Oakland and stopped dead in my tracks. Maybe I've cynically come to expect the opposite but here was a church with a plain and simple message of inclusion that I'm stupefied isn't more commonly displayed. At present an overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian. To see America, the richest and most powerful "Christian" nation fighting over whether all of her citizens should have equal, and yes universal health care seems to suggest many of our Christians still have a thing or two to learn about living a Christ like life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Another Thanksgiving

This year's thanksgiving plate
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looked almost exactly like last year's. Spooky.

I might have had very little of interest to report this year if it hadn't been for a couple of guests. Two Taiwanese women came along and brought with them a taste of home. One of them brought a fried chicken dish that was described to me as a street snack, and the other brought black jelly. The name escapes me but it was almost exactly the same as Chao Kuay from Thailand. Blogged here and here.
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I can speak from experience when I say that Thanksgiving becomes irrelevant without the friends, family, and food of our common history and geography. Overseas, the big day has at times been spent over a special meal, but never with turkey and stuffing. I don't really much care for it out of its context. But this isn't to say I am a fundamentalist when it comes to this holiday. As America is a nation of immigrants, our population continues to diversify, so do our traditions. While there was certainly the turkey and stuffing this year, many families often have other unique items from their respective family histories. I've never met another person who enjoys homemade Challah at the table on Thanksgiving. Our guests' contributions were in the spirit of our ever evolving cultural tradition.

The black jelly looks rather nice with my plate of wonderful homemade desserts. That's apple pie, cranberry cheesecake, cranberry upside down cake, and pumpkin pie by the way.
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While I'm unlikely to try my hand at this black jelly next year, if the same guests are present, I just might look forward to it.