Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tart Tatin

NPR recently had a wonderful segment with cook book author Dorie Greenspan, with Ms. Greenspan sharing her recipe for tart Tatin.

Since we picked ~40 pounds of apples at the local orchard a couple weeks ago, it was time to give it a go.

The tart turned out remarkably well, and was extremely impressive to serve. We paired it with a fresh batch of serious vanilla ice cream, and some friends to help eat it.

Apple Tart Tatin
(with thanks to Dorie Greenspace)

1 stick butter
3/4 cup sugar
~6-8 firm/sweet apples (we used Firesides)
1 sheet (8 oz) frozen puff pastry
dash of cinnamon

Thaw out one sheet (8 oz) of frozen puff pastry (in the freezer section of your local supermarket). On a floured surface, roll out sheet so that 1-2" larger than your pan. Trim sheet into a circle shape (can be sloppy...doesn't matter), poke all over with a fork, and keep in fridge until ready to put in oven.

Find an oven proof 8-10" fry pan. Melt the stick of butter. Swirl butter around to cover the sides of the pan. Sprinkle sugar over melted butter and remove from heat. Peel, quarter, and core apples. Arrange apples, rounded side down, around frying pan. Try to arrange apples nicely, and pack in as much as you can. Apples will shrink during cooking, and the apples will be the visible presentation for the dish. Once one layer is laid down, cut remaining apples into smaller pieces and fill in cracks and even out the apples. Depending on size of apple and pan, the number of apples you need will vary. Sprinkle cinnamon to taste over apples (I went on the lighter side so as to not overwhelm the flavor of the apples).

Return pan to heat and cook over medium high heat until caramel turns dark. This will take about 15 minutes. Initially, will go very slowly. When color starts to change, will change quickly. You may need to reduce the heat towards the end so as to not burn the caramel.

Cover apples with puff pastry. OK to tuck pastry in at edge. Place on a covered cookie sheet (to catch drippings) and place into a 375 degree oven. Cook for 40-50 minutes, or until puff pastry is done.

Remove from oven, cover pan with a rimmed serving dish larger than pan, and CAREFULLY but quickly turn pan upside down to transfer to serving plate. If any apples stick to pan, carefully put back on tart.

Let tart cool for 10 minutes or so (caramel is too hot and too liquid to serve right away), and serve with your favorite ice cream.

I had no troubles with sticking or with the transfer to the serving dish. Visually, the dish was extremely impressive (the apples had a wonderful color). The tart was sweeter than I thought it would be, but absolutely delicious. Our local food critics (ie, our girls) enjoyed it a lot, although our younger one still refuses to eat apples that aren't apple sauce.

This one could become a family standard.

Twitter and Fires

I've never quite "got" Twitter. Interesting distraction, but it seemed like a lot of attention and time being put into something that didn't quite have a return (exception is some of the services that combine twitter like entries with address books, so you can see what your contact is doing immediately before you call them)

With the fires in San Diego, I've been very concerned for family, friends, and former neighbors (horrifying to see neighborhoods you recognize burning to the ground on TV, and folks talking about some fires pushing all the way to the Pacific). Tracking things on line has been spotty and confusing.

The clear exception has been the KPBS twitter. KPBS is the local public radio/TV station. Their twitter feed is by far the most useful and timely information source I've found. Even though they have lost their transmitter to the fire, they continued to stream online, maintain blogs and Google maps, and have since moved to broadcast on another radio station. They are to be commended for providing such remarkable public services during this crisis.

The twitter service and format seems particularly well tuned to streaming commentary, which is exactly what you need during fast changing situations like wildfires.

For friends and colleagues in So Cal, be safe.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Site of the Decade

If there was any doubt to the socially redeeming value of the internet, this site should end all arguments. Clearly the site of the decade (my inner twelve year old geek is beside himself with giggles)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Karma is a Callin'

Recently, launched their new digital music download service. I have never bought into the "legit" digital download services (iTunes, etc.). Generally speaking, the audio quality has been piss poor, and the digital rights management (DRM) protections have been worse that ridiculous (limiting playback to iPods/iTunes, or Windows (yada) Ultimate (yada) Live (yada) 360).

I have never understood how otherwise rational people could create a business model predicated on pissing off and annoying your paying customers with an inferior product, while people who steal unprotected MP3s (conveniently ripped from non-protected CDs from the same music companies) from file sharing sites get better quality, no DRM hassles, and the ability to use the music anywhere they want.

What caught my attention with Amazon is that they sell standard MP3s, with no DRM nonsense. Nice! In poking around the site, content is still limited. However, the songs are ripped using basically the same settings (highest quality VBR or 256mbps) using the same high quality encoder (LAME) that I use to digitize my own CDs. Double plus nice!

I immediately dove into my digital music archives, looking for files that (ahem) had slipped in there over the years when karma had its back turned. To my (pleasant) surprise, there were only about 15 songs where the RIAA and I may have had something to talk about (sorry, I could never justify purchasing a full Carl Douglas album to get a legit rip of "Kung Fu Fighting"). My rule of thumb had always been that if I had more than one song from an album, it was time to purchase the album. I was pleased to see that it had worked out in practice.

A very pleasant (and convenient) 30 minutes later on Amazon, and I had brand spanking new, DRM-free, high-quality, and karma approved versions of ~10 of these songs in my music library (including "Kung Fu Fighting"!).

Amazon is continuing to rip albums into its collection. I'm sure some labels will continue to fight selling legit DRM-free content (even though they already sell that same DRM-free content on CDs), same as I'm sure some people believe the world was created 6000 years ago or that the Cubs actually have a chance to win the series next year.

I'm looking forward to the death of DRM as the music industry rationalizes. Look for some thoughts on how to accelerate that process in future posts.

In the meantime, the Amazon end user license does have some unfortunate limitations on traditional fair use rights for things you purchase (for example, you're not allowed to sell the MP3 you purchase from Amazon to another person). If you're the sort of person that believes karma reads the fine print, you may want to do the same.

For those that have been held back by DRM nonsense, get on over to Amazon, start going legit, and make your preferences heard with your $$.

Friday, October 12, 2007

New TV Season

I normally don't start watching new TV shows until well into the new season. It is usually a lot easier to wait to see what gets momentum, then catch up by grabbing older episodes at the "usual locations"

This year, with Lost and Battlestar Galactica not starting until January, and Survivor just too lame to stomach another season, started watching Bionic Woman and Pushing Daisies.

Bionic Woman (aside from the pure old school geek appeal) is being done by the same crew that does the spectacular Battlestar Galactica (top 1 or 2 show on TV right now), including having Starbuck as an evil bionic woman.

First couple episodes were surprisingly lame. I kept hoping that Starbuck would open a can of bionic whoop ass on the incredibly lame actress playing Jamie Sommers. Writing has poor, uninteresting production, generally awkward acting, and the obligatory insanely annoying kid sister.

Thankfully, episode 3 this past week was actually pretty good! I'm hoping that the quality continues to build, and that the producers/actors don't end up with two mediocre series instead of one great one. Still hopeful for this one.

Pushing Daisies is a remarkable series for TV, much more film-like than anything else on TV right now. First couple episodes are director Barry Sonnenfeld channeling the Cohen brothers, but with a sweetness that is quite charming. Have no idea how long a TV show can maintain this level of visual/production creativity, writing, acting, humor, and pacing.

I'm signed on for as long as this ride lasts, and highly recommend every one join this ride.

As an aside, is anyone else struggling with this season of Heroes? Way too many stories and too little humanity. I pity those that are joining the show this season and struggling to keep up.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Pierre Franey's Mac and Cheese

Way back before the day of Food Network and celebrity chefs, all we had was public TV and the likes of the late Julia Childs (blow torch and all), Jeff Smith (before we knew of his real tastes), and the late New York Times columnist Pierre Franey.

While recipes come and go, our favorite Mac and Cheese recipe is courtesy of Mr Franey. No Velvetta in this one. Lots of very nice Gruyere, red peppers and ham sauted in butter, and red pepper for some kick. This is a very grown up Mac and Cheese.

With our kids finally getting to the age where we can contemplate food with flavor and varied texture again, fired up a patch of Mr Franey's Mac and Cheese for the first time in over a decade.

Recipe is appended, and highly recommended as we move into the fall...
Pierre Franey's Grown Up Mac and Cheese
(from the NYT 60 Minute Gourmet)

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
2 sweet red peppers, cored/seeded and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 lb country ham, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
2 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Red pepper flakes to takes
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 pound Gruyere cut into small cubes
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil, and add the macaroni. Stir frequently, and cook until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet. Add onions and red peppers. Cook and stir until wilted. Add the ham, cook briefly, stirring.

4. Add the milk, cream, salt and pepper, red-pepper flakes, nutmeg, the drained macaroni and the Gruyere cheese. Cook, stirring for about 5 minutes or until the mixture thickens.

5. Place the mixture into a flat baking dish. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.

6. Place in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. Place under the broiler until nice and brown.

Yield: 4 servings.

For this recipe, I like to use a really nice ham, like what you get at Honey Baked Ham. Try to under cook the noodles slightly, since it will continue to cook in the sauce and in the oven. When you saute the onions and peppers and ham, you can give the whole dish a very nice roasted flavor, but be careful not to burn. The Gruyere and ham were really meant for each other, esp. with the freshly ground nutmeg to bring it all together (these three flavors really make the dish). You can't have too much Gruyere in this dish (in the heavily French accented words of Mr Franey, "I Love Gruyere!").

Last Lecture

(thanks to Paul for pointing me to this)

A couple weeks ago, Randy Pausch (a pioneer in virtual reality and professor at Carnegie Mellon) gave a lecture at CMU on "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams". Although dying from pancreatic cancer, Prof. Pausch gave one of the most moving and uplifting lectures I've had the pleasure of seeing.

The lecture is long (over an hour), but pays the viewer back with a glimpse into a wonderful outlook on the world, how to live your life, and our responsibility to those around us to help them live theirs.

As I was watching it, I was reminded of how J. Michael Straczynski (aka, JMS or create of Babylon 5) described actor Andreas Katsulas after he passed away last year. After describing the party Andreas hosted for friends a couple months before his death, JMS shared that by how he lived and laughed and shared the last months of his life, Andreas had shown him the right way to die. With the gift of this lecture, Prof. Pausch has done the same.