Friday, October 28, 2016

My Guilty ‘Mexican’ Pleasures

A first for this new occasional series: today I’m writing about something I’m craving instead of something I’ve made. I quite like actual Mexican, from carts staffed by actual Mexicans to upscale small-plate taqueria Distrito (by Philadelphia’s own Jose Garces.) This post is not about that Mexican. I also have a great love for entirely inauthentic tex-mex vicinity stuff that I learned to love in my youth, and I want to talk about that today.

First, the essential ready-made elements: nacho-cheese Doritos and Ortega taco sauce. Doritos are crushed fine and sprinkled into tacos, burritos, or on top of bowls. Ortega taco sauce is delicious. I have nothing else to say. My pretentious foody self disdains my enjoyment of it, but that doesn’t stop it being really enjoyable to eat. For my family, it was always taco sauce in place of salsa for our Mexican attempts.

Refried beans are the other anchor of my nostalgia Mexican. I like to start with canned whole pinto beans. Pre-mashed are never as good, and starting from dry is more work and planning for no flavor benefit my palate can detect. This isn’t a pure nostalgia. We used to use a mix and re-hydrate it. This way is better. I start with some diced onion and pepper, cook them down until they’re soft, add spices: cumin, coriander, and cayenne, unless I’ve use a jalapeno. Deglaze with tomato when the spices inevitably stick, then add the beans. I drain 2/3 of the cans, or thereabouts, and leave the rest. Let the beans warm through and take up flavors, then mash with a potato masher and they’re done.

That’s the core of it. It needs something to complete the protein. Rice works, and lime-cilantro is the seasoning for that. I love chicken cooked with an achiote rub. The original was ground beef cooked with chili powder, no other seasoning except some salt. Traditional fixings are grated cheddar and some raw vegetables: bell-pepper, scallion, tomato, cucumber, lettuce. Wrap in a ten-inch tortilla, and if, like I was, you’re a boy growing both up and at the waist, eat two of them for dinner.

I’ll make some changes putting this together now. Eat less in a sitting, for one. I’ll also probably cook most of my vegetables, because it’s cold here. I may buy the hot Ortega taco sauce, instead of medium, to account for my increased spice tolerance. I’ll keep the lettuce. Romaine for preference, for the crunch.

It seems to be a theme here, but this food is all about how it makes you feel, how it makes me feel, more specifically. This three steps removed Mexican is all about satisfaction for me. It fills you up, sticks to your ribs, etc. The crunch, the acid, the spice all make things interesting while you chew through a solid core of stodge in rice and beans and beef. I’m looking forward to it.

I don’t know how useful or inspiring this entry is for anyone without my strong nostalgia for a particular of kind of Mexican-inspired Americana, but that’s what’s on my mind for food today, and it’s been too long since I posted something here. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The First Chili of the Season

The days are getting colder, here in Philadelphia, and the nights are drawing in, and that means the season for chili has arrived. I made the first pot of the season yesterday. Let’s talk about chili in general for a bit, and then about that pot.

I love chili, because it’s a process, not a recipe. Stew is always forgiving, but I find chili, more than anything else I regularly make, suffers nothing from cooking and cooking until the balance is just right. I can always sprinkle in a few spices and let them mellow for twenty minutes if things aren’t perfect yet. So, what is that balance? For me, chili is about darkness, spice and umami. I like a bit of tomato, but I don’t want that dominating. You need sweetness, but just the balance the acid of tomato, or the bitterness of dried chilies, too much and you wander into baked beans. Make sure it’s thick enough: tomato paste, flour and brown your meat beforehand, make a roux for something vegetarian. It needs to be rich. It needs to warm you up, from your stomach up through your cheeks and deep into your bones.

So, yesterday’s chili. It was ‘vegetarian’. I am a terrible vegetarian. Without a nutritional or ethical commitment to avoid animals, what I usually mean by vegetarian is “I used bacon, but nothing more substantial”, or “The primary protein isn’t animal.” This was one of those: a sweet potato chili with three kinds of beans.

As a preliminary, I peeled the sweet potatoes and dropped some of the peel into the blender with dried chilies, ancho and costeño, to soak in hot water until I could blend them up. Pureeing some skin’s a great way to use sweet potato without making things too bright, and dried chilies build a depth of flavor for a chili without beef. I rendered out some bacon in the Dutch oven first. It takes a lot to convince me not to put bacon in my chili these days. Pulled out the bacon and drop in onion and pepper I chopped while it rendered. Since everything stews, I didn’t need to cook them all the way, just to get some color. I crushed in some garlic, my initial spices (chili powder, smoked paprika and oregano), then a bit of flour to take up the extra bacon fat and thicken things. I took up the roux and deglazed with the pureed pepper and sweet potato skin, and a little can of diced tomato. Some tomato paste to thicken and deepen the flavor, a few chipotles in adobo for the spice. I used pinto, pink and black beans for this chili, and I left the liquid from one can in as well, to have enough for the sweet potato. I left the sweet potato out so it wouldn’t get too soft, though I didn’t really need to, it turned out.

Checked back after twenty minutes and the veggies were pretty soft, so dropped in sweet potato in little cubes and just let it keep simmering. The sweet potatoes weren’t cutting the bitterness of the dried chilies enough at first check, so I put in some honey, and some coriander to brighten things a tad. On the last taste, I needed more spice, so I put in some ground chipotle. That was that. Simmered it until the potatoes were perfect and let it be. One of my best, I think, and I’m pretty proud of my chili.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Cheese Sauce and a Moment of Calm

Disclaimer: this is an experiment in writing about food and cooking, so I’m still finding my feet. There’s nothing like a recipe, but I don’t use them anyway, these days. I’ve tried to list all my ingredients and steps and I hope it’s interesting and pleasant, even if it’s not much of a guide. I’m trying to write about how food feels as much as how it’s made, so, please enjoy.

There is something particularly satisfying to me about making, about being able to make a good cheese sauce, smooth, thick, creamy and unbroken. Mom’s from-scratch mac-and-cheese was a delight of childhood, and then for years I made do with Hamburger Helper or other substitutes, afraid to attempt béchamel, since I had heard somewhere and assimilated a misconception that it was very hard. It isn’t, and learning that was a revelation that returned nostalgic comfort to my life as a regular feature. There is very little in this world as comforting as a good cheese sauce, clinging to the same pasta you remember as far back as you remember. So, being able to make that cheese sauce is comforting in the abstract, because it means I can conjure that nostalgia whenever I need to.

The act itself is also powerfully centering, because the key to a good cheese sauce is mindfulness. Making it properly requires being fully in the moment. Cooking can be hectic, and when you’re cooking for a household, even just two, by yourself, it’s easy to have three or four things happening at once, all needing periodic checks to keep them running properly. I know that’s what happens to me, cooking for Amanda and myself. Cheese sauce requires a moment of its own. Everything else must be put off and ignored while things come together. First the roux, fat and flour and stir until it colors. Then the first liquid, nothing hot. You stir until the roux is taken up and whatever you poured in has thickened with it to something like a batter, then thin until it seems correct to add the cheese. The heat must be just so: not low enough that things slow to a crawl, not high enough to break it. You drop in your cheese and stir and let it melt, and for a moment, you can do nothing else.

Today, I made taco mac-and-cheese. I sautéed some ground beef in my dutch oven and seasoned it with chili-powder (another imitation of what mom did when I was young). I pulled the beef out when it was brown and left as much grease as I could. With that and butter I browned and softened onion and bell-pepper and some garlic, at the end. I cooked my pasta (tri-color rotini) and left it draining in the sink. A little more butter and I made my roux, then took it up with a can of diced tomato. I thinned with milk and a little cream, and seasoned with cumin, coriander and some of the adobo sauce from a can of chipotles. I use cheddar cheese, the good stuff from Trader Joe’s and a little cream cheese (always Philadelphia) for creaminess. Once everything was melted, I dropped in the noodles, the beef, and a can of black beans (drained), mixed it up and called it a day. I’ll add some fresh cilantro when I’m ready to eat it.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Treading Familiar Ground

I received a very satisfying rejection today. They liked my prose, my pacing, my craft. What made them shake their heads was, in the end, my choice of subject. It was a fairy story. Not an innovative twist, but a toe dipped in a tried and true mythology that many have waded in before, and many will again. I could re-write and hang different flesh on the same skeleton to avoid this critique when I submit it next, but I will not, because it’s exactly what I want. I’ll just hope I find somewhere that also likes the tried, true and familiar.

I love fairy stories, and a large part of what I love is the familiar, the rules and elements that mark them as themselves, which bear repeating ad infinitum if the tune rings true. What I’m saying is, I enjoyed getting the rejection because it only came from a difference of opinion about what’s most interesting to read and publish in the genre. So, here’s a little improvisation on my opinion.

There’s a tingle I get when a story brings up the importance of carrying iron, of salt and bread, of rowan, hawthorn, alder trees. I know what’s coming; fairies, and it’s something I’ve gotten tired of receiving, no matter how many new versions I encounter. There’s a fear and excitement that comes with the unknown, but there’s also a pleasant dread that comes with knowing where all the pitfalls lie and waiting for the plot to wander into one: the danger of accepting gifts, deceptions without outright lies, the shifting forms and inhuman desires that make real fairies magical. I like the elements, the set dressing of fairy stories. It’s just something that’s always clicked for me.

I also like the structure, the relation to the past that thoughtful fairy stories have. These are narrative written with a vast weight of tradition, written in the shadow of so much expansion and extrapolation from the foundational myths that it can feel map of a shared memory, this endless catalogue of things that every enthusiast must know. Sometimes it feels like the work of writing in this shadow is less innovation than simply pulling on the thread and choosing which ones to put at the fore and which to weave behind. Fairy stories, for me, the writing and the reading, are all about remembering again these little truths and old traditions that feel true in the bones. I like to be reminded, and I don’t have to be surprised.

So, in the end, I’m happy to have gotten that rejection, because the comment I received made clear that someone read and understood my story for exactly what it was. It wasn’t right for them, but it remains precisely right for me, and that’s more than enough.

Friday, June 17, 2016

I Can't Write Book Reviews

I’ve got a problem, everyone. I can’t write reviews, not the ones that we who are not critics by profession are allowed to let into the wild. I mean I can’t write good reviews.

I read plenty of books, with occasional droughts when what I want most is in limbo at the library and nothing from the shelves will scratch my particular itch. Often, I love the books, but what else can I say about that love. Perhaps I could scrape together a few desultory sentences about that character, this twist of world building, the words that tumble trippingly across the page, but that’s not really what I have to say. I put my love into the next things I write myself, twist what I want into the pattern of my work. That’s how I love a book.

What I can say, and have enough to say, about a book is what you’re not supposed to write, in this community where we all want to lift each other to the light. I can tell you what was wrong, the holes and awkward joints where things didn’t quite fit together. I can write five hundred words with ease on why I disagree with a single passage on page fifty-three and with its implications for the looming climax of your epic trilogy.

I read a classic recently: John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting. Quite a piece of work, and damn, I wish there was a sequel. But what I have to say, enough to say that it would fill this space and be a read worthy of your time, is all about what’s wrong; the things I didn’t love. Here’s the thing, I read the whole book with enough care to notice all those warts. I only bother with the ones I love. I cut open my delights and catalogue each flaw so I can find the bones, the things I need to rob for my next shambling creation. It’s a book I’d recommend, but I could fill a pamphlet with all the missteps I observed and maybe a paragraph with praise, before I got repetitive.

It’s not only a problem that keeps reviews off this blog; it’s a pitfall for my personal life as well. I tried a YA book on my partner’s recommendation (she reads YA a lot, I only rarely). I didn’t finish it. There were one too many problems, or rather a few that were too large for me peer around and be content. I still wanted to talk about it, to justify my disengagement, but also because it seemed worthwhile. The novel had good bones, just too much in the way for me to finish tracing them. She was less interested than I in a catalogue of failures for the book she’d just enjoyed, but it’s the way I have to engage in conversation about books.

I should do more to share the things I love, maybe on Twitter, where space won’t dwarf my capacity for cogent praise, and maybe I’ll figure out, in time, how to pare my deconstructions with a more detailed look at all the things I love to get a thing that counts as a review that helps the author I’d like to boost, but until then, no reviews.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Trying for Something More than Silence

There are no ((())) around my username. I have never turned my twitter picture upside down or sideways, or placed a filter on my Facebook portrait. Solidarity is tricky when you’re part of the oppressors the solidarity means to protect against. I like to think I care about equality, and progressive things, for women, POCs (my grammarian internal monologue advises PsoC) and those who were LGBTQ when I was in highschool and sometimes use more, other letters now. But here is the inconvenient truth that is a stumbling block for my self-inclusion in any of a dozen movements. There is no way that I am marginalized. I am and will remain a white, straight, cis, vaguely Christian shading atheist, young man, born in a city, educated at a private college. I try to be aware of biases, to use whatever privilege I’ve accrued to say the things I ought to say about people who deserve a voice. I retweet without comment, mostly, to avoid injecting myself into the conversation. But here’s my problem. I don’t really have a platform, just a few school friends and about 70 followers on twitter. I can’t signal boost, and so I fear that something like (((an echo))) is an appropriation.

I don’t want to butt in uninvited, or hitch my wagon to a star of trending social cause, or steal the spotlight, even a tiny spark, from someone who deserves a chance to speak and doesn’t get one in the normal course of things. I fear the tar of #notallmen, so I keep silent, in case my speech might be unsought intrusion into a lecture that I need to hear. I don’t want to defend that hashtag or the paternalistic explanation trope it represents, but damn, sometimes that knee jerks hard when you’re square in the demographic crosshairs of today’s new public disgrace. I don’t want credit for being a good boy. I know that’s not a prize that I deserve for whining from a place of privilege. I just want to do more than remain silent. I’m not saying I’m about to devote my life to activism, but I do have thoughts and feelings and reactions, and maybe sometimes they’re worth saying.

So if any of you know a way around this fear, a way to wave the flag without shoving someone more worthy off the stage, please, say it here, or @ me some strategies to show I’m on the side of love and not of hatred without stealing thunder from the ones who really need more love and less, so much less, hatred.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On How Writing is Like Deckbuilding and Submitting is Like Dark Souls

Gather round everyone, and hear why the thing I talk about all the time is like other things I like and talk about too much. Deckbuilding first, specifically for Magic: The Gathering. (I’m an old fan, and I fell off the wagon into magic online recently.) Building a deck means sifting through an enormous number of options to find a few that work together. You can just assemble things that don’t clash and are good on their own, but that’s not perfect. What you really want is an idea at the center, a neat hack to build around. Then you need cards that pull of your trick consistently. It’s no good having a perfect play that only comes up every third game.
Writing is a lot like that: there are countless setting elements, character quirks, plot twists and brain hacking tricks available every time you sit down at the keyboard, and, unlike Magic, your wallet doesn’t limit your choices. For certain, you always need something to build the rest of the story around, a spark for your fire. I’m writing fantasy, so I often start with a piece of the world I want to show, and then find the right characters and the right plot to make it interesting. Sometimes I just start with a feeling I want, and the rest of the story is about how to call it out of people. Consistency is key in writing just as in deck building. A successful story is one that works on as many readers as possible. It may not get the same reaction from everyone, but I want my stories to speak to something in the people who read them, not just a few, but a lot.

Testing is key for stories and decks, both. Everything can look good by itself, when you’re alone with your computer, but there’s no way to really know. You need opponents. You need readers. You need to be challenged. Once you run your baby up against a few people, you can see how close it really is to the idea you started with. Maybe you need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe you get what you’re looking for on occasion, but not often enough, so you take a few things out and replace them with others, and then you run it out again. The process of being challenged and refining is essential, for Magic or for writing.
Once you’ve written a story and tested it and honed into the best version of itself you have the tools to build, it’s time to submit, and that’s like dark souls. You start with nothing. You hack your way as far forward as you can. Then a skeleton comes up behind you and puts an axe through your skull and you’re right back where you started. In all seriousness, there is a real similarity. Submission means doing the same thing over and over again without much advantage from any particular previous attempt, but you do get incrementally better over time. Eventually, something clicks. You get lucky. You get the timing down. You make it to the next bonfire. Someone buys your story. Then you’re back to nothing heading into the next area/submissions queue. I think the most important parallel for this part of our simile is the right way to deal with failure. Just like a death in dark souls isn’t an immediate reason to change you tactics, a rejection isn’t a reason to change your story. You’ve already tested it. You just need to get the timing right, hit the right editor at the right place in their process. Just like I don’t change my dark souls tactics until it’s clear I’ve missed something important, I don’t revise a story I’ve deemed submission ready until I’ve gotten several rejections, hopefully some of them thoughtful, personal ones. I also don’t revise again until I can see the alternate path to outflank the spectral knight, or how I could make the story better than it is.

I think it’s time to test this idea out on all of you, and maybe play some Dark Souls while I wait to hear what you think.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Narrative Convention as Setting

            I’ve been thinking lately, since I read Mishell Baker’s Borderline about how use of narrative conventions or tropes can reinforce the setting they occur in. Borderline is a perfect example of this: it’s a story about Hollywood, with a protagonist who used to be a director and almost all the characters, humans and fairies, are deep into the film business. One of the very elegant ways Baker folds the reader into that setting is to have the book follow the narrative conventions of film. Forgive me if I get some details wrong, since I’ve had to send the book back to the library. The film convention I’m talking about is mostly that of coincidence: of course our hero’s greatest directorial hero turns out central to the plot, of course she meets the sinister private eye as soon as she wanders to a coffee shop. The layering of chance meeting and narrative coincidence might feel forced or lazy in another context, but as I read, my only thought was everything was like a movie; it’s the kind of story Hollywood tells about itself.
            It’s something I think I’ve done a little in my own stories, unconsciously, but this idea that narrative conventions can reinforce a particular setting is something I want to start thinking about much more seriously, and I think it’s worth that kind of attention. The idea of a destined hero is a tired narrative trope, but it’s almost unavoidable when I write pieces inspired by celtic mythology; doom or geas is part of the story and characters in such a setting shouldn’t be surprised by it. That sort of awareness is key for using the narrative to reinforce the setting: it doesn’t feel like part of the milieu if characters notice and comment; they should take it as natural for things to proceed as they do. It’s that elegance which makes great cyberpunk so oppressive: the characters’ tacit acceptance that their struggles are futile, that the house will always win in the end. You don’t want to get cute with this and break the fourth wall with characters who know what kind of story they’re in, unless you’re aiming at humor or are Elizabeth Bear, and handle it much more elegantly than I can.

            So what’s the point? Really, the point is that I’m still figuring out new things about writing with every great book I read, and this is what Borderline helped me figure out. It’s a little different from simply following the genre conventions for the style of story you’re trying to tell. It’s more that a clear sense of place, both the place of the narrative and the place of the story in the spectrum of genre and style, opens up moves that wouldn’t work in other places. Heroes fated to destroy each other in tragic, glorious battle works in ancient Greece, but leaves a reader feeling cheated in prohibition-era Chicago. It’s just another little tool for hacking the brain, and it runs both ways. Moves that fit the setting reinforce it, setting that fits your moves make them seamless.