Bits and Pieces

Some quickies for a slow Thursday.

First, a prediction I got right. In talking about Google’s addition of automatic tagging to their Photo app, I said “If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco.”

Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that the app was tagging photos of two black people as “gorillas”.

Google handled it well: they immediately removed the tags, apologized publicly, and worked with the man who reported the problem to tweak the facial recognition code.

But honestly, this can’t be the only offensive incorrect recognition lurking in the code. New prediction: we’ll see more such stories about Google, Flickr, and any other photo storage and display software that assigns tags automatically.


You may have heard that a new debate has been sweeping the Internet lately. More polarizing than what color the dress is, more riveting than escaped llamas, it’s The Great Peacamole debate!

A couple of years ago, Melissa Clark, a New York Times columnist wrote about a guacamole recipe based on green peas. The world ignored it. Yesterday she wrote about it again, and the Internet–Twitter in particular–exploded.

Tweets from both sides of the political divide condemned the recipe:

And yet Ms. Clark remains defiant:

The thing is, this recipe not only includes peas, but also, God help us, sunflower seeds.

I’m sure the recipe is as delicious as Ms. Clark claims–but it isn’t guacamole. If it had been billed as what it is, Avocado/pea dip, we would have avoided this whole debate.

But still, there’s a bright spot in the debacle. We’ve found an issue that unites President Obama and Texas Republicans. Maybe, just maybe, they can build on that agreement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something so wrong as peacamole led to an agreement on gun control, immigration, or abortion rights?


In sadder news, Tama, the feline stationmaster of Japan’s Kishigawa railway line, died last week. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners.

I’ve written several times about cats working to promote their own selfish agendas or achieve world domination. It’s a pleasant change to take note of a cat working to improve her life by helping the humans around her.

Tama rose from poverty–a former stray–and single-pawedly saved the rail line from bankruptcy, and drew more than a billion yen in tourist income the the region. In recognition of her efforts, she’s been appointed to the post of “honourable eternal stationmaster” and has been deified.

Her apprentice, Nitama, has taken on the role of honorary stationmaster.


And finally, CNET and other venues are reporting that Amazon will be changing the way it weights reviews. Instead of simply averaging all reviews’ ratings, they’ll begin giving more weight to “useful” reviews.

Although the expect the weightings to change over time, currently the plan is to give more weight to verified Amazon buyers’ reviews, newer reviews, and reviews customers flag as helpful.

I have mixed feelings about the change. I can see it making a lot of sense in some areas. Giving more weight to newer reviews and “helpful” reviews of appliances, toys, and tech gadgets makes sense to me. As similar products come out, reviews that compare multiple options and weigh the tradeoffs should get more weight.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s as true in other fields. Is a recent review of Twilight automatically more useful than one that was written when the book came out? Should a review of Jurassic Park that compares it with Jurassic World be granted more weight than a review from last year? How much weight does a multiply-helpful-flagged review of Madonna’s Like a Virgin from 1984 get compared to a review from 2014?

I’ll be watching to see how this develops.

Mac and Cheese and Horseradish

Whenever it’s cold and wet out, I want to write recipe posts. It’s raining here, and temperatures are dropping, so here you go.

I’m not going to assault you with a recipe that involves macaroni, cheese, and horseradish. That sounds like it would fall somewhere between dubious and horrifying. I’ve got two recipes, one a family classic perfect for cold, wet nights, and one new one that we’ve been experimenting with.


Traditional Mac and Cheese

This is Maggie’s family recipe. It’s simple and filling, and keeps well for up to a week in the refrigerator. Definitely comfort food, and it gets much of its charm from its simplicity, so don’t crud it up with fancy additions. No ham or bacon, no greens, and above all, no bell peppers. Anyone caught adding peppers to this dish will have their kitchen privileges revoked. Permanently.

Ingredients
Note: This makes enough to feed four hungry people with leftovers. We generally get two dinners and a couple of lunches out of a batch.

  • 5 tablespoons butter. Real butter, please, not some weird substitute. We prefer unsalted, but suit yourself there.
  • 5 tablespoons flour.
  • 5 cups milk. Yes, low fat is acceptable. I don’t think I’d try it with non-fat.
  • 20 oz sharp cheddar. Think sharp. Extra sharp. The sharpest you can find. Think big. It’s better to use more cheese than not enough. Traditionally, Cracker Barrel extra sharp is the cheese of choice, but we’ve started using Cougar Gold*.
  • Salt and pepper to taste. You don’t need much. Go easier than you initially think, especially on the salt, and double-especially if you’re using Cougar Gold.
  • 2 pounds (one bag) of macaroni. Avoid the smallest and largest sizes of noodles; the medium ones hold the cheese best.
  • 5 tablespoons breadcrumbs. Panko, of course.
  • 2 more tablespoons of butter. You got a problem with butter?

* Cougar Gold contains no actual cougars or cougar milk. It’s made by students at Maggie’s alma mater, Washington State University. And my ex-boss would undoubtedly suggest a warning label at this point: the cheese does sometimes release a little liquid in the can. This can make it slippery (accusations of sliminess have been made). It may make handling difficult or uncomfortable, but the flavor–and post-cooking texture–is not affected.

Preparation

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F
  2. Cook the macaroni according to the package directions, but undercook it slightly. If you normally prefer squishy noodles, stop at al dente; if you normally go for al dente stop at just slightly crunchy.
  3. Melt the smaller quantity of butter and mix in the breadcrumbs.
  4. Grate the cheese. Or crumble it. Coarse chop. Whatever floats your boat. The idea is to break it up into small pieces that will melt quickly and evenly. Set a small amount of the cheese aside for later.
  5. In a small pot, melt the larger quantity of butter over low heat. Stir in the flour until smooth.
  6. Add the milk, stirring well. When the milk is warm and starting to thicken, increase the heat.
  7. Add the grated cheese a little at a time, stirring until it melts.
  8. Here’s where you add that salt and pepper.
  9. When the macaroni is done, drain it and put it in a large casserole dish. Or if you’re lazy, throw it back in the pot you cooked it in.
  10. Stir in the cheese sauce.
  11. Top with the reserved cheese, then further top with the butter/bread crumb mixture.
  12. Stab the top of the mac and cheese with a fork six to eight times, deeply enough that the top of the fork’s tines are about half an inch below the surface. According to Maggie, this is the most important step. But then, she’s got a thing for aesthetic cooking. Left to herself, she’ll use the reserved cheese and the breadcrumbs to draw pictures. (The actual benefit is that you get little pockets of crunchy breadcrumbs through the dish, instead of having all the crunch on top.)
  13. Bake for fifteen minutes, then let stand for five.

As I said above, it keeps well in the refrigerator–but it doesn’t freeze well at all. To reheat, put the covered casserole dish in an unheated oven, then turn the oven on to 300F and leave it alone for an hour.


Horseradish Hamburgers

This recipe started life as a horseradish crusted prime rib of beef, courtesy of Tyler Florence. Once we tweaked the proportions a bit, it turned out well–try marinating a steak in it for several hours–but let’s face it: we eat burgers a heck of a lot more often than we do prime rib. Or even steak.

Ingredients

  • 5 garlic cloves, smashed. Feel free to adjust to your tastes. And yes, pre-minced garlic is perfectly acceptable. Take that, Tyler.
  • 1/4 cup prepared horseradish. Or a little more if you want your meal to bite back.
  • Needles from two fresh rosemary sprigs. Feel free to add more. What, you mean you don’t have rosemary growing in your yard? Why not?
  • Leaves from four fresh thyme sprigs. You don’t have fresh thyme either? That’s OK, neither do we. The supermarket will be happy to sell you enough thyme to make a dozen batches.
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt. Tyler called for half a cup. I presume that either his tastebuds are dead, or he has chronic low blood pressure.
  • 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper. You can cut this back a bit, but despite what I just said about Tyler’s taste buds, don’t cut back too far, especially if you’re using previously-ground pepper.
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Ground beef. Figure on 1/3 pound per burger.

Preparation

  1. Tyler says to combine all of the ingredients except the beef in a small bowl and mash them into a paste. You can do that if you want. We prefer to use a stick blender. The paste is smoother, and you don’t risk getting bits of rosemary stuck between your teeth.
  2. In an appropriately-sized bowl, mix the paste with the meat. I suggest you start with one tablespoon per burger; you can always use more (or less if you’re feeling wimpy) on the next batch.
  3. Form the mixture into patties and broil or grill as you prefer. Note: You probably don’t want your burgers extra rare, as the paste benefits from a bit of cooking. Keep the flipping to minimum. Ideally, you’ll only flip them once.

The paste keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Cover it tightly, though, unless you want everything to taste like horseradish… We suspect–without having tried it–that it will freeze well too.

Sauerblog

OK, this was totally unexpected.

As part of the prep work for Tuesday’s status update, I was looking over various site statistics, including the list of top posts*. I ignore the stats for the home page, since that gets hit almost every time someone comes to visit. I also ignore the stats for the “About” page and the F.A.Q., since they’re not really blog posts. With those caveats, the most popular post, by an overwhelming margin, is Using Up the Leftovers: Sauerkraut. “Overwhelming”? Yeah, more than twice as many views as the next most popular**.

* For the record, “Top posts” is strictly a measure of views. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with the actual quality of the writing.

** Moo! Since that post was about using up the less-popular parts of the cow, I thought I was onto a pattern. But the next three were my musings on Dropcam, the mandatory emergency alerts built into cell phones, and Kokoro’s Story. I suppose one could make a case for the first two being part of the pattern, but Ms K-poof is not a leftover.

Interestingly, that post went up at the end of July. It got a view every couple of days through August and September, then went totally dead, without a single hit until December 30. Three total views in December, 15 in January, 20 in February, and 44 in March. Clearly, sauerkraut disposal is a big issue in winter. Does everyone suddenly spot the jar that hasn’t been touched since the last cookout of summer and say “Well, it doesn’t really go bad, but I’m tired of looking at it, so I might as well use it up?” Or maybe it’s just that everyone on the East Coast is snowed in and trying to figure out what to do with the last thing in the fridge?

It does tempt me to make this blog “all sauerkraut, all the time”… OK, not really, though I did consider it for about 15 seconds. What I did decide to do, though, was give a partial update to that post.

One of the recipes I linked in the original post was for “Lemon Chicken Baked on a Bed of Sauerkraut“, attributed to “tiffany”. We tried it out and were mildly pleased, but found it somewhat underspiced. We’ve experimented with it a couple of times since, and think we’ve come up with something pretty tasty. Without further ado, here’s our version.

Lemon/Sauerkraut Crockpot Chicken

Ingredients

  • 32 oz jar sauerkraut. If you’re using up leftover sauerkraut, it’s fine to cheat on the quantity here. If you’re buying sauerkraut specifically to make this dish, be experimental: try a flavored variety (I highly recommend Farmhouse Culture’s Smoked Jalapeno.) If you’re making your own sauerkraut, my hat’s off to you.
  • 1 teaspoon ground red pepper. Or local equivalent: we’ve had good results using up leftover crushed red pepper from the local pizza delivery outfit.
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary. Because every chicken recipe uses rosemary. I think it’s international law. Part of the Geneva Convention, maybe.
  • 6 chicken thighs (about 2 1/2 pounds). If you’re using boneless/skinless thighs to cut down on fat, reduce the quantity to 1 3/4 to 2 pounds. Turkey thighs work well too, but you’re not going to get lovely, crunchy turkey skin.
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Maybe a little more. It is lemon chicken, after all.
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil. Sorry, I can’t think of any olive oil jokes right now.
  • salt and black pepper to taste. Use less salt than you think it needs. It really doesn’t add much to the flavor, and there’s probably too much sodium in your diet anyway. Use more pepper than you think it needs. You want the dish to have a bit of a kick.

Construction

  1. Rinse the sauerkraut and drain. Don’t squeeze it: you want to remove some, but not all, of the moisture.
  2. Spray your crockpot with cooking spray and toss in half of the kraut. Add half of the red pepper and rosemary, then give it a stir.
  3. Spread the chicken in a single layer on top of the kraut. Optional, but recommended: let your inner serial killer loose on the chicken: take a sharp knife and stab the heck out of the bird before you put it in the crockpot.
  4. Mix the lemon juice and olive oil, then brush it on the chicken. Hit both sides, and use all of the mixture.
  5. Sprinkle the salt and pepper on the chicken.
  6. Layer the remaining kraut on top of the chicken, then top with the remaining red pepper and rosemary.
  7. Cook on low 7-8 hours. If you’ve got a long commute, put everything together the night before, store it in the fridge, and start it cooking before you leave. If it winds up cooking for a couple of extra hours, it won’t be hurt a bit.
  8. Serve in bowls over rice. Far too many chicken dishes are too wimpy to stand up to brown rice. This is not one of them.

Happy Birthday, Abhishek!

I don’t usually take official notice of my friends’ birthdays here on the blog. There are several reasons for that: none of you know all of my other friends, I don’t want to offend people by leaving them out or put people under an obligation to reciprocate, it’s hard to find just the right electronic birthday gift, and so on.

Ah, who am I trying to fool? You all know the real reason is that I have a terrible memory for dates; I usually don’t remember your birthdays until they’re long over.

But this is a special case. Facebook saw fit to remind me that Abhishek’s birthday is tomorrow, which killed my main excuse. And I’ve got the perfect gift. The last I heard, Abhishek was living in Minneapolis, MN, which means that as I write this, he’s enjoying tropical temperatures in the mid-teens (for those of you outside the US, that’s 15 Fahrenheit, not Celsius). I’ve managed to persuade Maggie to part with her family recipe for potato soup. It’s a great winter meal.

So happy birthday, Abhishek. Make a big pot of this soup to fortify yourself against the weather. If the temperature stays where it is, you can eat the soup. If the temperature drops, make a really big batch and soak in it, hot tub style*.

* No, don’t soak in it, that would be a waste!

Potato Soup

Ingredients

  • 6-8 medium potatoes. White, yellow, or red skinned are all quite good. Yukon Gold work well too. Skip baking potatoes, the texture of the finished soup isn’t quite right. And definitely don’t use purple potatoes. The flavor and texture is good, but the color doesn’t survive and the soup’s visual appeal is, well, non-existent. If you want purple soup for some reason, try food coloring.
  • 1 small-to-medium onion. We prefer red, but white or yellow are fine. Chop it fine.
  • 12 ounce can of evaporated milk. Here’s your opportunity to tune the fat content. We generally use non-fat with excellent results, but if that’s not a concern for you, feel free to use full- or low-fat. Warning: Be careful not to accidentally grab the can of condensed milk on the adjoining shelf! I won’t say we’ve made that mistake, but this is not a soup that benefits from the addition of large quantities of sugar.
  • Salt. Just a shake or two, enough to encourage osmosis. (Can you tell that this recipe came to us from a chemistry teacher?)
  • Black pepper. More than seems to be called for. Be generous, but don’t go overboard. We’ve determined experimentally that 1/4 cup is too much more than is called for. Please make sure that the lid of your pepper shaker is firmly attached. Better yet, grind it fresh. The flavor will be better and you’ll be protected against this particular failure mode.
  • Oregano. Dried, one teaspoon or thereabouts.

Construction

  1. Wash potatoes to your local standard of cleanliness. Don’t scrub too hard, and don’t peel. You want all of the nutrients from the skins!
  2. Cut all but half of one of the potatoes into two-inch chunks. Use a vegetable peeler to render that remaining half potato into shreds. Don’t skip that step because it sounds like hard work: the shredded potato will help thicken the soup. Just be careful not to shred your fingers when you get down to the last bit of potato. You don’t want to spoil the soup for vegetarians.
  3. Toss potato chunks, shredded potato, and chopped onion into a pot and add enough water to completely cover the solids.
  4. Add the salt, pepper, and oregano and bring to a boil.
  5. When the water boils, turn down the heat and add the evaporated milk.
  6. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes or until the potato chunks are tender.

If you like your soup chunky, it’s ready to serve. If you prefer a creamier soup, feel free to assault it with an immersion blender. Don’t hit it too hard, though: you want to have at least a few chunks of potato.

Ladle into bowls. You can eat it as-is, or enhance it with the additives of your choice. We’ve had good results with butter (probably contra-indicated if you used non-fat milk), grated cheese (we generally go with Parmesan, Romano, or cheddar; we find feta, blue, and Limburger to be less salubrious), chives, and bacon (this is one application where you can get away with vegetarian-safe bacon substitutes such as bacon bits–well worth it for the flavor if you’re not a meat eater.)

The soup keeps well in the fridge, so you can make several days worth at once, but it doesn’t freeze well–it gets rather grainy.

One final note: While this recipe is Abhishek’s birthday present, he’s a generous guy, and I’m sure he won’t mind sharing. The rest of you trapped in cold weather are welcome to give it a try. It won’t improve the weather, but I promise that you won’t mind the temperature nearly as much with a bowlful inside you.

Chickie Fish

We’re having Chickie Fish for dinner tonight. “What the heck is Chickie Fish?” you ask. The answer to that question lies locked in the past, more than twenty years ago.

In 1990, Maggie and I lived in Austin, Texas. I could write a huge post talking about all of the disadvantages of Austin in the ’80s and ’90s, but you would undoubtedly get tired of reading it long before I ran out of things to say. For now, let’s just stipulate that, whatever else it was then and whatever it may have become since, Austin was not a great foodie mecca at that time. Worse yet, that was still in the early days of the Internet. Some of you younguns may not believe this, but there was no Yelp or Chowhound back then to help you find good restaurants. Your only choices were newspaper and magazine reviews and word of mouth.

So what were a couple of northern expatriates supposed to do when they got a craving for something that wasn’t Tex-Mex or pizza? We chose the geek’s answer: do it yourself! In particular, we went on a massive Indian food kick. We bought cookbooks, we experimented, and we largely succeeded in managing our cravings. Twenty plus years later, and no longer in Austin, we’ve got a plethora of restaurants at our disposal ranging from “good enough” to “excellent”, so we don’t do much Indian cooking any more, but we still dust off the Chickie Fish recipe periodically.

Chickie Fish is based on a recipe from one of the cookbooks we got back then: Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, which was released to accompany a BBC TV series in 1982. That recipe, “Haddock baked in a yoghurt sauce” (Dahi wali macchi) was easy to assemble, and used only ingredients that we were able to find in Austin. Well, with one exception: haddock was not easy to come by. The recipe looked so promising that we had to give it a try, so we wound up substituting catfish, which was much more available. It worked, more-or-less, but the fish tended to be a bit temperamental, going quickly from undercooked to rubber, especially in our somewhat erratic oven. After some further experiments, we determined that chicken thighs were a more-than-adequate alternative to haddock or catfish. Of course, the recipe did specify “fish”, so we declared chicken an honorary fish, renamed the recipe to “Chicken fish baked in a yogurt* sauce”, and then concealed our crime by nicknaming it “Chickie Fish”.

* Note the change from British to US spelling. Just another part of the effort to confuse the issue.

The recipe has undergone further evolution over the years, becoming more low-fat friendly and even easier to prepare — we’ve eliminated the step of boiling down the sauce and adding butter, as well as tweaking the ingredients a bit.

Here then is the latest incarnation of Chickie Fish as prepared for tonight’s dinner. As written, it feeds us for two nights, sometimes with a bit left over for a lunch.

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced. Do not separate the rings. Keep the slices thick (1/4 inch) to ensure they keep some of their flavor and stay a bit crunchy — and to be sure that anyone who doesn’t like onions can easily avoid them.
  • 1 1/2 – 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 16 oz fat-free Greek-style yogurt
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
  • 3 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (chipotle makes an interesting alternative)
  • 1 teaspoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preparation:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F
  2. In a bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, sugar, salt, black pepper, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cayenne pepper, and ginger. Mix well.
  3. Add the oil and mix again.
  4. Spread about a quarter of the mixture in the bottom of a large baking dish, and then cover that with the sliced onion.
  5. Spread another quarter of the mixture over the onions, then add the chicken pieces in a single layer.
  6. Spread the remaining mixture across the top of the chicken.
  7. Cover the dish and bake for 30 minutes. The chicken normally clumps together into a single mass; this is not desirable as it will not cook evenly. Break up the mass with a fork, then continue cooking for another 15 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for five minutes.

Serve the Chickie Fish in bowls over rice. Make sure to include plenty of the “juice” in each bowl: the liquid has too much flavor to lose!

To reheat the leftovers, return it to a 250F oven for 20 – 30 minutes. Be careful with microwave reheating: nuke it even a little too hard and the onions will get mushy while the chicken gets rubbery.