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Archive for May, 2012

Randall Cooks: Homemade Paletas…or Ice Pops…Frozen Treats…

I know, because of my day job, the word “Popsicle®” is a registered trademark. Due to this, I do make an effort to use more generic term when referring to frozen treats on sticks.

“Paleta” made its way into my personal lexicon a few summers ago, upon attending the Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Oregon. Though we’d likely have tried them regardless of weather, the sun was particularly oppressive during the 2009 edition of the event, driving us to find any and all methods for keeping cool while enjoying our weekend.

Fortunately, the Pickathon folks commit to food and beverage offerings being local, affordable, and delicious. Drawing from the rich talent pool of the Portland area, you get a great variety of palate temptations. Among them during what would seem a fortuitously hot weekend were Sol Pops Paletas.

I won’t go into all the details of the difference between a “paleta” and what many of us in this country typically call a “popsicle.” Nor am I that interested in their assertion of “wellness” in regard to their particular product. When the numbers creep toward the triple digits, those are simply side-show attractions along the highway to refreshingly cold sweetness (on a stick!), and I drive really fast!

Note: I drive less fast these days than I did before I became “Daddy,” which allows me to reserve the “slow down, you lunatic!” reaction I instinctively have toward the teenagers always in a rush up and down the hill in our neighborhood.

They were carrying four or five varieties at the time. From their website, I see they’ve expanded their offerings by quite a bit. Because I have a weakness for the combination of sweet and spicy, I started with the “Cucumber Lime Jalapeno” paleta, before sampling my way through their entire menu throughout the weekend.

Not only did I come away with a new word for frozen treats on sticks that was NOT a trademark, I also was hit with the revelation that the making of such items is remarkably simple and not necessarily limited to the nasty, fake flavors offered commercially.

This really should not be a big discovery. Did I not try to freeze Kool-Aid(R) in ice cube trays with toothpicks suspended in them with the aid of a sheet of plastic wrap way back in the 1970’s? Yet, many years of living in the American consumer culture ultimately turned these into things you either bought at the store or didn’t eat, the magic of their creation best left to people with factories and machinery and distribution networks. I used to think the same of, say, salsa. Takes something to shake me from the disillusion of complexity, even now.

Although our second trip to Pickathon was accompanied by weather much more typical of a Pacific Northwest summer, our need for paletas was bolstered by the addition of a seven-month-old toothless wonder. As we often thought throughout his first year-and-change with no teeth, we thought Owen might be teething and would benefit from sharing

These will ‘pay for themselves,’ but only if you’d otherwise buy your ice pops.

Though…he wasn’t really that interested in really sharing. Once he got a taste, it was all over.  He ended up eating the better part of two cantaloupe-flavored paletas in short order, which also foreshadowed cantaloupe proving to be one of his favorite foods.

While shopping for dinner provisions on a particularly warm (for Seattle) spring evening, I recalled the episode. Without any idea of a recipe other than knowing we had sugar, vanilla extract, yogurt, and coconut milk at home, I bought some “Tovolo Groovy Ice Pop Molds” and a cantaloupe (yes…organic…so what?!) and planned to deliver a surprise to my toddler son I figured would be at least as delicious as what I could buy for him, but also contain only a few ingredients and no chemical preservatives, colorings, or flavorings.

Ideally, I’d have a recipe to share.

I do not.

I got as much flesh from the cantaloupe as I could and combined it with whatever amount of low-fat Greek-style yogurt we had left in the container, a bit of sugar, and a splash of vanilla extract. From there, it was immersion blender, funnel, and paleta molds. It’s not science; it’s art. If it tastes good when it’s blended, it will taste good frozen.

The result?

Bliss!

Brain Freeze!

Sorry, son! Apparently I gave you the gift of something tasty enough for you to eat it as fast as you can, while maybe not having given you genetically the gift I enjoy for being able to absorb very cold things quickly without the dreaded “brain freeze.”

The rest of you, get to blending and freezing, but, enjoy at appropriate speeds.

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Categories: Uncategorized

West Seattle Living: Pan Africa Grill Does Everything Wrong

Perhaps I am partially to blame.

When I first heard the Pan Africa Grill was opening in our neighborhood last fall, I was instantly interested. I like Ethiopian food, which was apparently a large part of the venture’s core offerings. While Seattle has a fair number of options for Ethiopian and east African dining, I’m always happy to have a west Seattle entry of favorite cuisines. One of the effects of living here seems to be that if I don’t have to cross the bridge, leaving the neighborhood, I’d just as soon keep it local.

I’m sure it’s part of some larger personality flaw.

Anyhow, as far as I knew, this would be the first option for Ethiopian nearby, so it was going on a list of places to try.

And there it stayed for a while.

Then came the season premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” which took place in Mozambique. Was a pretty great and interesting episode aside from the food content, to be honest, but all I could think about was how much Bourdain seemed to be enjoying eating something called “Piri Piri Chicken.” Granted, he was doing so accompanied by a rather large bottle of beer at a table near a very sunny beach.

A consultation with the Google revealed to me that I wouldn’t need leave the neighborhood to get a taste of the chicken, as it was listed dead-center on the menu of none other than Pan Africa Grill.

Though, it being Seattle, large beer at a sunny beach-side table…take more than Google to find that (sorry Sergey and other rich dude whose name I forget because it’s not Sergey).

So it was that discussions of dinner plans for a Tuesday night quickly went to “maybe this is a good time to try Pan Africa Grill.” The Missus was clearly trying to keep me from making a mess in the kitchen more than she was trying to indulge my desire for the promise of spectacularly spicy and tangy chicken, but that’s okay, isn’t it?

The only slight objection I raised is that Owen hadn’t been in bed by his stated bed-time in several successive nights and that we’d run the risk of extending the streak by dining out. Wasn’t a strenuous objection, rather a heading-off of the suggestion we make a shopping run after dinner to get a few things.

Shopping is not dessert.

Despite concerns about bed times, we didn’t manage to enter Pan Africa Grill’s front door until 6:50. It happens, especially with the obstacles the city continually puts in front of anyone trying to get to the westside from Seattle (my oh my, the bleeding construction never ends…)

No quick greeting at the front door. It happens, especially at smaller, indie joints on off nights.

The woman who seemed to be arranging tables and carrying menus passed us a few times, but didn’t bother to acknowledge she saw us waiting to be acknowledged. This…probably shouldn’t happen. Hospitality usually opens with a greeting of some sort. Like it or not, once you’ve opened a restaurant, you’re in the hospitality business to some degree.

Eventually we were led to a table. The length of the wait wasn’t really that notable. Or, it wouldn’t have been except for the lack of a greeting.

Now, my son is just over two years old. You wouldn’t confuse him, height-wise, for someone old enough to drive. Despite this, we were taken to a table with four adult-sized chairs and two adult menus, and the woman quickly moved along. In almost all our dining experiences to date, this would be because she was going to fetch a high chair, though, usually, we’ll be asked whether we’d prefer a high chair or booster seat.

After far too many minutes, however, with no return on behalf of our hostess, I decided to strike out on my own in search of an appropriate seat for my son.

I went toward the back of the restaurant, which opens into a big, bright room that seemed like it would be a lovely space in which to have dinner. Unfortunately, there was some sort of cooking class being conducted in that room, which I quickly got the impression I had interrupted. So, back to the dark, narrower part of the restaurant where the small number of diners in the house were sequestered.

Having seen the back room, it became more obvious how dark and unappealing that particular area of the building was by comparison. Also, due to the hallway that connected to the kitchen, the smells from the kitchen seemed to be drafting directly to us. This might be okay in some cases, but the aroma was overwhelmingly of onion. It was not pleasant.

After yet another too long period of time, I managed to catch the hostess (I’m just calling her that for sake of convenience. She seemed to be the catch-all front-of-house person. And by “the,” I do mean “only.”) to ask whether we might get a high chair.

“We only have one and it is being used.”

Booster seat?

“No. We don’t have any.”

Some will have already dismissed this along the lines of “people with kids expect the world to cater to them” which is some weird default thing thrown out by some people without kids who seem to resent that people with kids want to still take part in things rather than limit our public appearances to places catering specifically to children.

To those, I offer only something like, “Go fuck yourself.”

I smiled, chuckled, and offered that it was “no big deal” and that we would “find a way to make it work.”

Should it matter that, at some point over the next hour-and-change we waited for any sign of our food to be arriving, The Missus took Owen to wash his hands, partly to distract him from the fact he’d been sitting mostly still for the better part of an hour, and discovered that the restaurant did have booster seats just sitting unused on a shelf?  I don’t actually believe we were told they didn’t have any as part of a very Seattle-like passive-aggressive strike at people who would dare bring a child into what is clearly not a child-friendly restaurant, but…what is the remaining explanation? She doesn’t know what a booster seat is?!

Still…I choose to believe it was innocent.

No kids menu here, by the way, and no help from the hostess as to what might make a suitable item for a child. Of course, asking for food for a child makes most people think you’re looking for their closest thing to chicken fingers, pizza, or a grilled cheese, so it maybe is again my fault that the woman suggested plantain chips.

We were getting those anyway. We added a chicken sambusa to the appetizer order and figured we’d share some of our entree items with Owen.

Well, I didn’t think I’d be able to give him any of the Piri Piri Chicken or even the Harissa Mac & Cheese, but probably some of my Cilantro Mashed Coconut Potatoes. The Missus ordered Chicken Doro Wott which came with “injera,” which we love and figure to be the thing Owen could eat, if nothing else.

The appetizers came out in a reasonable amount of time. We all enjoyed the plantain chips. Owen didn’t like the sambusa as much, but…he’s two; what does he know? It was good.

And then…just a long, long wait.

Not a long, long wait peppered by frequent updates on what was taking so long or how much longer it would be. Nor with offers of more appetizers while our food was spectacularly delayed. In fact, I don’t remember seeing the hostess/server/catch-all at our table other than for collecting the dishes from the entrees.

Nothing when I walked by her on the way out the door to run up and down the block with Owen to get him some Owen time doing Owen things which does not really include sitting still at a table waiting for food to appear. Nothing when I came back 15 minutes later, at which point I entered the building thinking, for sure, I’d been outside long enough for food to have appeared.

Nothing…just a whole lot of nothing.

We made the decision to have the food packed directly to take home at that point. I let The Missus pay the bill, so I was not present to hear the woman running the show explain that it was only going to be another 5 to 10 minutes (turned out to be nearly 20 from that point, says my wife), nor was I there when my wife was told that we were not being charged for the milk our son had.

Nearly 90 minutes to deliver two menu items and you comp a milk?!

Bare minimum, you should be taking care of the appetizers, but, for a fuck-up of this magnitude, you should be comping the entire bill and probably still be banking that the guest is unlikely to return. Short of that, comp nothing at all because, honestly, it’s a bit insulting. It’s like your acknowledging that you blew it, but can barely be bothered to say you are sorry about it.

And, come to think of it, the word “sorry” never came up. I was finally summoned from my table to the front of the restaurant to collect my food (which, by the way, was still 5 minutes from being ready…I think she wanted the dining room to have one less very unhappy person sulking at their table) and stood there waiting in silence. Man, even a, “Oh, by the way, EVERYONE knows that it takes over an hour to make Piri Piri Chicken so you suck for being mad about this” would have been preferable to the silent treatment. The lack of acknowledgement of a problem(aside from the graciously comped milk) is astonishing.

We got the food home and ate in shifts while trying also to get the boy bathed and in jammies and read his nightly two books. Hence, by the time we actually ate it, it was not as hot as it would have been.

What I remember most from Bourdain’s description of Piri Piri Chicken was, “You notice whenever they put the piri piri sauce on the table, they dole that shit out like it’s pure cocaine. There’s never more than a tiny little bit in there. They don’t trust you with a lot of it…You don’t want to hold onto this spicy chicken and then go take a leak later. That would hurt.”

Hence, I was expecting…no…CRAVING some heat.

What I got was a vaguely spicy half-chicken coated in a sauce that was heavy on the citrus and garlic. The citrus dominated. It was unbalanced. You could call it sloppy.

Same for the mac & cheese offering. Was all harissa up front. Nothing behind it. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to identify anything remotely cheesy about it. I would not be surprised to learn there is no cheese at all in that dish.

The potatoes were a whole mess of bland spiked violently with cilantro. The cilantro was so completely overwhelming that I started to have some sympathy for people who don’t like cilantro. I usually think they’re crazy, but if it delivers to their palate the same taste-shock I got with this…I should be nicer to them.

The Missus found her dish to be too spicy. I tasted it and have to sadly report that it was, indeed, spicier than mine (you know, the one with the chile pepper next to it on the menu). At this point, you just figure…there’s nothing going right in this restaurant. Just nothing. I don’t have one good thing to say about it!

Now, had the food come out in 15 minutes? Hell, in 30? Well, we’d still have been underwhelmed by the food, no doubt, as well as the absence of any personality in the atmosphere of the restaurant, but…that would have been it. We’d have eaten and left underwhelmed, destined to either omit Ethiopian from our dining-out options or accept that we couldn’t do it without crossing a bridge or two.

Learn from our mistake and save yourself an awful dining experience. I know a little place up near Northgate where I took The Missus for her first-ever taste of Ethiopian food. I remember the woman running the show there to be wearing a smile while delivering very good food in a timely manner in a well-lit room that did not smell overwhelmingly of onion. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d rather sit in rush hour traffic to get there than drive the few miles down the street next time I want to indulge in this cuisine.

Randall Reads: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

When considering what to discuss when reviewing my reading experience with Chuck Wendig’s “Blackbirds,” I start with some basics (i.e. basic plot, characterization, genre, publisher with good track record) and quickly find dozens of ways to drill down into each (i.e. rise of paranormal romance/urban fantasy, readers demanding sense of ‘reality’ even in genre fiction, DRM wars, Department of Justice lawsuits, self-publishing phenomenon, social media marketing…).

I’ll start where the story starts.

Not where Miriam Black’s story starts. I mean, the actual book coming moving from being out there in the wide world into my “to be read” pile and emerging into “actually reading it!”

The quick genesis is that some twitter feed I follow (Tor?) posted something at some point that led to me reading a preview of the book. Contained within that preview were two crucial items.

1) “Miriam Black knows when you will die…when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name.”

I don’t pretend to be able to explain exactly what draws my attention when it comes to plot in books, but this is a pretty good example from which to draw. Had my attention immediately. Maybe it’s a touch of darkness mixed with some paranormal elements. There’s also the sense of urgency implied here. I don’t think I’m necessarily attracted to what some call “page turners,” but it is also not a turn-off by any stretch.

2) The cover:

Simply put, the cover is excellent, assuming that what it’s meant to do is help the book find certain readers. That particular achievement has been unlocked.

In fact, I’ve directed a few friends to the book (The Missus) included, and every one of them, upon looking up the book, exclaimed, “Nice cover!” The artist deserves an award. The best I can offer it to mention him here, so, kudos to Dale Halvorsen a.k.a “Joey Hi-Fi.” Bravo!

Of course, there’s more to the story. Getting into my “to be read” pile is not exactly difficult. It’s not quite in the acceptability range of, say, the offer of a free beer, but you don’t have to work much harder than that for me to add your title to my unwieldy list that will largely go unread. It’s a fairly coarse filter.

Considering the book appears to have been published only on April 24, Wendig may turn out to have set a record for getting a book from completely unknown to me to DONE! in record time; other than when China Mieville or Colson Whitehead publish something new, I don’t rush right out and get something fresh off the presses.

When I read about books I find interesting, I hit a few places on the internet right away. Generally, I’ll do a quick check with Paperbackswap to see whether I can cash in a credit to get the book sent to me with no more effort to me than a click or two. As that’s most often futile, I will move to put the title on my Goodreads “to-read” list before heading over to the website of the Seattle Public Library to see whether I can borrow the e-book from them or, failing that, adding my name to the wait list for either the e-book or a hard copy. Depending on how urgent the book seems and how long the wait list is, I will then check a few online retailers, but usually to confirm there is no way I’m going to pay $13 to $14 for an e-book.

The wait for “Blackbirds” was really short, though, so I ended my search with the SPL.

Then came the email on a rainy Friday while at work:

“The following items are being held for you at the library…’Blackbirds…'”

I was excited. Not only was it Friday, but I had just finished another book that very morning and was in the market for the next victim. Perfect.

Excepting that “rainy” bit.

I like to put books on hold at the downtown branch of the Seattle library system because it’s a nice walk from the office. Nicer when it’s not raining.

And, to be clear, most of the time it’s raining here in Seattle, it’s not what I grew up thinking of as rain back in Michigan. Usually, it’s this hazy drizzle where you’d be hard pressed to identity anything looking like an actual rain drop.

Not the case last Friday, however. This was what I have come to refer to as a “proper rain.”

Hence, I was challenged to match my frugality against my desire to not get drenched on my way home (also taking into consideration I’d been sick not too long before that).

A quick peek at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble revealed the e-book to be offered at a very reasonable price. I don’t remember specifically, but I think somewhere in the $5 to$6 range. Not bad, but…is saving the walk worth even that price?

Somehow my eye caught the fact this was an Angry Robot title. Having already a generally positive opinion of their work, I navigated to their site where I learned that all e-books purchased from them are DRM-free and, in celebration of that fact, they were having a sale of 50% off all their titles.

Unlike Miriam, I don’t put a lot of of stock into fate, but this seemed like as close an instance of “it’s meant to be” as you’re likely to find.

Cancel hold at SPL; spend $3.10 to have my own copy of the book, avoid the walk in the rain, and throw money behind a writer, his publisher, and the concept that properly priced e-books are too good a value to pass up.

Finally, THE BOOK!

As far as I’m concerned, the edited sentence from the Tor.com preview is really all the plot you need to know before reading it. I can’t think of much to add that should say you toward or away from the book. It sounds like something you would enjoy right away, or it would be a disservice to try to sell you on it.

Mingling with the supernatural element of Miriam’s ability, is a fairly strong character moving along a story line that moves pretty quickly. There is not a lot of wasted prose contained within the (according to Amazon) 384 pages.

Before starting, I read a few of the negative reviews of the book on Goodreads. I remember reading three pretty specific criticisms: 1) it reads like a screenplay 2) Miriam clearly was written by a man and not a woman, and 3) it feels like the author forced two separate stories together into one.

The first item is interesting to me. First, I completely get it; the book does have a very visual feel to it as you read it. You can easily see it  being adapted to a screen. Whether this is intentional on the part of the author and should be a mark against the book, however, I’m not sure.

The funny thing about this, though, is that there is, attached to the end of the ebook, an interview of Wendig conducted by another Angry Robot author, Adam Christopher. Within this interview, Wendig reveals that he won a year-long ‘mentorship’ with a screenwriter, during which he took the opportunity to take his raw story, turn it into a script, and then work it back into a novel. Why I find this funny is that, while it certainly is reasonable for someone to have read the novel and not that interview and yet have come to an opinion that it reads too much like a screenplay for their own satisfaction. I shall hope that is the case rather than the persons who listed that among their objections read this and decided it would sound really prescient of them to have come up with that insight all on their own.

I only sort of hope that. I actually think the latter more likely. I guess that makes me a cynic?

As for the second item…well, I’d assume “Chuck” is a dude. Turns out that was a safe assumption. Seems an all-too easy criticism to level.

But, alas, it’s somewhat true.

For some reason, nothing irritates me more than when someone dislikes about a work of fiction that they found some part of it to be “unbelievable.” I need to be more open-minded about how others approach their reading, I am sure, but it mostly makes me want to whack them in the nose with the spine of “American Gods.” My approach is along the lines that you’re looking into someone else’s perceptions of what is, was, or could be/have been, not someone’s attempt to put those ideas into words that make sense in your world. Once you accept that, it’s pretty easy to let things slide in a book you might not accept as an excuse from, say, a co-worker as to why their bit of work isn’t completed or up to snuff.

Hence, I want to accept Wendig’s version of a young woman living on the road with unsettling visions of other people’s deaths, but, honestly, she talks like a douche-y frat boy at times, spouting lingo that inspires some version of a rolling of the eyes and grows tiresome quickly. I think the worst offense among these is the scene where she says, “It’s time to rock out with your cock out. It’s time to jam out with your clam out.” It was just the next of a succession of things Miriam said which made me wonder, “Who talks like that?” This one, however, gave me an answer: ‘Frat Douche.’

For my money (albeit, a whopping $3 and change of which I would not dream of asking a return), the dialogue might be the weakest point of the novel. It rings false more often than not. Maybe chalk it up to a bit of campiness and…maybe, but not for me entirely.

The third item among the complaints cited (two stories merged into one) sends me back to that interview with Christopher, wherein Wendig also said that he’d written Miriam in one place and the pair of Frankie and Harriet in another, bringing them together in the novel.

And this is where I’m truly cynical because, even knowing this to be the case, I don’t think it reads as such at all in the book. Leaving a little room for my want to believe the good in people, maybe the weaving of those three existing characters into a shared story is not a seamless as it seems to me. I’m happy to admit I’m not the most-careful reader in West Seattle, much less among all who have the internet, but I still think I smell a rat; I don’t give it much weight as a genuine criticism of “Blackbirds.” It rings nearly as false as some of Miriam’s strings of patented catch-phrasing.

Overall, the pacing of the story and the intriguing premise are more than enough to outweigh the tinny dialogue for me. Without getting bogged down in discussions about genres, the story treads at least lightly into the “urban fantasy” and horror realms. There’s some “romance,” heavy on the quotation marks and even a bit of the mystery/thriller thing.

All of which does send one into the bog of just how useful pigeon-holing titles into genres really is…but let’s not start, eh?

“Blackbirds” is a fairly breezy read, with a likable (I like her) protagonist with interesting abilities mired in a bit of a situation, and the pacing to keep you reading past your bed-time. Once you accept that Miriam’s personality might just be some dark bit of a male author’s subconscious and will talk as such, you can get down to the business of the ride and taking in the grim scenery.

Definitely recommendable.