GROTUS' ACORN

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

4,665


I guess it's been almost five years since I've written anything here. Plenty of time for it to cool down. We'll see what happens.


Medical training has ended, and ten years of my life are past. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am grateful to my mentors, peers, and patients, for making me who I am. But nothing is without its cost. It was the hardest thing I've ever done.

It's amazing, events in your life that are minor in and of themselves, but have indelible impact. I've never been a movie guy. But my hero is Maximilan Cohen, from Darren Aronofsky's film "Pi." (I hope you've seen it - because it's fantastic, and also because, if you haven't, reading the rest of this post will ruin the movie.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

(Last Night's) Menu : braised pork, polenta, beets

Wine-braised pork with juniper, sage, lavender
Mushroom sage leek polenta
Orange-scented roast beets

So, first of all, there aren't pictures of the process or the finished / plated product - it's only in retrospect that I thought to write this one down.  Retrospect, I say because my wife, mid-dinner, looks up and says "This one's a winner.  You should write it down."  Fair enough, intertubes.  Here goes my simple recipe.  These three are all stupid-easy dishes.

For the beets, I got two golden and two red beets.  These I diced about a quarter-inch cubed, spread out in a single layer in a roasting pan, drizzled with olive oil and salt and baked at 400 until they were fork tender.  At the very end, I drizzled a little Gran Marnier on for a little orange flavor.

For the polenta, I bought some good stone-ground yellow grits and started out by (basically) following the directions : one cup of grits in a pan, covered with water and then drained (to get rid of pieces of bran, I'm told,) then brought to a boil with three cups of water and simmered until thick.  I then added most of a tablespoon of chicken Better-Than-Bouillon (far easier than keeping cans of chicken stock around) and a fair shake of garlic powder - not enough to taste garlicky, but enough to have that flavor hanging around.  Then, I minced and sauteed in light olive oil one leek and about two-thirds of a package of mushrooms.  These were stirred them into the polenta.  By this time, it was starting to pull away from the sides of the pan, so I hit it with some of the wine we were drinking and a little cream, which gave it a nice creaminess and texture.  The cream probably isn't necessary, all things considered, but hey, this was a peri-Valentine's day meal.  Live a little.

Those two were hits.  But the pork was what's up.

I started with the braising liquid - way ahead of schedule to let the herbs and spices open up.  In the bottom of my baking pan (in which the pork would eventually be braised,) I poured just a little of the wine.  The pan I used is a high-sided cylindrical number, in which my pork tenderloins would just barely fit curled up, so that I wouldn't have to pour an entire bottle of wine out just to get a good braise.

The wine in particular was a sauvignon blanc from Chile, which boasted (among others) grapefruit flavor.  Perfect.  Juniper, lavender and citrus is one of my favorite combinations to lay down on pork : to the wine were added sixteen lightly crushed juniper berries and a generous sprinkling of lavender.  Joining these were a couple bay leaves, a couple sage leaves, some black pepper and a couple flakes of crushed red pepper.  Then, they sat - through the making polenta, through the chopping of the beets and the initial preparation of the pork.  The flavors really came open - I kept taking a whiff of the braising liquid as they marinated, just for the aroma.

For the pork, I took two tenderloins, washed and dried them, salted them, and seared them on all sides.  Then, they were curled together in the baking dish on top of the aforementioned juniper, sage, lavender and bay, after which I poured enough sauvignon blanc to come half-to-two-thirds up the meat.  Into the oven they went at 350.  I cooked the meat until it hit 165 degrees (about fifty minutes or so) after which it rested for about fifteen. And then we ate.

Let me tell you - a bowl of savory polenta and tender pork scattered with ethereal beets really hit the spot.

As I mentioned, the combination of juniper, lavender and citrus is one of my absolute favorites on pork of any kind.  Juniper is supposedly able to lend the suggestion of game to any meat, and lavender and sage are herbs that I somehow associate with wild meadows, or the open west.  Something about this pork was just right for February, which in Carolina is ever leaning into the spring.  Moreover, this pork came out of its braise meltingly tender with just a hint of pink and the right balance of flavors.

The polenta could have been a meal unto itself, loaded as it was with sage and tender mushrooms and mild leeks.  (In fact, I plan on making a big batch of polenta and freezing it for breakfasts.)  With the weather still cold and overcast, you need something that sticks right to the ribs, and there's nothing better than rich, creamy polenta.  You could say that this is the rather obvious portion of the meal - not much creativity involved in riffing on mushroom, sage and leek, is there? - but hell.  Why complicate that?

And the beets were the perfect addition.  I hadn't even tasted a cooked beet until about a year and a half ago, when my mother-in-law paired roast beet with roast butternut squash.  As much as an unassuming tuber could be, the beets were a revelation, with their slight sweetness, firm texture and cuttingly earthy flavor.  A meal like this needs some flavor to leaven the richness of the polenta and tender pork, and I usually go for something cruciferous like greens or broccolini.  But in mid-winter, the humble beet is more appropriate, and does a graceful trick with earthiness, a hint of sweetness and a light flavor of orange.

All in all, it was the perfect meal to sit heartily in the winter with an eye open for the coming of the spring.


Roast Beets

four good-sized beets (two golden and two red)
olive oil
salt
(optionally, orange liqueur)

Preheat your oven to 400.  Peel and dice your beets into quarter-inch cubes.  Spread in a single layer on a baking pan (my beets filled a 9x13 comfortably.)  Drizzle with olive oil and salt.  Bake until fork-tender, which should take a good forty five minutes.  At this point, you can also drizzle them with orange liqueur and allow that to evaporate, which lends a nice orange flavor.  Extra credit : some hours before you cook them, dice your beets and put them in a plastic bag, then cover them with olive oil.  Let them marinate for a while before you roast them.


Mushroom, Sage and Leek Polenta

one cup of quality stone-ground grits
water or chicken stock
chicken bouillon, or chicken Better-Than-Bouillon, if you used water

one large leek, split and rinsed of soil
a double handful of whole mushrooms
olive oil
garlic powder or garlic
heavy cream and white wine (optional)

 Put your grits in the saucepan in which you wish to cook them, and cover them with water, then drain them.  Add three cups of water with bouillon or chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the grits thicken up.  After a while you can turn your heat down to low just to keep them warm, but keep an eye on them - they'll eventually firm up to the point that they pull away from the sides of the pan, which is about as dry as you'll like them.  Add some liquid to get them back to creaminess.  Chop your leeks and mushrooms coarsely.  Saute the leeks in a little olive oil until soft and translucent, then add the mushrooms and cook until soft.  Stir these into the polenta.  Add some garlic powder - or, saute some minced garlic until soft and fragrant, and stir into the polenta.  Taste.  Season as needed.


Wine-Braised Pork with Juniper, Lavender, Sage

two pork tenderloins, rinsed and dried
kosher salt
olive oil
sixteen juniper berries, lightly crushed
two bay leaves
some lavender
three leaves of sage
black pepper
crushed red pepper flakes
a bottle of white wine - half to drink, half to braise with
a high-walled baking dish that you can just barely get your pork into

In your baking dish, put the juniper, sage, bay leaves, a generous sprinkle of lavender, a pinch of red pepper and a couple grinds of black pepper, then add enough wine to cover.  Let this sit awhile, so that the flavors will open up and so that you can adjust the balance.  Meanwhile, salt your pork and sear it in hot olive oil on all sides.  When both the pork and the herbs / spices are ready, put your pork in the baking dish and add enough wine to come half-to-two-thirds of the way up the meat.  Bake at 350 degrees until the internal temperature of the meat is 165 degrees.  Remove from the oven, remove the pork from the liquid to a plate, and let rest for fifteen minutes before slicing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tonight's menu : pie

I am not a violent person.

But there is one particular situation that arises, year after year, that briefly pits father against son in my parents' home - a simple matter of greed. Ironically, this happens every year at Thanksgiving. Unironically, it involves my mother's pecan pie.

There are certain things, good things, great things, for which it is difficult to be strictly thankful.  This pie is one of them. Instead of the humility of simple gratitude, this pie provokes a closer emotion to arrogance. It is not accepted as it should be, democratically alongside the peas and pearl onions, cornbread dressing and green bean casserole in the culinary realm of God's blessings.  Those are comfort foods, of which this pie is not - it is just too good to be comforting.  It is to be seized, then lorded over the hapless opponent, another mere serf to the pie, yes, but the serf who loses.  I have nearly been stabbed over this pie as my father and I - the love of her life, the firstborn child - lay claim not to a slice, not to a half, but to the entire pie.  Nay, to all such pies, that have been and that will be - to the very principle of my mother's pecan pie.  This is a prize from which there can be no retreat, and from which only her mildly shocked cajoling can drive us.  I'm serious : nearly stabbed.



What can be done, when a pie is as good as drugs?  When it only arrives once or twice a year, already at bay as your dad has a head start and you must drive four hours to contest the affront of his claiming it?

First of all, never assume that your mother's pecan pie will deign to set plate in your own kitchen, coax it though you may with attempts at replication.  Such is error. Your custard is nowhere near as good as hers. Your nuts will be too many or too few, and never as sweet. Give up on that perfect crust that stands firm and flaky under its doughty weight of perfect filling.  Your kitchen is a grubby realm of commonplace and thoroughly average gooey nut pies, not the temple this dessert deserves.

Do as I have done and strike out on some new limb of the pie family tree : make a pecan pie, douse it with gran marnier as it emerges from the oven and set it on fire with a blowtorch (true story, and delicious.) Make a pie with walnuts, with dark brown sugar, or with rum.  And return to your mother's table in November, with necessary ardor and willingness to do violence.

It's in this vein that I discovered on my yearly sojourn the Kentucky Derby pie, close cousin and lush country relative to mother's platonically-ideal confections. Like the noble pecan pie, it is at heart a crust filled with custard over which lays a chewy layer of pecans. But its custard is thick with chocolate, and like anything associated with Kentucky (and the Derby,) struck through with a shot of bourbon.



My first attempt at the pie met with alloyed success. The execution was flawed : the chocolate chips I used didn't melt through the custard, and each bite might contain a burst of Kentucky Derby chocolate or typical gooey pecan filling. But despite this error, it was devoured in short order. My second attempt - tonight, that is - satisfied all expectations. A thick chocolate custard, blanketed by and impregnated with chunks of pecan. A buttery shortbread crust. A warm, pudding-like interior.  And it is delicious.

I find the more I cook that the best single representation of my flavor palette is Coca-Cola : dark citrus, dark sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, nuts, and spice.  So take note that both my pies were made not with bourbon, but with its slightly spicier cousin, rye, and the second got a couple dashes of bitters for good measure.  Thus, it's no longer a Kentucky Derby pie per se, and must be rechristened.  I'm struggling.  The name that came to me first was Talladega Pie, given that Talladega is sort of a Kentucky Derby for Alabama, from which my family hails.  But the wife was having none of that.  "I don't want those people to get the credit!" she protested.  In my head, I tell myself she's confused Talladega with Tuscaloosa.  In any case, the pie remains unnamed.  Buy you a Coke if you think of a good one.

I have a feeling that this pie will suffice until, come Thanksgiving, I square off over the sideboard for another slice of the pie that is better than drugs.  What's that?  You want another shot of an oozingly delicious pie?  You got it, partner :



Too bad you can't be here to eat it and by too bad, I mean, too bad for you.  Not for me.  What has two thumbs and is going to eat the slice of pie that would have been yours?

...old habits die hard.  I swear I wouldn't stab you over this pie.  Honest.

Here's how this unnamed and completely delicious pie is made:

Purchase or make two 6-oz shortbread pie crusts, and toast them in a 350 degree oven until they have a nice aroma.  (So much of baking seems to come down to smell.)  I bought Keebler crusts and that's cheating and I don't care, because I have an awesome pie.

Mix all the following together, probably in this order, to form the batter:
1 cup light (as in, not dark but also not "lite") corn syrup, heated for a 1:30 in the microwave
6 ounces good eatin' chocolate (60% cacao or more) mixed into the hot corn syrup so it melts evenly
1/2 cup unsalted butter, browned.  This step is essential.
1 cup demerara (or similarly full-flavored) sugar
A good shot of rye whiskey.  You could probably use any dark liquor.  You could also, probably, leave it out.  But are you making a Kentucky Derby pie, or what?
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
A dash or two of bitters

Whisk four whole eggs (about a cup's worth) the mix them into the batter.  Just make sure nothing's hot enough to scramble your eggs (though if it is, you've got one hell of a microwave.)

Pour pecan pieces into each crust, and make it more than enough for the top layer of a regular pecan pie - you want to end up with a layer of nuts on top and some more nuts buried on the pie.

Then, divide the batter between the crusts, covering the nuts.

Bake at 350 for about forty minutes.  The pies will puff up a little and have a decent set when they are done.  Eat warm, or eat cool, with whipped cream.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finally discovered why I haven't ever watched an entire game of soccer... and why I won't ever again.

I was all set to steam-clean the carpets at our old apartment today in preparation for our vacate date. Luckily for me, I stopped off at the front desk to get the official forms for my wife to sign. "All you have to do is vacuum the floors, clean the counters, and all that" said the secretary, but I had to verify. "You mean you don't want us to deep clean the carpets?" She waved me off. "Oh no honey, they'll do all that before we rent it out again." I look down at the official checklist and sure enough, deep-clean the carpets fell into the category of "Please do not." The wife had already vacuumed the floors last week. I wasn't going to mow the lawn in the wasp-infested 94 degrees of Carolina heat, at least not if we weren't looking to get rain in the early evening. What was there left to do?

I did what any American twenty-something is bound to do: get on facebook. And almost immediately, I notice someone talking up the US-Ghana game set to start at 2:30.

Now, I've never been a soccer guy, either to play or to watch. Maybe it's my Southern upbringing and my thus-inevitable love of football, in all its idiosyncratic glory. Maybe it's the American meh-ness regarding soccer that isn't currently being played by the middle-school fruit of your own loins. Maybe it's the fact that whenever I tune into a soccer game, I watch for a good five minutes without any sign of either team making any progress whatsoever, get bored, and look for something exciting like, say, golf. Or fishing. Or mold growing. I digress - it's safe to say I've never understood the sport probably for lack of exposure, and just haven't been able to get into it.

But World Cup fever has been sweeping the hospital, and is about as ignorable as (you guessed it) 38,000 vuvuzelas. Even I have to wonder what the fuss is about when everyone I know has been crowded around TV's in vacant patient rooms for the past week. The craze really got out of hand when, in what I am told is typical fashion, the US footballers got a single goal against Algeria and in doing so, improbably won their group on the strength of a single win and two heartstopping... ties. Everyone was getting pretty excited about this thing that, frankly, sounded more whimper than bang.

So, this afternoon, when the heat had me hanging out on the couch and the old apartment seemed to be more cleaned than I'd expected, a high-stakes soccer game between two world-caliber teams, one of which I could actively root for, seemed like just the thing. And moreover, what better opportunity to finally discover the sport that has the entire world captivated from cradle to grave? The die was cast. So I made some popcorn and grabbed a beer, and sat down for what would be my first and, most likely, last full soccer game. And why the last? Not because soccer is boring - it isn't boring at all. Soccer is unbelievably, overwhelmingly, mind-numbingly frustrating to watch.

I know. Five to six BILLION people disagree. Hell with that. This is, perhaps, the worst sport I can think of. I like watching soccer less than baseball, less than golf. Less than gymnastics.

It was clear even to me, neophyte, that the Americans were simply outplayed. They came out slow, they walked when they should have been running, they let balls sail, they gave it up to the Black Stars. And they would do inexplicable things, like on the free kicks, just kick the ball right into four Ghanans. As if the soccer ball could be physically pounded through two grown men. The real kicker (ha!) is that Ghana retained possession. Did you catch that? The Ghanans committed a penalty sufficient to warrant a free, indirect attack on their goal, and the end result was that they got the ball back. I spent the entire match gritting my teeth, thinking, okay, when are you guys going to do something? You know, beyond all this knees-bent running-about.

Ghana's two goals were frustrating, not because anyone got outplayed but because the US players outplayed themselves. The announcers themselves were a little taken aback, even, at the rapid-fire error parades that cost the US two points. And of course there was the inevitable spectacle of ass-up soccer players whimpering on the turf following a solid kick to the protected shin via a legal tackle. Get up you jackass. Get UP. Get off the FIELD. If an actual football player pulled that kind of stunt, he'd get something real to cry about. Even the US goal, which was the result of our brilliant strategy of... drawing a penalty. That was exciting, to see us score, and I found myself leaping and yelling until I remembered the helpful pregame show, which mentioned that penalty kicks such as those have a 78% chance of success. And that our goal, apparently, had resulted from a very slight change in formation which we had adopted at halftime - forty-five minutes into the game, we altered strategy a tiny bit and surprised the Ghanans into screwing up and we scored a goal that we had a 4 in 5 chance of making.

I realized I was leaping and yelling not because I was happy, but because I was relieved. Relieved to see something, anything happen. Even if I couldn't understand why we couldn't simply score. Why the US team waited forty five minutes to make that crucial change.

I really don't think that, had the US won, I would have felt any less disappointed by the game itself. Nor would I feel compelled to watch another game. That was two hours of grown men sprinting aimlessly about a grassy pitch punctuated by moments of sheer idiocy and/or crybaby sissy-boys shedding their tender, tender tears onto the grass - spare me.

Still, I was willing to give futball the benefit of the doubt. After all, lots of folks who haven't grown up with football don't even know how to watch a game, and the learning curve is terribly steep. There's a lot to understand before you can even know what's going on. Probably, I humbly maintained, there's just a lot happening that I don't understand. This would be little obstacle, ultimately, thanks to the intertubes, right? Given the overwhelming popularity of this sport, there had to be loads, piles of information explaining the subtleties and strategies of soccer.

My warning was right at the head of the wiki:
Football is in theory a very simple game, as illustrated by Kevin Keegan's famous assertion that his tactics for winning a match were to "score more goals than the opposition."
This did not bode well. But I soldiered on, reading dutifully the distinctions between possession football (pass the ball to your teammate) and direct football (pass the ball ahead of your teammate) even though most teams don't play direct football anymore. I read how important it is to substitute out your most tired players with other players who can fill their role, and also how most teams play "total football" in which most players can function well in multiple roles. I attempted to appreciate the difference between "pass and move" in which a player passes the ball and then gets in position where he can receive a pass, and "give and go," in which a player passes the ball and then gets in position where he can receive a pass. I learned how if you aren't making much headway on one side of the pitch, you should kick the ball to the other side. Or how crucial it is to kick the ball past the other team sometimes.

I was already gritting my teeth. These were concepts I could have figured out for myself in the space of an afternoon and they're presented for all the world like revelations, as though the world of soccer emerged at some point from a dark, nascent inception, a time when players had not yet figured out to kick the ball past their opponents. A benighted age when soccer players would attack one side of the field and finding no headway, would simply give up. This couldn't be true. Even in other fluid, field-type sports like basketball, rugby and hockey, there are definite tactics and plays. Soccer could not be the dearth of tactic it seemed. I read on.

Toward the end of the wiki, there was a section listing notable examples of soccer tactics played beautifully by titans of the game. For instance, the final goal of the 1970 World Cup, which according to the wiki is "considered by many to be the best combined team effort in Cup history." And even in merely reading about this goal, it must have been stunning. The goal is, it is said, illustrative of two key principles: width and depth. First, the Brazilian Clodoaldo beats three men as he runs to the left side. He passes it to his teammate, who breaks inside and passes to Pele, who draw the attention of three Italians while the Brazilian fullback sneaks down the right side, unnoticed, to receive the pass in-stride and score.

AMAZING. Did you catch that? I sure did. The key elements of this lasting perfection of soccer tactics were 1. one attacker completely classes three defenders, 2. another attacker occupies the full attention of three other defenders, 3. the offense brings an extra attacker to score, and 4. the defense completely ignores the extra player, alone by himself with a clear path to the goal. This brilliancy, this classic goal basically boils down to having two legends on your team who are able to draw or defeat three-on-one coverage, and even then bringing an extra dude the the fight to further overwhelm the defense, and even then depending on a bone-headed error by the defense. These are so-called "principles."

What lunacy. Many fans seem to be impatient with soccer's recent low-scoring nature and hell, so am I. However, I unlike many don't think this has anything to do with recent advances in strategy or changes in the style of play. Instead, it seems to be the result of everyone playing sound soccer. In a game as simple and tactically shallow as soccer, if everyone plays the game correctly then there really shouldn't be any scoring at all. This fact was completely evident in the USA-Ghana match - both Ghana's goals resulted not from sound play or inventive tactics, but from strings of errors by US footballers. In a match in which one side was clearly outmatched and outplayed, a single correct play by any of the three American players involved would have saved the goal.

This is to say nothing of the controversy that has swirled around the official soccer ball being used by FIFA this year. I don't really even know where to begin with that one. I'm not even going to start on that little corner of complete insanity.

Why does anyone enjoy World Cup soccer, which seems to be nothing more than twenty men running around fitfully, doing nothing productive and in fact doing the same thing over and over until several of their opponents screw up all at once? Or until one of their teammates can convincingly fake an injury? Why does anyone actually want to watch that? Why do billions of people care?

All I know is: I don't, and I can't wait for the fall.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tonight's Menu

Aside: I really don't mean this blog to be purely devoted to my experimental cuisine. It's just, that's the most of what I do for fun lately. Hopefully more interesting things soon.


caramel pears in dessert crepes
bourbon buerre noisette
black walnut and brie white sauce


We'll see how it turns out...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tonight's Menu

Tonight, my dear wife and I celebrate our six months' wedding anniversary. Six months! So short and yet so long. We've been counting down to this particular anniversary for some time, because - colloquially - the folks who make it six months tend to make it for good.

Not that there's any doubt of that. As good a woman as I have somehow enticed into marrying me, I'm never letting her go. Too bad, fellas - you missed your chance and you missed it bad. With that in mind, tonight's menu, designed especially for her:

poached salmon crepes with brie-dill veloute
roasted butternut squash and golden beet
butter-sauteed broccolini
gewurztraminer

Earl Grey infused creme brulee
late-harvest gewurztraminer


This all required a good bit of prep, but it was well worth it. Plus, she was on call, leaving me plenty of time to ready up. So yesterday, I made my list, checked it twice, and headed out to Total Wine and More and the Fresh Market, returning with more good food than I'd like to admit, including a dozen Meyer lemons. I have a thing for winter citrus - clementines, Meyer lemons, and blood oranges all come out when it's cold, and together make up something like ninety percent of my yearly citrus purchase. I still remember studying biochem with a buddy of mine, when we made it our habit to eat everything bagels with salmon cream cheese and blood orange segments. Man, that was good.

The butternut squash and the golden beet were cubed and put into a plastic bag, then covered with olive oil leftover from making Meyer lemon confit to soak overnight. Butternut squash and golden beet work together beautifully, something I learned from my mother-in-law the last time the in-laws were here. The squash is sweet and buttery (duh) and the beets give just enough of that autumn rootiness. I made nine eight-inch crepes strictly by Julia Child's recipe in How To Cook. And, I made a classic vanilla bean creme brulee, but steeped two bags of Earl Grey in the milk/sugar/cream/vanilla mixture as it scalded, enough to give it a mild tea-and-bergamot flavor. The bottle of gewurztraminer and gewurztraminer dessert wine went into the fridge.

In addition, I made a spaghetti sauce jarful of Meyer lemon confit that I don't entirely know how I will use up. But that stuff keeps for months - we should be able to find something it'll be good on in that time, right? And I took four pounds of pork loin that had been languishing in the freezer and made slow-cooker carnitas. I haven't cooked, really cooked, in a long time and this was a good weekend for it. Everything went into the fridge to wait for dinner.

This evening, as my dear wife read a book, I got down to work. The squash and beet were drained of their oil and put in a 400 degree oven to roast, the crepes and salmon were allowed to come to room temperature, and I got to work on the sauce, a simple veloute with dill and brie. A veloute, one of the so-called mother sauces, begins with onion sauteed in butter. Once the onion is soft, flour is added in an amount equal to the butter, and stirred in to make a roux. Once the roux is smooth, my sauce called for equal parts white wine and chicken broth, then two cups of heavy cream. To this base, you add brie cheese, and then a large quantity of finely chopped dill. Granted, the fresh dill I had on hand was much milder than I'm used to, but I just added more than I'd anticipated, and the sauce had a delicious flavor. The rich, buttery cheese and sharp, grassy dill really came together nicely (even though the shallots got a bit too brown.)

The salmon was also a near-mistake. I wanted to poach it, so that the fish would stay moist and soft in our crepes. And poach it I did, in equal parts sauvignon blanc and water with a sprig or two of dill and a few slices of shallot. But what I didn't count on was my salmon being so thick that it didn't poach properly. I had to turn the whole fillet - awkardly. And then, even given considerable time, the interior basically just got warmed. I like my sushi, don't get me wrong, but my wife won't abide a fish that's raw. So, I pried the fish apart and put it into a baking dish in chunks, and finished it off in a 350 degree oven. After all, it's going into crepes, so who's going to care if it's flaked apart? Thankfully, the fish didn't dry out and took basically no time to cook thoroughly.

The broccolini, I just sauteed in butter and touched with a scant amount of cream when it was al dente. Broccolini is really an elegant vegetable, like broccoli's sweeter, milder cousin. Couldn't be more simple.


Needless to say, dinner was a real hit. I haven't been as proud of a meal as this one in a very long time. The fish was moist and tender, the sauce was - if I may say so - delicious, and the vegetables complemented each other as they did the meat. And that creme brulee, I think, is one of the best I have made. Something about the vanilla bean, the tea, and the bergamot... revelatory.


Here's the recipe for the sauce:

a tablespoon or slightly more of minced shallot
a tablespoon of butter
a tablespoon of flour, with a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper (white pepper if you're that concerned about color)
1/4 C each of chicken stock and dry white wine
1 1/2 to 2 C heavy whipping cream
4 oz. brie cheese, without rind
enough finely-chopped dill

Put a pan over medium to medium-high heat, and melt the butter. Add the shallot and sautee until soft and translucent. Even if they get a little golden-brown, that's not going to hurt things too much. Then, add the flour/salt/pepper mixture and immediately start stirring - this is the most important thing with making a roux, keep stirring. Once it's smooth (all you really need here) add in the chicken stock and wine, and whisk the hell out of it to keep it smooth. It also helps if you warm the liquids, which I forgot but was able to recover from. From then on, it's a matter of adding things one-by-one, first the cream, then the cheese, then the dill. As far as how much dill to add, I just kept chopping and adding until the herbs balanced out the richness of the cheese and shallots.

Once that's done, poach some salmon, fill a crepe and drape it with that rich, delicious sauce. Then just try not to slap yo' momma.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Method for Quantifying Whole-Team Performance

The question is, what’s the best way to look at a team’s performance on the whole? We basically have three important units by which we measure a football squad. The first – and most ultimately important – is the scoreboard. The second is yards, either yards given up by the defense or yards claimed by the offense. And the third is turnovers. Being an engineer and seeing three units, my impulse is to combine the three into some useful metric. According to this article at Sports Quant, fumbles and interceptions both result in about the same amount of lost points or yards. Smart Football reader Brad Eccles makes the case that fifty yards is a statistically-reasonable penalty for either a fumble or interception – that is, if you fumble, subtract fifty from your offensive yardage total. I’ve also seen (though I can not remember where, so let me know if you run across that number or a better one) that fifty yards is an appropriate bonus for plays that result in a touchdown. This seems about right to me. Thus, we can convert turnovers and touchdowns into yards and express a team’s production using a single unit. Moreover, what’s good for me is bad for my opponent and vice-versa: penalties against Auburn should be recorded as negative yards, and penalties against opponents as positive yards.

This includes the offense and the defense: the offense’s forward progress can be expressed as positive yardage, and the defense’s as negative yardage. As we learned last year, the offense and defense are not distinct.

I’ve borrowed another idea from Smart Football. There, he describes a method of evaluating a play’s success called the Sharpe Ratio. Now, I have my own issues with the Sharpe ratio – dividing by standard deviation is not a good idea when, in particular, most running backs’ success depends on their big-play potential. However, one important thing contained in that statistic is the evaluation of a play in comparison to its risk. We could theoretically run a short screen, a slant, or a quarterback draw every single play and gain a dependable, undefendable two yards every single time. While this would not be an effective strategy, all plays must be evaluated against this standard. For instance, an incomplete pass is essentially two yards given up forever. Thus, the yardage that results from each play is adjusted down by two.

I usually make some judgment about what constitutes “garbage time” and ignore that yardage. If one team is clearly bleeding clock, they’ve essentially stopped running their offense and it shouldn’t count. Also, I ignore what I consider to be uncoachable plays or dumb luck, like interceptions returned for touchdowns – these don’t count as an interception and a touchdown, just as one or the other. If the defense gets the ball, they’ve won and a win is worth fifty. Same thing for special teams touchdowns.

By this method, we can chart out our team’s progress over the entire game, in both phases of the game, as a single function. This is just what I’ve done. I copy the play-by-play at ESPN.com (more reliable than Rivals) into a text file, import that text file into a spreadsheet, and use the wonders of MS Excel to semi-automatically create a running list of the plays that are run, the players who run them, the down, the distance, the location and the result. Then, once I have an adjusted yardage for each play, I graph a running sum of offensive and defensive yards – this is essentially a running, risk-adjusted yardage differential. It gives some idea of the arc and flow of the game, and unites the offense’s and defense’s statistics. The goal, obviously, is to be in the positive by the last whistle. Granted, this does not reliably correlate with a team winning the game – field goals, defensive touchdowns, and special teams touchdowns are not included. But that’s not the point – I just want to see which team is most effective when they get down to work.

(I originally posted this at The War Eagle Reader, where you can see the results.)