Tuesday, June 23, 2009

And you thought Jon and Kate had it rough...

Through the miracle that is Wikipedia, I bring you one of the strangest stories I've ever read about reproduction in the animal kingdom: The Deep Sea Angler. It's common knowledge that the females of many species (spiders for example) are much larger than their male counterparts, and in some cases following fertilization the male either dies or is eaten by the female (e.g., praying mantis). This is the first instance I've ever heard of in which the male is merged with the female:
At birth, male ceratioids are already equipped with extremely well developed olfactory organs that detect scents in the water. When it is mature, the male's digestive system degenerates, making him incapable of feeding independently, which necessitates his quickly finding a female anglerfish to prevent his death. The sensitive olfactory organs help the male to detect the pheromones that signal the proximity of a female anglerfish. When he finds a female, he bites into her skin, and releases an enzyme that digests the skin of his mouth and her body, fusing the pair down to the blood-vessel level. The male then atrophies into nothing more than a pair of gonads, which releases sperm in response to hormones in the female's bloodstream indicating egg release. This extreme sexual dimorphism ensures that, when the female is ready to spawn, she has a mate immediately available.
Gives a whole new meaning to the term "joined at the hip".

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Did you know?

It's little tidbits of information porn like this that make my eyes bug out. Enjoy:

What Dungeons & Dragons Class are you?

Not exactly what I tend to choose, but still a neat test:

In secret temples far from bustling cities and priestly hierarchies, orders of esoteric warriors train their initiates in ancient traditions now forgotten or forbidden by most religious organizations. The champions of these orders are avengers—deadly weapons in the hands of their gods, imbued with divine power through secret rites of initiation. In battle, avengers swear to execute divine vengeance, entering a mental state that gives them unerring focus on a single enemy.

As an avenger, you were trained in a monastery, initiated through secret rites, and imbued with the power to smite your god's foes. You might be a disciple of Ioun, sworn to hunt and exterminate the minions of Vecna until you one day face the Maimed God. You could be an agent of the Raven Queen, bringing death to those who would defy your mistress. Or perhaps you serve Bahamut as an agent of justice, bringing ruin to tyrants and oppressors. The organizations devoted to your god might view you as a heretic or a hero, but you answer only to your god and to the vows you swore upon your initiation as an avenger.

Where will those vows lead you? One thing is certain: Doing the will of your god is never easy and never free of peril.

D&D Home Page - What Class Are You? - Build A Character - D&D Compendium

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Indian Cooking 101, Part 2: Lessons Learned

Although I still consider myself a novice, I have learned enough in my travels to avoid the common pitfalls indicative to non-natives who cook ethnic cuisine. There’s always a small part of me that still thinks there is something missing from my dishes that the restaurants have in abundance, but since I don’t have access to their recipes, I’m stuck with what I learn. More often than not, my recipes are a mix of several different types, either due to lack of components or a simple dislike of a particular approach. I tend more towards the onion gravies rather than the yogurt ones, usually due to the fact that I tend to have more onions on hand than yogurt if I get an itch to cook. Below are some of my tips to make your experience in cooking Indian cuisine a good one:

  1. Plan ahead. Although some Indian dishes are designed for speed and efficiency, more often than not a rushed dish is a poor dish. Since I don’t make it on a regular basis, I usually have time to plan for it. On average considering that I make my own spice grinds/mixtures, it takes me about 2 hours to cook a standard chicken curry assuming very little planning ahead. So, if you can, ensure your recipe is set up ahead of time, since you don’t want to find out ¾ the way through cooking that you forgot the yogurt for the sauce. Some Indian dishes require soaking in a marinade, water or brine for either a few hours or overnight in order to season and tenderize the food.

  1. Ventilate. Indian cooking is a very aromatic process, which leaves a smell in the air that can linger for several days if not properly ventilated or circulated through the cooking area. Cumin especially can ensure a lingering smell, since it is often roasted beforehand and used extensively from beginning to end. Utilize the oven hood if you have one, preferably one that pipes the exhaust outside rather than through a filter. My wife particularly dislikes the aroma of Indian food, so to even cook it when she is around requires an outdoor approach. Many small portable burners are available that plug into a standard outlet. Put one of these on an outdoor table or bench and you have an instant cook top.

  1. Balance the spices and ingredients. Like many specialty foods, too much of one particular ingredient can mask or ruin the flavor of the final product. Tomato, as mentioned earlier, can kill the flavor of a chicken curry if added in excess. If your chicken curry calls for tomatoes, I recommend no more than one 14 oz. can per 2 quarts of curry sauce, or less if you’re only wanting the tomato for coloring purposes. Cumin, coriander and cinnamon are similarly strong, and too much cumin makes the entire dish taste like a giant cumin seed (as well as stinks up your home--see #2).

  1. Simmer, simmer, simmer. A good curry takes anywhere from 1-2 hours to simmer, or even longer if you are going for a very tender meal. Obviously the longer you cook, the more items 1 and 2 will come into play. Also consider that most curries are better the 2nd or 3rd day after cooking (if properly stored refrigerated). Some curries are good even after being frozen, but I tend to avoid doing this unless it's a basic rice dish.

  1. Be your own guinea pig for new dishes. My first mistake with Indian food was using a curry powder mix for a dish that I brought to a party. The resulting dish was so hot and spicy that only myself and one other person could tolerate the intensity. Unless you’re making a previously used recipe with minor modifications, do a test run before unleashing it on guests or potlucks. The tongue you save may be your own.

  1. When in doubt, ask an expert. I was fortunate in my initial dealings with this cuisine to consult colleagues and friends of Indian heritage on my experimentation. They provided me with a lot of valuable advice, and I am thankful to them for their assistance.


Below are some books and websites I highly recommend for anyone interested in cooking Indian food. I haven’t yet found one overall ‘bible’ for the cuisine, but the books and websites below are excellent reference points:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Indian Cooking 101, Part 1: The Basics

I wrote some of this a few years ago when I maintained a website, but am reproducing it here with some minor updates. There tends to be a lot of content, so I am going to do it in parts.

Indian food is one of those love it or hate it types of ethnic fares—rarely does one simply tolerate it. The pungent and often earthy aroma, combined with the general prejudice that Indian food and Indians are ‘dirty,’ tends to dissuade most people from trying it. As someone who ate an American “steak and potatoes” diet for most of his childhood and young adult life, I can tell you that my introduction to ethnic cuisine was something akin to an epiphany. You never realize how under-utilized your taste buds are until you’re assaulted by the wonderful mix of flavors in an authentic yogurt curry, plate of Korean bul-go-gi or Japanese hibachi vegetables. By ethnic I mean Indian, Korean, Thai, Mexican, Japanese and the like—the standard Chinese and Taco Bell foods you get are hardly authentic or flavorful, and for the most part are heavily augmented with fats and sugars for the rather immature American palate. Go to any authentic Mexican restaurant and you will find yourself tossing your Taco Bell chicken quesadilla out the window.

Indian food has many properties that go beyond simple flavors. The ingredients and spices are often medicinal, and most of them aid in digestion and proper processing of the nutrients. Turmeric, for example, is a natural antibiotic, while some of the more rarely-used components such as Asafoetida (a gum resin with a rather pungent aroma) aid in gas-relief and digestion. Some spices are known to have anti-cancer or chemopreventive actions against certain toxicants. Overall you can find that a simple change to spices, cooking time or storage (most curries are twice as tasty after overnight refrigeration) makes each dish unique and enjoyable. It’s also a cuisine where combining different aspects of several similar recipes can result in an excellent outcome rather than a disaster.

To properly make Indian food—as with any authentic cuisine—you need the proper ingredients. The standard curry powders in your local supermarket while workable pale in comparison to a genuine or custom-made curry mix, and are generally made for people who want an overall curry flavor to their food and not specifically an Indian dish. I recommend the following as essential components to building a group of reliable Indian spices for your kitchen. Most of these are available at any local world food market, and many larger cities have Indian/Pakistani grocery stores available.

One other common misconception is that Indian dishes, due to their spiciness, are by default hot. This is not the case, unless large amounts of chili seasoning (whole chilies or cayenne pepper) are added. Vindaloo curries are by default full of hot red pepper, while most other curries tend to range from mild to hot.

Ingredients you can purchase at a standard supermarket:

  • Cumin: Used as a base for most Indian sauces and spice mixes. Available in seed or powder form, and like coriander, much more pungent if ground fresh from the seed before cooking. Cumin seeds are roasted prior to cooking in a small pan or skillet, as this activates the pods and adds more flavor to the dish. Ensure accurate measurement and ventilation for your dishes, otherwise the entire kitchen will reek of it for several days.
  • Coriander leaves (Cilantro): These are a major garnish for most Indian recipes, so for true authenticity it is critical to fold in coriander leaves once the dish is nearly complete.
  • Cinnamon: Stick cinnamon is used as a base spice in many curries and rice dishes, and in powdered form is an ingredient in garam masala. As with any spice, too much cinnamon will taint the flavor, so use sparingly based on volume (usually one soup pot of curry or rice requires 1 average sized (1”) stick of cinnamon.
  • Salt: Most Indian dishes call for kosher salt, which is a stronger type and requires less to flavor a dish. Standard table salt is acceptable, but when a recipe calls for kosher salt, add 2X the amount of table salt for equivalency. Soy sauce can also be substituted as a salt source.
  • Peppercorns: Adding whole peppercorns to a dish adds a strong peppery flavor to any curry, and it won’t sour your mouth to bite down on them as with other Indian seed-based spices. I often add 1-4 corns to rice dishes to kill some of the sweetness from the cinnamon.
  • Cloves: Used whole as a base for most curries and rice dishes, but again add sparingly or else it will overwhelm the dish. These are often removed from the dish before serving, although some Indians chew on cloves as a breath freshener.
  • Paprika: Red powder used in many dishes for flavor and appearance. A critical ingredient that gives Tandoori chicken some of its distinctive color. Used also to counteract turmeric if the dish takes on too much of a green/yellow color (Some people may not find the idea of green chicken appealing).
  • Garlic: Minced whole cloves or pre-packaged minced in oil is acceptable. A staple in nearly every Indian dish.
  • Turmeric: Powdered spice responsible for the yellow/green color in curries. Turmeric should be balanced with a reddish spice (such as Paprika) or even red food coloring, since it tends to shift the color of the curry to a greenish/yellow. Turmeric should be as fresh as possible when used, and I've found the older the turmeric, the greener the overall color. Ideal balance should be yellow to orange when combined with paprika.
  • Ginger: Whole fresh root is best, and when grated or minced is a common component of curry gravies. This is also another spice where mincing and accurate measurement is essential or else you get chunks of sour ginger root and a very gingery smelling dish (see Tomatoes).
  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes are a common component in curries, but must be used sparingly, as the acid will remove the flavors of some poultry and meat. I typically use canned, diced tomatoes, with or without additional garlic or onions added.
  • Chilies: Green chilies are often added (seeds removed) to some curries as a heat-enhancer, and are often added as a color enhancer. Use only if a hotter curry is desired.
  • Garbanzo beans (chick peas): These are usually found in the Mexican food section of the grocery store. Garbanzos are legumes with a nutty aroma, and are often used in many vegetarian Indian dishes. Canned varieties are acceptable. I recommend soaking or boiling beforehand with some vinegar to cut down on any 'explosive aftereffects.' :-)
  • Onions: Whole yellow or white onions are preferred. Minced or finely chopped, it is the staple for almost all Indian recipes or gravies.
  • Plain unsweetened yogurt: This is a common ingredient in most cream gravies and sauces, as well as a marinating agent for Tandoori chicken. Use the low-fat yogurt if you must, but it cannot be fat-free.
  • Ghee (Clarified butter): Although vegetable, soy, olive or sunflower oil is acceptable for cooking, most authentic Indian recipes use ghee as the oil base since it is 100% butterfat. Ghee is relatively easy to make using standard butter, as follows:
    • Place 1 pound of salt-free butter in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil (takes 2-3 minutes).
    • Once boiling, reduce heat to medium. Foam will soon form up, and will eventually disappear.
    • Once a second foam layer appears, the butter will turn a golden color over approximately 7-8 minutes. Brownish sediments of milk solids will form on the bottom of the saucepan.
    • Pour the mixture into a heatproof container through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
    • Store in an airtight container. The mixture does not require refrigeration, and will keep for up to 1 month.

Ingredients you will likely need to purchase at an Indian grocery store:

  • Basmati Rice: A long-grain white rice with a unique flavor and nutty aroma. Only available in the larger-chain supermarkets in small bags, but can be purchased in larger sizes (10-20 pound sacks) at Indian groceries.
  • Cardamom Pods: Found in green and brown varieties. The green pods are the most often used, and will swell up and open upon cooking, allowing the seed core to release that distinctive flavor. Gives a very definitive aroma to Indian cooking, but are NOT meant to be eaten. Anywhere from 2-4 pods per pot of curry is common.
  • Coriander Seeds: Yellowish round seed with a very sharp aroma. Also available in ground form, but if ground directly from the seed at the time of cooking, use about ½ the recommended amount due to it’s strong impact—often used to give a sour, bitter, lemony taste to Indian curries and vegetable dishes.
  • Saffron: Essentially the stigma from the iris crocus flower, this reddish and aromatic spice is sometimes added to dishes, as it lends not only color but also flavor. Considered the most expensive spice in the world, as it takes 150 handpicked blooms to obtain just one gram of dried saffron.
  • Garam masala: Meaning “hot spice,” a critical ingredient in nearly every Indian dish. These are not the same as curry powders, but are instead intended as a garnish or to add more ‘zip’ to a dish, sort of like adding Mrs. Dash to a plate of stew. Penzey’s online spice store sells several different varieties, from spicy to mild, and Raja is a common brand in Indian grocery stores. Ambitious cooks can obtain garam masala recipes from the Internet, and if they have a good mortar/pestle or spice grinder, can make their own mixes.
  • Seeds: These include fenugreek, kalonji (black onion seed) and caraway seeds, which while not necessary, can often be used to add color, flavor or texture to dishes. These spices are often components of some garam masala mixes, so they are not critical to purchase separately unless specific recipes call for it.
  • Naan Bread: This flat bread is a common staple of Indian eating. Since the traditional Indian practice eschews utensils, dinner is eaten with the hands, often using Naan as a makeshift spoon to scoop up rice and other parts of the dish for eating. This bread is often available pre-made and refrigerated. I typically either toast the Naan for a few minutes on a high toaster setting, or else brush with butter, garlic powder and garam masala, followed by a minute or two in a broiler. Naan should have a slightly crisp outer crust when done, and should not be wet or doughy in texture. It is not uncommon for the edges or exterior of the bread to be blackened or cracked when done.

A word on pre-mixed curry powders: I have always found these to be hit-or-miss, as most Indian recipes you find online or in books do not use them. Their primary use is to cut down on preparation time and to make your curries consistent in flavor and spiciness. Another issue is that most of the packaging you get from Indian grocers is not in English, and it is critical to determine the proportion of curry powder to dish volume correctly, otherwise the recipe becomes almost overwhelming; I made a curry dish per the box one time and although flavorful, my friend and I cured a cold with the heat from this dish. The additional downside is, of course, that all your curries will taste the same. Penzey's online spice dealership makes a number of curry powders that I have found to be consistently good in my dishes.

Part one ends here. Next time we will pick up on basic preparation techniques and a guide to the more common dishes - rice and chicken curry.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Twenty pounds of awesome in a 5 pound bag

I have nothing but frabjous hetero love for The Sound of Music. Been a fan since I was a kid, and had a crush on Julie Andrews for I don't know how long.

Found this on the YouTube a while back; basically a take on this T-Mobile ad, but done infinitely better in terms of execution, musical selection and theme. Then again, I hate T-Mobile so there's a tad bit of bias.

Enjoy, I know I have.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

He rode upon a terror bird, perchance to spy a lady...

Life would be infinitely easier if I rode around everywhere on one of these:

Monday, June 8, 2009

Haiku of the moment

In honor of #1 son losing his first tooth last week:

The Tooth Fairy smiles
Ten more teeth to complete it
Then Tooth Golem strikes!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Let it begin, let it beginn!!

So, the new gaming group assembled rather well. My colleague and her merry band have begun an adventure in a town of my own creation, Glendathym. Although the town lies within the larger campaign setting of Forgotten Realms, the town and it's denizens are totally my own.

Initially I plan on taking advantage of some of the fine pre-made adventures from Wizards of the Coast, the only difference being that most of them are aligned with their new 'starter town' of Fallcrest, so names and places need to be updated accordingly. I like Fallcrest just fine but I prefer to have a bit more creative control over things.

I have to commend the group for their patience and willingness to learn what I consider a better but still complex set of gaming rules. Those who began playing Dungeons & Dragons as a 'yute' in the 70s and early 80s are encountering a rather different game, one where it's part pen-and-paper D&D, part Magic-The Gathering and part Warhammer (miniature-based play).

So far we were able to develop quite a diverse group. We are hoping to add my friend Amy's nephew to the group and coerce him into playing a healer/diviner character such as a Paladin or Cleric. We cherry-picked ideas from both the 1st and 2nd Player's Handbooks. The party consists of:

Amy = Ariana (Female Eladrin Wizard)
Katie = T'Panya (Female Dragonborn Barbarian)
Forest = Thorlongus (Male Goliath Warlord)
Grace = Saoirse (Female Elf Sorceror) - pronounced "Seer-shuh"
Mitch = Crognaw (Male Elf Rogue)

Being first level characters everything is still fresh and new, so as we advance the party magic will be gathered, butts will be kicked and a very thankful Glendathym will hopefully reward them with power and prestige.

Image du Jour

Image du Jour