Thunder on the Arkansas

Sunday, June 14th 2020 at 10:11 pm
by Jonah

I spent this weekend working as a corner marshal. That meant I wore a long sleeve white shirt, tan pants (I need to get some white ones), and stood all day in 99° heat in La Junta waving flags at cars.

Standing yellow means do not pass

In exchange for my service, I get to camp in a parking lot. We were awoken at 6 a.m. on Thursday by the sound of bulldozing concrete.

It’s loud.

At one point a car’s engine blew up on the track, leaving a giant track of oil. We had to go out and pour floor-dry on the oil and sweep it off the track. No one wants to race on a track slick with oil. Then another car’s engine blew up on the track. I was watching it happen. A Volkswagen Beetle in full Herbie colors started smoking profusely and pulled off into the paddock. He left behind another giant trail of oil. As we were sweeping, I mentioned that the situation reminded me of that scene in Cool Hand Luke. Someone laughed and said, “Calling it your job don’t make it right, Boss.”

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

We ate at a restaurant on Friday and Saturday night, which is the first time we’ve been in a restaurant since March 11. The restaurants have every other table without chairs, and I think you’re supposed to wear masks until you’re seated. The first night we went to Boss Hog’gs, which has a $14.99 steak special but, more importantly, ice cold AmberBock on tap. The second night we went to the Mexico City Cafe. All the dishes there come with beans and vermicelli. The vermicelli tasted like spaghetti with Rotel. Is this a Mexican thing?

I prefer Mexico City Cafe over Boss Hogg’s, but neither one can compare to Lucy’s Tacos, which is, unfortunately, just a taco truck.

Berck came in second to last in all his races, but he completed them all, and didn’t run off the track! Well, in the last race, his fellow Formula Vee drivers Andy and Eric let him get in front of them, even though they’re faster. Eric tried to pull in front of Berck right before the checked flag, but Berck said he took his last corner so well that he finished in front of Eric anyway.

But they’re in different classes anyway, so Berck still came in 2nd to last.

On Saturday, some clouds mercifully rolled in, but right after the racing had ended for the day and I’d cracked open a beer, we were hit by an intense haboob. The wind was so intense that the only thing keeping the porto-potties flying away was the cable holding them to the ground, but that didn’t keep them from becoming airborne and turning sideways in the air.

Our tent and sheets were full of dirt. Then it started raining. Berck got on the phone and got us a motel room for our last night. Also we had showers. There wasn’t any hot water, but I wanted a cold shower anyway because I was so hot.

This race wasn’t supposed to happen. The first Rocky Mountain Vintage Racing race of the year scheduled for May got cancelled. The second one was supposed to be in Pueblo last weekend, but the city of Pueblo hadn’t allowed the racetrack there to open yet. But at the last minutes this race in La Junta got scheduled. Unfortunately, even though we got three inches of snow at our house in Divide on Tuesday, it is already full-on summer in La Junta.

The organizers cut all the races for today short, and I didn’t hear anyone complaining. We were glad to finally get out of the heat. Berck’s run group was first, so he was almost done packing everything up by the time I was done for the day. We had time to stop by Lucy’s Tacos one more time before leaving town, and I got a giant ice filled horchata for the ride home.

Taking up all the parking at Lucy’s Tacos

I tried to wear a mask and stay apart from people in the volunteer meetings. But it was really nice to do something fun after being at our house for so long. More photos here.

What I hope remains

Sunday, May 10th 2020 at 9:29 pm
by Jonah

We stop shaking hands.  (This was always a huge disease spreader for things like the common cold.)

We work from home more.

We go on fewer business trips.

We treat medical professionals, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, and truckers like heroes.

We make more home cooked meals.

We garden more.

We do things that are inconvenient for ourselves to try to protect the most vulnerable among us.

We reach out to our friends and loved ones more, even if we can’t do it in person.

There are more science stories on social media.

Dogs get to go on more walks.

Parents are more involved in their children’s education. 

There are fewer people in movie theaters and more people reading books.

There are fewer people watching sports and more people playing board games together.

“Stay safe” replaces “Have a good one”.

No paywalls for important news.

The feeling that we’re all in this together.

Delivery cocktails.

Potato Leek Soup

Tuesday, April 21st 2020 at 8:16 pm
by Berck

More with the recipes…

Use a lot more leeks than you can usually convince Jonah to buy. 8-12 leeks is a good start. I prefer to use only the white and white-green parts. If you move on to green-white it’s okay, but don’t use the green parts. They just tastes like grass. Slice the leeks thinly, and wash them. Wash them another several times. Wash them again, unless you like gritty soup.

Sautee them in butter and olive oil. I tend to measure butter in units of sticks. One stick is fine for this. You want some oil so the butter won’t burn/brown. I cook them on high heat for 10-15 minutes.

Peel and chop the desired amount of potatoes. Don’t over-potato your leeks. One large potato per leek, maybe? I prefer for the potatoes to be large bite-sized, which should still leave some big chunks after it disintegrates. I cook the potatoes with the leeks in the butter for awhile.

I like to add sliced garlic. It’s not necessary, but everything’s better with garlic. Toss it in when you’re basically done with the leeks and potatoes and cook until the garlic starts browning.

With the heat on high, add some vermouth, cheap white wine, or the alcohol of your choice. Let it bubble for a bit then add enough chicken stock until the potatoes are just covered in liquid.

Cook at a low simmer for an hour, with the lid covered. Longer is even better. When you’re about half an hour away from being ready to serve it, remove the cover, turn up the heat and reduce the liquid.

You want to boil down the liquid and you want the potatoes to mostly fall apart. I like it when there are still chunks of potatoes, but it’s also acceptable to run the whole thing through a ricer at this point if you want your soup to be smoooooth.

It’s important that you have a pretty thick thing going on, because then you need to add a bunch of milk and cream (or half and half). Add some milk/cream, stir, taste, correct for salt, repeat. Keep going until you get it where you want it. Boil briefly, reduce heat to low. Add freshly ground pepper. I usually add some pepper in the beginning and more just before I serve it. Potatoes are one of those things that really need more pepper than most people are willing to use.

Serve with crumbled bacon, plenty of high-quality cheese and sliced green onions.

Bread

Tuesday, April 21st 2020 at 7:58 pm
by Berck

I’ve gotten several requests lately for my bread “recipe”. I don’t use a recipe for bread, and I don’t even really measure. In general, in order to make good food, it much better to learn techniques that get you toward an end goal than to follow a recipe. Baking a cake involves careful measurement, but bread does not.

I learned everything I know about bread from reading Peter Reinhart’s books and experimenting. I started with his recipes, but I’ve adapted them to my kitchen, temperament, ingredients and perferences. If you want a recipe, buy one of his books. Artisan Breads Everyday is probably a good place to start these days. That said, I’ll let you know what I do.

I’ll cover both sourdough and bread from commercial yeast. Other than the yeast source, I don’t do things much differently. I aim for a chewy, rustic, hearth-style artisan bread. I judge success by a loaf with a crumb that has nice large, irregular holes. I want the crust to be brown, ideally with some caramelized sugars on top that got there via enzymatic production.

I start with yeast and water. For commercial-yeast, I use SAF Red Instant. Any yeast will do, but if you use “active dry” yeast, you need to activate it with lukewarm water (100 degrees F). If you use instant yeast, this is not necessary, and I usually use cold, filtered watered from my fridge. I use one “packet” of yeast, though I buy it buy the pound and have a 2-1/4tsp measuring cup that is the same as a “packet”. I do measure the yeast.

I use roughly 2.5 cups of water. If I’m making sourdough, instead of yeast, I add roughly 8oz by weight of starter. I keep my starter as a 50/50 by-weight mix of water and flour which makes it easy to mix and easy to feed.

I use a mixer with dough hook. You don’t have to, but I’m lazy, and much of my techniques are optimized for laziness. Even if you’re planning on kneading by hand, it’s nice to bring everything together in a mixer. The nice thing about a mixer is that you can deal with very wet dough which, in general, produces a better result than dough that’s comfortable to work by hand.

I add 1 tablespoon salt. (I do measure the salt. For commercial yeast, I taste and correct the dough, but I’m not a fan of consuming raw sourdough, so I try to get it right.) Then I’ll add flour slowly, running the mixer incrementally until it looks like I have a dough that’s clearing the sides, but still sticking to the bottom of the mixer. I turn off the mixer and wait awhile. 5 minutes to half an hour. I try to mix at medium-high speed for 5 minutes, let it rest 5 minutes and repeat until it seems like it’s done. I aim to leave the dough too wet to comfortably hand-knead. Note that it’s much easier to add flour than water, so I try very hard to never wind up with a dough that’s too dry.

After mixing, I take it out, put it in a zip-lock bag. If I’m planning on baking the next day, or it’s always if it’s sourdough, I leave it on the counter for a few hours. When it’s roughly doubled, I let the air out, seal it up and stick in the fridge. Overnight is fine, 24 hours is better, 4 days is starting to push it. The longer you let it go, the more flavor you get. If you’re making sourdough and are seeking a more “sour” flavor, go for 3 days in the fridge. More than 4 days and the dough starts to break down.

I take it out in the morning and put it back on the counter for 4 hours or so, at which point it’s warmed up and happy again. Because the dough is way too wet to handle, I dump it onto a well-floured counter. I carefully shape it into a loaf and place it on some parchment paper. I try not manipulate it more than necessary, and use shaping techniques that result in a stretched outer surface. I cover it and let it proof until it’s ready.

Ideally that should happen it about 4 hours. I preheat my oven to 550 with a baking stone in the lower third of the oven. Don’t use convection settings unless you want a moon rock. I score the top of the bread with a razer blade for better oven spring. You want to make sure the stone is very nice and hot. When Jonah yells at me the oven’s been hot forever, I put the bread in and pour about a cup of near-boiling water on the bottom of the oven for steam. (You should probably use a pan, but I’m lazy and I have a gas oven, so I just pour on the bottom.) Close it up, reduce the temperature to 425 and bake for 15-20 minutes or so until it’s golden brown. You can thump it and it’ll sound hollow, but after you dial in your process you can tell by crust color. Let cool for at least half an hour. Ideally you should let it cool overnight, but it’s hard to resist warm bread.

In order to keep the crust crusty, I either cut it so I can balance the cut side face-down on the cutting board, or cover the open portion with aluminum foil. Don’t wrap the whole thing in plastic or you’ll ruin the crust.

Things that are important: Use good flour. If you want rustic bread, it’s hard to get good results with all-purpose flour. It doesn’t have enough gluten and will be too fluffy. Good bread should not be fluffy, nor should it be too dense. Americans have a thing for bland, flavorless, fluffy, white bread. If that’s what you’re after, the supermarket will sell you a loaf for $1.50 baked that day, and you can save yourself the trouble.

I’ve settled on King Arthur bread flour until recently because quarantine bakers have made it completely unobtainable for me. I’ve ordered a 50-lb bag of high-gluten ADM flour, and I’m excited to see how that works out. It has substantially more protein than King Arthur, and it may be that extra kick I’ve been looking for. Or it might make rocks…

It’s harder to make dough too wet than too dry. The wetter the better in the long run. It requires less kneading. If it’s too wet, you can’t get it to hold its shape. In my experience, it should be unpleasant to handle–it’s going to want to stick to everything if you’ve gotten it right.

You can bake bread the same day you mix the ingredients, but it won’t be anywhere near as good, and you probably need to work it a lot more for decent texture. I consider overnight to be an absolute minimum fermentation time for this sort of bread. Long, cold, slow fermentation makes for great flavor. Additionally, you get good enzymatic breakdown of the flour which makes it easy to shape, and gets you that beautiful irregular cell structure.

I do sometimes use bread pans if I want squarish loaves for sandwiches. I find them to be a lot of bother, and I’m generally okay with oval sandwiches. Even when using a pan, I still bake on a stone. If you’re shopping for a stone, you want the biggest, thickest one you can find. Thin pizza stones don’t absorb/transfer enough heat.

Baking without parchment paper is a lot harder–corn meal works, but it’s still almost impossible to move dough as wet as I like from wherever you’re proofing into the oven without parchment paper–it’s just too sticky.

Dear Ian

Wednesday, April 1st 2020 at 11:59 pm
by Jonah

Dear Ian,


Happy 16th birthday! I bought you a present, but I got an e-mail today from Amazon saying that they had tried to deliver your package to your PO box but that they couldn’t because there was no one there to sign for it.  I kind of think they’re not being quite truthful with me, but who knows these days.  At least I tried. I should be able to get it to you eventually. 


Uncle Berck and I are both working from home, which we can both do as long as we have our computers and the Internet. There are only two people working in my normal work office, and I offered to come in so that one of them can work from home but I was told they didn’t want that because I have a sore throat.  My throat has been slightly sore for the last two and a half weeks.  I’ve been happy to keep working.  I’m one of the best people at what I do in the state of Colorado, which I’m pretty proud of.


To see if he has a fever, Uncle Berck has been checking his temperature regularly with the kind of thermometer that you rub against your forehead.  He’ll do it about five times in a row, and each time it says a different temperature.  Then he comes over to me and interrupts whatever I’m doing and rubs it on my forehead. Each time he looks at he display and says, “Hmmm.”  I’m not sure this thermometer works all that well.  But we feel fine for the most part.


One of our favorite restaurants just closed. King’s Chef Diner served massive portions of delicious, greasy food topped with spicy green chili. They were always packed on weekends.  After all the restaurants were ordered closed, they tried to stay open for take-out only, but they announced last week they were closing.  I hope they aren’t closed for good.  I worry they are closed for good.


Three days ago a country singer named Joe Diffie died of the virus.  He had a song in the 1990’s that I liked called “Third Rock from the Sun”.  He was 62.  Today a member of a band I really like called Fountains of Wayne died of the virus.  He was 52.  That’s just six years older than I am, and a lot younger than Nana and Pop. A lot of people have died of the virus, but for some reason this particular one made me really sad.


Uncle Berck decided we should hole up in our house the day after your mom and dad decided to. I did the day after that.  It turns out that was a wise decision. 


I know this situation won’t last forever, and I hope this is the only year you don’t get to have a real birthday party.  I’ve been trying to keep positive.  I know from history that most of us will make it through this OK and we’ll collectively celebrate our victory one day.  But history also seems to indicate this crisis won’t be over anytime soon.  


Well, after writing this, I guess I won’t send it to you.  Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions, and I can’t seem to write about anything today except how said I am. Maybe I’ll go read some articles people have been publishing about how it’s OK to grieve in these times. 


Again, have a happy birthday, and I’ll see what I can figure out what’s going on with Amazon.  Maybe they’re too busy delivering hand sanitizer, which I guess is OK with me.


Love, 

Aunt Joanna