Susie Bright’s Ridiculously Easy, Amazingly Delicious Roasted Tomato Sauce

tomatoes and peppers

It’s tomato season, which means I’m making big batches of Susie Bright’s roasted tomato sauce. This recipe is amazingly delicious and ridiculously easy (about 10-15 minutes of prep depending on how much you’re making, plus blending at the end). And it freezes really well, so whenever it’s tomato season, we make giant batches of it and freeze it in Tupperwares for the winter. You know that children’s book, Frederic, about the mouse who sits around in the summer gathering words and colors and sun rays to store up for the winter? That’s what making this sauce feels like. When winter comes, and it’s been gray and cold and wet and dark for days on end, we stick some of this sauce in the microwave and put it on pasta, and it feels like pulling a bit of stored summer out of the freezer. And when we’re making it, it fills the house with this ambrosial tomato perfume. We mostly make this to freeze for the winter, but we can never resist eating some of it right away, warm out of the oven.

I want Susie to get the traffic, so I’m not going to repeat the basic recipe here — you have to go to her blog to get it. But I have a few modifications and finer points, and those I’ll tell you about. [Read more…]

In Honor of Pi Day — Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie!

pi plateIn honor of today being Pi Day (3.14), here is a recap of my renowned chocolate pie recipe!

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday a couple of years ago (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.

CLASSIC CHOCOLATE PIE
INGREDIENTS
1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

chocolateA quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth-feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes at 450 degrees, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 325 degrees, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)

EXPERIMENTAL CHOCOLATE PIE

Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

white pepper1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This experiment has been a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode. I’ve now served both the straight-up chocolate version and the spiced version several times, and opinions are deeply divided as to which is better. My suggestion: Make one of each. Why the hell not?

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka. (I’ve tried adding alcohol, and it didn’t work that great: if you add enough to get significant flavor, the texture gets goopy. I’m going to stick with dry spices from now on.)

Speaking of which:

NOTES ON PIE CRUST

For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

pie crustBut I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

pie crust 2Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. Happy eating!

My Half-Century Cocktail Recipe

I’m doing a full court press in December to finish my new book, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” Deadline for going to the typesetter is January 2. So for most of December, I’ll be posting retreads traditional holiday posts, as well as a few cat pictures. Enjoy!

We invented this cocktail recipe for my 50th birthday (a couple of years ago — I turn 52 on December 31), and I like it so much I’ve made it several times since. I’m calling it a Half Century. It’s not wildly freaky or anything — it’s roughly a whiskey sour made with lime juice and cardamom simple syrup — but it’s awfully damn delicious. And it has qualities both of a classic cocktail and a weird modern spicy cocktail, which seems appropriate for the occasion it was named after. Plus it has cardamom! Nature’s perfect food. [Read more…]

Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters

I’m doing a full court press in December to finish my new book, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” Deadline for going to the typesetter is January 2. So for most of December, I’ll be posting retreads traditional holiday posts, as well as a few cat pictures. Enjoy!

New Year’s Eve is coming up, so I thought I’d reprint this recipe for Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Proceed with caution.

hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxyWhen I was about to turn 42, I of course wanted to serve Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters for my birthday. Not the real thing, of course — they can’t be mixed in Earth’s atmosphere — but a reasonable approximation.

So we went online, and found approximately 894,589,760 recipes for it. Trouble was, most of them involved gin, to approximate the Arcturan Mega-gin. Trouble was, I don’t like gin.

But we found this one, and loved it. It has just about everything a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster should have. It looks really alien, like something they’d drink on Star Trek. It’s entertaining and dramatic to put together. And its effects are, in fact, very similar to having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick. It’s one of those sneaky drinks that’s waaaaaay more intoxicating than it tastes: it goes down sweet and easy, you keep tossing them back… and soon you’re putting plastic cocktail monkeys in your hair, and trying on other people’s pants, and telling total strangers how awesome they are and how much you love them.

Ingredients:
Champagne
Vodka
Blue curacao
Sugar cubes
Bitters (we used Angostura)

Ahead of time (you can do this a day or two ahead of time, or whenever you like, really), pre-mix a mixture of:
1/2 blue curacao
1/2 vodka

Also ahead of time (shortly before the party):
Prepare a plate of sugar cubes with one drop of bitters on each cube (this approximates the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger).

As guests arrive:

Fill a champagne flute mostly full of champagne, about one shot short.
Add one shot of the curacao/vodka mixture.
Drop in one embittered sugar cube.

Do these one at a time for each guest: it’s pretty to watch, and the embittered sugar cube goes “fizz fizz fizz” in a very dramatic way when it’s dropped into the champagne/ vodka/ curacao mix.

Drink only with people you trust. And beware the plastic cocktail monkeys.

Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie

I’m doing a full court press in December to finish my new book, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” Deadline for going to the typesetter is January 2. So for most of December, I’ll be posting retreads traditional holiday posts, as well as a few cat pictures. Enjoy!

pi plateJust in time for Santamas! This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday a couple of years ago (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.

CLASSIC CHOCOLATE PIE
INGREDIENTS
1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

chocolateA quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth-feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes at 450 degrees, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 325 degrees, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)

EXPERIMENTAL CHOCOLATE PIE

Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

white pepper1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This experiment has been a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode. I’ve now served both the straight-up chocolate version and the spiced version several times, and opinions are deeply divided as to which is better. My suggestion: Make one of each. Why the hell not?

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka. (I’ve tried adding alcohol, and it didn’t work that great: if you add enough to get significant flavor, the texture gets goopy. I’m going to stick with dry spices from now on.)

Speaking of which:

NOTES ON PIE CRUST

For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

pie crustBut I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

pie crust 2Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. Happy eating!

Our “Light the Night” Team Reached $9,000 – So I’m Eating Bugs!

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light the Night Walk logoSome joker really has it in for me. How dare they — donate money to a cause I care about, just to torment me?

Freethought Blogs has gotten into the Foundation Beyond Belief/ Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night game, and has started a virtual team! Even small donations help — it really does add up. For each $1000 we raise, I’ve promised to do a different forfeit or dare.

So recently, some kind soul donated $413 — the exact amount it took to get our total up to $9,000 — with the comment, “Bon appetit, Greta!”

Don Bugito logoAnd so, as promised, because we have raised $9,000 I will be eating bugs. I even know the place I’m going to do it: Don Bugito. (Of course there’s a hipster foodie source of edible bugs in San Francisco…)

And if we reach our team’s fundraising goal of $10,000… I will eat broccoli. Seriously.

Update on my previous dares: I’m having to do them somewhat out of order — largely because I’m focusing almost all my time and attention on finishing my new book (Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why), and some of these dares will take time. But I’m posting the ones that I can do as soon as I can do them. Because we raised $1000, I dyed all my hair purple and green, for Skepticon (pics coming soon!). Because we raised $2000, I will go to church. I won’t pray — that would be dishonest — but I’ll attend, and I’ll even be polite. (It’ll have to wait until after the book is finished, though.) Because we raised $3000, I will wear a Tea Party hat and make a ridiculous speech about health care. That’s coming up next. Because we raised $4000, I got a bubblegum pink manicure. Because we raised $5000, I will dress as a nun and sing the Leslie Gore song, “You Don’t Own Me” to a crucifix. Because we raised $6,000, I went vegetarian for a month. Because we raised $7,000, I will go vegan for a week. And because we raised $8,000, I will read and review Fifty Shades of Grey. Sigh.

What’s more: If you participate in the Light the Night Walk by just donating some money to our team and then walking up and down in your living room as part of a “do it yourself” walkathon — and you videotape it and put it on the Internet — I will personally donate $50 to the FTB Light the Night team. $50 per video, capping out at $500. (I’ll also post links to the videos on my blog.)

foundation beyond belief logoAnd if the entire Foundation Beyond Belief team reaches its goal of raising $500,000 in 2013, I will walk across the entire city of San Francisco, in the wildest outfit I can come up with. (With sensible shoes, though — I’m not stupid.) Yes, I’ll be doing my very own personal Bay to Breakers, with whatever friends and family I can sucker into joining me.

I won’t be the only Freethought Blogger doing assorted forfeits and dares if we reach various fundraising milestones, btw. PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, and Avicenna are all offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs as well. (PZ has already blogged about tumor suppressor genes while naked and wearing a pirate hat.)

What’s more, fellow blogging network Skepchick is offering a bunch of seriously cool dares and offers for their own Light the Night Walk virtual team, including custom superhero drawings, custom cocktails, shaven heads, juggling videos, comic reviews, and more. Rivalry! Rivalry! We can beat those Skepchicks! Rah! Rah! Go team!

todd stiefelAnd Todd Stiefel — the Foundation Beyond Belief Light the Night International Team Captain, the guy who came up with the whole “Foundation Beyond Belief and the atheist community supporting the Light the Night Walk in a big way” idea in the first place, and whose Stiefel Freethought Foundation is doing matching funds for a big-ass chunk of it — has promised that if either the Freethought Blogs team or the Skepchick team raises $20,000, he’ll get a buzz-mohawk. (His hair isn’t long enough for a big one). And whichever team gets to the goal first will get to pick the color of his mohawk!

In addition to (or instead of) being part of our virtual team, you can actually take part in the Light the Night walk in your own city: as part of a Foundation Beyond Belief team, or as part of some other team, or just on your own. You don’t have to be part of an official team to be part of the walk — you can just register as an individual, either online or at the event.

So sign up! Be an official part of the Freethought Blogs Light the Night team! Get me, PZ, Ed, and Avicenna to do awesome, embarrassing, painful, or hilarious things against cancer! Let’s make use of human beings’ evolutionary tendency towards tribalism and group loyalty and pointless competition — and our tendency to treat irrelevant sacrifices as both a social bonding mechanism and proof of serious commitment — and turn it towards good! Go, team, go!

On Being Totally Vegetarian for a Month: My Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night Challenge

So as regular readers may know, I recently went totally vegetarian for a month. It was part of a fundraising effort I’m doing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk: the Foundation Beyond Belief is a “Special Friend” team, I’m the FBB International Team’s Honored Hero for 2013, plus Freethought Blogs has a virtual team that’s part of FBB’s giant mega-team… so I’m doing all these dares and challenges as our team reaches assorted fundraising goals. One of those dares was to go vegetarian for a month… a month that was over on November 8. (We’re currently at $8.587, by the way — if we reach $9,000, I will eat bugs, and if we hit our $10,000 goal, I will eat — shudder — broccoli.) Here’s my report.

*****

Being totally vegetarian was less difficult than I’d thought it would be. I’m close to vegetarian anyway (I sometimes call myself “vegetarian-ish”): I eat some meat sometimes, but not that often, and only certain kinds of meat or under certain circumstances. The exceptions I typically make are: meat that I consider to have been ethically raised (pasture-raised or grass-fed); local specialties when I travel (barbecue in the south, Buffalo wings in Buffalo, that sort of things); bites off of other people’s plates; times when I’m having serious problems with food due to health issues (when I was recovering from cancer surgery and having all kinds of weird appetite and digestion stuff, I gave myself permission to eat any damn thing that seemed appetizing and that I thought I could keep down); special occasions like Thanksgiving; and fish pretty much any time. So as it is, I eat meat, including fish, maybe once or twice a week. Cutting out that once or twice a week was not that big a deal.

The things that were actually challenging about this:

1) Times or places when I ordinarily would have eaten meat — such as food places that had meat I’d usually be fine with. When I was getting lunch at the foodie haven in the Ferry Plaza, I felt sad about all the “meat I consider to have been ethically raised” options I was passing on. I ordinarily take advantage of those when I can, since they don’t come along that often, and I felt sad to be missing one of my chances.

2) Not taking bites. Even at times in my life when I’ve been harder-core vegetarian, bites of other people’s food have pretty much always been an exception for me. It was sad to pass up those tastes.

3) Meat going to waste. This was very difficult indeed. I ordered a vegetarian crepe for dinner at a conference — a chicken crepe, actually, which I asked them to leave the chicken out of — and they forgot to leave out the chicken. Ordinarily I would have eaten that chicken with zero qualms. I have some ethical issues about eating meat at all, and giant ethical issues about eating generic meat raised in agribusiness factory-farm horror shows — but I have much bigger ethical issues about meat going to waste. The thought of that chicken suffering and dying just to be thrown in the trash… no. But I’d made a commitment to be strictly vegetarian for the month, so I stuck with it, and had them pitch it and make me a chickenless crepe. It didn’t sit well with me, though.

(I go back and forth about what this rule means at buffets, by the way. But I’m leaning towards not eating meat — if meat at a buffet goes to waste because I didn’t eat it and other vegetarians didn’t eat it, maybe they’ll serve less meat next time.)

4) Remembering that fish is not a vegetable. Even at times that I’ve been closer to the vegetarian end of the vegetarian-ish spectrum, I’ve almost always been okay with eating seafood (except for squid and octopus — they’re way too smart and sentient for me to feel okay about eating). Looking for the seafood options on a menu is almost reflexive for me. It was hard to remember, “Oh, yeah. Vegetarian. That means no salmon, no oysters, no scallops, no fish sauce.” That wasn’t a sacrifice so much (although it was at times — passing up oysters, sigh) — it was mostly just hard to remember.

So has this experience persuaded me to go totally vegetarian?

I don’t think so — but it’s definitely persuaded me to go more vegetarian than I currently am. I know myself, and I know that if I vowed to never to eat meat again as long as I lived, it would immediately become the one thing I wanted to do more than anything. (That’s what’s happened in the past when I’ve tried to go totally veg — and when I fell off the wagon, I fell off big.) I have enough complicated emotional issues with food as it is — I don’t want to add another one. If I was at a really amazing restaurant with a really amazing meat dish, I think I’d eat it. And I think the “meat going to waste” thing is always going to be an exception for me. Watching that chicken get thrown out was the one time in this experience when I actually felt like I was making a morally bad choice.

(And yes, I am morally fine with eating bugs. Which I’ll be doing if the Freethought Blogs team raises just another $413 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation!)

But for the most part, this was easy enough to do that it seems silly not to do it more. For a couple/few years now, my general approach to meat-eating versus vegetarianism has been a “harm reduction” approach — I don’t feel a need to entirely eliminate meat, but I want to reduce the harm done by eating it — and I’m still pretty good with that. But I do think I want to slide my “vegetarian-ish” dial closer to the “totally vegetarian” end of the spectrum. I think I want to make eating meat even more of an exception than I already do: maybe once or twice a month instead of once or twice a week. I think that even at restaurants that have meat I consider to have been ethically raised, I’m not immediately going to leap at “Here’s my chance! That’s for me!” — I’m going to look at the vegetarian options, and give them at least as much weight, if not more. I also want to reconsider my “local specialties” exception: travel is stressful and eating local specialties is sone of the ways I handle that stress, but when I look carefully at the ethics of it, I don’t think that’s important enough to counter-balance the “agribusiness factory-farm horror show” thing.

And I am re-thinking seafood. During my vegetarian month, whenever I pondered the question of fish, that line from Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” kept popping into my head: “It’s okay to eat fish, ’cause they don’t have any feelings.” And I kept thinking, “Okay, Kurt, fine, you have a point, that’s not very consistent or evidence-based.” (Although I also kept thinking about the line, “And I’m living off of grass and the drippings from the ceiling,” and realizing that I don’t want to go there, either.) I might have to research fish neuropsychology a little bit to decide where exactly I want to draw that line. (Maybe no to regular fish, but yes to shellfish?)

I’m still okay with my harm-reduction model of eating meat. But if I can reduce that harm even more than I am, I don’t see any reason that I shouldn’t.

(In another Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night fundraising challenge, I’ve promised to go vegan for a week. I haven’t yet decided when I’m going to do that, but it’ll be soon. I’ll post about that when it’s done.)

Blogathon for SSA Week: On FInding the Perfect Cup of Decaf Coffee

SSA week Page Banner

This post continues my leg of the Blogathon for SSA Week! From now until 9pm PDT, I will write one new blog post every hour. Plus, for every $100 raised during that time, I will post one new picture of our cats! And all donations will be matched by SSA Supporters Jeff Hawkins and Janet Strauss — so whatever you donate, it will be doubled!

As of 7:03 pm PDT: 439 Donors, $71,703.02
As of 8:06 pm PDT: 439 Donors, $71,703.02

Not sure if these numbers are being updated now that it’s after hours. I’ll check with the SSA tomorrow.

From my piece in The Humanist magazine, In Praise of Frivolity:

What brings meaning to my life? Donuts. Fashion magazines. Costume jewelry. Playing “Cards Against Humanity.” Pretentious overpriced cocktails with a lot of silly crap in them. Fooling around on Facebook. Looking at cute cat videos on the Internet, over and over and over again. TiVoing the Olympics and watching the really obscure sports we’ve never heard of. Coming up with a sexy, gorgeous, wildly inappropriate outfit to wear to the Dyke March. Padron peppers sautéed in hot olive oil until they blister, then sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Sitting on the sofa watching Project Runway and letting cats crawl all over us. The never-ending search for a perfect cup of decaf coffee.

So. About that search for a perfect cup of decaf coffee

I don’t drink regular coffee. I don’t do well with significant amounts of caffeine, especially since I started taking Wellbutrin. But I love coffee — the scent, the flavor, the ritual — and I drink decaf coffee pretty much every day. I actually get cranky and groggy when I don’t get it: I’m not sure if it’s the small amount of caffeine that’s still in decaf (insignificant if you’re used to high-test, not trivial if you’re not), or whether it’s just a Pavlovian thing where I associate the scent and the flavor and the ritual with alertness.

But here’s the thing: A lot of decaf coffee sucks. It’s often not as richly flavorful as regular coffee, and it tends to have a sour taste (I’ve learned that if a pretentious coffee place says their decaf has “citrus” notes, it usually means it’s sour). So I’ve been searching for the perfect cup of decaf coffee. I found it once in a cafe in Amherst, Massachusetts, but that doesn’t do me a whole lot of good here in San Francisco, and I’ve been chasing that lost chord ever since.

Until I realized:

The perfect cup of decaf coffee is the one I make for myself.

red french pressI’ve spent quite a while tinkering and experimenting, and I’ve found a formula that works perfectly for me. The organic/ fair trade decaf French roast beans from Rainbow Grocery. Ground fresh at home each time I make it. Brewed in a French press coffeemaker, which lets me make it as strong as I like (hint: pretty darned strong). Brewed for at least seven minutes. In one of our standard mugs, one teaspoon of brown sugar, and one tablespoon of heavy whipping cream (half and half is fine, but subpar — if I don’t have heavy whipping cream, I often use ice cream instead).

It’s no-joke strong, with definite bitterness. But it’s not sour at all. It’s deeply rich. The bitterness has a bite, but it’s a clean bite. And with the cream and sugar, it all balances and blends into a complex but easily delicious flavor: reminiscent of chocolate, but sharper and less unctuous.

Now, this might not be the perfect cup of decaf for everyone. It probably isn’t. For one thing, a lot of people don’t like cream or sugar in their coffee — and I don’t know what this French roast from Rainbow grocery would be like if it didn’t have cream or sugar. But it’s the perfect cup for me.

I feel a bit like Dorothy in the last scene from The Wizard of Oz. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” Which much of the time is bullshit: sometimes getting the hell out of Dodge is exactly what you need to do to be happy, and for me personally, a whole lot of my heart’s desire is at atheist conferences and speaking gigs all over the country. But it is kind of funny that it took me so many months of chasing around the city looking for something, while I was literally in process of discovering and creating it for myself.

If you like this post — or indeed, if you don’t — please donate to the Secular Student Alliance!

Blogathon For SSA Week: Meditation and Breakfast

SSA week Page Banner

This post continues my leg of the Blogathon for SSA Week… now! From now until 9pm PDT, I will write one new blog post every hour. Plus, for every $100 raised during that time, I will post one new picture of our cats! And all donations will be matched by SSA Supporters Jeff Hawkins and Janet Strauss — so whatever you donate, it will be doubled!

As of 9:01 am PDT: 422 donors, $68,297.69.
As of 10:05 am PDT:
427 Donors, $69,687.69

So as part of this Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction practice that I’m starting to learn, our assignment for this week — is “assignment” the right word? The part of the practice that we’re adding this week is to pick a single task that we do every day, and to work on doing it mindfully: staying in the present moment, experiencing the task fully, noticing when our minds start to wander into plans and fantasies and memories and worries and then bringing them back to the experience of the moment.

Because I have some issues with food (unsurprisingly, I think a lot of people do, food is a large and deep issue), I decided to make my mindfulness task “making and eating breakfast.” And I’ve been noticing some interesting things.

First: I’m noticing how much more difficult it is to stay mindful when performing a task or an action than it is I’m just lying still and noticing each part of my body in turn. If for no other reason: It’s a moving target. Each moment is substantially different from the previous one: that’s somewhat true even when I’m lying still, but it’s more true, or more noticeably true, when I’m moving around the kitchen, or even just sitting on the sofa eating. And of course, doing activities means I do have to pull away from a simple contemplation of my immediate sensory experience, and do things like make sure I don’t burn myself when I pour the hot water over the coffee, or think about where the cheese slicer is.

I’m also thinking, though, that this practice may wind up being more beneficial in the long run than the “lying still and noticing each part of my body in turn” practice. After all, other than being asleep, lying still for forty-five minutes doing nothing isn’t really a part of my everyday life. If I can learn to stay mindful during ordinary tasks, at least some of the time, I think it will have more of an impact on my daily life.

But the main thing I’m noticing is how automatic it is for me to start on the next thing before I’ve finished the last one.

I have a powerful, unconscious reflex to reach for the next strawberry before I’ve finished chewing the last one; to reach for the coffee before I’ve finished swallowing my bite of toast and cheese. It’s being a very difficult habit to overcome: to just experience this strawberry, and not reach for the next one before I finish it. It’s not like it’s a big time-saver or anything — it doesn’t take that long to reach for a strawberry, it’s not like the half a second I save reaching for the next strawberry while I finish chewing the last one will significantly add to my time. It’s just a reflex.

And I know this reflex is a tendency I have in much of my life — not just eating breakfast. I strongly tend to live in the next moment, to live in my plans and hopes and worries and anticipations and expectations for what’s about to come, to focus on the next thing I want to do before I’ve finished the things I’m doing. Even when I’m doing something I’ve been planning and looking forward to for a long time — like a vacation — I tend to slip into thinking about the next bit of fun, rather than experiencing this one.

I’m generally okay with being a goal-oriented person. It’s a major part of how I engage with the world, and I am mostly at peace with it. But paradoxically, I think this tendency to live in my thoughts about my goals inhibits my ability to actually get them done already. When I look at all the things I want to do in a day, when I look at all the emails I want to answer and all the pieces I want to write and all the research I want to do… that’s when I turn into a hummingbird on meth, inefficiently flitting from task to task, or just getting paralyzed by all the things and just blowing it all off and watching “What Not to Wear.” I think this practice will help me focus: if I stay with the one thing I’m doing, instead of getting distracted by all the other things I want to be doing next, I get it done, better and calmer (and in fact, quicker)– and I can then move on to the next thing, and focus on that.

Not sure how to sum this up. Secular mindfulness meditation — neat!

If you like this post — or indeed, if you don’t — please donate to the Secular Student Alliance!

Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters

New Year’s Eve is coming up, so I thought I’d reprint this recipe for Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Proceed with caution.

hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxyWhen I was about to turn 42, I of course wanted to serve Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters for my birthday. Not the real thing, of course — they can’t be mixed in Earth’s atmosphere — but a reasonable approximation.

So we went online, and found approximately 894,589,760 recipes for it. Trouble was, most of them involved gin, to approximate the Arcturan Mega-gin. Trouble was, I don’t like gin.

But we found this one, and loved it. It has just about everything a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster should have. It looks really alien, like something they’d drink on Star Trek. It’s entertaining and dramatic to put together. And its effects are, in fact, very similar to having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick. It’s one of those sneaky drinks that’s waaaaaay more intoxicating than it tastes: it goes down sweet and easy, you keep tossing them back… and soon you’re putting plastic cocktail monkeys in your hair, and trying on other people’s pants, and telling total strangers how awesome they are and how much you love them.

Ingredients:
Champagne
Vodka
Blue curacao
Sugar cubes
Bitters (we used Angostura)

Ahead of time (you can do this a day or two ahead of time, or whenever you like, really), pre-mix a mixture of:
1/2 blue curacao
1/2 vodka

Also ahead of time (shortly before the party):
Prepare a plate of sugar cubes with one drop of bitters on each cube (this approximates the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger).

As guests arrive:

Fill a champagne flute mostly full of champagne, about one shot short.
Add one shot of the curacao/vodka mixture.
Drop in one embittered sugar cube.

Do these one at a time for each guest: it’s pretty to watch, and the embittered sugar cube goes “fizz fizz fizz” in a very dramatic way when it’s dropped into the champagne/ vodka/ curacao mix.

Drink only with people you trust. And beware the plastic cocktail monkeys.