Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts About The Events of this Past Week

For me the entire Tragedy in Tucson was almost surreal. Our attempts to show our out of town guests some of the things we love about living here were punctuated with reports of the mayhem and mistaken information about the death of a young and vibrant Congresswoman.
 I learned, minutes after it happened (while talking on the phone and simultaneously looking at Facebook), that  Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords  and over a dozen others had been shot.  This was just a couple of days after the Chandler mall incident wherein a paroled convict went a little goofy and caused a major lock down and freaked out a bunch of people at the Baja Fresh. That was just a few days after one of our state legislators, Frank Pratt, was beaten and tied up in his very own place of business by another recent parolee.
These were all news making events. Each was in a different county. Two involved politicians. Two involved parolees. Two involved guns. The news each case was completely different.
No mention of political motivations in the Pratt case, barely any mention of the suspects parole status. No sheriff grandstanding (which is interesting given it happened in Pinal County where the sheriff has been quite visible on immigration issues).
Apparently in the mall case a covert investigation into the whereabouts of yet another wanted parolee sparked that mishap. No vilification of the system on that one.
But only seconds after the Tucson shooting, and in the same Facebook message where I first learned of it, the political vitriol started flying. And it spread like a virus, infecting everyone who came in contact with it. Perhaps status as a federal office holder is just that much higher profile than a state office holder, but the political tone is really not that much different at either level, so it is curious there was no political presumption firing an outcry in the Pratt case.
The fact is, all three of these incidents were crimes committed by troubled individuals. Period.
 In this age of community living we seem to be more interested in figuring out the often unanswerable question of why these things happen instead of just dealing with the fact that they did happen. It seems like everything these days in the gray area; there simply is no black and white, no good and evil (except in movies based upon comic books), no simple explanations.
This is not healthy. As we have seem from the ensuing political debate this week, when you focus on these gray areas then nothing is clear, no one is safe and everyone is at fault. In my view this is a symptom of our growing cultural indifference to personal responsibility. 
Maybe the most emblematic aspect of this theory was the crowd reaction during the Memorial Service, which featured one of the best speeches President Obama has ever given and the humble reaction of Daniel Hernandez who rightly pointed out that being is hero is a terrific burden. Made up of mostly college students, the collective response was inappropriate for the setting. Several people later justified it by saying that is what those people needed, to celebrate and move forward.
What it really showed is that our kids think it is all about them. We have failed to teach them civility (and civics but that is a topic for another blog), humility and critical thinking.  It is all about the moment, all about me and tomorrow we can move on to the next thing. You can see this theme in just about every reaction to the Tucson events except for those of the President and Mr. Hernandez as noted.
Our way of life is changing. The technological revolution is at the root of these changes. Either we can accept the heightened level of responsibility that comes with the wonders that it offers and access all that is positive about it and truly have a wonderful life or we can continue to generalize, distort and misuse our resources in the name of self satisfaction. The choice is ours and so far I don’t see very many people rising to role model these behaviors. Ironically, hypocrisy reigns as people race to condemn others for the very sin they are committing in the act of their condemnation. Sadly,I think those people are doomed to a life of gray.

Trina’s Elk Braised in a Squash

Continuing my penchant for cooking stews inside of vegetables (loyal readers will recall my frenzy over stuffed pumpkins of last fall), last night I served a slightly exotic dish that used wapiti for the meat.
Coming into possession of an elk roast this year was the work of my niece Trina. A 30-something beauty who happened to find herself in a family of avid outdoorsmen, she is no stranger to the massive elk hunt camp erected on a plot of land outside Williams, Arizona each fall. She can often be seen sporting perfectly coiffed hair atop an outfit of lavender camouflage.  She always looks gorgeous and like she is right where she belongs, no matter how primitive the setting.
And Trina loves the place they camp so much she got married there a couple of years ago, to a guy she met through the hunting adventures their respective fathers shared with their kids. A match made in heaven. 

Although we never see them at Thanksgiving because it is always the beginning of elk season, they don’t miss out on the dinner. In their dining tent they hold a full blown turkey meal for the 30 or 40 folks on the hunt and include every detail, right down to the real dishes and cloth napkins. Quite a feat.
So we were a bit surprised this year to get a call from the camp right before our own relative-filled residential dinner. Trina asked to speak to her Grandfather and imparted the news (most fittingly from that location) that she is with child. The first great-grandchild is in the chute, so to speak. So fittingly, in a sort of circle of life kind of way, the next day she went right out and got herself an 800- pound 6-point elk!
Not the actual elk referred to in the story; this was my pal at the Thunderbird Lodge at the Grand Canyon as seen last fall.

Now elk meat is very lean and mildly flavored. I like the challenge of cooking it because for one thing it is free to me and for another it takes some creativity to take it from just OK to delectable.
Two of my favorite things are winter squash and braising, so I decided this would be the perfect solution for this meat.
Braising is favored because it involves a several steps that any multi-tasker can accomplish simultaneously, it requires a range of ingredients that can be used in endless combinations and, it results in the most tender meat and rich sauce. Even better, it is perfect for a dinner party because you can (and for best results should) make it in advance and simply reheat it in the oven so you can minimize kitchen time and maximize the cocktail hour with your guests.
 I must give a shout out to Tom Colicchio here. After about 4 seasons of watching Top Chef on Bravo I suddenly realized that the master braising recipe that I had practically tattooed to my right arm having found it in an early edition of Taunton’s Fine Cooking, was from him! He really is a great cook; he doesn’t just play one on TV.
So back to the Elk Braise, here is what I did:
Cut up an elk roast into long strips about the size of boneless short ribs. There was no weight on the package but I am thinking it was about 3.5 pounds.
Season with salt and pepper. Brown in batches in hot olive oil in a large dutch oven or deep skillet. Reserve the cooked meat in a bowl.
Meanwhile, roughly chop a large onion and about 6 cloves of garlic. Dice 6 medium peeled carrots. Thinly slice one fennel bulb and cut the larger circles in half.
Upon removing the last meat from the pan, add the vegetables and stir to sauté and deglaze the pan. As the onion is about to become translucent, add a 15- ounce can of diced tomatoes, three large sprigs of rosemary, about 2 teaspoons of fresh, chopped oregano and 20 halved prunes and stir for about 5 minutes more. This skillet will look gorgeous.

Add about 1 cup of coffee, 1 can of Guinness, 1 tablespoon of molasses, a box of whole mushrooms (about 15 medium sized ones). Cut the meat into bite size pieces and add back to the pan. Stir all the ingredients together, adjust for salt and cook uncovered in a 350 oven for 2 hours.
Note: I like to start the oven phase on convection roast at 300for about 45 minutes. The top gets a bit brown so I stir this back in and turn to bake and 350⁰ for the duration. Keep your eye on it and stir in some water or broth if the sauce is cooking down too much.
At this point you can remove the rosemary sticks, cover, cool and store in the fridge.
For the squash I used an heirloom variety that was about 10 inches long and fairly fat. Cut in half lengthwise, seeds and strings removed and a bit sliced off the bottom to allow it to sit flat, it offered two wells large enough to take most of the warmed braise. This fit perfectly in a roasting pan which I then baked for about an hour at 350⁰ to cook the squash, lightly covering the stew with foil.
Served over a bed of arugula sprinkled with steamed, diced Yukon gold potatoes, the diners self-served
using large spoon to dig out the squash with each portion. A nice wine, a crusty, airy bread with herb or blood orange infused oil for dipping (and to pour over the main dish) and a side salad of chopped pink grapefruit in its juices, with thinly sliced fennel and a drizzle of vanilla infused olive oil and voila, a satisfying winter meal.
Not only was this the essence of comfort food, it was beautiful to serve and easy to clean up, which is always a nice thing for my lovely dishwashing assistant.
So thanks to Trina we are living large off the land.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Black-eyed Peas for Good Luck in 2011

We started 2011 off right:
Lots of laughs with some great friends;
Lots of rest on January 1 and lots of black-eyed peas (frijoles de ojos) on January 2 with a steady stream of luck seekers coming throughout the afternoon.
 On a personal level things are pretty good; only 3 more tuition payments and we will have a graduate on our hands. She lined up a job during Christmas break-who could ask for more than that in this market? And she was looking for apartments just before she left.
Both of our fathers are in remarkably good health and our mothers are holding their own, for the moment anyway.  
We both have jobs we like and all the Christmas stuff is already put away.
My first art show is coming up in February.
We have a reasonable mortgage on a fabulous house and so far have dodged the declining real estate bullet as even now we have equity.
My 5 year- old car just turned over 48,000 miles and the pump on the right side was actually open at the gas station today.
Our social calendar is filling rapidly and we have more great friends than we can even count. We are truly blessed and it would seem either the black-eyed peas are really working or we are just plain lucky. Probably a bit of both.
If only things were looking as bright in the world of politics. Arizona is in a tragic state of underfunding which is going to cause lots of social unrest. Things at the federal level are not much better financially and with the influx of new party members to Congress it is going to be very interesting to watch. The financial future of our entire country is downright scary. And foreign affairs are not much better. I saw a list of 10 separate spots around the world in serious unrest. Yikes!
In addition we have the interaction between state and federal policies. So it is interesting that the federal government has completely failed to manage illegal immigration-a job that should be a priority if you read the Constitution. In contrast, state after state is legalizing the use of marijuana to varying degrees but it remains illegal at the federal level creating uncertainty about how that is going to play out if the feds decide to enforce against Doctors and their patients in the medical marijuana field. 
As if that is not enough, an unaccountable Commission just voted 4-3 to regulate the internet which is government once again going looking for a problem to solve as if they don’t already have their hands full. This points up the problem inherent in trying to spread yourself too thin-the things you are supposed to be doing get ignored while you concentrate on items that are questionably within your bailiwick. The result is the entire system suffers, none of the governments receive the respect they require to function properly and the erosion of order is exacerbated. It is even worse here in Maricopa County where scandal after scandal continues to break. These may seem like small issues now but taken in the aggregate with everything else that is going on, these are hardly good  developments.
How can it be that things are so great on a micro level and so miserable on a macro level? If the positives that were being mentioned on today’s radio reports hold true, maybe economically things are looking up. That would be a step in the right direction. We can only pray and eat more black-eyed peas.