I can see IKEA from here

Tomorrow the air bus takes me to the snow flurries in Louisville KY, so I am savoring my last day with my family in sunny Phoenix AZ.  Flying from Phoenix means I can get to Louisville on a direct flight instead of getting routing past the slot machines in Las Vegas, and coming here a day early saves me a pre-dawn drive up from Tucson.

This is all part of my annual effort to make the RVIA trip less tedious.  Brett and I have the essentials of the trip narrowed down to two nights and one day, we’ve managed to figure out how to eat reasonably well while in tradeshow-land, and now I’ve got direct flights to and fro.  My goal is to get this trip down to the point where we fly early in the morning, do our work, and fly out the same day.  Can’t do anything about the dismal weather, however.

Since we were in Phoenix today, we decided to drop in on IKEA in Tempe for a couple of things.  Emma was predictably bored with this prospect but soon found a way to entertain herself. She grabbed one of the free pencils and started noting the Swedish product names that amused her the most.  These included FARKOST, PULT, ERBIUM, FANAHOLM, SMYCKA, JANSJO (the name of the flexible LED light we bought for her bedroom), and FORTRAFFLIG.  Having selected a couple dozen names, I suppose the next phase of the game would be to come up with definitions for each name, but we rescued her from the depths of the IKEA maze before she got to that part.

We wrapped up this evening with a hike in the nearby South Mountain Park.  I had wanted to explore this desert park last July when Eleanor was in town, but the 110-degree heat kept us away.  This time of year it’s just perfect for hiking, mountain biking, walking the dog, and running — all of which were going on while we visited.  I recommend it for an easy short hike at sunset if you’re in town this winter.  Keep in mind it is an urban park.  While we were at the summit of a small hill we heard a little boy exclaim, “Daddy, I can see IKEA from here!”

Tonight we are having a simple smorgasbord (another Swedish word) in the hotel room, made up of goodies we bought at AJ’s Fine Foods this afternoon.  French bread, two cheese, pear & raspberries, chicken kabobs, salmon, curry chicken salad, celery & cucumber, plus several interesting desserts from the pastry case.  I’ll have an early breakfast with E&E in the hotel Monday morning, and then hop the jet.  Expect updates from RVIA.  I’m hoping for something new and exciting to be announced — by anyone — but I’m not holding my breath waiting.

By the way, I am sending out tweets on Twitter these days as part of my ongoing analysis of the use of social media, so if that is your sort of thing, just follow “airstreamlife” on Twitter.  The tweets won’t contain much info that doesn’t appear here, however. The blog still predominates my communications with the world, as I find it hard to be interesting and descriptive in 140 characters.

The skills of our past

Since Emma was born in 2000, it’s obvious that she is a child of the 21st century while her parents are relics of the previous century.  We are the old timers who remember when music came on vinyl records, soda cans had dangerous pull-tabs and saccharine sweetener, pay phones were on every corner, smoking was sexy, and — most shocking of all — there was no Google.  We have fun from time to time, as I suppose every parent does, telling her tales of the “old days” and exaggerating the realities of life in the 1970s and 1980s.

I think most people tend to concentrate on the thundering advance of new technology and social rules because they can be overwhelming and the pace of change seems to accelerate all the time.  But let’s not forget the things we’ve left behind, whether they are a loss or not.  Sure, nobody really wants the 1976 Ford Pinto to come back, and there’s very little to recommend a manual typewriter in our increasingly paperless society, but they are still intangible and permanent influences on our view of the world ahead.  Our child of the 21st century doesn’t have such baggage.  This is her advantage, for the most part.  She doesn’t have the benefit of history (yet) but she has the “clean sheet of paper” mind that us more experienced people sometimes must strain to achieve.

One of Emma’s homeschooling books recently reminded me of this.  She was supposed to learn something about abbreviations and concepts of written information.  As an exercise, the book gave her a “classified ad” to decode, as follows:

NEED EXEC SECY — typ 70 wpm, shthnd, fil.  Local ofc of nat’l co.  Paid hosp ins, 2 wk vac, top hrly pay.  40 hr wk.  Apply 8-5, M-F.

This was of course a simple exercise for Eleanor and I.  But keep in mind that our student grew up in the age of the Internet.  She was completely baffled.  First off, she’s never heard of a “classified ad.”  We had to explain that in the old days, people used to pay to have tiny ads inserted in the printed newspaper.  This inspired a series of follow-up questions, such as “Why would you pay for that when you can just use Craigslist?”

Once we got past the concept of no Internet and having to pay high rates for three lines of print, we moved on to the ad itself.  This proved no better.  How could she be expected to decode “EXEC SECY” when the concept of corporate “executives” is rapidly becoming obsolete, and the term “secretary” is so anti-P.C. that it is one step from being a pejorative?

“Typ 70 wpm,” was easier, since typing is the new version of writing, for modern kids.  In fact, educational pundits are now decrying the loss of cursive writing skills from our school curriculum.  But again, the idea of being tested for typing speed struck Emma as odd.  After all, typing is no longer a specialized skill — these days, we’re all supposed to be able to do it.  So when would the “executives” need someone else to do it for them?  How do they do their own texting and update their Facebook pages if they can’t type?  Not being able to type these days is kind of like not being able to dial your own phone numbers.  (Oh wait, that “skill” may go away soon too, since we can now just talk to our phones and tell them who we want them to call.  How many of you have your spouse’s phone number memorized?)

“shthnd”:  I just laughed at that one.  I know only two women who can take shorthand: my mother and a lady about her age in Denver named Rhoda.  They both are amazing to watch as they effortlessly write beautiful squiggles on paper that mean nothing to me, and yet have a nearly perfect transcription of whatever is being said.  It’s nearly a lost skill.  I wish I’d learned it because I still take notes in my job, but who teaches it anymore?  Even when I went to journalism school in the 1980’s it was no longer taught.  Of course Emma had never heard of it.

“fil.”:  Filing?  What’s that?  These days a job ad would be far more likely to ask for someone with database skills.  Emma knows what a database is, since we were practicing building rudimentary ones two weeks ago, but I would like to see her face if she were confronted with a room full of file cabinets.  I can hear the question now: “Why don’t they scan this into a database and make it searchable on Google?”

“Paid hosp ins.”:  Another obsolete concept, but not because we Americans don’t need health insurance — a lot of us just can’t afford it.  Hardly any non-governmental or blue chip corporates still offer 100% employer-paid health insurance.  I am setting Emma’s expectations appropriately:  don’t expect any corporation to take care of your retirement, healthcare, or other personal needs.  Take care of yourself.

“2 wk vac, top hrly pay.  40 hr wk.  Apply 8-5, M-F”:  I have to admit that these are our fault.  Emma has never known a time when either of her parents worked outside the home or for any company, and thus the concepts of paid vacation, hourly pay, and strict working hours are foreign to her.  Hopefully this will be a plus for her.  I believe that 21st century kids will have to be creative, flexible, and entrepreneurial to be successful in America, as many of the recent economic victims of our recession have had to be.  Us relics from the previous century were the last of the era of factory workers, taught to show up on time, toe the line, and do the job until the clock says 5.  That’s not going to cut it anymore.

The home school curriculum we buy is pretty good, but once in a while it comes up with a real clinker like this classified ad.  Fortunately, one of the advantages of home schooling is that we can modify the program as we see fit.  It’s also a reminder to me that we need to stay atop the social and technological changes that are bombarding us, for her sake, and think about how they’ll change expectations in the future.  We can’t prepare her using only the skills of our past.


Thanksgiving Week 2011

The duck story has come to a successful conclusion.  Both Keli and Pierre emerged from the kitchen in fine form.

Eleanor started the final cooking marathon at noon on Sunday, with Emma standing by to chop vegetables.  This early phase was a little dull for me, but this is the best time of year for cycling in Tucson so I pumped up the tires and ran a couple of errands to the nearby grocery stores.  Eleanor was quite unhappy with her store-brand kosher salt and I was able to pick up a better kind while out with the bike, along with a package of pie crusts.  (People gave me curious looks as I was stuffing groceries into my bike bag.  I don’t know why.  When we lived in Massachusetts many years ago I used to run errands with my bike all the time.  I should try to do it more often here in Tucson, since the city is more bike friendly that any place I’ve ever lived.)

Most of Eleanor’s day was spent making the side dishes, of which there turned out to be 13 in total, plus incidentals like Matignon and stuffing in Pierre.  Even for her that’s a fairly ridiculous amount of food for three people, and that may be why she separated our feast into two menus:

The Keli Menu

Steamed & rotisseried duckling
Roasted butternut squash with pears, maple sugar, and gorgonzola cheese
Boiled red & blue potatoes with thyme, rosemary, and sage
Mixed grains with wild mushrooms, figs, currants, and persimmon
Crimini mushrooms stuffed with veal, apple, and onion
Crisp salad of romaine with pomegranate dressing
Cranberry cherry pie

The Pierre Menu

Classic roasted duckling
Roasted petite golden potatoes with pearl onions and white truffle oil
Roasted carrots, onions, and apples with bacon
Cipollini onions and chestnuts marinated in cider syrup
Pork & apple stuffing al la frittata
Haricot vert with cranberries and buttered walnuts
Pumpkin soup
Fresh blackberries with syrup de Cassis

In the midst of all of this our neighbor Mike showed up, drawn perhaps by the smell of cooking.   We kept him for over an hour, sampling the dishes as they come out of the kitchen.  He left around 8:30 with a little of Eleanor’s syrup de Cassis to make his own blackberry dessert.

We sampled the goodies too, so that by 9 p.m. when all was finally done (except Pierre), none of us were particularly hungry.  But we ate anyway … and ate … and ate … so that by 10 p.m. we were all like Winnie the Pooh, nearly large enough to get stuck in Rabbit’s doorway.  And then Pierre came out of the oven, so we had to try him.  And then there was pie.

I took far too many photos to show here. If you want to see more of the food, check out my Flickr album.

Here’s the duck synopsis:  Keli the American duck was prepared by steaming and then browning in a rotisserie.  She came out absolutely succulent, still with a fair amount of fat under the skin but not much more than you’d expect from a rotisserie chicken.  There was not a hint of dryness, and the meat was delicious.  Since she was not stuffed or layered, Keli represented a fairly straightforward duck, but if we were to prepare duck again I think we’d probably use this technique.

Pierre the French duck was seared in a pan, then stuffed, laid atop a base of vegetables, coated with the Matignon (fine diced vegetables), and layered with bacon.  You can see him ready for the oven at left.  Pierre came out even juicier than Keli with large quantities of fat under the skin and in the meat.  This made him tasty but also rather rich, even though we separated the fat on our plates.

The bottom layer of vegetables was almost decadently delicious, and the Matignon was … well, let’s just say that if all vegetables tasted like smoked bacon we’d probably eat a lot more of them.  The green apples stuffed inside tasted of spice and je nais sais quoi.  Fabulous, but eating any part of Pierre and his side dishes gave me the sensation of arteries clogging as I chewed.

Last night’s meal was superb but it was late and we were all a little tired, so we are going to re-boot tonight with the entire spread again.  In preparation, I had no breakfast and only a little cottage cheese and fruit for lunch.  Frankly, I wasn’t really even hungry.  By dinner we should all be ready for a more relaxed version of the feast.  I have declared this “Thanksgiving Week” in our household, to eat at leisure what we used to gorge on in a single day.  It will certainly take that long to consume everything that is currently packing our two refrigerators.

We may never do a big duck experiment again, but I’m glad we did because it has already made Thanksgiving Week 2011 one of the most memorable ever.  Of course, for the rest of America, Thanksgiving is still a few days off.  I hope you have a great holiday, and I hope that our experience has given you some ideas, inspiration, or at least an appetite.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go for a long bike ride.


Cooking up a storm

A benefit of having an Airstream the driveway is the use of a second refrigerator. The extra 10 cubic feet of our Dometic NDR1026 gas refrigerator always come in handy when Eleanor is stocking up on ingredients for a big feast.   (By the way, the refrigerator has operated normally ever since we removed and reinstalled it in September at Paul Mayeux’s shop.  The theory for its prior poor operation is that it had a small internal obstruction or bubble that was dislodged in the process.)

The flip side of having a second refrigerator is that someone has to go back and forth between the house and the Airstream to deliver and retrieve things from that refrigerator.  This is where my talents are usually invested, along with tasks such as dumping the compost, taking out recycling and trash and documenting the cooking process with my camera. If only my college journalism professors could see me now…

In the morning I went out to get Keli the American Duck for her steam bath.  Unfortunately, 24 hours in the refrigerator was not enough to fully defrost her.  The refrigerator was running exactly 32.0 degrees inside, probably because temperatures have been cool in Tucson lately and because we put two solidly-frozen ducks in it.  We reduced the refrigerator’s cooling level, but it was essentially too late.  Keli couldn’t be steamed until she was fully defrosted.

We left the duck out on the counter for a while, and then Eleanor had a brainstorm.  We’d just done a load of dishes and the dischwascher was still very warm from the drying cycle. Eleanor popped Keli on the lower rack for an hour, closed the door, and managed to get some of the defrosting process completed that way.  But it wasn’t until after dinner that Keli was frost-free enough to come out of her plastic bag and get prepped for the pot.

In the meantime we had a technical problem to solve.   We didn’t have a steamer large enough for a 5.1 pound duck.  The pot needed to be big enough for the duck while sitting on a rack so that an inch or so of water could be brought to a boil beneath.  After trying several odd contraptions we finally found a combination that would work, using two aluminum foil pie tins to support a pair of round cooling racks, upon which Keli perched.

The steaming process went well.  Once the water was to a boil, Keli began sweating like a nervous Aeroflot passenger.  Christopher Kimball and his team of cooking gurus were right: Keli the duck lost a lot of fat in a short period of time.  I collected the grease/water combination when she was done, separated the water, and ended up with more than a quart of grease.

The city of Tucson has a program to keep grease out of the public sewage system.  They’ll be collecting the grease on the day after Thanksgiving, where it gets turned into biodiesel fuel for cars.  If I still had the Mercedes 300D, I would like to think that a bit of Keli-grease would come back to power my car a few miles.

This is not the end of Keli’s cooking process. Her next step, today, will be to visit the “tanning booth” (rotisserie) to brown the skin, with a bit more seasoning.

While Keli worked on her fat-reduction program, Eleanor also worked on the stuffing and the first of the side dishes.  As I had feared, Eleanor has gone far off the reservation and so now the side dish list consists of:

boiled potatoes with fresh herbs
roasted potatoes
mixed grains & wild rice with persimmon & figs
pork & apple stuffing
haricot vert with cranberries & walnuts
butternut squash with pear & gorgonzola cheese
cipollini onions and chestnuts
roasted carrots and pearl onions
Romaine with pomegranate

Yeah, we’ll need some help with eating all of this … Carol & Tom, Mike & Becky, Rob & Theresa, Terry & Greg, Judy & Rick, David & Lee & Hannah: feel free to give a call today to schedule dinner with us this week.  Please.

And when the actual Thanksgiving Day rolls around Eleanor plans to make pumpkin soup, too.  I would try to stop her but (a) it’s all so good; (b) this is what she likes to do.  You can’t stop a good chef any more than you can stop a monsoon. Eleanor cooking is like a force of nature.  It’s just going to happen, so I’m going to continue playing errand/garbage boy and await the spectacle that is coming later today.  Pierre is waiting too, for his moment in the oven with his rich French friends (bacon, butter, and more butter), so it is going to be an interesting day indeed.

Keli, Pierre, and friends

Our menu consists of two ducks.   Ha ha ha.

I laugh because my wife is a combination of French chef, Italian lover, and Irish temperament.  This means she cooks heartily, is passionate about all things, and will certainly take it personally if I get anything wrong in this blog.  It also means that “two ducks” does not make a meal, and there must be plenty of side dishes.  In her philosophy, there should be no chance of running out of part of the meal.

So normally Eleanor cooks for a small army regardless of how many people we have coming for dinner.  This year, in response to my pleas for a reasonable amount of leftovers, she has promised to keep the portions small.  So, without comment, I will now list the ingredients she has accumulated over the past few days, all of which will be in our “small” Thanksgiving dinner:

ducks (2)
mixed gourmet petite potatoes
haricot vert (green beans)
various rice and grains including wild, white, red, barley, pink lentils, Israeli cous-cous
onions: cipolini, pearl, spanish
canned pumpkin
various mushrooms: white, crimini, and dried (porcini, shitaki, morel)
pears (3),  pomegranate, green apples, persimmons, carrots, celery, leeks, ginger, lemons, blood oranges
garlic, capers, fresh ginger
herbs: chive, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, rosemary
dried fruit: figs, cranberries, tart cherries, Thompson & Golden raisins
raw nuts:  walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, chestnuts
fresh cranberries, sour cherries
ground veal, ground pork
apple smoked bacon (4 strips)
maple syrup, maple sugar, and dark brown sugar
orange juice, pomegranate juice
white wine, red wine, Madeira (medium dry), Cognac, brandy
stocks: chicken, beef, vegetable
white truffle oil
butternut squash
unsalted butter, evaporated milk and cream (light & heavy)
apple cider
French bread
cider vinegar
various spices including Kosher salt, black & white peppercorns

All of this was impossible to gather at any single store, so Eleanor spent much of the day at Safeway, Albertson’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, in addition to raiding the pantries of both the Airstream and the house.  Her food gathering instincts have been let loose, and that’s an impressive thing, much like releasing the Kraken. I don’t want to know what all of this is costing.  Today at Whole Foods I had to restrain her from buying a $25 jar that contained exactly three truffles.  We’ll “make do” with a bottle of white truffle oil instead.

This morning we retrieved the ducks from the Airstream’s freezer (where we have been storing all of the “overflow” ingredients).  Defrosting them will take at least a day.  Before they went into the house refrigerator, we personalized them, as you can see above.  Duck #1 will be the American duck (code-named “Keli”) following the Cook’s Illustrated technique of steaming before roasting to reduce the fat.  Duck #2 will be the French duck (code-named “Pierre”), prepared using a modified version of the classic poëlé technique described by Escoffier, et al.  The steaming process will happen on Saturday, a full day before the actual roasting.

With 48 hours to mealtime, we are already accumulating a list of people who are interested in sharing the leftovers.  Fellow Airstreamer Rob, who lives only a couple of miles away, dropped by and eyed the list of ingredients hungrily.  But remember, this could turn into a complete debacle.  Sometimes experiments go wrong — just ask Dr. Frankenstein or any Marvel comic book villain.  Fortunately, if the ducklings turn into dumplings we won’t starve, thanks to the friends of Keli & Pierre: those extensive side dishes.  I’ll have more to write about those as they begin to take shape this weekend.