Tuesday, February 26, 2008

RVA Blogs, I cheated on you

For nearly an entire weekend, I didn't think about my RVA Foodie persona or the popularity of my posts on RVABlogs. Instead, I embraced another hobby (mixed martial arts) and at 2am on Sunday morning, my closeted fight fan met up under a streetlamp with the side of me who likes to write. The resulting story was published today (warts and all) on an increasingly important MMA news site, Fiveouncesofpain.com. You are welcome to take a peek, and let me know what you think.

I know what you're thinking. Nowhere in the description of my blog does it indicate that I like to watch muscular half-naked men beat on each other and roll around on the ground. Well, this isn't going to be a forum for future writings about MMA/UFC/WEC/etc. Don't you worry. I just thought you deserved to know about this other interest of mine that I've relegated to the shadows for a couple years now. This was my first time writing for a MMA blog, but I'd be happy to do it again and try to put together a more newsworthy or laugh inducing bunch of paragraphs. However, please don't laugh at my MMA blog nickname. I picked it up in college, and until today, "RVA Foodie" and "JayDog" were never supposed to meet. It'll probably be a case of ships passing in the night. Supposedly, I'm going to get a t-shirt out of the deal.

Nonetheless, it was an honor to help out the Five Ounces guys get some attention for their first sponsored fighter, Virginia Beach based LeVon Maynard. The guy is a really talented striker and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and a heck of a nice guy. Word has it that he's headed for the big time. If he competes again in Virginia, you might consider checking it out. Or, if you're the kenesthetic type, you might try to learn some moves yourself. In the past, I've taken classes at with my black belt buddy, Eric Burdo at Richmond Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. If you're interested in self-defense and fitness, that's a great place to start.

Comments are encouraged, especially if any of you want to come out as fight fans yourselves.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cheap-O Kitchen: Playing the Mandolin

The mandolin slicer may seem like a professional chef's tool, but don't be intimidated. The mandolin that I'm going to recommend is NOT a big shiny metal contraption that requires an instruction sheet to set up and operate. In this case, we're going to skip the bells and whistles and go for utility. In most kitchens, clutter equals frustration, so less is more.

Why do you need a mandolin? Well, you may not. If you've got Iron Chef Morimoto knife skills, then you might be able to cut uniform razor thin zucchini chips. Or, you might know how to julienne the perfect match-stick veggies for an immaculate salad of winter CSA produce. If you can't do those things easily with a knife and cutting board, then you need a mandolin. In fact, you may need a mandolin just in case you want to make scalloped potatoes that aren't from a box for once. To heck with the high brow cuisine. Hell, let's just make quick work of the onions for once in our lives.

The Swissmar Mandolin is super minimalist; all sturdy plastic except for some very deadly sharp German steel blades. When I bought mine, it $21.99 with free shipping. Some days, Amazon has it on sale, and other days it's full price. Either way, the purchase is worth every penny. It's the most popular mandolin on Amazon.com and the reviews are stellar. Now, you can get a lesser brand for under $10, but the reviews say it isn't sharp enough.

Sure, it's dishwasher safe, but all you have to do is rinse it and it's clean. There's even this thingy that holds the veggie (or meat product, if you must) so you don't mandolin the tips of you fingers off (really important!). And when you're not using your mandolin, just slide it into its plastic sleeve and toss it into the forgotten appliance cupboard.

So, is this hand operated slicer adjustable for thickness? Right, like you're really gonna use that feature. But, since you asked, it can be set for 1/8" or 1/4" slices and there are two widths of julienne sticks. Here's a little recipe to make you jump up and smack yourself that you've never done this before now:

MF'n Tater Chips

  • do a bunch of 1/8" potato slices
  • heat a couple table spoons of olive oil in a skillet
  • lay the slices on the pan and sprinkle with salt
  • flip the slices when they're golden on one side (and sprinkle more salt)
  • place slices (now chips) on a paper towel when they "look good enough to eat"

That wasn't hard, was it? Aren't those the best potato chips you've ever had? Next time, try sprinkling your favorite spices (pepper, cayenne, garlic powder). This is coming from a guy who thinks tortilla chips are for the mensa select and potato chips are for everyone else. These fresh skillet chips are amazing and they'll keep you from dropping $4 per bag of even less healthy Kettle Chips. Feel free to call them by another acronym than the one I've chosen.

In a bonafide food blog, a foodie crowed about her mandolin. One of the commenters chimed in with a suggestion that I'm fixin to whip up at my house. Tell'em bout it Erika from 2004:

I use my mandoline all the time to make julienned zucchini. The thin julienne, sauteed very briefly (just until the skin turns bright green and it starts to relax, 2-3 minutes at most) is a wonderful spaghetti substitute, especially in tomato or cheese sauces. It's also good if you add in some thinly sliced onions. It's pretty good with sesame-peanut sauce, too.

By the way. In case you noticed that I've chosen to drop the "e" from mandonline, I've seen it both ways (sometimes in the same product description) and I think every little bit counts in the attempt to take this kitchen gadget down a few pegs and bring it into the common kitchen. The professional grade metal monster is a "mandolineen", but the plastic thing from Amazon or Marshalls is your favorite slicer. Remember that.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Can you see the real me, Blogthing? BLOGTHING!

It's funny how these online assessments reduce a person to a category. As I answered the 25 questions, I thought I was painting a picture of the consummate renaissance man; part philosopher, part socialite, with a real Emersonian naturalist streak. I guess saying that I would enjoy a long walk in the woods on one question negates all of the answers that should have indicated my diplomatic and well adjusted tendencies. Well, I guess the BLOGTHING has somehow seen the real me, and this is it:




Your Dominant Intelligence is Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence



You are naturally athletic and coordinated, good at making your mind and body work together.

Sports are fun and easy for you, especially those requiring good hand - eye coordination.

There's also a good chance you're a great dancer, or good at expressing yourself through body language.

You learn best by doing, and you feel like you've always got to be moving (even if it's just your hands).



You would make a good athlete, physical education teaches, dancer, actor, firefighter, or artisan.



Thank you, Earth2Karen, for "intrapersonal" inspiration. Now, I dare you all to try and get this song by The Who out of your head!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cheap-O Kitchen: Immersion blenders

Some of the best kitchen gadgets, appliances, and cookware can be had for cheap. With this sporadic installment piece, I'm going to compile an annotated list of some of the items that I reach for in my kitchen almost every day, and I'll include instructions on where/how to get these must-haves without breaking the bank. (plus a few recipes)

The immersion blender: Fewer dishes to clean, more sauces to slurp, silky soups, forget all bottled salad dressings.

I hate cleaning my countertop blender, transferring soups into and out of it, taking it apart, and trying to find all the pieces in the dishwasher. I get all the more irritated when I'm only making a little bit of puree and I have to involve an enormous complicated appliance. With an immersion blender (or hand blender), I blend without hesitation, making smoothies right in the cup I'm going to drink from, and with the satisfaction that this appliance was less than $14.

I was an immersion virgin until I went to my grandmother's house and saw that she had a Thunderstick. Remove thoughts of innuendo from your brain, please. She had purchased it from an infomercial that I'd seen a few times (and I've got this compulsion to try everything that I see on TV). When I cooked a hippy-dippy vegetarian feast for my family, she let me experiment with this nifty blender.

At the end of that visit, I was trying to convince her to let me take the Thunderstick home. The next Christmas, she sent it to me cuz she never really used it. Over the course of two or three years, I wore the Thunderstick out. It was powerful and had loads of curious attachments (mostly unnecessary). When I needed a new one, I considered the high end and low end, and everything in between (but not the Thunderstick, cuz it had been discontinued).

Emeril calls his immersion blender a "boatmotor" and makes a big production every time he uses it. But the best thing about immersion blenders is that using one at home is not a big production at all. My favorite technique is to grab a tall and slender plastic measuring cup (at least 2 cups in volume - see the Thunderstick pic) and throw my sauce/dressing ingredients in (try tahini, garlic, lemon juice, water and salt). Then I just stick the blender down in the cup and wiz it around, moving the blade from bottom to top and back. After it's done, I can pour the smooth sauce straight out of the cup and simply hold the dirty end of the blender under running water for a second and it's clean.

The next best use for an immersion blender is to stick it into a pot of soup (or a sauce that's at least an inch or so deep - hint: you can tilt the pan to submerge the blender blade) and a few pulses will turn your concotion into a smooth puree. But be careful to keep it submerged so you don't spray hot soup everywhere. Also, if you get an immersion blender with a metal blade-cage, then you can't use it with a non-stick pan or enameled cast iron. But, the Proctor Silex and the Braun model are both plastic and safe to use with teflon. Some say the plastic models can't be used over heat (but you can afford to turn the burner off long enough to blend, right?).

Here's a suggestion for a quick and simple mock-stock
:
  • saute onions, celery, carrots until tender
  • add water and simmer while adding some seasoning (bullion? garlic powder?)
  • turn off the heat and put the immersion blender in and blend all around the pot until every lump is gone and it's a uniform consistency
I'm not French. I don't keep stock in the freezer and I'm not paying $4 per quart for the stuff. What are your favorite uses for an immersion blender? This being the first installment in this series, I'm still feeling out this "consumer corner for frugal foodies." Here's a tip, next time you're about to buy a book at Amazon.com, pick one that has free shipping and costs at least $11. In order to qualify for the free shipping, you have to spend $25. Bam! as Emeril would say. Throw in an immersion blender and you're in business. You could go for a more expensive model, but the extra power and attachments don't really warrent spending $35-$119, when you can drop less than $14 on this one. Consumer Reports and Cooks Illustrated both agree with me, but I can' t link to their reviews, cuz you have to pay for a subscription for their online content. But, epinions is FREE and participatory.

Other uses:
  • Froth your hot chocolate. Mmmmm...
  • Arthritic? Use this to beat eggs, etc.
  • Smooth out your chunky salsa.
  • Mix up your protein shakes and infuse them with supplements.
  • Give your ears a break. This thing is quiet and blenders are awfully loud.
  • Whipped cream! I hate the stuff. But this will whip it for you.
  • Mashed potatoes. Go ahead and cheat yourself out of a tricep workout.
  • Don't try to crush ice with it. That's was this is for.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bargain Hunting in Anna Nicole's Footsteps

A couple weeks ago, I went to the Vitamin Shoppe* and raided their clearance section. Before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed two bottles of Trimspa Ultra. "Hey, why are these only $0.50?" Then I checked the expiration date. "Oh, they expire tomorrow." The clerk raised her eyebrows. "Well, I guess I'll just have to take them all tonight then."

The clerk knew I was joking and answered my questions about their reduced price whey protein, saying that the clearance section is made up of discontinued items and expired items. When it's expiring soon, the discount is really high (usually 75%). If it's discontinued, then they start at 25% and slowly work their way up until it's all gone. We haggled for a minute and then I took eight bottles of Muscle Milk away for $4.

The Muscle Milk is all gone now. I actually mixed it with cold coffee and pretended it was a coolata, or frappaspresso, or mochachino, or whatever. Not bad stuff, curbed my appetite, and I actually did some exercise to direct the amino acids in the right directions. In fact, I'm tearing through several different supplements that were deeply discounted, expired, and/or simply unproven to result in any health benefits.

*The next time you need a supplement, or an expensive natural item (besides produce), you might want to resist the temptation to go to Ellwoods. I bought 0.45 oz of Oreganol at Ellwoods for $33, but the Vitamine Shoppe had it for $22, plus their own store brand in a larger size for $16. Um, can you say, "Goodbye snobby hippies." The local store vs. big box chain debate will be saved for another time.

This Trimspa is wacky stuff. Something is clearly going on as a result of each pill that I've taken. First of all, I am not the slightest bit concerned about the expiration date. That's just a gimmick to make you throw it out and go by more at the regular price of $34.99 per bottle. No thanks. At $0.50 a bottle, I'd be losing money if I didn't take the stuff. Besides, it's really a sell-by date and not a use-by date, right? So, after reading up on some Amazon reviews, I popped one before breakfast. And then before lunch, dinner and... well, I've gotten off schedule about these "little purple pills" (they're pink, actually) because they kinda sent me into orbit around Saturn. But, I'm back now.

The results? First of all, this Trimspa includes Hoodia. I think that's a South American cactus derivative that's supposed to make you eat less. And the list goes on. These pills have a slew of "natural" appetite suppressants and fat-burners, like green tea extract (increases metabolism by 4%), as well as grapefruit extract (no idea), and caffeine (about a 1/2 a cup of coffee's worth). Basically, I'm experiencing intermittent bouts of low-level mania, constant teeth grinding, and a strangely fluctuating appetite (instead of simply gorging myself three times a day).

The biggest trouble for me is figuring out when I can afford to spin like top after a a Trimspa pill and when I need to hold onto my inner still point. And then there's the coffee. I can't stand to combine stimulants, so I won't take Trimspa in the AM too often anymore. Which means that I'm basically taking one pill every other day or so, which is probably for the best. Of course, the reviews all conclude that you only see results if you take three per day like clockwork. Even though I'm bucking the system a bit, it's not a bad thing, cuz many of the potential side effects listed here are kinda serious and I don't wanna follow in Anna Nicole's footsteps. One thing's for sure, I'm not going to weigh myself and give you a status report. You'll just have to go out and do this experiment yourself if you're really curious. But, do be careful.

Until then, BEEFCAKE!!! Ommmmmmmm... BEEFCAAAAAKE!!!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

FREE Yoga Class Ruined by SUV

This is a story of serenity... interrupted. My wife is attending prenatal yoga classes and she's really liking it. She tells me that she wishes that we could take class together, but no boys allowed among the bulging babes. Luckily, Karen forwarded an email to me about FREE yoga classes at her school, where in-training instructors hone their skills while penny-pinching bohos, like me, contort ourselves into a connection with our inner deities.

No, I'm not going to tell you where/when the free yoga class takes place. The room was filled to the brim and I hope to find a space next week. However, a little web sleuthing will probably lead you to the low down (or you can go to my profile and email me). The real news here is that YOGA IS GOOD and probably worth the $8-12 per class (even with a student teacher). I have pushed dietary advice and exercise in this space before, but yoga is something that can truly expand your horizons, if you haven't experienced it before.

As our trainer in-training made her way to the front of the class, I couldn't help noticing that she was a nearly featureless toothpick of a person, clearly one with the practice of asceticism. For a free class, I probably shouldn't complain about only getting 1/3 of an instructor, but how is this lady supposed to relate to me when her waistline is the square root of mine? Seriously though, she paced the class nicely, gave insightful instructions, skipped a minor detail here and there, and ultimately brought us all to the height of nirvana (more on that later).

Since I'm perpetually on the brink of unhealth, even though this was an intro class, the poses made me sweat, fall over, slouch instead of lengthening my spine, and I almost farted like three times. Yes, all of that updog, downdog, and twisting of the core is not only invaluable to your respiration and circulation, the movements will aid in digestion - public be damned. This kind of thing isn't a problem when following along with a DVD of Rodney Yee in my living room, but face to face classes offer more community interaction and impetus to suppress bodily functions.

Fortunately, after about 45 minutes of connected breathing and challenging the elasticity of my muscles, I had transcended many of my usual worldly distractions (and bathroom humor) and achieved a meditative state not unlike exhaustion. This was when the instructor had each of us unfold a blanket over our yoga mats. Yes, it was time for "corpse pose" (also known as nap time).
Now, I've never experienced savasana with a blanket over top of the tacky rubber mat, but I was grateful to be in a deeply relaxed state no matter where I was. As we each assumed the death position on our backs, with our arms at our sides and palms facing up, my mind wandered to sights and sounds of the recent past. One the images that lingered in my mind was the serene face of Marlo Stansfield as he closed the eyes of his mentor, Proposition Joe, just as his hitman Chris prepared to fire a gun into the back of Joe's head. If you've seen this episode of The Wire, you know how haunting that moment was. Yes, I was certainly slipping away into oblivion; hopefully a round trip.

There were other dreams and epiphanies that rose to the surface and faded away, but none so creepy. After some time passed, I began to be conscious of my breath (was I snoring?) and I heard my instructor's voice again. She told us to hold onto the "still point" that we had discovered within ourselves and to try and carry that with us into our day. For me, the combination of physical exertion and meditation created a mild euphoria and increased value for my fragile mortality. In other words, it felt like I'd found my still point for the first time. Having ridden my bicycle to the yoga studio, I was really looking forward to the sensation of pedaling and floating along with my newfound inner peace.

On my way home, my still point and I turned onto Robinson Street and I carried that fragile thing carefully like a carton of eggs atop a grocery bag. We were both really looking forward to a blissed out conversation with my wife and some mindful eating of leftovers. At Robinson and Idlewood, I stopped at the red light, hoping for a break in the cross traffic to slip through the intersection. But, I had to patiently wait for some cars to turn in front of me as I eased into the intersection. Behind me, a SUV creeped up on my back tire, sending an intimidating message. There was only one lane, so I stood in the way of the SUV's right on red. They'd have to wait until the coast was clear for me to proceed through the unorthodox intersection (somewhat illegally, although I'm not a geeky bike rider who thinks he's a car). Then, the SUV driver layed on the horn just as I got out of their way. A woman leaned her head out of the SUV cursing up a storm as she turned right onto Idlewood. I snapped out of my trance and instinctively responded with a middle finger and upped the ante on her swear word salad.

Goodbye still point. Hello car culture.

What a welcome back to the real world. I'm won't go into a justification for the defensiveness of bicyclists trying to fend for themselves amid blaring horns and tons of steel flying every which way. It's not a human rights campaign that we relish waging, although the joy of bike riding is worth fighting for. It's just a disappointment, because I thought my transcendent state would at least make it through lunch. But, it's a temperamental world and I can only expect to declare my independence from hot-headed social interactions intermittently. This was no Piccola's debacle, but it was a little bit jarring.

If you've read this far, then you deserve something more substantially insightful (and uplifting to boot!) than what you've found here. Check out Frank Rich's NY Times breakdown of an election between McCain/Obama and it includes loads of Virginia history references. If you want to comment about it, please put your two cents onto the ongoing primary debate going on here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Five Dips for the Baby Shower (w/recipes)

Karen is busy constructing party favors and activities for our upcoming March 1st baby shower and just when I started to feel guilty, she asked what kind of food I wanted to serve. "Uuuuummmmm, finger food, right?" Her head nods with condescending eyebrows raised. "Ummm, I'm going to make... five different dips." Genuine surprised expression. "Any requests?"

There's no need to continue the dialog. I know what my wife likes, so let's cut to the chase. Here's what I'm probably going to make:

JalapeƱo pesto


-2 cups of raw almonds
-3 jalapeƱos (no seeds)
-1/2 red onion
-1 cup nutritional yeast
-1/3 cup olive oil
-salt and pepper to taste

Blanch the almonds to loosen the skins. Squeeze each one and toss the brown almond skins. Place everything in the food processor and blend just short of a puree. Pray that the onion you chose isn't overly strong. This is the only vegan dip on this list. Serve with crackers.

Olive hummus
If you don't know how to make hummus, go to this link for a traditional recipe. Half-way through the blending, toss in a 1/2 cup of your favorite flavor of pitted olives (green, black, kalamata, whatev) and a few dashes of tamari or soy sauce (maybe a minced chili as well, if spicy is your thing). Cut a bunch of pita pockets into eighths and bake for 6-7 minutes at 250. Dip away and win over some hummus doubters with this tasty perversion of a classic.

Parma-fennel spread
Steam a chopped up fennel bulb for 20 minutes. Throw it in the food processor with a half cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, 1/4 cup of olive oil, a couple cloves of roasted garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. If it's too think, add some dairy (cream, milk, half'n'half). Serve with thinly sliced baguette (maybe toasted).

White salsa (La Casita R.I.P)
In Vino Veritas posted about having withdrawal from this mediocre restaurant's exceptional white salsa. Since Karen and I have also always liked the stuff, we posted a breakdown of our version of that dip in Vino's comments section. Serve with chips and try to resist pouring it on everything.

Mole flavored cheese dip
Put a 16 ounce bag of shredded "mexican cheese" (jack, cheddar, etc) into a bowl and stir in part of a jar of mole sauce (any that looks good to you from the local latino grocery or southwestern section of the big chain supermarket. Here's a couple examples.) Don't overdo it. A couple tablespoons may be all you want. Stir it all together and microwave it. Have tortilla chips at the ready. It will be ugly as sin, but ponderously palatable. If it's not runny enough, stir in a little sour cream.


Let me know if you try any of these recipes. I typed most of these from memory, so adjustments and/or improvements are always appreciated. I'll let you all know how it goes on March 1st. There's a good chance I might get lazy and replace one of these dips with a jar of delicious Frontera salsa and make something like this.
-----------------

Now, I know that the grandparents are supposed to distribute baby registry info, but I don't play that. We're registered at Amazon.com. Perpetually unrealistic, I had the nerve to put an expensive Blendtec blender on there (like a Vitamix) for making babyfood and green smoothies to ensure that my son and I live forever. Assuming that no one buys the blender for us, I'm probably going to attempt some kind of fund raiser (like a cookbook sale - thinning our our stockpile, and maybe a follow-up smoothie brunch for investors). See my profile for my email address if you want to help me work through these ideas.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

This is a Comments Mandatory Blog

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, this blog received between 100-120 visits per day. For me, this is exciting. Even better: My most recent post about the VA primary produced an avalanche of comments and has fueled some stimulating (and ongoing) dialog between Richmonders. However, rather than simply rejoicing in increased traffic and the stimulating exchange of ideas, I tend to focus on the voices who are not present and pine for their participation (is that you?). Maybe, my inner busybody just wants to know who's reading. Yeah, I know, yall have jobs and can't contribute to every site you peruse. I'm the same way. But, what if you had no choice? What if you had to pledge to leave a thoughtful comment every time you entered a blog or at least leave a rating for the quality/utility of the content?

Welcome to my fantasy: A comments mandatory blog.

When I first saw the debate sparked by Preston Yancy about certain bloggers refusing comments on their sites (overflowing with raw opinions to make you cry, unlike the caramelized variety), my reaction was that it's a matter of prerogative or personal property. A person's soapbox is his/her castle. Nuff said. Don't like it. Don't read it. However, after laboring over a few posts, receiving minimal feedback, and not feeling content in the act of creation alone, I'm wondering if there is any way to maximize feedback, debate, and discussion. I mean, there is no subscription fee for any of the RVABlogs that I'm aware of. So, how do any of us know if our blog is legitimately popular, an utter disappointment, or a service to the community? Disallowing comments may be the ticket to an insider job under a likewise undemocratic despot, but what about those of us who prefer two-way (or multi-directional) communication? Or better yet, there's something to be said for just standing back and letting better informed readers fill in the blanks. (JB, I know you can take that ribbing)

Unlike Ebay, where sellers/buyers are critiqued through a reputation system, Craigslist users generally operate on trust in humanity (counterbalanced by a profit motive), despite a high level of vulnerability. Is that what we have to accept as bloggers: that our sentiments are likely to garner minimal unmeasurable returns in the exchange? The democratic system of voting empowers us only so often. Shouldn't we consider it our obligation to weigh in early and often whenever a public forum is made available? Are you all not as compulsive about this as I am? Okay, some of you are and I wish you'd cease and desist, but attention getting behavior is a double-edged sword, ain't it?

Opinions are like... blogs. Everyone's got one. Well, almost.

In reality, blogger traffic in Richmond is really unrepresentative of the City's population. And then there's the hard to pin down "unique" visitor factor, which further diminishes our relevance. I mean, does anyone read blogs besides bloggers? I'm beginning to wonder. Can you expect a fellow blogger to chime in on your post if they've already got their own soapbox?

Personally, I'm in no position to turn the mandatory comments blog into a reality. I don't even know how to install the appropriate widgets that would make this site more user friendly. If I had a listing of all of the restaurants mentioned on this site, I'd probably be motivated to get back to the frugal food-blogging idea that gave birth to the RVA Foodie pseudonym and grow that list of eateries.

WILL WORK FOR COMMENTS

Okay, before I trail off into mumbling, I'd like to point out that my unique invention: Grilled Ramen has been the biggest attraction to this site to date (thanks to consistent international traffic from a feature on "the Official Ramen Homepage."). However, I have not quit my job to retire to the Bahamas thanks to revenues from my tender-crisp creation (cuz there are none to speak of). In fact, as of today, I've only attracted 11 comments to that post, and two of them were my own. Using the How much is your blog worth tool, it turns out that Caramelized Opinions is worth $9,597.18. I have no idea what that figure means (how many packages of ramen is that anyway?), or where I might go to cash in, but I'd actually trade every penny of that potential in exchange for your two cents. That's right. I want to virtually lift every voice in Richmond through this site's many comment sections.

Has there ever been a more earnest post than this one? I'm sure that I've left numerous openings for your criticism, included confounding contradictions, and maybe inspired a few laughs. But, I did it all for the comments. Kid gloves are called for here. But, if your hackles aren't all the way up, maybe there's something worth saying in response. You make the call. But remember, if you have 10 thoughts, give one thought, and comment 'til it hurts.

ps: The comment Nazi says, "No blog for you!"

Monday, February 11, 2008

Why and How RVA MUST VOTE in the Primary

Where to vote and why I'm voting. First, here's the how to: a link to your poling place where you go to vote. Do it early and prepare some zingers for the exit polling people. Tell them that you are most motived by both the war AND the economy, because they're the same issue. See if that tiny bit of complex thought registers in the media.

Here's a primer on Virginia's primary from the Daily Press.

Below, you'll find my thinking about the two races (with a surprise ending, stay tuned).

REPUBLICANS:

Although I am diametrically opposed to the Republican platform, I've tried my best to pay attention to their machinations. McCain has it locked up, they say. Personally, I'm having trouble seeing how that happened. At age 72, he's really not very inspiring anymore - barely able to belt out a slogan, much less a stump speech. His days of pushing a reform agenda to the forefront of the Republican party, really seem behind him. I mean, considering all of the backsliding he has done under Bush, who is John McCain anymore? Under his presidency, I think we'd see many of the same faces in his cabinet as we have currently (Iran-Contra insiders and their ilk). McCain no longer projects a strong vision, following his misdirected party, rather than fighting for his principles from within. So, a vote for McCain, is a vote for more of the same, in my opinion.

Now, I understand if people have been voting for McCain this time around because it's finally his turn and maybe the right wing feels guilty for not having given him a chance while he was young enough to survive a term as president. It's sort of a tribute send-off in a general election that Republicans know they deserve to lose. So, letting McCain take the hit makes sense, because he's the ghost of Republican past; what could have been. Why waste Romney on a losing election when his perfect tan still has as decent shelf life? Now, I don't know how all of them got the memo on this strategy, but it seems like they've made the best play, while using this primary season to rearrange the identity of their party. I'm afraid, that McCain's landslide represents the perspective that everything is going hunky-dory and so, why not vote for the most familiar guy who's proven he can carry water for party ideologues.

DEMOCRATS:

Back in 1992, I worked on the Clinton campaign in Fairfax County and wore a campaign shirt that said, "Clinton: The Cure for the Blues." Ever since then, I've been slowly backing away from Bill, feeling sorry for Hillary, and wondering if the Democratic party would ever find its spine. Now, I'm glad that Hillary Clinton has transcended the debacle of her public domestic snafu, and took her place in the political history of the US as a leader, independent of her two term president husband. And I'm not one who would begrudge her the presidency because of her relationship to Bill. Nonetheless, Hillary is not the future of the Democratic party. She is too far removed from her own ideals (in bed with big pharma and insurance companies, etc), and her public beatings at the hands of the right wing mark a low point in American politics. Let's not go there again (as we most certainly would see if she headed up the Dem's ticket).

When Obama/Clinton showed up in Richmond this weekend, Barack had taken the momentum from Hillary with three Saturday primaries and I found myself ready to post an Obama yard sign out front. I didn't attend the event. Obama-mania has been a feeling that I've felt coming on since Edwards' campaign failed to get off the ground. I dunno how to put my finger on it, but Obama seems to have a big picture about politics that I don't think you'll find in the other candidates. He can and does see disputes from both sides, uses his arguments to straddle the "two Americas" that Edwards talks about, and seems most equipped to repair the damage done by the two Bush terms (and maybe Bill's mistakes with wellfare reform, etc). Hillary Clinton was too much a part of too many past messes for me to feel excited about her.

The media likes to say that Clinton is "polarizing", but if that's true, then Obama is too. Obama/Clinton's positions on most issues are about the same. So, what's the difference? It's almost as if the media just learned this word. Clinton isn't polarizing. She just inspires negativity (although, I don't share the common knee jerk reaction about her). Obama is more of a diffuser and a motivator. Not only are these better leadership qualities, they will deliver a bigger margin of victory in the general election. And isn't that what this whole primary business is about? Putting together a winning ticket?

No. It's about ideas. Vote your hopes, not your fears, right? That's what the Nader campaigns of the past always said. The 1000 plus people who attended the Nader speaking event at the Byrd on Sunday would probably attest that he's got more ideas for changing America for the better than both Democratic candidates put together. But, who's gonna work with him at this point? As much as I like the guy, I'd rather him focus on informing the grassroots where people can trickle-up their awareness to BOTH parties. In other words, "Ralph, please try a new strategy for the 2008 election."

Speaking of ideas, here's one that may be a little half-baked and over-simplified, but I believe it all the same:

RICHMOND NEEDS BARACK OBAMA.

Why? The City of Richmond, a Democratic party stronghold, is divided on racial lines, lives in two (if not more) separate universes, and we desperately need to pull together and find common cause. A black democrat for president can be a catalyst for collaboration - not a panacea - but I believe Barack Obama's campaign for president can make a difference in the racial dynamic of Richmond. Imagine if Richmonders were all saying "Yes, we can" instead of looking sideways at each other.

Call me a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

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Now that the results are in and Obama has won Virginia with 65% of the votes (more than Clinton, McCain, and Huckabee combined!): I am going to compile some of my favorite local analysis right here:

Friday, February 08, 2008

V-Day Alternatives to Richmond's Restaurant Romance Racket

My coworker was telling me about the difficulty of getting a Valentine's Day reservation for dinner. She feels like she needs to decide now to beat the rush and start budgeting for the big splurge, ehem, I mean, outpouring of love. For me, this doesn't quite compute, because I usually cook something (and I hate holiday gimmicks). Last year, I made heart shaped tuna carpaccio (pink!), a la Eric Ripert.

Regardless of whether you stay in or go out, I feel like the specialness of the night is enhanced by the right combination of food n'tude and not by how much you spend or how fancy you dress. After all, V-Day is about being together rather than buying distractions.

So (if you're not a stickler for ambiance) here are a few places that may inspire sentimentality while steering clear of the romance racket.

-Royal India
This place may be the best Indian restaurant in Richmond (if you're not hung up on India K'Raja) and it might even have a degree of romantic atmosphere. Be sure to try one of the many paneer (cheese) dishes and anything with a sauce that sounds creamy (like shahi). Another fave is the fish pakora appetizer.

-Cool Breeze Chaathouse
A few doors down from Royal India, the same owner runs the Cool Breeze Chaat House. Never been to a chaat house? Here you can casually lounge inside or out sampling little plates of snacky Indian treats and swilling lassi libations. Lots of potential for eye-gazing and hand-grazing while digging into shared jumbles of curried goodies. A nice informal prelude to a movie or a good strategy for leaving room for ice cream or gelatto.

-Vietnam One
If you've tried one pho noodle house, you've tried them all, right? That's what I thought until I visited Vietnam 1 (having tried many of its' previous incarnations). The inside is tidy, but not appropriate for "setting the mood." What is special here is the food. The real discovery for me are the jicama rolls. It's the ubiquitous (and awesome) soft rice paper wrapped "summer roll," but the noodles have been swapped for threaded jicama. How very Atkins appropriate. The grilled meats (or tofu) over broken rice is beautiful, delicious, and plentiful. Of course the pho is good too, but it's not date food, unless your really comfortable together (slurp!). Plus, you don't have to wait in the always crammed Pho So 1.

-Taqueria del Sol
If I'm a broken record about this, then I've finally gotten it right. Start with an horchata and two straws. Then, split a shrimp cocktail and a side of guac. If you're not prim and propper eaters, dip a chip into the guac and then plunk a shrimp down on top with a bit of that coctail gazpacho soupiness. Mmmm, this might just be an aphrodisiac. Next, order a couple homemade tortilla sopes or gorditas of different varieties (meat or grilled veggies or mix'n'match). Your other half might order the ceviche or the enchiladas con mole poblano or tacos al pastor (although you'll be getting kinda full at this point). Theses dishes will be so successful as to deplete almost all of your erogenous energy right there at the dinner table. Taqueria del Sol even makes fried ice cream better than everywhere else.

-The Phoenician:
This place has bonafied romantic ambiance: Lebanese in the casbah. Plus, they're brand new (eager to please) and it'll feel good to spread the love by throwing your support to a new food endeavor. You can go cheap with a couple apps and split an entree or splurge on an enormous mezze spread. If you hit it up, lemme know how you liked it. I can only vouch for the hummus and falafel. (4400 block of W. Broad)

-8 1/2
Get some take out and get on the couch with your sweetie. If you both get garlic breath, neither of you is allowed to act all offended.

-Cajun Bankok
This place is gonna make you swoon with their thai style she-crab soup and their coconut appetizer. Beyond this, you'll get things heated up with etoufee on just about every main dish. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Again, share the love with a fledgeling Carytown restaurant and finish with a stiff drink at Can Can.

Even as I write this, my wife is trying to convince me that "girls want ambiance on Valentines Day," but the amor does not have to be all about the benjamins. Nonetheless, if these options strike your fancy, put yourself in the hands of Ms. Timberlake at Style. I think you'll be back here eventually, but that weekly rag often has stuff that you really oughta read. Of course, please feel free to post your ideas here as well.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Debating Style Weekly's Environmentalism Tactics

At J's Notes, I chimed in with my disapproval about Style pulling their support from the Richmond's Environmental Film Festival. Then, Jason Roop, of Style Weekly clarified the position of his paper here and here. And today, Style cover story is a feature about John Wade. This dust-up is certainly getting it's due. I'm hoping that the main idea isn't lost in the shuffle, because Richmond has a chance to start an annual tradition and deepen our city's environmental ethics.

Other media also focused on Wade. He's featured on Richmond.com. For those concerned about supporting a "terrorist", I think you can see that the man has chosen a campaign of ideas, words, and images - powerful tools that should not inspire fear. If you want to support education over property destruction as a tactic, your attendance at one of this weekend's movies is a great way to weigh in. When the mountains of Southwest VA are having their ridges detonated and laid to waste in pursuit of coal, taking in a movie and/or speaking event is probably in order.

Oh yeah... Ralph Nader is going to be at the Byrd too. Another man who inspires mixed emotions because of the kinds of campaigns he's chosen. He is also generally without remorse (I discovered this when I urged him not to run for prez in 2004, after having supported him in 2000 - don't hit me). And yet, the "green giant" is still a hero of mine. We parted ways on some stuff, but there is still plenty we can agree to work on together. Hopefully, Richmond will grant John Wade the same consideration or at least a bunch of us will decide to look at "The Biggest Picture" rather than focusing on one man.

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After reading the the Style feature story "Wade's War," I want to recommend it. It's an informative story that contributes important context for those who are pining for the details of our beloved Short Pump under seige. For the time being, I would prioritize reading the epic piece right behind hearing Larry Gibson speak (on Sunday 3:30pm at the Byrd) about the mountain range around his home being leveled by Dominion Virginia Power.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Trader Joe's in Richmond: CONFIRMED

According to the Trader Joe's website, Trader Joe' s is "coming soon to Richmond, VA." Thanks to my coworker's sleuthing, I broke this story a week or so ago before TJ's updated their coming soon list (and before the Times-Disgrace).

My previous piece, and its fruitful comments section, brought up a lot of speculation about sprawl, consumerism, UKraps, ecstatic hooting and hollering, and questions about how far is too far to travel for a bargain. Let's continue that discussion, because we've got at least a few months until we need to further congestify Short Pump with our gourmet fetishism.

By the way, we're not the only ones on I-95 clamoring for our Trader Joe's fix with a side of Whole Foods. Another big box monstrosity called Central Park is lobbying hard in Fredericksburg. They say Charlottesville was supposed to get one too. Maybe Short Pump was a compromise. I'm wondering if it'll even be the same old Trader Joe's by the time we start seeing one between every Five Below and Kohls. Anyhow, just wondering. No more negative nancy from me. Back to the party.

(can you tell that my spell checker is broken?)
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Update: The RTD has finally gotten the scoop: summer/fall opening, "fragmentation" of grocery store market, disintegration of civilized society, and healthy/tasty products at unholy affordable prices (sorry Ukrops).

Richmond's Two Newest Falafels

In the past week or so, I've had a falafel from two new middle eastern eateries in Richmond. Now, I'm a bit of a completest when it comes to falafel. If a place is serving something and they're calling it a falafel, then I feel compelled to try it, and then rank it on my falafel spectrum of tastiness. For instance, Aladin's is a 9.5 (see my previous post on their pita paradise wrapped in foil) and the same (but oh so different) sandwich from Mediterranean Bakery and Deli also scores highly. The pita pocket sandwich that I once had at the chain restaurant, Pita Pit, was clearly made from a mix of dried ingredients. They even asked me what kind of cheese I wanted on the it and they didn't have tahini sauce. They scored a 2 out of 10.

But there's more to this system than a simple authenticity test. Not every restaurateur of middle eastern decent serves up decent falafel. And not every bohemian sandwich maker screws up their pita sandwiches (feel free to chime in on this). Some of my favorite falafels are at places like Harrison Street Coffee Shop near VCU and Sammy T's in Fredericksburg. However, when it comes to the real complex flavors of a well seasoned falafel ball, I do tend to put my money on places that also sell baba ganouj and brandish hookas along the walls.

Last week, I stopped in at the new place on Meadow, near Broad Street. It's called the Mediterranean Market. Inside, I was greeted by Abraham, a really friendly guy who used to work at Aladins. This was a good sign. On that day, I had already eaten and was just browsing. However, I did decide to take home some goodies for my wife (tabouli, halva, canned stuffed grape leaves, and pita chips). When I got to the register, Abraham had a falafel ball waiting for me. He said, "Still vegetarian, right? You will love my falafel." And I did.

It was sitting on a plate in a little pool of tahini sauce. The crunchiness was impressive. I could see whole fennel seeds in the crust and the insides were moist and lumpy with the remnants of chick peas. Not bad at all. The tahini sauce was also seasoned with something extra, but I couldn't tell what. I prefer more lemon juice in my sauce, but most traditional falafel's have a pretty plain tahini sauce going on. At this point, I'm not sure if I can rate the falafel, because I haven't had it served as a sandwich (I never order the "platter" version). But, what I've tasted so far is pretty exciting. Plus, the house tabouli is fantastic. Lots of lemon and parsley, just the way Karen likes it.

So, do yourself a favor and support this new market while you wait for Trader Joe's to materialize. And then, keep going back cuz Abraham deserves your support. In fact, order a sandwich and a side and maybe some Turkish coffee and then sit at the table by the window and watch the comings and goings at 7-11. Inner peace will soon follow.

The next falafel came from The Phoenician, a Lebanese restaurant which has replaced La Casita in the 4400 block of W. Broad St. A coworker and I popped by to get some take out while on lunch break. The place looks fancy! I mean, it is awash in red tapestries that spiral to the ceiling and the lighting is intimate. Not really suited for lunch take out, either. We sat in the lounge area looking over the menu and narrowed our focus to the sandwiches. They had falafel, so I order it. Of course, they had shwarma and lamb kababs, etc. And don't even get me started about their list of entrees and specials, cuz I don't wanna get off topic by talking about the $45 Mezza plate.

My coworker ordered a strange sounding cheese appetizer to go along with his falafel. They gave us styrofoam containers, which was instantly off putting for me. I mean, what's wrong with a foil wrapped falafel? No fries come with these pitas, anyhow. Once back at the office, we opened up the boxes and found a beautiful scene of hummus adorned with diced tomato, onions, and parsley and swimming in olive oil. There were fried pita chips as well strewn around, and of course, a fairly large falafel pita wrapped in foil. Not bad for $5.00.

The humus was great; garlicky, lemony, and oily. My fave. The falafel balls were also really good, featuring lots of seasoning, but not quite enough tahini for my taste. When I finished, I was singing the praises of the Phoenician. The falafel-o-meter gives it: 8/10 for the falafel and 9/10 if the accouterments are taken into account.

Now, about that cheese. I wish I could remember the name of the stuff. Wow, was it strong. And unfamiliar tasting too. Really, I couldn't handle more than two bites. Same for my friend. It wasn't haloumi (which was also on the menu). I'll be getting that next time instead of this stuff.

At any rate, the Phoenician surprised and pleased. You can eat cheaply there, but not if you really want to experience the Lebanese full treatment. Appetizers start at $5 and so do sandwiches. But, maybe that's all you need for lunch anyhow. As for the entrees, tune in next time, cuz I'm headed back for dinner.