Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

There are many different types of cookbooks. The most basic type is a collection of recipes, presumably built around some theme. Another type is the picture book, filled with pages of pictures of beautiful gourmet dishes. Then there are the celebrity chefs, with books that promise something akin to what you can get from their restaurants, or results like their TV shows. I have one cookbook that is basically a travelogue, beckoning the reader to distant exotic lands. But the one that every household is supposed to have, is the big, basic cookbook. The one that has a general range and, more importantly, general instructions on cooking technique and everything that has to do with a kitchen, without assuming that the reader has learned everything at her grandmother's knee (especially the readers that are not a 'her'). This latter type includes classics like The Joy of Cooking and the Betty Crocker's Cookbook. And Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (HTCE): Simple Recipes for Great Food.

Mark Bittman opens the book with a general statement of philosophy which identifies his audience. In this case, his audience are precisely those who are starting from nothing, new households of people who did not grow up learning from their mothers and grandmothers on how to cook. Second, it is aimed at those who desire to cook, not necessarily gourmet, but food that is good, and not complicated. And because his readers are assumed to be starting from no base, Bittman takes on the role of teacher, not just a publisher. And as a professor (lit. one who professes) he has opinions that he shares, based on his philosophy that cooking can be done, and there is no value in making things harder, more complicated, more fancy, then necessary. The assumption is that people who want something like this, will also know how to find it elsewhere. The first section is basically a tour through the kitchen, equipment, basic ingredients, and basic techniques. All this with advice on what was necessary, and what was optional. No doubt there is room for disagreement. But for someone starting from nothing, the opinions given are useful. And once people learn more and gain more skills, they can form their own opinions starting from what he gives.

So, how are the recipes? There are many cookbooks that I avoid because their too complicated, many due to the shear number of ingredients required. HTCE does not have this problem. It does not go as far as a 5 ingredient list, but the ingredients are constrained to a number that someone without a full spice rack could conceivably have. Throughout the book, there are tips on how to work with various ingredients. In addition, there would be a small essay for major meat and vegetables.

So far, I've probably done a couple dozen recipes over the past couple years. Some for myself, some just me and my fiancee, some for a group. I have found the recipes to be complex enough to be interesting and worthy of something nice, but easy enough so I can gauge difficulty and effort from reading alone, (I only have limited background in cooking). In contrast, I find most cookbooks on the market to be way to simple (and just a list of recipes) or overly complicated and impractical (especially for someone who lives alone and would end up throwing out most of the purchased ingredients as they spoiled.)

I think HTCE a very good baseline cookbook. For the starter, Bittman teaches without intimidation, the recipes are complex enough to impress (if that is the goal), but basic enough to be achievable. The advice and options given are enough that the reader can understand how to adapt and experiment, and thus learn how to cook to a level that should satisfy anyone, and a jumping off point to learn in the future.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Geek Love: Gary Gygax, Game Pioneer, passes away

Geek Love
GARY GYGAX died last week and the universe did not collapse. This surprises me a little bit, because he built it. . . (from the New York Times)

Last week Gary Gygax, co-creater of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, passed away. In a somewhat real sense, he created something that changed the world. Not that role-playing games was new (Cowboys and Indians anyone? How about playing 'House'? Or 'Let's have tea') or the having mechanics (H.G. Wells Tin Men) or playing someone else (pick anyone who had thoughts of acting). But it gave a way of thinking and viewing a world, through another's eyes in a way that could be repeated and reapplied. Nowadays, computer role-playing games are more prevalent, but these don't have that same character of having to understand reality through another person's eyes and history. And the social aspect of interacting with people is not there (as opposed to interacting with only characters.) Acting does not require that either (anyone healthy can separate their acting from real relationships. Presumably actors can have actual friendships outside their roles, but it is not required.) Things, situations, and abilities only read about or seen in movies can be played, and choices made, and consequences experienced. It even forced players to declare their version of morality, and act on it with all its freedom, constraints, benefits, and consequences, something that is not in your average board game.

Anyway, do I have anything deep to say? Not really. But I got a message of a somewhat quiet e-mail list that was a game. The organizer was writing a book that was built around the game we were playing, and wanted us to test out the rules. I had made a character some time ago, so dug out his history and the stories of him growing up, becoming an adult and making his way in the world. And translated it into the game. And sent it in. And for a few minutes, thought of the life of someone who does not exist, in a far away world, living a life very different then the nice, safe one I live now.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones is the first of the 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series. It follows several people involved in the various kingdoms. And in this world, these conflicts have as a backdrop the beginning of the long winter cycle, with unknown beings from a northern wasteland which come south during that barren time.

It is a story of duty, honor, of people having to decide where their loyalties lie. There is jealousy, selfishness, the wisdom of age. The hardheadedness of age. Folly of youth. And innocence (taken in both the good and the bad senses.) This book follows mostly the young, a generation of leaders that are rising, but full-fledge participants in a war started by the elder generation, some of whom have old scars.

What I appreciate is that it is following people from different sides (as well as some that do not have a side, such as the Black Watch who watches the northern wastelands). It shows even opposing actors acting out of their conflicting desires, fears, and duty. Noble, deceitful, brave, cowardly, lust, greedy and pragmatic are all present, on both sides, and among all the characters in various degrees. And you can see the unintended consequences of actions, even those that on seeing them for the first time, one could regard as noble. And those that are cast as cowardly, you see great nobility and sacrifice.

There are some good characterizations for a not-so-large book, and it makes the rest of the series promising. The focus on high-born (or at least related to nobility) characters is initially off-putting, as I usually prefer more down-to-earth characters, but the fact that some of these nobles are forced (because of not being all that noble or by circumstance) into situations that put them down in the mud, it is ok. Recommended for the characterizations that have much depth to explore.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

PSO: Corigliano 5*-4*-3* Triple Play!

We went to the Pittsburgh Symphony last Saturday, looking forward to another Corigliano piece, this time a TriplePlay, which the PSO gets to premiere. My first question: Has John Corigliano, in his many visits to Heinz Hall, found a closet to hide in when his piece is being performed for the first time?

Sandwiched in the program between two russian interpretations of Romeo and Juliet was this percussion concerto. And from that description alone, I had no idea what was to come, but I was looking forward to it. And as the Tchaikovsky closed and the musicians rearranged themselves, Corigliano came out to talk.

And what about? About creating a percussion concerto, of featuring instruments and sounds that normally support an orchestra. He spoke of removing sounds from the orchestra to make a part stand out, and of grouping the percussion into material groups, and prepared us for the flow of the piece to come.

And what a piece. It started with the sparseness of struck wood blocks morphing into the marimba and xylophone over strings. Ms. Glennie (percussion soloist) moved to metals, with chimes being punctuated by cymbals played as gongs. With and end of drums (skins) building in speed and volume.

There is a concept of creativity that creativity is enhanced by putting restrictions on the artist, and forcing the artist to use his/her creativity to create something inside the restrictions. That the artist struggles against the rules and constraints given can lead to something wonderful, unlike anything else. And here, stripping the range of sounds the orchestra contains and spotlighting the percussion, in its variety and sparseness, created something original and wonderful to behold.

And I hope that when Corigliano listened in his closet, that he knew on coming out that this was a piece well done.