Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Viridian Kitchen

I'm going to combine two things I've been thinking about lately: Bruce Sterling's Last Viridian Note (a twenty-first century version of William Morris's "The Beauty of Life") and a discussion among recent college grads of the best tools for setting up a new kitchen.

Update: I have in mind here setting up the post-school adult kitchen. See Sam's comment on this post for a great little take on the ultraminimal student version.

My goal here is to help myself and others reduce crapware. Since I moved out of my parents' house, I've bought a fair amount of stuff for my kitchen. Most of it has been thrown away, given away, or (worst of all) stored away. However, I've also come upon some items that I use all the time, that give me pleasure, and that offer great value--either because they are inexpensive or because they are so useful. If I got to start over, here are a few things I would get to set up a new kitchen.

Pots and Pans

I use a fair number of pots and pans, but I could manage almost everything I want to cook with three basic ones: a pot for pasta, soups, and such; a pan for sauces and small jobs; and a big pan for frying and sautéeing.

For the smaller pan, I would look to the Calphalon line. The key to shopping Calphalon is to know that they always have a few items available at huge discounts; they want to hook you into loving the brand so you buy the other stuff. For instance, you can get the Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick 10-Inch & 12-Inch Omelet Combo Pack for fifty dollars. This is the best Calphalon nonstick line--these would be great egg pans and small sauté pans. You won't be able to find a price much lower for one pan, so if you want only one, you can get this combo and give one away.

I have two big stovetop pans, one terrific one from Calphalon that's on the expensive side and an even bigger one that I'll recommend here as a great value: the Bialetti covered deep sauté pan. This holds a lot of food and never sticks. Its lid and handles are great.

For the big pot, I would choose the Lodge enameled cast-iron 6-Quart dutch oven. This pot looks great, is extremely sturdy, and holds enough liquid to make a good-sized batch of chili or soup. I have recently made two batches of the same soup, one in a cheaper aluminum pot and one in this: it was amazing how much the Lodge pot resisted burning and overcooking. The pot is a little heavy for simply boiling pasta water, but it's manageable, and you can always keep a cheap water-boiler pot around if you want one.

Cutting Boards and Knives

You don't need many knives, just great ones, and Cook's Illustrated uncovered the incredible value of the Victorinox Forschner line, with supersharp blades and comfortable (if slightly cheesy looking) synthetic handles. See the 8-inch chef's Knife and 10-1/4-inch curved blade bread knife. I have the bread knife and covet the chef's.

I admit to a special affection for the Epicurian Cutting Surfaces line of cutting boards because they used to have a pleasant ECS logo, which for me doubled as a personalized monogram. Even without that advantage, you won't believe how great these suckers are. I would not have thought any cutting board could be worth a premium price, but I got a small one as a gift, and now I want to get two bigger ones (or even bigger)--one for meat, one not--and throw away all my others.

Cooking Utensils

I got two high-quality silicon spoon-style spatulas as a gift, and I find that I use them all the time. They have become my main in-the-pan stirring utensils as well as the only spatulas I bother with. I don't know that the brand matters much here, as long as you get good, sturdy ones and not any old silicon spatula: these Rubbermaid ones look great. I know fifteen dollars seems insane for a spatula, but now that I've used these things, I think they're well worth it--really good ones make a lot of other utensils obsolete.

Contrarily, as long as you don't use metal utensils on nonstick surfaces, I think you can get away with pretty cheap nylon cooking spoons, ladles, and such. We have cheap ones and expensive ones: the expensive ones look nicer and match (they were a wedding present), but I don't notice any difference in functionality.

Electronic Gadgets

You know about food processors and coffeemakers and such, probably, but you may not have thought about getting a good immersion blender (a.k.a. stick blender or hand blender). This fellow is a lifesaver in soupmaking: instead of taking soup out of the pot, processing it, and putting it back in, you just blend it right on the stove. You can also use these for smoothies, milkshakes, and stuff; they are vastly easier to use and clean than regular blenders, and they take up almost no space.

Specialty Prep Tools

This Zyliss garlic press has transformed my garlic life: it makes using fresh garlic genuinely easy. And anything that encourages you to eat things that involve fresh garlic is worth cherishing.

Finally, though it's easily the lowest priority item on this list, I must mention this apple peeler, corer, and slicer. It claims to work for potatoes as well--I don't buy that--but if you're the type to make big-batch apple recipes, you gotta see this thing work. For me, it made apple-picking (and therefore apple cooking) worth the effort.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Joe Lieberman: Why does 60 in the caucus matter?

The question in this post's subject might sound dumb: 60 is the key number in the discussion of how Democrats are trying to keep Joe Lieberman in the Democratic caucus of the Senate while still spanking him for campaigning against Barack Obama and other Democrats. Virtually all the discussion I've seen takes the importance of reaching 60 members of the Democratic caucus for granted because 60 is the number of votes you need to achieve cloture and thereby break a filibuster.

But isn't there a serious logical break in that last sentence? To break a Republican filibuster, the Democrats don't need 60 members of their caucus. They need 60 votes.

The important numbers for membership in the caucus are 50 and 51. If you get fifty people in your treehouse, even if the other party controls the White House, you get enough leverage to share the power to organize committees and whatnot. If you get 51 people in your clubhouse, you get to control committees and office space and all that stuff--no matter how your caucus votes on any given bill.

But 60 isn't like that. At the cloture threshold, only votes matter. Lieberman has already shown that he'll vote with Republicans on important bills, so keeping him in the caucus hardly guarantees a 60-vote bloc. Therefore, the nature of Lieberman's leverage with the Democrats must lie in an implied threat to vote one way as a member of their caucus and another way if outside it. In other words, Lieberman's position must lie on a threat to change his votes for reasons other than conscience.

I realize that Senators sometimes vote for reasons other than the dictates of their most disinterested consciences. That said, we're giving Lieberman a free pass by describing his leverage as involving caucus numbers rather than voting.

Unless I'm wrong, and having 60 members of a caucus does confer procedural advantages to the lucky party that achieves it, regardless of votes on individual bills. If that's the case, I would love to hear the details from better-informed readers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

A little early this week, as I'll be offline tomorrow:

Harold McGee offers the most striking contribution to the turkey technique conversation I've seen in a long time. (My solution to the problem that the breast is always overcooked? Let the rest of the family eat it.)

Take your David Foster Wallace jauntily from 1987 or elegiacally from 2008. Steel your heart before clicking.

Michael Lewis on the end of the boom; this is an essential supplement to Liar's Poker and probably worthwhile if you haven't read LP.

Here's an unusually interesting entry on the groundbreaking blog of Paul DePodesta, the GM of the Padres, about the decisions regarding Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman in the offseason.

And I can't quite leave politics behind yet: the cotton vote.

Which Obama effects are durable?

Lots of people are talking about whether Obama's election is a sign of fundamental political realignment of the electoral map. I am generally skeptical of the biggest claims, given the strong structural forces boosting any opposition candidate in 2008. To the extent that there was a realignment, however, it seems mostly to be based on Democratic gains among educated voters, young voters, and African American voters.

Here is a Greg Mankiw post on the youth vote, and here is NBC's First Read on the college-educated vote:

The Graduate(s): Number crunchers have already unpacked the college split for this election cycle to show Obama's gains among grads. (In 2004, 42% of voters nationwide were college graduates, and they split equally for John Kerry and George W. Bush. This time, that number was boosted to 44%, and the vote broke 53%-45% in the Democrat's favor.) But consider this: In 2008, college-educated voters outnumbered non-college grads at the polls in eleven states (CO, VA, NH, PA, NJ, CT, MD, NY, MA, VT, and DC). Barack Obama won all of them -- by an average of more than 24 percentage points. In states that McCain won, on average, 42% of voters were college grads. In states that Obama won, on average, 47% had a college diploma.

The key question, it seems to me, is which of these effects are particular to Obama and which will carry over to other elections. Most of the commentary I've seen assumes that Obama's success among African Americans is due to his own race (and therefore particular to him), whereas the gains among educated and young voters are more durable. I'm not so sure about any of those assumptions: I wonder whether we are underestimating the symbolic power of the Democrats now being forever the party that first nominated non-white President, no matter the race of their future candidates. (Think of the enduring effects of the Dodgers' and Red Sox' involvement in the fall of baseball's color line.) Contrarily, I wonder whether we have underestimated Obama's special appeal to educated and young voters: this administration will feature a President, VP, and two spouses who have all worked in higher education, and the basketball-playing Obama seems even younger than he is.

I have no idea which of these effects will persist in future elections, but I do think the current conversation would be improved by peeking under our assumptions about all three factors.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What, exactly, was the joke?

I propose a rule of public life: if you say something appalling, and you defend yourself by saying you were trying to be funny, you must then explain what the joke was.

Michael Barone (who, sadly, shares the name of one of my best friends from high school) said the following to a group of academics:

“The liberal media attacked Sarah Palin because she did not abort her Down syndrome baby," Barone said, according to accounts by attendees. "They wanted her to kill that child. ... I'm talking about my media colleagues with whom I've worked for 35 years.”

Unsurprisingly, Barone was met with a chorus of boos, and some people walked out. Barone does not dispute the accounts of his words but says that he "was attempting to be humorous and ... went over the line."

Mike Allen and Andy Barr report this defense without comment. We are accustomed to cutting people slack for saying offensive things in jokes, which itself is a tricky matter, but in this case and many like it, isn't there a way to point out the obvious, which is to say, it's not a joke.

I don't mean that this is not a laughing matter--death is perhaps the most fundamental basis of humor. I mean that Barone made no attempt to transform the darkness of his sentiment into humor. Instead, Barone made a perfectly straightforward claim about the motives of his colleagues, with no indication of irony at any level. I can imagine a wide range of reactions to his comment, from my own disgust to the approval of a Palin supporter who suspects the worst of the media. What I can't imagine is that anyone would find the idea of reporters wishing Palin's baby out of existence to be funny.

I realize that Barone is probably calling his comments "humorous" because he is scrambling for any way to deflect attention from their obvious meaning. I still want to see him try to explain the joke.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day Special: Friday Five on a Monday!

All politics this time--what else would we be thinking about?

The Republican mayor of San Diego changes his mind on Prop 8

Nate Silver's final pre-election take on the cellphone effect

From Errol Morris, People in the Middle for Obama--I'm always interested in how Morris moves between documentary and advocacy

My Wife Made Me Canvas for Obama; Here's What I Learned

Finally, don't worry: my opinions aren't likely to influence my students'.