Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Stories from the front

“Flesh is weak.” Those three words defined his world. Growing up in the wilds of the Khadoran frontier, Nicodemus had always thought his father’s periodic utterances meant that physical weakness should be guarded against. Frontier life was hard. Only the strong survived. Only the strong could harvest a living from the unforgiving North.

Then they left the kardic lands for the dubious safety of the protectorate. Freedom from persecution. Freedom to follow Menoth’s teachings. Of course the day was oppressively hot while the nights dropped below freezing. The desert ground gave even less back to farmers than the Khadoran countryside. It seemed like every other day he heard his father muttering his mantra. He asked him once what he meant.

“We are weak son. Everybody has their price. Everybody has their limit. Some day you’ll understand—Menoth willing. It’s something to remember.”

“But Dah, I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“It’s not something I can teach son. It’s something you have to learn yourself. Some things you can learn from listening. Some things you can learn by doing. Things like this, you learn by surviving. This is a special truth Nicodemus. Not like what the priests tell you. It’s something you and Menoth have to work out together.”

He nodded and went on doing what needed to be done. But in the back of his head he always wondered what his father meant. Now he knew. The prime minister had been weak. He betrayed his country to the enemy. The captain, night and hero, had abandoned the gray wolves. Demetrius was leading the company out of the city. Each had their reasons. Each chose to run rather than fight—weak in deed. He didn’t like leaving thousands of people to their deaths—but he understood. Everyone had their limits. He didn’t like leaving this city for the Khadoran military to take by trickery—playing at peace while never intending to deal in good faith. Paladins were supposed to stand against the darkness. They were supposed to hold the wall. Instead he was walking away. He didn’t have time to organize a defense of the city. Maybe with days to work with something could have been done. But not now. Not with thousands of regular troops advancing under cover of bombardment.

Already he could see the panic spreading. There a merchant with so many goods that he would be lucky to make it to the near gate. There a family wandering from corner to corner, trying to figure out which way lay safety. It wasn’t a full panic yet, but the beginnings were evident to anyone with an eye for such things.

Well, there was something he could do about that. Striding down the road with sword drawn, he began calling to citizens. He used the short direct tones one uses with children and animals. He collected a group. People sought safety in numbers. It would make them easier to direct—if not control. Parents had to lay down family antiques generations old. Merchants had to abandoned fripperies and fobs. They couldn’t take anything that they couldn’t carry for miles. By the time the rest of the company arrived he had the beginnings of an evacuation forming.

Walking down the road with the company at his back, Nicodemus felt at peace for the first time in a long while. His spell of protection covered him in a soft blanket of familiar energy. The arcane plates within his armor hummed at the edge of thought providing a soothing music to his magical senses. Someday he and Demetrius would encounter a conflict that his morals wouldn’t let him avoid, but for now Nicodemus was in his element. He was standing—the wall that would protect these people.

There was no way to avoid the Khadoran patrol. They advanced from an alley—calm, sure, professional with rifles raised. If it had just been a few winter guardsmen things might have gone differently. But then the lumbering shape of a heavy warjack exited the alley’s mouth. Light reflected off its armored bulk. Nicodemus was normally a quiet man—slow to anger, quiet of speech, and careful in action; but the sight of the armored behemoth ponderously striding toward the civilians set something off deep inside him. War was brutal. But this was…the city didn’t even have a proper guards force. Nicodemus knew what Khadoran armies did to cities. It was the stuff of nightmares. It had driven the Lieutenant from the Ironfangs. It should have driven the prime minister to broker a treaty of some kind. Now these people were going to…no, no they weren’t.

Nicodemus vaguely noticed his fellow mercenaries spreading out wielding magic and steel, bullet and blade. There was no stopping to negotiate. Everybody knew what the stakes were. The Khadorans were assaulted by a barrage of magic and lead. They blasted back—adopting a skirmish line. Nicodemus was almost crushed as the company’s lone warjack drove forward and struck the enemy jack with a blow that made the ground shake and dust fall from nearby buildings.

Bullets bounced off his armor without affect. Light infantry was no match for a paladin of the wall in arcane armor. With deliberate steps he sheathed his sword and advanced on the enemy jack. The sword wasn’t going to be enough. He needed freedom of movement, freedom to focus. He let the rage coalesce around his fist in a glowing nimbus. Flesh might be weak, but so was steel. He raised a gauntlet and gestured at the jack while it was recovering its balance. The bolt of energy picked the multi-ton construct up off the ground—slamming it through the air to fall on its back with an earth shattering boom. These people were getting out of the city if he had to carve a path for them through the Khadoran army. They wanted war, they would get war.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The making of an action hero, pt39I love winter. A couple days ago I walked out of my apartment building to the Smokey burnt sugar smell of impending snow. I grew up in the North East where winter was winter. Here in Maryland mother nature can’t make up her mind what season it is—30 today 60 tomorrow…etc. There’s a special kind of peace in the silence of a world blanketed in new fallen snow—no sound to be heard but the soft kiss of flake upon powder. That’s what I think of when someone says the heart of winter. I remember standing on the top of a North Carolina mountain and looking out for miles—across Christmas trees, farms, valleys, and streams. I remember looking out to the horizon where the Blue Ridge Mountains met the sky across all of that, a pristine coat of alabaster powder that swallowed the sound of the wind. Here on the border of the South, it’s nice to be reminded that winter comes even here.

Making the Man There was a time when you could tell a gentleman by his frippery. Quizzing glasses, flasks, pocket watches, canes, dueling pistols, rapiers, all had practical utility. Today we view such ornamented accessories as curiosities. The modern man should carry sleek steel and leather—gun metal and chrome, titanium and silver. Yet there is still room for today’s man to equip himself with wealth and taste without sacrificing function.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The making of an action hero pt38

When I remember thanksgiving, I think of my mom’s creamed onion recipe. I recall the boisterous chaos that was my introduction to the brunette’s family. I remember playing with my niece and nephew. I remember ham, turkey, wine, beer, potatoes, family trips, and the now traditional friends’ giving celebration. Thanksgiving is about friends and family sharing food and fellowship. Sometimes we’ve hosted the big day and sometimes we’ve been a guest.

This year we decided to host the big day. I like hosting, nobody else really wanted the honor, and after Easter I got a taste for cooking big holiday meals. That said, I’d never made a real thanksgiving dinner before—turkey, stuffing, gravy…etc. So going into this one I was a little nervous. I did my research a month out, developed a menu for 15, finalized what people were bringing, and a week out had everything more-or-less under control.

• Two weeks out, the brunette began accumulating various ingredients.

• One week out, discovered that the kickstarter project I had planned to use for my turkey rub wasn’t going to make it in time. I recalculated the recipe accordingly.

• The Saturday before, bought 13.65 pound butterball frozen turkey.

• The day before, the brunette and the Jew acquired vast quantities of “stuff per my list.” I made two trips to the store to pick up sundries not found at the local bargain-mart.

• Thanksgiving eve, I made a paste from garlic salt, black pepper, Italian seasoning, and cilantro and rubbed the turkey with the resulting dry brine. I made a pasta salad from orzo, calamata olives, celery, onions, green pepper, and Italian dressing. I made my own turkey stock by boiling the giblets with water, chicken broth, and veggies. I pre-cooked two pounds of Italian sausage and mixed the drained meat with the veggies for the dressing. I made a loaf of Banana bread. I set two three pound pork loins to thaw. I diced up a ton of veggies and bagged them up to make cooking faster the next day.

• 8:00 Thanksgiving morning rubbed the pork loins with the remaining dry brine. Put a nice crust on both loins at high heat and set them to braze with a bottle of green apple wine in the slow cooker. Looked up more recipes to confirm my plan. Puttered around the apartment doing misc cleanup—Feeling excited and slightly nervous.

• 10:30, mother-in-law arrives per plan and helps set up various supplies and prep work including cubing and toasting the bread for the stuffing.

• 12:00, turkey is rubbed with olive oil, stuffed with a quartered onion, lemon, and orange. The electric turkey roaster is pre-heated and filled with a quarter inch of white wine. Turkey is covered and left to cook at 325 for the next 2.5 hours.

• 12:45 Seven pounds of potatoes are set to boil—time is beginning to compress—I am getting really nervous. I work well under pressure but I worry a lot. Mother in law cooks her green bean casserole.

• 1:30, sausage and veggies for the dressing are sautéed till tender and mixed with the bread and a half cup of white wine and turkey broth. We use two eggs to hold the mess together and put the dressing in to cook. At this point there are no breaks except to wash dishes and clean counters.

• 1:50, we make up the batter for apple cake using a recipe from www.framedcooks.com. I find ingredients while mother in law mixes and measures. I end up giving up the idea of cooking the cake in a glass mixing bowl and go for a large baking pan instead. I begin to wonder how we will have everything served in time, where everyone will sit, and where all the food will go.

• 2:05, Potatoes are drained, mashed, mixed with onions, ranch dressing, cheese, and bacon bits. Mother-in-law blends potatoes with a hand mixer without covering the kitchen in starchy residue. This is an epic feet, one I’ve never been able to manage. I gain 1 point in true faith-in-laws.

• 2:10, we mix up the biscuit dough and fill two muffin tins—24 biscuits. Biscuits start cooking and I wonder how the cake, which has been in the oven for fifteen minutes and which is supposed to take over an hour to cook, smells like it’s almost done.

• 2:20, dressing comes out of oven. Cake is done—defying all logic. This impossibility sets me back mentally—cakes are not supposed to be over achievers.

• 2:25, biscuits, for the first time ever, are not done in 15 minutes. Apparently they are in a time share with the cake.

• 2:30, People start arriving. Life gets “complicated.” The bamboo cutting board I was going to use to serve the turkey won’t work. Mother in law fixes. I mix in flower with the turkey drippings—which thanks to the white wine are more liquid than the recipe calls for. I add the turkey stock, kitchen bouquet, garlic salt, and ground pepper to the pot and whisk repeatedly. Gravy is done but in the process I have splattered it over the oven top. I end up with a half gallon of delicious but lumpy gravy. I get out the serving tray, cover it in the pasta salad mixture, mother in law drops pork loins on top and I begin carving. Pork ends up too tender and won’t cut; it just falls to pieces under the knife. People help clean up kitchen, serve food, and kick me out of my domain.

• 3:00, dinner is served. I grab a beer, sit down, and have no desire to eat anything.

Things I learned:

1. The brunette handled most of the shopping, cleaning, guest rankling, and keeping stuff away while foodmancery was going on. She thinks it was nothing, I think it was critical to dinner going well. That meal hung on a very precarious balance of timing. I couldn’t have pulled it off without her help.

2. Mother-in-law completely saved me from catastrophic decision paralysis. By around 2:10, she was doing most of the work and I was assisting. It was my plan, but at that point it was her dinner—thanks mom. I could have handled the meal on my own, but it would have been at least an hour later and I would have suffered a stress related incident.

3. If I have to do this again, I am going to design the menu around dishes that can be made in advance and reheated. The only recipes that weren’t made from scratch were the canned cranberry sauce and bisquick biscuits. Everything piled up at the end. My timing was good in theory; but I didn’t leave myself enough wiggle room for accidents. I got way too caught up in the idea of traditional thanksgiving dinner from scratch—serves me right for reading all those cooking show recipes.

4. No matter how many people are going to events, I’m planning on making one batch of whatever I’m bringing. I have leftover biscuits, potatoes, stuffing, and gravy far in excess of what I needed. Considering I made half the dressing, potatoes, and banana bread I had planned, there’s no call to over-provide. This is the second time this year I’ve ended up with a massive quantity of leftover potatoes. Maybe I’ll make Sheppard’s pie with it. It’s going to be one bag of spuds going forward.

5. If I’m going to keep making cakes and such, I need to update my baking tins. The reason the cake cooked so quickly is that I put it in a long low pan. The increased surface area meant it cooked at twice the normal speed. I enjoy baking but it is going to require a meaningful investment of capitol to really do up right.

6. Small pork loins cook faster than large pork shoulders in the Crockpot. The pork tastes great but is reduced to the entirely wrong consistency. I wanted sliceable braised pork. I got shredded herbed pork loin. Delicious—but improvable.

7. The electric roaster was amazing. I want to get a good roasting pan and Dutch oven, but man did that thing earn it’s keep. The turkey was as tender as the pork, was easy to clean, and required zero oversight. The only reason to use a roasting pan now is for an alternate recipe, to roast veggies with the turkey, or to get the drippings for gravy. So, turkey is going to be done in the electric roaster going forward unless I want to experiment.

8. Gravy, from the jar in future. That one dish cost me almost four hours of work. I can spice up a pre-made mix and get better tasting gravy in a tenth the time—win.

9. Stuffing is essentially one loaf of bread—cubed, a pound of lightly browned meat, 2 diced onions, 4 cups of veggies, a cup of liquid, and 2 eggs—lightly beaten. That is easily adapted. The result was ok, but can be improved upon.

10. Too many biscuits. I am going to hold these going forward in favor of bread. Everybody likes them in theory but never seems to favor them in practice.

11. I went about the process of assigning dishes to guests in all the wrong order. I advised what I was making and asked what people wanted to bring with the intention of filling out any gaps. What I should have done was select dishes that would be easy to cook in concert with the entrees and left the rest to the guests. There would have been a lot less stress that way and I probably could have handled it all on my own.

After relaxing with a beer and contemplating the holiday chaos, I spent the rest of the holiday playing with the kids—blasting nurf darts across the battlefield of the back bedroom. When it was time to leave the kids wanted to know if they could come back the next day—win. After everyone was gone, I made myself a plate and savored the moment.

On the diet side, I gained 4 pounds (286 pounds as of this morning.) The day itself wasn’t an issue. The epic quantity of leftovers—mostly carbs—has proven a challenge though. I’ve been begging people to come over and deplete our reserves. In fairness, my foot rendered me unable to exercise till Saturday—basically leaving me with a week off the clubs at the worst possible time. I will lose the weight. Originally I planned on losing 10 pounds a month. I thought by the end of December I’d be looking at 250 pounds or so. Obviously that’s not going to happen. I think rather I’m going to shoot to maintain at 280—a much more manageable goal. I could kill myself, but I know how the holidays tend to run. I intend to enjoy the various holiday gatherings while maintaining my gains to this point.

The leftovers are gone—finally, my foot is healed, and I’m pushing for a tighter diet for December. I’m going back to the apple+yogurt+one other item formula for lunches. The wraps were fine at one point, but I need to cut down calories and they were pretty dense. I’m going to cook through the prepared items I have in the freezer, but beyond those constraints I’m going to make at least one salad every week. Finally, it’s back to health shakes and off the coffee. Every time I go back on the java I wake up better but can’t sleep as well. I start to crave the joy juice in the morning. Case in point, I didn’t have time to make coffee this morning so I grabbed a mountain due on the way out the door. I’m not upset about that—I just know I can do better.


Breakfast=the rest of the apple cake/bread and a can of mountain dew.

Work meal=Greek yogurt, a bag of mixed nuts, and an apple.

Dinner=Spaghetti with marinara loaded with veggies.

Looking at today’s intake, you can see where having all that leftover food and drink in the house is affecting my diet. Must-do-better.