Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Mocking Bad Students From A Bathroom Stall (Or: I Rarely Trust a 'Sconnie)

There's been an article making the rounds of Facebook (well, at least my Facebook, which is full of academics) concerning the Dear Student feature in Vitae. Dear Student is a somewhat humorous collection of profs venting about common student bullshit and often takes the form of the emails most profs wish they could send to their students. But since such honest replies would typically get one fired, they're instead collected at this little niche website read only by academics.

As with anything even slightly amusing in the academic world, of course the humorless scolding had to come sooner rather than later. This specific humorless scolding comes from a dude named Jesse, so I feel a special need to comment, so as to attempt to save the reputation of academics named Jesse (we're not all humorless scolds! I promise!).

You can read the piece, but the gist of it is that students are special magical snowflakes and anyone who ever says anything bad about them, no matter the reason, is a horrible person who hates the idea of education. I think. It's kind of a disjointed piece that tells us a lot about what we shouldn't do, but completely glosses over the fact that these are real issues which require some sort of response. But then again, moral grandstanding is rarely oriented toward practical activity. So it goes.

I'll leave aside the fact the piece in question was written by a white guy at an elite institution chiding a column organized by a woman of color, which regularly features many contributors of color, and is almost completely populated by academics at less prestigious institutions, because at this point, no one should be at all surprised by the tone-deaf instructions of our social superiors telling us how to behave.

But the fact that dude is working at one of the most prestigious public universities in our nation (UW-Madison) is actually pretty important to understanding the rank hypocrisy and uselessness of dude's complaints. For instance, when chiding profs for being upset that students try to add a class 6 weeks into the semester, pretending nothing of importance could have already happened, and if it did, could sure be made up in a day or two, he writes : "The work of gatekeeping is anathema to the work of education. Our classrooms should have more doors and windows, not less."

Which is a really easy argument to make when you teach in a gated community! Hey, you don't need to do any gatekeeping, great for you. But that's because your university has already done the gatekeeping for you! Contrast this with my institution -- when we fail to meet our enrollment quotas for the year, our administration fully admits they dip into the stock of applicants who (and again, this is fully admitted in the open, no matter how unconscionable it may be) are neither college-ready nor expected to finish their degree. I haven't researched the application requirements of Bucky, but I'm guessing you won't find many students at UW-Madison deemed not college-ready by their own administration.

He similarly scolds profs who are upset by student grade-grubbing, writing grades are "a red herring. Any teacher that regularly gets caught up in power and control struggles with students over grades has missed the point." Cool, thanks man. You're so zen. I bet at the end of every semester, you write the registrar telling them to take their grade bullshit and shove it up their asses instead of submitting your final grades. Anyway, here's where I assume that teaching at an elite institution means he probably has TAs that take care of such emails for him. But even if he doesn't, what exactly does he suggest I then do instead of engaging with the students who complain about their grades? Maybe I should calmly explain to them that grades are not the point and they should't be concerned about them. Well, I can report that is not an effective tactic, because I've tried it repeatedly. Maybe instead I should point them to this column with the advice that some dude says we shouldn't be arguing about this, so discussion over, I guess?

But what really takes the cake in this missive is the incredibly snotty coupling of these two paragraphs:
Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin.
The word "entitlement,” used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled -- to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the “Dear Student” series
It would take years to unpack everything wrong with this hyperbolic handwringing, but I'd like to note that I've met several people who have read the Dear Student series and they don't appear to be tarnished at all. But dude seems to a literary person, so I'll forgive some rhetorical flourishes. But the second part there really sums up my problem with his kvetching, as I think he's got in entirely backward.

Complaining about students who have no interest in their education is not anti-intellectual -- it's a defense of the importance of education. It's a defense of the idea that learning takes real effort and sacrifice. It's a defense of the idea that if you come into a class 6 weeks late, you're not only doing damage to your own ability to learn, but harming the general dynamic of the class and hampering your fellow students (who are also dealing with all the same life problems and whatnot) because they have to wait for you to catch up. Saying I should bend over backward for that student for no reason other than that they're a super special snowflake is horridly anti-intellectual, because it assumes all that missed information is unimportant and unnecessary. In fact, I can hardly think of anything more anti-intellectual than saying "So what, the student missed half your class? Whatever, they'll be fine. Can't have missed that much in multiple weeks of class time and readings."

Saying students are entitled to an education is the complete exemplar of Scott Walker's consumerist model -- these kids paid to be here, given them the commodity they paid for! Sorry dude, I'm not going to commoditize education no matter how snotty you are.

Saying students are entitled to an education belies the most fundamental misconception of what education even is; I can't "give" someone the education they're "entitled" to because education is not something that can be given. Education is something that can be guided, can be encouraged, can be assisted, etc., etc., but it can never be given. It's something that has to involve extensive work on the part of the student. Saying otherwise is like saying signing up for a personal trainer entitles you to be physically fit. No, it entitles you to someone who will help you get fit, but you've got to do a lot of work. And if you ignore all of their advice, belittle the methods and techniques they're trying to help you learn, and constantly skip your meetings with them, I think the personal trainer is well within their rights to decide they don't want to help you anymore.

He ends the piece by noting that teachers need a safe place to vent. However, like the rest of his diatribe, while he never says where that could be, he does make sure to tell you all of the places it shouldn't be. In the following places, according to Jesse "Not The Fun Jesse" Stommel, it is inappropriate to complain about your students: your office, your teacher's lounge (do universities even have those? Maybe at the elite places, I guess), the library, the bar.

As someone who loves to complain about bad students, this really leaves me in a bind. If I can't complain in my office, in my department, or at the bar, you've eliminated about 90% of the spaces I ever occupy. So where is this safe place you claim profs can have? What about my own personal blog read by about 6 people? No, if my office is too public, surely this is too public. What about in the comfort of my own home? No, that can't be. If my office, with my door closed and no students present is too public a place to complain, then my house must be, too. What about when I'm in the bathroom? That's the most personal, non-public place I can think of (and no student has ever been in my bathroom. Well, none has ever been to my house, but maybe outside the bathroom they could be walking by a window and hear me or something?). That must be it. If only a humorless scold were here to tell me whether I was right or not!

But I kid. Kinda. I read things like this with a weary sigh and remind myself that this is the kind of thing I for some reason voluntarily signed up to deal with when I became an academic. So if you need me, I'll be in the bathroom complaining about stuff. I think it's ok in there...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mountain Living

An artist's rendition of my current situation
An atypically large snowstorm has left the mountain roads around here practically impassable up where I live. For someone who grew up in the upper Midwest, I can't help but find some irony in the fact that the very first time in my life it's impossible to leave my house due to the snow, it's when I'm living in a place that considers 2-3 inches of snow to be a major disaster.

There wouldn't really be much of a downside to being snowed in normally; I typically do most of my work from home (pajamas + dog = always the best option), but I just got back from vacation. And had my travel plans gone as they were supposed to, I would have had plenty of time to get groceries before the storm hit, but instead I ended up having multiple canceled flights and getting somehow routed through Atlanta for a flight from NYC to Pittsburgh, which ended up eating the entire day, dropping me home in the middle of the storm. Luckily, the li'l car made it up to the house, but considering the snow hasn't let up since, I know I'm not making it anywhere else soon.

But on the plus side, this will really encourage some creative cooking. What can be made out of some old potatoes and flour? Hopefully a lot, because that's pretty much all I have in the house...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Offally Good, Part III -- Brains. BRRRAAAAAIIIIINNNNSSSS!

After a busy week full of stupid administrative crap (seriously, I'd be about a thousand times more productive if not for meetings which appear to serve no purpose other than be annoying), I finally was able to carve out some free time to get to the crown jewel of my cow organs -- the brain.

Brain is something I've had before on several occasions, but only prepped i ways I couldn't even begin to replicate, so I'm trying something different here, prepping it two ways. One is apparently a Cuban tradition (based loosely on this recipe) and the other is a much simpler way of preparing it.

One of the first things you learn when working with brain is that no matter how well the butcher cleaned the brain before you get it (and this one seems to have been cleaned pretty thoroughly), there will be a lot of blood in the brain. Like, a lot. Like if you left it in your fridge to thaw but the bag is not perfectly vacuum-sealed, you will have blood all over your fridge. Kind of annoying, but enjoy the moment -- after all, how many times have you have to scrub blood out of the nooks and crannies of your crisper? It's an adventure! Unless you do it a lot. Then it's probably not an adventure. But then again, if you're regularly cleaning large amounts of blood out of your fridge, you're probably a serial killer, so...In any event, I suggest opening the bag in the sink, preferably in a colander or something else than be used to rinse it.


This is a cow's brain, mostly thawed.
 Then you put the brain in some sort of bowl where it can soak for awhile. Again, like every other piece in this series, most of the work is in the prep. The cooking of brains (at least in these two recipes) is actually pretty quick and easy. Heck, even the prep isn't that bad; more annoying than difficult. Anyway, here's your brain in a bowl:

Yup, definitely a brain.
 Then it needs to chill out and soak for a few hours, to help get all the rest of the blood, hair, skin, and whatever other detritus might be hanging out to shake loose. After two or so hours of soaking, you can see this was necessary, as a ton more blood will have leeched out of the brain by this point:

Bloody brains. At this point, your inner 13 year-old boy is very excited.

Then you need to clean the brain of any remaining skin, hair, and whatnot. It's kind of hard to know what does and doesn't belong, so you attempt to remove the parts that are...well, I don't want to say "gross looking," because it's all gross-looking. But you know, the parts that are even grosser...er. Anyway, then the brain needs to be either boiled or simmered, depending on who you believe. If you ever want to get down a weird internet rabbit hole, there are some strong opinions on the internet about the proper preparation of cattle brains. Since I couldn't find a definitive source on the subject, I figured I'd split the difference, so this brain got a few minutes of boiling, several minutes of simmering. The point of this is apparently to firm the brains up a bit, which it definitely did. Most sources said to just use boring old plain water, but I jazzed it up with some beef stock (made from the oxtail leftovers!). Here's what a boiling brain looks like:

It may also be what your brain looks like on drugs.

After this, you need to let your brains cool a bit (so many steps of this process sound like something a faux-badass 80s action hero might say to their rad teenage sidekick). I chose to put them into a bowl, but you can decide where your brains cool. It's a wonderful world of opportunities like that. In any event, much like the tongue, there ain't no confusing what you're working with here.

BRRRRAAAAAAAIIIIIINNNNNNNSSSS!

It's at this point you notice that while the brains aren't terrible aromatic to you, they must be the best thing that has ever existed in the history of smells to a dog. My dog began begging for some scraps of brain they second they were unwrapped, and this has been her polite begging position for the hour or so I've been working on the brains so far:

Excuse me, sir. I would like to eat some of that and am sitting ever-so-politely.
 So at this point your brains should theoretically have already cooled. Im far too impatient to actually wait for them to actually cool, so I began chopping them pretty much right away. The only difference waiting makes is that you drop fewer pieces on the floor while shouting a string of expletives after burning yourself. So, you know, choose accordingly. At this point, the brain is largely falling apart anyway, so it's pretty easy to chop. I was going for bite-sized pieces given the recipes I'm working with, but you probably don't want a bigger chunk anyway. Here are some brain chunks pre-chopped:

Some sort of witty caption here.
 For the first recipe, I'm making Cuban-style deep-fried brain chunks. For these I'm mixing up some of the firmer chunks of brain (chosen because they seemed most likely to hold up in the frying process) with some cumin and salt, then dipping it in a "slurry" (seriously, that's the word the recipe used, and is pretty much why I went with that one. Few more delicious-sounding words in the English language than "slurry") made of roughly equal parts flour and water. I subbed in a little lime for some of the water and threw some more cumin in the mix, because…well, those things taste good. More good tasting things always help. Then post-slurry, the brain chunks get rolled in crumbs of some kind. Panko would probably be best, but in this case, you're using crushed up whole wheat Ritz crackers. Because you're fancy.

Seasoned brains, slurry, pulverized snack crackers.
That process leaves you with some fryer-reader chunks of battered brain. At this point, they start to resemble chicken nuggets to a great degree:

You only notice the difference when you bite in.
 Perhaps Dog has finally given up after not getting any food? Nope, still politely holding strong, wondering when you're going to share:

Thought maybe you couldn't see me, so I inched a bit closer.
 So now there's nothing to do but fry those little suckers. You use a tiny pot and fry in small batches because you don't have much experience frying things, so you expect things to go wrong. Makes sense to give yourself multiple options to get it right, which would not surprisingly turn out to be helpful in this instance:

This is what stuff looks like whilst frying.
 Then you eventually end up with some delicious, golden-brown fried bits. Which again, resemble chicken nuggets. Or pretty much anything small thing that's fried. I mean, there's only so much one can do with deep-frying. This is also when you notice you're out of paper towels, curse a bit, and then figure a paper bag is pretty much the same thing.

Fried stuff.
 For the record, here's what they will look like on the inside, once they have been bested by your mighty incisors. While they were hot, you should have sprinkled some good freshly-ground sea salt on them. Also, if you don't have any good Cubano-style hot sauces, you can approximate one with some sriracha and lime.
I am a half-eaten chunk of brain.
 The other style I'm trying for is a much simpler preparation, traditional amongst European types that eat brains. This method involves simply melting a bunch of butter, and then sautéing the brains with some sage. Super simple prep, but in case you're curious, here's what a sauté pan full of brains looks like. For all that is good and holy, use a non-stick pan. Brains are incredibly soft and basically fragile, so any sticking is going to completely ruin them:

Kinda looks like brown cauliflower.
 After a few minutes of sautéing, you have a plate full of brains, which looks not too different than it looked while sautéing. But hey, I took a picture, so here's the picture:

Now they're on a plate.
 It's been two hours. Has Dog given up on begging?

Never! I shall beg 'til the day I die!
But Was It Any Good?

Fried Brains: FUCK and YES. I was pretty apprehensive about this because I don't usually fry stuff and didn't know if the brains would hold up, but they did. Like little savory champions. Granted, being an American, I can eat basically anything if it has been fried. But these were not something to be survived for the sake of novelty, these were incredibly delicious. Think chicken nuggets, but instead of being full of chicken, they're full of melt-in-your-mouth, super savory marshmallows. The majority of them were gone before I even got to the sautéing. If you ever come across some deep fried brains, eat them. Eat them all. You will not be disappointed.

Sautéed Brains: Yes, but I should have planned ahead. The thing about brains is that they are delicious, but incredibly rich. Like think of the craziest thick cheesecake you've ever had, and they're about 20 times as rich as that. Seriously, your mouth will be coated in brain after one bite. Which is not a bad thing given how delicious they are, but just an indication of how rich they are. So you don't really eat brains as main course, but instead use them with or on top of things that could use some delicious richness. Being that I was spending all this time on prep, I never got around to anything to go with the brain. I saw a recipe that called for adding eggs and tomatoes during the sauté process, so I'm going to try that next.

Have We Learned Anything So Far?

Yes. Cooking with offal and various other organs and muscles is difficult and time-consuming. But it's also more entertaining than a lot of other things you could do with your day, so all-in-all, I recommend it.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Racists Gonna Be Racist



The video above is not terribly unusual, though it should make you a little angry (or a lot angry, depending on how much outrage you can still muster up over illegal police behavior). It's a video of a William Wingate, 70 year old man (who happens to be a veteran) being arrested for threatening a police office with a weapon (a golf club he regularly uses as a cane).

If you watch the video, you'll note that he does not seem to be threatening her in any way. If you possess even the most simplistic understanding of physics, you'll note that it would be difficult for an elderly man to threaten someone who is inside of a car (as the officer was when the interaction began) with a golf club.

Turns out the Seattle PD and city prosecutor agreed, as they decided to drop all charges against Wingate. This little case is really important for two reasons: first, note that Wingate had already plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful use of a weapon. One thing most people not familiar with the criminal justice system have a hard time grasping is the number of people who plead guilty to crimes they have not committed (hell, according to the Innocence Project, nearly a third of all people exonerated from death row had confessed to the crimes they didn't commit). Why would an innocent person confess to a crime they didn't commit? There are myriad reasons (read the Innocence Project list for a rundown of the common ones), but in this specific case, I'd be willing to be it's a combination of the fact that Wingate probably had to rely on a public defender (as do roughly 80% of all people charged with crimes) and was in a he said-she said situation until the video was recaptured. And who do you think any judge or jury is going to believe? The officer or the person charged with attempting to assault an officer? Especially if the accused is a Black man.

But the other, more important takeaway from this is that video is not a cure all, and is only effective when combined with community pressure to reshape our police departments into forces for the protection of all citizens. Because you'll note that in the video, the arresting officer is well aware she is on camera. Hell, she even tries to use the fact that the interaction is being recorded to intimidate the innocent person she's arresting on false charges. This is obviously not some mistake the officer made, but an obvious and blatant abuse of power committed by someone who was sure they could get away with it. And, of course, she has; her entire punishment for such a blatant disregard for the law consists of the incredibly harsh method of "counseling from her supervisor." I'd sure love to see those counseling sessions. "Let's see here, it looks like you're willing to completely disregard the law you took an oath to uphold just so you can harass an elderly man who is doing nothing wrong whatsoever. Umm…don't do that again. On camera, I mean."

Finally, I've barely touched on race here. Because if you possess even the most simplistic understanding of American race relations and the role of police in enforcing them, you know the role race played. But if you need further evidence, here's a Facebook post from the arresting officer in this case:


Take a second to savor the sweet, sweet irony of a racist prick complaining that Black people unfairly say they're targeted by police for no reason going out and unfairly targeting Black people for no reason. Would almost be funny if it weren't real life...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Always Ahead of My Time

Once in college I was riding in a car with some bandmates on the way home from practice late at night. Being that a car full of college-aged boys will always lead to someone doing something stupid, at one point we drove by a police car and a buddy of mine dared me to flip off the cops. Because I am nothing if not a bad ass rebel (NOTE: I am roughly as far from being a badass rebel as is possible), I took him up on the dare and flipped off the cruiser as we drove past.

Fast forward a few blocks and suddenly we get pulled over. Given that several minutes had passed, none of us had yet made the connection that this was the same police car, so we didn't really know what was going on. As in any routine traffic stop, an officer appeared and asked for the license and insurance of the driver and for some reason my license, even though I was in the passenger seat. After running our info, the cop came back to the car and asked me to step out of the vehicle. I actually had to have him repeat the order, because I was incredibly confused as to why I was being asked to step out the of the car when I wasn't driving.

As soon as I did step out, though, the other officer from the cruiser was standing about 6 inches from my face and while jabbing a finger in my chest asked if I flipped him off a few blocks back, to which I admitted that yes, I had. He then asked me why I did it, and I gave him the honest answer of "my friends and I were being stupid and thought it would be funny." This obviously angered him in some way, as he became even more belligerent and we had the following exchange. I obviously can't guarantee this is verbatim, but both my buddies and I have told the story so many times over the years, I can say this is pretty much what was said:

Cop: If there was someone just walking down the street and you flipped them off, would that be a crime?

Me: Uh...no?

Cop: (obviously not hearing what I said) THEN WHY SHOULD IT BE ANY DIFFERENT FOR ME?

Me: (having no idea how to answer) Uh...it shouldn't?

Cop: You're damn right. I could arrest you and take you in right now.

Me: For what?

Cop: Assault of an officer.

Me: Uh...no, I'm pretty sure you can't? Like, I don't see at all how gesturing at you from 100 feet away makes an assault.

Cop: Oh, I can definitely arrest you for that.

We then went on to argue for a few minutes about whether he could arrest me for assaulting an officer or not, and I have to give myself credit for being able to hold back laughter then entire time (quick legal tip: assault, by definition, has to include physical contact). Eventually he told me I could either apologize or be arrested, so I gave a half-hearted apology and told him we were just being stupid, didn't mean anything by it, etc. He seemed kind of disappointed that I apologized instead of continuing to be an asshole, but he stayed true to his word and let me go (well, "let me go" is a generous assessment, since again, there was literally nothing he could have actually charged me with).

And while I've found this entire exchange hilarious for quite some time, I now get to officially have the last laugh, as the 2nd circuit federal appeals court has ruled giving cops the finger is free speech protected by the Constitution.

So to you, random Waterloo police officer, out there somewhere -- I'd like to use my legally-protected right of free speech to let you know how I feel about you harassing kids for being kids:


Friday, January 23, 2015

Offally Good, Part II -- Tongue

Today (well technically yesterday) we're tackling beef tongue. Unlike oxtail, I've actually had tongue before several times, but I've never actually prepared it myself. I knew in advance that it's somewhat tricky and that doing it wrong leaves you with a weird, rubbery substance that's not remotely appealing. Was I successful in avoiding this? Kinda! Read on as we prepare some delicious tongue tacos, or tacos de lengua if you're fancy. Here's the recipe I'm kind of following if you want some specifics, but this one allows more room for improvisation than the stew did.

First things first, we need to thaw and unwrap the ol' tongue. I actually happened into possession of two separate tongues. The other tongue was much more picturesque and probably would look a lot better in shitty phone pics, but that one is also vacuum wrapped all nicely, while this one was just wrapped in plastic and butcher paper. So I figured the other one would keep a lot longer. Anyway, this is what a beef tongue looks like (albeit one that's already had a bit of pre-butchering):

A tongue
 Unlike the oxtail, there is zero doubt what you're working with here. The second you touch it to wash off the excess blood and whatnot on it, you instantly know you're holding a tongue. It's…well, off-putting would be a word that comes to mind, but doesn't accurately describe it. Anyone who has a dog will already be quite familiar with the sandpaper-like texture of the tongue of most mammals, but damn  if it still isn't weird and creepy.

The tastebuds. It's most definitely a tongue.
I started to write about this in the previous post but deleted it for space, but cooking with offal really reminds you that you're cooking with something that used to be a living animal. I'm sure plenty of people have already written about the phenomenon, but the modern grocery store really divorces you from the fact that meat used to be a living thing, not just some shrink-wrapped pieces in a refrigerated display case. Handling tongue there is zero way to not be conscious of the fact that there was once a living cow using its tongue for cow stuff which was then killed and its tongue was chopped off and put into some wax paper.

Anyway, much like the oxtail, the tongue needs a nice long bath, simmering in various flavorful things to make it both tender and tasty. Here it is enjoying some soaking time:

Celery, onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, tongue
 After a few hours of simmering (I went for 3 and a half, probably could have used a bit more), it's pretty good to go. However, the very outter layer of the tongue needs to be removed before eating, so you root around a bit in that milky white part with a knife, but once it gets loose, it sloughs off pretty easily. Most of the bumps on the tongue go with it, but there's still plenty there to remind you of what you're working with:
May not look like a tongue, but again, it most definitely feels like one
After removing the funky white covering (which probably has a name, but you have the same access to google that I do if you're so damn interested), you chop the tongue up into roughly half inch or so slices. Here's where you relearn a lesson about how heat dissipates, as the outside of the tongue will quickly feel cool enough to work with, but as you start to slice into it and burn your fingers, you remember that heat doesn't move evenly through objects like that. So after swearing a bunch and occasionally running your fingers through cold water, you end up with tongue slices:

Don't let the remarkable resemblance to dog food throw you.
 Then it's time to cook again! I'm beginning to realize the one through-line of working with offal (other than the fact it will take you all day) is that it will need to be cooked in a minimum of two different ways. Starting to understand why people do not gravitate toward these parts of the cow. Anyway, you take those slices and pan fry for awhile, till they're nice and browned:

This is what something looks like in a frying pan.
This picture was probably unnecessary.
 So now we've got some nicely fried cow tongue slices, but since we're going for tacos, they need another rough chop to make them tiny little taco-ready cubes. Once again, you think you've waited plenty of time, but you most definitely burn your fingers again chopping until you have this:

Hi! I'm a pile of tongue!
Then you're pretty much ready to go. Every recipe I read indicated the salsa verde was the go-to condiment for tacos de lengua, so I went with a healthy pile of that. I also saved some of the raw onion, most of which ended up in the simmering pot, to put on them. And then cheese, of course (more on that below). Throw that all in a fresh tortilla, and you get something that's not nearly as photogenic as the stew:

Yup, those are tacos alright.

But was it any good?

Well…kinda. I mean, they definitely weren't bad, but they weren't spectacular. However, I think I made a few key mistakes that could easily be avoided in future tongue cooking. Specifically to the tacos, the grocery store was out of queso fresco when I was there, and I'll be good God damned if I'm going to go to two grocery stores, so I just went with some generic "mexican blend" packaged cheese. This was a big mistake, as the queso fresco would not only have tasted better, but the salty fattiness of it would have really complemented the tacos in a way they could have used. Similarly, I didn't have any limes, and these things were just screaming for some acidity.

In more general tongue preparation, there seemed to be a split opinion on the google machine as to whether tongue needs to be brined before cooking. I skipped it mainly for time concerns (and I'm honestly getting sick of washing dishes -- this shit makes you use a lot of dishes), but I imagine it would have gone quite a way toward solving the acidity problem as well as softening the tongue up more to get rid of the rubberiness. You can't ever completely make tongue loose that rubbery texture, but I think I could have done more. Mine was still fairly rubbery and at the very least probably could have used another hour or so of simmering (but it was getting late, and I was hungry). I'm going to try making the leftovers into a quesadilla incorporating a few more ingredients, though, which I think will make it significantly more palatable. One other problem was that even though I chopped up the tongue as soon as I possibly could (probably sooner than I should have, given how I repeatedly burnt my fingers), by the time the tacos were all assembled, the tongue had cooled quite a bit. Like to basically room temp. While I still could have done more to make the tongue less rubbery, I'm guessing consuming it at room temp probably doesn't help.

Finally, as alluded to above, there is no mistaking you're working with a tongue here. If you had just given me these tacos and not explained what the meat was I might have thought they were a tad rubbery, but not really cared or noticed. But after you've had to handle the tongue for quite sometime, it's simply impossible to push that…feeling out of your head. I think when I have the leftovers and haven't just recently been handling a bloody tongue it might go better.

Have we learned anything from this process?

Yes. Cooking is fun! This is something I already knew, but it's been a long while since I've tried to push myself into really different foods/recipes than I normally cook with. It's a fun hobby, and typically leaves you with something delicious at the end, so it's nice to occasionally just do it for fun rather than for utilitarian purposes.

Also, I don't do much day-long simmering like this very often and I've forgotten how awesome it makes the house smell. I've always been too young and/or single to own a crockpot, but this is making me rethink that. My house has smelled pretty awesome all week. Drives Dog nuts, though.

Coming soon:

A friend passed along a tasty-looking recipe for beef heart, so that's going to happen in the near future. But the true golden grail is brain, which is probably my favorite of all the organs. I'm going to try making it two ways, so that should be a fun entry. I'll either end up with the most delicious thing I've ever made or a really fun blog post about how I wasted a day ruining food. Or I'll get mad cow and post nothing but insane gibberish. In any event, that oughtta be a fun one.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Offally Good, Part I -- Oxtail

I've got a colleague in my department who is from nearby farm country, who after the break bought home an entire cow from a friend of theirs (obviously already butchered and all of that). At some point it came up that they had no idea what to do with the various organs of the cow. And if there's one thing I will not stand for, it's deliciousness like tongue, brain, heart, and other assorted innards going to waste. I can't help it, I'm Polish -- I'm genetically pre-disposed to love organ meats.

Yet I've never actually had the opportunity to cook with any of them, and I really like to learn how to cook new things. So now I'm hoping I can learn to not only make them edible, but make some halfway decent food in the process. Join me, won't you, as we begin our journey and I teach you how to cook with oxtail. Which I am not at all ashamed to admit I didn't realize was literally the tail of the cow until I got it (I mean, it makes all sorts of sense, sure, but I thought it was one of those weird old timey words that had some sort of long story behind it).

Anyway, the key to most all offal is cooking it slowly to make it tender enough to eat. And by slowly, I mean like 6-7 hours, so start this shit early if you're cooking along at home. Today I'm making an oxtail stew, based loosely on this recipe (careful though, it's an English recipe and uses the metric system. Like I'm some sort of super human who has time to translate measurements while cooking. Fuck that. Besides, measuring is for chumps. The stew has enough rosemary when I say it has enough rosemary).

First, the tail itself. Looks pretty funky, but definitely was once a tail. Or an H.R. Geiger creation.

Seriously. This could totally be something that bursts out of a dude's chest.
Apparently you've got to cook the thing before you actually cook it. Probably because it's a damned tail, and not some expensive cut of meat. Obviously one of the reasons for the cheapness of offal is that it's tough, a pain in the ass to prepare, and not particularly the healthiest for you. To that point, you typically need a lot of other stuff to jazz up your offal, since it's not that great and all. So you throw a bunch of vegetables and aromatics (as I've learned is way classier to call them) in a pot. The recipe I linked to calls for fresh herbs, but fuck that noise, this is a stew (there's a misconception amongst people that fresh herbs are always better than dried. Not the case! Fresh are best for when they are added at the end of the process and will receive minimal cooking. For something that's going to be sitting and stewing for a long time, dried can often serve you better).

Specifically: carrots, celery, leeks, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, and cloves.
 So that stuff all hangs out and makes the house smell ridiculously amazing for a period of time. I was aiming for 20 minutes, but I think I got impatient at around the 16 minute mark. It's going to spend all fucking day in the oven anyway, I don't think it's that big a deal. At roughly the same time, apparently the tail is getting ready to join the party, so it gets yanked out of the oven where it had been hanging out with some olive oil and caramelizing itself. It now looks like this.


Still looks like an alien, but now one that is a tasty golden brown.
Then once again you need to add a bunch of shit to give this stuff flavor. So about a third or so of a bottle of wine. Make sure to pour yourself a glass as well. (Sure, it's barely past noon, but it's just one glass, it's not like you're being crazy irresponsible. Ok, maybe two glasses, but it's not like I'm not putting in work here. That was a lot of chopping. Besides this is America, and if you don't have a glass of wine while cooking, you're letting the terrorists win. Why do you hate America so much?!?). Then put in a can of tomatoes. Not the giant can, and not those tiny itty-bitty cans, but you know, like the regular size ones. In addition to that, you could add some boring-ass water, or you could add the homemade stock you made from all of the Thanksgiving leftovers. You feel particularly clever when you do this, because when you made and froze the stock, you had no idea what you were going to do with it.

Homemade stock. Physical evidence of my complete lack of a social life.
Then everything gets together in the pot and hangs out in the oven for several hours at some lowish temp (something in the low-300s). You can't quite see it in the pic, but this time you remembered to unscrew the plastic handles of the pot and lid before you put them in the oven, which helps the house smell like delicious stew instead of melting plastic. You are once again quite proud of yourself.

The alien baby rests in a warm bath.
So that's been hanging out in the oven pretty much all afternoon. I think it went in a little before 1:00 and other than the occasional stir (which was really more of an excuse to open up the lid and smell its deliciousness, but I'm sure stirring does something to something), it didn't come out until about 6:30 or so. But you're far from finished! For the tail is just chockablock full of the rest of the cow's spine. So you fish it out with a slotted spoon because it's already falling apart of its own accord (a very good sign!) and it now looks significantly less like something that might burst out of Kane's chest after encountering the face hugger and more like delicious meatstuff.

Pictured: delicious meatstuff. Spellcheck for some reason does not recognize "meatstuff" as a valid word.
The fortunate thing about stewing meat for that long is that it becomes literally fall-off-the-bone tender, so you just need to wiggle it around a bunch and rip off the bits of flesh that refuse to separate from their bone friends. Then you're left with a regular ol' pile of meat. Were you to show this to a stranger passing through your kitchen, they'd have no idea it was actually tail. At the same time, if you regularly have strangers in your kitchen, you may want to install better locks.

Hi, you can't even tell I was a creepy-looking tail only hours ago!
Of course, in addition to your new pile of meat, you also have a pile of spine. Technically the tail, sure, but I think those are pretty much the same thing (note: I am definitely not a biologist). It's fun to have a plateful of spinal bones, makes you feel like an archeologist. And don't you go throwing those bones away! Make sure to keep them and their delicious marrow for making more stock. Just toss 'em in a plastic bag with various veggie trimmings and keep them in the freezer. When you collect enough, make a big ol' pot of stock to freeze and have at the ready. What's that, you're not already making your own stock at home? Way to sell your soul to BIG STOCK. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE! Anyway, here's what your pile of bones will look like:

What you're preparing to eat used to be employed mainly to swat at flies on the ass of a barnyard creature.

While admiring your bones, you should have thrown the meat back into the pot and the pot back into the oven to hang out and stew some more. Oh, and at some point you should have made some mashed potatoes. It's no hurry, you've got about a 7-hour window, though I suggest waiting more toward the end. Then you're done. Well, I mean, you should probably put it all on a plate, or in a bowl or something, but really, it's your food, you eat it however you like. If you go with a traditional plate-based method, it will look something like this:

Pictured: A somewhat competent-looking stew and potatoes.

But what it any good?

Surprisingly yes, it was quite delicious. I've never had oxtail before, but it stewed up quite nice like. While I still advocate not paying attention to measurements of spices, I'd suggest using less cloves than I did. There's a hint of sophomore poetry major in mine that's not the best, but otherwise, pretty decent for my first foray into tail.

Check back later in the week as we head to Central America and make some tacos de lengua with delicious cow tongue. And this weekend: brain! Oh, the adventures we're having with lesser-used cow parts this week!