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On Catching Up, Or, Good News Told, And The Bush Book Reviewed March 26, 2009

So many times when we get together you have to put up with me complaining about something…and there are lots of other times when it’s me warning about events that are looming in our future.

Even though they’re conversations we need to have, they’re often not very emotionally satisfying.

Today we depart from that pattern, in a very good way.

It’s “follow-up day”; and the conversation takes us to three “happy places”: two “problem” stories that have recent positive progress to report—and, just because I care about you, Gentle Reader, an exclusive preview of the George W. Bush autobiography, obtained with considerable effort from an unnamed and particularly well-placed source.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in and tell you what you need to know.

“Why don’t you like girls?”
“They’re too biased.”
“Biased?”
“Yeah…bias this and bias that—until I’m busted.”

–Joke 5997, 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, & Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

In June of 2007 we ran the first of a series of stories describing how some school kids who had parents that owed money to the school—in one case, $7.50–were being served “alternate meals”…which meant that if Mom or Dad forget to send the money, the kid gets a cheese sandwich, while everyone else gets the regular hot meal…which meant that, in some cases, the hot meals were literally taken from the hands of children at the cash register…after which the kids are sent to classrooms where we spend about half a billion tax dollars annually to try to teach them healthy life habits—like not using food as a weapon.

We became aware of all of this because parents in Chula Vista, California decided to take on the local Elementary School District; who felt that implementing this policy in the District made so much financial sense that it outweighed the potential harm to the affected students.

Well, lots of parents didn’t like it…and sometimes parents win.

A partial victory was achieved in February of 2008, when the parents (led by Will and Cyndi Perno, and Alice Coronado) were able to influence first the California Food Policy Advocates…and then, even more importantly, Fabian Nuñez, the former Speaker of the California State Assembly.

Pressure was applied…resulting in this:

“Irrespective of a student’s financial ability to pay for a meal, the laws cited above require that all students eligible for free and reduced-price meals receive a reimbursable meal during each school day. The reimbursable meal shall be the same meal choice offered to students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals [EC 49557(c)]. Therefore, school districts/county offices of education (COEs) cannot serve an alternate meal to a student eligible for a free or reduced-price meal who does not have the ability to pay or provide a medium of exchange for his/her meal on a given day.

School districts/COEs need to formulate a plan to ensure that children eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals are not treated differently from other children with respect to meal service.”

–From the Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin, California Department of Education, February 2008 (emphasis is from the original document).

It took another year of pressure, but Will Perno sent an email to let me know that the new policy the Chula Vista Elementary School District adopted just this month ends the practice of serving these lunches altogether:

“…Our research has shown that the alternate meal program is no longer an effective intervention tool for managing unpaid balances. Thus, we are eliminating the alternative meal.”

–Letter to parents, March 2, 2009, from Superintendent Lowell J. Billings

(Victory in California is not, however, victory nationwide…and just last month Albuquerque Public Schools started a “cheese sandwich policy” of their own—which is already causing trouble.

Does your District have this sort of policy?
Take a few minutes this week and find out…)

New Butler: “At what time, Sir, would you wish to dine as a rule?”
Profiteer: “What time do the best people dine?”
New Butler: “At different times, Sir.”
Profiteer: “Very well. Then, I, too, will dine at different times.”

–Joke 6767, 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, & Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

Regular readers are likely to have also noticed a series of four stories in this space on aspects of Egyptian politics.

We have discussed the fact that opposing the ruling National Democratic Party, represented by President Hosni Mubarak, can be construed as unconstitutional—and criminal to boot—and we described how running against Mr. Mubarak for President of Egypt in 2005 was the reason Ayman Nour of the El-Ghad Party had been spending the past several years in prison.

The imprisonment of Nour had not marked the end of violent State harassment against the El-Ghad party…so it was quite a surprise to hear that Ayman Nour had been unexpectedly released about four weeks ago.

Wa’el Nawara, who leads El-Ghad today, sent me these comments regarding Nour’s release:

“Ayman Nour was released today around 6pm where he just walked into his home at Zamalek, Cairo, unexpectedly. A media frenzy broke out and in a few minutes, his home was packed with reporters from local and international news agencies.

His release came as a result from the Egyptian Attorney General, on medical grounds! Nour was first arrested on 29th January 2005, 90 days after El Ghad Party was given legal status in October 2004. Ayman Nour was first released on 12th March 2005 and he ran against Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election Egypt witnessed where he came first runner up after Mubarak.

Nour was then re-arrested on 5th December 2005 – merely 90 days (again) after his participation in Presidential Elections, sentenced to 5 years in Jail on 25th December 2005. Appeal was turned down in May 2006.

Upon his release 2 days ago, Ayman Nour announced that he seeks no revenge, that he is calmer and more patient than ever and that he will focus his efforts to rebuild El Ghad party to advance the cause of reform, liberty and democracy in Egypt.

We hope that this may be the start of a new era in Egypt’s political scene, where a new social contract can be drafted through a package of comprehensive reform…

…We shall strive to create a national dialogue with opposition leaders to reach some consensus on an Agenda of Reform. We have no reservations to even engage reformist wing from NDP in such an agenda. But we need to agree that the outcome of such dialogue must be some sort of a meaningful political process built on the principles of pluralism, real democracy and freedom.”

(It has been hazardous to be a blogger in Egypt as well, and the recent release of Mohamed Adel, combined with the news of Nour’s release, means we need to take a fifth look at the view from Egypt. Stay tuned.)

And finally…we review the preview chapters of the George W. Bush autobiography.

To give you an idea of what the book is about, a few words from the Random House press release:

“Tentatively titled “Decision Points,” the book will not be a conventional memoir, but instead will focus exclusively on approximately a dozen of the most interesting and important decisions in the former President’s personal and political life. Mr. Bush will write candidly about, among other topics, his decision to run for the presidency; how he chose his closest advisors, including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Condoleezza Rice; the terrorist attacks of 9/11; the decisions to send American troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; the response to Hurricane Katrina; his commitment to fight AIDS around the world; the formation of his stem cell research policy; his relationships with his father, mother, siblings, and wife; his decision to quit drinking; and how he found faith. The former President will write the book himself, with the assistance of researchers, and has already commenced the writing process.

“My goal is to bring the reader inside the Oval Office for the most consequential moments of my personal and political life. I look forward to painting a vivid picture of the information I had, the principles I followed, and the decisions I made. I am spending time on the book every day, and I am thrilled to be working with the team at Crown,” said the former President.”

As I said, I’ve seen some of the advance pages of the book, and here are a few impressions:

–We are fortunate that this book was written after 1998, because before then it would not have been possible to really do the subject justice.

Of course, that was the year 24 new colors were added to the Crayola palette…and as far as I’m concerned, Jungle Green, which is what I would have used in the past to color in Dubya’s flight suit on the “Iraq and Afghanistan” page, is just not as authentic as Mountain Meadow Green.

The same was true on the “Katrina” page. To simulate the color of the water coming into New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico I combined Caribbean Green and Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown…and mixing Macaroni and Cheese and Olive Green captures the exterior of the Superdome so, so, nicely.

None of this would have been possible without those 24 extra colors…and as so often happens, better tools make the telling of history ever more engaging and accurate—enriching our understanding of events in the process.

–I was worried that I would have trouble sharpening my crayon enough to make Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside The U.S. legible…but lucky for me, that page was missing from the preview copy.

–What I’ve seen of the book prompts a quick—and admittedly snarky–question: when Mr. Bush says that he’ll be “working with the assistance of researchers”…isn’t that kind of like OJ Simpson telling reporters that he’s busy “looking for the real killers?”

(I was disappointed, I must admit, that the advance copy did not include the “Orange Jumpsuit” page, either: choosing between Atomic Tangerine, Burnt Orange, Neon Carrot, and Mango Tango had taken nearly an hour and two replays of a Ted Nugent song…and with the page missing all that time was expended, with no tangible result produced.

I had also picked out Burnt Orange, by the way, for the fiber optic cables in the AT&T network switching center in San Francisco, but, again, the regret of a missing page…)

So there we are: for today we have three great stories…and two of them don’t even require you to stay within the lines, which is always nice.

Ayman Nour is out of jail, which may be part of a bigger story, school lunches are no longer punishment in California…and we had a spot of fun with Mr. Bush and his impending book, for which I hope Laura Bush will forgive us.

And as for me?
Time to get online and see if I can order another Macaroni And Cheese to replace the one I used up on the Superdome.

Ah, the troubles of a writer…

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On Cooking That Turkey, Or, What To Do After The Sarah Palin Press Conference November 26, 2008

So it’s more or less 30 hours until Americans enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, and you’re asking yourself the annual question: “Isn’t there a simple way to cook a turkey?”

Well, America, there is…and it does not involve bags, or injections, or even stuffing. No fancy preparations and no fancy equipment are required (with the exception of a large flat pan with metal handles, a carving fork or large tongs, and a food thermometer).

Here’s the cool part: this method for cooking turkeys isn’t just a method for cooking turkeys…and if you follow the directions, you’ll soon discover that not only have you learned a new way to cook a turkey, you’ve learned a new way to cook almost anything that can walk or fly.

We only have 30 hours, so we better get right to it…

Now before we go any farther, let’s relieve some of the Thanksgiving cooking stress with a video that is as topical as it gets.

Some of you may not know about the most unfortunate aftermath of Sarah Palin’s recent effort to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey…and I won’t spoil the fun if you have not yet seen it…but I will tell you that what is attached to the next link may the single funniest—and most disturbing—piece of political video I have ever seen; and somehow Palin remains blithely unaware of the events occurring just over her shoulder the entire time.

Take three minutes, watch the video, have a sip of the first glass of wine of the day…and when that’s done, we’ll get back to work.

So, are you laughing now?
OK then, let’s have some fun.

You may recall my telling you that what we are about to do can be used to cook any number of things; and to make for a better explanation I’m actually going to discuss cooking a boneless chicken breast first, and then we’ll move up to turkeys, using essentially the same technique.

So here’s what we do: turn the oven to 375 F. (190 C.), and turn the stove to either medium high (electric stoves) or nearly as big a flame as the burner will make, if you’re using a gas stove.

Grab the pan and toss it in the oven to heat.

Now what we are going to do is brown the chicken breast on top of the stove, flip it, and then cook it the rest of the way in the oven. The reason we are going to do this is because when you cook on top of the stove, you cook from bottom to top, creating a breast that’s “done” at the bottom but still “rare” at the top (you compensate for this by flipping the breast in the pan, but I have a better plan).

Cooking in the oven exposes the chicken to heat from all sides, creating an item that’s cooked on the outside and into the middle evenly (for a steak: done on the outside, perfectly pink in the middle…yummm).

So now that the pan’s hot, let’s try it: pull out the pan, put it on the hot burner, pour in just a bit of oil…and lay the breast in the pan by putting it in the part of the pan that’s closest to you first, then letting it fall away from you. (This prevents the hot oil from spattering on you…which is always a good thing.)

After a minute or so, you should see the breast browning, and that’s when we flip it over and then just put the pan right in the oven, then shut off the stove.

If you are a fancy high-falutin’ cook, you can tell when it’s done because it will feel like a well-done steak—and if you are a cooking mortal, it’s done when the thermometer tells you the temperature at the thickest part of the breast is 165 F. (75 C.).

The reward for your experimental effort should be an especially juicy breast that is not dried-out and tough. Pretty cool, eh?

“My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor”

Phyllis Diller

So how do we scale this process up to a turkey?

It’s actually really simple.

We need a substantially larger pan (I have a 14” restaurant-style sauté pan that I use for this application), and any metal pan with a reasonably thick bottom, relatively shallow sides (no saucepans or kettles), and heat-resistant handle(s) should do just nicely.

We also need to make a temperature adjustment.

As we move into larger items, we lower the oven’s temperature. We do this because we don’t want to overcook the outside before the inside is done. Instead of 375 F. (which is great for chicken breasts and steaks), we would lower the oven to 350 F. (175 C.) for something like a boneless pork loin or a small roast of beef or a whole chicken, and we would go down to 325 F. (165 C.) for something as large as our turkey.

For food safety reasons, we don’t want to use lower temperatures.

It is imperative that you raise the internal temperature of anything you cook from 40 F. (4 C.) to 140 F. (60 C.) in under two hours to avoid foodborne illness…and cooking turkeys at 275 F. (135 C.), as some suggest, is just a bit too risky for my taste.

Now a few words about measuring temperature in a bird.

Unlike “walking” meats, birds have hollow bones that do not transmit heat well. Therefore you do not want the tip of your thermometer touching—or very close to—bone when checking your turkey. (Beef, and the other “walking” animals, are the exact opposite. Their heavier bones transmit heat quite well, and the meat closest to the bone will often be the first meat below the surface to be fully cooked on a large roast of beef.)

Instead, use a location deep into the breast, away from bones…and as with all birds, a 165 F. (75 C.) internal temperature is the goal. And as with all birds, that temperature will give you a juicy, not-dried-out, result.

We are not going to stuff our bird.

This is also for food safety reasons.
The stuffing makes it take even longer to raise that turkey’s internal temperature (not to mention the stuffing’s)…and that’s a bad thing.

Bake the stuffing in its own pan…do not cook it in the bird.
Trust me on this.

There is no need to “prepare” the turkey—no rubs, no flouring the skin, nothing.
As an experiment I did a sea salt “rub” about 10 days ago on a turkey breast…and to be honest, all it did was make the skin salty.

OK, so our big pan is in the oven, getting hot…and the stove is on that same setting we used for the chicken breast…and now we take the pan, put it on the stove—and in goes the turkey, breast side down (remember, place it in the pan moving away from you to avoid splashing oil, just as with anything else you put in a pan with oil…).

You’ll have to brown one side at a time…and your fork or tongs (BBQ tools work if you don’t have big kitchen tongs or a carving fork…) can support the turkey so you don’t have to hold on to it.

It’s gonna splatter a bit (the less water, the better), but don’t be scared…and after a minute or so one side will be nicely browning, so do the other side next, and then flip the whole thing breast side up, and put the pan in the oven.

Except for taking the bird’s temperature from time to time (again, 165 F., or 75 C. internal temperature) and taking it out when it’s done, you are completely finished with the work on this project.

In fact, it’s probably about time for that second glass of wine.

So let’s take a moment and summarize.

Hot oven, hot stove, hot pan, put object to be cooked face down in pan on the stove, don’t splatter yourself, get it brown, flip it, put it in the oven, have a second glass of wine, remove from oven when done.

And just like they always tell you at the Fair: “It’s just that easy”.

So have a great day, don’t stress over the cooking…and remember, this technique works great on anything from a partridge to a steamship round.