14 January 2007

A Stew for a January Night

With temperatures in the mid-teens yesterday, I decided that it was an ideal night for a delicious, hearty stew. After looking at three recipes from three good cookbooks, and being quite unhappy with each, I decided that I was just going to make it myself, without the assistance of a recipe. When I'm feeling confident in the kitchen, I love to cook without a recipe, just using the techniques I learned over the years and hoping for the best. Sometimes, disaster strikes and I end up ordering a pizza. Other times, I create something new, unique, and tasty. The stew I made last night was - dare I say it? - perfect! ...for my palate, at least. We served it in soup bowls with some good crusty bread and a hearty spinach salad with apples, cucumbers, bacon, and hard boiled eggs, tossed with a roasted garlic vinaigrette that Rob made. The stew was simple, but the flavors were bright and full, as they should be. It was hearty without being too rich or greasy. I decided I had to write a recipe for it, and I thought I would share it with you. Feel free to add or change it to fit your tastes. Bon appetit!

A Stew for a January Night
By Francis Xavier Lilly

  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 1½ pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1½ - to 2-inch cubes
  • ¼ to ½ cup olive oil, butter, bacon drippings, or any combination thereof
  • ½ cup full-bodied red wine, such as a burgundy, pinot noir, or merlot
  • Approximately 4 cups low-sodium beef stock (1 32-ounce container)
  • Approximately 3½ cups pureed tomatoes (1 28-ounce container)
  • 1½ pounds fingerling potatoes
  • 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered, or ½ pound pearl onions, peeled
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled, halved, and cut into 1-inch sticks
  • 4 celery stalks, halved and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously season ⅓ cup of flour with salt and pepper. Pour the flour mixture in a large plastic zip top bag. Place the cubed meat into the bag, and shake and squeeze until all the meat is lightly covered in flour. Place a large-volume oven-safe stock pot or Dutch oven on the stove and turn on the heat to medium high. Add the oil to the pot. When the oil is hot, add the meat to the pot, in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan. Sauté the meat until is it a deep golden brown on all sides, and transfer to a plate and set aside. Add more oil between batches if necessary.

Pour the fat out of the pot. Pour in the wine and simmer it for a few minutes while loosening the fond from the bottom and sides of the pot with a wooden spoon. Allow the wine to reduce by about a third before adding the beef stock and the pureed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Add the meat and any juices that collected on the plate. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the potatoes, onions, carrots, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover the pot, and place the pot in the oven.

Cook the stew in the oven for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste the stew and add salt or pepper as desired. Add the celery. Continue cooking for another half hour or until the meat and potatoes are fork tender. If any fat has pooled on top of the stew, remove it with a spoon or ladle. Taste and season again. Remove the thyme stalks and the bay leaves. Serve with some good bread and a hearty salad.

Serves six.

Cook's Notes

  • I use an enameled, cast iron Dutch oven, and it does a beautiful job of cooking this stew. The advantage of bringing the stew to a simmer on the stovetop and then placing it in a hot oven is that it will better aid in the even distribution of heat throughout the dish. A good Dutch oven will also make for even heat distribution.
  • Bacon drippings? Absolutely! It's a staple fat in French cooking, and for good reason: it provides an intensity of flavor that is unmatched.
  • The wine is a personal thing. If you want to add more wine, add more, substituting the wine for the stock. You can also do what some French chefs do when they make a Boeuf Bourguignonne - marinate the meat overnight in the wine.
  • If you don't like wine, you can substitute it for a nice, flavorful vinegar, such as balsamic, sherry, or apple cider vinegar. You could also use beer.
  • Consider using pork, lamb, boar, or venison as an alternative to beef.
  • Use a quality stock. I prefer the Kitchen Basics brand.
  • The same goes for the tomatoes. If you can get your hands on some imported Italian tomatoes, all the better. The pureed tomatoes will thicken the stew nicely.
  • Fingerling potatoes are lightly sweet and possess a nice, creamy texture when cooked. They are a delicious addition to a stew.
  • I added the celery stalks later, because I like the celery to be a bit crisp and to maintain its fragrant taste. You can also add other vegetables, such as fresh green beans or peas. Add these vegetables in the last few minutes of cooking.

11 January 2007

Father Mychal's Prayer

The Rev. Mychal Judge, OFM, was the former chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, and he died while ministering to the fallen at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. I just came across this beautiful prayer, which he wrote.

Lord, take me where You want me to go;
Let me meet who You want me to meet;
Tell me what You want me to say, and
Keep me out of Your way.


07 January 2007


Last Friday, I saw "Children of Men," a grim but thrilling picture by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, and Michael Caine in three magnificent roles. The film, based on a book by P.D. James, ponders the notion of a society bereft of children. It is a near-future dystopia set in London in 2027, in a world where "only Britain soldiers on." The norms of democracy have eroded, a security state has emerged, immigrants are hunted and held in camps, and innocent civilians are being bombed as they get their morning coffees.

As far as an adaptation, I can't say how good this movie is. I haven't read the book, though I intend to now. As far as a film that stands on its own merits, it's outstanding. Like any good speculative fiction, "Children of Men" is intended to be a reflection on today's world. One of the gifts of the science fiction genre is that the visions of a future or an alternate reality estrange us, the viewers or readers, from our own world and our own modes of living. In this estrangement, we can perceive possibilities or even realities that we otherwise might not have noticed. Good (or bad) science fiction or fantasy for that matter is almost always political. Sometimes the messages can be overbearing or preachy. Other times, the author or filmmaker finds that perfect note, conveying a brilliant and compelling message in a manner that is subtle and respectful of the viewer's intellect.

In "Children of Men," Cuarón did a remarkable job of treading that fine line and striking, in the end, a perfect note. I should say that, after seeing it on Friday, I wasn't sure if I liked it. It's relentless and bleak. The visuals are intense and Cuarón confronted the tragedy of war in a way that recalled images from the past few years. Clearly, his palette drew from the post-9/11 worldview that gripped America and Britain. My initial adverse reaction to the film was due to the proximity and veracity of the events Cuarón portrayed. But I suppose that was the point. It wasn't until Saturday that I realized how great the film was: it left me thinking and pondering all weekend. "Children of Men" is a film that poses challenging questions, many of which are unanswered. Unlike many big-budget science fiction or fantasy tales, the futurism is in service to the story, so it blends into the background in a way that is plausible and interesting. Indeed, the technology imagined in the film only serves to remind us that some aspects of humanity are timeless.

Dystopian fiction is compelling to me, and I don't know why. From my childhood, I was facinated with the radio show and movie, "War of the Worlds." I found the threat of natural disasters and nuclear war to be frightening, but somehow intriguing. I derived some enjoyment (and still do) from imagining an event that could so radically alter the form of my life. As I got older, I realized that the dystopia genre is a powerful tool to explore political conditions. I've amassed quite a collection. Feminism and the dignity of women are themes touched upon by Sheri Teper ("The Gate to Women's Country"), Margaret Atwood ("The Handmaid's Tale"), and Octavia Butler ("Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents "). Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a great book called "The Left Hand of Darkness" pondering the concepts of cold war and gender identity. Ray Bradbury wrote "Fahrenheit 451" about a world in which books were banned, and what life in such a world might entail. There is a whole sub-genre of science fiction called military science fiction and most of these are dystopian as well, including the great new TV show, Battlestar Galactica. Robert A. Heinlein penned "Starship Troopers" and Joe Haldeman wrote "The Forever War." These books stand out as strong allegories of war, especially America's wars in the 20th Century. One of the most interesting books of this type I've ever read is "Arslan" by M.J. Engh, dealing with America's downfall at the hands of a third-rate central Asian dictator

Is it just me, or do the British have a particular taste for dystopia? "Children of Men" was set in London in 2027, just on the heels of "V for Vendetta," another near-future British dystopia. Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and Huxley's "Brave New World" were also British. I also vividly remember from last year "Smallpox," A British mock documentary that tells of a smallpox epidemic that sweeps the world. Am I sensing a theme? Is there something in the British psyche that makes them unusually prone to fearsome and emiserating visions of the future?

05 January 2007

Vox Askew

If you've noticed, my banner image has drifted off to the right. I had to update my blog template to gain the full functionality of the new Blogger Dashboard interface and what you see is the result. Generally I like the new interface, and it allowed me to add a couple lists on the right side.

But 'tis a puzzlement how to get my image back into the center of the page. I've even used center tags. If anyone has a recommendation, pass it along to me.

Thanks as always for reading.

Update: as you can see I got it fixed. It was a simple matter of returning to the code with a fresh perspective after a couple days.

Roads That Get Us Nowhere

I came across this picture of a traffic jam in Xiamen, China. This is clearly evidence of the limitations of a roundabout...look at the outbound routes that are almost empty while the lanes feeding into the circle are backed up for thousands of feet (look at the upper left corner of the photo). This is what we call in the trade "bad traffic design." My mom would call it a "cluster-fuck."

For over a decade, China has aspired to a "western" lifestyle, and this is one of the results. In the past twenty years, China has built from the ground up a highway system that is the third largest in the world. Their network of limited-access expressways (motorways) is second only to the United States. The road building shows no sign of stopping, either. The Economist has an interesting article on the emerging car culture in China and what this might portend for that nation, and for the world.

One of my professors once explained to me how building more roads can actually make traffic worse. By building more roads, you increase capacity to allow people to travel farther distances in a short time. This in turn makes land at the edge of an urban area more attractive for development. When the land is developed, say a worksite or a major residential community, traffic volumes increase, and planners respond by commissioning yet more roads that open up more land at the edge of an urban area for development, and...well, you get the idea. The point is, roadbuilding induces sprawl, which requires a driver to make more and longer trips. More and longer trips result in more cars on the roads for longer periods of time. And one of the consequences of the sprawl-roadbuilding relationship is ever more pollution (see a piece on the land-use/transportation/air quality connection here).

Just as metropolitan regions across the United States are confronting the need for alternate modes of transit (the Salt Lake region alone has committed to 90 miles of commuter rail, four light rail extensions, at least one streetcar line, and at least three bus rapid transit lines by 2030. By that time, 90 percent of the region's population will be within one mile of a light or heavy rail stop), it's amusing to see China go through the same motions that the United States did when we rapidly suburbanized our cities from the mid-1940s onward -- until you realize that America has barely topped 300 million people while China accounts for one fifth of humanity. China's desire to build western style cities may have deep and far-reaching impacts on the global environment and economy well before they realize the need to establish alternative modes of development.

04 January 2007

And Now, Madam Speaker...

At noon today, the Democrats reclaimed control of both houses of Congress for the fist time in twelve years. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, California took the chair as Speaker of the House, the first woman and the first Italian-American to do so. In the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada takes the leadership of a razor-thin majority that hangs in the balance pending the successful recovery of fellow Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

In November, I predicted that the Democrats would regain control of the House, but that the Republicans would retain a bare majority in the Senate. In my prediction, I underestimated the depth of the change, which is still relatively minor. As much as the Republicans deserved the "thumpin'" that they received, I was sad to see so many moderate Republicans, including Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, take the fall for the excesses of their party, most of which were committed by the more ideological wing of the party. The 2006 elections, especially in the House, resulted in an ideological winnowing of the GOP, and there's no reason to believe that they won't be as hard-line as they ever have been. No doubt the new GOP minority in the House has been chastened and hopefully they'll be better statespeople. That said, the interventionist, expansionist, and evangelical character of the republican delegation was only intensified.

As for the democrats, they won because Congress under the GOP was such an abominable failure (definitely read this link). Throughout the election, I never got a sense that they offered a clear message, a clear alternative - other than a few light policy prescriptions such as a minimum wage increase and ethics reform, and of course greater oversight of the executive branch and more trenchant criticism of the war in Iraq. All of these objectives are worthy, but I would have preferred a bolder platform and a stronger announcement of intent, rather than the legislative fast-food they plan to offer in 100 hours of floor time in Congress. The Democrats won, but they have not found their voice yet. It's essential that they do, before the 2008 election cycle, which, by the way, started before the mid-term elections.

Today, I came across a good editorial written by Dick Meyer at CBSNews.com. He writes of a precipitous decline in "civic maturity" both on the part of the citizens and their elected officials. This decline, he argues, explains the general malaise that has stricken political discourse in recent years. Here's why:

The seasons of American civic life are messed up by the global warming effect of the ceaseless campaign. This January, not only will a new Congress be sworn in, but people like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mitt Romney and John McCain will officially declare their campaigns for a presidential election that's still 20 months away.

Meyer's argument doesn't bode well for our polity: our politicians are always campaigning, and never governing. The other day, David Brooks, in a discussion on News Hour With Jim Lehrer, noted the decline in "sophistication" in the congressional delegations over the years. Under Republican rule, they spent fewer and fewer days in Washington, a place where relationships are forged, bridges are built, and coalitions are made. A congress that meets three days a week, he argued, never got to the point where they could know each other well enough to build the trust necessary to forge coalitions. It's no wonder that Congressional politics have devolved into bitter partisanship. So I suppose the Democrats' call for a five-day workweek is probably a good thing for the country. It is, at least, a start.

I worry, though, about reprisals from a newly-emboldened Democratic congress, whose members were justifiably abused in previous republican-led Congresses. That will only serve to set the stain that has already been created. I also worry about a stubborn, reckless, and imperious president who is loath to admit error. I found it interesting that of all the aspects of Gerald Ford's life his eulogizers chose to emphasize, they chose his fundamental decency and his ability to heal the country. These are the characteristics we need from our politicians now, as we are plunged into yet another long national nightmare, this one involving a culture war at home and a far deadlier war abroad. To this end, I wish the Democrats godspeed.

01 January 2007

More on the Execution of Saddam

Yesterday, I spent some time reading some of the details that surrounded the execution of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. I even watched the video of his hanging, shot by a cellphone from someone in the agitated crowd of observers. The video gives some shocking insights into the true nature of politics in Iraq, and is worth watching if you can stomach it.

I stand by my belief that the world is probably better off without Saddam, and I can't say I'm sad to see him go. However, those are personal beliefs and little more than knee-jerk reactions. Justice systems in liberal democracies are not designed solely to mollify the public's blood lust or a victim's desire for revenge. The institutions in place that render judgement and execute punishments are also intended to preserve law and order and to give citizens the comfort and freedom in which to live their lives as free from fear as the state can possibly allow. For this reason, I am opposed to capital punishment. Since the death penalty does not appear to deter criminal activity, I see no good to society in terminating an individual's life, and I hate to think that we, in Utah for example, commit substantial resources in providing state sanction to the desire of some people to avenge a heinous crime.

But at least in America, the gravity of the penalty demands an almost ritualized solemnity in the execution chamber, and in the time between sentencing and execution. The process of execution is intended to be as dignified as possible (insofar as state-sanctioned killing can be dignified). Since we have been so keen on holding ourselves as the gold standard of democracy and statecraft to the emerging Iraqi government, the manner in which Saddam was disposed was a travesty, and a terrible setback on the road to building a stable, peaceful, and democratic Iraq. The pleadings of people within and without Iraq were ignored by the government, and the Prime Minister summarily swept aside a suite of laws that were intended to ensure that due process was met in the execution of a death sentence.

The video of Saddam's execution reminded me of the grainy, amateurish video of the beheading of Nick Berg in 2004. Saddam and his captors were exchanging taunts as the noose was positioned around his neck. The men in the audience shouted "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" (Muqtada al-Sadr is the Shi'ite cleric and lightning rod from An Najaf ) and Saddam leered at them. Apparently Saddam and his executioners told each other to "go to Hell." The trap door was pulled, and the men erupted into cheers as the former dictator's neck was broken. It dawned on me that the show trial and subsequent execution wasn't about justice as much as it was about fulfilling a vendetta. Saddam wasn't turned over to Iraqi authorities for the execution of a sentence. He was handed over to a Shi'ite death squad.

Instead of compelling Iraqis to move toward peace and reconciliation, the execution of Saddam Hussein pushed the country closer to dissolution and sectarian genocide. Where two years ago there was broad consensus on the need for Saddam to be punished, his undignified treatment at the hands of masked Shi'ite thugs may make him a martyr in the eyes of Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere. Unfortunately, we are entangled in this mess. The failures of the Iraqi government are ours to bear as well. Saddam's execution is but one more example of how spectacularly mismanaged our efforts have been in Iraq; it affirms my belief that we are no more secure now than we we were before the invasion.