Journal: 2012

The Vat of Chocolate

Ahh, fond memories of that Smothers Brothers skit from the sixties, but don’t bother hunting it down on YouTube, as it has not worn well and was much funnier back then.  To cut to the chase, yes, there was a vat of chocolate, but i neither fell into it nor yelled, “Fire!” like Tommy did since he knew nobody would come to his aid if he yelled, “Chocolate!”

See, i went to Dandelion Chocolate’s Chocolate 101 event last night, and it was everything i’d imagined and more.   A couple of the principals conducted the show, Alice and Cam, both lean as ferrets in spite of all that chocolate but, unlike ferrets, delightfully nice.

They started us out with an hour-long overview of ingredients and a tasting of types of chocolate:  dark chocolate – a bittersweet bar from Patric, milk chocolate – Scharffen Berger, 100% – from Pralus, white – the Askinoise, and finally a confection made of cocoa powder, hydrogenated palm oil, sugar, lecithin, and probably some artificial flavors that was designed to taste like chocolate but could not be called “chocolate” since it had no cocoa butter.  After the others, it was dreadful and had such a weird taste that i disposed of it discreetly.  And no, i did not know what it was when i put it in my mouth since i was trying to make this a fair tasting.

After we’d tasted all the chocolate types, they gave us samples of a puree of chocolate fruit.  No no, not the beans, but the fruit that dries up before the seed pod is harvested.  Hell, i didn’t know the fruit was even edible, but it’s delicious, perhaps more so because i can’t imagine being able to buy it in this country.  And no, it doesn’t taste like chocolate.

The second hour was the best part.  They led us over to the beginning of the production line, where there were stacks of 50 kilo bags of fermented and dried cocoa beans.  We got to crack open the beans and taste them as Alice and Cam demonstrated how to determine the quality of the beans using a magra, a sort of bean guillotine that lets you chop fifty beans precisely in half with one push and then holds them perfectly displayed for your examination.

Next, the roasters.  Here, the point was driven home that Dandelion is still a very small operation.  The roasters are a couple of home-microwave-size ovens with wire mesh cylinders in which the beans are tumbled as they roast.  Looked to me like they were designed for home roasting of coffee beans, and as with coffee, what a difference the roasting makes! The raw beans didn’t really taste much like chocolate, but roasting them made a dramatic difference.

From the roaster, the beans go into a cracker that whacks them just hard enough to shatter them into chunks.  And then they go into a homemade riddle that separates out the larger chunks on two levels for another pass through the cracker. The finely cracked beans are put through a Rube Goldbergian homemade winnower that blow/sucks the chaff away to get the beans ready for the pre-grinder, which is store bought since they discovered that the standard heavy duty peanut butter grinder works great.  What comes out looks like a darker colored, chunky peanut butter but with very small chunks.

The pre-grinder supplies four melangers, which grind the pre-ground beans and sugar with stone wheels in a process that takes a couple of days or so.  Here’s the largest, which is about 18-20 inches across.  What Dandelion uses as melangers are sold as Indian spice grinders.



After the melanger comes the temperer.  And this is the only machine they use that was actually manufactured for processing chocolate. And at that point the chocolate is ready to be poured into molds, and the tour is over.  If they do Chocolate 101 again, i recommend it as it’s both fun and informative.  And while i’m recommending, their home page is really a communal blog, and i found it highly entertaining reading.

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Lt. Chung and the Howlies

In the Spring of 1964 i attended IOBC (Infantry Officers Basic Course) at Ft. Benning, Georgia as my first duty assignment after graduating from Texas Tech and being commissioned in January.  Even though most of my fellow students were typical Caucasians, the class included an eclectic mix of American ethnicities.

Like, for example, Lt. Chung from Hawaii, who besides his exotic appearance distinguished himself by pronouncing the name of his native state in the strangest manner [hɐˈwɐiʔi], breaking what i was saying as the final diphthong into two separate sounds with a glottal stop between them.  How was i to know that was the way it was pronounced way out there in the middle of the ocean?

The only Chinese i had ever seen in real life before that were the folks who ran the Ming Tree restaurant in Lubbock, Texas and an exchange student whose path i crossed on campus but with whom i do not recall speaking.  And clearly many of my fellow students back then were similarly inexperienced, so for us Chung was an exotic encounter.

Other students were clearly more familiar with Chinese people and engaged in good natured ethnic banter with him.  Chung was a good sport about it, and laughingly referred to the rest of us as ‘you howlies’, an expression i hadn’t heard but assumed meant that we were howlingly funny…in a jocular way.

And then i went off to Germany for two years of language tales and a little US Army in my spare time.

Several years later, when i was in graduate school, i ran across the Hawaiian pejorative for Caucasians, the equivalent of ‘gringo’, a strange word spelled ‘haole’.  It took a while to sink in that this was what Chung had been calling us and that he’d been giving as good as he took.

Oh, and speaking of exotics, here’s an Aeonium arboreum atropurpureum around the corner on Liberty Street that’s just about to burst:

Aeonium arboreum atropurpureum

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Another White Meat

California Fish and Game Commission President Daniel Richards achieved notariety when he shot a mountain lion at Flying B Ranch, a “Corporate” hunting and fishing lodge in Idaho last January and then sent to Western Outdoor News a photo of himself grinning broadly as he held up the carcass, little expecting mountain lion huggers to see the photo.

So there was a bit of an outcry among city folk and Democrats and that sort, and there’s been a good deal of newspaper coverage.   My own outrage, of course, was monumental.  Just wait, you bastard, one of these days i’m gonna catch you in my new body without your snowmobile, your rifle, and your pack of dogs.  Mano a mano will be just fine with me even though you clearly outweigh me by forty pounds.  Yes, biting is permitted.

Richards neglected to get his story straight with Joseph Peterson, the ranch manager, so their accounts show glaring inconsistencies.  Hell, the account of neither man is even consistent with itself.  Peterson claims that Richards shot the lion “as a favor” since the lion was “roaming the property” and had to be killed because it was a “threat”.   Hmmm.  The ranch website (see above link) states that the ranch property is only 5,000 acres but that it has got “exclusive permits to outfit (sic) in 740,000 acres of the Nez Perce and Clearwater National forests in North Central Idaho.”  Sounds like a sweet deal to me, getting access to hunting rights in national park acreage a hundred fifty times the size of your own property, and then i start wondering why somebody would be doing you a favor to kill a mountain lion that you could charge somebody else $6,800 to kill…or for that matter why you’d be calling an important part of your revenue stream a threat.

Richards, not knowing that Peterson would be saying Richards was doing him a favor, is now in total damage control mode and is claiming that he shot the lion in order to eat it.  Next, he’ll be saying he shot it to feed his starving sister like Jean Valjean.  Meanwhile the ranch manager is scrambling frantically to back Richards up and is declaring that lion is a very popular meat with hunters and is considered a delicacy somewhat like pork loin but tastier.  And much better, he avows, than bear or horse.

Well that changes everything and explains Richards’ triumphal grin since now i can just look at him and see he was clearly envisioning braising a lion loin with turnips and serving it with a good Chardonay.

When i wrote about finally getting around to eating horse in Amsterdam and finding it absolutely delicious, all of my former equestrienne friends were appalled.  But this takes the pressure off me.  If lion tastes better, hey, i can do without horse.

But i’m willing to be reasonable about this.  I think we should be careful not to eat up all the mountain lions but rather make certain that we’re taking only a sustainable harvest.

And of course that’s Richards’ job as Fish and Game Commission President…to determine a harvest level that will make it possible for our children and grandchildren to enjoy mountain lion.  Well, at least those grandchildren that can pay $6,800 apiece for them.

Oh, and speaking of paying $6,800, the plot has thickened.  Seems that in California elected officials are prohibited from taking gifts worth over $420 per year, and the lion lovers are attacking Richards over this, too.

Oh, and since we’re talking about predators, here’s proof that they’re everywhere, great and small:



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Crime Scene Photo

Sometimes we can take a look at a photo and interpret it like a Hogarth.  Like this crime scene that i spotted on my last visit to Carol.  If you sit down and think it through, you realize that the murderers must have tossed the decapitated, skinned, and horribly mutilated corpse off the back of the truck and then squashed it flat as they backed the truck over it into the garage.

And Carol?  Oh, she sleeps like a baby right next door.

crime scene

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The Adventures of OR7

I don’t want folk to think that since my operation  i’ve gone totally Orwellian on you and put myself to sleep at night chanting the mantra “Four legs good, two legs bad”, but i have to say that i’ve been, umm, tracking with great interest California’s newest Oregonian immigrant, OR7.  Up in Oregon they’ve renamed him “Journey” but we Californians are sticking with “OR7”, the name he was given as a pup.

Think about it.  Do you know a single guy who wouldn’t rather be called “OR7” than “Journey”?  Or even a married guy?  Shucks, you kin call me “O.R.” for short.

Seems that OR7 was already famous in Oregon before he extended his journey into California to grab the title of first wolf here in nearly a century, but the move into California spread his fame.  And well,  not everybody loves OR7.  Environmentalists love him on principle, but ranchers and hunters see wolves as a threat to their cattle and the ungulates they hunt since wolves feed primarily on deer but will eat just about any animal if they’re hungry enough.

With our usual moderation, we here at Matte Gray think there’s room for a few wolves in California.  The ones that stalk cattle can pay the price, leaving some wild to help the hunters keep the ungulate population under control to reduce overgrazing and the resultant riparian erosion.
Everyone wonders why OR7 has made his journey of over a thousand miles, but you don’t have to watch a wolf pack too long to figure it out.  Only the alpha male gets to mate, so if you’re young and the hormones are acting up, you have to go off and start your own pack by luring a female out of another pack.  You know, the old Handsome Stranger bit.  Unfortunately, nobody has told OR7 that from the beginning he’s been headed in the wrong direction since his pack was the westernmost in the land.

On the other hand, if he wants to submit his application, we have an opening for a young, healthy male in our zoo.  Lifetime job security and top of the line health benefits. And we have to be delicate about this in the job description, but applicants must be willing to assist the luscious lady wolves in the production of offspring.  And no, we are not providing photos.  What kind of site do you think this is?

And i can’t think of a transition to this Potrero Hill sight since OR7 is mostly color blind:

blue doors

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Segwayless Mode

Today marked a full week since i’d taken the dead Segway over to Oakland to get it fixed, so i finally broke down this noon and called ’em to inquire about progress since i’d called on the previous Wednesday. Turns out they couldn’t extract a confession even with those electric probes, and they’d given up. They first thought the problem was in my batteries, so they tried to rejuvenate them. When that proved unsuccessful, they threw a couple of good batteries on it, and it still “threw a wrench”.

It had been throwing wrenches for me since noon on the 2nd of March, but i didn’t know the idiom to describe it flashing a little wrench logo on the display and refusing to start. We all know how much i adore idioms, but that’s one i’d just as soon never have learned since it means that the Segway isn’t reparable locally and must be sent back to the factory in New Hampshire for re-education.

At this point, they can’t even tell me for sure what the diagnosis will be when the factory opens it up, and all we know for certain is that it’ll be expensive. And since the damn thing has to go back and forth across the continent, who the hell knows when i’ll get it back. Sigh.

I was already feeling sorry for myself for having been without it for over a week. Damn damn damn, now it’s gonna be three or four, and life is so much harder without the Segway. Like for example it being impossible to go to the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market without doing an elaborate two bus adventure, using the 24 to get me up and down the hill and the 48 to run up and down thru Noe Valley, plus of course who knows how long waiting to transfer between them, not to mention the two block walk each way between here and the 24. But there’s no parking for blocks in any direction on the morning of the market. And after all that has been whined, i am acutely aware that life would be vastly more difficult if i were in a wheelchair, so suck it up, Matte.

On the other hand, the blooms are spreading nicely up the inflorescence of that A. attenuata on 21st Street, and in the daytime there’s parking right across the street for the photographers:

Agave attenuata


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Cornbread Breakthrough

Well, see, that blue corn muffin at Chile Pie i wrote about back on 22 February kept resurfacing in my memory, and then when i was on the way home from shipping the Segway off to Siberia for re-education i stopped at The Dancing Pig on Castro to try their barbecue.

The cole slaw was excellent, the more vinegary kind rather than the mayonnaisy type; but don’t waste your time on their dried out spare ribs, and if you have to, at least tell ’em to keep that cloying, sugar-syrup sauce on the side…like on their side of the counter.  That said, i ate all the ribs but it was pure hunger driving me rather than any sort of gourmandism.  I’ll go back to give the pulled pork a try, and maybe that stuffed poblano, but the only reason i mention the restaurant now is the cornbread.  It was good.

So good that i got to thinking more about my grandmother’s cornbread recipe that i’ve been using for decades and decided that well, since everybody in that generation and the one that followed it is dead now, i guess it might be alright to mess around with the recipe a little bit.

Well, actually, i’ve already tampered with it.  The first heresy i’d already confessed to, my conversion from the traditional iron skillet to Pyrex glass pans for the cooking, as described in the recipe above.  And i’ll add a fresh, new confession that several years ago i had cut the amount of baking powder in half without telling anybody.

So now, starting with a clean breast, i’ll tell you about experimenting on my friend Jeff last night with a couple of tweaks.  First i put back half the baking powder that i’d removed from the recipe, and i just now went into my recipe file and changed the baking powder quantity to 3/4 t. (3,75 ml.), leaving no fingerprints so nobody’ll ever know i was messing around with it in the first place.

No biggie, really, just helps it rise a little better.  The real change is that i adjusted the ratio of wheat flour to cornmeal from 1/4 c. flour and 3/4 c. meal to 1/3 c. flour and 2/3 c. meal to make the cornbread a bit lighter without turning it to cake.  Oh, and while i was in there i rounded off the tablespoon of sugar to brighten it up a bit without actually making it sweet.

And here’s a brightened up sight on a late winter morning.

Noe at 19th


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My Life As a Vegetable Gardener

My entire history of vegetable gardening took place during the spring and summer of 1971 in Midland, Texas, the only summer i stayed in Midland during the years i taught at Midland College.

In the early spring i was out in the back yard of the little house i was renting and noticed this fern-like weed growing vigorously over by the east fence, encouraged by unseasonably early rain that year. Since i’d already decided that i was going to take care of the yard, i went over to pull this weed up. However, as i bent to grab one of the stalks by the base i noticed something quite strange right beside it. Good grief, i wondered, that looks like an asparagus spear!

And it was. And since i liked asparagus and was so stone broke that buying a luxury as expensive as asparagus was out of the question, i ran for the hose.

A bit of background here for the readers fortunate enough to know nothing of west Texas. It’s a semi-desert. The annual rainfall for Midland is 14.5 inches (37 cm.) and the great majority of this rain comes in the summertime. In fact, the average rainfall in Midland in each of the months from November through April is less than two cm., so if you want anything other than a handful of hardy native plants to survive, you have to run water on it with a garden hose.

So i did. And i even coughed up a few dollars for some fertilizer to scatter around the patch. And as the stalks got large enough, i cut and refrigerated them until i had enough to make that excellent Joy of Cooking recipe “Creamed Eggs and Asparagus Cockaigne”, a rich dish i made for Dutch friends on one of my visits just to show them that green asparagus could be edible.

Harvesting my own asparagus in the spring made me realize that i could plant something myself, and i decided on tomatoes and okra. I spaded up a section of the sunniest part of the yard and put in four “Beefsteak” variety tomato sets. The okra i decided to grow from seed, so i planted a bag of seeds in a straight line at the end of the tomatoes. The tomato sets grew vigorously from the day of planting, and then, in a few days i saw a row of tiny okra seedlings break through the soil. After a week or so, the okra seedlings were several inches tall and so i went down the row pulling almost of them up so that the remaining four would have plenty of room to make vigorous, heavily laden plants.

The next morning i went out and discovered that during the night mystery varmints had come out of nowhere and gobbled down to ground level all four of the okra seedling i’d left. My first garden tragedy.

But the tomatoes grew like mad, and since i’d never peered over the fence of the codger who lived behind me, i didn’t know that his life revolved around growing tomatoes using astonishingly elaborate cultivation methods. As it turned out, he was also covertly monitoring the progress of my crop since i was clearly a competitor.

So we both watched as my plants grew and grew and then blossomed and were covered with little green tomatoes that got larger and larger and larger, and then redder and redder and redder until finally he could bear it no longer and lay in wait behind his fence until i came outside. He then opened his gate and came into my yard beside me and my tomatoes and plaintively inquired, “Are you gonna just let ’em rot on the vine?”

And then i knew it was harvest time, so i picked two, and we ate them standing there. I didn’t remember ever eating a better tomato, feasted on them all summer, and gave many to friends. And apparently i was not the only person who’d never tasted a better tomato because he for sure never gave me none of his to compare.

Since i don’t have a garden now, i confine myself to house plants. Here’s my Aloe aristata, on regal display for passers by in my southeast office window.


Aloe aristata

I’d been thinking as the winter progresses and spring nears that it ought to be showing its appreciation of my granting it the best spot in the house, and my heart kept sinking as i peered nearsightedly into the center, hoping hoping to see the tip of an inflorescence.  Nothing.  “Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion.”  And then i happened to glance down to the side a bit and saw this tiny bud:

tiny bud

Surely you didn’t expect it to be dramatic yet.

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Marketing by Foot

Today i continued learning how to get around the city without my Segway, and i hit two farmers’ markets using Muni.

So how’d i plot out the route? Well, first i walked down Liberty Street to Castro and then down to 20th Street, where i stopped and waited for a 24 Divisadero bus to catch up with me. When i got on and deftly swiped my divinely inspired Clipper transit card, the driver asked me to do it again. And then when i did so and the reader emitted the same little warble, she announced that that warble meant the card was underfunded. I had somehow been assuming that the card was so smart that it would notify the system to send a uniformed agent to my door to warn me when the balance on my card was getting low, and that didn’t happen. So i fed a dollar into the farebox since i didn’t have three quarters.

Told the driver i’d just started using the card a lot and had lost track of the balance. She then suggested that if i was using Muni a lot, it would be cheaper to buy a senior fast pass for the month. There are some cranky ones who get all the publicity, but there sure are lots of really nice Muni drivers.

I got out at 17th Street just as an F-Market streetcar was pulling up to the platform and rode it down to the front of the Ferry Building, walked through to the Hamada’s booth in back for eight Marsh grapefruit and passed out little sample bottles of a new product: my chocolate sauce augmented with one of Dandelion’s Columbian chocolate bars. Much saluting ensued.

Popped back out of the building just as an outbound F-Market arrived and took that back to 17th Steet, where i had to wait only about ten minutes for an outbound 24 Divisadero over the hill to 24th Street and walked downhill to the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market just beyond Sanchez. Bought some more Dandelion chocolate, three bunches of fresh green garlic, a bunch of pea sprouts, a pound of gorgeous sugar snaps, and a bunch of asparagus.

Ambled along slowly back up 24th Street, expecting the 48 bus to come along, but i got to Castro on foot just in time to catch an inbound 24 Divisadero to 22nd Street for the two block walk back home, all flat except the last half block.

So i did an entire shopping round, two farmers’ markets using three bus rides interleaved with two Muni rides all for the dollar i had to pay to get onto the first bus since the whole excursion took place within the time limit for the transfer. ta da.

So there’s a ray of sunshine in my life.

ray of sunshine

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Asparagus is Here

I bought that bunch of asparagus yesterday because i’d been thinking about it since writing about finding a patch growing in my yard in Midland, and it’s now in the markets. And what should i do with it other than my favorite dish that i mentioned, the “Creamed Eggs and Asparagus Cockaigne”? Thinking that i might find an online version of this recipe, i googled the title and got page after page of hits on it. Then i looked a little more closely at a few of these hits and realized that they were all the demon spawn of some thieves who have a business model in which they build websites for American grocery stores and then put stolen recipes in them.

The asparagus recipe is copied word for word from Joy of Cooking in all of the websites and so crudely done that it contains ingredients like “au gratin I” that in the original cookbook has a page number leading you to the first version of an au gratin topping. The recipe also includes ludicrous typos like “Serve with French” because when they blocked and copied the text to plagiarize it, they missed the last word, “bread”.

So no, lest i sink to the level of those website thieves, i will not be giving you Joy‘s recipe here, but i can talk about what i do now based on their original recipe, which is on page 224 of the 1963 edition and 202 of the 1975 edition (which was reprinted up through 1996). Yes, i owned both editions, and then in June bought the 75th Anniversary edition of 2006 to show solidarity but discovered when i got home that the creamed egg and asparagus recipe is not in this edition.

For those who don’t own an older edition of Joy of Cooking, i’ve put into my recipe section my own version of the old Joy recipe, see Asparagus with Creamed Eggs.

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