27 February 2010


I spend three to four days away from home every week teaching flute and music history at the University of Wyoming. This means some nights spent in Laramie, and my good good friend, Anne, is kind enough to allow me to stay at her place rent free (or, this is my understanding). She is also kind enough to allow me the use of her kitchen and access to her food, which is a privileged situation, indeed, when one is travelling.

No matter how comfy life in Laramie is, being in a strange bed and keeping a strange schedule does not do wonders for my sleep. Before bedtime at Anne’s house, I love a good glass of red wine and some nice, wholesome carbs before bed. That’s right, you heard me—pasta! The new fortified pastas (Barilla Plus is one) are great—multigrain but without the weird, 70s texture and heaviness of whole wheat. This recipe, stolen from an old high school boyfriend’s Italian-American momma, always makes me happy:

Boil one serving (try not to make it too big unless you want nightmares) of your favorite pasta shape. I like fetuccine, but I'm not trying to tell you how to live.

When it’s done, drain it and dress it with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze half of a small lime over it. I know, lime juice! Weird, huh? Season with salt (the juice will cut down on how much salt you need, so go slowly).

This is the basic recipe, but you can dress it up however much you want: add black pepper or crushed red pepper, minced fresh garlic, fresh basil or dill, halved cherry tomatoes, olives or capers…it can be a snack or a respectable light meal depending on what you do with it.

20 February 2010

Does anyone else hate Southwest Airlines?

Southwest Airline's recent public relations debacle inspired me to dust off this little tyrade I wrote last summer after a particularly enjoyable trip with them...

I’m sorry to come on so strong, but there’s no way around it: Southwest Airlines sucks. They really suck. They take conventions which work perfectly well, tried and tested procedures, and discard them for chaos. I do not like chaos. I particularly do not like chaos when I am trying to get from a point A to a point B, and at the end of the line are my retired parents patiently waiting to pick me up from the airport. So, I write this as a cautionary tale, and so you can learn from my mistake. My mistake of flying Southwest Airlines.

My 4:50pm flight had been delayed until 5:15pm. This not a big difference, though, so I tried to ignore the sense of mild doom that was growing like a fungus in the back of my brain. I tried not to be a cynic, even though I had just been treated like a bomb-carrying criminal by airport security, then surrounded by wiggling munchkins on the shuttle to my terminal. I remained calm and cheerful in the face of a $4 bottle of water (most likely from someone’s tap in Mississippi) and an $8 plastic-wrapped hunk of dry bread with a thin slice of “cheese” and a generous wad of iceberg lettuce oozing out the end, making it look like it had been in someone’s back pocket for hours.

But I am slowly learning not to trust these airlines, not to have my heart broken anymore by promises of certain takeoff and arrival times that never seem to happen, of enough legroom or smiling flight attendants or space in the overhead compartment for my modestly sized duffel bag. And so I was irritated, but not surprised, to watch 5:15pm come and go with nary a sign of our plane.

When it finally appeared at 5:50, I predicted that we would not, most likely, make our departure time of 4:50pm. I’m not clairvoyant, but I get lucky like that sometimes. And I just hate being late. Especially when I have paid a hefty sum to an airline carrier to take me to my destination at a certain time. The situation was made more charming by the dearth of seating in the waiting area; there might have been enough chairs for one third of the plane’s passengers, at best.

And do you know why there was no seating to speak of in this waiting area? Southwest does this hip, new, revolutionary thing with their seat assignments on the plane: they don’t assign any. I know, this sounds like a bad idea, right? It’s worse than that. Because instead of fully herding us like cattle to our final sitting place, we are left to spin the roulette wheel ourselves. But it’s not a fair game of chance–some people get first pick. And those people are never concerned about those further down the line.

So here’s what happens: every boarding pass has a boarding group printed on it (“A”, “B”, or “C”), and a number to designate your place in line (1, 2, 3, etc. You know what numbers are.) When the announcer says “go”, you are supposed to line up with your group in order, relying entirely on the honor system to trust that no one is skipping line or entire boarding groups. Then you get to pick your very own seat on the plane, which sucks no matter where it is, because it's a plane.

This works in places like Germany, where people regularly do the right thing without supervision (train tickets are purchased from a machine and never checked by a guard. Can you imagine that here?). We don’t do things that way for the Chosen Country. We are all very, very important and busy people who want to get to our equally important destinations regardless of anyone else’s needs-–in fact, it is a legal right, I think-– which means it’s OK to elbow your way through the crowd and cut in front of the 95-year-old in the wheelchair so you can have the best seat. You deserve it. This is the system Southwest has fostered.

Large swaths of floor space are dedicated to this clusterfuck known as boarding a Southwest plane. There are at least four rows of seats that have been taken out to accommodate this “system”. And those in the know start milling about in their general areas a good hour before the process begins. Or, if they are in groups “B” or “C”, they stand almost where they belong, not quite aggressively enough to warrant complaints of foul play, but not far enough out of the way to allow group “A” people to get to their spots.

And no one is talking to each other, because there is this latent sense of hostility and competition for seats (which all suck), so no one really knows where they’re supposed to be. And the announcements are totally garbled, like all gate announcements, because they all bleed together, so very few people even know what group has been called. I suspect that no one knows, but some people look confident no matter what stupid thing they are doing.

If you are not in the know, like me, you stand around dumbfounded, not aggressive enough to push your way up to your place in line, but slowly becoming more aware of, and more incensed by, the inevitability of getting total crap for seatmates. I was traveling with my husband, with whom I normally like to sit on a plane (he always has gum and lifts my luggage above my head for me), but by the time we were fortunate enough to walk onto the plane and scanned the seats before us, everyone had cleverly arranged themselves with spaces in between (person-seat-person-aisle; seat-person-seat-aisle), making our togetherness a challenge.

We did finally spot a woman all by herself and squeezed in to the two adjoining seats next to her; they were the only two left, so I’m pretty sure the other couples and families behind us were quarantined from each other. I think the gimmick behind this Total Chaos Theory of Seating™ is that you get more choice, but honestly, I feel like I have more choice when I select my specific seat, next to my partner, on the computer when I am purchasing the tickets. And a chair in the waiting area is nice, too.

Rather than using a drink cart to serve the complimentary beverages and Smurf-sized bag of peanuts, the flight attendants don pad and paper to take our drink order, then return much later with little round trays that hold a couple rows' worth of drinks at a time. They go to a section of the plane in teams, take a few orders, scurry to the back to prepare drinks, then negotiate turbulence while balancing their little waitress-like trays to bring that section their orders, go to the next little section of the plane, etc. It is very inefficient.

Another person comes around with a basket full of the snacks, which is much more efficient, so we sit, eagerly fondling our peanut bags in anxious anticipation of beverages to make said peanuts palatable. I suppose it keeps the flight-waitress-attendants busy longer, which might be a plus for them if they don’t like being bored or looking at clear aisles that allow people to get to the bathroom, but I couldn’t quite see the use in it. Again, Southwest scrapped the pre-approved system (drink cart which holds drinks stable and delivers them with the fewest number of trips and in less time) for their new, corrected system. Hip! Edgey!

In case you think that I am being unfair to Southwest, I will tell you that the landing was very smooth.

08 February 2010

Beer! Part 2

We now leave crunchy, Patchouli-laced Fort Collins for Boulder, formerly crunchy and Patchouli-laced, but now more likely to support photo shoots for the latest J. Crew catalog. They still know what beer tastes like, though. My favorites are Boulder Beer, a much-overlooked choice at the liquor store, and Mountain Sun Brew Pub , one of the last holdouts of hippie culture in Boulder. You cannot purchase Mountain Sun in anything but growlers (meaning you have to consume it quickly before it goes flat), but their Java Porter has a slightly-more-than-subtle tinge of coffee in it, which I love; The Illusion Dweller IPA is hoppy enough that even my picky husband approves. There are too many to name, really, so try them all. Each one is an excellent version of what it purports to be. Just designate a driver.

Boulder Beer gives tours if you call ahead, and in my neck of the woods, they sell for much more reasonable prices in the store than the other local brews. Hazed and Infused is like an IPA but a bit more floral, and the Planet Porter is rich and satisfying in the winter. You are starting to notice a pattern in my tastes, perhaps…

I will say this, knowing that it is controversial, but I have never been impressed with anything coming out of Denver. Breckinridge has the same effect on me— not bad, but so what? But you may not know about a relatively new brewery right here in Greeley, Colorado called Crabtree Brewing. It’s located in an industrial garage on the northeast edge of town, the counters are made of plywood, and on sunny days they open the garage door and let the sun beat down on you at your wobbly table. The owners, a happy, chubby husband and wife team you can just picture heading to church in an Oldsmobile station wagon, help their kids do their math homework at the bar when it’s slow. And if that’s not charming enough for you, the beer is incredible! I wasn’t excited by much except for the Ginger Bee (made with ginger and local honey) when they first opened a few years ago, but they have added quite a bit to their menu since then, including blackberry and raspberry stouts, the rich creamy Oil Change Stout, and IPA, a Summer Ale, and various seasonal treats. And as always, the sample pours are generous.


I live in Northern Colorado, and as many of you know, this place has more microbreweries within its border than any other state in the union. Having moved here from Indiana, where a 24-pack of Natural Light was all we could afford as grad students, Colorado truly did feel like the Promised Land to me and my husband when we moved here seven years ago. Actually, it still does.

If you ask five different people to name their favorite local beers, you will most likely get five pretty different answers—the privilege of having so many choices. But I, as your humble servant, have seriously dedicated myself to the craft of sampling and reviewing beers for you, the public, over these six years (it was hard work), and here are my humble offerings:

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first –Fort Collins. FoCo has four well-establish, regularly visited breweries in Old Town alone, and they all have their local followers. New Belgium (http://www.newbelgium.com/) has such a great business model—totally wind-powered brewery, perks like free bikes and trips to Belgium for loyal employees, and a hip, perky set of twenty-somethings taking you on tour and tell you all the ways in which you should love them. But for all that, I don’t think too many of their beers are really all that special. Fat Tire, ubiquitous in the taps of hip bars all over the RM West, is an inoffensive but forgettable lager, their wheat beers are socially appropriate for summer but again, not distinctive, and then they sometimes just get downright weird with the medieval Belgian recipes and sour, barrel-aged swill. They make a respectable porter called 1554 and a downright tastey Frambozen (limited edition from October through January only), but if I wasn’t able to drink up to the equivalent of two free pints in their tasting room, I honestly wouldn’t bother.

Coopersmith’s (www.coopersmithspub.com/) is a brewpub, so no tours here. That’s fine—I do get a little tired of being told how beer is born over and over again. My favorite offering is Sigda’s Green Chili beer, but it does get rather spicy and vegetal in flavor. I love it, but it’s strong stuff. The Horsetooth Stout, named after the local reservoir, is a creamier, richer version of Guinness with chocolate undertones, and around Christmastime, the Jingle Ale, rich in clove and other spices, is both savory and sweet. They have others which are equally deserving of mention; generally, if you have a favorite kind of beer, with the exception of an India Pale Ale, Coopersmith’s makes a great version that will keep you happy.

I avoided this for years, thinking I was above such populist beers, but the Budweiser (http://www.budweisertours.com/) center on the south side of town really does give a good tour and a lot of free samples. It’s a good place to bring visitors who don’t want to get too experimental with their beers. And beyond the usual swill sold at sporting events, they have some decent lagers and wheat beers.

06 February 2010

recipe for infusing vodka

I have lived in this, for the most part, rural area of the Rocky Mountains now for six and a half years. It's charming and people are friendly, but at times I crave just a little anonymity. Just once I would like to walk into the grocery store without my neighbors checking out my stash (which is usually high in alcohol conent and Pringles). And speaking of alcohol, it sure would be nice to go out to a drinking establishment that requires a put-together outfit and doesn't involve a local wheat beer. No offense to wheat beers, but how rough and unrefined does a drink need to be?

This leads me to a pleasant memory of a great little cigar and martini bar in Indianapolis, Nicky Blaine's. (If you're in the area, http://www.nickyblaines.com/ ) In the good old days, I used to play a gig downtown, do to Nicky's, and then stumble home for a nightcap and some overly philosophical discussion on the future of the arts with random art-makers and musicians. Good atmosphere, great drinks, but most importantly, Nicky continues to provide me with inspiration amongst my beer-swilling bretheren.

In my mind, the highlight of NB's are the in-house, infused vodkas. Sure, you can purchase Absolut limon or orange and try not to imagine you're drinking window cleaner, but this place served the real deal--they flavored their own vodkas with real, edible ingredients, and the taste was remarkably different from the crap you could purchase in the liquor store. I thought it was pure genius at the time, but I have since realized that infusing your own vodka is the easiest thing to do; even rotgut will taste good after dumping some fruit in it. So, if you're isolated from hip bars like I am, or just too cheap to pay $10 for a martini (there's no shame in it), follow these simple guidelines:

For citrus flavored vodka: choose your fruit of choice (I always keep a bottle of lemon and a bottle of grapefruit at hand), chop fruit into small pieces. PEEL GRAPEFRUIT FIRST TO AVOID BITTERNESS. Fill a sealable container with half chopped fruit, half vodka (so, approximately one Texas ruby-red grapefruit for 1 Liter of vodka) and leave it out on your kitchen counter (out of the sun) for 1 week. Give it a good shake once daily to distribute juice. After one week, keep it in the freezer indefinitely (well, I've never kept it around for longer than 6 weeks, but this is my guess).

For stone fruits and berries, follow directions above, but limit the time on the counter to 3-4 days, depending on size of fruit chunks. For a quick dessert drink, add 1/4 cup sugar per liter with the fruit and you'll have a sweet liquor for after dinner.

Ever have leftover cranberry sauce in November that you are sick of eating? Infuse it into some vodka (add a little extra sugar to make sure it doesn't get bitter), drain before freezing, and you'll have a memorable homemade drink at your New Year's Eve party.

And seriously, forget your notions of "digestible" vodkas that cost an arm and a leg; the plastic bottle on the bottom shelf of your liquor store picks up the flavor at least as well as Grey Goose. And the fruit flavor is brilliant and real! No cleaning chemicals here!!

Passage to India satiates…I guess

As a sometimes resident of Laramie...a review of the latest offering.

I had been out of town for a week and the most amazing thing had apparently occurred in my absence: Laramie got an Indian restaurant. Had hell frozen over? Had the entire town of Fort Collins disappeared, requiring us to recreate it here? Finally, I could walk to my very own plate of saag paneer without the treacherous drive over a mountain pass to Colorado! Apparently everyone else felt the same way; what had originally caught my attention as I entered town was the line that wrapped around the front of the restaurant and trickled off the sidewalk into the gravel pit next door. So, obviously it was time to investigate.

Let me just say that I love, love, love Indian food. I really did make that trip to Fort Collins too often to recount in service of my hankering for oily naan and special egg curry. I wanted to believe that this place would be amazing—I was practically reciting a cheer for them as I approached the building. They certainly had the down-home Laramie thing figured out. In the four days they had been open, they had already gotten to know my friends and colleagues by name and were anticipating their drink orders. Smart move. When you feel like an insider, you are more likely to forgive minor indiscretions; at least, my friends did.

We were cheerfully seated and our drink orders were taken immediately. Good. Brittney Spears or some such crap was playing loudly in the foreground. Bad. Is it odd that I want to hear music from the home country when I visit an ethnic restaurant? I am learning about an important aspect of your culture by eating your food—give me more! Teach me about music, traditional table settings, and methods of eating! I don’t think that anyone, even in Laramie, who is interested in sampling Indian food would be averse to hearing something exotic while they chew.

The chai was heavily spiced, very rich, and very sweet. This is what I have come to expect from Indian restaurants in America, so it was familiar, at least. Just for the record, I’d love to enjoy a little more of the tea flavor some day, and run less risk of filling up on my beverage before the food even comes, but my friends capitalized on the free refills all night. Give the people what they want. Next came some cracked breads with various chutneys: the green was medium hot and very tangy (my favorite), the red was blazingly hot (no one had seconds of that one), and the plum-based sauce was thick like molasses and quite sweet. It was fine.

Food took a while to come out, but in less than a week of work, I don’t expect that they entirely have their rhythm down yet. We waited 40 minutes, which would have been perfectly fine if the music had been better. We ordered naan, aloo saag, shrimp curry, chicken tandoori, and paneer korma. The naan was lovely, pillowy and oily with just the right amount of black bits on it to taste a bit of the griddle. And the korma sauce might be the best I have ever had. It was rich and creamy, with just the right balance of sweet and salty, perfectly blended to obliterate any evidence of cashews in texture. I greatly appreciated the generous number of paneer cubes; too often, paneer dishes are mostly sauce with very little cheese. There was enough in this that the paneer really could stand in for a meat. It was pure bliss.

This, however, is where my happiness ended. Nothing was horrible, but nothing else was worth the effort of putting on shoes and paying between $12 and $15 per dish, either. The tandoori contraption was reminiscent of those sizzling fajita plates in Tex-Mex places—much more style than substance. But when the sizzling died down (and after my friend smoked her finger on the edge of the plate), what we were left with was tender but bland chicken, a huge pile of raw white onion, and some lemon slices. This dish should be cleaner and more focused on technique, I realize, but a little attention to seasoning would have helped. The shrimp curry had a similar effect: we ordered “medium” spice level, but I had difficulty tasting much of anything from the sauce, spicy or not. What I did taste was shrimp, and it was an overwhelming flavor of fishiness that made me wonder just how old these babies were. They were also like rubber, a common mistake in a busy kitchen—shrimp just don’t stand up to long cooking times. It is possible that the curry sauce had more flavor than I could detect around the shrimp, but this particular meat choice made for a rather unbalanced dish.

The biggest disappointment of the evening for me was the aloo saag. I love a good saag sauce, but spinach does seem to require attentiveness in seasoning—use too little too early in the process, and every bit of flavor is just absorbed into the greens and it disappears. What we ended up with was a mouthful of heavy (the cook was generous with the cream), bland, and watery spinach. And it really tasted like nothing except spinach. I fished around for quite some time to find a piece of potato, and it, too, was entirely lacking in seasoning. So, the dish which, to my mind, requires the most salt, and which benefits the most from layers of spices, seemed to get the least of anything. And then the kicker: a brilliant blue rubber band, discovered by my friend, buried in a mound of spinach glop. Everyone was very gracious about it—soon after reporting the problem to our waiter, the manager came over and apologized, removed the dish from our ticket, and brought us more naan (hurray!). The chef came following on the manager’s heels to personally apologize. He reported that he had just fired the sous chef who was the last to handle our saag, which is really a little much for my taste, but their concern for our happiness was certainly a good approach.

Passage to India is a welcome new flavor in Laramie’s local cuisine, but in a more urban area it wouldn’t stand for long. If our new neighbors want to survive our fickle and easily bored population, they’ll have to make sure the food itself is more compelling than the mere idea of the Indian restaurant. We are, after all, still accustomed to driving to Fort Collins on weekends.