Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Back in Action

Man, it's been a wild couple of months. Found a job, possibly a roommate for a long-term apartment, got a new smart phone which I've been glued to since December, and my buddy just got engaged. All told, it's been an eventful chunk of time.

But I finally found a job! I'm working at a publishing firm down in Union Square, and I'm kicking ass and taking names. I got this the week before Thanksgiving, so that was a crazy start to a fast-paced job. Throw in a hefty Christmas break and some random holidays to boot, and time has been speeding by.

One of the guys that I work with is out of his lease in May, so that might be the break into becoming a grounded tenant that I've been looking for - thank God.

And the phone! Holy crap you would never think those things would change your life like they do. For a little background, I've been using "candy bars," as I think they're called, for the better part of ten years. I felt proud of myself for getting a Razr when people were drooling over the iPhone 4 - so I was a little behind the times. My last two phones combined cost less than my monthly laundry bill, so I think it was time to upgrade.

So while I'm still a self-proclaimed cheapskate, I shelled for an LG Esteem from Metro PCS. The phone cost more than I would liked to have spent, but at the end of the year I'm going to be paying about $800 all told, maybe 66% of what the next cheapest plan would go for. Plus, I get unlimited everything and 4G which is pretty dirty.

But talk about awesome. Reading books, checking stocks, doing banking, playing games, looking up recipes, watching netflix, listening to Pandora - the thing is more addictive than Starbucks (call me a yuppie, I deserve it). I even downloaded an emulator (digital version of a video game console) so that I could play Mario 64 and the old school Star Fox for SNES. I would be lying if I denied a three day addiction to Harvest Moon when I got the thing.

But it's also scary just how "connected" you become when you get that thing. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook - the thing is a nexus for all that is media, and it makes you understand just how easy hackers have it when it comes to jacking personal info. Our digital selfs are all over the place, with information strewn around like debris after a twister.

Just the info alone that I had to submit to Starbucks to register my damned gift card was insane. A hacker could pull that and pretty much know my life story, and then I'm reading that sites all over the world are getting broken into on a daily basis - 40,000 accounts from Facebook and 24 million accounts from Zappos, think tanks, online games, and JPMorgan-Chase? It's a wonder the NYSE hasn't been "deleted."

But anyway, like I said, my buddy also just got engaged to his college sweetheart. And that's gonna be one hell of a bachelor party. The guy planning it has no sense of morality, caution, or prudence. It's either going to be the most epic time of my life, or half of us aren't coming back. Who knows, but I can't wait.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Supermarket Scavenger Hunt

Making it work in New York City is hard. Unless you're rocking a sick job on Wall Street, making ends meet can be more difficult than one might think. And one way I've found to help with that is by tracking down cheap food.

You've got thousands of conveniences in New York at your fingertips, including supermarkets. While some might might be criminally overpriced *cough* Foodtown *cough*, every place will do something well. Everywhere from more exotic goods at good prices, to the bargain bin at you're local superstore. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a one-stop-shop. So you've got to look.

Because I love food, I'm cheap, and I'm not a slave to some trendy gimmick store, I have no problems with going on a supermarket scavenger hunt. So here are some general rules to help you cut down that grocery bill each week.

1. Look! -  Every store is different, and will likely offer a better than normal price or selection on something. You just need to look and see what they have. A good rule of thumb is that ethnic stores have cheaper, fresher ingredients based on what is "local" cuisine, i.e. Russian to fish, Spanish to pork and produce, and so on.

2. Cards are your friends - Most chain supermarkets have rewards cards, while some don't. Supermarkets intentionally mark up items that aren't on sale, expecting that you'll come in for their *Super Sale!* and walk out with 15 impulse buys that will cost you.

When you find a store with a card, sign up for it and use it! Grab a flier and see if what you need matches with what's on sale. If not, take a five minute walk to your next destination.

3. Find your Base Camp - There will likely be a store that works out best for you. One that has low prices, a good selection, and won't be too far off the beaten path. This is where you'll do a good chunk of your shopping. If they have a card, great - get it. If they don't, watch the prices of items you buy regularly for better deals elsewhere.

4. Beware the Trends - I'm going to name drop here, and there's a reason. Trader Joes. Yes, the mecca of every low carb, tofu-eating hipster in New York City. I congratulate whoever devised the "All Natural" business model because it is genius, and slightly bullshit.

Trader Joes offers great deals on some items, but definitely not most. Go there for the great quality coffee and their craft beer section. Other than that, you are buying branding. The majority of food there may be organic, or locally grown, but at a mark-up of up to 100% of what you would pay elsewhere for a comparable product.

Example: The cheapest loaf of bread at Trader Joes goes for around $2.59 for normal wheat or white. I can get a larger loaf at Stop & Shop, C-Town, or Pathmark for 99 cents or below. For a minor sacrifice in quality, you spend nearly two-thirds less. Same goes for the 'organic' frozen pizzas, frozen veggies, and meat/deli. If you want to help your health and the earth, take a run and donate the difference to Green Peace. Be a smart shopper; don't let this franchise collect on a trend.

5. Learn to Recycle - I'm not talking about the bottle return here. Think about how much food goes bad in your fridge every week because you got busy, went out to dinner, or just forgot about that lettuce on the bottom shelf. All of your savings become negated once you let 20% of your purchase go bad. Learn to make leftover dishes. American Chop Suey, Beef Stroganoff, Pizza, most cassaroles you've heard of, soups and salads - they were all ad-hoc leftover concoctions that people used to avoid wasting food and money.

If you have left-over heavy cream, shake it into fresh, unsalted butter. Fruits and veggies on their last legs? Make a stir fry. Be creative with what you have in the fridge. If you screw up, dump it in the trash and order pizza. At least you tried. But if it turns out well, you might just have a new left-over killer in your repertoire, and a new dish to impress friends.

But good luck in your shopping pursuits, and watch those price tags!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Corn Problem and You

I've recently gotten into a health kick. I've been exercising fanatically and watching literally everything I eat. I find myself googling "The World's Healthiest Foods" at 2 am to put my racing mind at ease. I've been watching documentary after documentary about healthy diets, healthy foods, and conversely - The Western Diet, aka the American Diet. And I've quickly come to fear food.

If any of you have seen Food Inc., King Corn, Forks over Knives, and the myriad of other documentaries that describe how truly terrible, and essentially lethal the American corn-fed diet is for all parties involved, you know what state our collective health is in. If you don't, count the amount of people you could consider "fat" as you walk down the street. I'm not talking pudgy or pleasantly plump, I'm talking about knocking on death's door type fat. You'll probably see more than a handful, and that is way, way too many.

Any doctor and good common sense will tell you that a proper, balanced diet is the way to go. Until now, I thought that was true. You know, the five basic food groups....but I've begun to ask some questions. Who decides what is proper and balanced? And in what context? And where is it that Americans learn these standards of health?

Something as simple as eating has become so complex, so debated, and so politicized that it's hard to figure out what is considered a proper diet.

Think about the Food Pyramid. Remember health class (before those budget cuts?) The Food Pyramid was the standard of how Americans should structure their diet for about 20 years, from 1992 until 2011. Forty-five to sixty-five percent of our daily caloric intake should be from starch products, like grain, rice, and corn. Well, the Food Pyramid was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture ("USDA").

Now here is the interesting thing. The USDA is also responsible for issuing crop subsidies, and the largest subsidy program for any crop in the US is corn - by far. The vast majority of this corn, which the government pays farmers to grow, is processed into either super dense food additives or animal feed. Almost all of our cheap, readily available food contains corn in one way or another, and has become hazardous as a result.

The USDA also helps to regulate what we serve kids in public school lunches. I wasn't aware of nutrition when I was 8, 10, 12, or even 16 years old. I didn't really care, and kind of accepted what was put in front of me as being healthy, or at least permissibly so. But even I knew that some of the lunches we were served daily were god-awful for you. Here's a real example of my weekly lunch menu.

- Monday:  Rings, Wings, and Things (This was that actual name of the meal) - Fried onion rings, fried, mechanically separated and processed chicken bits, and French fries, all of which was likely fried in corn oil.

- Tuesday:  Nachos - Salty corn ships, a buttery sour cream topping (about two cups worth), hyper processed, canned and salty as shit chili, and generic liquid nacho cheese.

- Wednesday:  Rib-I-Que Sandwich: A mystery meat, pork-like...rib resembling hunk dripping in high-fructose corn syrup BBQ sauce, served with canned green beans (packed with salt), and French fries.

And the list went on. The stuff that powered our fragile little minds, and I'm not talking about knowledge or whimsical curiosity, had about as much nutritional value as corrugated cardboard. In fact, the cardboard at least had fiber and a lower fat and sugar content.

In thinking about this, I have to wonder who is right. Is the USDA right, after helping to pump corn product into nearly every processed and prepared food, and then into our kids? If not, then who is? If we can't trust the government to provide for us, instead of the interests of business and expediency, who should we turn to? I'm not sure about you, but corn scares the hell out of me - and so does the USDA for that matter. What they are, what they do, and how far down the rabbit hole they go is shocking.

So......Sprout Smoothie, anyone?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Southern Sausage Gravy & Biscuits

Hey All,

So I'm a big food guy. Nothing beats sitting down to an appetizing meal every night, but having other people enjoy my food is possibly even better. So here is something that I made last night that turned out really well. Try it and enjoy!

My roommate is from North Carolina, and there's nothing in this world that compares to down-home southern cooking. So I convinced her to show me how to make a simple, endlessly modifiable, and delicious home made sausage gravy and biscuits.


Serves 8 - And it cost me about $6 for the whole thing at NYC prices. Not bad.

 - 1/2 pound ground pork
 - 1/2 pound chopped bacon (Try and get thick cut bacon from the meat or deli section of  
    your grocery store. The thicker, the better, and it will likely be cheaper)
 - Flour (Depends on how much grease you have. Have at least a 1/2 cup on hand)
 - 1% milk (Depends on taste, have at least 2 cups on hand)
 - Salt and Pepper to taste
 - 1 pack of 8 Pillsbury Biscuits  

You'll need a good stove top skillet for this one.

Preheat your oven to the temperature that the biscuits require, then dice up or cube the bacon. Turn the heat up on the skillet to high and add the bacon to the pan once it is hot. Make sure to keep the bacon moving in the pan so that it gets good exposure to heat. Keep cooking the bacon pieces until they become golden-brown and crispy,  and have released a good deal of grease in the pan. 

Turn off the heat, and strain the bacon bits out of the pan and onto a paper towel-covered plate. Pour the grease into a metal or ceramic bowl. At this point, open up the package of biscuits, put them out on a non-stick baking sheet and throw 'em in the oven.

Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the ground pork. Brown the pork and work it with your spatula or spoon until it flakes into small pieces. You essentially want crumbled sausage so that it becomes evenly distributed in the gravy. If not, you'll have gravy and sausage balls - a terrible waste of a great opportunity. 

Now, once browned and flaked, add back in the bacon grease and turn the heat down to medium-low. Note - At this point you can also add back in the bacon pieces, although I just kept them to use later. If you throw them back in, they'll give your gravy a bit more flavor and some crunch. 

Start to add the flour by lightly dusting the sausage/grease mixture. Dust about a tablespoon at a time, then mix it in. continue to do this until there is no more grease on the bottom of the pan.

At this point, what you'll have is a sausage roux (pronounced "roo"). A note on roux. 
Roux is among the many friends that makes a cook's life much easier. It is essentially a fat and starch paste that can be used to thicken chowders (Clam Chowder!), and as a base for many sauces and gravies. You can use butter, fat or lard, and (while I've never tried it) likely olive oil or other vegetable/seed oils. It's ultimately up to you. Just heat the oil over medium low heat and continually whisk in small amounts of flour or corn starch until it's at your desired thickness. 

For you health nuts out there, when a good roux is needed, it will make or break your dish. Trying to choke down a soupy skim milk clam chowder, for instance, is a terrifying experience. If you want to make something, make it right.

Back to the gravy. The flour and fat will be "trapped" in the sausage. Start adding some milk and stir the mixture until it starts to thicken. It will surprise you how quickly this turns into play-dough. Keep adding milk a quarter cup at a time and keep stirring, each time it will thin a bit. Continue this process until you have your desired consistency - remember, the gravy will thicken significantly when it starts to cool. Add the salt and pepper and stir in. I like my gravy with a little kick, so I added about two tablespoons, maybe more. Depends on your personal preference.

Take the biscuits out, and there you have it! Homemade sausage gravy and fresh baked biscuits. Pour the gravy over them, dip them in the gravy - eat it however you want and it will all taste great.

I lucked out and my roommate also had her grandma's home made strawberry jam on hand. Hells ya. Polish it all off with a glass of milk or OJ, and you have yourself a Cracker Barrel classic.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Qaddafi's Departure - Be The Better Man

I won't usually weigh into politics because its not really my thing. But following the story of Qaddafi's capture and subsequent execution pisses me off.

Now, don't ever get me wrong in thinking that I'm in Qaddafi's corner (or was), because the guy is a capital D - Douche Bag. He was a despot that operated like one, i.e. torture, armed repression, religious intolerance, Lockerbie, plus some. And to be perfectly honest, the bastard got what was coming to him.

But, and there is a sizable but here - by stooping Qaddafi's level, the rebels really trashed their international "street cred". That whole 'eye for an eye' thing is crap. Be the better man, and you'll be remembered for it. Be the same man, and you'll likely be taken out by the next guy in line.

There is serious truth to the phrase, "Those who stare long enough into the abyss must be sure that abyss doesn't stare back." These rebels should have taken especially good care to be fighting Qaddafi - both militarily and ideologically. You don't depose a violent autocrat by blowing his brains out in a back room, you give him the trial that he refused to give Libya for the past half a century. 

And add a little pomp and circumstance to it. Show off you're accomplishment, and show as many people as you can that you are ethically and morally above a monster like Qaddafi in every way, without question. Try his ass for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and a slew of other charges in a fair trial. And come on, a fair trial for someone who is guilty BEYOND QUESTION would be fairly sentenced to the chopping block. It's not like he would be exonerated. The whole 'just following orders thing' wouldn't have really worked here.

Why would these rebels sacrifice one inch of moral high ground? Half of politics is marketing and spin; show your countrymen that you're the light of Libya, with peace and justice for all. Not only would you be essentially guaranteed a spot in Libyan politics for the next 20 years, but you'd go down in the world history books as a hero and a bad ass. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Buck the Gym

Pay 70 bucks a month for a gym membership? Unless you go every day, and even twice a day with an optional swim/sauna wind down to your workout - unless you're a gym rat and want to pay like one, who can defend this expense? It seems more like you're paying for a status symbol and bragging rights rather than something useful.

NY Sports Club, one of the most popular gyms in New York, costs $69.99 per month for a "Core," or basic membership to one club location. And you get soaked an additional $7.50 if you go to any other clubs around the city. Other gyms may cost more or less, but the premise is the same.

This is robbery, pure and simple. If you want to work out, take a run and do some push-ups. Running around New York lets you see some of the cooler sights in the city. For those who aren't runners, have joint issues, or may just be starting out in the whole exercise thing, try out a work-out video that you can do in your own home. P-90X is a great routine, and you can stream the whole thing for free here

For anyone new to P-90X, the "X" stands for Extreme, and they're not kidding. But it's all resistance and aerobic training - nothing high impact, and the beauty is that you can do as little or as much as you want.

If you really need to go hit the weights and show how buff you are, NYC Parks and Rec has gym memberships available at sites all around the city. And its only $8.30 a month, or $100 a year. A bit better than the $840 it costs for an NY Sports Club membership every year. 

So, if you're in the mood to bust a sweat, don't be the asshole that pays $70+ to go and pump some iron once a week. NY Sports Club might give you a sweet tote bag, but just remember how much you paid for it.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tie Guy

I'm a temp. I've been temping for a bit. While it's not my personal preference, temping kept me in the city while I could hunt for a full time job. My first post was at an accounting firm. The pay wasn't bad but the work sucked. Like REALLY sucked. Data entry, filing, more data entry...and then some data entry on top of that.

So while the job was boring and essentially thankless, I went in there every damned day in a suit and tie - and I looked good. Like GQ good. Usually, I was dressed better than the Directors and Partners, which made me stand out.

At the end of the original project that I was brought for, as I saw temps getting the cut day by day, I got recruited to work in another department that paid more, with the possibility of a permanent position. The reason? My office nickname was "The Tie Guy," and the CFO wanted to look at this sharp-dressed kid's resume.

While the permanent position thing never quite panned out, I got three months of awesome pay, and some kick-ass experience all for wearing a tie.

So remember folks, there is serious truth to that saying, "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have."