A goal in sight

I mentioned a while back that I had started novelizing my long-languishing sci-fi comic, Merchantman Halflight, with the intent to develop it into a series of humorous books. At this point I’m pleased to say the project is coming along very nicely.

Something weird has happened along the way, in the course of transitioning the story from comic scripts into a novel format. Gags that worked before have had to be completely repositioned, or some jettisoned outright, for the story to come together. Wherever possible, I’ve tried to save the most important jokes I could. And in some cases, I’ve even had the opportunity to add new interstitial content. Oftentimes, dialogue that spanned several issues is combined into a single scene, but not necessarily in the same order. (I call it the Peter Jackson effect.)

Adaptation is a weird, weird thing. I wonder if this is anything like what Douglas Adams went through, taking his original radio scripts and making them into his seminal novel (and sequels). Gads the world is a worse place for the loss of his talent.

My goal all along for the first book was to stop at around 80,000 words. That’s a good length for something relatively breezy in sci-fi, but I was concerned it might be hard to wrap that up at a good place. With the comic format, I originally had an idea all along that I’d do print versions about every 150 issues, and conveniently the first major story arc ends right about there. Unlike Rich Burlew, I never approached any of this with anything like long-term planning.

Fortuitously though, the need to rearrange major parts of the story and combine several issues into one scene, skipping others entirely, has brought me to a good place numerically. I’m currently sitting at about 45K words, just past issue 89. The story arc I wanted for this book all along would end after issue 152 or 153. According to the math, at my current pace that means I can expect the book to wrap up exactly where I wanted, with about the word count I wanted. For the first draft, anyway; it will need tinkering.

I couldn’t be more thrilled, though. I’m going to make it! Now I’m shopping subtitles, hoping to come up with something good. Back in the day, I used to think I’d call the first book “Five Stars” because the story arc I intended takes place at, literally, five different star systems; it always did seem a bit cheeky though. I’m playing with the idea of “Get a Crew”. It would fit in a number of ways. For the second book, the subtitle has been long locked-in and I only ever considered changing it when I was concerned the first book wouldn’t cover the whole arc.

After that comes branding a series and coming up with good typography and iconography to tie everything together. As the wise man said: Those are good problems.

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Time to revisit the cheddar apple ball?

Another writer on kboards recently floated the idea of some kind of group cookbook, which got me to thinking if there’s anything I could contribute. Most of my recipes are simply copies of other recipes that I’ve tweaked, but I can’t say they’re very original. That’s not to say I couldn’t write a cookbook of my own anyway; I’m given to understand the ingredients themselves aren’t subject to copyright, just the actual text.

But the most truly original recipe I’ve come up with has to be the cheddar apple cheese ball. Working from nothing more than a basic technique, I played around until I found something I liked. I’m very proud of it, and it’s darn tasty.

However, in hindsight I realize the recipe was never perfected. The cheddar apple cheese ball takes 36 hours in the fridge before it even thinks of holding a shape. It’s far too loose, even after the extended chill. This is a logistical problem that makes it very hard to work with. It comes about because there is a lot of liquid in the cheese ball, which takes several tablespoons of cider as well as 3/8 of a Granny Smith apple (to 6 oz. of sharp cheddar).

The solution, I believe, is probably xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is not only an emulsifier, but can give things a creamy texture. I’ve never worked with it, but I have to imagine this is the magic bullet. The only trouble is, I don’t know how much to include. My gut says I’m going to have to play around and try to get to what I think is a good consistency during the mixing process; if the end result is resistant to falling back into a mush, that’s a really good sign.

The outer coating is something else I’d like to improve. I used dried apple pieces, which took a while to cut up into tiny bits, and were all but impossible to work with without corn starch. But all my other ideas are terrible. Thin candy coating: unworkable. Pieces of hard candy: sharp shards. Chopped nuts: texturally repellant. Chocolate: inappropriate. And the list of bad choices goes on. I may have to resign myself to cutting up more dried apple bits when I try this again; it’s the best thing I can find.

If the xanthan gum thing works out, I really want to revisit my other cheese balls. The cheddar bacon ball was a smidge too firm and could have benefited from more water; xanthan gum would help balance that out. Likewise I thought the savory ball was too crumbly, so adding more water and something that would stabilize the result into a creamier finish would be best.

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Reminder: Turn off those headlights on Halloween!

I’ve mentioned this before, but with Halloween nearly upon us it’s time to put the word out again.

Parents (and friends of parents!): If you drive your kids around on Halloween, when you park on the side of the road, Turn off your headlights.

There are people who think that illuminating kids makes them safer. These people did not think it through. When you’re in the driver’s seat on the side of the road, you can see the kids just fine; oncoming cars cannot. For them, the kids are backlit and your lights are blinding them. This is a really great way to get your kid hit by a car.

And I’ve said this before and will say it again: If you do this with your high beams, you deserve to be mauled by a skunk.

If you want kids to be safer on Halloween while you take them around, by car or on foot, just buy a bunch of reflectors and glow sticks. They’re not expensive, and kids will enjoy the glow sticks. Heck, even light-up LED pendants and other such stuff will work. That way you and the cars have a much better chance of seeing them, and they’ll be safer all around. Kids win, parents win, drivers win, and insurance companies win.

But mind you, if there are street lights then there’s a good chance drivers can see your kids just fine anyway, if they’re not being blinded by opposing headlights and if you and the kids are smart about when you cross the street. The extra reflectors and such are just a good idea if you’re worried about their safety. When I was a kid we didn’t have any of that, but we also lived in a four-street trailer park with very low traffic. I’m just saying if you want to beef up on visibility, go with an option that isn’t stupid.

Also if you do stop the car somewhere, do it on the side of the street, not in the street. And if you want to talk to a friend who’s stopped there, that’s cool, but get out of the friggin’ way when traffic comes.

Please pass the message on, and make sure others pass it on too. (I don’t necessarily mean linking to this post; that’s up to you, but I’ve never liked chain posts or chain mail. But tell somebody and make sure the message gets momentum.) We need this message to go viral so people stop being so stupid and reckless with their kids’ lives in what they think is an act of safety.

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Stuffed shells

Every year around Christmas my father makes stuffed shells, which we have for one of the big holiday meals. He’s renowned for his sauce, which is lost on me because I don’t do sauce, but I enjoy the wonderful cheese-stuffed shells with butter all the same. Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d give it a try sometime.

Rather than just wing it completely, I wanted a guideline—for cooking time and approximate quantities if nothing else. The one I went with was this one from the Recipe Critic, but obviously with slight modifications. Since I loathe sauce, that didn’t make the cut, and I didn’t bother sprinkling mozzarella on afterward.

This is the rough recipe I used:

Stuffed shells (no sauce) Mark I:

  • 20 jumbo shells
  • 15 oz. whole milk ricotta
  • 1½ cups whole milk mozzarella
  • ½ cup Parmesan
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • Butter

Cook the shells about 9 minutes until al dente. Mix all three cheeses, salt and pepper, egg, and chopped herbs. Butter the bottom of a 9″×13″ baking pan, and place the shells around. Fill each shell and then add pats of butter throughout the dish. Cover with foil and place in a preheated 350° oven for 30 minutes, then uncover and cook an additional 10 minutes.

Now for the postmortem. I was overall very pleased with the way this came out; the shells were very tasty. I did however find things I wanted to change.

First, I think the filling was still a little too loose, even after baking. Using the rest of the mozzarella (for a full 2 cups) would probably have helped there.

Second, the Parmesan was a little too strong. As much as I think that it benefited the overall flavor, I think next time I’ll cut it back. 1/3 cup is probably right on the nose.

Third, I used way, way too much basil. The original recipe called for 12 leaves, but it was not specific as to size. The basil I had came with some large leaves and some small, so I was working with what might have been equivalent to four large leaves. It outpaced the oregano by quite a lot, and altogether I ended up with about half a cup of herbs after doing a very rough chiffonade. The minty, almost lemony flavor of the basil came out much too strong. It was good, but I’d be happier with something with a lighter touch. I’ll shoot for something closer to ¼ cup total.

A little more black pepper probably wouldn’t be bad, but otherwise I was happy with the seasoning.

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The stuffed mushroom experiment

I’ve been looking for more things I could cook for my wife, since she’s eating low-carb and it severely limits her options. Recently we found that Walmart sells some ready-made stuffed mushrooms, and gave those a try. It seemed to me that this would be an easy thing for me to make myself going forward, so today I gave it a shot.

The stuffed mushroom recipes I found online were generally pretty consistent: slider-sized mushrooms should cook around 20 minutes at 350°. Since I was already cooking half a cheese strata for myself, and the half-strata takes 50 minutes at the same temperature, it was a no-brainer to cook both at the same time, using the first half hour for prep.

First I started with portabella mushroom sliders, a nice package of six. They were each about three inches across. After cleaning them, I broke off the stems and cut them up. The chopped stems went into a frying pan to sauté down a bit—mostly just to soften them. To that I sprinkled on some curry powder, and added a little pat of butter just for more flavor and to assist with the frying. After I judged those were finished, I took them out of the pan and spread them on a little plate to cool.

The stems didn’t seem to have a strong enough curry flavor, so I sprinkled a little more curry powder into each cap before stuffing. Near the time to put the mushrooms in the oven, I filled a bowl with a little bit of cheddar, a bit of Parmesan, and a bit of mozzarella, about equal parts. It was by eye, so I’m gonna say it would be roughly a quarter cup of each cheese. To that I added the mushrooms and mixed as best I could. Then it was just a matter of stuffing that mixture into the caps, and in they all went for 20 minutes. (The cookie sheet was lined with foil but I didn’t use any nonstick spray.)

My wife was very happy with the results. I took a bite and was quite pleasantly surprised myself. This appears to be a nearly foolproof recipe, at least when there’s no meat involved. And it turned out sprinkling in that little bit of extra curry powder was the right move. The only thing missing apparently was salt; there wasn’t enough in the cheese alone, so they benefited from a smidge of sea salt. (I’m always surprised that as such a salt lover, I constantly forget to salt things—including that half cheese strata.)

This worked out so well that I’m planning to double up and do some experimenting next time around. My wife wants to try spinach in the mix, and for me I’d like to mix in garlic and herbs (no curry with that one), maybe with some seasoned bread crumbs.

There are only two major things I plan to do differently next time. First, I don’t intend to burn my knuckle on the oven door and subsequently spill a little cheese into the bottom of the oven. Second, instead of painstakingly wiping the dirt off each mushroom I’m just gonna wash them; apparently the risk of them absorbing too much water is way overstated.

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Fix your lifeless cider

As Epic Meat Weekend was drawing down, I cut up some cheeses and poured some apple cider to enjoy during the fourth quarter of the game. Problem: I discovered on tasting the cider that this batch was dull. It was sweet enough for my tastes, but not at all tart, and I love me a tart apple cider.

Science to the rescue! Back during my cheese ball obsession I ordered a pound of malic acid online, and had not yet had occasion to open it up. Malic acid is what gives properly tart cider its taste to begin with, so basically this was a matter of adding in what the apples themselves had failed to provide. So I sliced open the bag and took about half a plastic spoonful of the stuff, and mixed it in with about 12 oz. of cider that I had left in my cup. The result was not 100% as tart as I like it, but it was much closer to what I wanted. I could have kept going a little more but didn’t see the point, as it was good enough. I did however add a couple of spoonfuls to the half-gallon jug it came from.

So if you should ever find yourself wishing your cider had more bite to it, pop in some malic acid and stir it up well, and if it’s not enough, pop in a little more.

Malic acid can be hard to get online—I had to run a gauntlet of canceled orders on Amazon before someone finally came through and actually had some as advertised—but it’s worth having around for these occasions.

Citric acid also has its place if you want to tarten up some lemonade, and it can be found in the canning section of any good grocery store or Walmart. If you want to add tartness to something orange flavored, try mixing in about 6:1 citric to malic acid; I read some time ago that oranges contain 15% malic acid out of their total, so maintaining that ratio should provide for a more authentic orange flavor.

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In search of low-carb chicken parm meatballs: Mark II postmortem

For Epic Meat Weekend I made two half-batches of chicken Parmesan meatballs, as planned. I made two discoveries.

First, when Wegmans is out of the good Purdue ground chicken, don’t buy their store brand organic stuff. Not only is it ground way, way too thin, it’s much slimier and stickier. I had to throw out an entire batch because it just wasn’t coming together, and make a last-minute run out to Price Chopper for the good chicken. I still have another pound of the crap chicken I have no idea what to do with.

Second, I found out that almond flour works just as well as pork rinds when it comes to a binding agent in place of bread crumbs. Which is to say, it’s crap. Parmesan and mozzarella leaked all over compared to my control batch. I’m not giving up, however. The problem may be that a strict 1:1 substitution by volume is not appropriate. I did add a teaspoon of Italian seasoning, since I was replacing Italian bread crumbs, but I used the exact same amount of almond flour as I would bread crumbs. Maybe this was a mistake. Instead of 1/3 cup for a half batch, maybe I should up it to ½ cup next time.

This was my first time cooking with almond flour. I almost wonder if it’s not dry enough, either, and would benefit from some kind of pre-toasting. It has a consistency much more like wet sand than I would like. Maybe some people who are more familiar with it could give me a heads-up on what I need to do to make it work.

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