An unexpected break, and bacon grease French fries

Holy crap, has it really been a month? Sorry about that! No cooking posts or anything, and that isn’t right. I’ve been busy working and also obsessively keeping an eye on how Below is being received. And so far so good; the reviews are all overwhelmingly positive, and lately starting to pick up a little steam. Family drama (my wife’s side) somewhat dominated last month, throwing a lot of things off, and the weekends got busy with returning shows. How I’ve missed those.

This month brings us the typical end-of-summer runaround, with last-minute weekend things and of course preparing for the Great New York State Fair. Last year’s Fair was a mixed bag, with the half-finished renovations throwing everything out of whack and the Fair managing to tick quite a few vendors off, but hopefully everything will be settled this year. My mouth is already watering for steak tips and mushrooms, fried mac and cheese, fried mashed potatoes, and other favorite goodies.

I owe you guys an interesting cooking post, so here’s a quickie. Last weekend for Game of Thrones night, I decided I wanted to make loaded fries again, with cheese and crumbled bacon. I did that a couple of times before and it’s always worked out nicely, but I make the cheese sauce myself with sodium citrate and that takes a little time. This time I took the easy route, and bought a box of Velveeta cheese sauce packages—the kind you get with shells and cheese—at Walmart. (I can’t buy it at Wegmans for some reason. It always saddens me when Wegmans doesn’t carry something they should.) This saved me some time, which was nice, and I’ll probably do that more in the future. One packet of sauce was just right for a bowl of loaded fries.

Not too long ago, I also discovered that you can use bacon grease to cook French fries, and holy crap is that amazing. I take a couple tablespoons and melt them in the microwave, then put my portion of frozen fries in a plastic bag and pour on the bacon grease, and mix it all around to coat every fry. Finally I dump the fries onto a baking sheet, and once the oven is preheated I throw them in. They still need salt at the end, but the extra flavor from the bacon grease is totally worth it. If you’ve never tried this, and like me you keep leftover  bacon grease around to cook with, you have to give this a shot.

This time I also nuked up my bacon crumbles a tad to improve their texture (and temperature) a little bit. When you buy them they’re more chewy than anything else, and while I didn’t want crunchy I wanted them to head somewhere in that direction.

This is totally going to be one of my go-tos for football season. That and teriyaki chicken wings and chicken Parmesan meatballs, of course.

Sometime soonish I’m also going to have to buy a new Christmas tree. I bought one last year to replace the old one that dropped plastic needles everywhere, but I was wildly unhappy with the new tree. I’m used to a hook design for the branches, and the new tree was hinged. The thing about hinged trees is, fluffing them sucks and de-fluffing them to put them away sucks harder, and all this is a hundred times worse in a small space. I need to go back to a hook tree, no exceptions. Preferably another Douglas fir.

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Josh was wrong (or, how not to make waffles)

I had leftover steak from the weekend. Instead of grilling on the 4th like a true patriot, I made waffles so I could have waffle tacos. (Okay, I actually did grill that evening. But it was just hot dogs, so I don’t think that counts.)

I looked around for some ideas on how to make waffles even better—not that I ever had any complaints about the standard Bisquick waffle, but I thought there was room for more awesomeness. A few months ago I found out that adding 2 tbsp. of lemon juice and 2 tsp. of baking powder to the default Bisquick pancake recipe was worth it, so it stood to reason that the waffles could be improved.

Thus I found a post on a blog called Josh Loves It, where Josh shared his secret to the awesomest Bisquick waffles ever: up the milk to 2 cups instead of 1⅓. (I always use 1½ already.) And that’s it. So I thought: Cool, I’ll try it!

Gads did that not work.

Maybe Josh’s variation works in a Belgian waffle maker like the one he was using, especially as his is a flip model the batter would have been able to coat both sides very easily. But in my non-Belgian waffle maker, because Belgian waffles are nowhere near as good as regular waffles and I will fight you on that, the batter never rose far enough to reach the top plate very well. The result was that the waffles were a little too thin, instead of being fluffier. They worked fine for their intended purpose and they still taste good, but I’m disappointed in their thickness for sure.

Now I’m not at all unhappy with the standard recipe, or at least the minor variation I use which is a much less drastic increase in the amount of milk. But I think if I’m going to use 2 cups of milk in the future, I’ll have to make the same modifications I did for the pancake recipe: 2 tbsp. of lemon juice to simulate using buttermilk, and 2 tsp. of baking powder to add much-needed lift. If I try that I’ll be sure to post the results here.

Now go buy Below. It’s better than Josh’s waffles.

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The FTC’s robocall division is a joke

There, I said it. The FTC isn’t doing enough to stop illegal robocalls.

Robocalls exploded for me just a few months ago, and I think they did so for everyone else on the planet—or at least in North America—at the same time. I used to get a few annoying ones now and then, but now they come in on average 1 to 1.5 times a day, counting my home phone and cell phone both. This morning I got a nice little surprise: the robo-scammers randomly called my business phone—which isn’t publicly listed anywhere to my knowledge—which rang through to my cell via Google Voice.

If it’s not Rachel or Sara from card services promising me a lower interest rate, it’s Heather from the vehicle warranty center, or some other heinous creep trying to steal my money. And that’s just the robocalls! Although the Indian Windows tech support scammers have slowed way down, they haven’t stopped completely. But the robocalls have increased in frequency by a dramatic degree, so these days they’re the big problem.

I did some Googling to find out if the FTC is doing anything about this. Well, good news. There’s an article from frickin’ January that says they took down two massive robocall organizations.

Except they didn’t.

It’s pretty obvious from my own timeline that the robocall escalation started around March, which means it happened after the FTC supposedly made a huge dent in the problem.

What actually happened with the FTC  was that they filed a lawsuit, and got the defendants to agree to stop robocalling. That’s right, a voluntary agreement, albeit signed under force of law. So basically you have these criminals running wild doing whatever the frell they want, and when the FTC finally gets around to busting them, they go to civil court instead of criminal court, and get the defendants to sign a paper saying “We acknowledge we’re doing highly illegal crap but we pinky swear we’re not going to do it anymore. WINK.

This is like if the police busted up a drug supplier, and instead of hauling the dealers off to jail they filed lawsuits and made them promise not to sell drugs anymore. If they were willing to break the law in the first place, they’re obviously going to break the agreement. Duh!

This is disgraceful. An absolute joke, and I’m disgusted my taxpayer dollars were wasted on such a mealy-mouthed “solution” that, if anything, made the problem literally ten times worse.

Listen up, you clowns. Your job is to make a federal criminal case against these companies, the people who run them, the people who work for them and are knowingly in on the scams, and the people who hire them to perform scams. They’re not only violating all kinds of criminal laws just with their phone abuse, but they’re committing actual fraud that can be prosecuted. That means you take it to criminal court, stupid, not to civil court, and you don’t settle for a dumbass “promise” to stop doing what they’re doing. You make sure the co-conspirators, all of them except those who turn state’s evidence, rot in jail and then in prison.

I want police raids on these companies. Tear apart their call centers. Arrest everybody, including the voice actors behind the audio. Seize financial assets. Seize financial records and follow the money, then arrest those people too. Hand out immunity to anyone who cooperates and wasn’t so big a part of it that they still need to pay. Utterly destroy these companies until there is nothing left, and salt the earth where they stood. Rain down terror on anyone who participates in this, so that a generation from now anyone who so much as gets the idea of starting up a new robocall outfit will piss the bed screaming and flee to a remote corner of the world to die in obscurity.

This has to stop. I can think of many ways I’d like to see it come to a stop, and I’ll legalize them all when I become a supervillain, but until then I’ll more than happily settle for watching a big ol’ criminal court case against these choads, and seeing their empires of filth burn.

Meanwhile it’s time we hold the FTC’s feet to that same fire. It’s not acceptable to spend years going after a robocall group only to slap them on the wrist and send them away with a promise to do better. You’re not their mommy; you’re supposed to be the freaking scourge of the law. You could solve this problem in a trice by offering a bounty and immunity for any information leading to a criminal conviction, creating a world of whistleblowers who will give you all the information you need and then some. (You’d solve it much faster by offering a bounty on the heads of the people who run these scams and robocall centers, but I know, I know, it’s illegal. For now.) It can be done, and from where I’m sitting all I see after three months of radically increased call volume is a lack of will to do the job.

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How not to do voice prompts

Badly designed phone systems really tick me off.

For example, there’s my doctor’s office. The woman who does the prompts for their system is terrible at it. She speaks too slowly, frequently pauses to take a long breath, and drones on forever and ever about unimportant stuff instead of getting you right to the button options. Thankfully I have the options memorized at this point, but gads does that annoy me every single time.

But today’s rant is about my power company. I went to pay the electric and gas bill by phone, but I hate hate hate their phone system. Their customer service line includes a crapload of long pauses, which is odd considering it starts out asking (after a long pause following the obligatory Spanish prompt) whether you’re reporting a life-threatening emergency. But then it starts asking you, slowly, about what account you’re calling from. It takes about five seconds to rattle off four letters of my last name. Not exaggerating.

Once a full minute has gone by while I confirm which account I’m calling from, I get the prompts. But not button prompts, because being able to quickly hit a button would be stupid; they’re all voice response prompts. This system, unlike some nicer ones I’ve dealt with, only responds to specific prompts and will slowly say each one for you. If you hear your option, you can blurt it out, but the system won’t hear you because it’s still too busy talking. So you have to wait through like six options before you can say “Billing and payments.” Enter round two. Again you get a long list of choices where if you interrupt, it will fall on metaphorical deaf ears. “Payments.” So begins round three. More options, more waiting. Finally, after three minutes have been wasted on this call so far, you can say “Pay my bill.”

Fourth round: Choose check or card. Yes, it’s the same stupid voice prompts and you have to wait. Then there’s the account part, which is actually the quickest part of this entire process. And then we hit the ultimate snag: the amount. This isn’t simple voice options, like paying your full balance or a different amount. Oh no. This piece of crap system asks what you want to do, then tells you in mind-numbing pointless detail how you would pay a different amount via the buttons, if you were so inclined, and gives you an example, even though all you’re trying to do is pay the full balance. But you can’t tell it “Full balance” because you have to wait for it to be done talking before it will listen.

This is not how to make an automated phone system. If you’re going to use voice for crap, let it be flexible from the outset by listening for key phrases so it can go straight through the endless prompts. Don’t tell someone how to enter an alternate amount unless they pick that option, for crying out loud. Let the caller interrupt, because their time is valuable and they don’t want to wait five more minutes to hear all the options they’re never going to choose.

What I want to know is, who designed this system, and where is the line to hit them with a bat?

My cable company gets this right. Cable company. Their prompt just asks what you need in a few words. I pay a couple of credit cards by phone, and those are easy too; one is all button-driven and is relatively quick, and the other is voice-driven but is even faster, because again it not only asks up front what I want, but it lets me interrupt at any time. So if they can do it, my electric company can too. How is this even hard?

And come on, if you have such a phone system, don’t use a slow voice! Never use a slow voice! Make it snappy. Build your system around speed, because speed matters. We have important things to do besides pay our bill, like rant about how an epic fail of a system makes it so hard to pay our bill.

This system is also “fun” when you’re reporting a power outage with a dying cell phone.

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You like me!

I have to admit, I’ve been pretty pumped about the reviews so far for Below. They’ve come in at a trickle, but they’ve been overwhelmingly positive so far, and it’s nice to see that people are actually enjoying the story I had to tell and how it was written. This is the first of my books to see any real publicity, so this is the first time I’ve gotten anything close to this in number of reviews.

Recently I mentioned that Dubious Quality did a nice writeup of the book, which was huge, but this week I was Googling around and discovered that about two weeks ago, a French website that reviews English-language books did a piece on Below. (Translation here.) It’s the first really lengthy review I’ve had, and it’s amazing. (At least the parts that survived Google Translate are amazing.) The coolest thing about it, to me, is that some of the things it talked about were things I’d tried to convey in the book. I kept thinking: “Yes! That’s what I was going for!”

Below sincerely loves dungeons. And this love is contagious.

That’s true. It’s so true. Well to be honest, I only have the right to say the first part is true, but I had really hoped the rest of it would be too.

Putting anything at all out into the world always comes with a heaping helping of self-doubt. When I published, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of how or whether people would connect to it, or if they’d think my writing was any good. But they’re saying nice things, and there’s still a big part of me that has trouble believing that. It’s wonderful and uplifting and humbling all at the same time.

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Good steak day

Last night (Sunday) I poked a bunch of holes in a nice 1 lb. ribeye steak and threw it in a gallon freezer bag with a good amount of Kikkoman teriyaki sauce. (I had to drive all over looking for a decent-sized bottle, though, because Wegmans only carries the small size like a bunch of pansies. Walmart was fresh out, though, and Target doesn’t seem to carry it at all, like a bunch of pansies. So I had to buy two small bottles from Wegmans. I didn’t actually use a full bottle; this was just for a backup.)

This evening, I fired up the grill and threw on the steak. But while the grill was heating I preheated the oven, warmed up a few tablespoons of leftover bacon grease in the microwave, and dumped the grease into the bag with a bunch of crinkle-cut French fries. After coating the fries thoroughly I laid them out on a cookie sheet lined with foil (for easy cleanup) for cooking in the oven. They finished cooking while the steak rested. If you’ve never tried this, do yourself a favor and do so; but don’t think the bacon grease will stand in for salting the fries properly, because you still have to do that.

I was nervous that I might have slightly overcooked my steak, but it came out a perfect medium after all, superbly tender. Supposedly the extra long marination (about 20 hours) shouldn’t have accounted for that, but hey, whatever did it, it was awesome.

A vegetable probably would have been a good idea, but… eh.

Oh, and during lunch I got a scam robocall on my cell phone hit 0 twice, and actually got to talk to a real live thing that had the gall to call itself a person. Then I told it to put me on the do not call list and followed that up with something to make them rethink their life choices while they’re lying awake at night with the lights on. I’m not a psychopath, but I play one on the phone. Until I can legalize hunting these bozos, that sort of extreme verbal and psychological abuse will have to do. (They hung up after that.)

So yeah, plenty of red meat today.

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Things I learned recently (issue 1)

Chick-fil-A is freaking awesome. I never tried them before last Friday when riding with my family on the way to Ohio. We stopped in Erie, PA. I only had a few chicken tenders, not even a sandwich or anything like that, and those suckers were so wonderful my mouth still waters at the thought. Supposedly they’re building one soon right near me. I can’t wait. But I’ll have to.

People like my book! More specifically, Below. The reviews are finally trickling in faster, and so far they’re great. I’m not selling in huge numbers or anything, but getting some decent page read counts via Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. Good enough!

If you go to Longhorn Steakhouse, order the Parmesan crust on your steak. Romano pairs quite well with steak too.

Sometimes nature is determined to piss you off. This is the first time in probably thirty years I haven’t done a Zoo Day. It’s June now. It’s too late. And even this June isn’t very Juney yet. I had to turn the furnace back on the other night. Good gads!

Pressing 0 on a robocall may put you in a queue to talk to a person, but most likely it’ll probably just leave you on hold for a few minutes and then hang up, totally wasting your time and ruining any opportunity to verbally abuse and/or threaten the subhuman sharts manning those phones. But it’s still worth trying, because maybe making one of them crap themselves has an outside shot of getting your number off their list. Also, I hate them.

KFC is really dropping the ball on their chicken tenders lately: way too skinny, not juicy enough, not as good a value for the money as they used to be. How am I supposed to share them with the furry vultures?

Tyra Banks is not as fun as Nick Cannon.

It’s a dirty shame Black Books ended after three seasons.

Team Fun was robbed. Stupid shrimp trap roadblock.

The only thing more satisfying than murdering your enemies is pissing on their corpses. I’m actually talking about bugs, but I’m thinking of making that statement into a meme for social media. Yes they were in the toilet first.

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