Thursday, April 30, 2020

Leftover Cookery

I'm not a big fan of keeping leftovers. I'm more of a "heat up what I need right now" kind of guy, and when it comes to those last couple slices of baked-from-frozen pizza, I'm a bit of a "throw away whatever is left when I'm full" guy, too. (Not a fan of leftover pizza.) Considering how little I do in the kitchen these days that's really creative or, apart from heating up frozen stuff, counts as cooking in the strictest sense, it's actually surprising how much use I've made of leftovers during the last week, thanks perhaps to being cooped up in my apartment all alone by COVID-19.

I should note that when I do really cook something – anything that may involve browning meat, boiling water, chopping vegetables and/or pressing ingredients into a baking dish – I do put up leftovers to eat during the next day or two. And this week, I've economized cooking time and ingredients to the extent of using some of the same leftovers two different ways, and combined the "heat up something frozen" approach with actual cookery.

To trace the chain of leftover use, let's start with the jar of spaghetti sauce that I opened one night when I was heating up a couple of frozen, breaded chicken patties. I spread the sauce on a couple pieces of toast, topped them with the oven-hot chicken patties and then added a slice of swiss cheese (sorry, I was out of mozzarella) to each open-face chicken parm sandwich. I zapped them in the microwave for 15 seconds just to put a little melt on the cheese, and I was very happy with the result. I have to admit, those frozen chicken patties tend to taste a bit nasty unless you dress them up. This bit of microwave-aided improv covered that up well.

So, the remaining seven-eighths of the jar of marinara went into the fridge. It was joined the next night by half of a jar of Indian curry simmering sauce that I had picked up on clearance some time ago, and about which I was starting to worry as to how long I should keep it. What did I use the first half of the jar on? Well, let's see. I opened a can of chunk chicken and a bag of frozen "seasoning blend" (diced, frozen onions, green and red peppers, celery and parsley) and browned up half of each in a small frying pan. Then I added the half-jar of simmering sauce, covered the pan with a saucepan lid, and left it simmering on low heat while at the same time preparing a package of Mahatma-brand saffron rice – to which, I'm sure, the word "saffron" applies about the same way as the word "smurfberry" in Smurfberry Crunch cereal. When the rice was done, I stirred in the curry/chicken/vegetable mixture and, by golly, ate it. I may, in fact, have divided it into two servings and saved one for the next day's lunch.

So by now, I had most of a jar of marinara, half a jar of curry sauce and half a can of chunk chicken (covered with cling wrap) in the fridge, and half a bag of seasoning blend (mirepoix?) sealed in a ziplock bag in the freezer, leftover-wise. The next day, I went grocery shopping and decided to get a package of Barilla-brand ready-to-bake lasagna noodles and the ingredients I would need to follow the recipe on the back of the box. These included a pound of ground beef, a 15-ounce tub of ricotta cheese and a 4-cup resealable bag of shredded mozzarella.

Back at home, I sauted the remaining seasoning blend in a larger frying pan, then crumbled in the whole pound of hamburger. But now I realized that I would have to halve the recipe, because I don't have a 9x13-inch baking dish; the nearest size that I do have is a scaled-down oblong, maybe 7x11. So, in a separate bowl, I blended half the tub of ricotta with a small amount of mozzarella and a bit of the grated parmesan that I already had on hand. I pulled out the mostly full jar of marinara that was already open in the fridge, nonstick-sprayed the pan, and layered in the sauce, noodles, ricotta mixture, mozzarella, and meat mixture as directed by the recipe on the box – only, instead of each layer having three full sheets of stiff lasagna, they only had two with the ends broken off and the extra fragments arranged along one end of the pan.

I also had to adjust the cooking time, but the dish turned out great. However, I had enough for three meals on my hands, so two-thirds of it went back into the fridge and got eaten the next day at lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, I still had about a third of the meat mixture left over (which went into the fridge in a spare glass jar). I also put back half of the ricotta and a little less than half of the mozzarella, which I still haven't found a use for, and perhaps half of the lasagna noodles. Maybe I'll just have to get some more meat and do another tray of lasagna; I already have another jar of pasta sauce.

Yesterday, I worked out how to use up some of the leftovers still abiding in my fridge. For breakfast, I had an omelette that used up about half of the leftover mixture of browned meat and seasoning blend, plus some cheese (not the mozz, though). For dinner, I heated up a plastic pouch of jasmine rice (90 seconds in the microwave), a steamer bag of frozen peas (5 minutes in the microwave), and meanwhile combined the leftover meat mixture, chunk chicken and curry sauce in the small frying pan and simmered them under a saucepan lid. When the peas came out of the microwave, I combined all the other ingredients in two bowls and, to save myself from more leftovers, ate both bowlfuls then and there.

Imagine if I'd had to put away one of those bowls for later: half of the components had already been saved as leftovers once, and the mirepoix had gone round twice (once while still frozen and once after being cooked).

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The 12th Doctor

Doctor Who's 12th Doctor was played by Peter Capaldi, who guest-starred in an episode of the David Tennant-era Doctor as a citizen of Pompeii. (The familiarity of his face is eventually, but unnecessarily, retconned. But now that I think of it, the word "unnecessarily" in that sentence is redundant.) He's an older-looking Doctor with a Glasgow accent, who likes to dress on the dressy side of business casual (no tie, anyway), play Beethoven's 5th on an electric guitar and use sonic sunglasses in addition to, or at times instead of, the customary screwdriver.

For his first two series, Doc 12 hangs out with the same Clara Oswald who followed the 11th Doctor around toward the end of his run. In what I guess was Series 8 of Modern Whoviana – note, however, that I had to look this up on Wikipedia – Clara has a romance with an adorable maths teacher named Danny Pink, while she's teaching at the same school, setting up some character conflict with the Doctor who has no respect for soldiers while Danny used to be one and hasn't quite gotten it out of his system. Their love story comes to a sad end at about the time a certain Missy is revealed to be the latest regeneration of the villainous Master, the second-last Time Lord (sorry – Lady), who has been frenemies with the Doctor for something like 2,000 years. She remains a recurring threat throughout the 12th Doctor's tenure. In Series 9, Doc adventures with a more grief-hardened version of Clara, who shows an increasing tendency to declare herself to be the Doctor in what I fancy to be an early foreshadowing of the 13th Doctor's sex. On either side of Danny Pink's ennobling end, she has a remarkable zest for dangerous escapades that borders on, and sometimes crosses the border into, downright recklessness. It's kind of fun to see the Doctor taken aback by it.

But then, Clara is snatched from him and the show undergoes a weird format change for Series 10, in which the Doctor has two companions – a deceptively wimpy guy named Nardole, who (in one of two Christmas specials that bookended an entire year of no new episodes) gets dismembered and put back together, and a same-sex attracted college girl named Bill Potts, who is actually only a college girl because the Doctor senses something remarkable in her and offers to be her tutor at the university where he has (this is the weird part) agreed to stay put, no Tardising about, for 1,000 years while guarding a vault containing the nefarious Missy. Nardole's role is to disapprove when the Doctor chooses to play hooky and gallivant across spacetime. Bill's, apparently, is to ask different questions ("Doctor What?") and make different observations ("It's smaller on the outside") than any of the Doctor's previous companions, because she sees everything differently.

So, in these three seasons of Doctor Who, the denizens of the Tardis thwart an evil Italian restaurant that turns people into cyborg replacement parts; shrink down and do the incredible journey inside a Dalek; go back to the 12th century to prove whether or not Robin Hood really existed (and, of course, discover that the Sheriff of Nottingham is in league with aliens); stage a heist at the most secure bank in the universe, guarded by a beast that'll melt your brain if it smells guilt on you; duke it out with killer robots, a moon-devouring dragon, a ghostly apparition that kills anyone who can see it within 66 seconds, a race of living graffiti who kill people by turning them two-dimensional, and a forest that grows up overnight all over the world; and face a combined Missy/Cybermen plot to turn all mankind's dear departed against them. And that's just Series 8.

Series 9, heavy on two- (or three)-parters, features jaunts on the Dalek homeworld, a time travel puzzle involving more killer ghosts, a demonstration of how it's never a good idea to grant immortality to a Viking girl (just catch me making that mistake now), an attempt to provoke a genocidal war between mankind and the shape-changing Zygons living peacefully among us, mayhem caused by a machine that spares workers the trouble of sleeping, and a confrontation between the Doctor and the surviving Time Lords of Gallifrey.

In Series 10, they go up against liquid people who can travel anywhere (or anywhen) in no time flat, robots who kill anyone who isn't smiling because they want everyone to be happy, a people-eating monster under the ice at the 1814 Thames ice fair, a house that eats people, a space mining company that rents oxygen to its workers by the breath and turns their spacesuits against them to keep costs down, an invasion by corpse-like alien monks who try (and largely succeed) to enslave the human race in part by rewriting the history books, a Victorian-era British invasion of Mars (a bad idea for so many reasons), the real reason the Ninth Roman Legion disappeared (hint: Druids were only indirectly to blame), and a Cybermen origins story that takes place on a 400-mile-long colony ship struggling to back away from a black hole – which has the intriguing relativistic effect that decades pass at one end of the ship during minutes at the other. I think a whole branch of mathematics could be devoted to figuring out how things would play out on that ship.

There is also a goodly crop of Christmas specials. The 2014 one, "Last Christmas," capitalizes on the demise of Danny Pink to inject a vivid dose of heartache into a tale in which Santa Claus joins forces with the Doctor to battle face-hugging aliens intent on eating people's brains. "The Husbands of River Song," 2015, provides emotional closure for the relationship between the Doctor and his main squeeze, who keep meeting like time machines in the night (mostly traveling in opposite directions). It's also a pretty funny episode, featuring (among other things) a sentient robot suit that keeps the brain of an evil alien king alive, and a restaurant ship that caters exclusively to the most evil people in the galaxy. This is followed, without any intervening episodes, by 2016's Christmas special "The Return of Doctor Mysterio," in which an American kid who's crazy about comics inadvertently swallows a rare gem that causes wishes to come true, and grows up to be the equivalent of Superman. Finally, there's "Twice Upon a Time" (2017), which draws out the Doctor's inevitable regeneration into a crossover story starring David Bradley ("Filch" from the Harry Potter movies) as the First Doctor.

Along the way, the guest cast is graced by such talent as Justin Chatwin (American Gothic, Another Life), David Suchet (best known, at least to me, for playing Hercule Poirot), Joivan Wade (Doom Patrol), Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Paul), Jemma Redgrave (of that Redgrave family), Michael Troughton (son of Patrick "The Second Doctor" Troughton), Mark Gatiss (who played Mycroft Holmes on Sherlock, which he co-created with Who showrunner Steven Moffat, and also wrote some Who episodes), Peter Serafinowicz (a.k.a. Darth Maul), Greg Davies (whom I recognized as a recurring panelist on the hilarious British celebrity game show Would I Lie to You), and more.

How shall I narrow it all down to Three Episdoes That Made It For Me? Quickly, I suppose. (1) "Heaven Sent," the penultimate episode of Series 9, traps the Doctor almost alone in a sort of purgatory where Peter Capaldi reads some of his best lines and delivers some of his best line readings. The epitome of a bottle show – it almost doesn't have anybody in it except the Doctor, unless you count a terrifying cloaked figure that he spends a lot of time trying to avoid – it somehow packs a lot of dramatic power. (2) "The Return of Doctor Mysterio," which comments drily on the comic-book conceit that nobody can tell Clark Kent is Superman because of glasses. And (3) "Time Heist," in which the Doctor, Clara and a few other accomplices willingly erase their own short-term memory in order to pull off a bank robbery that could only succeed with foreknowledge of an impending catastrophe (among other sci-fi gimmicks). There are several Honorable Mentions, though, such as "Smile" (with the killer emojibots), "Oxygen" (with the killer spacesuits), "Mummy on the Orient Express" (need I say more?) and the "Under the Lake/Before the Flood" duad, in which an alien tries to harvest the souls of all mankind just to boost his radio signal.

However, there are also problems with the 12th Doctor. I didn't think Series 9's Zygon two-parter was all that great. Neither was the Monks three-parter in Series 10. I came away from Series 8's "Listen" not really convinced that it was about anything. I thought "In the Forest of the Night" (also Series 8) was just one too many episodes in a short span in which Earth is almost destroyed by a natural disaster of astronomical scale, coming a mere four episodes after "Kill the Moon." I was rather disappointed with how Series 9's "The Woman Who Lived" turned out (i.e. as a recurring character, speaking of the immortal girl the Doctor inadvertently creates). And although I used the word "ennobling" to describe Danny Pink's death, I regret that the show didn't give his romance with Clara more time to develop. I suppose once they get domesticated, they aren't much use as time-and-space-traveling companions, as the 11th Doctor learned from Amy and Rory. But mainly, I think the whole "Let's have the Doctor settle down as a don at I forget what university" concept that ran throughout Series 10 was a non-starter. It was just too far off format. I mean, domesticating the Doctor is even worse than tying his companions down with day jobs, marriages, homes and ordinary lives. Also, the idea of bringing back Doc 1, played by a well-known and high-quality actor like David Bradley, seems brilliant on paper (and at times, Bradley carried it off just as brilliantly) – but it runs hard upon the shoals of political correctness, which definitely doesn't embrace the attitudes espoused by the First Doctor. As a result, I think, the experiment ends up insulting fans who have followed the show since its infancy, making the original doctor appear either ridiculous or obnoxious and basically canceling out any good the crossover does.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Sleeping Doll

The Sleeping Doll
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

Kathryn Dance is a California Bureau of Investigation agent who specializes in kinesics – essentially, the science (or art) of telling whether someone is lying or maybe knows more than they realize. This comes in especially handy while questioning suspects or interviewing witnesses. She's sort of the opposite of Jeffery Deaver's main recurring sleuth, Lincoln Rhyme – a New York based criminalist who'll take forensic evidence over fallible people any day – and, by the way, she knows him. He even makes kind of a cameo appearance in this book. But mainly, it's Dance's show when a convicted killer escapes from custody shortly after she questions him about a murder he may have committed before the one he's serving time for.

Daniel Pell was the center of a cult-like crime family that many compare to that of Charles Manson. That all ended, it seems, the night he killed all but one member of a wealthy family, plus his accomplice, in a home invasion robbery gone horribly wrong. An anonymous tip led to his arrest and conviction, and since then he's been locked up in a super-secure prison. But now, apparently, he has played law enforcement at their own game, moving real-life game pieces around the board from inside his prison, all to get an opportunity to escape from a far less secure facility – the Monterey County Sheriff's Office. Aided by an insecure young woman who has fallen under his spell, he continues to elude capture while, mysteriously, making no real attempt to leave the Monterey area. Only Dance's brilliant intuitive leaps and ability to prise information out of reluctant sources enables her to stay on Pell's trail and even, a handful of times, to come within arm's reach of nabbing him, if only those take-downs weren't bungled somehow.

This mystery-thriller excels in demonstrating how Dance's peculiar skills can really come in handy when a psychopath is on the loose. She picks the brains of the surviving members of Pell's previous cult. She garners valuable clues from an interview with the sole surviving member of the family Pell murdered – a small child at the time, she was christened "the sleeping doll" in the media because she survived the massacre while sleeping in a bed covered with toys. Dance even becomes a target herself when the villain decides she's become a threat to his sense of invulnerability.

It's a tale full of devious twists and turns, featuring a heroine – widowed mother of two, having trouble getting back into dating, interested in footwear and a semi-professional collector of folk music – who attains fully fleshed reality in the reader's imagination. Her moods, her relationships, the complexities of her personal and professional life make her a richly believable character, which serves as a just-adequate counterbalance to the multiple outlandish plot twists that are Deaver's stock in trade. I've sometimes considered those twists, which in a non-zero number of cases have crossed the line into the preposterous, to be a detriment to the quality of his books. There were moments in this book when I considered the possibility that this would end up being one of those cases. But in the overall balance of things, I think it worked – albeit with a nervous laugh on my part – in spite of the reader being asked three or four times, in the final act alone, to reconsider who was a good guy or gal vs. who was a bad. In the last analysis, I'm only going to ding this book for going on a bit too long after resolving the main climax. It's a risk a writer undertakes when he sets out to deceive his reader in as flamboyant a fashion as Deaver frequently does.

This 2007 book has three sequels so far: Roadside Crosses (2009), XO (2012) and Solitude Creek (2015). Deaver is also the author of three Rune books (starting in 1989 with Manhattan Is My Beat and leading to Hard News, 1991); three John Pellam novels (from 1992's Shallow Graves to Hell's Kitchen, 2001); 14 Lincoln Rhyme thrillers (from The Bone Collector, 1997, to The Cutting Edge, 2018), a 2014 Lincoln Rhyme/Lucas Davenport crossover co-authored with John Sandford, titled Rhymes With Prey; two Colter Shaw books (The Never Game, 2019, and The Goodbye Man, publishing May 12 of this year); and such standalone titles as The Lesson of Her Death, The Devil's Teardrop, The Blue Nowhere and The Bodies Left Behind. He also seems to be an avid writer of short stories, with several collections of them to his credit. In short, the man is an industry. I don't remember whether I saw him playing poker with Richard Castle, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Surprising Subtlety

Subtlety isn't something you expect in a commercial product. Certainly not a product with such flamboyant packaging as Hot Hands hand warmers, pictured here. But I tried this product today for the first time and found it intriguingly subtle yet effective.

Here's what happened. I had an errand I wanted to run – a visit to the drive-through ATM at my bank, about a mile from my apartment. Even though it had snowed earlier in the day and I knew it was going to be cold, I decided I wanted to go on foot because I'd been cooped up in my apartment without a break for a couple days, and I desperately needed fresh air, sunshine and a little exercise. So I put on two jackets (a hoodie and a relatively light winter coat) and a knitted cap but, for some reason, decided I didn't need gloves. I guess I trusted my pockets to keep my hands warm. And off I went.

On the way to the bank, I had a tail wind pushing me along. Even so, 22 degrees plus wind made for an uncomfortably cool walk. I put up the hood of my hoodie and kept my fists jammed in my pockets, but even so, I was feeling pretty miserable (and stupid) when I got to the ATM. I took out $40, braced myself, and turned into the wind for the homeward stretch.

Oh, was it cold! It was face-hurtingly cold. Part of the way home, I darted into Walgreens with little more in mind than to blow time in a heated place. While I was there, I spotted a rack of stocking caps and wondered aloud if the store carried mittens; but they did not. Then I spotted a clearance display of these hand warmers, and I decided to give them a try.

What comes out of the package looks rather like a tea bag – kind of a woven paper sachet full of something that feels like really fine gravel or maybe crumbled up charcoal. Following the directions, I gave each pouch a good shake, then wrapped my fists around them and stuck them in my pockets and walked the rest of the way home. And you know what? Even though I had the wind blowing right at me, the only discomfort I felt was an increasingly urgent desire to blow my nose.

It was actually pretty weird. I expected those hand warmers almost to burn my hands, to become uncomfortably hot as I walked with fists in pockets. But they didn't. In fact, I didn't even notice any particular sensation of warmth. For the first block or so, I even wondered if the hand warmers were working. But then I realized that even though my hands didn't exactly feel warm, they didn't feel cold either. And that was astonishing, under the circumstances.

My hands weren't numb. Nor were they in pain from the wind chill biting through the fabric of my light winter coat. Even with a bit of wrist exposed between sleeve and pocket, I feared no evil. I expected toasty warmth and slightly dreaded becoming a little overheated, but was surprised to feel neither. Even more surprising of this little bundle of chemicals branded with images of flames and glowing heat, success was mingled with subtlety.

Did I wash my hands when I got home? You betcha. I don't know what they put in those things, but I didn't want to taste it at dinner.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Sight Reading

When I sit down at the piano,
My ability to sight-read notes
Is my one beauty.

Year after year,
I sight-read the same pieces,
Learning the hearing of them
And loving them as friends,
But knowing the playing of them
Little better than at first.

When I sight-read Handel,
My eyes and mind and fingers and ears and heart
Are all in agreement
That a finer master of musical art
Can never have walked the earth.

When I sight-read Bach,
My eyes and mind and fingers and ears and heart
Are all in agreement,
That I could not have been more mistaken about Handel
And that this, this is beyond beyond.

When I sight-read Scriabin,
A schism arises between my eyes and ears,
Between my mind and heart,
With none but my fingers to bridge the gap.
My eyes and mind say, "What is this stuff?"
They can make nothing of it.
My fingers move across the keys, discovering.
My ears and heart reply, "How beautiful."

Year after year,
I learn these (and more) anew,
And learning, love them,
And gradually come to feel
That I have known and loved them always.

The Never Game

The Never Game
by Jeffery Deaver
Recommended Ages: 14+

Colter Shaw isn't a cop. He isn't a detective. He isn't even a bounty hunter or bail bondsman. He just seeks missing people and collects the rewards offered for finding them. He doesn't have a badge or a license. He doesn't have to answer to anybody. And that's the way he likes it.

He doesn't even care about the rewards all that much. It's more about the challenge of solving a mystery everybody else can't or won't.

Shaw was brought up by a somewhat paranoid survivalist on a forest compound in California. He's on a long-term mission to find out what happened on an October night five years ago. While he's chasing those answers, he decides to try for a reward offered by the father of a 19-year-old woman who went for a bicycle ride and never came back.

He finds the girl easily enough. But in the process, he witnesses the cold-blooded murder of an innocent young man. He picks up on a pattern that suggests that a serial kidnapper (and sometimes killer) is living out a sick fantasy based on a computer game. Or maybe that's just what the perpetrator wants him to think. At the same time, someone is apparently searching for Shaw with who-knows-what intentions. Every clue – including ones only Shaw seems capable of spotting – indicates that he and the police must work together, and work fast, to save the next victim before it's too late.

It's a compelling mystery-thriller, set in a region of California where high technology comes to be born and where middle-class dreams, crushed by soaring property taxes, go to die. It drags a respectable number of red herrings across the trail, with plot twists torqued to a tension only Jeffery Deaver can achieve. As the debut of a new, recurring sleuth it's very successful; Colter Shaw will be a force to reckon with, I think. My only quibble is that, as he pays out two story lines at the same time, Deaver doesn't belay them both with ideal timing. As a result, I felt there was something out-of-shape about this story, like too much plot being revealed after the main climax. Not that I have a suggestion as to how he could have done it better.

Also included in this book is the short story The Second Hostage, also featuring Colter Shaw. In this adventure, Shaw rolls into an Oklahoma town looking for a teenage runaway. While visiting the sheriff's office in hope of getting a little help, he gets caught up in a hostage situation where all is not as it seems. Once again, Deaver plays one of his trademark tricks on the reader's expectations, landing on the more satisfying side of average and leaving me wanting more Colter Shaw, more than ever.

The Never Game is the first "Colter Shaw" novel by the author of 14 Lincoln Rhyme thrillers, four Kathryn Dance novels, three Rune and (credited as William Jefferies) three John Pellam books, as well as about a dozen other novels. The sequel to this book, The Goodbye Man, is scheduled for release on May 12, 2020.