Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sunday Recipe: T'rc'nj (Christmas Donuts)‏

Last week, I posted my great-grandmother's abruzzo ravioli recipe. The other thing that we make at Christmas are tricini. Or that's how Gram said it -- 'tri-cheen' -- phoenetically, dropping the end off, as was her habit. So I figured it was spelled 'tricini' or something close thereto. Then my cousin Peter traced Gram's footsteps back, back, back, across the ocean and found her village, the house she grew up in, and some distant relatives. He asked them about tricini, which they said is spelled, as above -- t'rc'nj. [No vowels. Huh, you'd think they were a Polish Christmas tradition, instead of an Italian one with that spelling.]

My mother recalls Gram making them for both Easter and Christmas, but by the time I entered the picture, Gram made t'rc'nj only at Christmas, to be specific Christmas Eve morning, and by morning, I mean at the ass-crack of dawn. She would start frying the dough around 6:00 a.m. or something equally ridiculous, which meant that she had to make the dough around 3:00 a.m., so that it had time to raise, and be punched down, and raise again. As with the Christmas ravioli, I was the designated family sous chef for the t'rc'nj, too, which meant dragging myself out of bed at around 5:30 to help Gram fry. Then everybody would show up, some with milk, some with wine, some with coffee, and eat these little fried donuts of heaven fresh out of the oil.

I had never heard of any other Italian families making t'rc'nj or any other kind of sweet bread around the holidays until a few months ago, I read Jane Ziegelman's wonderful book, 97 Orchard Street, which traces four families through one tenement in New York's Lower East Side. The last family were Sicilians who made a very similar dish called sfinge -- likewise a sweet fried bread which is traditionally made on New Year's Eve, so that the first taste of the new year is sweet. I'm sure all of these traditions dovetailed, overlapped, morphed into and bounced off one other and are inter-connected.

As to my family's particular tradition, the dough is a sweet, egg bread dough with raisins, which are fried stove top and sprinkled with sugar. The shape is not like a donut, but rather you simply pull the dough by hand and, as you lay it in the frying pan, you shape it like a horseshoe (or, as Gram said, "make like a shoe-horse." I'm not kidding. My cousin Pete and I say that to each other every year.) This year, due to everybody's schedules, I'm making the t'rc'nj on December 26th. And we are going to start frying at 8:30, which means that while I still have to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to make the dough, nobody else does. Tradition. It's so tiring.

You can make them at any time of day, though, and for any occasion, although I must warn, they are best when super fresh.

You will need:
5 pounds of all purpose flour (plus a couple extra cups of flour)
1 teaspoon salt
1 large cake of yeast in 1 cup warm water
2 cups of sugar (plus the remainder of a 5 pound bag for sprinkling post-frying)
1 box or less of raisins
4 eggs, beaten

The Prep:
Soak the raisins overnight in several cups of water. In the morning, when you drain the raisins, save the raisin liquid and put it aside. Mash up the raisins a bit with a potato masher. You just want to give them a cursory smash -- you don't need mashed raisins, just kinda smooshed.

Dissolve the yeast cake in a small bowl in warm water, then mix together the dry ingredients - flour, salt, sugar. Add the yeast, raisins, eggs and 4 cups of water. Use the raisin water, if you don't have 4 full cups of raisin water, supplement it with regular old tap water. Mix it all up by hand until it's thoroughly mixed and give it a little kneading. You'll probably need to add a couple cups of flour at this point - you want a nice sticky bread dough, but not epically sticky.

Cover (I use a big towel) and put it aside to let it raise, about two hours. Note, the raising works better if it's somewhere warm, so don't sit the bowl of dough in an area with a draft.

Now this part is important -- go back to bed.

The dough should raise up in 90 minutes to 2 hours. Get your butt out of bed, punch the dough down, and cover it so it can raise again.

Go back to bed for another 45 minutes or so.

After this second raising, the dough is ready. I need constant access to the dough when I'm frying, and the bowl is big, so I put a chair next to me at the stove.

Heat up vegetable oil in two deep frying pans. My great grandmother didn't have any fancy cooking tools, so she always tested the oil with a raisin. When you think the oil is hot, drop a raisin in -- if it starts to bubble and crackle right away, the oil is hot enough. You don't want the t'rc'nj just lounging about in the oil because, really, yech.

Take a small handful of dough and stretch it so that it's about 3 or 4 inches in length, and about the same circumference as a hot dog. Any stray raisins that are poking out, push back in with your fingertip. Drop in the hot oil and don't forget to make like a shoe-horse. Don't mess with them. I use tongs to flip them. When one side is golden brown, flip. Let the other side get golden brown and remove to a paper towel lined plate or bowl and let them drain for a minute or two. Then toss with regular old granulated sugar.

Enjoy! And then take a much deserved nap.

[Pictured above, standing on the stoop in the center is my grandmother, Vera (Petracco) DiPerna, as a young woman. My mother is off to the side with her hair in pincurls and next to her, in the foreground is her cousin Bobby Alcantara (which I suppose that makes him my first cousin, once removed?) That's the front yard of the house they lived in, also on Orchard Street, but in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, not Jane Ziegelman's Orchard Street in NYC.]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sid Crosby Extends Scoring Streak to 22 Consecutive Games

And the beat goes on, the beat goes on.

Sid keeps shooting and scoring every night.

La de da de de, la de da de da.

Sid netted his 28th goal of the season last night, streaking down the left wing, effortlessly picking up a feed from linemate Chris Kunitz and let a slap shot fly that blew right through Panthers' netminder, Tomas Vokoun.

When Sid first arrived, he was an assist man. Despite his speed and hands, he seemed to use his talents to feed the puck to other players. Then he added scoring to his bag of tricks, winning the Rocket Richard trophy last year (with Tampa's Steven Stamkos). But most of those goals came from close in on the net. He's got sneaky quick hands and can flip the puck into tight spaces near the goal mouth. This year, we're seeing him take, and make, more outside shots.

From his rookie year through now, I think Sid's to do list looks like this:
-- Win Stanley Cup -- CHECK
-- Win Olympics -- CHECK
-- Lead team in assists -- CHECK
-- Become a feared face off man -- CHECK
-- Score more -- CHECK
-- Improve slap-shot and one-timer -- CHECK.

I hope catching up to Mats Sundin (Quebec Nordiques) 30 consecutive games point streak (1992-93) is next on the list.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Special Teams Return to 2009 Form and Drag Rest of Team Down with Them

I am a believer in the church of the special teams. Yea verily, just as surely as many evangelicals believe in the certainty of the rapture, I believe that special teams touchdowns will come back to bit you in the ass. Hard. I believe that special teams are as important to a team's success as having a franchise quarterback, winning the turnover battle, and controlling the line of scrimmage. In some mystical karmic way, special teams points seem to carry more weight, more cache and special teams touchdowns are to regular touchdowns as dog years are to people years.

Exhibit A: San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are fighting for their playoff lives in no small part because of two early season losses: to the Chiefs by 21-14 - a game in which they gave up a punt return for a TD; and to the Seahawks by 27-20 - a game in which they gave up TWO kickoff returns for TDs. As things stand today, the Chargers are on the outside looking into the playoff picture.

Exhibit B: New York Giants. Who lost yesterday's thriller to the Eagles when they allowed DeSean Jackson to return a punt for a TD on the last play of the game. Brutal. The Giants still are hanging on to the last spot in the playoffs, but I have to wonder if they can get past the kick to the stomach that yesterday's loss was to win out in the last two weeks?

Exhibit C: Pittsburgh Steelers. The team won in Tennessee after Antonio Brown took the opening kickoff to the house. It was the only touchdown they scored all day. Then yesterday, they lost to the Jets after allowing Brad Smith to take the opening kickoff to the house. Coincidence? I don't think so.

You put your team behind the eight-ball when you allow a special teams touchdown. NFL teams are a combined 10-16 when giving up a special teams touchdown and, for some unknown reason, kick returns seem to do more damage that punt returns. In the 20 games with a kickoff returned for a touchdown in the NFL this year, the team with the KO TD has won 13 of those times, and lost just 7 times. Those are pretty much 2 to 1 odds that you'll win if you take a touchdown to the house.

Maybe it's just the letdown factor for the defense. If you're kicking off, either its the start of the game, the start of the half or you've just scored. So let's say your offense fights and claws and puts together a 80-something yard drive. It takes a lot of plays of 11 players doing their jobs, maybe a spectacular catch or two, or maybe a few tackle breaking runs. And all that work is negated on the ensuing kick. The hard work of that offensive touchdown is erased in about 3 seconds.

It's disheartening.

And it's no way to open a game. Particularly against a team like the Jets.

The Jets average just about 21 points per game and I'm not sure if the folks at Stats, Inc. adjust that for other scores - the Jets had another special teams TD and a TD on an interception return coming into this game. Regardless, the Jets are hardly the Patriots prolific offense, so you can't help a team score, particularly one that had been shut out earlier this year by the Packers and had scored just nine points in the last two weeks. Sure, they were fighting for their playoff lives, but still, this Jets team was there for the taking.

Even with the special teams miscue, and even with a defense that cannot make any big plays without Troy on the field (talk about disheartening - just one sack, just one tackle for a loss and only two QB hits), the Steelers were down by just 3 points and had the ball. (For more on the defense being just pedestrian without Troy, check out Gene Collier's great column.)

Why on earth was Mewelde Moore on the field on 1st and 10 from the Steelers 3? Moore is the best blitz protection back, so if you're gonna pass, I can see him being on the field. But at their own 3 yard line, I don't think the Steelers are going to pass there. And the Jets didn't think so either.

Every coach, every player has a chink in the armor, an achilles heel, not like Troy's injured achilles, but one in the Greek mythology sense. And I think that Bruce Arians' biggest flaw as a play caller is that he tries too hard to outsmart teams.

"It would be so stupid of me to run the ball around the corner with Mewelde Moore in this situation that nobody would expect it. Perfect! .... Oh. Crap."

It's a low percentage call in a situation where you cannot afford to lose yards, so what's the logic in handing the ball off to the smallest, weakest back on the roster and running something to the edges?

Why not hand the ball off to the guy who has 100 yards on the day and is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry? I've said it before and I'll say it again -- they drafted Rashard Mendenhall to be the man. They should give him the opportunity to be the man.

The kick off return for a touchdown, the safety -- those are the kinds of plays the Steelers have manufactured to win this season. With special teams reverting to last year's execrable form, and without the team MVP on the field, they couldn't get any of those plays, but rather watched helplessly while the Jets made a couple of big 'splash' plays in Tomlin-speak.

On the upside, the Steelers haven't lost a game to a bad team this year, unlike last season's five game skid that included losses to the bad stinky Chiefs, stinkier Raiders, and the stench that killed an entire region, a/k/a the Brady Quinn led Browns. So, they got that going for them. Yesterday's loss was not one of those terrible, embarrassing losses, but still, it's a game that was there for the taking.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Recipe: Gram's Ravioli

My great-grandmother came from the village of Pietranseri, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, to America when she was just a teen. My cousin Pete has done amazing work in going back and finding old relatives, visiting the village, and even found the house where she grew up. We all, several generations removed, still feel a very close connection with Gram. One of the many things she brought with her from the old country was her family's tradition of having ravioli on Christmas Day (also Easter.) It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Gram's ravioli tradition was passed down to her daughter Vera (my grandmother) and then skipped a generation to me. [My mother is the designated family taster, but I was apparently born to be a sous chef.] I think I'm the only one in the family who still makes ravs, but as long as I can tolerate getting flour caked in my fingernails and kneading the dough until it's 'like silk,' Gram's Christmas (and Easter) ravioli tradition will live on.

I was taught to make the dough by making a flour well and then slowly whipping the eggs with a fork, being careful not to break the well, then bit by maddening bit, working the flour into the well. You can do this if you like, but I have to warn you, it is labor intensive. And, did I mention, maddening? Yeah, that too.

So while I know how to make pasta dough that way, I choose not to. None other than the magnificent Lidia Bastianich now uses a food processor to plow through the first part of the dough making process and, you know what? If it's good enough for Lidia Bastianich, it is good enough for me. You will still have to put some elbow grease into it by kneading the dough by hand for about 10 to 15 minutes afterwards, but the tedious flour well is not necessary. Beyond which, I think I have PTSD from my grandmother telling me every time, "don't break the well." "Yes, Grammie, I know. I've only been doing this since I was 4 years old and I am well aware that terrible things will happen if I break the well." But those days are behind me as the food processor makes the dough process much less labor intensive, less daunting and I've found that I can crank them out these days.

The Abruzzo region of Italy is very mountainous and in Gram's village, there was little accessibility to a port, so they didn't eat much fish, but sheep are common. Also, they were poor. So, the ravs she grew up with were stuffed with ricotta and despite Laura Schenone's assertion that cheese ravioli are the training wheels of ravioli, I'm gonna defend them. I think that people cook with what they have at hand and lots of sheep + poverty = ricotta stuffed ravioli. Beyond which they are fucking delicious.

Enough with the history lesson, on with the cooking.

For the dough, you will need:
3 cups unbleached all purpose flour, or as needed
4 large eggs + 1 extra egg yolk
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Warm water as needed

For the filling, you will need:
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
1 large bundle of fresh, flat parsley finely chopped
1 cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste

The Labor:
Spoon 2 2/3 cups of the flour into a large food processor fitted with metal blade. Beat the eggs (plus the extra yolk), olive oil and salt together in a small bowl until blended. With the motor running, pour the egg mixture into the feed tube. Process until the ingredients form a rough and slightly sticky dough. If the mixture is too dry, drizzle a very small amount of warm water into the feed tube and continue processing. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a clean, lightly floured surface. (I do it right on my kitchen counter.)

Knead the dough by gathering it into a compact ball, then pushing the ball away from you with the heels of your hands. Repeat the gathering and pushing motion several times. You want to stretch it as you roll and alternate between kneading and sort of stretching. The dough will take on a smooth, silky texture after 10 or 15 minutes. It should be elastic, too. Test it by pressing your fingertip into it and if the imprint springs back up, you've probably achieved delicious dough. Flour the work surface and your hands lightly any time the dough begins to stick while you are kneading.

Roll the dough into a smooth ball and wrap it in saran wrap. Let the dough rest 45 minutes to an hour at room temperature. (It can rest longer if you put it in the fridge, but if you refrigerate it, let it stand at room temperature for about an hour before rolling and shaping.)

While the dough is resting, mix up the filling. It's easy as pie. Mix the ricotta, the parsley, the romano and parm cheeses, the eggs and a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste it and adjust for salt. However, do not let my mother taste it, because she can eat the entire bowl as is. Refrigerate the filling until you need it.

The Assembly Line:
It should be noted that I use a pasta maker like the one below:
If you don't have one of these, borrow one. You really don't want to be rolling the dough with a rolling pin, unless you have (a) a huge work surface and (b) a huge rolling pin and (c) a helper.

With this handy-dandy machine, you roll out long strips of dough (about 2 inches across) and as thin as you like (I like the pasta dough on the thinner side, but not so thin as it breaks too easily.) I make one at a time with this method. On the long strip of dough, giving yourself about 1 1/2 inches from the start of it, put a dollop of the filling. Fold the dough over and press around three sides. Cut that with a knife. Then press the sides down more firmly with the tines of a fork (pressing in and rolling the fork out.) This seals them so they don't leak in the water when you cook them. Then it's just lather, rinse, repeat. I line them up on floured cookie sheets and set them aside until I'm ready to cook.

Note: you can use an edger, to make perfect crinkled edges like you might get in a frozen variety of pasta or in a restaurant. But mine are rustic. Also, I leave an generous portion of dough at the edges, so when I've finished a tray, they look like this:

Once all the ravs are made, bring a large pot of water to a boil. You want to use a ginormous pot because you want the ravs to have lots of room to move. Salt the water well when it hits a rolling boil. Add the ravs and stir gently, so they don't stick. When they start to float, they're nearly ready (about 5 minutes). Of course, I have the fail safe tester of my mother, but you want the dough to be al dente, not mushy ...

I serve them with a basic tomato sauce (my sauce recipe is here) and freshly grated romano cheese.

Happy Christmas and thanks Gram.

[Pictured above is my great-grandmother, Marie Petracco, as a middle-aged woman. She was in her mid-60's when I entered the picture.]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau's F-Bomb Rant from the First Epi of HBO's '24/7'

What follows is an exact transcript of Boudreau's rant delivered to his team between the 2nd and 3rd periods of the Caps December 9th game versus the Florida Panthers. The wonderful camera crews were hard at work to capture this coaching genius for the HBO series, "24/7".

Needless to say, parental discretion is advised:

Have a seat for a second. Look it, I have never seen a bunch of guys look so fucking down when something bad happens. What are you guys? Like prima donna perfect that if you can't fuckin' handle adversity? So shit's not going right. It's not fucken' working the last ten days. Fucking get your heads out of your ass and fucking make it work by outworking the opposition. You kill two fucking men, and then we stand around and watch while they fucking score here. Fucking yous come to the bench like fuckin' this and when the power play it's not working so you're trying to stick handle, you're looking like this and not standing. Outwork the fucking guys! If you want it, don't just think you want it. Go out and fucking want it. But you're not looking like you want it, you look like you're feeling sorry for yourself. And nobody fucking wants anybody that's feeling sorry for themselves. You got 20 fucking minutes. You're down by one fucking shot. Surely to fuck we can deal with this.

Now that, my friends, is motivation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Parsing the NFL MVP Debate

Last night, I was running at the gym (way too cold outside for that stuff) and SportsNation was on the telly in front of me. They were debating the NFL MVP and their top five candidates were: Tom Brady, Michael Vick, Phillip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers. Then I took a quick look at Peter King this morning and his MVP watch list is: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Maurice Jones-Drew.

As much as I really, really like Aaron Rodgers, if the playoffs started now, his team would be out of it, so I have to ding him. Same goes for Phillip Rivers and I don't care about his mad numbers. The best player on a fair to middling team hardly qualifies as league MVP by my reckoning.

As to the rest, I love that King included MJD on his list because if the Jax Jags hang on to win the AFC South, it will largely be because little big man carried them there.

Michael Vick likewise. No way the Eagles are sitting atop the NFC East at 9-4 with Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb in there.

And a strong case can be made for Matt Ryan, too. The guy is so reliable in big moments and he is remarkably consistent.

Right now, Brady's hair has morphed from 'Justin Bieber' to 'roadie for a Grateful Dead Tribute Band' (they're never billed as 'cover bands' are they? They always call themselves 'tribute' bands. Anyway.) Regardless of how his Ubermodel wife is instructing him to keep his coiffure, Brady is playing quarterback better than I've ever seen the position played. Whereas Peyton Manning because always looks for the big score, big throw, dagger pass, Brady just takes what the defense gives them and will kill teams by any means possible, frequently through attrition. He's happy to have yards after the catch stats. He gets the ball out so quick, in such perfect spots for his receivers that he throws them open and, even if he's throwing to a guy who is just four yards past the line of scrimmage, he puts them in terrific positions to make plays. I thought the Patriots would be good again this year, but I didn't think they'd be this good but they are the best team in the NFL largely due to Tom Brady.

But let me make a case for Troy Polamalu. (You had to see that coming, yes?)

First of all, so quarterback-centric is the league that quarterbacks are almost teeing off from the ladies tee as it were, putting guys like Troy or Terrell Suggs or Justin Tuck or Clay Matthews at a serious disadvantage. For a defensive player to have the kind of impact that Troy is having speaks volumes about his ability to impose his will on a game while playing a position that isn't built for to do so.

He is the best defensive player in the game and I believe he might be the best overall player in the league. At the very least, he should be in that conversation. It's not just that he makes tackles, it's when he makes tackles. It's not just the forced fumbles, it's when he forces them. The interception always seem to come at moments where the game could turn against the Steelers for good.

Since he was out for most of last year, it's easy to point to what the Steelers are with him and what they are without him.

Without Troy, the Steelers finished 9-7, just out of the playoffs and nobody who witnessed it will ever forget that five game stretch of stench they left on the field. The Steelers defense had just a dozen interceptions last year (terrible) and allowed a little over 20 points per game (right in the middle of the pack). Sure, the special teams suck didn't help them any, but the defense didn't come up big in any situations when they needed it either. With him, after only 13 games, they have 17 interceptions (six of those are Troy's), they allow just over 15 points per game. The defense is not just keeping them in games, its actually winning games. And they continue to do that without the best run stopping lineman in the league because of Troy's ability to come up big when the moment demands it.

The numbers are startling, but if I look hard at the Steelers wins and losses, I can point to at least three games they would have lost without him, probably four. I realize it's hard to project what would have happened in the abstract. Football is complicated, tons of plays are run and 22 guys are on the field for each one, so I cannot say with complete and total certainty that the Steelers would have lost these games. Still ... I'm pretty sure they would have lost.

-- the season opener to Atlanta. I know Matt Ryan is still shaking his head wondering where the hell Troy came from to in the 4th quarter of that game. Simply put, he just appeared at the sideline, like a freaking apparition. The interception gave the ball back to the Steelers offense in field goal range. That game wouldn't have even gone to OT had Jeff Reed done his job (don't get me started), but I think there's a very good chance they lose that one without Troy.

-- at Buffalo. Troy's ridiculous at the goal-line interception saved the Steelers asses. Again.

-- at Baltimore. With an anemic Steelers offense, on the road, and in need of a big play, it was Troy, because it's always Troy, causing the fumble that may have won game and might have won the division.
-- versus Cincinnati. With the whole team suffering a Ravens hangover, and with the offense playing even worse than they had the week before in Baltimore, the team needed something. Anything. A loss to the Bungles would have undone almost all of the good work from this season. Bengals 7, Troy 23.

Without Troy, they could easily be 8-5 and battling for a spot; they could be 7-6 on the outside looking in; and they could be worse 6-7, much like they were last year. Instead, the Steelers are 10-3, atop the AFC North and in position to secure the #2 seed in the playoffs.

Largely due to just one man. Just what about that doesn't say MVP?

The Balls & Whistles MVP tracker:
Troy, Brady/Bieber/Burnout, MJD, Vick, Matty Ice.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Troy Polamalu Saves the Day. Again.

Why is this guy not in the discussion for most valuable player in the entire NFL? Why?

Bengals 7, Troy 23.

'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sunday Recipe: Cuban Flank Steak with Chimichurri

A couple of months ago, I was at Penzy's in the Strip District stocking up on spices. I was loading up on Vietnamese cinnamon (which I cannot recommend strongly enough), plus some Ancho chili powder and a handful of other goodies. Then I spotted the Fenugreek, which I needed for some recipe I wanted to try; to this day, I cannot remember what that fenugreek was for, but I did buy it. So I got that going for me. I also grabbed some Mexican oregano.

I had pooh-poohed the notion that Mexican oregano was all that different from the Greek variety, but I was there, so what the hell. Then I used it and it turns out that Mexican oregano is to Greek oregano as Thai basil is to Italian basil, which is to say, they're more like cousins than siblings. Yeah, you can see the family resemblance, but still, the flavor is most definitely it's own.

I mention this because I use the South of the Border oregano in my marinade for Cuban flank steak. I was having a meat craving the other day and my trip to one of my favorite new spots -- Brgr in East Liberty -- didn't quite quiet the meat monster within, so I decided to feed the meat monster with a flank steak today, using a variation of a recipe I tried over the summer (original here: the Three Guys from Miami.) I have adapted the recipe a bit, tweaked some ingredients and use a flank steak, whereas the Guys from Miami use a skirt steak. Personally, I love flank steaks because they are a pretty affordable cut (as steaks go). I'm serving the steak with a chimichurri and cuban black beans and rice on the side. That recipe follows, too.

You will need:
For the marinade:
10 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3/4 c freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 c freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 c freshly squeeze lime juice
3 to 5 shallots, minced
2 teaspoons mexican oregano
1 cup olive oil

For the chimichurri:
1 large bunch of cilantro leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup vinegar (cider vinegar will do)
juice of one lime
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup yellow onion (diced)
healthy pinch of red pepper flakes

The Prep, Part 1 -- The meat:
Into the juice mixture, add the garlic, shallots, oregano, salt & pepper. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then whisk in the olive oil. Place your flank steak in a baking dish and cover with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours; if you have time to do it overnight, even better.

The Prep, Part 2 -- The chimichurri:
While your meat is marinating, you can make the sauce. Be lazy. Use the food processor or your blender. Put everything except the olive oil in the food processor - garlic, cilantro, onion, lime juice, crushed red pepper and vinegar. You don't want to liquefy it, so pulse it quickly until you have a thick mixture, but not a paste. Add the salt and olive oil. Give it a taste. You may need/want more salt, more vinegar or more lime.

The Prep, Part 3 -- The Heat:
When you're ready to start cooking, get your grill really nice and hot. If you have one of those indoor grill pans, then I'm really jealous, because I'll be braving the cold and the ice outside using the gas grill one last time before bidding it a tearful goodbye for the winter. You can cook the meat from rare to well-done, but I recommend it on the rare side, as I think the flavor and texture are so much better that way. Be sure to let it rest for a few minute before serving.

Serve with the chimichurri and voila!

The Cuban Black Bean Recipe is here in a separate post.

I know these seem like a lot of instructions, but this is all do-ahead stuff, so it's great for entertaining. Once you get the marinade done, you can just kick up your feet and let it do it's thing. Now get to work.

And Go Steelers!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Top 5 Reasons for the Penguins Hot Streak

The hottest team in hockey has not only the hottest forward in hockey in the other-worldly Sidney Crosby, but also tremendous chemistry, and coach Dan Bylsma has the Midas touch of late in stringing lines together. Doesn't matter who is out of the line up, he just moves people around and plugs them in and it seems to work. They are going to have to lose a game sooner or later, but so far, they've been outworking teams and when you combine that kind of consistent work with the kind of talent they have, you end up with an 11 game winning streak.

The top five reasons the Pens are clicking right now:

1. Flower is a pistol. I have no idea what was wrong with him the first month of the season. He looked distracted. Like he was thinking about pie, rather than the game in front of him. Maybe it wasn't pie. Maybe it was mousse. Whatever it was, he let in soft goal after soft goal. And usually very early in the game. I have no idea what that was about or, more importantly, how he fixed it. But fixed it seems to be. He started to turn a corner in mid-November and seems to me that he's been getting better and better ever since. For the season, his goals against average is 2.33, which matches his career best of 2.33 in 2007-2008 (when he helped carry the team to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance), but if you look at his stats for just the last month or so when he started to really bring it, he's allowed just 22 goals in 13 games (starting in mid-November.) That's a goals against average of 1.69.

I've missed only a handful of games in the Marc-Andre Fleury era and I can say that it's not just numbers. When he's going good, the team seems to really feed off of it. If he makes just one spectacular save in a game, they seem to rise up collectively around him. Memory is a funny thing, but of the Pens 2008-2009 Stanley Cup run, I remember a few moments, a few snapshots from that post-season, that feel as though they happened 15 minutes ago and the clearest memory I have of that post-season run is Flower stoning Alex Ovechkin on a break away in the Capitals series. I believe the series, and maybe the whole magical post-season run, turned on that one save. Everything works better when Flower is hot.
2. Kris Letang and Crazy Eyes Killer. The defensive pairings are all working really well. Deryk Engelland is the muscle that Alex Gologoski needs to balance him; Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek are just steady-eddies together. But the stars of the show, are the two best defensemen the Pens have, and they're paired together.

Crazy Eyes Killer, a/k/a Brooks Orpik, is about as good a defenseman as you might find in the league. He's a heavy, an enforcer, and I don't mean that in the way that those terms are generally used in hockey parlance. He's not a fighter, not an instigator and not one to take foolish penalties. Through 24 games, he has just 18 penalty minutes. (The league's biggest wanker, Sean Avery, leads the NHL in penalty minutes with 103. Think about that.) No, Orpik is so solid, so steady that he's able to be tremendously physical without ever playing dirty or taking cheap shots. And he is the last man on earth I would want hitting me along the boards. Ouch.

All of which frees up Letang to work his magic. Letang is the most elegant skater on the ice most of the time. He's fast. He's got a quick release and a knack for scoring -- it's no mistake that Sid feeds the puck out to him. In the past, Letang has been paired with other offensive-minded defensemen, which I think tied his hands, forced him to cover a bit. With Orpik out there being the Yin to Letang's Yang, he's blossoming into one of the best scoring defensemen in the league. They go together like Butch and Sundance. That's some high praise indeed.

3. Paul Martin. Actually, I should have just called this one Ray Shero because Shero seems to make all the right moves in the off-season. He's always looking to tweak the team without disrupting the core of it.

All of which brings me to Martin, the defensive presence they have missed since Rob Scuderi left. In fact, I think the team has sorely missed the defensive pairing of Scuderi and USS Hal Gill since the Cup year. The teams was weaker defensively last year -- anybody remember Sergei Gonchar standing there like a statue as the Montreal Canadiens just blew by him at the blue line? Then they lost Mark Eaton, one of the more reliable defensemen, to free agency, making the defense even weaker. They had recalled Knuckles Engelland from Wilkes-Barre and then Shero went to work, his biggest moves being to bring in Martin and Michalek.

It took some time for them to work together as Michalek was out with some injuries, but they have developed real chemistry and trust together. Plus, Byslma & Co. fixed the anemic power play unit by putting Martin at point. He's a very straight forward kind of player, not one to dither around in the defensive zone considering a hundred and one options as time drains away from the man-advantage. Nope, guy puts his head up and just brings the puck up. It's made a huge, huge difference.

4. Depth.Without Jordan Staal for the whole season, without Aran Asham for a chunk of games, without Michalek for a chunk of games, without Evgeni Malkin, without Mike Comrie (who it was thought would be a great wingman for Sid), they just keep on chugging. Mark Letestu and Chris Conner are playing themselves into starting spots even when Malkin and Staal are back. But what to do with Craig Adams? Mike Rupp? These are good problems for a coach to have -- to have too many players and not enough starting spots.

5. Sid. You can never write too much about what Crosby does on the ice. Sure, he scores a ton and he's on a real tear during this winning streak. And he feeds perfect tape-to-tape passes to his linemates. He handles face offs. He contributes on the penalty kill. He's made a home for himself beside the night, fighting to get dirty goals. Only somehow, when Sid makes them, they're spectacular. He's shooting the puck more from outside. Every time I turn on a game, I marvel at something else he does. Every time.

Wednesday night versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, he broke his stick with a Leaf bearing straight down on Fleury. So he just got right in the way, and was hitting the ice to block a shot with his body, which forced the Leaf to go around him and took him off line. I don't even think the guy got a shot on net. When the best offensive player in the game sells out like that, how can his teammates not?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Get Yer Popcorn Ready -- It's Bengals Week

It's time for a little game at Balls & Whistles. Not a football game. This game is called, "Name. That. Jerk!"

There are 10 quotes below, each bon mot dropped by either Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco. See if you can match the quote to the bigmouth. [Key at bottom.]

1. "A hockey player would have took that. Kept on ticking. That just shows you how soft Ben is."

2. “Like my boy tells me; if it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat.”

3. "What I think of the Pro Bowl, I've been there and done that. It's like being married for 30 years. Once you've been married for so long, (expletive deleted) you get tired of it. Right?"

4. "I feel now I can take my talent through the roof."

5. "There are two things for Brother Harris this week. The bad thing is, he has to cover me. The good is he can save 15 percent by switching his auto insurance to Geico."

6. "I'll watch the highlights every now and then but, as far as watching the game, I feel like I am the game."

7. "If you're going to do it, do it very cautiously. If you're going to ride a bike, ride it the right way. Don't speed. Do it for enjoyment. If you're going to bungee jump, have two cords in case one snaps. I don't ride anything. I just talk trash. That's it."

8. “It doesn’t become flattering, it becomes frustrating. You have to put yourself in my shoes."

9. "A lot of people think I'm stuck up. Pretty much that I'm arrogant. I only do that when I'm on the field."

10. “Like I always said, if I'm one of the top players in the game, pay me like I'm one of the top players in the game.”

1. TO
2. TO
3. Ochostinko
4. TO
5. Ochostinko
6. TO
7. Ochostinko
8. Ochostinko
9. TO
10. TO

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cuban Black Beans and Rice

I had a friend of Cuban descent who made the most wonderful, simplest Cuban black beans. If you don't like spicy food, never fear - these are decidedly not hot. They are sweet and tangy and reminded me more of American soul food than what we think of as Latin American food (which has been inaccurately pigeon-holed as hot nachos or something like that.) I don't have his exact recipe (which I think was his abuelas), but I have come up with something that pretty closely replicates his recipe:

You will need:
1 bag of dried black beans
1 large yellow onion (or two small ones)
1 bell pepper (whatever color you prefer - some like green, but I like red)
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 carrots, finely diced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 cup white wine (anything you have on hand will do)
2 or 3 tablespoons of vinegar (cider vinegar works just fine)
2 tablespoons of salt (I think it's about that much. I use a palmful.)
2 bay leaves
pinch of Mexican oregano

The Cook, a/k/a The Long Simmer:
Pick over beans, discarding any shriveled ones of foreign particles and rinse well.

Heat a large stock pot, add some olive oil, then the chopped onions and garlic; saute over low heat. Add the chopped pepper and carrot; and also season with a big pinch of kosher salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the rinsed black beans, the cumin, bay leaves, a pinch of kosher salt, the wine and about 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Cover and simmer for about 1 hour. Give it a taste. Need more salt? More cumin?

Then add the vinegar, the sugar and the oregano. Partially cover and cook until the beans are soft, which will probably be in two to four hours. You may need to add more water through this process (I almost always do.) Give the liquid a taste every 45 minutes or so, and you can adjust the flavor. What you're after is something both sweet and savory, tart and rich. They'll probably need to cook four hours total, but you can walk away and just check in on them from time to time. And you want them to be stew like, so that they make a thick, black sauce.

Serve hot over white rice. Babaloo!

The Curse of Ilya Kovalchuk Smites the Devils

The New Jersey Devils swung into the Consol Monday night and became just the latest grist for the Penguins mill. As to the Devils biggest name, Ilya Kovalchuk, he spent an uninspiring 24 minutes or so on the ice, posting a minus 2 on the night and putting just three shots on net, the first of which came 43 minutes into the game.

Kovalchuk has just five goals and only 11 points in 26 games. I don't think this is what the Devils had in mind at the 2009-2010 trade deadline when they brought the most coveted prize on the pond on board. Kovalchuk broght with him a Rocket Richard trophy and his Calder Trophy nomination, two 52 goal seasons and an average of more than 42 goals per year to Newark. The prevailing thought was that the Devils were loading up to battle the Pens, Caps and Flyers in the East.

But he scored just 10 more goals in the remaining 27 games for New Jersey. And the Devils were easily ousted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, even though Kovalchuk contributed six points in those five games.

Things take time, it would take a while for him to get used to a new system, develop chemistry with new teammates, right? The Devils were to be a significant force in the East.

Hey, wait a minute ... if the playoffs started today, the Devils would be out and Kovy's old team, the perpetually moribund Thrashers, would be in. They would be the last team in, but still, in the playoffs nonetheless, something that the Thrashers haven't visited since the '06-'07 season, the only time Kovalchuk visited the post-season during his tenure in Atlanta.

Currently, his plus/minus rating sits at minus 17. Minus 17. That's more than one negative point for every year of his contract. And his stink is spreading to the whole damned team. Of the active Devils roster, only four players have positive +/- ratings, three are right at zero and 22 players have negative +/- ratings.

By way of comparison, the Penguins have just six players in the negative and only two of those are regular starters (Evgeni Malkin and Zbynek Michalek.) Looks like a little more than half of the Devils players with stinky ratings play very regularly. The best +/- rating on the Devils plus 2 for former Senator Anton Volchenkov. Again, by way of comparison, Kris Letang is plus 15, Sid is plus 10 and Alex Gologoski is plus 10.

As a team, the Devils have scored more than two goals only seven times in their 27 games this season.
That's not industrial waste you're smelling along the New Jersey turnpike, that's the Devils.

I know all about Zach Parise's injury and and that without him, there's no net presence to scoop up any rebounds and make some dirty goals. But the rest of the team should be able to hold down the fort in Parise's absence, particularly a big ticket player like Kovalchuk; but rather than step up and drag the team with him, Kovalchuk seems to prefer just teetering along the blue line. In Monday night's game against the Pens, he looked like one of those dogs behind an invisible fence, so glued was he to the blue line.

Is Kovalchuck the hockey equivalent of Randy Moss?

Like Moss, he's clearly gifted. He has a wicked shot. He has amazing balance and flexibility. He's got great vision. He skates beautifully. And until his arrival in Newark, he put up big numbers year after year. On paper, he should make the Devils a better team.

But what has become clear is that Kovalchuk, despite his obvious gifts, cannot carry a team or, at the very least, lead a team. He's not the showboating, 'everybody have fun tonight' presence that Alex Ovechkin is or driven like Sid; he's not the personification of quiet competence and confidence like Nicklas Lidstrom, nor does he provide the fire to the Devils that Zach Parise does.

Given how much the Devils have tortured the Penguins over the years, I, for one, couldn't be happier about that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Blood Bath at Baltimore Football Facility - No Arrests Made

Despite another slew of injuries to key players, despite Bryant McFadden playing worse than a little old lady with a walker and a babushka (or worse than Chad Scott, depending on your perspective), despite Anquan Boldin's obvious greatness, despite the broken nose and the broken foot, despite Keenan Lewis being very Keenan Lewis-like, despite a MASH unit masquerading as an offensive line, despite swirling winds and a place kicker pressed into doubling as a punter, despite another poor effort by the officials, and in spite of the always puzzling, often hair-pulling play calling of Bruce Arians, the Steelers managed to get out of town with an order of crabcakes from the Cross Street Market and, more importantly, a win that puts them atop the AFC North.

Oh, and also, they were able to overcome a completely unstoppable Terrell Suggs who made it his personal mission to hit Pig Ben on every snap and disrupt every single running play. Truly, Suggs turned in an amazing performance.

Kicks in the 'nads to:
--Keenan Lewis for going out of bounds and negating a Shaun Suisham punt that had pinned the Ravens at their own four yard line.

--Bryant McFadden for, oh, so many bad plays, missed tackles and foolish penalties.

--The officials for missing an obvious, horrific helmet to helmet hit that left Heath Miller motionless on the carpet for a few terrifying minutes. And I'm not quite sure how Haloti Ngata gets away with punching Pig Ben in the face without being flagged. I know it was inadvertent, but aren't they supposed to be flagging hits to the head, even when they are inadvertent? Wasn't that the point of the new emphasis on 'player safety?' I'm not some crazy person sitting in my basement in my underwear with a foil hat on my head decoding the secret messages from aliens in between putting the finishing touches on my treatise about the Kennedy assassination and how Dick Cheney was responsible ... but C'mon Man! If anybody did that to Tom Terrific, it would be a national freaking calamity and Roger 'Judge Dread' Goodell would ask President Obama to send in FEMA. If James Harrison did that to anybody, one of the officials would have left the M & T Bank Field and personally driven Harrison to Ray Anderson's house, where Anderson would fine him, suspend him, and possibly have him deported. Just sayin'.

--Bruce Arians for his continued inability to adjust, to create mis-matches or take advantage of them. After Miller (his best run blocking TE) and Hotel Flozell (his best run blocking lineman) went out with injuries, he ran the ball repeatedly. Oh, run the ball again, BA! And for his inability or refusal to adjust to Terrell Suggs' ferocity and intensity. Suggs was eating Hotel for breakfast before Hotel was hurt, and then Suggs noshed on Jonathan Scott. Inexplicably, the Steelers left Scott out there on an island, helpless to block Suggs. It's not Scott's fault that he is simply not good enough to handle Suggs on the edge one on one. How does the offensive coordinator not see that? How does he not have a tight end or running back helping Scott out?

Mugs of spiked hot chocolate to:
--Shaun Suisham for hitting both of his field goals last night in swirling winds, one of which was 45 yards. And also taking over for the injured Dan Sepulveda to handle the punts.

--David Johnson for three nice receptions and holding down the fort after Miller was knocked out.

--James Farrior for always just being a steady, heads up presence for that defense. He's old, he's skinny, but he's still a bad ass.

--LaMarr Woodley for constantly pressuring Flacco and being Johnny on the spot to scoop up the game turning fumble.

--Troy Polamalu, for being all world, all everything, creating the fumble that gave the Steelers new life. I'm surprised he didn't break Flacco's arm, he hit it so hard. How many times have we seen Troy make game saving, game altering plays? It's not an accident and it's not luck. That is greatness.

--Pig Ben, for playing on a broken foot and bouncing back from a broken nose to make enough plays to will his team to a win, none bigger than escaping Terrell Suggs to get the ball out out bounds and then making a nice hot read to get the ball in Isaac Redman's hands.

--Isaac Redman for making the right hot-read and then breaking the tackles of Dawan Landry, Ray Lewis and Jarret Johnson to get into the endzone for the winning touchdown.

But this wasn't a football game, not a normal football game. It was more like an Iron League hockey game. Hockey players take great pride in being the toughest athletes around, but I think that the Ravens and Steelers would earn their grudging respect. Pig Ben played with a broken nose and a broken foot and it looked like Terrell Suggs had a bloody mouth through the whole game, but who knows, he could go all Ozzy Osbourne on the sidelines or something.

Shut out everything else, a league in flux, officials who are so turned around they can't do their jobs; shut out the national television crews and Al Michaels; shut out the coaches making adjustments or failing to; shut out the wind and the hype and the hyperbole. This was a bar fight. Last man standing wins.

In this instance, the last man standing was, of all people, Isaac Redman.

Troy Polamalu Makes Miracles Happen, Wills Steelers to Victory in Baltimore

You can break Pig Ben's face, you can concuss the elegant Heath Miller, you can abuse Bryant McFadden repeatedly, but you can also, and I say this on behalf of Steelers Nation, suck it Ravens.

Yup, suck it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Can the Steelers Beat the Birdies in Baltimore?

I kinda think no.

It pains me to say that, but the injuries continue to mount for the Steelers and no matter how many times Coach Tomlin says 'the standard is the standard,' there is bound to be some drop off. You need all hands on deck, in fact you need your very best hands on deck if you want to beat a very good Ravens team in Baltimore.

First, the Steelers lost tackle Willie Colon. They brought in Hotel Flozell Adams and moved on. The standard, after all, is still the standard.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, down went Max Starks for the year, so Jonathan Scott is starting in his spot. But the standard is still the standard. Mmmm, okay. If you say so.

This offensive line would be suspect even with Starks and Colon, two guys who don't put anybody in mind of Anthony Munoz or Jackie Slater. Now they're starting Scott, who wasn't good enough to beat out the competition for the spot left open by Colon's injury, and Hotel, for whom there wasn't exactly a long line of suitors. So, an already mediocre line was made worse through injury. What was that about standards again?

That sub-standard line is expected to protect Pig Ben of the broken-not broken-sprained-um-scar-tissue-aggravated foot. The only reason that the Steelers have been able to get away with having a less than stellar O Line through much of this decade is because Pig Ben can create opportunities by moving around when the pocket collapses, as it inevitably does. But can he bail out his line, and his team, on one leg tonight? And with Haloti Ngata bearing down on him?

Ray Lewis isn't the dominant player that he was 10 years ago, but Ngata is a serious threat to both disrupt the running game and possibly actually kill Pig Ben. (Something that would make some of my friends happy, I think.) For my money, Ngata is the best player on that defense right now, with apologies to the great Ed Reed.

Now, I don't want to tell you where this thought has led me. Oh, okay. While Reed is still fantastic, always a threat to break a game open, the Baltimore corners are not so great and the Steelers best chance to beat the Ravens may be through the air, via long passes that take advantage of Mike Wallace or Emmanuel Sanders against Chris Carr or Josh Wilson. The problem is, can the Steelers O Line protect a gimpy Pig Ben long enough for Wallace or Sanders to come open deep?

The Ravens do not sack the quarterback prodigiously; they have only 19 sacks on the year (compared to the Steelers with 32), but then again, the Ravens have only gone up against the Steelers offensive line once this year. Given all the givens, I think we can safely expect to see Bruce Arians call pass play after pass play after pass play. He may be right to take that kind of a chance, try to get up early and fast because the Ravens play a kind of vanilla version of themselves when they are down or tied, but get much creative and aggressive when they have a lead.

Even though I understand the reasoning, the idea of a pass-wacky Bruce Arians makes me kinda queasy.

On the other side of the ball, the injuries are an issue, too. We all know how different that Steelers defense is without Aaron Smith, but it's no use crying over torn triceps muscles. The fact of the matter remains that the combination of Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason are no replacement for Smith and Brett Keisel, but it looks like Keisel will be back tonight and that should give the defensive line a big lift. It also frees up Hood and Eason to just rotate in Smith's old spot.

Maybe it even means that the Steelers can get to Joe "Unibrow Spokesmodel" Flacco. Flacco doesn't throw a lot of picks - he has eight in 11 games - and his new toys, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Whoseyourmamma, have developed a good working relationship with him, so Ike Taylor, B-Mac and William Gay have to put the clamps on Boldin and Whoseyourmamma, to say nothing of Derrick Mason who always seems to save his best for the Steelers. And they have to contain Todd Heap, too.The best chance the Steelers have to contain all of the aerial weapons the Ravens have (still feels weird to type that in relation to this team) is to pile more sacks on top of their already impressive sack total. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison have to find a way to get free from holds (and they will be held) to make Flacco throw the ball away, hurry his throws, and generally get his uniform dirty.

Harrison, already feeling unfairly besieged by the league, has to find a way to keep his head in the game, without leading with his head; he has to remain calm no matter how bad the holds (and they will happen) or penalties. If an official wants to call a bullshit penalty like the one for landing on Jason Campbell, there's nothing he can do about that. But he can drive through with his shoulder and not the crown of his helmet. Then he just has to hold his breathe and hope for the best. Do it like this James, like this:That's a tall order for a man whose entire game is predicated on hitting harder than anybody else in the league and who feeds off seemingly congenital, unwavering enmity. But he has to do it.

That's a tall order for the team as a whole. I am not hopeful. But I'm usually wrong! any time I try to predict the outcome of a Steelers game. At least that's one thing that bodes well for Pittsburgh.

Sunday Recipe: Fried Rice

For most of my life, Chinese food was a great mystery. How did they get those flavors? Those textures? Those colors?

It it seemed like I was glimpsing into the secret life of alchemists with every little box overflowing with spicy shrimp, crispy chicken, gooey, flavorful sauces, bok choy, baby carrots (how do they grow them so small?) and funky fungi. I was certain some kind of secret handshake was needed to enter the world of the Asian kitchen filled with voodoo and mystery.

Then I started just punking around in the Asian markets in the Strip District from time to time. (The last time I was in my favorite Asian market at 23rd & Penn Ave., they were unloading a big box of knee cartilage. I can only assume it was cow knee cartilage; I have no desire to eat a dish in which the featured ingredient is cartilage of any kind, you have to respect the Chinese for using every single bit of the animal. We could take a lesson from them.)

Anyway, after a while it occurred to me that these mysterious dishes were invented hundreds of years ago by little old Chinese ladies, cooking over open flame with whatever they had at hand. And like their Italian and Mexican counterparts, they cooked with heart and art, skill and passion, but there is nothing cryptic or supernatural about it.

There's no mystery to it the art of soulful asian cooking. But there is lots of mise-en-place. (Sorry, I don't know the Chinese term for 'prep work,' only the French.) In short, it's time consuming, but it's also pretty fun. With the Steelers playing (another) night game, I have more prep time than I would for an early afternoon kickoff, so this Sunday seems to be the perfect night to make a giant batch of fried rice.

You will need:
jasmine rice
napa cabbage, one head, core removed and finely sliced
fresh ginger, grated
1 shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely diced
extra firm tofu, drained and cubed
one boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 carrots, finely diced
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 head broccoli, finely diced
2 or 3 scallions, sliced into rings
2 or 3 eggs, beaten
hot chili sesame oil
peanut oil
soy sauce (you want one that's a good quality)

The prep, choppy-choppy:
A word about the rice. I don't know what the big American companies like Uncle Ben's and River Rice have done to their rice or how one would even go about altering the organic building blocks of something as elemental as rice, but those rices all taste like ass. To be specific, they taste like dry, gritty ass and the last time I got Uncle Ben's (slow cook, not the instant stuff), I felt like H.I. McDonough's cellmate in 'Raising Arizona.' And when there were no fowl, we ate crawdad; and when there were no crawdad, we ate sand.

The point being that you have to get rice from the Asian market or in the Asian isle of your supermarket. I'm partial to jasmine rice, which has great bite and texture, and isn't quite so sticky as sushi rice. Cook the rice according to the instructions or as you normally would and set aside.

Once you heat up your wok (a large non-stick skillet will work just fine if you don't have a wok), you want to work fast, so its important that you get all the prep work done before you start cooking. Whip the eggs together in a bowl and set aside. Finely dice the garlic and shallots; cut the rest of the veg into small, bite sized pieces; cube the chicken and the tofu**.

Put some peanut oil in your wok and get it screaming hot. Add the grated ginger, garlic and shallots, after those start to caramelize, add the add the napa cabbage. Toss it until it starts to wilt and caramelize, which will happen in a flash. Remove the cabbage to a large casserole or deep skillet.

Wipe out the wok with a paper towel, add a fresh drop of peanut oil, a few drops of hot chili sesame oil and the chicken. Cook until the chicken is cooked through. This will take longer than any of the other elements, but you know, the last thing you want to bite into is undercooked chicken. (You could also use shrimp or some lean cut of pork, rather than, or in addition to chicken. I like chicken, though, so this suits me just fine.) When the chicken is nearly done, add a sprinkling of shallots, cook for another minute and then remove the cooked chicken to the pot of cabbage.

Wipe out the wok and add a drop of peanut oil and the tofu. Cook the tofu until crispy. Add the tofu to the growing pot of cabbage.

Wipe out the wok, add peanut oil and a few drops of the hot chili oil, and toss in the carrots, broccoli and mushrooms. (You can use any vegetables you like. One of my favorite restaurants uses zucchini, but this is a good basic start for fried rice.) It will only take a moment to cook the veg and then add them to the pot of cabbage, tofu, etc.

Wipe out the wok, add a fresh drop of peanut oil, then toss in the eggs, the peas, and the rice. You'll hear it start to crackle and you'll need some elbow grease to stir it all up and cook it all evenly. As you're doing that, add several shots of the soy sauce. Keep tossing, then add the other elements (cabbage, tofu, veg, etc.)

You now have fried rice. I like to eat mine with a dollop of sriracha.

**If you have time, I like to do the tofu this way. Drain and cube it. Put it in a paper towel lined colander and put a dish or bowl on top to press the rest of the moisture out of it. For about 30 minutes. Then, put the tofu in a ziploc bag and add a generous dose of hot chili sesame oil. Refrigerate that for several hours before tackling the rice. It really gives the tofu an amazing flavor. It's not essential if you're pressed for time, though.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sidney Crosby, No Hyperbole Possible

Many years ago in my epically profligate youth, I was out drinking with RJ and the Deadhead. (Sounds like a bad sitcom.) After about 37 pitchers of beer, the three of us had a rousing argument over who was the better quarterback -- Terry Bradshaw? Or Terry Bradshaw? Oh, emotions boiled over, fingers were pointed, spittle flew and I do believe that I pulled a Kruschev and banged my shoe on the table. The whole argument culminated with RJ hollering, 'You can take your Bert Jones, and you can take your Dante Pastorini, and you can shove them straight up your ass!'

I feel like I can have the same argument about Sidney Crosby. Who is a better hockey player? Sid? Or Sid? And to paraphrase my old drinking buddy, you can take your Alex Ovechkin and you can take your Steven Stamkos, and you can shove them straight up your ass!

Two years ago, Sidney Crosby was the best player in the NHL. I thought that he had arrived at his true, highest self and in so doing, carried his team to a Stanley Cup championship, personally besting the entire Philadelphia Flyers roster, then Ovie, then the Red Wings along the way. It was great. Pittsburgh fans were both lucky and appreciative. Hell, we were all on cloud nine. Or cloud 87.

Then, something crazy happened. Sid got better. I didn't actually think it was possible, and yet, he went ahead and did it.

When Sid first arrived in Pittsburgh, he was immediately one of the best players in the NHL. The most obvious strengths of his game were his vision and speed. And his soft hands. But there were holes in his game. Following that rookie year, he vowed to spend his off-season improving his face-offs. I'm not sure how a person gets better at that, but he did it. Then, despite being a point generating machine, the knock on Crosby was that he, himself, did not score enough goals. So the next year, he promptly went out and scored more. It seems like when he sets his mind to a task, he just simply achieves it. He is, quite simply, the best player in the NHL. And there is no argument to be made.

Some are enamored of laser-like wrist shots, like the one Ovie unleashes from all over the ice. If there were a way to measure talents in a vacuum, to somehow quantify just the innate, singular talent of launching a disc of vulcanized rubber towards a goalie at the speed of light, then Ovechkin has more talent that Sid. Geno Malkin probably has more. Marian Gaborik, who has one of the sneakiest, most effective shots in the game for my money, has more.

But the thing you have to factor with Sid is totality of his game -- that his game is so complete is precisely what makes him so special.

He wins faceoffs.

He plays defense.

He can see plays happening two and three seconds before they happen.

He has speed and strength and elegance.

He scores from up high, and he plants himself at the goal mouth, fight off cross-checks and buries the puck behind helpless goaltenders.

This year, he is everywhere on the ice and has scored from every spot of the Consol Center except the executive washroom.

He leads his team by example, brandishing his work-ethic and equanimity. He never gives up on a play and the team has taken on that personality, which puts him light-years ahead of everybody else. He is the greatest and I wonder, is it possible we STILL haven't seen the best he has to offer?

So, Penguins fans, who is better? Sid? Or Sid?

And we get to watch him ever night. So really, who is luckier? Pens fans? Or Pens fans?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Waiting for Goodell [A play in one act]

I'm not a playwrigt, but I play one on the internet. Here is my dramatic re-enactment of the NFL denying the appeals of James Harrison:

"Excuse me sir, would it please the, er, court, I'd like to appeal these fines."

"Yes. Yes. Appeal. Well, get on with it."

"Well, hey, wait a minute. Aren't you the guy who levied these fines to begin with?"

(Silence. And glowering. Lots of glowering.)

"Ahem, okay, so you see, when I hit Drew Brees, I was flying towards him. I was fighting off a block and I was going at full throttle. It was a bang-bang play. And, you know, I get paid to go after the quarterback more or less."

(More silence and glowering.)

"I didn't hit him high and I didn't hit him low. And yeah, I guess my helmet hit him, but, you know I was leading with my shoulder and my head is right next to my shoulder and all ... So, well, I guess that's the basis of my appeal for that hit."

"Yes. I see. Denied. Next!"

"Just like that?"

"Do you dare to question the Great and Mighty Goodell!" (puffs of green smoke and sound effects follow.) "Well!?"

"No. I, ah, well, I guess not. So on this hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, you see, I know it looks bad. I really do. And he had to leave and game and stuff. I know that you're trying to protect players and I can no longer hit like that now, you know just explode into a receiver. I get that. You guys changed the rules and stuff, so I've really been trying not to do that. But, you see, the rules weren't really in effect when this fine was meted out, so I was hoping that through like a grandfather clause or something ..."

"Denied! The rules didn't change! I've told you and Suzy Kolber that a thousand million times! The rules didn't change! The rules didn't change!"

(More glowering.)

"Of course not. But, how about a reduction. After all, you've fined guys much less money for much more egregious post-whistle incidents and I was just playing hard, snap to whis ..."

"Are you accusing me of bias? Do you not think I am impartially looking out for the health of the league?"

(Harrison just looks down and shuffles feet.)

"Mr. Harrison, I am simply looking out for the welfare of the players. I am the Commissioner who cares about player safety. Don't you get that?"

"I do. Really. I do. I appreciate it. But you know, it's going to be way more dangerous to play 18 games than 16 ..."

"Get out of here! And never darken my door again!"

(Harrison exits. Goodell turns to a toady lurking in the background)

"Can we fine him for something this week?"

The end.

Or, while I stupidly spent time crafting a nuanced one act play, DJ Gallo summed it up with this picture.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Suisham Kicks Steelers to OT Win Over Bills

Anybody out there still questioning the Steelers decision to fire Jeff Reed?

Yeah. Didn't think so.

Veg. Black Bean Soup: The Sunday Recipe on the Road

One of the best things about being a Steelers fans is that, when you travel, you can always find a bar to call home. From Miami, Florida to Miami, Ohio; from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. My cousin Pete went to a Steelers bar in Rome. [The one in Italy, not the one in Georgia. And not Georgia, the Republic of, but the state in the south of the USA.]

One of my favorites writers, D.J. Gallo, wrote a great story about Steelers bars all over for ESPN. We're pretty spoiled as a group. I don't imagine it's this easy to find a joint to watch, say, the Rams. Or the Bengals. First off, who even wants to admit to being a Bengals fan, but that's another post altogether.

Meanwhile, it is pretty easy to find a Steelers bar in NYC, although my favorite haunt, Scruffy Duffy's, is no longer around. (Moment of silence for the great Scruffy Duffy's.) I will likely watch the Steelers whup up on the Bills and the pride of Harvard from Blondie's, a bar on the Upper West Side, so I'll probably end up knoshing on bar food for the game. But the Sunday Recipe must go on and one of my favorite Sunday Steelers foods is black bean soup.

You will need:
3 cans of black beans
vegetable stock (32 oz. container)
several carrots (shredded or one bag of matchstick carrots)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 bell pepper, diced (preferably red, yellow or orange; green peppers are too bitter for this soup)
2 to 4 chilis, diced (any kind you like and as few or as many as you like, depending on your enjoyment of hot; I tend to eat fire, so ...)
1 can of diced tomatoes (at this time of year, the fresh tomatoes are pretty disgusting, so canned are actually better)
2 limes
2 or 3 tablespoons of ground cumin
The garnishes: sour cream, cilatro, hot sauce, scallions, tortilla chips

The prep:
The prep for this is really simple. Heat some olive oil in a soup pot. Smash and finely dice the garlic. Dice the onion, bell pepper and chilis. Add all the veg to the hot oil, add a pinch of salt and sautee until soft.

Then add the carrots and the cumin and continue to sautee until the carrots soften.

Rinse the beans thoroughly and add to the pot. Add the veg. stock and tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Taste to check for seasoning. You may need more salt. And, if you're like me, you'll probably need more cumin. Cook for about an hour.

Juice one lime and add the lime juice. Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve with lime wedges, fresh cilantro, sour cream, diced scallions, cheese, hot sauce and tortilla chips. Super simple, super delicious, strangely healthy (but I don't let that stop me.)

Enjoy. Go Stillers.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Natalie Randolph Wrap Up for Thought Catalog

So I've been following closely the career of coach Natalie Randolph, spent a couple of days down at Coolidge High with her, with the vice-principal and principal. I don't think would have had any kind of access were it not for my connection with the Pittsburgh Passion and coach Randolph's former football coach, Ezra Cooper. So, thanks Horton, Sully and Ezra, for helping me get my foot in the door.

All of my Natalie Randolph writings are at the "women's football" sidebar.

I'm hoping to report on her again in 2011, but here's the 2010 finished product, Introducing Coach Natalie Randolph for Thought Catalog.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Recipe: Updated Italian Beans & Greens

I love beans. All kinds of beans prepared in all kinds of ways. But when I want beans at home (and not in chili or cuisinarted beyond recognition into hummus), I'm usually not prepared. The thing about beans is, they're high maintenance. You've got to soak them overnight and rinse and then, if I want to make my awesome cuban black beans, cook them all day. And I do mean, all damned day. It's kind of daunting. I've tried substituting canned beans, but the texture is all wrong, kind of what I imagine the texture of the inside of a dung beetle would be. Cheap and healthful beans may be. Delicious, too. But definitely high maintenance.

Then, a few weeks ago, Melissa Clark posted this recipe for herbed white beans and sausage stew. It cooks in a matter of hours, no overnight soaking required. What?I'm in! So I tried it and it was good, especially the beans which had real flavor and delicious texture. Not satisfied, I adapted it to a rustic Italian greens and beans recipe. The best part is that you don't have to be organized enough to think of it the night before. The cooking time is about 2 or 2 1/2 hours, but most of that time is just the beans simmering. You can check in on them every 15 or 20 minutes or so, but you can sit around with your feet up reading the paper or watching hockey, knowing that a delicious, healthy and cheap dinner is on the way.

You will need:
1 bag of dried great northern beans
1 pound of loose sausage (hot or sweet, depending on your taste)
2-3 carrots
4-6 cloves of garlic
1 large spanish onion
white wine
chicken stock
3 bundles of swiss chard
several sprigs of fresh thyme
freshly grated nutmeg
crushed red pepper
grated pecorino romano

The prep:
Heat some olive oil in a soup pot or large roasting pot. Add the sausage and really brown it and get it crumbled up. You want it to be cooked and you don't want great big chunks of it. Remove the sausage to a paper towel lined dish.

Add to the soup pot the diced carrots, chopped garlic, diced onion and add about 1 cup of white wine. As to cooking wine, some say that you shouldn't cook with it if you wouldn't drink it. Fiddlesticks. You don't want to use a bottle of wine that's been sitting around open for several weeks, turning vinegary, but you don't have to spend a ton of money on it, either. I usually get wine that is on special, so my cooking wine rarely costs me more than $7 per bottle. This week, I'm using a Mondavi Chardonnay (cost $6) that I would never, ever drink because it's a chardonnay. Blech. But for cooking, it's just fine.

So, you add the veg and wine. You want to deglaze the pan, so really work it to get up all the brown bits of goodness left over from the sausage. Cook about 5 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

Add the beans, 2 cups of chicken stock and about 6 cups of water. Add the thyme and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Bring that up to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Add the sausage back in and let it cook for about 2 hours. If it's too dry, add some more water (or wine). Check for salt. You may not need to salt this much because sausage is usually kinda salty.

Meanwhile, clean and coarsely chop the swiss chard. In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Add the chard and let that cook for about 7 minutes. You want to cook any residual bitterness out of the greens. Strain the greens, add the cooked chard to the bean pot, and add some freshly grated nutmeg. Nutmeg and greens go together like Butch and Sundance. Cook for another 30 minutes or so.

Serve in a bowl with grated pecorino romano cheese and some good crusty bread.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Do NFL Teams Really Need to Stretch the Field?

Every year, the Great Gene Collier hands out his Trite Trophy for the most ubiquitous or annoying (or both) cliche in sports. Past winners have included well-known trite-isms that were so pervasive we just adopted them into the common parlance without even noticing: Smashmouth Football, Gut Check, Crunch Time, West Coast Offense, and Red Zone, a term so insidiously pervasive that we even have a cable channel named after it.

These represent trite cliches, but they often hint at something deeper, start to peel back the protective layer of sports talking head-isms to reveal the fickle zeitgeist of the NFL, unexamined truisms thoughtlessly bandied about as though they were proven principals of physics.

This year, the talking heads all assert this inalienable truth: you must have a deep passing threat to stretch the defense. They say it as though it's a conclusion, like gravity holds you to the earth or something.

If you don't have this essential "deep threat" on your NFL team, you are doomed. Yea verily, frogs and lizards will rain down upon your city, children will find internet porn and atavistic miscreants will roam the streets kicking puppies and knocking over old ladies.

I don't buy it. I don't buy it because it contains some truth, but not all truth. It is unexamined nattering and, as such, needs to be aired out to see if it flies.

About half of the 10 receivers with catches of more than 20 yard are on legitimate playoff contenders. The other half ... well, not so much. Brandon Lloyd of Denver has 18 catches of 20+ yards, but the Broncos are a woeful 3-6, good for last in a very weak AFC West. The Pokes' Miles Austin has 11 catches of 20+ yards and we all know about all the big drama in Big D. TO has 12 such catches, but the Bungles aren't going anywhere except near the top of the draft class. Again. Andre Johnson also has 11 long catches, but the Houston Texans are doing their usual trick -- promising this will be the breakthrough year, but ending up with a record of 8-8. Again. Like they always do.

The fact is, about half the receivers who lead in this category play for non-contenders and the other half play for legit contenders. So: Deep threat? Kind of important.

There are so many other things more valuable than the much drooled over deep threat: an accurate quarterback, a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback, an offensive line that can control games, a shut-down corner, a coaching staff that knows how to manage the clock and on and on. Sure, it's nice to have a speed guy like DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace. If nothing else, they are just fun to watch, running gazelle-like, the length of the field, a veritable blur on the screen.

But I'm not sure it contributes as much to winning as these other, harder to pin down elements of the game.

Here's a stat that reveals something about the defensive line -- fewest total yard surrendered. The Giants, Jets, Saints, Raiders, Steelers, Ravens, Bears and Eagles are all in the top 10 in that category. The only teams in the top 10 without winning records are the Vikes and the Chargers. Eight teams (nine if you include San Diego) fighting for division crowns rank in the top 10 in fewest yards surrendered.

Sticking with the defense, these teams are all in the top ten in fewest points allowed per game: Bears, Packers, Jets, Saints, Steelers, Ravens, Falcons, Titans. Again, only two teams made the top ten in this stat who are pretty well out of contention for the division crown, the Browns and the Rams (although, both of those teams are much, much improved.)

But it's not just defense, it's other things. As important as the offensive line is, sadly, there are no stats kept for pancake blocks or providing a comfortable passing pocket. But if the offensive line protects the quarterback, it's reasonable to assume he'll be able to do things on the field like convert third downs. The top 10 teams that convert on third down most successfully? You're looking at a list of teams planning on making some playoff money: Falcons, Saints, Eagles, Bucs, Pats, Colts, Ravens. (The interlopers on this list? Chargers, although, again, they're certainly not dead, the Dolphins and the Texans.)

Staying with the offensive line, the top 10 teams who have allowed the fewest sacks include: Giants, Colts, Pats, Jets, Saints, Falcons, Ravens. Allowing very few sacks indicates a good offensive line, but it also can indicate a quarterback who gets rid of the ball quickly, thus avoiding sacks. If the QB is waiting for the deep route to open up, he's probably hanging in the pocket a bit longer than a guy who is dumping the ball off for a 8 yard gain and a first down, thus risking a sack.

Maybe a look at recent Super Bowl winners will reveal something.

If a deep threat were so essential, the Patriots wouldn't have won three Super Bowls. The 2001, 2003 and 2004 versions of the New England Patriots were able to just crush teams under the drip, drip, drip of their short passing game. Not the deep threat, mind you, but the slow burn short game.

The defensive line of the 2007 Giants were a major factor in winning their Super Bowl. Basically, they won by beating up Tom Brady.

The 2006 Colts won because they had the best offensive line in football (and, rightfully, the MVP for that game should have been awarded to the entire line - or Jeff Saturday - rather than King Peyton.)

The 2002 Buccaneers (and their opponents, the Rich Gannon led Raiders) were short passing masters.

If it were absolutely crucial to have a terrifying deep threat, Randy Moss would have six rings. And yet, he has zero.

I'm not saying that having a deep threat is going to prevent you from winning. Certainly not. But the importance of the deep threat is being mightily overstated these days by the nattering nabobs of NFL booths.