Thursday, October 8, 2015

Paul Prudhomme (1940 - 2015)

I love to cook, and it was with great sadness that I saw that one of my foodie idols died today. Paul Prudhomme died in New Orleans at the age of 75 following a brief illness.
Paul Prudhomme. later years

Credited with mainstreaming and popularizing cajun food in the 1970s and 1980s, Prudhomme was a larger than life character (literally and figuratively). Before there was a Food Network and a Cooking Channel, the only way to see cooking on TV was PBS (Public Broadcasting System) channels. One of the early people that I remember vividly was Prudhomme (who appeared on some other shows, but didn't have his own series runs until the 1990's).
Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen

Sometime in the 1990s, I was in New Orleans on a business trip with a few others, and we tried to get into K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen but could not. Back in those days, the place didn't take reservations, and the lines routinely stretched down the block.
Prudhomme's Fiery Foods...

I have three of his ten cookbooks; Louisiana Kitchen (1984, his first), Seasoned America (1991, his fourth) and Fiery Foods That I Love (1995, his seventh).

Louisiana Kitchen is a treasure trove of classic cajun and creole cooking. Fiery Foods contains some of my favorite recipes of all time, including two fantastic chicken recipes, Tomato Cream Chicken (page 182), and Chicken Dippin' (page 172). Tomato Cream Chicken is perhaps my single favorite recipe. Of any kind. Ever.
Browning for Chicken Dippin'

Grace and I made Chicken Dippin' this past weekend: (it was delicious)
Grace Making Chicken Dippin'

Rest in Peace, Paul.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Plans Foiled, Plans Made (ish)

This weekend was supposed to be a three-day guys' camping trip. We were going to leave Friday, drive the 3+ hours to Assateague Island (Maryland/Virginia), where we would camp, hike, fish and relax at the oceanside campground, returning late Sunday. Then tropical storm/hurricane Joaquin showed up and washed us out.

In lieu of the planned trip, we had to settle for talking about planning another trip.
Half Dome, Yosemite NP

The four of us (Leo, Ted, brother Dave and myself) gathered at Ted's place in Philly Saturday evening, had a very nice dinner of grilled rib-eye steaks and the accoutrements, and pondered the question "what should we do for our 2016 trip?"

Basic parameters fell into place fairly quickly. Nobody had any major family-related travel plans for next year, so the option of a big trip, with flying as opposed to driving, was in play. Driving trips are generally for those years when people have a 5-day weekend or so to spare, and the timing (and expense) prohibits flying (not enough bang for your buck, too much transit time, etc). Driving trips span the realistically viable range from the Great Smoky Mountains in the south to upstate New York or southern New England in the north.

Flying trips, on the other hand, basically open anything in the entire continental US as possible destinations, especially the West. Like the Dakotas trip of 2011, this could mean 8-9 days, airplanes, big rental minivan, hotels at the ends of the trip and possibly motels in the middle if driving from place to place. A big trip. Still surprisingly reasonable when split between four people, but a big trip nonetheless.

Seems like 2016 is headed toward Big Trip.

The basics of a possible plan, formulated off the cuff over steaks and wine could be as follows:

Things are far from settled, and we are nearly a year from the roughly proposed September trip, but it sure looks good on paper. More to come...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

An American in Paris

25th Anniversary - Saturday - Part 2.

Having gotten out of Wicked a little before 5pm, we had some time to kill (and an errand to run) before seeing an evening show of An American in Paris at 8pm.

Amp had bought the tickets for AAiP through Stub Hub a few days earlier, with the requirement that we had to physically pick them up at a Stub Hub store front a few blocks south of Times Square. I didn't even know that such a thing existed. But sure enough, after wading through the absolute freak show that is Times Square, we found the store front and got our tickets.

With a good two and a half hours still to go before the show, we decided to head a couple blocks west of  Broadway and try to find a place to eat, preferably an ethnic place of some sort. After fighting our way back through Times Square (and passing the evening's theater, the Palace, right on the Square), we found a Thai place named Qi on 8th Avenue. We weren't all that hungry (or so we thought), but we would be busy from 7:30 until about 11, and it was now-or-never for dinner. As it turned out, the food was fabulous, and we split a fried sesame-crusted tofu appetizer. Amp followed up with a marinated citrus chicken dish of some sort, and I had a Massaman chicken curry, one of my favorites. Both were terrific, and again surprisingly-not-ridiculously-expensive. I guess that I had been expecting to spend a fortune on basic meals in the city, and got off better than I expected.
Fried Sesame Crusted Tofu

We were back in Times Square by maybe 7pm, and spent some time wandering through the street festival du jour, which was a "get to know France" themed event. This was basically a two block long tourism advertisement, with live music and food samples. Odd but interesting was the display of the successful attempt at breaking the Guinness Book of World Records mark for largest one piece butter sculpture. As we say around the kitchen at home, butter makes everything better...
World Record Butter Sculpture

Having finished with the Paris skyline in butter, and all things French, we headed into the Palace Theater. The first and most obvious thing that struck us was that this was an older (or less well renovated) and smaller theater than the Gershwin. It was narrow, tight, and tall. Having watched a show in the spaciousness of the Gershwin mere hours before, this felt a bit like watching a show from the top of an elevator shaft. That notwithstanding, our seats were OK, and we had a good top-down look at the stage.
An American in Paris - Palace Theater Stage

An American In Paris is a stage production/adaptation of the Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron movie from 1951, with music by George and Ira Gershwin. I had vague memories of the movie, but know the music very well, playing it at home from time to time. Anyone who watches TV and has ever seen a car commercial will know some of the music.

The show was excellent, but couldn't have been much more different than Wicked, in that it revolved completely around dance. There was acting, there was singing, but the dancing was the focal point. Amp had read up on the production, and the leads were apparently played by professional ballet dancers who could also act and sing very well. Amp's main interest in the show was becauseof the ballet, which I went into with a little bit of trepidation, but I really ended up enjoying it. The cast was great, the music was terrific, and the staging and dance numbers were amazing.

The show was done by about 10:45, we were back at the car by 11:00 or so, and out of the city and back at our in-laws' house by a little before 12:30am.

What a fabulous day, and thanks to the in-laws for watching the kids for us.


25th Anniversary - Saturday - Part 1

After a late night Friday, we had the luxury of being able to sleep in a bit before getting ready and heading into New York for our day without the kids. The first half of the day would be lunch and a matinee showing of Wicked, a show that I have been wanting to see for a long time. I know many people that have seen it, and nobody has ever had anything bad to say about it.
Wicked - Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel

We got into the city around 11:30am or so, with no leftover traffic from the Pope leaving that morning (heading to Philly!) that we could tell. We parked relatively near the Gershwin Theater, and looked for a place for lunch. We settled for an obvious choice a block or so away from the theater: the Stardust Diner. This is the place where all the waitstaff are Broadway wannabe's, and sing throughout the restaurant while serving. It was cliche, and touristy, and terrific. The food was good, not grossly overpriced for New York (a rarity), and the entertainment was very good. It might be cliche, but it's cliche for a reason.
Gershwin Theater Marquee

As for Wicked, I can't say enough good about it. I have the soundtrack, and know the music pretty well, but without having seen the show (or read the book by Gregory Maguire), the gaps between some of the songs didn't make much sense. Now they do. The Gershwin Theater, where the show has been running for about 12 years, was a really nice theater - fairly modern (at least in its renovation), spacious, with comfortable seats and good leg room. Sight lines were good and the stage was huge (both tall and wide). The stage was so wide that they had room for purely gratuitous decoration flanking both sides of the wide stage.
Wicked, Gershwin Theater Stage

For the show itself, the music was great, singing was fantastic, acting was good, and the effects were terrific. The show was very cleverly written to tie backwards into The Wizard of Oz in so many different ways, but to also turn all of the old story on its head. It was funny, engaging, and moving. We loved it. Rachel Turner, apparently relatively new to the cast, was fabulous as Elphaba. Kara Lindsay was beyond great as Galinda/Glinda. I couldn't help but thinking throughout the show that she was doing an over the top impression of Kristen Chenoweth (she probably was, like they mostly all probably do), but it was great.

A few clips:
  • Defying Gravity at the 2004 (?) Tony awards, with original cast members Kristin Chenoweth (Galinda/Glinda, the "Good" Witch) and Idina Menzel (Elphaba, the "Wicked" Witch). Simply brilliant. One of my favorite songs from a musical.
  • Popular - Kristin Chenoweth's last performance with Idina Menzel before Chenoweth left the show. Interesting due to all the ad-libs added in the middle that aren't in the scene, including Chenoweth telling Menzel she's beautiful. They can't stop cracking up...

Overall, I would say that this has might have become my second favorite musical, taking everything into account. Les Miserables is the best, of course. For pure non-stop unrelenting entertainment, Aladdin is tops. For innovation and spectacle, it's hard to beat Lion King. But this is very very good in every aspect.

Next...Saturday part 2.

Chick Corea and Bela Fleck

This past weekend we celebrated our upcoming 25th wedding anniversary by going up to north Jersey to leave the kids with my inlaws, and then going off on our own to so some things without them. The original plan was to go into New York city Saturday morning, see a show, eat a good meal, spend the night, do something Sunday and then pick up the kids and drive home. We ended up deciding to spend more money on shows and less on hotel, but more on that later.

The first part of the weekend was to get to north Jersey Friday afternoon (avoiding the Pope's visit to Philly that weekend, and the resulting mismanagement by the mayor with regards to shutting the whole city down for 4 days, but that's also another story...). We would leave the kids with a babysitter, and us, my sister in law and her husband, and another couple would go to the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown NJ to see a jazz concert by Chick Corea (piano) and Bela Fleck (banjo). I like jazz very much, and have quite a bit of it on CD, but I am no expert by any means, and there are a great many people whose names I recognize but know little about. These were two of those.
Bela Fleck and Chick Corea

A clip from last year is here:
  • Mountain - Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, 2014, Los Angeles.

The short version of the story is that we had a nice (but very rushed) bite to eat before the concert at an Irish pub across the street, a fabulous concert, and a nice drink and snack at another nearby place after.

As for the concert itself, it was a mix of "classic" style jazz, bluegrass influenced stuff, classical influenced stuff, and a whole lot else in between. Taking out an intermission, they played for about an hour and forty minutes. Not tremendously long, but certainly long enough to get your money's worth. Both were amazing musicians, and they played off of each other very well (as can be seen in the clip linked above). Corea was amazing, all the more so considering that he is 74 years old, and Fleck was a blur on banjo. His was lightning fast, and unbelievably clean. They seemed to enjoy themselves on stage, and had good banter and rapport with the crowd.

I would give this show the highest possible marks, even more so considering that the tickets were about $28 each after all fees and taxes. Hard to believe. Perhaps the best thing I could say about the show is that I have every intention of picking up the two albums that these guys have done together (one studio, one live), and looking into their other stuff as well.

A great start to a great weekend...

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sassafras Day

With Grace having been very excited about the fishing in the Poconos, but not having caught anything, we decided to go down to The River for the day on Saturday. The weather forecast was perfect (low 80s with no humidity and a nice breeze), and the fishing is almost always active on the Sassafras. As an added bonus, I checked in with brother Dave, and he and his Darling Wife were going to be there from noon-ish Saturday to noon-ish on Sunday. So we'd have company (or they'd have company, depending on how you look at it).
Girls fishing

As it turned out, the day couldn't have been nicer, with great weather, good company, and plenty of fish. Other than help with worms and fish removal, the girls fished independently and had a lot of success.
Early sunset over Ordinary Point

I think the totals for the day were 19 for Grace, 10-12 for Julia, 15-20 for me, and 1 for Amp (who barely fished at all). We mostly caught white perch, with a handful of decent sized catfish, a couple of sunfish, a couple of shiners, and a single yellow perch. The girls were thrilled.
Grace enjoying the fire

Another nice (and relatively new) feature was a fire in Dave's recently built fire pit. How can anybody not like a campfire?
Dave's Firepit

The combination of family, fishing, warmth, breeze, fire, water, sunset, and Dave playing guitar was terrific.
Late sunset over Ordinary Point

The Sassafras is one of my happy places, and we need to go there more often. The kids are already asking if we can go again this coming weekend. Which maybe we can.
Dave, guitar, fire and water

Fair to say that the lack of fishing success at Lake Naomi was more than made up for by the action we had today at the River. Leaving at around 8:50, we were home by 10:00pm. Happy kids were in bed and asleep almost immediately.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Poconos August 2015

We wanted to try something different for a short late-summer vacation this year, so we decided to rent a house in the Poconos from a friend of Amp's. We had the house for 5 days, Monday to Friday. It was located in the Lake Naomi private community. Lake Naomi is a 277 acre private lake community with golf, tennis, swimming, fishing and boating. The house itself was a 3 bedroom, 3 bath house a block and a half from the lake (on the other side of lakefront private property). The nearest beach access was a short walk further down.
Lake Naomi with boats

Monday was driving up (2 hours away), getting settled, doing a little shopping since we would be doing some of our own cooking on the nice big grill. The whole community was heavily wooded, and full of wildlife. The first day there, we saw a group of three 10 point bucks in the neighbors' yard. There were birds everywhere.
10 point buck in the neighbors' yard

Monday night we ate at the clubhouse restaurant. It was pasta buffet night and could best be described as bland. Many varieties of bland. But not horrible.
Grace fishing at dusk

Tuesday, Amp took a tennis lesson at the club, which was her first time out hitting since her wrist surgery back in April. It went well and she was pretty excited. We fished during tennis, and caught one sunfish (me). There were a few other nibbles, but they were tiny. This lake would have been fun to fish from a boat, where you could get to the wooded areas and what appeared to be some nice grassy banks. Grace was very excited about the fishing, which gave me a big smile.
More Grace at dusk

Tuesday afternoon was spent at the lakeside pool, after which we cooked a nice dinner.
Mirror-like Lake Naomi

We didn't want to spend the whole few days at a pool (which we could do at home), so we searched out some other possible things to do on Wednesday. We elected to drive 45 minutes to Bushkill Falls, which is one of the larger waterfalls in Pennsylvania. It is on private property, where the owners have set up a whole little "theme park" area around it. There is the ravine with the Falls itself (and a number of other smaller waterfalls), some hiking trails, gift shops and snack bar, fishing pond, mini golf, paddle boats on another small pons, etc.
Bushkill Falls

Bushkill was worth visiting, but was certainly different under private ownership than it would have been as a state park. In other words, more developed, more touristy, and a lot more walkways and stairs crisscrossing the area than a park would have had. But nice, and well worth an afternoon's visit.
Bushkill Falls area with walkways

The girls especially liked the "gem mining", which basically entailed buying a bag of sand studded with a variety of semi-precious stones, and then rinsing them in a screen in a water trough so that the sand washes away, leaving behind the stones.
"Gem mining" at Bushkill Falls

Wednesday evening we got home with plans to cook dinner, play some board games and card games, and watch a show that Grace likes on the Food Network. But it began to rain as we got home, and the power went out. And stayed out. So we ended up driving ten minutes to a Walmart that was running on a generator, and killing time there (there wasn't much else around...). We got home at around 9:45pm, and the power came on ten minutes later (having been out 3-4 hours). We went to bed.

Thursday was more fishing and then more rain. We found a bowling alley not too far away, and had a good time there. We don't bowl much, which made it fun, and a little comical. On arriving back at the house in the persistent light power. Again. Annoyed at this point, and with a not very good weather forecast for Friday when we were planning to go home anyway, we threw everything in the car (we didn't have much stuff) and drove home, arriving safe and sound by 10pm.

All things considered, it was a decent trip but not great. If we were able to do more outdoors stuff (hiking, kayaking etc) it would have been better, but between the kids' limitations and the weather, we pretty much flamed out on most of that. In retrospect, we should have planned more things to do in the area (like Bushkill Falls) and not relied on the Lake community itself. Live and learn. It was family vacation, and that's never bad.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Underdark Terrain

For me, hobby-wise, things go in cycles, and the last better-part-of-a-year has been a cycle of Dungeons and Dragons. A return to my teen years, I guess.

There is an obvious connection between this and miniatures gaming. While our games have not typically fought out battles as full-blown miniatures battles, we have used tokens and large grid paper to play out these combats. For someone who likes to build terrain related things, I guess it was only a matter of time until I started building terrain that would be suitable to miniatures battles in D&D... I'm kinda surprised it took this long. So I decided to make an attempt at making some Underdark terrain that would be reminiscent of the Moria scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The first step was to try to make a sample piece just to see if it looked OK. So far so good, so the on to the next step of making more. The nearest-to-hand round thing (a mostly use up roll of blue painter's tape) was used to scribe the arches. The rest conformed to a simple template. 8 inch tall pieces. 2 inch thick top surface. 2 inch thick support pillars.
Sample arched piece and scribed others

The next step was to cut out the scribed pieces with a Hot Wire Foam Factory hot wire cutter. (The material was 2 inch thick dense foam insulation board - in this case reused pieces that had been painted green...).
Hot Wire Foam Factory carve-outs

A roughly cut arch-bridge piece looks like this:
A little cleaning up

After the edges are cleaned up a bit with a knife to knock down the sharp edges, the piece is ready for some simple carving just to break up the straight lines.
Softening the edges and adding a little detail

To keep this a nice simple project, the remainder of the detailing will be done with paint (along with some glue and gravel).
Surface detail

Next...Painting and a bunch more pieces...

You Wanna Do What?

Purple hair. You want purple hair? Are you sure?
11th Birthday

I'm blessed with good kids. Pretty fantastic kids, actually. And in the overall scheme of things, purple hair isn't so bad, right? Granted, it comes close on the heels of the birthday-present green-hair failure, but still... (Not that the green hair looked bad, but it faded quickly, and the effective dollar-per-day ratio was distressingly high...)
With cousin Ines

So, with a little trepidation, Amp and Grace set off for the salon today to get...purple hair. Just Grace. Thankfully.

And I have to say, it looks pretty cool.
Loud and proud...

Be yourself Gracie, and be yourself proudly.

So, purple hair?

Sure, I'm in.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Chris Squire, RIP

It seems like the only thing that jolts me into remembering to write blog entries these days is the passing of someone who meant something to me. So today, another blog entry and another passing. Chris Squire, bassist, co-founder and one of the main artistic forces behind Yes, died Sunday June 28 at the age of 67 from a form of leukemia.
Chris Squire, earlier years

I've always been a big Yes fan (not necessarily a popular choice among our gang growing up). I've always had more of a taste for progressive rock than many, and (much like jazz) have no issue with long complicated meandering songs that would never get played on the radio. Perhaps it is the connection to jazz improvisation, or the multi-part harmonies, or the virtuoso musicianship, or the willingness to repeatedly make 8 minute songs in the era of 3 and a half minute radio shorts. Whatever the reason, I've been drawn to Yes's music. And nobody would debate Squire's chops as a bass player.

I had chances to see Yes in later years, and for some reason never managed to get to a show. Lazy, I guess. The only time I saw them was on the 90125 tour in 1983/1984 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. A purist would say this wasn't even really Yes, as this was the pop interlude where Trevor Rabin was the lead guitarist and main songwriter, and Steve Howe wasn't with the band. [Steve Howe was doing Asia instead, who I also saw in 1983].
Chris Squire, later years

Yes changed lineups a multitude of times over the years (perhaps hurting their chances to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - an affront that is a crime compared to letting in...say...Pat Benatar...but that is a different rant entirely). The one constant through the years was Chris Squire. There was never an incarnation of Yes that didn't include Squire. I've heard that this was because he owned the name, and Yes was whatever he wanted it to be, and he toured with whoever/whenever he wanted, and called it Yes. That may be true, but the musicianship is undeniable. And you have to love the long hair, flowing robes and satin sequined capes. Even on a bunch of 50 and 60 year olds...

I could listen to these flowing bass lines all night.

A few things from across the years...

Another great and favorite musician I will never get to see again. Sad.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hiking with Gracie

Grace wanted to go hiking with Daddy, and it was a beautiful day with no particular plans, so she and I headed off into the Woodlawn Tract (now part of the First State National Monument) and did an easy 2.9 miles of walking in the woods.
Hike in Google Terrain from

We started in the same parking lot we often do because she had heard me tell of a cool old ruined farmhouse farther down a different branch of the trail than we had done on a few previous trips.
Hike in Google Hybrid from

The area is spiderwebbed with trails, and I know we've been all over this area, but apparently hadn't done the one little stretch of main trail that this old building was on (at least not with her).
Curly pigtail hair day

She wanted to take our good camera (Canon EOS Rebel T3) and take pictures on her own. [All pictures are taken entirely by her except the one she is in]

She very much enjoyed looking for flowers, pretty scenes and interesting plants to take pictures of.
The old ruined farmhouse

The picture taking time made our 2.9 miles over 1.5 hours a stroll at best, but the point wasn't to put in miles.
Old fieldstone retaining wall

We found purple flowers.
Purple flowers

And white flowers.
White flowers

And more white flowers.
More white flowers

On the way back to the car, she asked if we could go out again tomorrow, hike a different trail, and take more pictures. It's a definite possibility...

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Impetus Refresher - Germans vs Italians

We couldn't muster up enough people for a D&D game last night (a Friday night leading into Memorial Day weekend), but Ryan and Josh were available, and Josh had expressed an interest in playing historical miniatures, so that's what we did. When setting up the game (and trying to remember the rules) it occurred to me just how long it had been since I had played anything. Or painted anything. Going back through blog posts, it was probably the Impetus solo game that I played last November.

With little time to prep anything new, the game we played ended up using the same forces (and little cheat-sheet unit cards) from that game. Feudal Germans vs Communal Italians fighting in Italy circa 1250.
Forces close on each other (Germans at left)

In order to be able to start with the simpler rules (movement etc) and explain as we went, I set up a basic meeting engagement with no terrain other than a few hills and roads, and some decorative fields and hedges. The hills were decent sized, and flanked an open valley in between. In all pictures, the Germans will be on the left/far side and the Italians will be on the right/near side.
Contesting the Center

One of the main things I like about Impetus is that the rules are simple enough to remember fairly well from one playing to the next, but present enough choices to make the game-play interesting. It turned out to be a very good set to teach a new person. By the end of the evening (7 turns I think), Josh had a pretty good grasp of the basics.
Forces meet on the eastern hill

As for the battle itself, it was a straight-forward move ahead and meet in the middle fight, with attention paid to the high ground on either flank.
Fighting for the hilltop

In general, Ryan (the Germans) rolled very well for initiative, but rolled poorly in combat. Exceptionally poorly in many cases. He was especially good at failing Cohesion Tests in cases when all he had to do was roll anything but a 6. And then invariably rolled a 6...
End of game

By the end of the game (7 turns I believe), the situation had been decided. Out of three leaders per side, the Germans had lost one killed and one captured, and the fighting had largely gone against them. Some good things had happened, but not enough to keep the Italians from clearly having the upper hand. The Germans lost 5 units to the Italians 4, but the types of units lost and the relative position (and condition) of the remaining troops on the field made it extremely likely that the balance would continue to tip further in the Italians favor.

It was a fun evening, and Josh seemed to to enjoy himself (there was no doubt Ryan would, as he has played with us many times before). Impetus, as always, provided a fun game.