Archive for January, 2014

When one tries to make a living as an artist, one’s potential for weird-ass jobs skyrockets. You need work that has flexible hours, open minded employers and will pay a good amount for a short, concentrated, burst of work. And, it turns out, they don’t call them odd jobs for nothing. Also, as a writer, I will often take the opportunity to do something strange or stupid or possibly dangerous just for the material. But to be quite honest, I don’t usually search these jobs out. More often than not, they find me. Case in point, my first gig.

I asked my friends on Facebook about their first first jobs and they mostly seemed to be pretty standard: yard work, lemonade stands, food service, babysitting. These jobs were largely unavailable to me. I grew up in a very rich area where they could afford to pay actual money for these things. All yard work was done by Latino immigrants. Most children had full time au pairs. I don’t know how old our paperboy was but I know he made deliveries from a car. (ironically, one of my childhood friends said that his first job was as his mom’s book keeper at age 10. Marin was weird, is what I’m saying.)

Technically my first gigs were ages 10-12 when my dad paid me and my best friend to dress up as elves and advertise his portrait studio’s Photo With Santa day. That was kind of odd, but I don’t really count it as my first gig because I got it from my dad and the salary was downright exploitative. I don’t remember how much they paid me the first time someone I was not related to hired me to do something, but I do remember that the evening was strange enough for it not to matter.

Have you heard of the Antenna theatre company? Probably not, so I’ll explain as best I can. They create installations that the audience wanders through, while listening to the performance (a sort of theatrical sound track/soundscape/voice over) on headphones. Sometimes there are actors and when there are they wear masks like, oh, say, this Amnesia_1

Now, there was an event, I don’t remember exactly what it was but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the antenna theatre company. I remember it being kind of corporate and there being a powerpoint presentation during dinner. Since it was the mid nineties in the bay area, it may have been some kind of internet start up, I don’t know. What I *do* know is that it started with a networking happy hour. And to facilitate this networking they had an ice breaker game where people would have a name tag on their back, with the name of a celebrity, and other people would give them clues about who that celebrity was so they could guess who it was, thus starting up a conversation. It’s not a bad idea but you still have to talk people into playing the game. You have to explain what the game is and get them to consent to having a name tag put on their back. And for this task the event planners wanted teenagers in Antenna theatre masks. Let me repeat, teenagers. In giant weird masks. Talking people in business suits into a game where something is written on their backs. I don’t have photos so please content yourself with this poorly photoshopped artist’s rendering.

I don't think this even really captures just how strange the night was.

I don’t think this even really captures just how strange the night was.

I have no idea why they wanted teenagers. Maybe to cut costs. Maybe to fully set us apart from the crowd, lest people think the mask was some sort of neo-lampshade-on-the-head version of cutting loose. I don’t know. But I do know this: you can’t talk in those masks, you can’t see in those masks, and people don’t want a name tag on the back of their suit jacket. They just don’t.

Also, someone hit on me.

While I was wearing the mask.

It’s a snow day here on the east coast and the dead of winter in the whole northern hemisphere. This is the perfect time to hole up and create whatever solitary art floats your boat. But first you need provisions. You don’t want to be that asshole who makes a delivery guy trek through the snow and who has cash for that anyway? Winter is also a great time for cooking because it heats up the house and you were just going to stay in anyway.

I am by no means and expert in healthy eating, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with eating plants. So you should start by going to the grocery store and buying all the plants that look appetizing to you. Hell, buy some that don’t look appetizing; I hate spinach but I don’t notice it when it’s cut up and thrown into a soup. I think broccoli is disgusting but I love broccoli cheddar soup. I think most vegetables can be made delicious if you add enough cheddar and butter to them. (like I said, not great at healthy eating.) What’s great about soup is that you can put pretty much anything into it and all the flavors get blended together and you can fix nearly every flavor problem with enough garlic, seasoned salt, or cheddar (assuming you are into savory food, which I really am.) Unless, of course, the problem is too much salt. We’ll talk about how to fix that later.
When buying supplies, keep in mind what you want the foremost flavor to be and what flavors are going to go with it. Beets and peppers would probably not be good together but tomatoes and peppers would be delicious. Some veggie flavors are more dominant than others so keep that in mind. Other veggies don’t have terribly strong flavors but still have a ton of nutritional value so throw those in to extend the soup and make it more healthy. A cooking show once told me that the more colors you have in a meal, the more healthy it probably is. You can also use canned frozen veggies but their flavors are often dulled and sometimes made downright gross by the canning/freezing process. Still, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got access to.
Also, feel free to add whatever meat you like as well, assuming it’ll work with the flavors you’re going for. One of the great things about soup is you can use the cheaper, less appetizing, bits of meat because you’re boiling them and can strain out any bones or whatever. But you’re also free to use whatever yummy kinds of meat you like, too.

You’re also going to want some stock (veggie, chicken, beef, whatever) or at least some bullion cubes. If you want to be super thrifty, you can make your own stock by saving the carcases of whatever animals you eat and/or the leftover bits of whatever veggies you cut up (i.e. carrot ends, onion tops, etc.) and simmering them for a period of time that closely resembles forever, until the water tastes like whatever you’ve been boiling in it. Run it through a strainer and voila, you’ve got stock for free. When boiling animal bits, be aware that bone has its own particular flavor and the more meat that’s in the carcass, the more the stock will taste like meat than bone, which is generally what you want. BUT bone flavor is actually pretty good, too, so don’t discount it. And this is a great thing to do with BBQ leftovers or when you’re lazy and just get a roasted chicken at the grocery store. I don’t know if this would work on something like KFC I kind of think it wouldn’t, given how little meat, fat or skin is left on the chicken once its been eaten, but I don’t know for sure.
It occurs to me that some people might be grossed out by this talk of bones and fat and carcasses but if it does, you may want to re-examine your decision to eat meat. Just sayin.

The soups I like are thick and creamy, so that’s what we’re focusing on. If you’re like me and prefer those kinds of soups, you’ll want a thickening agent like milk, cream, cheese, sour cream, the vegan equivalents of same, flour, potatoes (or probably any root vegetable,) or even blended up cashews or chickpeas. I am not as familiar with the non dairy options so you might want to consult an actual recipe for advice on this. I did try blended up cashews once and it was delicious but I think you might need an actual food processor rather than just a regular blender. I think most of these principals work for non creamy soups, too. Just skip the mashing/blending/adding dairy part. You can also add quinoa, rice, pastini, probably other grains as well, either as a thickener or just a feature of the soup.

I probably should have posted this yesterday, before it snowed, but I was too busy cooking. Luckily, if you’re at home and don’t feel like going outside, soup can be made out of nearly anything. Poke around your refrigerator, freezer and canned foods, odds are good you’ve got some soup makings. When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was “Stone Soup” where a stranger comes into someone’s house and, in return for being allowed to stay the night, they offer to make soup for the home owner who has no food. The stranger insists that all they need is a pot of boiling water and a stone. As they boil the stone and sip the water the stranger keeps saying “Oh, this would be perfect, if only it had some ____” and the home owner says “Oh, well, I think I have a little ____” and they end up with a delicious soup. This is a great metaphor about creativity and resourcefulness overcoming dire circumstances, but it’s also a pretty legit recipe for soup (stone not necessary.)

Chop everything up and saute it in some oil and garlic and whatever herbs and spices you wish on a mid to low heat. Start with the denser and more strongly flavored veggies. This is a really good article about aromatics, the flavors on which you base the rest of your dish. You can also saute whatever meat you want to add with the veggies, or you can save them and add them (fully cooked) at the end if you want chunks of meat in the soup. When the veggies seem translucent, throw them in a pot with your stock or some water with bullion cubes and bring to a boil. How much stock/water you add is hard to say because it changes, depending on how much stuff you’ve thrown into this soup. Make sure you have enough to cover everything and let it float freely but not so much that it looks like it’s mostly liquid. If you have any root vegetables, this is when you want to add them. Same for any grain based thickener. Let it boil for a few minutes then bring the heat way down to a simmer. A simmer is when just a few bubbles come up to the surface every couple seconds. You probably want to let it simmer for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.While it’s simmering, you can continue to add whatever flavors you want be they spices, sauces, juices, booze. Seriously, throw in whatever you think will taste good. I mean, probably not pizza, but use your best judgement. If you *really* want to use pizza you might be able to use it like a crouton in french onion soup, but that’s a bit beyond my knowledge.
You can also use this time to clean whatever you’ve already dirtied. If you are at all like me, cooking creates a GIANT mess.

When your soup starts to look, well, like soup and/or your root vegetables look like they’ve softened to the point where you can easily poke a fork into them, taste the soup. Don’t get worried if it tastes bland.

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It’s not going to be a boring soup, that’s just the base, you have to add stuff to it.

If it’s SUPER bland, you might just need to let it simmer a little more. If it’s been simmering for a while and it’s still kind of bland, move on to the thickening process, you can probably still save it! If it’s got some good flavor going on and you just want a soup of the tasty-broth-with-stuff-floating-in-it variety, congratulations, you’re done! If you want a thick, creamy, soup you’ve got a little bit of a ways to go. At this point I like to throw the whole thing in a blender and see how it comes out. If you don’t have a blender, simmer until everything is soft enough to mash up, then mash away. Once it’s got a good consistency, check the flavor again. Still not great? Turn off the heat and try adding some dairy/dairy substitute and continue adding whatever herbs/spices/whatevers you think would taste good. Seriously. I’ve added, beer, whiskey, coffee, lemon juice, orange juice, hot wing sauce, throw in whatever you think will work. A good trick to guessing what will be good is to taste the soup and then smell whatever you’re thinking of adding. Just add a little at a time. That should give you a decent idea of what it’ll taste like.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that salt, sugar and sour balance each other out. So if your dish is too salty, try adding a little something sweet and something sour. Too sweet? Add salty and sour. Too sour? You get the idea. Spicy is a little harder to counteract but it’s usually taken down a bit by dairy or beer. I don’t know why. I learned that from an episode of home improvement. Seasoning a soup is much like embellishing a crazy outfit, just keep adding more until it works. If you do end up with something that’s just too damn flavorful, try adding water and/or more bland thickening agents, like potatoes.

Odds are good that this will yield you a ton of soup so freeze some of it for later or just invite a bunch of people over.

Enjoy!
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