DOES PASTA NEED LOTS OF WATER? I keep reading in various places that pasta should be cooked in huge amounts of water. Alton Brown, for instance, recommends that a single serving of pasta be cooked in no less than 3 quarts of water (the size of a large saucepan filled to the brim). Lidia Bastianich cooks pasta for four people in a stockpot. I, on the other hand, frequently cook pasta for two people in about 2 quarts of water or less.
Last night I decided to test this hypothesis. I cooked one serving of pasta in 1 quart of water, and simultaneously cooked one serving of pasta in 3 quarts of water. I put them in separate bowls, and Sasha and I each tasted both (without sauce). Sasha did a blind tasting, while I knew which was which. Neither of us could taste any difference at all between the two cooking methods. They were exactly equal in taste and tenderness.
Since large quantities of water take a long time to boil, I'm going to continue using small amounts of water to cook my pasta.
BUREAUCRACY UPDATE: About two weeks ago, I went to my local social security office to change my legal name from my birth name, Hanah Ayelet Metchis, to my desired married name, Hanah Metchis Volokh. The woman at the counter told me that this was impossible. With a marriage certificate instead of a legal name change form (the getting of which requires $90, 6 weeks, and a court hearing), she said she could only change my last name, not my middle name. She offered me the choice of being Hanah Ayelet Volokh or Hanah Ayelet Metchis-Volokh. With my hatred of hyphenated names, I chose the former.
Upon getting home, I realized that this made no sense whatsoever. I called the Social Security 800-number I found on the website, and the woman on the phone agreed with me that this made no sense whatsoever. I should have been able to change my name to Hanah Metchis Volokh, she said. She advised me to wait for the new card to arrive in the mail, then return to the office and try again. She told me to speak to a manager if they still gave me a hard time.
I did just that this morning. New card in hand, I went to the office expecting an hour-long wait. But the woman at the reception window was flabergasted by my story, took pity on me, and processed my form herself instead of sending me to the waiting room. Now that's good customer service!
I then proceeded to the DMV, where I waited for two hours to get a name change on my driver's license and a 2005 car registration sticker.
Soon both cards will arrive in the mail, and I'll be able to get on with changing my name on my financial information. Bleh.
RETURN OF THE KING: I just finished watching the Return of the King extended edition DVD for the first time, and it's fantastic. The additions during Frodo and Sam's trip into Mordor, and during the lead-up to the battle at the gates of Mordor were particularly good. I thought those sections seemed clipped and confusing in the theatrical release, but the extended edition gets them just right.
I'd been greatly anticipating the scenes of the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman, but they turned out to be a bit disappointing. There was no reason to be quite that unfaithful to the books. (I'll leave out details for those of you who haven't seen it yet.) And I would have enjoyed seeing even more of the Eowyn-Faramir romance.
Still, RotK extended edition is a great improvement over Two Towers extended, which I didn't like much at all. I thought the added scenes in TT rendered it unfocused and reflected badly on some of my favorite characters (especially Eowyn). But RotK has definitely been improved with the added scenes.
THERE ARE NO PICTURES from Thanksgiving, because I am a dufus and forgot to get the camera out. I meant to take pictures of all my wonderful food, but you'll have to settle for just descriptions instead.
Turkey - The main event turned out fantastic. It was juicy and flavorful and had crispy skin and was all-around just perfect. I brined it for 22 hours in an apple cider, salt, sugar, and spice mix from a recipe in Cooking Light, the best magazine ever. I don't think the cider and spice added much, however. Next time I'll use a simple saltwater brine, and I bet it will turn out exactly the same.
The turkey was eleven and a half pounds, and took about 2 hours to roast. Our thermometer kept giving us readings about 5-10 degrees too low, but eventually we decided to trust the lack of pinkness over the digital thermometer. We let it sit for 30 minutes to reabsorb the juices, and Sasha carved it while I prepared gravy.
Gravy - The gravy was fantastic. Really, really good. The recipe was attached to the turkey recipe in Cooking Light. It had the chopped-up neck meat in it.
Stuffing - The stuffing was non-stuffed. I made it Thanksgiving morning, while the turkey was still happily bathing in its brine in the fridge. Also from Cooking Light, the recipe featured bread, mushrooms, and turkey sausage. It was very homey and delicious.
Sweet Potatoes - I hate sweet potatoes. I opted for a very simple recipe (from Cooking Light - are you sensing a trend?) which had them just cut into wedges and baked with a brown sugar glaze. At the grocery store, I saw a display of "white sweet potatoes" sitting next to the yams. I figured what the heck, and went with the white ones. I thought they turned out okay, and nobody complained, so I guess they were sweet potatoey enough to make it Thanksgiving.
Cranberry Sauce - They say the human body is over 90% water, but mine is probably 90% cranberry juice. It's practically the only thing I drink at home. Sasha and I probably go through at least two gallons of it a week. And yet, I've never really liked cranberry sauce. I figured, if I'm not going to like it, I might as well have fun making it. Cooking Light had a recipe for cranberry-pear chutney that could be made up to three weeks in advance and stored. I made it one week in advance, and it smelled so great while I was cooking that I couldn't stop sampling it. It was fantastic! Sweet and tart and fruity and delicious. It was a big hit. I've got an extra bag of cranberries in the fridge, and I might just have to make another batch once the leftovers are gone.
Salad - I improvised a salad with walnuts, feta cheese, and avocado. I made one of my favorite dressings, a honeyed red wine vinaigrette, with a recipe from The Passionate Vegetarian.
Cornbread - Somehow I've never had much luck with cornbread, so I went for corn muffins instead. It's actually a recipe I've made before from Sasha's Muffins A to Z cookbook. I made a dozen muffins for 6 people, and all but one disappeared. I ate the last one for breakfast this morning.
Mashed Potatoes - This wasn't on my plan, but one of our guests brought a cheesy herbed mashed potato dish that was very nice.
Pecan Pie - I expected pecan pie to be really hard to make. I had to buy special ingredients (dark corn syrup and real maple syrup, not to mention pecans) and everything. But actually it was quite simple. The whole thing went together in about 10 minutes. You can mix the pecans right in, because they float in the mixture and wind up on top long before it becomes a custard. It tasted great, and I whipped up some cream with cinnamon to dollop on top.
My fridge is stuffed with leftovers, of course, but I'm actually still cooking. Tomorrow we're hosting a Thanksgiving Afterparty to take care of the leftovers, and I'm putting together a new dessert and an appetizer dip as well as a turkey casserole for variety. I'll try and take pictures of those.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE VOTING SYSTEM: Paul of GeekPress linked to a disturbing article on pollworker error. The author recounts the many questionable and insecure things he's seen well-meaning pollworkers do while he was observing elections. The heart of the matter:
This individual, like the majority of the poll workers I have encountered in my travels, was trying her best. No one had given her instructions about rethreading paper; nor had she had a chance to practice the procedure. Most importantly, she had never had the opportunity to make a habit of the special behavior necessary in an election setting—such as finding a second person to watch her. The majority of poll workers I interviewed that day had had only one hour of training.
I think the biggest problem with voting, no matter what technology it uses, is that it requires a huge amount of labor that is not needed at any other time. Los Angeles County alone had to hire 30,000 workers for election day, and each of these had to be (1) over 18, (2) a registered voter, (3) available from 6:30 AM until 9:30 PM, and (4) willing to work that entire time period for $55 or $75 depending on which job they were assigned. (That's $3.67 and $5 an hour, both below minimum wage.) In this day and age, how many people fit all those requirements? Retired people, who in general are slow, have bad eyesight, and are not quick to adapt to new technology. Unemployed people, who may be unemployed because they're not responsible, intelligent, or polite. In L.A., they offered all county employees a full day's regular pay if they would sign up to be election workers, and they _still_ didn't have enough people.
If someone came up with a voting technology, system, or schedule that required fewer people, that would be the best protection against vote fraud and error yet invented.
You can read about the mistakes I made as a pollworker despite being a cum laude graduate of a good college and a conscientious person, attending an extra hour of training class, and reading through all the election instructions numerous times before election day.
GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE: My disasterous dentist appointment had me all depressed, but my faith has been restored by Linens N' Things. Two days ago I bought a set of 3 glass serving bowls there, and when I brought them home and opened the box, I found that the largest one was chipped. I looked for my receipt but couldn't find it. I called to see if I could still return it, and they said they would do an exchange without the receipt.
I did find my recepit before taking it back, but they didn't even ask to look at it, just told me to help myself to a new set. Very nice.
TURKEY: I just ordered a fresh (non-frozen) free-range but non-organic turkey for Thanksgiving. I get to pick it up at Whole Foods on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Let's hope everything goes smoothly, because if it doesn't, I won't have time to defrost a grocery store turkey in time for Thursday.
COMPANY TO AVOID: Having just got health insurance, I made a dentist appointment for 10 AM this morning. Sasha and I are on a PPO plan, so I chose a dentist near me from their online guide. The one I chose turned out to work for a chain of dental clinics called Western Dental, and I strongly recommend never going to them.
I arrived about 10 minutes early for my appointment to find a packed waiting room. I filled out the first-time forms, and proceeded to sit in the crowded and noisy waiting room for over an hour before my name was called. Then they brought me to the X-ray room where I sat in a chair for about 10 minutes before the technician came to take the pictures. But in those 10 minutes, several people walked in and out of the room, picking up or putting down things, without even glancing at me or telling me that someone would be with me soon. It was as if I didn't exist.
The X-ray technician came in and started doing the pictures. The first few went fine, but then she had just put the thing in my mouth for a new one - you know, the plastic thing you bite down on that makes you want to gag - when another technician walked into the room and started talking to her about how all the X-ray pictures today were turning out so light you could hardly see them. I'm sitting there thinking, "Great, I'm going through all this and they're not even going to be able to see anything," followed by, "Hello - I'm still here with this thing in my mouth while you're chatting away over there and completely ignoring me." When my technician came back in and starting dealing with me again, she commented that the other technician was "such a bitch." Real professional.
After that, I was shunted back to the waiting room for 45 minutes, then put in an examination room for 10 minutes with, again, people wandering in and out without paying any attention to me. Then they moved me to a different exam room with no explanation, and I snapped. I told them I'd find a new dentist and have them send the X-rays there.
I talked to the "manager" (since when do dentists' offices have managers?) and explained that everyone I had dealt with at the place had been rude, particularly the X-ray technician. He didn't even care. He seemed annoyed at me rather than concerned about the low quality and professionalism of his staff. Plus, he tried to overcharge me.
This is the worst treatment I've ever gotten at a medical facility. I hope this isn't indicative of the quality of the other doctors who are members of my insurance plan.
THE ONE-PARTY CAMPUS: I think the left-wing dominance of American academia is coming to an end. This is an easy prediction to make - with over 90% of professors as registered members of the Democratic and Green parties, the dominance could hardly get worse.
This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (link via InstaPundit) is a very good sign, and important reading for college students as well as professors. The groupthink among students is not as bad as among professors for many reasons - students are in the college environment for only four years, they remain in tight contact with their families, their career prospects do not depend on acceptance in the liberal elite, and so forth. But the groupthink does exist. Particularly the "common assumption" Mark Bouerlein describes in the article, where someone assumes that everyone in the room is a liberal. I often go out of my way to prove that assumption untrue, because I think it's important that people realize that there are Republicans among the group of people they are otherwise willing to accept, and that voting for Bush doesn't mean you're an ignorant bigot.
A GOOD POLLING PLACE IS A BORING POLLING PLACE: My stint as election inspector went quite well. Nothing major went wrong, and though we were short two pollworkers (the one I couldn't get in touch with, and the one who never called me back even though I left two messages), it turned out that four people were enough to make it through the day pretty easily.
We arrived around 6:15 AM and waited outside for 10 minutes before someone came to open the door. We finished setting up and going over the clerk's tasks, and opened the polls promptly at 7 AM. To open the polls, I was required to declare aloud that the polls were open, then display the empty ballot box to all the people waiting to vote, close the box, and lock it. It was nicely ceremonial. Someone jokingly offered me a "real" padlock instead of the dinky plastic thing the county included in the supply box.
First thing in the morning was the only time we had a substantial line. There were probably 30 people lined up before we opened, and another dozen or so arrived within the first 15 minutes. Once we got through that rush, there was never a line of more than about 5 people waiting for a booth, and often no line at all. Nonetheless, we had a steady stream of people throughout the day, and probably a total of less than 15 minutes during the entire 13-hour day that nobody was there to vote. Surprisingly, the slowest hours were 12-1 and 7-8PM, when we expected a big rush. I guess everyone else expected a rush too, and avoided it!
I made two mistakes in processing voters. One involved - you guessed it - provisional ballots. There are two major kinds of provisional voters: (a) People whose names aren't on the roster (either through clerical error or because they don't live in the precinct), and (b) People who requested an absentee ballot, then came to vote at the polls. We had 50 provisional voters over the course of the day, and I messed up 10 of them. The first 5 or so, I forgot to write their names on the provisional page in the roster and give them the provisional receipt that would allow them to call the county after the election to see whether their votes were counted. The next 5 or so, I realized that I needed to be giving receipts, but I still forgot about writing their names in the roster page, so their receipts don't actually have enough information for them to check on their votes. After that, I got the procedure right. At the end of the day, when we were sorting ballots for return to the county, I pulled all the provisional envelopes into a pile and complited the roster list. My coordinator said that was okay.
I never did hear from my coordinator before the election, but it turned out that was because the county had my phone number wrong, so he couldn't reach me. A coordinator is responsible for several polling locations in an area, and he showed up to check on ours around 10 AM. He tried to find another pollworker for us, since we were short two, but didn't succeed. And - this made my day - he said that my polling place was the best one he'd seen that day. Well set up, well organized, and not at all chaotic. I was thrilled.
But back to my second voter-processing mistake. Near the end of the day, a man showed up to vote and told us that since registering, he had moved out of our precinct into a nearby one. He was in our roster of voters, but consistent with the training I'd received, I told him the county strongly encouraged him to vote in his new precinct using a provisional ballot, since he could then vote on his local candidates and at the same time update his registration. I'd given this speech several times already, and everyone else had been very cooperative. This man was different. He said he refused to vote a provisional ballot, and since his name was on the roster here, he wanted to go ahead and vote a regular ballot in this precinct. After arguing a little bit, I let him sign the book and vote a regular ballot. Some time after he left, I realized that I should have challenged him as an improper voter. Since he'd told me he no longer lived in our precinct, he should not have been allowed to vote a regular ballot in our precinct. He should have had a provisional ballot no matter where he voted.
At 8 PM, I closed the polls. There was no line, just one person in a voting booth finishing her ballot. I told her to take her time, and she was out in a few minutes. Our numbers didn't quite add up - we were off by 2 between signatures in the roster and ballots in the box. But we were instructed not to kill ourselves over the numbers, since once we turn everything in, the ballots are counted by machines which are hopefully more accurate than tired people who have been working at a brand-new job for 15 hours. We had to separate the ballots into different stacks which were put in different boxes or envelopes - the regular ballots in one box with any write-in votes on top (there were 3 write-in votes, but only 1 for a certified write-in candidate), the provisional ballots in another envelope, along with all the absentee ballots handed in at the polls instead of mailed, and the voided and unused ballots in another box. Our precinct collected about 700 votes, compared to about 1200 people on the roster. Of course, some of the provisional and absentee votes were from people not on the roster.
I arrived at the check-in station a little after 9, and waited less than 5 minutes to return my ballots and election supplies. They handed me a receipt, which I am supposed to keep for 28 days after the election so they don't blame me if they lose my precinct's ballots, and then it was all over.
Not particularly exciting, but all in all, I think that's a very good thing.
FOR SOME DEFINITION OF 'PROMPTLY': It turns out that promptly beginning to use your new name, California's legal method of post-wedding name change, is much more difficult than it sounds. Before most businesses will change your name on their records, they require proof of your name change, usually in the form of a driver's license, social security card, or marriage certificate.
To change your social security card, you need a driver's license or marriage certificate, then have to wait about 2 weeks for your new card to arrive in the mail.
To change your driver's license, you need a marriage certificate, and you have to either stand in line at the DMV for hours or make an appointment 2-3 weeks in advance.
To get a marriage certificate, you have to either wait in line at the county clerk's office for hours, or wait 2-3 weeks for it to arrive in the mail.
This means that I will not be able to, for instance, change my name on my credit cards and bank account until about 6 weeks from now.