18 April 2021

Mac's McCheese, Part 2


It was okay. 

The nutritional yeast is still the weak link, but it's only sprinkled on top like Parmesan cheese. The main cheese sauce uses a vegan cheddar I've gotten before. To my knowledge, it's made from cashews. Quite a few of the vegan ingredients from Purple Carrot are like this, so if you notice many of their dishes have a nutty flavor, that's why. 

... As long as we're here, and especially since I mentioned parmesan cheese, I learned something interesting from British TV presenter James May. He has a cooking show on Amazon Prime Video called Oh, Cook!. It's rather low-key compared to the other productions he's been involved with, and as he tells it, it's primarily meant to accompany/promote a cookbook he's recently published. It's almost like the show was an afterthought, especially with its off-the-cuff, cinema verite style of presentation. That's not knocking it; I rather enjoyed every second of it. Admittedly, it may have lost a bit of steam around episode 5, but that could well be a result of me simply not being built for binge-watching. 

In a later episode, he offered a correction regarding a dish he'd made in a previous one. The correction came from one of the crew, along with much of the show's banter, though May is clearly in top form since he doesn't have Hammond or Clarkson to fight fire with fire. The dish in question was said to be vegetarian. However, as the aforementioned crew pointed out, parmesan cheese is not considered vegetarian. At first, I thought he was simply mixing up vegetarian and vegan. It turns out there's a step in the making of parmesan cheese that's not too animal friendly. Without getting into the whole science of cheese and how it gets made, parmesan's process involves something called rennet. 

Rennet is a broad term for a collection of enzymes in a cow's digestive system. In the case of parmesan, the rennet is sourced from unweaned calfs as part of veal production. For me, this is not a problem. Much like the lard in refried beans or the fats on a grill that are used to cook veggie patties, this is incidental, and also part of a much larger process. That is, the calfs aren't being slaughtered exclusively for their gut stuff. Moreover, not all parmesan cheese uses rennet in its production. There are alternatives out there, though how widespread they are is hard to gauge. Given all the parmesan cheese I see in grocery stores and the notable lack of veal when I pass by the meat counters, either a little goes a long way, or the use of rennet has become the exception to the rule. 

While it doesn't bother me, I know some vegetarians are more strict than me, so it's only right they be informed if they don't know already. 

To your health. 

17 April 2021

Mac's McCheese, Part 1

 I've been vegetarian for over a year now, and it was a complete accident. My roommate had been recommended trying a vegan diet to help bring down her cholesterol. I went along for moral support and to challenge myself. Sometimes when I'm grocery shopping, I'll play the Vegan Game, and maybe some of you have as well. When you're waiting in the checkout lines, look down on your cart and look at what you'd have to put back if you decided, right then and there, to become vegan. There's no shaming, mind, only an exercise in introspection, thinking for once about the stuff you don't think about. 

I learned in that first week that I am not cut out to be a full vegan. The long and short of it is I love cheese and ice cream too much. The other problem was a poor choice of dishes. I love Mexican and Italian the most, which lend themselves very well to non-meat options. I also like a lot of Asian dishes, which lend themselves equally well, if not more. When it comes to Indian dishes, though, I see a lot of problems. I mentioned loving Mexican food, but too many people think that means piling on the spices. Since leaving New Mexico especially I've noticed too many people don't understand spice. I can respect those thrill-seekers out there with their ghost peppers and whatnot, but that's not spice to me. That's heat. That's all heat and no flavor. I love green chili to death, and while that can be especially hot, it more than makes up for it in the flavor it provides. The heat has a character, is my point. Carne adovada is simply an embarrassment. I ordered it out of curiosity, expecting some kind of Mexican analogue to General Tso's, as the dishes look fairly similar. Three bites, enough tears to refill my water, and a fully drained set of sinuses later, I couldn't carry on. Call me weak if you like, but I don't look at my food the way a skier looks at black diamonds. The food serves me, not the other way around. Man v. Food is a false dichotomy. 

A common complaint about vegan dishes is they can be a little bland. This is perfectly understandable, and eye-opening when you learn how much sugar is in the foods you normally eat, hence the addiction and the less-processed stuff tasting a little off. It's like that scene in the first Matrix movie when they're discussing what we know as "chicken" in terms of flavor. Look up why carrots are orange if you really want the rug pulled out from under you when it comes to what qualifies as a GMO. Anyway, I don't personally mind bland food; it's why God gave us candy and soda. The problem with these Indian dishes I was trying out was they tried to make up for their blandness by piling on spices, the kinds of spices that don't offer any real flavor of their own and instead simply make you feel like you're trying to swallow a hot coal. Don't get me wrong, there are some Indian dishes I like very much. These simply weren't ticking any of those boxes. 

The main event came second-to-last if memory serves: Vegan Mac & Cheese. The original comfort food, now minus the dairy. Another common complaint about vegan dishes or other such alternatives to meat and animal products is they try too hard sometimes to be like the thing they're trying to make you do without. What I mean by that is rather than giving you a new experience, they try and pass for something else and act like everything's normal when you know damn well it isn't. A bean burrito is every bit as appetizing and satisfying to me as one with shredded steak, the difference simply being which one I would be in the mood for. If I'm in the mood for a burger with a proper meat patty and instead I bite into a fish fillet, that's grounds for disappointment. A for effort, but when it doubt, just be yourself, is my point. 

Besides, most of the "flavor" people talk about when referring to meat has nothing to do with the meat itself, but the preparation. Have you ever had plain, skinless chicken? I'm talking going straight from the package and onto the baking sheet with no steps in between. Yes, there's a texture, but texture is not a flavor. That taco seasoning will do all the same wonders for your chickpeas and black beans as it will for your chicken and beef. There's certainly no shortage of cheese-flavored snacks, so I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt. Then, I read what the main ingredient was:

Nutritional yeast. 

That was probably a mistake, but I figured as long as I'm exploring what goes into my food, I'm not going to make an exception for the... exception. I want to know what's standing in for my cheese, by dammit. Actually, nutritional yeast isn't the end of the story, it's just the primary component chosen above all the others to be what graces the branding on the package. It hardly mattered, though. 

This particular style of nutritional yeast, to its credit, looked and smelled like cheese. The trouble is it didn't smell like especially good cheese. It didn't help that it looked like shredded cheese that was not long for this world, like when you get down to the land half-handful of the bag and you're not sure if it's cheese dust on the strands or something that tends to grow on things that are not long for this world. The taste did not redeem it. 

Like I said, when something is bland, I can deal with that. There's a difference between bland and bad. Bad doesn't even have to be vile or gut-wrenching or nauseating. Bad is simply bad, the kind of taste that makes you feel like you're being punished for something, like whatever you're eating doesn't want to be eaten and wants nothing more in the world it may or may not be long for to let you know it and will make you suffer for it every step of the way. You know you shouldn't be eating something when it makes you feel like a failure. This is not hyperbole, and it's certainly not me being a picky eater. 

This happened in November of 2019, and I'd almost forgotten that I'd written about it, so I apologize for being repetitious if you also remembered it from back then. I'm bringing all this up again because we've recently moved away from Hello Fresh as their options have gotten a touch repetitive, and they're not offering nearly as many meat-alternatives in their veggie options as I'd prefer. In the year-plus we've been subscribed, I've seen their "plant-based ground" a total of twice, perhaps thrice. 3 meals a week for over 70-odd weeks, you'd think they'd offer it up more. That was when my roommate discovered Purple Carrot. They're a fairly new enterprise (they don't even have an app, just their main site and a few social media accounts), and while they're slightly more expensive than Hello Fresh, their main claim to fame is their menu is entirely vegan-friendly, right down to the butter, cheese, and mayo. There have still been some bad dishes, but others have been pleasant surprises, many downright awesome. Tempeh is a decent meat alternative, depending on how you prepare it. Tofu can go either way. Seitan, also known as wheat meat or gluten meat, is the standout. For something dating back a few centuries, it holds its own against the Impossible and Beyond options. Like those, it wouldn't fool you, but it doesn't taste like an alternative. 

Moreover, many of their cheese options have been perfectly palatable. The biggest issue is they typically don't give you much of them, which is likely why they work. That is, if they gave you more of them, you'd probably start to notice the shortcomings. This is when I'll typically "cheat" and put in some proper cheese or butter or mayo, but credit where credit is due. 

Tonight, though...

Dun... dun... DUUUUUN!

Wish me luck. 

For the record, while I have my cruelty-free beefs with Purple Carrot, and there's definitely been some duds, I'd still recommend them if you're vegan and looking for a meal kit service. I'd certainly recommend giving them a try if you're not vegan so you'll at least have a leg to stand on when you claim that the lifestyle is not for you. 

20 February 2021

2021: A Bricked Cube's Odyssey

Since about last week when the weather was getting especially cold, my car's been struggling a little. You'd practically floor it and it would hobble forward a bit, just a smidge above idling.
Seemed simple enough a solution: let it warm up a little. After all, a few minutes or miles would go by and everything would be good. Yes, warming a car for 20-30 minutes is a bit excessive (and the more I look into it, unnecessary), but an unprecedented cold snap sounds like the right kind of desperate time for a desperate measure. 

A few days ago, my car kicked back a trouble code, one I'd seen before. It's for the transmission. Last time it kicked on, all I had to do was change my transmission fluid and the light went off. That was a few months ago, nowhere near the 30,000 miles when you're supposed to change it out anyway. The trouble code in question (P0744) mentioned the torque converter, a rather fascinating fluid coupling seems to either be a reasonably priced part or so inordinately expensive it literally costs more than the car did when it was new.

Fast forward to this morning when the problem seemed to take on a new form (or possibly revealed its true form), despite letting the car warm up, acceleration was simply non-existent. I could maybe get a quick burst before momentum ran out. It was odd because if I put the car in neutral and then pushed the pedal, there was obvious revving. However, after letting it sit for a few more minutes, even the revs stopped. The engine is clearly on and going, but it's as if the gas pedal has completely disconnected from the rest of the car. So, a possible transmission problem (which may or may not be weather-affected) has now expanded to anything and everything from a bad fuel pump to a bum throttle sensor to a gunky fuel filter to injection issues. 

It's sitting in front of my neighbor's house because that's as close to the driveway as I could get it (it's not in their way or anything, so no problem, though I'll be keeping them appraised of the situation) before the pedal stopped responding altogether. As we approach midday, I could well give it a try and see about getting it back into the driveway, which could be easy enough as I could go in reverse the entire way, and that gear's been surprisingly reliable throughout this whole affair. 

The shop I took it to a few weeks ago to fix a rattle in the exhaust is not open on weekends. My roommate's brother may come by to take a look, but I'm likely going to have to try and work out some other way to get to work for at least the next few days. I have a fair number of days off to use up, but that's not the whole problem. I hate taking time off work because the longer someone spends not working, the more time a company has to work out ways to do without them. However unfounded this fear may be (as I've been told by some of my superiors), I can't help it. I also hate taking time off work because I genuinely enjoy my job. I've been at it for over 10 years. 
Before that, I was pretty damn miserable, and what most certainly didn't help that misery was a previous car's fuel pump giving out while on my way back from out of town one weekend. This was a bad set of circumstances that set up many, many chains of dominoes, and my car suddenly dying out of the blue, steering and all, was the push. At the risk of sounding like a first world problem, this little incident from at least 12-13 years ago practically ruined my life. While I didn't miss that much work, the debt I accrued from simply trying to get back to where I was before the mechanical breakdown drove me to debt consolidation, which is no fun for anybody. 

Car troubles are also no fun for anybody, even the mechanics who literally profit from them. They not only have to deal with the car but with the driver too, and that can go either way. Sometimes I'll see the same handful of cars outside of shops each time I pass by for months on end and wonder how many of those are there because of some heated exchange ending with something along the lines of, "It's your problem now." The same goes for when I see an abandoned vehicle along the highway, like some kind of people-watching by proxy, if that makes sense. You can't help but wonder what went through someone's mind on that fateful day, if they were just having the worst day ever and this was one more damn thing or if this was the upset to an otherwise totally tolerable time. 

01 January 2021

(Un)Lucky Number 7: Putting It All On Green

I couldn't find a good way to transition to this from my earlier part about finding out one of my cables went bad, so I decided to make it a separate entry. 

A handful of my coworkers had mentioned recently "going green" as in trading their apples for androids. I can certainly understand the frustrations people have with their iPhones, be it the dreaded "Apple tax" or the toy-like interface. Seriously, when I had to send in my Xperia Z Ultra to get fixed, and I got a 5C to use in the potentially 6-8 week meanwhile, I laughed when I first swiped through the menu. For starters, the screen was absurdly small compared to my Sony Phablet, which was as much a digital sketchbook as it was a phone. Then there was the notable lack of widgets. Apple has finally fixed this, though I almost hesitate to call it a fix as they weren't anywhere near as useful as they could have been on my Android. Maybe I simply didn't have the kind of workflow that benefitted from some of them, but nonetheless the "icons-only" screen that rolled out in front of me felt like a step down and backwards. On the whole, the sole saving grace of the 5C was the camera. I could certainly take photos and shoot video with my Android, but somehow it always felt more than a little bit unpolished, like it was an afterthought in the design. This was especially annoying because this was a Sony product. I'd used Sony camcorders back in high school and college, to say nothing of all the other Sony products I'd owned like various TV's or my minidisc or certainly all of my Playstation stuff. 

In fact, when the Z came back from getting its battery fixed, I kept the 5C around to use as a camera, though mostly for around the house whenever the cats did something cute or I wanted to shoot a video for my YouTube channel. A few months of that arrangement later, and I inadvertently warmed up to the idea of the iPhone being a permanent fixture. I was about to go on a trip to see family, and I didn't want to bother with bringing two cables/chargers, so I "temporarily" activated the 5C again and left the Xperia at home. As the saying goes, I went Mac and never looked back. Given my favorite feature about the Ultra was its screen, it only made sense to phase it out. I'd migrated all of my drawing workflows to my iPad, so a phone with a big screen was rather unnecessary. The 5C was so lightweight in the same bag as the iPad compared to the Z I moved it to my pocket because it was possible I'd forget to pack it in the morning. 

The 5C eventually got traded in for the SE, and that's still one of my favorite iPhones. That got traded for the 7 I currently have now, and that's been an unremarkable upgrade despite my initial hype when the was first announced. Of course, it's been a few years since then, and I'm far more impressed with the newest version of the SE, as I previously wrote about.

Here's my perspective, apart from them being easily by far the best cameras I've ever owned (that don't have interchangeable lenses or true optical zooms), what I like best about my iPhones is how they play nice with my iPad. They also play nice with my Mac miniAirdrop alone has been a legitimate lifesaver. Forget those Apple stickers you get with every purchase, where's my Airdrop sticker? 

(Un)Lucky Number 7

 I woke up this morning to find my iPhone 7 had not actually charged in the night like it was supposed to. Thinking the cable and become dislodged from the outlet, I checked both ends and found everything was where it should be. Upon unplugging the lightning connector from my phone and plugging it back in, I got greeted with the dreaded "accessory may not be supported" message, that lightning bolt icon flashing over the battery ever so fleetingly. Restarting the phone did nothing for it. I thought maybe I'd tripped over the cable at some point in the night and finally caused some internal fault in its braided beauty. That didn't seem to be the problem, however as I plugged in my iPad and didn't even get the "not charging" message I used to get when I plugged it into anything less than 2 amps. To further add to the confusion, I took the iPhone into my office where my iPad's charger is and plugged it in. Charged like it should. 

Here's the results of my ensuing mix-and-match experiment. There's probably a better way to organize these data, but I can't think of one right now, especially since there turned out to be a time factor involved (that is, what would once work suddenly wouldn't). 

Not noted here is the turnover. One of my favorite features about the lightning connector is being reversible. However, when I plugged Cable 1 into the iPhone charger, it first showed as working with the iPad. Then, I turned it around and that got me the "not supported" message. Turning it back around to the "working" side now suddenly didn't work at all, "not supported" message and all. So, I guess it's just an intermittent cable that finally bit it. 

For further background, both Cable 1 and Cable 2 are third party. Cable 2 is a shorter cable that was provided by my cell carrier. Cable 1 came in a 3-pack from Amazon. Both are also braided, which isn't always a mark of higher quality, but certainly helps on the durability front, which often leads to cables failing.