Beef Spinachnoff with Quinoa Penne

Beef Spinachcoff with Sautéed Green Beans
Beef Spinachnoff with sautéed green beans

Steakhouses from Vancouver to Miami serve creamed spinach with their assorted cuts of beef. Why? Is it the sharp contrast in textures? The sweet/savory juxtaposition? Or is it that beef just loves creamed spinach—and vice versa?

With these questions fresh on my mind, I set out to reboot my family’s classic Beef Stroganoff recipe—by adding spinach—and serving it over a healthy (yet quite delicious) pasta alternative. Simple twists, great results.

Yield

4 Servings

Ingredients

1 Lb beef for stew, cut into 1-inch^3 cubes

1 large yellow onion, coarsely diced

2 C beef stock

A handful of crimini mushrooms, sliced

A bag of fresh raw spinach, washed

1 bay leaf

A few dashes of Worcestershire sauce

2 T (smoked) paprika

salt + pepper to taste

1 cup of sour cream

2 T flour

1 Lb quinoa penne

Instructions

In a large saucepan, sear the beef and onions until the meat has cooked to medium-rare and the onions are starting to brown, about 5 minutes on high heat.

Deglaze the pan with the beef stock, reduce the heat to low and add everything except the sour cream, flour and pasta. Cover and simmer for at least 30 minutes, up to an hour, stirring occasionally. (Longer cook times will mean more tender meat, but if you do go long, make sure to check liquid levels so things don’t burn.)

About 20 minutes before you want to eat, boil water for the pasta.

Meanwhile, mix the flour into the sour cream in a small bowl. Once you’ve stirred the flour in well and crushed all the lumps, take a tablespoon of stock from the saucepan and stir it into the sour cream. Repeat several times. (This slowly brings the temperature of the sour cream/flour mixture up for easier combining.) Once warmed up, slowly add the sour cream/flour mixture to the saucepan, whisking constantly to prevent clumping.

Cook the pasta to al dente, drain, combine with the sauce and serve.

Five First Impressions of LabZero

I recently joined Lab Zero as a software developer. My friend Brien Wankel, one of their Principal Engineers, had been encouraging me to interview here for more than a year. I hesitated because, to put it bluntly: What’s so special about another boutique software development agency? There are hundreds—if not thousands—of them in the Bay Area. Plus, I was still trying to strike gold playing the startup equity game and I had already run my own boutique software development agency for a decade.

At long last I took the plunge, and I’m really glad I did. Ten weeks in, these are my first impressions of Lab Zero.

1. “We pay for every hour worked, no exceptions.” —The CEO

Lab Zero’s culture in three words: “Life, then Work.” Everyone here, myself included, is a W-2 hourly employee. To prevent people from worrying about using PTO when they’re sick (which eats into vacation time), we’ve done away with the concept altogether. We get paid for every hour we work—and we don’t get paid when we’re not working. That also has the side benefit of discouraging people from coming to work when they’re contagious. As a substitute for PTO, we accrue personal/family sick time, bereavement and jury duty time.

Employment here includes all the usual benefits, but without the attached expectation of working 60-80 hours/week (or more) and getting paid for 40. I surf every Wednesday morning (if the weather conditions cooperate) and I volunteer at my daughter’s school in the afternoon. I might only bill for 4-5 hours on a Wednesday. I might put in a few more hours after dinner—or not.

I haven’t put this to the test yet, but I may need to scale back my hours at Lab Zero by 50% or more to run tech for another political campaign or to get more involved in the farm-to-table movement or maybe to start a side business—or not.

2. “We follow software best practices.” —Everybody

So we put life first and work second. But does that mean that we don’t care about what we do? Hells no!

Lab Zero embraces a documented set of methodologies that make great software development possible, if not pleasurable. We have 100% or near-100% test coverage on all our projects; we write unit tests, functional tests, automated UI tests—to the tune of roughly ten lines of test code for every one line of “real” code. We practice continuous integration; we have a stringent pull-request review process and we reject pull requests for even the slightest blemish, e.g. a typo in a commit message.

This culture of doing things right at all costs may sound too onerous to be practical, but what I learned after a couple weeks here is that the effort we put into rigorous testing pays us back in spades, measured by the very small number of issues that slip through the cracks, eventually needing to be caught by QA or found in production. Plus, as long as I can keep the test suites passing, I can refactor without fear that I’m going to break something.

And if I do break something incidentally, it usually just means I need to write a better test, which in turn will help overall quality in a virtuous cycle.

3. “We do Agile really, really well.” —Our Customers

Agile prides itself on being agile, per se. (How deliciously meta is that?) Take what you want, leave the rest. As a result, there are infinitely many ways to do agile well—and an equally-indeterminate number of ways to do it badly.

Last week, I heard a senior executive at one of our customer sites tell us (in front of a room of twenty people) that we were the gold standard for agile projects at their organization. Enough said.

4. “We care about having a beautiful, functional workspace.” (And it shows.)

We have top-shelf coffee, great snacks and drinks, a loaded kegerator, automatic standup/sitdown desks (each with four presets), Apple Cinema Displays, an office sound system, massive TVs, stylin’ chairs and Fluid Stance boards. If you need anything, within reason, it just shows up at the door.

In addition to that, Nicole Andrijauskas just finished painting an amazing mural spanning the entire south wall of the office.

We have catered lunch-and-learn sessions every other Friday. On the alternating Fridays, we descend in a hungry mob to a local restaurant (like Barbacco, this past Friday) and Lab Zero picks up the tab. In addition to Fridays and the regular bevy of snacks and beverages, there are also bagel Wednesdays, eclairs one day, coffee cake another, etc.

As much as I love our office, I also love my half-time Wednesdays working from home (and/or the beach). Which is totally fine, of course. I’ve even been finding a leftover bagel or two on Thursday morning for me.

5. “Diversity is woven into the very fabric of our culture.” —Me

The notion of full-time employment does not preclude hiring people who rawk at things besides their profession, but employers don’t explicitly benefit from it either.

At Lab Zero, where life comes first—and turnover is near nil—we’ve built an eclectic mix of developers, designers, writers, agile product owners and bizdev folks who double as parents, recovering chemists, musicians, surfers, teachers, artists, marathoners, photographers, LGBTQ folks, future real estate moguls and one of the world’s leading experts on tiki.

There’s no better testament to Lab Zero’s people than this: I could do my job almost exclusively at home. I could also bill an extra two hours instead of commuting to downtown SF from the North Bay. But I actually want to come to the office.

Ten weeks in. Zero regrets. Can you say this about your job? If not, maybe you should join us for lunch.

Winter Stew

A perfect accompaniment to a rainy day, this hearty stew will warm you up from the inside out.

Hearty beef, sausage and barley stew with home-cultured sourdough ciabatta
Hearty beef, sausage and barley stew with home-cultured sourdough ciabatta

Yield

8 servings

Ingredients

1 large yellow onion, diced

1 lb. beef for stew (usually chuck cubes)

6 Italian (pork) sausages, casing removed and cut into cubes

8-12 ounces of strong beer, dry white or red wine

8 cups of beef stock

Two sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 T fennel seeds

2 t ground cumin

1 bay leaf

1 cup of dried pearled barley, washed thoroughly

Generous handful of Cremini mushrooms, sliced

4 C raw spinach, washed (optional)

Salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to taste

Instructions

In a large soup pot, sauté the beef, sausage and onion over medium-high heat (keeping the alcohol and broth open, ready and nearby) for about five minutes, or until the onions are browned and the meats seared, but not cooked through.

Deglaze the pan with the alcohol, scraping the sides and bottom with a wooden spoon. Next add the broth, turn the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. While you’re waiting, add the rosemary, fennel, cumin, and bay leaf.

When the mixture reaches a boil, stir in the barely. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 60 minutes, or until the beef can be easily separated with a fork, adding water if needed to keep everything covered.

Fifteen minutes before serving, remove the rosemary sprigs and stir in the mushrooms and spinach.

Serve all by itself or with a fresh sprig of rosemary, a pinch of crushed red pepper and some crusty bread. (The photo above features my home-cultured sourdough ciabatta, a recipe which I’ll be sure to share in the near future.)

The Best (Only?) Way to Defeat Trump

Disclosure: I’m no politician and I’m no political scientist. (What little I know about politics I learned by running the tech stack for the Larry Lessig campaign.)

That being said, it seems like there’s an obvious tactic that could be deployed to stop Trump from turning the Oval Office into a reality TV set and Idiocracy into a documentary. It’s so obvious that I can’t believe it hasn’t been done already.

We simply need a moderate-leaning conservative with good name recognition (e.g. John McCain, Mit Romney, a younger version of Bob Dole — or someone of that ilk) to ditch the ruinous GOP and run on an Independent ticket. This gives die-hard conservatives — at least the sensible ones who can’t see themselves voting for Trump and won’t switch parties to vote for Clinton or Sanders — a viable option that isn’t a Democrat or a Fascist.

This will produce one of two outcomes. In the less likely scenario, we get record moderate-conservative and independent voter turnout (as a reaction to Trump) and the conservative Independent former-(R) candidate wins. In the more likely scenario, this 3rd party candidate splits the conservative vote, securing a win for Clinton or Sanders.

Either outcome is a win — if for nothing else, then at least for common decency.

Either outcome will end the mockery Trump has made of American politics.

Either outcome also spells the end of the Republican party as we know it. Donald Trump, for all his faults, has given the world a great gift. He is the final nail in the coffin for the GOP as we know it today. Finally, the Republican Party — ironically, the party of Lincoln — will reap the seeds of homophobia, racism, xenophobia, religious hatred, bellicosity and belligerence they have sown for the past several decades.

But this only happens if Trump loses. Which is why we need a moderate conservative to step up, “take one for the team” and run as an Independent.

And by “team” I mean the one consisting of every sensible person on this planet.

Trump, Portlandia and Fascism

When The Donald first entered the 2016 presidential race, I have to admit feeling some mild intrigue. I have respect for outsiders, for people who don’t always color in between the lines. Having run the technology stack for another non-traditional candidate — Lawrence Lessig — I can appreciate the frustration many of us feel about incessant partisan bickering, pay-to-play politics and an impotent congress. Lessig, who ran on the issue of campaign finance reform, even gave credit to Trump for elevating the money-in-politics message to the national level.

That being said, I had already formed a negative impression of Trump based on a number of stories I’d read in the media about his bankruptcies, scandals, questionable business decisions, failed marriages, etc. But everyone knows that the media have their own agendas, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Same goes for his reality TV career: I spent five minutes with Gordon Ramsey a couple years ago and he proved to be kindhearted, gentle, humble and gracious in every way imaginable. Here too was I willing to give Trump a pass. Maybe he was just playing a character as so many “reality” TV stars are wont to do.

Perhaps because it seemed like a reasonable move for a reality TV star, Trump announced Senator Lindsay Graham’s (real) mobile phone number at a campaign event last year. While it seemed underhanded and petty, it also could have easily been mistaken for a practical joke — albeit a rather nasty one, but a joke nonetheless.

Like a Portlandia skit, Trump’s antics started out being amusing and engaging. I’ll admit it; I had a few good laughs.

Then I watched The Donald belittle Senator John McCain over his POW experience. These words were spoken not in the context of a reality show, not twisted out of context as part of some media spin job; no, he said them plainly in no uncertain terms. When asked to apologize, he refused and redoubled his attacks on the senator and war hero.

At this point, it became clear to me that Trump could not be taken seriously. No serious candidate would make fun of McCain’s distinguished service to his — and our — country. Ten years ago (or perhaps even ten months ago), a comment like that would have meant political seppuku. Trump had to be kidding. But this was no laughing matter.

At this point the Portlandia skit, while still amusing, begins to make you wonder if you should be chuckling or cringing.

Then the wheels started to come off the train. Trump said young black kids have “no spirit,” called Mexicans criminals and rapists, threatened to build a great wall between our countries (which actually is a little funny given his bizarre China fetish), called Carly Fiorina ugly and Ted Cruz a “pussy.” Note that these are just the things he’s said on record. I don’t want to know what he says when the world isn’t listening. Really, I don’t.

So at this point, we’ve established that either Trump is “just kidding” or he’s a racist, a xenophobe, a megalomaniac, a misogynist/sexist — and a grade-school bully. 

Some have said that he’s rewriting the rulebook for American politics. But breaking all the rules is not the same as rewriting them. Besides, panem et circenses has been a central theme in perhaps every political contest over the past 2000 years, so we’re not dealing with a new strategy, just a bigger one. I’ve heard something similar said about violence: if it’s not working out for you, you just need to use more of it. 

Back to Portlandia. At this point in the skit, you’re feeling downright squeamish. You’re looking around the room to see if anyone else can see that you’re watching it. You wish it would have ended when it was still funny and not so darn . . . creepy.

Then Trump told his little ditty to the world about killing Muslims with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. For me, this was the moment where his outlandish Portlandia skit of a campaign really went off the fucking rails. Forget Portlandia! Not even Idiocracy — as prescient as it was — predicted something as ghastly as this.

We’re long past the point of “just kidding” now and moving into the territory of white robes and hoods. On second thought, the KKK isn’t even the right analogy. They’re small potatoes. Trump is huge.

At long last I have come to understand why intellectuals typically avoid Third Reich analogies: because they were all waiting for this very moment and they didn’t want to spoil it on someone unworthy.

I’m not going to mince words: Trump is Hitler. He is amassing a following of neo-Nazis and thereby starting the most dangerous movement in our country since our own Civil War.

He must be stopped and stopped now, before he makes it to the general election.

Nothing — not even the creepiest Portlandia skit — can approximate the scourge that this one man will bring upon our country if we are foolish enough to elect him.

Castro & Market “Pop-Up” Lindyhop + Streetcar Ride

Yesterday, my family and I — along with roughly two score Lindyhoppers, Balboans and Jitterbugs — danced al fresco to the dulcet sounds of Gaucho in Jane Warner Plaza at Castro & Market for an hour before boarding a vintage F Market streetcar, band in tow, to take the swingin’ party to the Orbit Room.

Sam Simmons executes an aerial with wild, reckless abandon. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)
Lindyhoppers at Castro & Market, including an airborne Mr. Simmons. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)

All around us, the Castro throbbed with some people in full skin suits (think Blue Man Group, but in several different colors) while others galavanted around wearing massive balloon animal anemones on their backs. A few wore nothing but Easy Spirits and floppy hats. A man sat hunched over a bicycle hooked to a differential gear gizmo that turned a sign showing distances to various countries in Africa, advertising that the cyclist was raising money for HIV/AIDS research. Others engaged in a vocal campaign to elect Emma Peel as Empress of the Imperial Council of San Francisco.

Suffice it to say: It was a normal Saturday in the Castro. Except for the swing dance!

So, about this swing dance: Why does this small gathering on a random Saturday deserve a blog post? Because it gives me confidence that Swing 2.0 — unlike the original craze that accompanied big band music of the 40s — won’t be needing a revival of its own, at least not any time soon. Swing is far from dead; in fact, it’s strong and growing stronger as we enter the third decade of swing’s second go-round.

For some background: My wife Allison and I met in San Francisco near the beginning of the great swing revival of the mid-1990s. As Lindy in the Park — one of the many venues we frequented — gets ready to celebrate its 20 year anniversary, we’ve come to realize that dancers of our vintage represent the old guard of new swing.

Chris Bucchere outside Twin Peaks Tavern with his two favorite dance partners. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)
Chris Bucchere outside Twin Peaks Tavern with his two favorite dance partners. (Photo credit: Cathy Kohatsu)

As we learned from the recent disappearance of one of our most lively venues, it’s incumbent upon us, whether we bring two decades of lindyhop experience with us or not, to take care of the places that offer swing dancing and the bands that make it all possible. (Note: I saw a lot of people tipping Gaucho and noticed many fives, tens and at least one 20 in the kitty yesterday.)

In addition to supporting our local bands and venues, we stewards of swing also need to find new places to dance, especially in front of people who aren’t already lindyhoppers. One woman asked my wife, “Is this whole thing just an accident?” Hardly! It was the result of the efforts of two dancers (Kristin Wojkowski and Idalia Ramos) with the backing of the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District’s Live in the Castro series.

While talking with Sam Simmons and Terra Williams, who, along with Monica Lenk, recently opened a fabulous vintage store in Oakland called OverAttired, I noticed Ken Watanabe lindyhopping with Decobelle Katrina Haus Morales, who, according to Facebook, was negative two years old when Ken started swing dancing.

I also danced a few songs with my daughter (including this extended drum break captured on video). She was negative eight years old when Allison and I started swing dancing. Literally a biproduct of lindyhop, she won her first — and only — dance competition in October of last year.

If JFK famously said that children are the best hope for the future, then I have plenty of hope for the future of lindyhop.

Pomodoro Perfecto

I appreciate the beautiful and simple notion that in Italian cooking, the same four or five ingredients get remixed into completely different dishes based entirely on subtle changes in preparation.

One of the key ingredients in the Italian food lexicon — and often the most misunderstood — is garlic. Allium sativum, a small, pungent relative of the onion, radically changes its flavor profile based on how you slice it (or press it or crush it) and then does so again based on cooking methods, temperatures and timing. A clove of garlic roasted in foil for 20-30 minutes at 400° while still in its bulb makes a mild and sweet spread for crustini (or a decadent treat when blended into mashed potatoes) while a thinly sliced one releases savory tones when charbroiled atop fish. A teaspoon of pressed garlic gently simmered in olive oil for just a few seconds before forcing it too cool can flavor an entire pot of red sauce whereas that same teaspoon of pressed garlic, if overcooked, will leave your food inedible and your dinner guests wondering why they didn’t just go to Olive Garden. (On the plus side, vampires will also keep their distance.)

Pomodoro-in-progress! The color will darken and the tomatoes will disintegrate as it cooks down
Pomodoro-in-progress! The color will darken and the tomatoes will disintegrate as it cooks down

As it turns out, mastering this press-and-sautée method of cooking garlic is really all you need to do to make a great pomodoro, the most basic of Italian sauces — yet probably also the easiest to screw up. Like anything, good garlic management skills improve with practice. As your nose gets more attuned to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in the smells released by cooking it, you’ll soon master when to cool the garlic by adding tomatoes — or when to throw everything away and start over.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 large clove of garlic, pressed

1 can of crushed tomatoes, opened (or you can use blanched, skinned and blended fresh tomatoes and maybe a tablespoon of tomato paste, but it never makes sense for me to do this from a cost/benefit perspective)

1 t dried oregano

3 large fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 pinch of crushed red pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Before doing anything else, open the can of tomatoes

This sounds ridiculous, but it’s super important because the last thing you want to do is run around looking for your can opener while you’re overcooking the garlic. (Yes, I’ve done that. More than once.) So open the darn can and just set it down right next to your sauce pot. (You can thank me later.)

Now chop the basil, press the garlic and get ready for the fun part

Heat the olive oil in the pot under medium-low heat for about a minute. It will start to become less viscous, so you can tilt the pan and allow it to pool on one side. Confirm that your can of tomatoes is open and nearby and ready to reach with one hand while you hold a wooden spoon with the other. Meet our dear Lucy, canine epicurePlace the pressed garlic on the wooden spoon and carefully add it to the pool of hot oil, stirring constantly. The garlic will sizzle a lot at first as it releases liquids, then it will quickly start to brown and give off all sorts of wonderful smells. (Our beloved family dog would come running down two flights of stairs the moment she smelled garlic cooking in olive oil, then she would put her snout as close to the range as possible without getting burned, just to take it all in.)

There’s a critical apex reached — once the garlic has released all of its “good” flavors and smells — when suddenly it starts to turn dark brown and produce rancid, nauseating odors that will ruin anything in their path. If that happens, pour everything into your compost pile and cover it with food-soiled paper or scraps to contain the smell. Then open the windows, clean the pot thoroughly with soap and water and start over.

With garlic, it’s okay to error on the side of not-yet-done but it’s never okay to error on the side of OVERdone.

At the critical moment, usually no more than 10-20 seconds in, grab that can of tomatoes and smother the garlic and olive oil by quickly adding the contents, then stir to normalize the temperature of the tomatoes, oil and perfectly-cooked garlic. (You’ll probably get some tomato on yourself in the process. I usually do.)

The rest is easy: Add all the other ingredients, stir them in and simmer on low for at least 30 minutes, up to 2 hours (or more if you add water). Stir the sauce every ten minutes or so to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom and burning, which is another great way to ruin your pomodoro. (If any of the sauce burns, the whole pot of sauce is ruined and needs to be composted.)

Serve pomodoro in a million different ways: over penne or spaghetti, on pizza, on stuffed peppers or zucchini, inside (or on the side of) a calzone, as dipping sauce for anything fritti, etc.

Serving suggestion! Risotto stuffed peppers topped with pomodoro and mozzarella
Serving suggestion! Risotto-stuffed peppers topped with pomodoro and mozzarella

Whatever you do, just do the garlic right and everything will turn out well. Even the vampires will like it.

Osso Buco Pappardelle

I’ve loved osso buco since I first discovered it in Milan 15 years ago. Traditionally made from veal shanks, the name translates roughly to “bone hole,” which I suspect refers to the tender meat falling off the bone after a long, slow braising.

This one tastes as good or better than it looks
This one tastes as good or better than it looks

Over the holidays, I enjoyed this dish over pappardelle (a sumptuous noodle about two times the width of fettuccini) in an Italian restaurant in Montclair, NJ, where amazing Italian food seems to grow on trees. I recreated it using pork shoulder, since I don’t feel particularly good about using veal.

Yield

3-4 servings

Ingredients

1 cut of pork shoulder (10-12oz)

1 T olive oil

2 C mirepoix (diced onion, carrots and celery)

3 C chicken stock

12oz dry red wine (or a nice hoppy beer)

1 t dried oregano

1 bay leaf

Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper (to taste)

1 lb dry pappardelle

Instructions

Optionally, salt the pork shoulder using a Himalayan salt block (or your own method).

Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet. Sear the pork shoulder on high heat for two minutes on each side, then set aside in a dutch oven or slow cooker.

Add the mirepoix to the pan, reduce heat to medium and sautée until tender and brownish (4-5 minutes), adding more olive oil if necessary. Remove the vegetables and toss on top of the pork shoulder. Deglaze the pan with wine (or beer) and bring the liquid to a boil, then bring the heat to low and simmer until reduced by about half.

Now pour the wine/beer reduction and the stock into to the slow cooker or dutch oven, tossing in the oregano and bay leaf. The liquid and veggies should cover the pork shoulder completely.

Set the slow cooker to high, cover and cook for 3-4 hours. If you’re using a dutch oven, cover and cook in a conventional oven for 2-3 hours at 350°

To check for doneness, scrape the meat gently with a fork. If it falls off the bone, it’s ready.

Cook the pasta to al dente following package instructions. Toss the pasta with the veggies and some of the remaining liquids and meat. Plate each dish with the pasta, then a nice chunk of pork, some shaved parmesan, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper.

Traditionally, Italians top this dish with gremolata, but I feel the strong flavors stand on their own and don’t really require it.