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Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

My own little paradise

In Lifestyle on April 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm

The one thing I absolutely love in Iowa.

I admit I am not a fan of all things Iowa.  In fact, I am not a fan of much of anything Iowa at all.  The weather in Hades is more pleasant, narcissism is the favored character trait, and the official pastime is political campaigning; all wrapped up in an unearned smugness that arises from a stubborn refusal by most Iowans to embrace or credit anything from outside of Iowa.

Local television stations refer to the national news as, “the foreign desk”.

All of that said; I absolutely love the Des Moines Downtown Farmer’s Market.  It represents the twice daily correct time on Iowa’s otherwise stopped clock.

The first thing I noticed at my first visit to the market was its absence of Iowa’s usual Teutonic-Prussian obsession with order.  Oh sure, the booths are lined up soldier-straight and there are stage-whispered complaints about “too many dogs and baby strollers” from the anal-retentives wearing identical college attire.

But the scene is virtually one of a world market.  For a few Brigadoon-like hours, multicultural seasonings replace Iowa’s normal cream of wheat flavors.

Southeast Asian folk mingle with Africans balancing baskets on their heads.  You can nibble on shwarma or munch a Hmong egg roll as you stroll between a group singing Christian hymns and a tatter of atheists determinedly passing out literature.  Each culture brings edibles to vegetable stands that the local grocer tosses out, unsold, because it is not corn.

To its credit, the downtown market has shunned or limited the number of stalls selling overpriced, home-made bric-a-brac destined to sell in next year’s yard sale for pennies on the dollar or to become dumpster ballast.  In fair play, the market organizers devote two, pre-Christmas “markets” to the home craft folks.  I went to one…and fled.

A gay couple holding hands makes their way to buy pastries and nobody seems to notice or care that one of the men is pushing a stroller carrying an African-American infant.  I wonder if the irony strikes anyone else that the scene plays out in the golden light reflected from the dome of the nearby capitol building?

On most other days, diversity on these streets is entirely represented by the kind of bird caricatured on a proudly worn baseball cap.

At 7:45, I stop by the Hmong Egg Roll stand for a veggie egg roll and to listen to sincere apologies from the vendor that they are not ready.  They are never ready.  But this is never a problem for me, because the whole shpiel is a weekly ritual between us.  It is a pleasant day at the market, so I people watch while the vendor shouts to his crew to hurry with the veggie egg rolls…again.

Even when the weather is typically Iowan with its unforecasted torrential rain (Local weathermen have difficulty predicting sunrise) or freakishly early blizzards, I enjoy the market.  Some of the best conversations take place on days when vendors outnumber patrons two-to-one.

During one such soggy visit to the market, a vendor at an Indian food stall grins and nods furiously in agreement with my observation that the pouring rain adds “authentic Mumbai charm at no extra fee”.

A group of very fit-looking young adults whips up a wheat grass drink adjacent to a stand selling Dutch letters and next to another stand selling “fried stuff on a stick” a la Iowa’s High Holy Days during its state fair.

Correspondence in the Netherlands must be difficult, there being only one letter in the Dutch language…”S”.

A guy playing a pan flute competes for attention from my ears with another street musician having a fetish for woodwind instruments of all kinds.  The latter plays each instrument equally well.

It is the first time I have heard Moscow Nights played on a pan flute.

Down the street, a steel drum band promises a taste of something Caribbean, each blond-haired, blue-eyed drummer looking much more Aryan than Rastafarian.

They are wearing Hawaiian shirts for authenticity.

I buy some slightly over-priced sweet corn and toss it into the rucksack I carry for the occasion.  The corn joins the three-foot long bunch of onions sticking up through the flap of an outside pocket like the antenna on a Viet Nam War era army radio.

Coincidentally, the onions were purchased from a smiling Vietnamese woman who squats comfortably on her haunches in a manner that would cause westerners to scream in agony.  She is my source for Asian eggplant and for recipe tips using squash blossoms and sweet potato vines.

A stout, dark-skinned woman scurries by with an impossibly large basket of “stuff” on her head.  Her companions keep her company with conversation that sounds like me clicking my tongue on the roof of my mouth.   I politely ask if I may take her picture, with the Polk County courthouse in the background.  She smiles and nods.

She is amused by my polite request.

I subsequently show her friends the picture and the lady with the basket protests that the woman in the picture is not she.  “The one on your camera is too fat” she protests with mock sincerity.  I offer one of her companions the opportunity to photograph me.  They giggle and predictably decline the offer.

A few minutes later, as I sort through a pile of zucchini, I feel an urgent tap on my arm.  An anal-retentive in Cyclone attire informs me that my onions “could poke someone in the eye”.

“Yes, they could”, I agree and return to my zucchini-sorting task.  Keeping with the spirit of the moment, the anal-retentive stage whispers a complaint about the nearby bluegrass band being “too loud”.

I think about offering him a couple of green onions to stick in his ears.

Although bread baking is one of my favorite pastimes, one of my last stops is for Italian hearth bread from the La Mie bakery.  A nearby barbeque stand offers challah, but I pass on it.

Above the traditional Jewish bread, a cartoon pig in a chef uniform advertises the name of the stand.  There is something mildly off-putting about buying Shabbat bread from a stand that also sells fire-roasted pork products.

The pack is now full of zucchini, onions, sweet corn, eggplant, and a big bag of vines.  I carry my loaf of bread like a priceless vase.

My marketing is now complete.  I gingerly make my way past a worker at a Court Avenue bar as he hoses vomit from the sidewalk in front of the establishment’s elegant-looking façade.  The deposit is a leftover from the previous night when the area is prowled by wannabe fashionistas bent on proving their sophistication by gulping down over-priced foo-foo drinks paid for with dollars they earned in a cubicle within one of the city’s many Yuppie terrariums.

The gay clatter of the steel drums fades behind me and the sky seems to darken.

I take a deep breath and begin pining for my next visit to one of my most favorite places on Earth.

This year, the Downtown Farmer’s Market resumes on Saturday, May 7th.

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Thank you!

In General Information on April 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm

We’ve gotten nearly 80 very kind emails from Phyne Dyning readers expressing their best wishes for Jack.  There just isn’t time to answer each one individually, so I’ll answer the most common questions many of you are raising about the future of Phyne Dyning.

Yes, I am still working on the one-pot Shabbat cookbook.  Thank you for asking.

The blog is a lot of work and, even though I find it fun to put together every week, my current situation does not give me time to work up articles and publish recipes.

No, the comments have not been disabled.  All comments are held in que for moderation.  I just don’t have much time to moderate right now.  Same with email comments.  I’ve been keeping your email in a file and was planning to run a feature answering your questions and addressing your comments.  Alas, that project will have to wait.

Yes, Phyne Dyning will return in a matter of weeks.  Quite frankly, I did not realize how much some of you enjoy my swill-filled writing…I’m shocked and humbled to find that I have a “following”.

We were getting 100-350 page views per day prior to going on brief hiatus.  I’m sure that will fall to near zero unless new material gets added periodically.  I will be putting up a few articles I had “canned”, albeit some of them are not food-related.

And yes, Jack appreciates your kind thoughts too.  He’s not in pain, he’s just very tired.  He still perks up when the cookies come out (They come out pretty frequently now.).

Thanks for (caring) reading!

Going where I am needed most

In Lifestyle on April 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm

"It ain't the years, boy. It's the miles." (Chris LeDoux)

It’s time for Phyne Dyning to take some R&R.

The past few days have been memorable: late night calls about a sick mother suddenly being taken to the hospital, a dying dog, and the actions of mean-spirited people.

Thank G-d, the first turned out to be a false alarm.  The second, is slowly and inevitably happening to my old greyhound “Jack”.  The third does not deserve comment.

I spend a lot of time now just sitting with old Jack.  He is not in pain, he is just “wearing out”.  Wearing out is a direct consequence of having lived a long time in dog years.  It seems almost cruel that one’s reward for having a long life is eventually just wearing out.

Jack used to tear around the garden, his feet barely touching the ground.

Now, I carry him up and down the stairs.  Once out, he still looks at the squirrels but resigns himself to only window shopping.  He would like to lay down in the sun, but getting back up is tough.  So he thinks better of it and is content to stand with his eyes closed in the sunshine.  Occasionally, he still manages a canter and tosses his head with his tongue lolling from his mouth.  Afterward, he pants as though he had just chased the mechanical rabbit around the racetrack.

I pick him up and carry him inside.  He gets a drink or a snack and lays down.  In a few minutes, his feet are twitching and his lips curl back as he gallops toward the finish line.

In his sleep, he is young again.  I stroke his head as he sleeps; his jet black muzzle now nearly snow white.

There will be time for more recipes later.  Jack is entering the final turn of his last race.

I need to be in the stands cheering him.

Fish for the memories

In Recipies on April 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

One of my memories, earning a fairly regular revisit, is the memory of a fish dinner we enjoyed in Tiberius, Israel.  It was a sultry Thursday night in mid-August and we were happily exhausted from a day spent poking around at the ancient ruins in Beit Shean.  It was long dark when we made our way to the shore-side fish restaurant in the banks of the Kinneret (Which many people know as, “The Sea of Galilee”.).  We took a patio table alongside the locals and picked our way through plates of olives, figs, and fruit while we enjoyed glasses of wine.

 

In the distance, lights flickered in the Golan Heights and a ferry picked its way across the water.  The sound of clanking plates competed with the soft voices of others dining in the humid, evening air.

 

I do my best to recapture that evening by preparing the main course we enjoyed that evening; a spice encrusted, fried, whole tilapia.

 

It was so delicious that Mrs. Phyne Dyner seemed not to notice that the fish came to table with its head.  Twenty years ago, she had turned an amusing shade of emerald when she was served the trout she ordered at a Canadian resort.  Back then, I gallantly covered the creature’s head with a napkin until a smirking waiter could take it to the kitchen for decapitation.

 

Back to the tilapia…

 

The fish had been deep-fried in a very thin and heavily spiced batter that was the specialty of the house.  The spices are so pungent that we could smell the cooking fish when we got out of our rented car two blocks from the restaurant.  And, despite the strong scent generated during the cooking, the fish was not over-spiced.  It had a delicate flavor that made me think of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.

 

The secret, I learned from our waiter, was “seven-spice” blend.

 

Seven-spice blends are popular in Lebanon and in Northern Israel.  Its composition varies between towns, and even between families.  Some are sweet and delicate and others are pungent and fiery.  Some are heavily infused with cardamom, others with allspice and nutmeg.

 

In the years since that memorable dinner, I experimented with numerous combinations before I hit on the right flavor combinations that trigger my limbic system to take me to the peaceful emotions I experienced while watching those flickering lights in the Golan from my table.

 

In a large jar, mix one teaspoon (each) of the following:  Ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, chili powder, ground cumin, and one teaspoon ground coriander.  Store in a tightly closed container.

 

Dag ha-Kinneret (Sea of Galilee Fish)

 

1 whole tilapia per person (obviously cleaned), or 2-3 fillets

1 large egg

½ C white wine

1 TBS flour

1 C olive oil (or use deep fryer)

 

Pour the seven-spice blend onto a cookie sheet or cutting board (reserve about a tablespoon of the blend if you want to add a bit before serving).  You can divide the spice blend into portions equal to the number of fish, or fillets, you will be cooking.  Whisk the egg, wine, and flour together in a large bowl.  Drench the fish though the mixture, shake off the excess mixture and drag the fish (or fillets) through the seven-spice blend on the cookie sheet or cutting board.

 

There are two acceptable cooking methods.

 

METHOD ONE:  If you are preparing whole fish, use a deep fry set to 350 degrees.  Using long tongs, place the spiced whole fish (one at a time) into the hot oil and HOLD IT for several seconds before releasing it.  If you simply drop it into the oil, the egg wash will stick to the fryer and you will be pulling out bits of fish instead of a gorgeous single piece.  Fry for 3-5 minutes.  The fish is done when it is quite fragile and flakes easily.  Cooking times vary, so you will have to pay close attention to the cooking fish.  This method does not work well with fillets.  They are too fragile and tend to fall apart.

 

METHOD TWO:  Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat (or use an electric skillet set to 375 degrees).  HINT:  You will know when the oil is hot because it will appear to ripple over its entire surface. Place the spiced fillets in the pan.  Fry the fish for 2-3 minutes on the first side, turn (using two spatulas), and fry for an additional 1-2 minutes.  The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.  Tilapia fillets can be very thin, do not overcook them and dry them out.  Remember, when you deep-fry or pan-fry the food continues to cook for a bit after it is removed from the oil.  This method also allows the cook to sprinkle a bit more of the reserved spice blend on each fillet after they are turned.

 

After cooking the fillets or whole fish, remove them to a bed of white or basmati rice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BONUS RECIPE

 

Phyllo-wrapped Asparagus with Lemon and Zaatar

 

Wrapping asparagus in phyllo dough and baking it is hardly new.  This is my variation that will go well with the fish we prepared above.

 

3-4 stalks of thin asparagus per person (2-3 if thick)

1 lemon

zaatar (zatar or za’atar) for sprinkling

½ package frozen phyllo dough, thawed and at room temperature

½ C melted butter or olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees

 

NOTE:  Work fast and smart with phyllo dough.  Do not let it dry out while making each portion.  Keep it soft by covering it with a damp towel, or my LIGHTLY misting it with a bit of water.

 

If you do not have any zaatar, you can use a light sprinkle of dry thyme.  Making this with zaatar is worth the effort, so try to find some if you can.

 

Lay a sheet of phyllo on a cookie sheet.  Brush a bit of melted butter on the top using a silicone pastry brush.  Repeat 2-3 times.  Cut the asparagus, if needed, so it is 1-2 inches shorter than the corner-to-corner dimension of the phyllo.  Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over the asparagus, sprinkle with zaatar, salt and pepper.  Fold the sides of the phyllo over the top of the asparagus and fold the ends under each “package”.  Place the packets on a cookie sheet (do not crowd) and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden brown and flaky.

Classic Potato-Leek Soup

In Recipies on April 5, 2011 at 9:27 am

It seems to me, leeks should be a lot more popular with home chefs than they are.  They have a delicate flavor that hints of onion, garlic, and cabbage.  They are also an excellent source of dietary fiber.  Leeks keep for a long time, until they are cut to be cleaned (below). So, you can buy them several days to a week in advance and still have fresh leeks to work with.

 

When I go to my local mass-marketed food store, when the local farmer’s market is closed for the season, I never see more than about a dozen leeks on display.  Compare that to the vast numbers of onions, tomatoes, and heads of cauliflower.

 

What is the problem with leeks?

 

People think they are hard to clean.

 

Leeks accumulate a lot of mud and grit and some of it gets pretty deep into the plant’s structure.  You stick a leek “head down” in a bucket of water, change the water daily, and still get a pile of dirt out of the leek.

 

There is a way to thoroughly clean a leek in minutes:

 

Pull off, or trim, the obviously dead and damaged leaves from the leek.  Lay the leek on a cutting board.  Using a sharp knife, starting from about one-half of an inch from the leek’s root, cut the leek in half…leaving the entire root end intact. Now, rotate the leek ninety degrees and make another identical cut.  If you kept your cuts in the center of the leek, you should have something that now resembles a cheerleader’s pom-pom.  Now lay the leek in enough water to cover it.  After a few minutes, while you are preparing something else, go back and rinse the leek thoroughly under running water while shaking it like a pom-pom.  You can separate the leaves a bit to be sure you get all of the mud out.

 

Our potato-leek soup presented today is a classic, but leeks are also delicious in scrambled eggs with a can of kipper snacks tossed in.

 

Now…onto the soup.

 

I have always used a dry, white table wine (or cognac) in my potato-leek soup.  I add it just before the leeks are finished sautéing.  I was comparing my recipe to several others, when I noticed one recipe used dry, white vermouth instead of wine or brandy.

 

It took a bit of rummaging to find my vermouth.  I keep mine in an olive-oil sprayer where it resides until a houseguest wants a “really, really dry martini”.  A spritz of vermouth is all it takes.

 

I found my vermouth and into the pot it went.  The aroma was amazing as it evaporated among the leeks, onion, and garlic in the pot.

 

Do not forget the lemon juice splash at the end of cooking.  I have seen people serially empty saltshakers into bowls of potato soup in a vain hope of achieving some level of seasoning.  Remember how lemon juice brightens flavors without all that sodium?

 

Some people use heavy whipping cream, in a smaller amount, instead of cups of whole milk.  I have not compared the fat content, but whipping cream and a half of a stick of butter does not seem to be “lite”.  If you are a fearless purist, omit the milk and substitute 8 oz of heavy cream in 2 ½ cups of water.  If whole milk terrifies your waistline, substitute 1% or 2%…but be aware you are trading off some richness.

 

I use real butter for my soup.  Margarine is a close second.  I do not recommend my usual alternative, olive oil.  The olive oil does not emulsify into the soup like butter or margarine.  It ends up floating on the surface!  Yuck.

 

One more hint.  I often “cheat” and thicken soups with instant mashed potatoes.  Purists will remove some of the potatoes from this soup and mash them well (sometimes adding a tablespoon or two of flour in a half cup of milk to the mash).  If you use a good brand of instant potatoes, the result is much better than merely “acceptable”.  Your choice.

 

Let’s get the soup going.

 

Classic Potato-Leek Soup

 

1 medium, white onion – finely chopped

2 TBS garlic, minced (5-8 cloves)

1 large leek, cleaned and roughly chopped

½ stick butter (or ½ C margarine)

2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

½ C dry, white vermouth

4 C water

3 C whole milk

2 bay leaves

2C instant mashed potatoes (optional)

2 ½ tsp bouquet garni

1 tsp kosher salt

splash of lemon juice

freshly ground black pepper

 

Heat a large, heavy pot over medium heat.  Melt the butter or margarine and add the onion and leek.  Cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. When the onion is translucent, stir in the garlic.  Do not allow the garlic to brown and become bitter, so stir constantly while cooking an additional 2 minutes.  Add the vermouth and allow it to almost fully cook off.  Toss in the potatoes, water, bouquet garni, salt, and bay leaves.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cover.  Cook for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow the soup to cool a bit before adding the milk or it may curdle.

 

When the soup is cooled, remove and discard the bay leaves and remove half of the potatoes to a large bowl (if you are NOT using instant potatoes later).  Thoroughly mash the potatoes and return them to the soup.   Stir in the milk and return the soup to a low burner to re-heat.  If you are using instant potatoes as a quicker thickener, add them when the soup is again hot.  Stir the soup thoroughly with a large whisk.

 

Just before serving, splash in the lemon juice and stir.  Garnish with a bit of chopped parsley and a twist or two of freshly ground pepper.

“Spanikochickitopita!” Say that fast three times

In Recipies on April 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Crispy "spanikochickitopita" with quinoa and spinach pilaf

What the heck is spanikochickitopita?

It is what happens when you wrap Greek-seasoned chicken breasts in alternating layers of spinach leaves and phyllo.

It hit the Phyne Dyner’s Shabbat table Friday night.

Phyllo is that thinly rolled dough.  It is paper thin and delicate.  If you spread a bit of butter or olive oil (I used pareve “Heart Smart” spread.) on it and set it in layers, you get the most unbelievably flaky pastry.  Wrap it around another food, like meat, chicken, or fish, and you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I got a little experimental and alternated layers of phyllo dough with layers of spinach leaves, wrapped the whole mess around partially cooked chicken breasts, and generously seasoned them with Greek flavor blends.

Phyne Dyner’s Greek Seasoning

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp dry oregano (preferably Greek)

1 tsp dry rosemary, crushed

1 tsp dry mint, crushed

½ tsp dry lemon peel

Mix all of the ingredients (try to crush them together) and store in an airtight container in a dark place.

Spanikochickitopita

1 chicken breast per person

½ pkg thawed phyllo

½ to 1 C spinach per chicken breast

½ C melted butter or non-dairy spread (or olive oil)

2 TBS olive oil

Greek Seasoning

Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Season each chicken breast with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Brown the chicken (4-7 minutes per side), remove, and set aside to cool.

NOTE:  Keep the phyllo slightly moist by covering it with a damp towel when you are not using it.  I keep a spray mister handy and lay down a bit of mist on the phyllo before covering it.  If phyllo dries out, it gets very brittle and almost impossible to work with.

Pre-heat oven to 350F.

On a cookie sheet or cutting board, spread a bit of melted butter (or non-dairy spread or olive oil) using a silicone pastry brush.  Lay one or two layers of phyllo down.  Spread more melted butter (or other) on top of the phyllo. Repeat 2-3 more times with phyllo and butter.  Cut the thick stems from the spinach leaves and spread them in a thin layer on top of the phyllo.  Repeat the phyllo layering.  Top with one final layer of spinach leaves.  Dust generously with Greek seasonings.  Place a partially cooked chicken breast near the corner of the phyllo/spinach layers, turning it so you will be rolling the breast into the dough/spinach.  Now, carefully roll the phyllo and spinach around the chicken breast, as though you are rolling it up in a newspaper.

Place each rolled up breast in a well-oiled, metal baking pan.  Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the interior temperature of each roll is 165F (chicken is “almost” fully cooked).  Increase oven temperature to 400F and return the rolls to the oven for ten minutes, or until the crust is deep golden.  Re-check the interior temperature which should now be 180F to ensure proper cooking of the chicken.

Serve with tahini, hummus, or Israeli eggplant dip (salat hatzalim) and a Greek salad.

Reader “DH” entirely coincidentally submitted the following recipe she just tried that is a bit similar to mine.  It uses puff pastry dough instead of phyllo and offers a creamy gruyere center (for those who do not keep “no mixing meat and dairy” kosher) around shredded rotisserie chicken and peas.  It looks faster and easier than chicken Kiev or chicken cordon bleu…hence the realsimplefood tag!  “DH” says these are great!  Here’s the link:

http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/chicken-and-gruyere-turnovers-00000000052482/index.html

Thanks for the recipe link, “DH”.

Put a muzzle on it

In Shameless plug on April 4, 2011 at 11:52 am

The following was scheduled for publication last Friday.  However, “National Politician’s Day” was last Friday and Phyne Dyning ran a tasteless satire instead.

Unlike the Do Not Call list, this works

If you continue to suffer from jangled nerves because your telephone’s incessant ringing with offers of “lower interest rates” or “brief” political surveys, the Phyne Dyner shamelessly plugs the JF Tec Caller ID and Ring Controller.  This is no mere TeleZapper…it WORKS!

Your telephone is that little doggie door through which telemarketers, bill collectors, political pollsters, and nosey survey-takers gain entry to your home.

Once inside, they breathlessly tell you how important their issue is, how necessary their product is, and inflict emotional battery on you so you will rearrange your life in some way to accommodate them.

In a study by scientists, a ringing telephone (even if the called person knows they can ignore it) elicits spikes in cortisol.

Cortisol is that fight/flight hormone our ancestors needed so they could be prepared to either run from a saber-toothed tiger, or whack it with a club.  There is a bit of a trade off with lost reasoning ability when a tiger is chasing you.  We tend not to make rational choices when we are under the influence of cortisol.

In the safety of our homes, the bleeping telephone sets off a hormonal cascade virtually identical to the response we need if we hear a big cat growling behind us in a dark alley.

We irrationally pick up the telephone (hating ourselves for doing it) and cough up whatever information the pollster wants.  A few of us meekly hand over our financial information to the unknown person on the other side of the doggie door.

Some of us fight.

We shout and curse at the intruder, hoping our flailing arms and posture will send the cat scurrying away into the night.  Then, we sheepishly hang up the phone, feeling more than a little silly for our efforts.

We pay for “caller ID”.  We sign up at www.donotcall.gov in a vain hope the rest of the tribe will protect us from the horde gathered on the other side of the doggie door.

Unfortunately, the call centers have adapted with “null set” numbers that show “Out of Area” or “Toll Free” on our caller ID and use “spoofing” to fool us into thinking the call is legitimate.  The feline mob howling at the doggie door knows from experience that the “Do Not Call” list is a cruel government joke and that the tribe’s “protectors” almost never accost their fellow predators.

As a final insult, the big cats spray their mark on our FAX machines with “Free Vacations in Beautiful Orlando” offers.

Two years ago, our ordinary caller ID often logged 25-30 calls per day from telemarketers, irate bill collectors in South Asia looking for “Amy and Justin”, people wanting more/fewer guns on the street, telephonic pan-handlers, and auto warranty flim-flam men.  Shabbat would be upon us when the telephone would summon us with all of the sympathy and understanding of Haman.  The nice person we gave our telephone number to for business had begun to use it in lieu of therapy.

Technology to the rescue!

Installing “smart” caller ID has reduced telephone intrusions to fewer than two per week.  Those two intrusions are handled quietly and discretely, often without us ever knowing about the call.

How?

We installed the JF Tec “Caller ID with Ring Controller” and made a few modifications to its installation.  Toss in a telephone with call blocking capabilities (Why pay the telephone company for this service?) and peace reigned in the tribal compound.

The result is not dissimilar from the little window in the door of a speakeasy, “If I don’t knows ya…yas don’t gets in.”

Here is how it works.

The ring controller has three areas of memory for calling numbers.

The “A” list has full access.  These are people you know and want to hear from.  You simply program the numbers of your own rock stars and posse into the controller and they will have 24/7-access to your telephone.

The “B” list has time-limited access.  Have you ever given someone with a legitimate need for telephone access to your number, and then regretted it when they turned into a pest?  As “B” list guests, you can limit the times these people have access to you.  Kind of like Sam’s Club has “business hours” for business owners and then “regular” hours for the rest of the riff-raff.  So if “Chatty Cathy” tends to call at 11pm when you are about to turn off the lights for the day, you can regulate Cathy to more reasonable hours.  Or, she gets to talk to the robot voice in your answering machine.

The “R” list is your very own “Do Not Fly List” for callers.  These callers never get through.  As an extra moat around my telephone castle, these callers get routed to a second answering machine set to “answer only”.  Once connected, the machine plays a triplicate tone (available as an MP3 file online) that tells robo-callers the line has been disconnected or is out of service.  Persistent human callers get to hear the blaring “off-hook” tone if they hopefully remain on the line “just in case”.

Repeat offenders get moved from the “R” list to the “block call” mode in the primary telephone.

First-time callers are automatically routed to a muted answering machine.  At my leisure, I can go through the callers and decide which list I want them in.  The ring controller has room for almost 300 numbers.  A “spoofed” number might get through to my answering machine once.  After that, they find themselves consigned to the flames of woe on my “R” list.

Best of all, those “null set” callers never get through.  These are those “Out of Area” or “Anonymous” callers who do not send their number data with their call or only send a “null set” number (000-000-0000).  These callers fall into two categories:

The first category belongs to robot callers simply checking to see if your number gets answered by a live human, an answering machine, or is not in service.  If you pick up one of these calls, there is nobody on the line.  There really is nobody there.  It is a robot-dialer calling prospective numbers for human or human-robot attention later.  Just by picking up these “nobody’s there” calls you are saying, “Hi, I’d LOVE to have someone from the Nigerian Lottery call me during dinner.”

The second category belongs to live callers playing a numbers game hoping you are gullible enough to answer their call “just in case it is something important”.  Oddly enough, people pick these calls up.  A few even cough up their financial privacy…which is why this numbers game remains profitable.

Shady bill collectors also use null set calling.  Just as surprising that people will give up their financial privacy up to an unknown caller promising “lower interest rates”, is that a few people will even pay a persistent (but 100% fraudulent) bill collector up to $100 just to make the calls stop.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is the system’s humaneness.  While the companies behind many outbound call centers are barely above criminal, the people working in their call centers are real people.

I would safely bet that a person would rather be the head cage cleaner at “Woodrow’s Wombat Palace” than work in an outbound call center.  These places are employers of last resort for many people.  The pressure on workers in those electronic sweatshops is enormous.  Why subject them to our wrath when we can just humanely silence them?

The system has its limitations.  One of its weakest links is that you cannot program “wild card” prefixes into the R-list (800, 866, 877, etc.).  Most annoying calls come from numbers having toll free prefixes.  It seems the designer would have made blocking them much simpler.

Another weakness is, the system only works with telephones hooked up in series, not in parallel.  However, I was able to exploit the weakness and turn it into a strength by hooking up a second answering machine in parallel to the ring controller.  It added $40 to the cost of my electronic moat around my castle.  I guess a “belt AND suspenders” person could buy a ring controller for every telephone and doing so may be feasible for small business owners.

I put one on my FAX machine.  Now I am missing out on all those wonderful vacation offers and “free” cases of copier toner.  The price of an extra ring controller for your FAX machine will seem cheap if you ever experience a “FAX-attack” (the sent document is 200+ pages of large-font obscenities or a chain letter).

How much does the JF Tec ring controller cost?

From Amazon at around $80.

A final few words in defense of the ring controller in view of some of the harsh reviews of it on Amazon:

The device takes some intellect to set up.  The instructions are written in “Engrish” syntax and seem as cryptic as a tractate of Talmud.  Be patient and tolerant of the device’s design flaws.  Nothing out there is perfect or idiot-proof.  When all else fails, chuck the instructions into the dustbin and improvise.  As in all things difficult, the payoff will be even sweeter in the end.

Here is a bonus for PD readers…

Feeling smug because you have no landline?  Are you getting telemarketing, survey, or beg-a-thon calls on your cell?

Simply create a “Do Not Answer” group in your address book, assign a silent ring tone to the group, and cut-n-paste your pest callers into the “Do Not Answer” group.  One of the essential numbers to put into your pest group is the 000-000-0000 null set.

Ta-da!

Campbell’s responds to the poor economy

In General Information on April 1, 2011 at 9:33 am

Campbell's R&D team responds to higher beef and chicken prices

Campbell’s Soup Company probably holds the most recognizable brand image in the world.  During the 1960s, Andy Warhol made the Campbell’s tomato soup can an art-world icon.  All over America, millions of trailer park residents have marked weddings, funerals, divorces, and parole releases with dinners highlighted by green bean casseroles made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.  There has been nothing in this world, since 1876 when the company first organized, that has been more reliable than the steadfastness of the Campbell’s line.  Even the can design and logo remain unchanged since Campbell’s selected the crimson and white colors in homage to the Cornell University football team.

During the Great Depression, Campbell’s tomato soup became the official meal for those desperate days; largely because Campbell’s was the first soup company able to produce a condensed tomato soup that did not separate in the can.

Today, Campbell’s announced that the company would, again, respond to America’s economic woes with the same level of innovation it showed during the Great Depression.

In order to offset high production costs of soups containing beef or chicken, Campbell’s has introduced a more economical line of soups to its product line.  The first to be released is its “Cream of Porcupine” product.

According to a Campbell’s spokesperson who demanded anonymity, the cream of porcupine label will be exclusively marketed in the upper Midwest; primarily in Minnesota and Michigan.  “We know rural folks up there have been clubbing porcupines for the dinner table for decades.  Now consumers in the formerly industrialized cities of Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw will be able to enjoy the traditional flavor of porcupine without the clubbing part.”

Cream of porcupine is only the beginning of Campbell’s response to higher beef and chicken prices.

The company plans to introduce other soups containing familiar tastes enjoyed in various regions of America.  There are plans for a May 2011 release of cream of opossum in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  In Texas and Oklahoma, Campbell’s will market cream of armadillo; as well as a low sodium gecko broth.  A vegetarian line will be released later this summer in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota that insiders say will be based on prairie grasses of the region.

Campbell’s denies that the new product line is in response to economy-related changes announced by its rival at General Mills.

General Mills owns the Progresso label.

A different Campbell’s spokesperson, again demanding anonymity, said “We wish Progresso great success with its wallpaper paste and shoe leather combo.”  Progresso announced last week that it would be test-marketing its new soup in Stalingrad.

Share prices for Campbell’s plummeted on news that Progresso, who has been historically more upscale than Campbells, blind-sided its rival with its entry into the Slavic soup market.

Both companies appear to be working desperately to counter inroads by Chinese soup manufacturers who appear better prepared to respond to Americans with hard-pressed food budgets.

Woo Chow Dip, CEO of China’s Mee-Ow Foods, unexpectedly announced it was building two factories in the United States and also trumpeted its partnership with several animal rescue groups.  Real estate records show Mee-Ow Foods also recently acquired former General Motors assembly plants in Detroit and Saginaw.  Chow Dip provided Phyne Dyning reporters with this statement:

Dollah damn near wothless now.  If it cost dime to poo, American have to vomit.  We buy empty and idle General Motahs factory near dog pound.  Who laughing now, round-eyed imperialistic pig?”

Campbell’s and Progresso deny their recent product shifts are related to moves by Mee-Ow.