Sunday, August 30, 2015

decided lack of improvement


Believe it or not, this week’s shittiness is vying with last week’s shittiness for all-time shittiest shit.  Sickness (including a record-breaking barf incident in the 1AM hour), a melted down sandbox which kept me from catching up on the work I was behind on due to last week, which prompted a marathon stay-at-work-until-nearly-midnight session late in the week, followed promptly by a last-minute production bug on Friday, which was even further complicated by some boneheaded idiocy on my part stemming from the fact that I have two completely different co-workers named “Steve,” a pool pump which may or may not be on the fritz, and even that was further complicated by a running dispute with my home warranty company ... well, let’s just say I’ve had better weeks, and, as for two-week periods, I’d say I’ve had several hundred: almost certainly more than a thousand, even.  Add to that that we’re sliding into our Virgo birthday season, with this weekend being all about The Mother— I just finished putting a cake into the oven, and, if you know me, you know how extremely unlikely that is— as much as I hate to miss two weeks in a row, hopefully you can forgive me for making you wait one more week to get whatever bizarre fix you’re getting out of this blog.  I don’t promise anything awesome, of course ... but, then, I never do.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

oh the horror ...


Shitty week.  Lots of drama with electricity and things burning and large amounts of money spent unexpectedly.  At this point I’m behind on work, behind on family obligations, and just generally behind on life.  Perhaps next week I can unclench long enough to tell you the story of this week.  But right now I think I’m better off not thinking about it.  So you’ll have to find something else to amuse yourselves today.  Sorry.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

An Open Letter to Wil Wheaton


Let me just start by saying that I don’t typically write letters to celebrities.  In fact, I never have before.  But today I guess I just can’t help myself.

My first exposure to Wil Wheaton was, like most of the world, via Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  And, like most of the world, I found him vaguely annoying— Crusher, that is, not Wheaton.  In fact, I was never annoyed at Wheaton; I just didn’t like the character that much.  Of course, some people totally hated the character, and some even blamed Wheaton for it, but I was never that invested.

Partially that may be due to my general feelings about TNG.  Now, I certainly can’t deny being a fan of Star Trek, but I also can’t claim the title of Trekkie.1  I enjoyed the original Star Trek, although I was very young when it first aired.  In fact, like The Wild Wild West,2 I suspect that most of my memories of Star Trek are actually of reruns.  Certainly I wasn’t old enough to be able to judge the show criticially; I just liked it, cheesy science and overly dramatic plots and all.  But TNG just never grabbed me.  I liked certain things about it— Commander Data is cool, Worf is cool, Geordi is very cool, and I always had a bit of a crush on Dr. Crusher— but I was always lukewarm at best on Troi and Riker, and of course my afore-mentioned annoyance with Wesley.  But it was actually Picard I really disliked.  Again, nothing against Patrick Stewart, who I think is an amazing actor.  I just found Picard unlikable, almost by design.  I always suspected that I was supposed to like him despite his gruff exterior, but the problem was that he seemed to have a gruff interior as well.

So TNG may possibly be my least favorite Star Trek: I was deeply into Deep Space Nine for a long while, and I even stuck with Voyager long after it became mediocre at best.3  Of course, there was Enterprise, which I didn’t even last out the first season of, so I suppose TNG is better than that.  But primarily what I mean to say is that I really can’t blame Wheaton for my less-than-warm reception of TNG, or even for my less-than-warm reception of Wesley Crusher.

And I know this for sure because TNG actually wasn’t my first exposure to Wheaton: that would be Stand By Me.4  And I think Stand By Me is a fucking brilliant movie.  Look at the cast: Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland ... all those folks became famous later, and that’s because they’re all extremely talented.5  I’m not sure why I didn’t remember that Wheaton was pretty much the star of Stand By Me at the time I first saw him in TNG— I didn’t make that connection until years later, when I rewatched the movie— but perhaps it’s because Wheaton just had so much more to work with in Gideon and Evan’s screenplay than in the Star Trek shows.  Either way, that movie is proof positive to me that Wheaton isn’t responsible for however I feel about Crusher.

The next time I can remember being aware of Wheaton as a person was during my career at online retailer ThinkGeek.  Back in those days (which weren’t the early days of the company, but certainly before it reached the height of its popularity), Wheaton was a regular customer.  I never corresponded with him personally, but I read a lot of his emails.  We used to pass them around, in fact, whenever anyone got one.  Because Wil Wheaton is, apparently, in person, a really cool guy.  Who knew, right?  Well, that was my thought at first.  But my co-workers assured me that Wheaton was, in our world, far more famous than just that kid actor from that show once.  He was a regular Internet celebrity.  A blogger from before blogging was cool, a user of Linux from when using Linux required a fair amount of effort, a gamer from the early days of gaming culture, an actor who ran his own website instead of having other people do it for him.  So I checked out his website, and I was impressed.  You can still go there and read his blog and whatnot, although the thing that impressed me the most, his original FAQ, isn’t linked from his homepage any longer.  Perhaps he’s trying to disown it, or maybe he just doesn’t want to have to keep it current.  He hasn’t taken it down entirely, so that’s something.  But it was this FAQ that made me think, wow, this is a very cool guy.  A geeky, nerdy sort of guy, but a very down-to-earth, straight-up, plain-spoken, cool guy nonetheless.  Being a bit of a nerdy geek myself, perhaps I just have different standards of coolness.  But go read that FAQ for yourself and see if you don’t agree with me (outdated or not).  In all my travels across the web I have only come across one other actor’s website that was remotely in the same ballpark of cool as Wil Wheaton’s.6

So now I had another, completely different view on who this Wheaton character was.  And that was good enough for many years: he was mainly a fellow technogeek— one with a bigger soapbox than I had, true, but a fellow geek nonetheless— who still showed up on my TV screen every now and again, like when I spotted him in a guest role on an episode of Criminal Minds, or in his very cool recurring role in Eureka.7  And then my perspective on Wheaton was blown away yet again.

I’ll fully admit to watching @midnight solely because it happened to be coming on after Stephen Colbert, and maybe also because I’d seen a couple of episodes of Talking Dead and thought Chris Hardwick was pretty funny.  But after a while I got sort of hooked on it, and now I watch it regularly.  Last year, I sat down to a show which featured Matt Mira, Jonah Ray ... and Wil Wheaton.  Now, perhaps you don’t know those other two fellows, but let me tell you: they’re both professional comedians.  Not super-famous, perhaps, but they do this for a living.  And I’m thinking, Wheaton’s a cool guy and all, but he doesn’t have a chance in this crowd.  They’re gonna destroy him.  He’ll be the first one out.

But he wasn’t.

He didn’t win of course ... not that first time.  But he dominated in terms of points, and came in second to Mira ... on that episode in March.  Then second again to Aisha Tyler in July (no shame in getting beaten by that comedy great), and in December he actually won, defeating Kevin Pereira and Brooke Van Poppelin.  Because, you know what?  Wil Wheaton is fucking hilarious.  I was blown away ... admittedly, I’m not saying he’s a comedy genius or anything— Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy need not be looking over their shoulders— but perhaps it was just that I had such low expectations of him, and he exceeded those expectations by so much.  Of the 5 people he played against,8 he was easily funnier than 4 of them.9  And I knew he could be funny from reading things on his web site, but there’s a huge gulf between being funny when you have days to prepare a post and being funny when you have seconds to come up with a joke.  And yet he could do both.  Wow.

Now fast forward to this year, when I finally got around to queueing up an audiobook recommendation I got from a coworker months and months ago: Redshirts, by John Scalzi.  About this book I have but one thing to say:  Oh.  My.  God.  I mean, it was incredible.  It started out sorta awesome, then it got even more awesome, and it stayed awesome until the end ... and then it got better.  I can’t go into more detail than that; you’re just going to have to go out and get it for yourself.

Now, part of this is undoubtedly the fact that this Scalzi fellow, who I’d never heard of before, is a pretty damn good writer.  The plot is really interesting, especially to a more-than-casual-if-not-up-to-Trekkie-level Star Trek fan.  And, considering it’s essentialy a one-joke premise, it’s amazing that he can hold your interest throughout the whole story.  Probably it has to do with his characters, who feel very real despite the fact that they’re specifically designed to be cardboard stereotypes ... but then that’s part of the fun of this premise, and Scalzi definitely plays with that dichotomy in a smart and funny way.

But a huge part of why I enjoyed this audiobook so much is that it was read by Wil Wheaton.  And here, again, is another skill for which I was unprepared.  Reading aloud is a highly underrated skill, and not all audiobooks are well done.  Sometimes even the author reading his or her own work isn’t that great, because writing and reading aloud are two different things.  Sometimes the reader is an accomplished actor and it still isn’t that great, because acting and reading aloud are two different skills.  Reading aloud is, in fact, not easy, as pretty much any parent can tell you.  Wil Wheaton is, apparently, quite good at it.  Again: who knew?  I’m sure his familiarity with the subject matter (as the title implies, the story owes a lot to early Star Trek episodes) helps.  I bet he could easily put himself in the place of many of the characters just by remembering experiences he’d had on set.  But it’s much more than that.  Wheaton has a finely honed sense of sarcasm that serves him very well for this reading, and his comedy skills are not wasted either.  Though I am known to shout at audiobook characters, telling them how stupid they are (the same way many people like to yell at the screen during a movie), I rarely laugh out loud.  Generally a chuckle is as far as I’ll go.  But Wheaton (and Scalzi, to be fair) made me laugh several times during the nearly 8 hours of this presentation.  I was truly (and once again) blown away by how good Wheaton was, in a whole new context.

So, look: I’m not saying Wil Wheaton is now my all-time favorite famous (or semi-famous) person or anything.  There are plenty of folks out there that I admire and respect even more than him: Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, J.K. Rowling, Larry Wall, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Stewart, Kevin Smith, and Dave Grohl, just to name a few, and not even considering people who are no longer alive.  But today, soon after finishing listening to his voice for the past few weeks, I’m thinking about Wil Wheaton, and how amazing he is.  And, just in case you didn’t know, I wanted to share that with you.  And, on the off chance that he sees this one day, I want him to know that there’s someone out there who appreciates the wide diversity of his talent.  Which I’m sure he knew already, but I say that’s something that you can always hear more of.  I think it’s nice to be appreciated, and I like appreciating others.  Especially when they’re so deserving.

So thank you Wil Wheaton, for all you do.  And I hope I keep seeing you pop up in unlikely places and impressing me with new talents for many more years to come.


1 I understand that such folks actually prefer to be called “Trekkers,” but I wouldn’t know for sure.  As I say, I’m not one.

2 Another show that I have an inordinate and somewhat nostalgic fondness for.

3 Although between Orange Is the New Black and the audiobook version of NOS4A2, I’m rapidly gaining a newfound appreciation for Kate Mulgrew.

4 Actually, IMDB informs me that my real first exposure to Wil Wheaton was The Secret of Nimh.  But I think I can be forgiven for not recognizing him from that.

5 Yes, even Feldman.  He may have had some issues in his personal life, but that doesn’t change his talent.

6 That one being Bruce Campbell’s.  But his site now is all slick and devoid of personality like all other actors’ sites.  Happily, the Internet is forever, so to see what I found attractive back in the day, you can just check out The Wayback Machine’s copy.  In particular, check out a few of the articles in his “Babblings” section to see why I also found him to be down-to-earth, cool guy.  Well, back then anyway.  (He may still be, for all I know.  It’s just impossible to tell from the personality-free monstrosity that’s up there now.  No, I won’t link you to it.  Google it yourself.)

7 Glancing at IMDB today, I see that I probably should have recognized his voice from several animated shows I watched, like Legion of Super Heroes and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  But, honestly, I never noticed that was him.

8 Kevin Pereira shared two of his appearances.

9 As I said, it’s tough to beat Aisha Tyler.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

HipHop Bottlerocket I

"Saddle Up Your Salamander"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]



What I refer to as the “pre-modern mixes” were primarily developed in college.  In those days, I was often making mixes for parties, so the majority of them were upbeat.  Many of these mixes are lost to the ether, and even those that aren’t completely lost are physically gone.  This was before digital playlists, remember, so the only artifact of their existence was an actual cassette somewhere, and they’re all long gone as far as I know.1  But some of them I listened to over and over again so much that they sort of burned into my brain, and those I’ve attempted to recreate using the new format.

This is one such mix.  In this case, the “HipHop” in the name doesn’t mean literal hip-hop music; it just connotes something with a good beat you can dance to.  And the “Bottlerocket” part, as you might guess, just means that these are tracks that I found exciting, adrenline-inspiring, like watching fireworks.  This first volume is, I believe, a pretty faithful recreation of the original, although not complete.2  But the ones that are here are all from the original, and I think they’re all in the right order, even.3

Because this mix was made in the 90s, there’s nothing here newer than that, which means it may have a bit of a nostalgic feel for you, especially if you’re younger than I.  But I still think you’ll find the tunes here pretty kickin’.  Not super-dancy, like disco or techno or anything like that, and not super-hard, like metal or industrial or thrash.  Just good party tunes: tracks that make you happy, make you want to move, perhaps make you want to be drinking a frosty beer or a mixed drink badly concocted by an inexperienced bartender.4  Future volumes of this mix, if there are any,5 will keep this same vibe, only without the strong 90s callback going on.

There are no repeated artists here at all, so we can’t say that any particular artists dominate this mix.  Still, there are a few that we should be utterly unsurprised to find here.  The Pixies, for instance: Bossanova isn’t my favorite album of theirs,6 but “Dig for Fire” is still a classic tune.  Likewise, what party mix would be complete without an appearance from Jane’s Addiction?  In this case, it’s “Ain’t No Right” off their insanely good Ritual de lo Habitual.7  And, speaking of performers from the inaugural Lollapalooza tour,8 there’s also a track from Living Colour here.  “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” is one of the few great tracks off Time’s Up, their follow-up to the much better Vivid.  And of course we have an appearance from Fishbone’s “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” which is one of my all-time favorite tracks ever, and the only song immune to my never-reuse-a-track-in-more-than-one-mix rule.9

Other folks that probably ought not surprise are Faith No More, with “From Out of Nowhere” (probably because I was getting tired of “Epic” and realized that The Real Thing had so much more to offer), and Midnight Oil, with “Surfing with a Spoon,” which is easily the best song off their first three albums combined.  Oh, and “Sometime to Return,” back in the days when Soul Asylum used to rock.  (The baroque lyrics of this tune, by the way, give us our volume title.)  And my all-time favorite Ramones tune, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”10  I first heard the Ramones in my freshman year in college when I met a guy from New Jersey, and that was literally all he listened to.  He had every one of their albums and nothing else.  I never quite got into them as much as he did, of course, but I got an early-ish11 education in all things Ramone.

From there it gets either more obscure or more surprising (or both).  Concrete Blonde I was introduced to by good friend who almost became my roommate but then didn’t.12  I immediately fell in love with Free (still one of my all-time favorite albums) and eagerly snapped up Bloodletting when it came out.  It wasn’t as good, to be sure, but it still had some great tracks, such as “The Beast,” which we see here.  Another friend13 was a big pot smoker who introduced me to a huge variety of music, from Black Uhuru to NWA to Metallica to Bad Brains.14  Now, I never got into Bad Brains that much, but there was another, similar band: hardcore thrash alternating with reggae, only perhaps not as harsh as Bad Brains.  This band was 24-7 Spyz, and their minor hit “Grandma Dynamite” immediately grabbed me.15  But the one I included here was “Social Plague,” which almost as good and slightly less thrashy.  And, speaking of thrashy, I threw in a Sonic Youth tune off what I consider to be their best album: Goo.  I know many people prefer Daydream Nation, but I just find Goo more consistent and more accessible.  Sonic Youth isn’t particularly obscure, but this particular track of theirs perhaps is: “Mary-Christ” never got any airplay that I know of, but it’s always one of those tunes that makes me want to crank up the volume.

Then you have the tunes from bands you might not have expected: Guadalcanal Diary, with their Athens-bred jangle-pop which is sibling to REM, but still very distinct from it, and They Might Be Giants, known for quirky folk-infused alterna-pop which eventually led them to a successful carrer in children’s music.  When it comes to GD, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man is my clear favorite, but Flip-Flop has one thing going for it: ”... Vista,” which I find insanely catchy and irresistible.  On the other hand, all of TMBG’s first three albums are excellent, and any number of tunes would have worked here.  But their amazing reworking of 1953’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”—much faster and catchier than the original—is the one I wanted to highlight for this mix.

Perhaps the two most unlikely tracks here are the two that introduce what would be side 2 of the original cassette version: Ice-T’s “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” and Junior Reid’s version of “Eleanor Rigby.”  Rap and reggae are two genres that I’m not a huge fan of, but there are some artists and albums that I like, and these two tracks are emblematic of the first rap album I ever bought and the first reggae album I ever bought.  Ice-T is easily my favorite rap artist, and The Iceberg is one of thew rap albums that I enjoy pretty much every track on.  “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” is not only a great tune, but funny as hell.  Likewise, One Blood is the only reggae album I ever heard that I enjoyed all the way through.  If you’re a reggae fan, I probably don’t have to tell you that Reid is the guy who stepped into Black Uhuru after original singer Michael Rose left.16  One Blood contains a lot of great songs, but his version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is pretty awesome, in my opinion.17  Somehow these two tracks always seemed to flow into each other really well to me, despite their very diverse styles.


HipHop Bottlerocket I
    [Saddle Up Your Salamander]


        “Dig for Fire” by Pixies, off Bossanova
        “The Beast” by Concrete Blonde, off Bloodletting
        “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” by Living Colour, off Time's Up
        “... Vista” by Guadalcanal Diary, off Flip-Flop
        “Social Plague” by 24-7 Spyz, off Harder Than You
        “Mary-Christ” by Sonic Youth, off Goo
        “Doctor Jeep” by The Sisters of Mercy, off Vision Thing
        “UV Ray” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, off Automatic
        “Free World” by Kirsty MacColl, off Kite
        “Ain't No Right” by Jane's Addiction, off Ritual de lo Habitual
        “I Wanna Be Sedated” by Ramones, off Anthology: Hey Ho, Let's Go! [Compilation]
        “Last Cigarette” by Dramarama, off Stuck in Wonderamaland
        “Surfing with a Spoon” by Midnight Oil, off Midnight Oil
        “Eleanor Rigby” by Junior Reid, off One Blood
        “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” by Ice-T, off The Iceberg: Freedom of Speech ... Just Watch What You Say
        “From Out of Nowhere” by Faith No More, off The Real Thing
        “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants, off Flood
        “Sometime To Return” by Soul Asylum, off Hang Time
        “Bonin' in the Boneyard” by Fishbone, off Truth and Soul
        “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by Camper Van Beethoven, off Key Lime Pie
   
Total:  20 tracks,  76:28


Rounding this set are a few more potentially unlikely tracks.  In the middle, we have a 3-track stretch that kicks off with the Sisters of Mercy, who are primarily a goth band.  Their best album is undoubtedly Floodland, but that’s a darker, more atmospheric affair.  Their next album, Vision Thing, is not as consistently good, but far more upbeat, and “Doctor Jeep” is one of its highlights.  Then we have “UV Ray” by the Jesus and Mary Chain.  J&MC’s “style” runs the gamut from slow, almost-goth numbers, to sweet pop melodies, to the occasional wall-of-noise thrashy pseudo-punk tune.  “UV Ray” is in that latter camp, and was always my favorite tune off Automatic.  And finally Kirsty MacColl, who we’ve heard from before,18 with the most upbeat track off Kite, “Free World.”  I first heard that song on WHFS,19 and I bought the album soon after.  Good call, since it’s contributed 3 tracks to theses mixes.20

After the Ramones, winding down to what was the end of side 1 on the original cassette version, I throw in my favorite all-time Dramarama song, “Last Cigarette.”  I know many folks prefer “Anything, Anything,” especially here in my now-native LA,21 but there’s something about “Last Cigarette” that just strikes a chord with me.  Perhaps because I was a smoker for many years and I can fully relate: “last cigarette, last cigarette, one before I go to bed ... I know it’s killing me ...”  If you’re not familiar with Dramarama, seek them out.  We’ll see them again on other mixes.22

Finally, we close out this volume with Camper Van Beethoven’s remake of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by Status Quo.  The original was a lovely piece of psychedelic pop from 1967, but I like the Camper Van version even better.  I just think the violin adds a whole new dimension to it.  CVB, of course, is often thought of as “the first band of that guy from Cracker,” but I always liked them better than Cracker.  Camper Van could throw in a little country twang, but they always knew where to draw the line.  Cracker wasn’t always so discerning.

Anyway, hopefully you dig this mix volume as much as I do.  Make sure to crank it up.  Next time around, we’ll circle back around to the beginning.



__________

1 Although, who knows? maybe I’ll stumble across a few while unpacking a box one day.

2 The original, of course, would have been on a 90-minute cassette, which would be too long for a volume in the modern mix age (meaning it wouldn’t fit on most recordable CDs).  So I couldn’t include all the songs here, even if I could remember them all.  Which I can’t.

3 Which would mean that either the only ones I can’t remember are at the end, or else I’m fooling myself about having the transitions right.  But I’m happy enough with the results.

4 At our college parties, that was most often me.

5 Which there likely will be, someday.  I have some nebulous thoughts for more tracks, but haven’t started to organize a volume II as of yet.

6 That would undoubtedly be Tromp le Monde.

7 The album version of this includes a somewhat bizarre spoken-word introduction from Perry Farrell that I’ve often been told I should leave off.  But I always leave it attached to the track.  I kinda dig it.

8 Which I attended, I’m proud to say.

9 Which means you’re likely to see it again on another mix one day.  In the fullness of time.

10 See, they’re not all from the 90s.

11 1984, to be precise.

12 Which was fairly unusual, as I’ve had approximately 10 times more people actually become a roommate than almost become one.

13 An actual roommmate this time.

14 Also Adrian Belew, for some weird reason.  Also the first person to play me Digital Underground, and De La Soul, and Cypress Hill, and local band Hearsay.  He was a great guy with exquisite taste in music.

15 And thus we shall see that track on another mix, in the fullness of time.

16 And, if you’re not, I probably do.  So I just did.

17 I can’t remember for sure, but I probably was exposed to both these albums by that same roommate who introduced me to 24-7 Spyz.

18 Both on Rose-Coloured Brainpan and Tenderhearted Nightshade.

19 Check out Salsatic Vibrato if you want to listen to me wax nostalgic about the glory days of WHFS.

20 So far.

21 Although Dramarama was conceived and delivered in New Jersey, LA is where they achieved what little fame they managed, on the strength of that very track, and they soon relocated here.

22 And have in fact already seen them once before, on Rose-Coloured Brainpan.









Sunday, August 2, 2015

Saladosity, Part 6: Picking Nuts


[This is the sixth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]


Obviously produce is the most important thing you need to shop for to make a great salad, but it’s not the only thing.  There are several other categories of groceries to stock up on.  Today we’re going to talk about nuts and seeds and dried fruit.  In my local Trader Joe’s,1 all these items are on the same aisle, so it feels natural to me to put them together.  Your store my be laid out differently, of course.  But look at it this way: these also constitute everything you need to make trail mix.  So there’s another common thread.

Nuts

There are some sort of nuts in nearly every salad I make: four out of the six salads I want to show you how to make have nuts in them.  Besides, you can’t make trail mix without nuts, and trail mix is an excellent snack to try to replace your potato chip and cookie cravings with.  So we’re going to need some nuts.

In general, I prefer dry-roasted nuts to raw.  I just think there’s more depth of flavor in a dry-roasted nut.  So, where possible, I get the roasted nuts.  In my grocery store, that means the only raw nuts I buy are walnuts, because I can’t find them roasted.  And I’m not going to do it myself.  I’d happily pay extra for dry-roasted walnuts if I could find them, but actually going to the trouble of roasting them myself is way too much effort.  Remember: we want to keep things simple so that we’ll be more likely to eat salad.

Next comes the question of salt.  Most of the nuts at my store come in 3 varieties of saltiness: “full salt,” “half salt,” and no salt.  Half salt just means half the salt of the full salt variety, which is however much salt they felt like putting on, so on the one hand it means nothing, but I still prefer that over the full salt for most types of nuts.  I rarely buy the completely unsalted unless I don’t have a choice (with one exception).

When it comes to flavorings other than salt, though, I just say no.  I don’t want wasabi almonds, or candied pecans, or what-have-you.  Partialy because a lot of times those types of things contain ingredients that defeat my nutritional goals (e.g. corn starch, added sugar, MSG, etc).  But also because I just want to taste the nuts.  They’re yummy.  I don’t think they need a lot of dressing up.2

Finally, there’s the organic question again.  With nuts, I’m not as adamant about the organic thing.  I just don’t find as much taste differential with nuts as I do with produce.  With fresh fruit and vegetables, I can really tell the difference between organic and non-organic.  With nuts, I can’t.  It’s just that simple.  Also, organic nuts are harder to come by, and often, unlike with the produce, significantly more expensive than the non-organic varieties.  But do what you feel is right for you.

Now let’s talk about the specific nuts we’re going to need.

Pistachios.  I have come to love pistachios more than all other nuts combined.  I can just eat them by the handful, and I never get tired of them.  Pistachios are the only type of nut that I actually prefer unsalted (but still dry-roasted, of course).  We’ll see pistachios in two of our salad recipes.

Cashews.  A lot of people really love cashews.  I’m a bit cooler on them.  I like them well enough, but I get tired of them easily, and too many will overwhelm a taste profile, in my view.  I buy dry-roasted, “half salt.”  I stopped buying whole cashews, though, because they’re more expensive, for some reason.  Pieces are just fine for salad purposes.

Pecans.  I never liked pecans as a kid.  Now I adore them.  Almost as much as pistachios.  I buy dry-roasted, “full salt” (because I can’t get “half salt”), “halves and pieces.”

Walnuts.  Man, I wish I could find dry-roasted walnuts.  I think I would really like them a lot better than raw walnuts.  Still, raw walnuts are pretty good, and indispensible for one of our salads.  I buy raw, unsalted (again, no choice), pieces.  In the case of walnuts, I might even be willing to pay more for pieces, because whole walnuts are too damn big.  But generally pieces is all I see anyway.

Almonds.  Almonds are completely optional: we’re not actually going to need almonds for any of our salads.  But almonds are super-tasty, and, if you’re also going to try making some trail mix, you’ll want almonds for sure.  I buy dry-roasted, “half salt.”

Seeds

Some folks like sesame seeds or sunflower seeds in their salads.  I’m not going to recommend those though.  What you will need in this category are pepitas, also known as dry-roasted pumpkin seeds, shelled and salted.  A bag will last you roughly forever, but that’s okay because they don’t appear to go bad ... at least not bad enough to need to throw out.  If you keep them around too long, they get a little “flat,” and you probably won’t want to eat them out-of-hand (assuming you enjoyed eating them out-of-hand in the first place, which I personally don’t).  But for purposes of our dressing, that won’t impact the taste significantly.

Dried Fruit

Again, dried fruit is not only great for salads, but also awesome for trail mix purposes.  To my way of thinking, trail mix is all about the perfect mix of salty and sweet, and if you’re trying to avoid anything with added sugar, you pretty much have to get your sweet from fruit.  Also, dried fruit (like nuts) lasts quite a long time, so you can stock up and not have to worry about it for a while.

Plantain chips.  A plantain is some sort of miracle fruit.  When ripe, you can use them much like bananas, and, if you’ve ever had plantains at a restaurant serving Caribbean fare (i.e. plátanos), they were most likely sweet and sticky and vaguely reminded you of bananas.  Which is fine.  But where the plantain really shines in my view is when they’re unripe, when you can treat them pretty much like potatoes.  You can make tostones out of them, which are sort of like french fries in taste (although not in shape), you can mash them up like mashed potatoes, and, best of all, you can make chips out of them.  A bag of fried plantain chips is just as good as a bag of potato chips, and (unfortunately) just as addicitive.  I used to buy those, but I don’t any more.3  Now I buy the roasted plantain chips, which are not as good for eating out-of-hand ... but still pretty decent.  You can dip them in guacamole, for instance, and there’s another excellent healthy snack for you.  Or you can crush them up and sprinkle them on your salad to give it an extra layer of crunch, which is what we’re going to do with them.  Trader Joe’s sells them in 6 ounce bags, and my family goes through them 2 to 4 a week.

Raisins.  There’s no point in talking about dried fruit without talking about the king of dried fruit, the raisin.  I actually like to buy organic here—unlike with the nuts, I think I can tell the difference taste-wise, and they’re just not that much more expensive.  The particular kind I’m buying happens to be Thompson raisins, but I don’t know how significant that is in the long run.

Dried cranberries.  Now here is the first place we’re going to “cheat” a little bit from my nutritional goals, because as far as I know it is physically impossible to find dried cranberries that don’t have added sugar.  I’m willing to cheat a bit for this particular salad, though.4  Besides, who would want to eat unsweetened cranberries?  Bleaugh.  I buy organic, preferably sweetened with organic sugar.

Optional dried fruit.  We won’t need any more types of dried fruit for the particular salads I’m going to show you, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop here.  If you happen to be shopping at Trader Joe’s too, there are two other types that I heartily recommend: berry medley, and golden berry blend.  You can use these for trail mix, as I do, or experiment with making your own types of salads.  (Just remember that dried fruit can contain quite a chunk of sugar, so keep it light.)  Berry medley is dried cherries, dried blueberries, and dried strawberries.  This is my all-time favorite dried fruit for trail mixes, even though dried strawberries can sometimes be too big for eating out of hand (i.e. a handful of trail mix that includes one of the bigger dried strawberries by necessity doesn’t contain much else).  Golden berry blend is golden raisins, dried cranberries (with no added sugar!), and, again, dried cherries and blueberries.  Also good for trail mix.

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for dried fruit to eat out of hand, I’d recommend dried figs.  Pair them with brie (in particular, Trader Joe’s brie bites).  Yum.

Storage

Remember to keep your nuts and seeds out of direct sunlight: sunlight breaks down their natural oils and makes them go “rancid.”  Rancid nuts aren’t particularly bad for you;5 they just taste disgusting (very similar to stale potato chips or tortilla chips).  So keep ’em in a cool dark place.  Ditto on the dried fruit, which I keep in our “chocolate fridge.”  We have a tiny little fridge that was designed to be something you’d take to your office, but it’s so wimpy that it can’t really keep things as cold as you’d want for a real refrigerator.  But it’s perfect for chocolate, which needs to be kept cool but not too cold.  So I just toss the dried fruit in there as well.  But you can use any cool dark place; wherever you put your potatoes and/or onions is likely good.  Just make sure they stay well sealed to keep them from soaking up unwanted flavors (e.g. onions)

Stored properly, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit will last an insanely long time.  Not that that’s going to be an issue.6



Next time around, we’ll do even more shopping.  Up next: meat and cheese.



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1 Which is, you may recall, where I get nearly all my groceries.

2 And, if they do, I’d prefer to do the dressing myself.

3 Besides, I could only find them at Whole Foods, and who can afford that?

4 And, honestly, the dressing will have added sweetener too.  So we were going to be cheating either way.

5 Unless you eat a whole lot of them.  Of course, some sources will tell you that they’re bad for you even in small quantities.  More conflicting nutritional information.  Big surprise.

6 Well, except for the pepitas.  I use ⅓ cup of pepitas perhaps every 2 weeks or so, and the smallest container I can find is a 1 pound bag.  So those hang around for quite a while.  But everything else never has much of a chance to go bad.