Wednesday, January 27, 2010

George Bailey Didn't Play Texas Hold 'Em

Tonight, President Obama will deliver his first ever “State of the Union address to the Congress and the nation. He has had a busy first year. He’s had arguably the world’s biggest ever mess to clean up along with intense pressure to move forward. From my point of view he has done an admirable job of both. Of course, both are works in progress.

The nation didn’t get itself in this mess in one year—it was a decade in the making—and it may take a decade or more to recover. The need to provide greater access to health care benefits has never been more acute than in this time of high unemployment, ruined personal finances and ageing population.

But that’s not my topic today. Today, it’s about banks. Recently Pres. Obama chided the finance and banking industry over its return to overly generous bonuses and pay-outs based on short-term results when only a year ago many of these largest banks (I use the term loosely to cover the mega and other finance institutions who have been the primary beneficiaries of “TARP” and other bail-out funds) were on the brink of collapse and about to take the economy of this country and much of the world with them.

It’s as if “finance” were the world’s highest stake game of Texas Hold ‘Em and these banks were gleefully chortling over each mega-hand regardless of whether it was a hand won or lost. Until all the hands were losing hands and the “play money” was evaporating. Then they cried out to “Uncle Sam” for help.

So here comes “TARP” to the rescue. Billions upon billions. Taxpayer’s money. Now, it’s great that these “banks” were able to repay the money within a year—with interest. (Although it’s a little bit scary that they were able to recoup those losses in such a short timeframe). A new round of risky, exotic financial instruments has started and mega-bonuses are being reinstituted. Recently, Pres. Obama felt the need to directly address the issue at a meeting with bankers. But they don’t seem interested in really listening and changing some of the fundamental maladies of their side of this vital industry.

So all this leads me to think back over the years of my own experience with bankers. Simply put, if not for local bankers little would get accomplished in most of the small and mid-sized communities in our nation. Of course, much of this deals with “state chartered” local banks rather than “national” banks but as larger banks have absorbed many, if not most, small banks they have taken on the same local roles.

I spent roughly 20 years working in the field of community and economic development. I started in state government and then worked for Chambers of Commerce and their associated economic development corporations in the late 70’s until the mid 90’s in North Dakota and Iowa and Minnesota and Wisconsin.

If not for the local banks exercising leadership and investing in their communities little would be truly accomplished. It’s more a sense of George Bailey and his commitment to the depositors of his bank in “It’s a Wonderful Life” than any sense of “noblesse oblige”.

Small town bankers are intimately familiar with the social fabric of their community. They believe in the interrelationships necessary for a community to thrive. They may spend Thursday afternoon at the Country Club but they also spend Saturday at the Little League field and Sunday morning at church before heading back to the office Monday morning—all the while being pestered about local issues and the bank’s role in the community. And they know that this level of commitment yields a flourishing community AND a flourishing bank.

They help hang the evergreen bunting around the town square the Saturday after Thanksgiving and provide both leadership and investment in the fundraiser to send the High School Band to a Holiday parade, the campaign to raise funds to buy a new industrial park, buying the grand champion hog at the County Fair or an effort to pass a school bond issue.

This is what I hope Pres. Obama was trying to remind these mega-financial people about. It’s the old adage that “all politics are local”. Well, ultimately all finance is local too. Or, I could say that the sum total of micro-economics is what makes “macro-economics” possible. These major banks are grand-eloquent in their smug certainty that they are what make the financial world possible. It’s the ultimate trickle-down which, when it failed, scared the hell out of millions and millions of us.

More fundamentally, I would hope that Pres. Obama reminded these financial princes that they may have been able to repay the TARP bail-out with interest in a year but they managed to ruin the hopes and aspirations of millions when 401Ks tanked, mortgages imploded and jobs disappeared. Their debt goes far deeper and the repayment schedule should be amortized at forever.

Small town banks are the backbone of communities. They are the people and institutions to whom we turn in good times and bad. It’s just too bad that the guys at the banks that are “too big to fail” who make their multi-millions in bonuses don’t seem to get it—even when the President reminds them about it. Let’s hope he reminds them again,and again.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cheap Bastid's What to do on a Rainy Day Off in California

Well, today was my day off. And, it’s been raining all week. The hardest and most rain was today. That’s winter in Southern California. Truth be told, as a transplanted Midwesterner, I’ve been rather enjoying it.

And today’s the only day off I have until next Friday. I’ll spend the next 7 days straight trying to sell cars, develop business and earn a pay check. But that’s OK, it’s a schedule you can get used to (just like any other old hound dog laying under the porch). So, what to do today when it’s rainin? Well, the tryst with my bride this afternoon was fantastic.

Most of the day though, I was the Cheap Bastid. I’ve been cooking. Right now the apartment smells fantastic because I’ve got a whole chicken roasting in the oven (77 cents a pound at Stater’s) and I’m cooking down the giblets into a broth to use in the gravy for the mashed potatoes that are waiting to be cooked on the stove.

Cheap Bastid also went grocery shopping today. And, I made a big casserole dish of Baked Ziti that Carolyn will pop into the oven tomorrow evening for dinner when I get home at 9. And I baked an apple crisp for dessert tonight.

Hmmmm, a pretty busy day. I loved it. It’s supposed to stop raining sometime tomorrow. The hummingbirds won’t look so bedraggled stopping by the feeder. Hopefully they’ll be hungry after several days of hunkering down. The TV news will have to find some topic for their hyperbole other than eucalyptus trees falling down, flooded streets, rocks, mud and how bad the Chargers suck.

And we’re going to enjoy some pretty good eating! That always makes Cheap Bastid happy.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cheap Bastid's Comfort Food--Swiss Steak

It's a new year and time for Cheap Bastid to get back in the swing of things. For those of you who aren't familiar with Cheap Bastid, let me just say that I like cheap! More particularly, I believe passionately in saving money, especially on food. It is totally possible to have a severely limited budget and to eat well. You just have to do a couple of things: shop smart and cook.

Now, I don't mean that you cook either by opening a carton of stuff you bought pre-cooked and heat it up. And I don't mean that you have to make something like they do on "Top Chef"--gourmet techniques using expensive ingredients from expensive grocers like Whole Foods. But you can use simple ingredients and prepare home cooked meals that taste good, are nutritious and which are inexpensive. And, Cheap Bastid tries to do that and share with interested readers.

Oh, and by the way, I got a new Christmas apron for from my bride and she took the following picture of me which shall hereinafter be my "official" Cheap Bastid "portrait". (Extra bonus points for those who get the Christmas message on the apron).

When it's really, really cold outside like it has been throughout most of the country so far in 2010, what you crave is home-cooked comfort food. Something that's going to fill your home with some fantastic aromas for a few hours and then taste as good and be as warm and filling as those aromas have been promising.

That's why I'm sharing my all-time, absolute favorite comfort food recipe with you today. I have loved this dish since I was a little kid and my Mom would make it. I've been fixing it a couple of times a year for 30+ years and my daughter's request for the recipe about 4 years ago is what prompted me to write a cookbook for my children titled "Dad's Kitchen Survival Guide and Cookbook". (Word document copies available via e-mail for free upon request).

I fixed this last week and took the pictures. I'm not the world's greatest photographer and I'm not a food stylist. I prefer to plop it on a plate and have at it with a hearty appetite. If you want me to play with your food and make it a pretty little sculpture, forget it. Others might be able to make this gorgeous and maybe I could too if I wasn't so impatient to get on to the best part--the eating!

And, I made one big mistake. I bought the wrong kind of tomatoes. Buy whole canned tomatoes and squish them in your hands (a great way to release a bit of tension) or buy diced. I bought crushed and it was more like a puree and it just wasn't quite the same--although the taste was fine. The final texture was off just a bit. A smaller mistake was too much oil in the skillet to brown the meat and my old nemesis of too much heat. (Standing joke at our place is that I start off with too much heat in cooking where my wife starts with too little. I seem to prefer to turn it down while Carolyn prefers to turn it up).

And for God's sake, make real mashed potatoes. Peel them, cut them and cook them. No instant!

This dish takes about 20 minutes worth of prep (meat tenderizing, veggie cutting, etc.) and about 30 minutes of prep cooking (browning the meat). And then it's about 1 1/2 hours in the oven which is what's going to make your home smell really, really good.

Unfortunately, there is no scratch and sniff computer program or else I'd attach the aroma of this dish. But, give it a try. It's a tremendous family meal that'll fill everybody up and make your tastebuds happy and wanting more. (By the way, I also like this dish with bisquits for sopping or just for eating, slathered with butter or margerine). My mouth is watering just reviewing this recipe and thinking about how tasty it is.
Dad's Swiss Steak

2 lbs Top Round or Sirloin Steak (3/4-1” thick)
1 lg can (28 oz) Roma tomatoes—whole or sliced
1 green bell pepper
1 medium (baseball size) onion
2 stalks celery
1 fresh jalapeno pepper (optional)
1 12 oz can “Snappy Tom” juice or spicy V-8
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cooking oil
Lg Casserole dish with cover or heavy duty foil for

Directions: On a cutting board, cut meat first into 2-3 equal size pieces (this makes it easier to work with). Put one of the “hunks” of meat either into a freezer bag & seal it or between 2 pieces of plastic wrap. Once you do that, put it on flat on the cutting board & tenderize the meat by whacking it repeatedly with a meat mallet/tenderizer. What you’re doing is making the meat more tender. Pound all over until the meat is about ½ inch thick. Do this to all the meat and then cut each hunk into about 3”x 3” pieces.

Put flour in a shallow dish or paper plate & liberally season it with salt & pepper (about a tablespoon of each if you’re using 2 cups of flour) OR season each piece of meat on both sides before dredging it through the flour.

In either a large, heavy skillet or an electric frying pan, pour enough oil so that it’s about 1/8” or so deep, Turn heat to medium high (375 on electric frying pan).

Cook meat in batches. Dredge pieces of meat through the flour, liberally coating all sides. Then shake off excess and put in the hot oil (lay it in—don’t plop it!) You want a quick browning of the meat so after a couple of minutes, gently turn it over with a fork or with tongs. Don’t worry about getting the meat done—medium is great, or just nicely browned—it’s going into the oven anyway.

When browned, remove the meat and “drain” on paper towel covered plate or pan & do another batch. It’s best to brown the meat in 2-3 batches and also to let the oil heat back up between batches. Add more oil if needed to keep about ¼” depth in the pan.

The veggies: It’s simple, chop the pepper, onion and celery into about 3/8” pieces. This will go into the baking dish along with the tomatoes--BUT, I kind of like to toss the veggies into the hot skillet with just a couple of tablespoons of the leftover cooking oil and sweat them for 3 or 4 minutes before combining with the tomatoes. Then dump the canned tomatoes (if you’re using whole tomatoes you can just grab each tomato and squish it to break it up or rough chop it) into the casserole dish along with the spicy tomato juice.

Add the browned meat. Try and get it flat and down in all the red stuff. Cover it and put into the oven pre-heated to 375. Give it a good 1 ½ hours. It’s done when you stab a piece of meat and it wants to fall apart--that's "fork tender". I really like it when the meat falls apart when you just show it the fork.
If you want, you can remove the meat from the baking dish and then, depending on how the sauce came out either thicken it with a cornstarch slurry to get it to a gravy consistency or you can thin it out with either a bit of water or broth to get the consistency you want. Or, just leave it alone like I did the other night when the finished dish's sauce was pretty thick. Either way, you'll want to let it cool down for a good 10-15 minutes so you can eat it.

Serve with mashed potatoes and use the sauce for gravy. It smells great cooking and it tastes great too!

Mashed Taters (NO garlic, NO cheese, NO "smashed" with chunks--just good 'ole mashed 'taters)
About 1 ½ potatoes per person, peeled and sliced about 1/2” thick
Large pot—big enough so that all the potatoes coverd with water only fills the pot 2/3 full.
Several generous shakes of salt in the water.
Butter or margarine

Put pot with the peeled potatoes in it on the stove turned to medium high. Bring to a boil and adjust the heat so that the water stays bubbling but not at “full blast”. When the potatoes are “fork tender”, they’re done. (Fork tender is just that—jab it with a fork and it breaks apart).
Drain the water—easiest way is to pour the water through a colander at the sink and then dump the potatoes back into the pot.

Add 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine. Using a potato masher, start mashing the potatoes. This is when you make sure there are no lumps. Push down and twist the masher & keep repeating until they’re all broken up.

Drizzle about a half cup of milk into the ‘taters and start mashing and mixing in a circular motion. Liberally pepper the potatoes. If you want the potatoes creamier, add more margarine and milk—just remember, too much milk makes them soupie. You can always add more—but you can’t take any out!

Serving: Plop a small mountain of mashed 'taters in the middle of a plate, lean 4 or 5 hunks of Swiss Steak against the sides and cover with as much or little of the red sauce as you like. Oh Man! That's good, old fashioned, home cooked, comfort food delicious!

Cheap Bastid Test: Well, I used about 1 1/2 lbs of sirloin steak that I got at the grocery store on special for $1.99/lb so that's $3.00. The 'taters were the last of a bag that I bought for $.49 for 10 lbs but let's be realistic and say it was $.50 worth of potatoes. The can of tomatoes was $1.39 and the green pepper, jalapeno, onion and celery cost about another $1.50. The total if my arithmetic is right was $6.39. Now, this made about 4+ good size servings (I had seconds and we had enough for 2 lunches left over). So that works out to $1.60 a serving. That's pretty good!

That's the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good. Eat Cheap. Be Grateful.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How Does Lint Get Thru 2 Shirts to My Navel? And Other Stuff

A quick post today because it's my day off and Cheap Bastid is summoning me to the kitchen.

This is my day off. Tomorrow and Saturday I'll work what are called "bells" which is a 12 hour day and then on Sunday only from 10 to 6 (that's the Sunday "bell"). My next day off will be next Friday when I have a 3 day weekend. That's the kind of schedule you have when you sell cars. So, my opportunity for cooking is a bit limited as is my opportunity to eat some good food. You don't feel like cooking or eating when you get off at 8:30 and home at 9.

So, I just got done making a batch of meatballs. Sunday night we're going to do meatball and marinara sandwiches with melted cheese on French bread.

Tonight, Cheap Bastid is cooking his all time favorite "comfort food" dinner which I hope to duly photograph and write up as a Cheap Bastid Foodie Tuesday post. The dish--drum roll please.........Swiss Steak with mashed potatoes. My mom made this when I was a kid and I've used a variation of her recipe that I cobbled together 30 years ago ever since. I only make it once or twice a year and it's kind of hard to be in the mood for cold weather comfort food in SoCal.

But, it's colder than the dickens over a large part of the country and maybe this dish that I'll post Tuesday morning will find its way on someone's table and fill you up and warm you up from the inside out.

But before I go, I've got a rhetorical (I think) question (or maybe it's quasi scientific) that maybe someone can answer. So here goes:

How is it that when I wear two shirts--one a grey t-shirt and the other either another color t-shirt or a sweatshirt--I end up with belly-button lint from both shirts? How can the outer shirt's lint travel all the way through the other shirt and find a nest in my navel?

Earth-shattering isn't it? And maybe it's even a bit philosophical. But like National Enquirer used to say "Inquiring minds want to know."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Why Men of a Certain Age Watch "Men of a Certain Age"

TNT’s new “guy show” “Men of a Certain Age” has quickly become one of my favorites. I think that it’s mainly because I’m a “man of a certain age”. No one’s really ever tried to focus on “us” before. You know, guys who quite frankly are past “middle age”. We’re the ultimate “tweeners”. Too young for senior discounts and too old to keep up with the young guys. We remember why looking at attractive young women is fun, we just don’t have the energy or inclination to do anything about it anymore.

I recall a visit to the doctor about 10 years ago when I was 48. I called myself middle aged. The doctor looked at me and said, “Look, I’m the same age as you. Do you really think you’re going to live to be 96?” My response was, “Well, no.” “Then, we’re really not middle aged are we?” was his reply.

Well, damn. I didn’t need to hear that then. And I don’t need to hear that now. But crap, it’s true. That’s why I like that term “man of a certain age”. There’s not as much “pressure in the fire hydrant” when we go to the men’s room—and we go there more often too. We thought we’d be full of success AND wisdom by now and yet neither of those seem to be our companion. I don’t want to wait until I look and sound like Wilford Brimley before I’m considered sage or wise.

Like the 3 characters played by Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, we’re “men of a certain age” and yet we still don’t seem to have it figured out yet. Each of us is floundering about in our own way.

Of the three, I probably like Andre Braugher’s “Owen” the best. Ray Romano and Scott Bakula seem to be playing to “character”—pretty much the same character they’ve always played. Braugher’s character though is far removed from his detective role on “Homicide, Life on the Street”. He plays a pudgy, long-suffering husband and father unable to earn the approval of a stern, judgemental father who keeps him huffing along in the middle of the pack of salesmen at the family Chevy dealership.

Romano is separated from wife and children and owns “Joe’s Party Store” although his dream was to be a golf professional—although his proclivity for golf has yet to be established as either fact or wishful thinking. He lives in a hotel filled with others in similar circumstances.

Bakula’s character is still “fleshing out”. He’s the “Peter Pan” of the group. An ageing actor, he makes his living as a “temp” worker but still engages in the type of social/sex life that others only fantasize about. Is he happy with who and where he is? Time will tell.

These 3 spend a lot of time at a Norm's restaurant in L.A. talking about all
sorts of things--work, wives, golf, ideas, and mostly just "bs-ing". I love
the idea that the setting is here rather than a more pretentious Starbucks
or LAesque "bistro". These are real guys--not the pretty-boys who shave
their "happy trail" that somehow we're now supposed to emulate.

“Men of a Certain Age” reflects and captures the uncertainty so many of us
feel, even at a point of our life where we should be certain in who and what
we are. No matter what our “certain age”, we all still seem to be barely
removed from that inner 7th grader. That’s why this show leaves me
somewhat uncomfortable each week but also comforted from knowing that
I’m not the “Lone Ranger”.

This past year has seen many of us “men of a certain age” thrown into
uncertainty by economic worry and the fear that we are no longer relevant.
Many of us now hope to “just get by” until, hopefully, we can retire into a
semblance of normalcy, belonging and some sort of satisfaction that our life
has indeed been meaningful.

All that put aside, I have only one problem with “Men of a Certain Age.”
Men of that certain age tend to have a problem staying up until 10 p.m.
Many of us are already asleep by then or drift off to sleep sometime before
11 or get grouchy if we stay up past 10. We go to sleep early
because we get up early to pee. And, this show isn’t targeted to an
audience younger than 40.

My twenty-something kids don’t watch it. They barely remember
“Everybody Loves Raymond” let alone “Homicide” or “Major League 3”.
So put this on an DVR-less, old-fart’s schedule! (9 p.m. would work just

Hopefully this man of a “certain age” will be able to get home from work
Monday night at 9 p.m. and still be awake at 10 to enjoy “Men of a Certain
Age” and manage to keep my eyelids open and brain functioning until 11.
You’re welcome to join me.