Saturday, April 17, 2010

What's Wrong with the Lexus GX460? An Idea Gone Too Far?

The other day, I noted the “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk” tag put on Toyota’s GX460 SUV by Consumer Reports with just a little bit of smug glee. I really shouldn’t have though even though my first inclination was “there they go again, another screw up from Mr. High and Mighty Toyoda himself.”

As is often the case with first impressions, I got to thinking about what Consumer Reports had done and Toyota’s response of taking the GX460 off the market. And then I did just a little bit of research—OK I googled the GX460 to find some driving reviews—and got some really interesting information.

A bit of background first. The GX460 is what Car and Driver described as a “gilded version of the Forerunner”. Like many Lexus models, the GX460 is based on a Toyota model and then “gussied” up with amenities to fit the Lexus nameplate. (Lexus has long been considered to be an acronym for Luxury Export to the U.S.). It is a model which starts at $52,000 and in its top version with all the “whistles and bells” tops out at $70,000.

The Forerunner/GX460 is a mid-sized SUV (think the size of the Ford Explorer). It’s a “body on frame” or truck based vehicle. When SUVs came into their greatest popularity the vast majority were body on frame. The Honda CRV and the ill-fated, butt-ugly Pontiac Aztec were arguably the first of the new “cross over” class of SUVs built on a car-like “uni-body”.

Now if you’re spending anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 on an SUV you want something which rides like a luxury vehicle not a truck. And this is where the problem comes in with the GX460. Toyota may have finally run up against the wall of where the laws of physics and mechanics collides head on with computers and software.

A body on frame vehicle can be made to handle really, really well by building it low to the ground and providing a stiff suspension (think NASCAR or Corvettes). But, SUVs like the GX460 are high off the ground and bumpy. To get a body on frame to ride smoother, manufacturers have traditionally provided a longer wheelbase and a softer suspension. The suspension allows for a softer ride but also sacrifices a bit of maneuverability. So what did Toyota do? According to a Car and Driver review in November, 2009:

“(The GX460’s) body control is better by the fitment of the “Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System,” which actively adjusts the stiffness of the anti-roll bars for more stable cornering and better wheel articulation off-road.”

Fantastic. High technology to the rescue. But perhaps Toyota went a bit too far. Also in November, 2009 online magazine Car Connection reviewed the GX460 and had this to say about it:

So the “Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System” is a way of computerized tuning of the suspension. But what has caused the problem is also the “lack of feel” that the vehicle might be in trouble as it takes curves. Picture it this way, in order to improve the ride, it’s as though the passenger compartment is being isolated more completely from the frame of the vehicle. The driver gets far less feedback from the vehicle as to what it is doing and the yaw and roll sensors are apparently not keeping up with the actual “attitude” of the vehicle.

Both of those are scary propositions. Car and Driver did a test drive review of the GX460 in March, 2010. Here’s what they said:

“Turn the steering wheel all you want; there’s no discernible feel. Press the brake pedal and you get mush... In corners, automatically adjusting anti-roll bars seem to keep the GX from introducing its door handles to the pavement, but the GX just isn’t designed to go fast or feel particularly carlike, unless that car is a Lincoln Town Car.”

I don’t want to drive that car. It would scare me. Maybe technology and engineering have been pushed just a bit too far in trying to get this vehicle to provide the kind of luxury ride that you just can’t do without sacrificing too much handling and safety.

Cross-over utility vehicles are now the best sellers for families. Most are available in “all wheel drive” versions. AWD is most decidedly not for “off roading”. Supposedly the GX460 is off-road capable. But, who wants to take a $70,000 SUV off-road anyway?

To get the comfort, handling, luxury and traction that buyers want the unibody, cross-over is the way to go. Not to fault Toyota—rather the blame lies with pretentious buyers who have to have an uber-SUV for all the money and with all the toys but it appears as though the limit may have been reached.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cheap Bastids Pork Loin Chops with Orange Glaze

Well, Cheap Bastid doesn’t have a whole lot of inspiration with the news of a new granddaughter yesterday, but I thought that I’d look at what I’ve cooked and photographed recently and see what I could share.

One of our favorite “proteins” (that’s a “foo-foo” foodie word for meat) are thick cut (about 1 ¼- 1 ½ inch) boneless loin chops. This is arguably the one meat that we consistently keep on hand which is the most expensive cut (about $2.89 lb at Costco). But, we like to do 1 for each of us at about a half pound each which is a bit less meat than I would usually do because there is actually less fat than in a typical steak so the portion can be a bit smaller. Or, one of them sliced in strips makes for a terrific Chinese dinner cooked up in the wok.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I pulled out a couple of loin chops. They’re great on the grill but I wanted to do something just a bit different. Usually I go real simple with just a light dusting of my basic spice blend or “sweet heat” blend. I decided to go with a bit of seasoning and a glaze.

Here’s what I came up with. Give it a try and enjoy.

Loin Chops and Orange Glaze
2 thick cut pork loin chops
1 navel orange
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup chicken broth (or white wine)
Chipotle powder
Basic blend (garlic, black pepper, salt)

Sweet potato wedges

Prep your grill and set up a 2 zone fire. One side hot, one side cool. Peel and section the orange. Chop orange sections into about ½” chunks & put in a sauté pan that you can put on the grill (I’ve got an old beater that I removed the handle from that I got for $1 at a thrift store). Add the brown sugar, chicken broth and some chipotle. (Notice I said “some” chipotle. You can always add more as you sample taste but once the spice is in, you can’t take it out). And, add a pinch of salt.

Lightly sprinkle the “basic blend” on both sides of the chops (also, I often will drizzle just a skosh of oil on the chop and spread it out with my fingertips then add the seasoning. I’m with Bobby Flay—oil the meat not the grill).

Then put the pan of glaze fixings on the cool side of the grill. Give it about 5 minutes before putting the chops down. If the glaze thickens first you can remove it from the grill to let the chops finish. I cook by time on the grill and turn about every 3-4 minutes. So, at 3 minutes check for grill marks and turn the meat. At 3 or so more minutes flip again. After another 3 minutes, flip again and then apply the glaze to the top of the chop—a nice, thick, chunky coat. In 3 minutes, remove the chops, they should be just done and still juicy. (You know your grill so adjust cooking times accordingly).

The glaze is going to give you a sweet and “acidy” taste at the same time. The cracked pepper and a hint of garlic will come through from underneath. Man, these are tasty.

Make up a batch of sweet potato wedges in the oven for the side, add a nice salad and you’ve got a great dinner.

Here’s the recipe for the potato/sweet potato wedges:

The Cheap Bastid Test: The chops cost $3.00 and the glaze cost about $.50. Add another $1 for the sweet potato wedges and you’ve got $4.50 for a really good dinner for 2. It’s a bit more than Cheap Bastid usually spends but this is a treat and we do it maybe once a month. Plus, this meal is easily $18-$20 in a restaurant—each.

It’s getting to be grilling season in most places now so give this a try and enjoy.

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

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hooray! Hooray! I'm a Grampa Again Today!

Today's the day. I'm a Grandpa again. This is my 2nd granddaughter. My son Michael just sent me a text telling me that this morning he and Katie had their second daughter.

Now, I don't know what name they've given this little critter yet, but she sure is cute. She's 6 lbs 15 ounces and is a healthy, pretty little baby.

Last I heard they were thinking of either Stella or Emma. They weren't too thrilled with either of my suggestions. My first suggestion was to combine the 2 and call her Stem. My 2nd suggestion is to use Carolyn's favorite nickname for every critter she sees--dogs, cats, hamsters, ponies--Spike.

We like Spike so that's probably going to be Grandpa's pet name.
Here's a picture of her with her Dad at the hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska. She's a real cutie!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dancing to the Old Man's Tune

Sometimes being the old guy at work makes me feel utterly ancient. The young guys can go out and party and manage to make it to work the next day--at least physically. I can't, don't and won't.

The young guys think they can do it all. Us old guys know our limits, which quite frankly are beyond what most of the young guys can do. Older guys know that there's more to it than just showing up. There's preparation for the day and taking care of closing up at the end of the day.
Well, here's a story that one of my colleagues passed on to me that illustrates this very point:

An old prospector shuffled into town leading a tired mule.

The old man headed straight for the only saloon to clear his parched throat.

He walked up and tied his mule to the hitch rail. As he stood there, brushing some of the dust from his face and clothes, a young gunslinger stepped out of the saloon with a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.

The young gunslinger looked at the old man and laughed saying, "Hey old man, have you ever danced?"

The old man looked up at the gunslinger and said, "No, I never did dance...never really wanted to."

A crowd had gathered as the gunslinger grinned and said, "Well, you old fool, you're gonna dance now," and started shooting at the old man's feet.

The old prospector--not wanting to get a toe blown off--started hopping around like a flea on a hot skillet. Everybody was laughing, fit to be tied.

When his las bullet had been fired, the young gunslinger, still laughing, holstered his gun and turned around to back into the saloon.

The old man turned to his pack mule, pulled out a double-barreled shotgun, and cocked both hammers.

The loud clicks carried clearly through the desert air.

The crowd stopped laughing immediately.

The young gunslinger heard the sounds too, and he turned around very slowly. The silence was almost deafening.

The crowd watched as the young gunman stared at the old timer and the large, gaping holes of those twin barrels.

The barrels of the shotgun never wavered in the old man's hands, as he quietly said, "Son, have you ever licked a mule's ass?"

The gunslinger swallowed hard and said, "No sir...but...I've always wanted to."

There are a few lessons here for us all:

Never be arrogant.

Don't waste ammunition.

Whiskey makes you think you're smarter than you are.

Always, always make sure you know who has the power.

Don't mess with old men, they didn't get old by being stupid.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cheap Bastid's "Deconstructed Tamales"

Simply put, Tamales are incredible. In Hispanic neighborhoods and families they are most often a holiday feast where whole families will spend a day (if not a night) with the multi-step preparation and then will eat freshly steamed tamales throughout the day on whatever special occasion is being celebrated—Christmas, New Years, a christening, etc.

We like to go to a bodego just a couple of blocks from our apartment called Tortilleria Los Hermanos Reyes. This is a neighborhood store right in the heart of downtown Vista which makes chicharrones, often in one piece of the whole side of a pig along with other meat cuts that you can find almost no where else. Plus they have their own tortilla “factory” which is busy all day everyday cranking out fresh corn tortillas starting with the ground masa and ending in fragrant, fresh tortillas.

And, this place makes some really, really tasty carne, carnita and pollo tamales. Here’s a recipe I made up for “Deconstructed” Tamales which creates the flavor but avoids the long, involved process which only someone with generations of tamale-making DNA seems to be able to master.

“Deconstructed Tamales”
2 cups yellow stoneground polenta
2 cups water
1 ½ cup chicken broth
1 cup shredded cheese—cheddar, jack or a combination
¾ lb cooked and shredded beef, pork or chicken
2 roma tomatoes
1 medium onion
1 orange or yellow bell pepper
1-2 jalapeno peppers
2 cloves garlic
Cumino, salt, pepper and chili powder

First do all your “prep” work of chopping the tomatoes, bell pepper, onion and jalapeno. Peel the garlic than squash it with the blade of the knife so that it’s like a paste or use jarred, minced garlic. Next shred the beef, pork or chicken.

Prepare the liquid for the polenta (2 cups water and 1 cup chicken broth), put in a heavy pot and turn to high on the stovetop. When the water/broth boils add the polent, turn the heat to low and stir it for several minutes to incorporate the grits and water together. Cover and let it simmer on the lowest heat possible for 30 minutes.

At 30 minutes, put a skillet on the stove and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Turn the heat to medium high. Add the onions, bell peppers, jalapeno and garlic. Cook for 3-4 minutes until they start to soften then add the cumino, salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Add the shredded meat and stir everything together well. Then add the tomatoes and mix it all together. Turn heat down to medium low for 5 minutes.

Turn the heat off the polenta and add the cheese. Stir it thoroughly so everything mixes together.

Remove everything from the stove and prepare you plates. Put a generous scoop or two of polenta on a plate, cover with the meat mixture and you are ready. If you want, you can top with your favorite salsa.

So, what did you think of this recipe? I took a page from “Top Chef” with it in calling it “Deconstructed Tamales”. In that show, it seems like any dish labeled “deconstructed” or “crudo” gets rave reviews from the judges. It’s a fancy name for a simpler, faster way of preparing a dish that would normally take more time than the contestants have for preparing a dish for competition. And in restaurants, it’s a simpler, more cost effective presentation of the “flavor profile”.

My own term for this dish is “Grish” (which I pronounce “greesh”). It’s a left-over dish which to me is a little bit grits and a little bit hash. I personally would not call the stone ground corn prepared for this meal “polenta”. That’s way too “foo-foo”. It’s G-R-I-T-S! Grits and polenta are essentially made from the same stone ground corn and are prepared a bit differently.

But the main thing for Cheap Bastid is that the grits provide a base for the left-over topping of shredded meat. And it’s an incredible combination of flavors. What my wife particularly likes is that we’ll have slow-cooked pot roast one night and a couple of nights later we’ll take the left over pot-roast and turn it into “Grish” by adding just a couple of ingredients like fresh tomatoes and bell peppers and make it something new and exciting to our palate.

I came up with “Grish” one night when we had some left over pot roast and a part of a bag of stone-ground grits and Mrs. CB was whining for the taste of grits. It was an “a-ha” moment to combine the two rather than whipping up something like fried rice with shredded beef. And this is a totally different taste that takes no longer to prepare and is just as easy to prepare.d

What about The Cheap Bastid Test? This is cheap. There’s maybe a pound of left over meat at about $2 and there’s a couple of tomatoes at about $.75 plus onion, bell pepper and jalapeno for a cost of about $.75. Then I add some broth to the skillet. I use a cup and a half of grits and a pound and a half bag of them costs $2.29—so I’m using maybe $.50 worth of them. Total budget--$4. And we’ll have left-overs of the left-overs to reheat for lunch.

Think about it though. If you went to a restaurant and saw this dish and it was labeled “Grish”, you might pay $8. Same dish, labeled “Deconstructed Tamales”and the price just doubled except you’d also expect a linen table cloth and a skinny slice of lemon in your water.

You know what the bottom line is here though, don’t you? Sure you do:

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

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Rainy SoCal Monday Morning--Listen to the Rain

Just thought I'd throw something up on the feed because today's a rainy, gray Monday morning.

That's kind of rare in "sunny, Southern California" this time of year. And, it's my favorite kind of rain. No lightening, no thunder, just a stead rain that's been going on for a while rinsing the world and making it fresh and clean. Later the sun will come out and and all will be right with the world for just a little while. Isn't that always the promise of a good rain?

So, here's a song for you. I was just out on the balcony watching the rain and the lyric came into my head: "It's raining. It's pouring, the Old Man is snoring. Went to be and he bumped his head and he couldn't get up in the morning."

And that reminded me of this wonderful, haunting song by Jose Feliciano (one of my all time favorite performers). Hope you enjoy it.

Happy Monday!