Meat – finding my way around a beast

I readily admit:

  • I’m a bit cheap.
  • Having grown up with plenty of good ‘home cooking’ resulted in a willingness to cook from scratch.
  • An interest in history and international cultures has turned into a particularly ‘over the top’ collection of cookbooks from around the world; largely focused on regional foods with just a few technique or ingredient specific.
  • Reading recipes is the ultimate in short stories . . . great for reading in short bursts between other distractions.
  • Puttering in the kitchen is my creative outlet (though not everything is a success; it is quickly eaten and new creations attempted) and relaxing.
one of many shelves of my cookbook library

one of many shelves of my cookbook library

All this said, I didn’t grow up butchering things or really understanding that much about meat.  We ate enough of it – a LOT of ground beef, but also pot roasts, random steaks, and bits of this and that.  It all entered our home wrapped and labeled (at times from a butcher; at times from the grocery store.)  I raised 4-H lambs and steers; and through 4-H even learned about the different beef grades (select, choice, prime . . . my last steer raised and sold graded prime, by the way!  I wish he had ended up in my freezer.)  But I didn’t really understand meat and the interaction with various methods of cooking.

I’ve never been intimidated by whole poultry; as a culture approaching a whole roast chicken or turkey is reasonably expected and annually encountered (think Thanksgiving or rotisserie chicken.)  It did take a bit of practice and watching Jacques Pepin and Julia Child shows to learn how to break down a chicken, and I’m still learning new ways to do this (Jacques Pepin has a video out on how to make cute little chicken lollipops from the wings.)

But beef has remained something of a mystery.  Given I’m cheap, some years ago I did start to play around a bit with some boneless subprimal packages available in the regular grocery stores.  Basic research gives insight into the origins of the cuts; chuck from the shoulder, round from the hind leg . . . We eat a lot of stew type dishes – so it isn’t extremely necessary to understand a lot more than how to cube and slow cook into a curry or other slow braise.  My early attempts to cut into cheap steaks were not always successful.  I was still low on the learning curve to figure out grain of the meat, trimming, and relative tenderness and flavor.

Last year, upon moving out to the Seattle area, I started to buy the large subprimals from Cash and Carry (did I mention that I’m cheap and tend to focus on the per lb price?)  These really pushed me further to learn about where they come from on the beast and how to better cut them to maximize yield (and have something to cook other than ground or stew.)  About the same time last year, dinner with friends introduced me to an unfamiliar Brazilian cut of beef meant to be grilled.  This led to my discovery of more online resources in my growing interest in understanding meat to save money but eat well and be creative.  (The brazilian cut was the picanha; aka sirloin cap roast or culotte steak, for what it’s worth.)  Youtube is fantastic . . . there videos abound of people breaking down ‘Costco’ purchased subprimals – into steaks and roasts and discussing how to work with the grain of meat.  I started with the Danish Meat Cutter.

So choice grade Top Sirloin subprimals were bought for the picanha as a single roast (for the grill), sirloin steaks and roasts from the remaining muscle, and all of the trimmings added to either choice or select grade bottom round subprimals, with some cut for stew meat and pot roasts, and the rest for home ground beef.

This was just the beginning of a year that has included a lot of new ways (for me) with meat.

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Umrah – Mecca, two years ago

It has been about 2 years since I was in Mecca for Umrah, one very short weekend.  We flew out on a Thursday evening and were back in Riyadh on Saturday evening.

I found myself thinking of my own time in Mecca while transiting through Dubai and Abu Dhabi the last couple of days, as there were many groups of umrah pilgrims around the airports from Indonesia and Malaysia.  The umrah tour groups from Asia appear fun because they are all dressed alike.  One beautiful patterned cloth is probably chosen and the men all have matching shirts made and the women either have long caftans or tunics made.  I didn’t get any photos in the airports, but one group in Abu Dhabi yesterday, from Indonesia, wore all white which had beautiful matching pink floral embroidery embellishment (yes, the guys were able to pull off pink embroidery.)

umrah tour group - getting a briefing before starting umrah

umrah tour group – getting a briefing before starting umrah

Umrah is a condensed pilgrimage which Muslims can make at any time of the year or lifetime (in contrast, Haj is a required once in a lifetime pilgrimage which has a particular timing once each lunar year.)  Umrah consists of walking around the Ka’aba 7 times.  The Ka’aba is the center for Muslim prayers and is believed to have been reconstructed by Abraham; having previously been the first structure built to worship God.

In the middle of the day and still at least a month before Ramadan, the tawaf, circling of the Ka’aba, was not so crowded.

The marble floors are cooled, so pilgrims are not walking on sun heated stone.


After circling the Ka’aba, pilgrims rush between two nearby hills.  This is a reenactment of Hagar frantic search for water after being left with the infant Ishmael in the area by Abraham.  A well of Zam-zam did appear/was found and that water is piped to drinking fountains throughout the main mosque.

Sa’i – going between two hills; this is the top of one of the hills, which are now enclosed within the large mosque structure next to the Ka’aba.

Mecca is still growing with a construction boom.  You will see above the rooftops, the dominating construction cranes.

This clock tower with accompanying mall overlooks the Ka’aba and is a relatively recent construction.

Yes, we did visit the Starbucks in the Clock Tower mall.

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At night the crowds swell.  This was even a slower season.  The people sitting are securing places for the night prayer.

The crowds surge in the evening and into the night. People are sitting while waiting for the night prayer.

I didn’t know what to expect from Mecca.  The landscape is extremely rocky and steep.  The relatively flat areas (though I don’t know if they were leveled at some point) has the oldest construction.  In other places they continue to blast out shallow clearings to build more tall hotels.  There are many traffic tunnels as well, blasted straight through the rocks.

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During the umrah itself, (the rituals described above), men all wear two simple unstitched pieces of white cotton cloth.  This is a way of equalizing all men – with no difference between rich or poor, owner or worker, etc.  After performing umrah, the men change into their every day clothes.  Women wear their everyday clothes and don’t have specially prescribed outfits.

Mecca was possibly the most diverse population of the few places which I visited in Saudi Arabia, and felt the least Saudi.  One saw all kinds of National dress, with people coming from every continent.  Men and women pray side by side at the Ka’aba and because of the crowds, one often saw couples hold hands to avoid getting separated.  All movement centered towards or radiated from the Al-Haram mosque, which surrounded the Ka’aba.  Everyone was taking photos and calling home on their cell phones from the mosque to describe the scene for loved ones left behind.

Medinah, on the other hand, felt more like a particularly Saudi city.  The dress was more typical of other Saudi cities (with women almost exclusively wearing the abaya.)  The plazas would fill at night with Saudi families, just as occurs in other cities.  I was in Medinah at the end of Hajj, before the foreign pilgrims had made their way to the city, so perhaps if I had been even a week later, the experience would have been very different.

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In the footsteps of Alexander the Great – Taxila

I’m in Islamabad for a couple of days vacation, before moving on for some work related travel around Dhaka, Bangladesh.  This trip had been in planning for months, so I’m not sure why logistics and such were so last minute – but nothing about this trip has gone smoothly.  But I did make it and have a couple of days before my next flight.

Leading up to the trip, there were a few comments made by various people around me which indicated a mistaken understanding that Pakistan is very much an Arab country and inextricably tied not only religiously, but also culturally with the Middle East.  While this is true to some extent, my usual response is to over-exagerate the fact that Pakistan and India are the same country and peoples (which isn’t to diminish the myriad of differences, especially from 1947 and since. . .)  It is more to clarify that Pakistan is very much a part of the SubContinent, along with India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and, in some geography books, Nepal and Bhutan.

This was reinforced by my visit yesterday to Taxila, the archaeological site just northwest of Islamabad, in the Punjab.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the Taxila valley includes a number of different settlements dating from the 500’s BCE.  It was annexed into the Persian Achaemenid Empire which extended west as far as Thrace and Macedon.  Alexander the Great comes through and conquers in the 3rd century BCE.  That about ends the direct ruling leadership from the west for some time.  The Mauryan Empire from eastern India takes over northwestern India (which is present day Pakistan, of course.)  The advisor to the founder of the Mauryan empire resided and taught in the Taxila valley which became a center for Buddhist teaching during this time.  Not only is it believed that the Mahayana branch of Buddhism was shaped in the valley, but at the valley’s height as a center for Hindu education, it exerted some intellectual guidance and direction to other centers of education on the subcontinent.  Some report it was one of the earliest Universities in the world, though the structure was that of distinct master/student relationships and thus would not be recognizable within that definition.  Each teacher created their own structure and curriculum, though there were some shared customs and expectations.

There was continued interaction with the west, even as the leadership and culture was decidedly eastern facing.  St. Thomas the Apostle came through town (believed to be about 46 AD.)

Sir John Marshall excavated the site during British colonial rule over a period of years in the 1910’s.  There remains much to be excavated and are some digs underway around the area.  The remains of the city Sirkap have been partly excavated and include a sundial, both Buddhist and Hindu places of worship, and Ashoka’s palace.  It is surrounded by wheat fields and the tour guides walk the fields after plowing and once the rains come to find coins, including Greek coins with Alexander the Great’s head, and beads and other fragments from the previous time.  The guides mentioned that they had decent tourism which dropped off about 12 years ago, about the time of conflict started in neighboring Afghanistan.  Weather, weeds, and lack of tourist resources are all taking their toll on what has been unearthed.  What remains covered is probably safe for the time being.  The ruins largely represent many Buddhist stupas and monasteries.  Most of the statues in the below photos are missing their heads  . . . well their heads were taken at the time of excavation to the British Museum in London.  There are a few in the Taxila Museum, but much was taken out of the country.  The following images are of the Taxila Museum, Dharmarajika Stupa and Monastery (believed to have contained relics of Buddha himself), the city of Sirkap and the palace of Ashoka, and Mohra Moradu Stupa and Monastery, which still draws Buddhist faithful (and includes an area of significance for Qadri sufis.)

This site definitely demonstrates the important role and connection which the land and people of what is present day Pakistan had with the people, culture, and civilizations to the east, even while offering a transit point for the West and Central Asia.


Taxila MuseumImage


Dharmarajika with their lawnmowers in action


Dharmarajika – used to be a large Buddha here . . .


fortified city of Sirkap. Hill in the distance has Ashoka’s Palace

Stupa detail indicating Greek, Persian, and Mauryan influences

Stupa detail indicating Greek, Persian, and Mauryan influences

Sirkap Stupa

Sirkap Stupa

Large Sirkap Sundial

Large Sirkap Sundial

Mohra Moradu - the stupa

Mohra Moradu Stupa

Buddha around large Mohra Moradu Stupa - Greek style

Meditating Buddha around large Mohra Moradu Stupa – Greek style


Mohra Moradu monastery – those doors protect the stupa in a cell. Still visited by Buddhists today

Mohra Moradu stupa located in the protected cell - still visited by Buddhist pilgrims today; this is the base

Mohra Moradu stupa located in the protected cell – still visited by Buddhist pilgrims today; this is the base

This is the top of the Mohra Moradu stupa in the cell

This is the top of the Mohra Moradu stupa in the cell

this detail from the Mohra Moradu stupa in the cell indicates Greek influence

this detail from the Mohra Moradu stupa in the cell indicates Greek influence

This detail of the stupa is Mauryan influence

This detail of the stupa is Mauryan influence

Then we have an elephant and an 'Atlas' figure, carrying the weight on arms above his head

Then we have an elephant and an ‘Atlas’ figure, carrying the weight on arms above his head

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Mushrooms on the Oregon Coast

Almost got blown off Highway 101 yesterday afternoon as I drove down to Pistol River from Washington.  But today wandered just a bit and found mushroom heaven!

mushrooms on walking stick leaning up against cabin for the past year

mushrooms on walking stick leaning up against cabin for the past year

I don’t know any mushrooms, except that I am learning chanterelles – my very first one picked (yes, I had someone experienced validate my find):

chanterelle mushroomIt is a bit mature, and rained on, but I will trim it up and dry saute it; and eat like a mountain hermit!
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Over the Mountains

Over Snoqualmie Pass, to Mesa, WA for Thanksgiving.



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Of course we were too busy enjoying the dogs to take photos, but this afternoon both of our dogs, Philly and Mesa, tried their luck for the first time herding sheep.  We found a fantastic place in Roy, WA that lets dogs of all stripes get in the ring with sheep or ducks and see what they are made of.  Ewe-topia is a 10 acre farm with stock completely accustomed to dogs of all capabilities.  I think the stock are really what make it a success.

Philly and I were up first.  The handler coached a very positive attitude as we just pushed the sheep and worked to get Philly attentive and engaged with the sheep.  She was her usual slightly reserved self – very attentive, but not sure if it was ‘alright’ to interact with the sheep.  The sheep were so tame that I had to physically get my hands and knees into their wool to get them to move (there were 3 ewes) and that physicality and movement eventually encouraged Philly to circle and actually ‘push’ the ewes occasionally.  One of the owners of the place that had been working on some of the lights in a next door arena paused to lean against the fence and start to ask the handler if it was Philly’s first time and provide encouragement that she looked great.

Mesa and Aamir were up next.  Honestly, this was as new to Aamir as it was Mesa (he had never been so close to sheep ever before.)  Mesa was interested, but those ewes were big and she has a slight fear of large creatures (dogs, horses, just about anything.)  She definitely wanted to work, but didn’t find her footing as well as Philly did by the end.  You can tell either dog would engage more if the sheep actually ran, but getting used to moving them at a walk is way more controlled.  Mesa will get there, along with her ‘handler.’

We will definitely be back out.  The literature says to expect to just work on getting engaged with sheep and paying attention and gathering by walking around the sheep in the smaller pen for maybe even months (also depends on how often we can get out there.)  But Philly slept the entire drive home.  So there won’t be any ‘come by’s or ‘away to me’s in the foreseeable future, but we definitely enjoyed ourselves!

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Ground Squirrel War – Summer Battle Completed

As has been mentioned previously, a caretaker couple has been staying at our Oregon property this past year (they arrived from Connecticut just before Thanksgiving last year.)  Mr. and Ms. Caretaker have been diligently maintaing roads (even as March’s record storms soaked the ground so much a road slipped away where no one could have stopped it),

improving and maintaining the young orchard, clearing brush, and also gardening in the greenhouse and terraced beds to feed themselves.

The big update as we enter fall is the body count from the summer battle in the Ground Squirrel War.  100+ caught and ‘relocated’ (to a neighbor’s where cats are in residence) and ~20 shot at the end of the battle by a neighbor’s friend.  The battle appears to have settled for the season with no recent incursions noted.

There are approximately 5 acres of shared clear grass land in the corner of our property (it is the one property corner shared with a private owner (the other neighbors are public land or timber companies.)  The roughly 3 acres on our side of the line include about 1 acre of fenced pasture (we have nothing there, a previous owner had goats), about an acre of roughly fenced orchard and chicken run, and a final acre which includes the greenhouse, the terraced garden beds (fenced to keep open range cattle out), and the steeply sloped open pasture which runs down into the neighbor’s property.  In the picture, the fenced terraced garden area is just to the right of the photo and the steep sloping shared meadow is below.

Locally these natural south facing oak savannas (the ecologically appropriate description) are called prairies and not meadows as they would be further north.  And this prairie has been home to a burgeoning population of ground squirrels.  It is quite dangerous to walk across the slope because of the many burrow entrances and sink holes.  Ms. Caretaker is an avid gardener and spent tremendous efforts in planting and nurturing  her garden over the spring and summer.  She is also a vegan, but officially declared the Ground Squirrel War sometime in June, when at times after working out in the garden beds, she would return to the greenhouse to find entire beds of carrots, just days from harvest, to have disappeared.  The summer battle toll included many beds of carrots, broccoli seedlings, and other tender greens.  The tomatoes and green beans were among the few left standing.  Research indicates that ground squirrel populations can average about 100 beasts per acre, so the approximately 120 casualties of the battle will most definitely have left survivors across the 5 acres who have apparently retreated for the fall to regroup over the winter.  Hopefully Ms. Caretaker will have a reprieve for the fall and winter garden before next year’s battles commence.

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Africa calling . . .

And the phone call in the middle of the night is from . . . Sierra Leone!

For the past 5 years I have worked as an independent international development consultant.  That ‘definition’ isn’t terribly descriptive, but after working for various for-profit and non-profit agricultural development organizations for over a decade, I hung out my shingle and continued to work with those same organizations and a few others on short-term assignments as needed and contracted.  These have included ones that most people will have heard of including CARE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and a few that you may not have heard of, including ACDI/VOCA, TechnoServe (both former direct employers), Carana, and Fintrac (my current employer.)  These short-term consulting assignments were each unique, working on a different objective, often in different countries (though almost exclusively in Africa), and with a different team of people and unique client requirements.  It has been an amazing professional experience and I met, and collaborated with, some extremely competent professionals and business people.

Most of my assignments have somehow been related to my private sector-led development and market-focused bias.  I’ve mapped industry value chains, reviewed agribusiness investment enabling environments, recommended extension and origination strategies for supply chains, and even helped to draft staple grain policy.  What all of this work has had in common is my heavy reliance on consultation with a wide range of people who actually live, work, employ, and govern in each market and country.  Each assignment begins with a range of meetings with key individuals including large processors, informal traders, government officials of all levels (I’ve had Permanent Secretaries on speed dial), farmers, and so many, many others.  The vast majority are gracious and generous with their time and their perspectives.  At times, we encounter a bit of ‘donor’ fatigue.  I’ve personally experienced this a few times – a large, key business whose perspective was important for my understanding that particularly commodity market I was looking at had received a handful of consultants in the previous 3 months, all sent by the same donor; providing useful insights can actually increase the requests for meetings.  This past summer two other consulting groups had been through within 2 weeks of us from another organization.  We each had different mandates and areas of focus; our timing came after the others and I struggled to make a few meetings because of fatigue.

Sometimes we (consultants in international development) can take the extreme generosity from those consulted for granted.  Sometimes we realize that we are prone to the same negative biases and perceptions as those less traveled and with less professional experience in these foreign cultures.  Not only do we receive the same anonymous fraud emails as everyone else, but sometimes people that we have actually met and who may even be very senior government officials have their emails hacked.  More than once I’ve had some fraud solicitation come from a government official that I met a couple of times and have had legitimate email exchange with.  I ignore the message and a couple of days later comes the apologetic email stating the originator’s email had been hacked.  Also, surrounding the donor community are many who actually do try to get something for nothing and take advantage of the system.

So yesterday, my phone rang from Sierra Leone.  In 2009, I did a short-term assignment there looking at the table egg industry.  I hadn’t heard from that work since.  As I was saying, so yesterday I get a phone call from Sierra Leone.  The connection wasn’t the best and the gentleman had a very strong accent.  He finally communicated his name, that he had sent me a proposal via mail, though he wasn’t sure if I had received it, and would I please phone him the following day as he was running out of phone credit.  I honestly wasn’t sure if I would or not.  It sounded rather sketchy.  While I was in Sierra Leone 3 years ago, I couldn’t really understand this gentleman over the phone.  And let’s face it, after that long . . . he wanted something.

I missed the call that came at 3:30am (I don’t typically answer the phone at that hour regardless – I can sleep through just about anything.)  I saw the call when I checked my phone in the morning, and just went about my day.  Another call came while I was walking the dogs later that morning.  I didn’t pick it up.  It rang again.  I picked it up.  The gentleman again asked if I could call him back as he really would like to speak with me.  I assured him that I would once I returned to the house.  At this point I actually meant it and I did phone him back.  Somewhere along the morning, and actually in that moment of answering the second call, I remembered the incredible generosity of time and attention that I’ve received over the years as a consultant and recognized that I owe it to the gentleman.  I did phone him back, though the conversation was a bit labored (honestly, I do better with strong accents in person.)  I committed to giving him some of my time and attention for a proposal he has been working on and would like some of my input.  It was a fantastic reminder of how much I have enjoyed these rather successful 5 years of consulting and how much of that depended on the generosity of others.

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Washington DC Inspiration

I’ve been in Washington, DC a few days for work.  It is rather different after nearly 13 years of living in the suburbs of DC (first Maryland and then Virginia) to be staying right downtown, walking distance to so much.

There are many wonderful places in the city; and many of the ones that immediately come to mind as interesting or unique are actually places best reached by car.  These include the view from the Frederick Douglass House, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the many county owned historic properties in Prince George’s County . . .

This past weekend, I did visit a favorite place on the National Mall – the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution.  These museums of asian art are often less crowded, quiet, and always with interesting and calming exhibits.  The exhibit ‘Nomads and Networks: the Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan’ displayed beautiful and refined ornaments from horse tack (and other cultural relics) dating to the hundreds of years BCE.  I’m looking forward to an upcoming exhibit entitled: ‘Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ which opens November 17th.  The photo above is of one of the lifesize Japanese wood statues gracing opposing ends of a main hallway in the Freer Gallery – now if only they had replicas of those in the gift shop . . .  I would definitely want to take one of him home in my suitcase!


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Half the Sky – a PBS special

I’m going to do a post about what I actually do for a living; BUT this isn’t that post.  In the broadest sense I work in the field of international development.  I have had the pleasure of traveling and working in many diverse developing countries, though the past decade has largely been Africa.

My friends and colleagues that I’ve worked closely with know that I often jokingly say that “I don’t really care about women and children.”  The development community over the period of my professional career has correctly focused increasing resources and rhetoric towards empowering women in the varied facets of their lives – including governance, economics and livelihoods, health, education, and sanitation.  My joking (read: inappropriate sarcasm) comments about comes from my experiences with many misguided programs or ‘gender specialists’ that have forgotten that there are actually two genders.  Specialized professionals with deep expertise in understanding gender dynamics and implications for development, and whom I respect greatly, agree that a nuanced understanding of the gender context with complimentary interventions for the diverse individuals within a community, agricultural value chain, or whatever target underprivileged population are necessary for successful outcomes.

This is probably all ‘development insider speak’ for people not in development – but this is all to say that while I can be a bit negative and sarcastic about ‘gender in development’ because of all of the abuses I’ve seen perpetrated in the guise of empowerment . . . I actually do subscribe to the need to really analyze and understand the social dynamics and cultural context for development programs to deliver on their objectives – everyone, regardless of gender, should have the right to improve their standard of living and opportunities . . .sort of my free market/libertarian tendencies!

So – I’m looking forward to watching the upcoming PBS special – Half the Sky.  It is a four hour program premiering October 1 & 2.  From the website:

Filmed in 10 countries, the series follows Nicholas Kristof and celebrity activists America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde on a journey to tell the stories of inspiring, courageous individuals. Across the globe oppression is being confronted, and real meaningful solutions are being fashioned through health care, education, and economic empowerment for women and girls.

I’m hoping that the film also recognizes and celebrates the role men have to play in empowering women (and women’s role as societal partners with the other gender.)  I do know good work is happening and will try to be slightly less sarcastic about gender in the future . . . (okay, that might be a stretch!)

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