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Tom's Kitchen: Gratin of Hearty Greens

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 10:22 AM EST

I'm a greens fanatic: mustards, kale, collards, chard, you name it. I eat them in some form more or less every day, sometimes more than once. At this point, a meal—even (or especially) something as simple as a fried egg for breakfast—just seems naked, incomplete, without them. Their ubiquity in my daily life can make them seem unexciting for a special feast like Thanksgiving. Really, again, greens made like I always do them, sautéed with onion until tender and then finished with a lashing of vinegar? At the same time, there was no way I could imagine Thanksgiving without leafy greens—especially since they reach their peak of flavor in the fall.

So rather than forsake them or serve them the same old way, I decided to dress them up into something richer and more elegant: a gratin. To get ideas on how to pull it off, I dug into James Peterson's excellent 2002 tome Glorious French Food. Along with recipes for the three classic gratins—potatoes, leeks, and squash—it also includes advice on how to improvise one: merely pour cream and cheese over the desired vegetable, and bake in the oven until a "savory crust forms on top." That's when I knew that I not only had a winning side dish for the holiday table, but also something dead simple and yet tasty: perfect fodder for a Tom's Kitchen column.

Peterson advises that in most cases, vegetables should be cooked before the baking stage, "so that the moisture they contain is released during the precooking instead of remaining in the gratin, where it would dilute the surrounding sauce." So I started the dish in the same way I usually cook greens—which gave me the chance to work in onions and garlic—before finishing in the oven with cream and cheese. The result was magical—sweet, creamy, tender greens, mashed up with a snap of caramelized cheese. Note: there's also a vegan variation below.

Gratin of Hearty Greens

Enough extra-virgin olive or butter to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
3 medium onions, halved and sliced thin
3 bunches of hearty greens such as kale or collards (I used two kale, one collards)
4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
Sea salt
1 pint heavy cream
4 ounces grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (which I used) or Gruyère
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Place a large heavy-bottom pot over low-medium heat, add the onions, and let them sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft.

Meanwhile, prep the greens. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in one left hand and slicing down each side of the stem with a knife. By the time you're done, you'll have two piles: one of stems and one of leaves. I apply a whole-beast ethos to vegetables, and consider greens stems to be highly flavorful. So bunch the stems in a pile and slice them finely, crosswise. Set aside. Now chop the greens and set them aside, too. The point of separating them is to give the stems a head start cooking, as they take a little longer.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Now the onions should be soft. Add the chopped garlic and stir for a minute or so, until it has released its fragrance. Add the chopped stems and a pinch of salt, stir to mix them with the onions and garlic, and cover the pot. Let them cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Now add the greens and another pinch of salt, using tongs to carefully mix in with the sautéed veggies in the pan. Add about a half cup of water (or stock) to the pan, and turn heat to high until the water begins to boil. When it does, turn heat down a little bit, and let the greens simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until they're nearly tender but still a little al dente. At that point, remove the lid and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated.

Turn off the heat, taste, and add a little salt if necessary. Arrange the cooked greens in a casserole dish large enough to comfortably fit them all. Pour the cream over. Sprinkle the cheese all over the top. Give it a vigorous lashing of black pepper. Bake until the top is well-browned (30-45  minutes). Serve hot. This dish can be made a day or two in advance and reheated in a 350 F oven just before serving. Better yet, cook the greens until they're tender and then store them in the fridge until the big day, when you bake them off with cream, cheese, etc.

Vegan variation: Replace the cream with coconut milk and replace the cheese with bread crumbs (or slivered almonds) .

 

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Obama Has Really Gotten Inside the GOP's Head

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 9:50 AM EST

Jeremy Peters writes in the New York Times today that the tea party has morphed from an enraged bunch of economic populists to an enraged bunch of anti-immigration zealots. And by cracky, they want Republicans to crush the tyrant Obama for his immigration insolence, and they want it done now:

Satisfying the conservative base will be difficult. Tea Party activists are not likely to sit patiently while a lawsuit works its way through the courts. And many have already expressed skepticism about the Republican leadership’s willingness to see through a fight over appropriations.

....“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.” Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’ ”

Oh man, I can't tell you how much I wish they'd actually take Lowry up on his suggestion. Can you imagine anything that would strike middle America as pettier and more pointlessly vindictive than this? Anything that would seem feebler and more futile? Anything that could possibly be more evocative of a five-year-old throwing a tantrum?

I guess you could if you put your mind to it. But it would be hard. Obama is really inside their heads, isn't he?

(Via Steve Benen.)

GOP Takes Revenge Over Immigration Order in Tax Bill. Obama Tells Them to Pound Sand.

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:59 PM EST

Danny Vinik describes the tax extender package currently wending its way through Congress:

Imagine somebody asked you to imagine the worst possible deal on taxes. It'd probably have the following qualities:

It would be bad for the environment.

It would be bad for the deficit.

It would give short shrift to the working poor.

And it would be a bonanza for corporations.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to conjure up such a package. Congressional Republicans already have. And for some unfathomable reason, Senate Democrats including Harry Reid seem inclined to go along—although the White House has vowed to veto such a deal if Congress goes ahead and passes it.

Actually, there's nothing all that unfathomable about what's going on. The tax extender bill may be a dog's breakfast of legitimate tax provisions running interference for a long laundry list of indefensible giveaways and corporate welfare, but it's always been supported by both parties and it would have passed long ago if not for an outbreak of routine sniping over amendments and 60-vote thresholds last spring. That aside, the whole thing is a perfect bipartisan lovefest. Republicans and Democrats alike want to make sure that corporations continue to get all their favorite tax breaks.

In fact, the only thing that's really new here is the nature of Obama's veto threat. He's made the threat before, but primarily because the extenders weren't being paid for and would add to the deficit. The fact that middle-class tax breaks might not also be extended was sort of an afterthought. Now, however, that's front and center:

The emerging tax legislation would make permanent 10 provisions, including an expanded research and development tax credit....a measure allowing small businesses to deduct virtually any investment; the deduction for state and local sales taxes....tax breaks for car-racing tracks....benefits for racehorse owners.

....Left off were the two tax breaks valued most by liberal Democrats: a permanently expanded earned-income credit and a child tax credit for the working poor. Friday night, Republican negotiators announced they would exclude those measures as payback for the president’s executive order on immigration, saying a surge of newly legalized workers would claim the credit, tax aides from both parties said.

So there you have it. This bill is the first victim of Republican frothing over Obama's immigration order. As revenge, they left out Democratic tax priorities, and Obama is having none of it.

This is all part of the new Obama we've seen since the midterm election, which seems to have had an oddly liberating effect on him. Over the course of just a few weeks he's been throwing sand in Republican faces with gleeful abandon: cutting climate change deals with the Chinese; demanding full net neutrality regulations from the FCC; issuing an executive order on immigration; and now threatening to veto a Republican-crafted bill unless they include expanded EITC and child tax credits. It's as though he's tired of their endless threats to go nuclear over every little thing and just doesn't care anymore. Go ahead, he's telling them. Make my day.

A Nuclear Deal With Iran Probably Won't Happen

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 5:56 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky run through four reasons that we failed to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by this weekend's deadline. This is the key one:

An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program. According to the account, Khamenei said that "this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel."

....The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

This is why I'm skeptical that a deal can be reached. Iran wants to have nuclear weapons capability. The United States wants Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions. Everything else is just fluff, and it's hard to see a middle ground here.

This doesn't mean an agreement is impossible. Maybe there really is some halfway point that both sides can live with. It sure isn't easy to see it, though. The disagreement here is just too fundamental and too definitive. One side wants to be able to build a bomb, and the other side wants exactly the opposite. How do you split that baby?

Watch Killer Mike's Passionate Speech on Michael Brown

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 12:43 PM EST

Moments before a scheduled performance in St. Louis Monday night, Killer Mike of the rap duo Run The Jewels delivered an incredibly forceful speech about the news of a grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown more than three months ago.

"Tonight, I got kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor. You motherfuckers got me. I knew it was coming, I knew when Eric Holder decided to resign, I knew it wasn't going to be good."

"I have a twenty-year-old son and I have a twelve-year-old son and I am so afraid for them," Killer Mike told the crowd, his voice cracked through held-back tears. "When I stood in front of my wife and I hugged her and I cried like a baby, I said 'These motherfuckers got me today.'"

The impassioned speech ended with a powerful reference to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights leader's tragic death at the age of 39.

"I promise if I die when I walk off this stage tomorrow, I'm going to let you know it's not about race, it's not about class, it's not about color. It is about what they killed him for: It is about poverty, it is about greed, and it is about a war machine. It is us against the motherfucking machine."

Is Obama Trolling Republicans Over Immigration?

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 12:07 PM EST

Jonah Goldberg is unhappy with President Obama's immigration order, but he's not steaming mad about it. And I think this allows him to see some things a little more clearly than his fellow conservatives:

Maybe President Obama is just trolling?

....As Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution notes, Obama "could've done all this quietly, without making any announcement whatsoever." After all, Obama has unilaterally reinterpreted and rewritten the law without nationally televised addresses before. But doing that wouldn't let him pander to Latinos and, more important, that wouldn't achieve his real goal: enraging Republicans.

As policy, King Obama's edict is a mess, which may explain why Latinos are underwhelmed by it, according to the polls. But that's not the yardstick Obama cares about most. The real goal is twofold: Cement Latinos into the Democratic coalition and force Republicans to overreact. He can't achieve the first if he doesn't succeed with the second. It remains to be seen if the Republicans will let themselves be trolled into helping him.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pretty certain that Obama did what he did because he really believes it's the right thing to do. Goldberg just isn't able to acknowledge that and retain his conservative cred. Still, somewhere in the Oval Office there was someone writing down pros and cons on a napkin, and I'll bet that enraging the GOP caucus and wrecking their legislative agenda made it onto the list of pros. So far, it looks like it's probably working. But if Republicans are smart, they'll figure out some way to follow Goldberg's advice and rein in their worst impulses. If they go nuts, they're just playing into Obama's hands.

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Map: Here's How #Ferguson Exploded on Twitter Last Night

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:24 AM EST

On Monday evening, news of a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown erupted across social media. The announcement was made shortly after 8:20 PM CT and sparked massive protests around the country. The situation was particularly violent in and around the St. Louis area, with more than 60 people arrested overnight.

Using the hashtag #Ferguson, Twitter has mapped out how the conversation took place:

Following the announcement, Wilson's full testimony was released. One of the most controversial remarks included a description of Brown as looking like a "demon."

More from the chaotic scene:

Police gather on the street as protesters react after the announcement of the grand jury decision. Charlie Riedel/AP
Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown's mother, is comforted outside the Ferguson police department as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch conveys the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of her son. Robert Cohen/AP
People watch as stores burn down. David Goldman/AP

 

Economic Growth Starting to Show Real Signs of Life

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 10:48 AM EST

The latest numbers from the Commerce Department show that GDP increased faster than we thought in the third quarter of 2014. Growth clocked in at 3.9 percent, an increase from the original estimate of 3.5 percent. "The economy expanded at its fastest pace in more than a decade," says the Wall Street Journal. "The combined growth rate in the second and third quarters was 4.25%, the best six-month reading since 2003."

This is true, but a bit misleading since both quarters were making up for a dismal first quarter in which GDP fell by 2.1 percent. Still, even if you look at things in a more defensible way, economic growth is unquestionably picking up. The chart on the right uses a 5-quarter moving average to smooth out individual quarters that might be unusually high or low, and the trajectory of the economy is clearly on the rise. You still can't really say that things are booming, and it continues to be true that the labor market is loose and wages are pretty stagnant. Nonetheless, since 2011 growth has increased from about 1.8 percent annually to about 2.8 percent annually. Things are picking up.

If Europe can ever manage to get its act together, we might finally start really digging ourselves out of the Great Recession. I'm not sure I see any signs of that happening soon, though.

More Patents Does Not Equal More Innovation

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:18 PM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, here's a chart from a new CBO report on federal policies and innovation. Needless to say, you can't read too much into it. It shows the growth since 1963 of total factor productivity (roughly speaking, the share of productivity growth due to technology improvements), and there are lots of possible reasons that TFP hasn't changed much over the past five decades. At a minimum, though, the fact that patent activity has skyrocketed since 1983 with no associated growth in TFP suggests, as the CBO report says dryly, "that the large increase in patenting activity since 1983 may have made little contribution to innovation."

The CBO report identifies several possible innovation-killing aspects of the US patent system, among them a "proliferation of low-quality patents"; increased patent litigation; and the growth of patent trolls who impose a substantial burden on startup firms. The report also challenges the value of software patents:

The contribution of patents to innovation in software or business methods is often questioned because the costs of developing such new products and processes may be modest. One possible change to patent law that could reduce the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit patent protections for inventions that were relatively inexpensive to develop. For example, patents on software and business methods could expire sooner than is the case today (which, with renewals, is after 20 years), reducing the incentive to obtain those patents. Another change that could address patent quality, the processing burden on the USPTO, and the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit the ability to obtain a patent on certain inventions.

Personally, I'd be in favor of limiting software and business method patents to a term of zero years. But if that's not feasible, even a reduction to, say, five years or so, would be helpful. In the software industry, that's an eternity.

Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Jim Newton, a longtime local politics reporter in Los Angeles, wrote his final column for the LA Times today. In it, he offered up "a handful of changes that might make a big difference," and the one that resonates with me is his suggestion that both LA and California do away with term limits:

Elected officials who were popular with their constituents once held their seats for decades, building up experience and knowledge; now, with term limits in place, they're barely seated before they start searching for the next office. That's brought new faces but at great cost. Power has shifted from those we elect to those we don't, to the permanent bureaucracy and to lobbyists. Problems get kicked down the road in favor of attention-grabbing short-term initiatives that may have long-term consequences.

Case in point: Why do so many public employees enjoy budget-breaking pensions? Because term-limited officials realize it is easier to promise a future benefit than to give raises now. The reckoning comes later; by then they're gone.

Term limits locally were the work of Richard Riordan, who bankrolled the initiative and later became mayor. I asked him recently about them, and he startled me with his response: It was, he said, “the worst mistake of my life.”

Term limits always sound good. The problem with the idea is that being a council member or a legislator is like any other job: you get better with experience. If your legislature is populated solely by people with, at most, a term or two of experience, it's inevitable that (a) they'll have an almost pathologically short-term focus, and (b) more and more power will flow to lobbyists and bureaucrats who stay around forever and understand the levers of power better.

For what it's worth, I'd recommend a middle ground. I understand the problem people have with politicians who win office and essentially occupy sinecures for the rest of their lives. It's often a recipe for becoming insulated and out of touch with the real-world needs of constituents. But short term limits don't solve the problem of unaccountable power, they simply shift the power to other places. The answer, I think, is moderate term limits. Something between, say, ten and twenty years. That's long enough to build up genuine expertise and a genuine power base, while still preventing an office from becoming a lifetime of guaranteed employment.