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The Best Home Popcorn You've Never Had
Annie and I are complete movieholics, and one of the best things about the theater experience is the popcorn -- and now it's easy to get exactly (or better!) the same at home.

Easy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but we do it at least once a week and it's no trouble once you get used to it.  First you need the right ingredients -- coconut oil is the oil of choice, but it's better to use the stuff with the theater flavorings:


While we're on the subject of flavor, you need to add a little of this to your prepopped kernals.


You can use a variety of popping methods (in oil, of course -- no nasty air-popped stuff allowed) but the best is the Stir-Crazy by West Bend:


Now for the tricks -- you pop the corn (with the coconut oil, premium popcorn, and Flavocol) and then put it in a large pan and stick it in a 210 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  This gets rid of all the moisture still in the corn so it will be crisp (in the movies they accomplish this with heat lamps).

Now put some clarified butter (heat in microwave and let fat settle to the bottom and carefully strain through cheesecloth to remove surface fat) and popcorn salt (Morton's extra fine made special for popcorn) and you're all set (we also use popcorn bags like the theaters use, sold at the same places as noted above for full authenticity).  Mmmmmmm!


The Best Paper You've Never Printed on...
assuming you're using an Epson 870/1270/1280 printer  (and if you're not, why not?) is the Epson Premium Luster Photo Paper.

It has archival properties (30 years), doesn't suffer from the fading problem of the old Premium Glossy Photo paper (although Epson has now reformulated that paper to eliminate that difficulty) and has a rich deep luster and terrific looking resin coated texture that, combined with the weight and thickness of photo paper, will fool all your friends into thinking you've used an expensive photo lab.

The colors this paper holds are nothing short of tremendous, and I've grown to love the semi-gloss look (no more cheap looking glossy photos for this shutterbug).  You probably won't find it in the stores -- it's part of Epson's "professional media" line, and is best bought directly from them (at The Epson Store).  The cost is quite reasonable for such a wonderful paper -- $35 will buy you 50 sheets of 8x10, and it's available in both A3 and Super B sizes a well.  Try it and you'll never use any other.

The Best Pancakes You've Never Made...
start off with the Bisquick pancake batter mix.  Follow the directions for adding milk and an egg, and beat to desired consistency (we like our batter lumpy for those golden nuggets of flavor, but that isn't one of the secrets to great pancakes).  After you mix comes the first trick: set aside the batter for at least 30 minutes.

The reason is simple: beating any kind of batter stirs up the ingredients that activate the yeast.  Cooking the batter right after stirring will result in tough pancakes (or whatever).  Allowing the batter to "rest" will result in fluffy tender pancakes that will melt in your mouth.

The second secret is to use real 100% maple syrup: if you've never had real maple syrup you will be amazed at how dramatic the difference in taste is between it and the mostly sugar water substitute that passes for pancake topping at your local supermarket.  We like Camp brand..  Heat it up, put some butter on the top of each cake, and smother in syrup.  You'll be in breakfast heaven.  

The Best Comic Book You've Never Read...
is The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. There will be many who understand what I'm talking about, but for the rest of you to whom "comic" is a 12 page mag next to Tattoos Monthly at the drugstore, you need to pick this up.

Years before Keaton donned cape for Tim Burton, Mr. Miller was reinventing the Batman legend. The Dark Knight has never been darker, making Burton's efforts look, well, lighthearted. Miller uncovered the soul of the original Man in Black in a very nearly perfect novel that just happens to be told both in words and images.

About the only thing wrong with this book is that it will raise your expectations for the rest of the so-called "graphic novel" industry. Forget it. None of them are this good. But if you want excitement, understand that true heroism is being afraid but undeterred, and don't think life ends at 40, this is the adventure for you.

The Best TV Show You've Never Seen all the Episodes of...
is Mystery Science Theater 3000. Okay, not exactly the best kept secret in the world, considering it's still playing on the Sci-Fi Channel (Saturday mornings at 7am PST, unless they feel like preempting it, which they do about once a month). But if you haven't seen all the episodes you're missing out big time.

MST3K started in a little station in Minnesota (also home to the gang from Lake Wobegon -- must be something about the cold that breeds really funny people up there) before it was picked up by the Comedy Channel and then, it's final resting place, (and ultimate graveyard) the Sci-Fi Channel, which didn't renew it past it's tenth season, and now shows seasons six through ten over and over again. Don't get me wrong -- those are good seasons, and you ought to watch them if you already haven't.

But there were many cast changes along the way and while we don't subscribe to the "Joel is better than Mike" theory, you owe it to yourself to see those earlier episodes.

MST3K was never better than when it was riffing on horrendous movies, and seasons three through five had movies that truly boggle the mind. No one who has seen Manos, hands of fate can quite be the same again.

The bad news is that Comedy Central has the rights to all the syndicated early seasons, and there is little chance they'll ever be rebroadcast. Rhino Video only offers a handful of titles (mostly due to copyright restrictions -- it's hard to believe, but the owners of the movies actually think someone might want to see them without Joel/Mike and the 'bots), but the good news is that Misties (those devoted to the show) are among the nicest people around, and there is a strong tradition of sharing the tapes among those less fortunate. Do a little internet search and you'll uncover a lot of people who will help you complete your collection (it took me less than a month to get them all).

The local Minnesota station episodes are harder to find, but not worth the effort to either locate or watch -- everyone needs to start somewhere, and in those early efforts only basic concept is clever. Go get the rest and turn down the lights (where applicable).

The Best Tuna You've Never had...
is Portlock Smoked Albacore Tuna.  Even if you don't like tuna, you'll love this full flavored non-fishy seafood offering.  My wife and I eat it right from the can (during our feasts -- more on this later).  Portlock says "You'll never eat regular tuna again."  Ahem.  At $6 a pop for 5.5 oz. it's unlikely that anyone other than Billy Gates could afford this as a steady diet.  On the other hand, using this for tuna salad would be a lot like using Dom Perignon for your cooking sherry.

Speaking of Champers, this stuff goes particularly well with our next entry...

The Best Cheap Champagne You've Never Sipped...
is Freixenet's Cordon Negro Extra Dry.  It comes in a black bottle (hence the name) and is available at most supermarkets and liquor stores.  $10 or less (on sale we've gotten it routinely at $7) it has less of an aftertaste than nearly any other inexpensive bubbly.

One of the least keep secrets about drinking this or any cheap champagne is to really chill it first.  And I mean chill.  Put it in the freezer for at least an hour (you can actually leave it in for a couple of hours before there's any danger whatsoever of freezing it, given it's alcohol content).  Then serve in glasses that have been rinsed and spent the same amount of time in the freezer first.  If you've left it in sufficiently long there'll even be little champagne ice crystals as it pours.  Ah...

The Best CD You've Never Heard...
is Biff Rose's double (in the true sense of the word) CD "The Thorn in Mrs. Rose's Side/Children of Light".

Make no mistake about it -- Biff Rose is an acquired taste.  His singing range is less than mine when I have a cold, and he retreats into a simpering falsetto at the drop of a key.  He is found of puns and his best music was written at a time when we truly believed that all you need is Love.

But his piano chops are just fine, and he wrote some of the most melodic, haunting tunes you've ever heard.  And his lyrics really mean something, staying with you long after the CD is put away. 

He had his fifteen minutes of fame back in the late 60's, although he's still around after having dropped from the fame radar for over 30 years.  His latest albums kind of leave me cold -- they betray an angry, bitter individual who seems so far removed from the sweet Biff I remember that I feel too sad to enjoy.  But listen to both of these gems (particularly "Children of Light", which contains some wonderful stuff that I can listen to again and again) and you'll feel happy all over.

The Best Book You've Never Read...
is "Diary of a Provincial Lady" (Academy Chicago Pub; ISBN: 0897330536, luckily still in print although only available on backorder from Amazon.com), by E.M. Delafield.  Part Thurber, part Bentley, with delicious wit and a sense of femininity that comes through even though this was the most liberated wife and mother that Provincial England of the 30's could imagine, this is one wickedly funny book.

It's hard to say how much is true (although her follow-up book, "Provincial Lady in London", an equally funny and must read book, refers to her notoriety from the publishing of this first book) but even if none of it is true it ought to be.  Sadly, I've not been able to locate any of her other books ("...in Russia", "...in America" , "...during Wartime") but I suspect they're all gems.

My only regret is that I wasn't alive when this lovely, witty, sexy woman lived.  I'd have done my damnedest to steal her from her husband.

The Best Card Game You've Never Played...
is "Oh Hell".  The beauty of the game is that you can teach it to anyone within five minutes, and yet the strategy can be as intricate and devious as any game devised.  It's best played by four, but three make a decent game, and you can have an extremely wild game with five or six (I've never tried it with more than six).

Here's the rules: you start by dealing one card to each player, and then turn one card up.  This card is the trump card.  The person to the dealer's left will lead to the trick.  You must follow suit if you can, and high card played wins the trick, unless trumped (in which high trump wins).  For the next hand you deal two cards to each player, as deal passes to the left, and so on, until the last round (for four people that will be 13 cards apiece -- with three it's best to stop at 15 cards).  The last round is no trump -- no card is turned over.

Sounds simple, so what's the catch?  The catch is that before the play of each hand starts each player, starting with the dealer, makes a bid as to how many tricks they think they will win (obviously the first hand can be either 1 or 0, subsequent hands go higher).  If they make the number they bid, they get that number of points.  But if they make less or more, they get zero.  If you bid zero you get five points, plus the number of cards in the hand (because the more cards the harder it is to take no tricks at all).

If you see you can't make your bid your strategy is to make sure no one else does either.  Try it, it's a riot.

The Best State Park You've Never Visited...
Is Point Lobos state park, in Carmel, California.  Many people will visit the Monterey area and go on the famous 17 mile drive without ever having stopped at this jewel.  A tiny park that can be explored in a day, it boasts some of the most tremendous views of the Pacific coast available.  Sea lions, sea birds, rocky beaches with dramatic spray (see Trip Photos), this park has a lot to offer.  If you're visiting on the weekend come early -- once the park fills up with it's allotment of cars (currently 400) no more are allowed in until some leave.  It opens 10am year round.

The Best Restaurant You've Never Eaten at...
on the West Coast (we're going to hedge here a little) is The White Orchid, in the PepperMill in Reno.  Although located in the middle of a casino, once inside the atmosphere is elegant and the food four star.  Try the filet mignon with blue cheese melting over the top.  Delicious!

Back East we'd be hard pressed to think of a better place to dine than Victoria and Albert's, in the Grand Floridian Hotel in Disney World.  Yep, the gimmick of having all the waiters and waitresses named Victoria and Albert is a little much, but the food is superb and the pampering exceptional.  There are two servings each night, and make sure you book a few months in advance.

The Best Ride You've Never Ridden...
is at Disney World, the Thunder Mountain Railroad is a pretty nice ride, but the absolute best ride you can ever have is right before they shut it down.

When it rains hard in Florida (as it does, every day) they will shut down this outdoor ride.  There's a certain level of water on the track that's acceptable, and once that's reached for safety's sake no more trains move.  But if you can catch it right, as we did one memorable afternoon, you can ride the last train before it closes. 

If you do, you'll experience a ride like no other.  Rain and wind whipping in your face, you'll get far wetter than even the river raft ride in the Animal Kingdom (which is designed to get you wet).  It's exhilarating and quite wonderful.


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