Opus Card Problems

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Opus card. It has made using public transit in Montreal a lot easier, at least in terms of buying and using tickets and passes. The single, rechargable “chip” card makes a lot of sense, and I’ve had no real problems with it. Well, except for what I’m about to describe.

opus cardSome background: I live “off island,” on the South Shore of Montreal where the transit system (RTL) is separate from Montreal’s STM. Generally, this presents no problem; I pay a bit extra to get a monthly pass that I can use on both systems. (The standard STM monthly pass is $72.75, while my combined RTL/STM pass is $113).

Before the Opus system was installed, the pass was a paper card with a magnetic stripe. I’d get in line a few days before the end of each month and would buy a new pass for the upcoming month from a ticket agent. I had to buy these passes at the terminus in Longueuil, as they were not for sale at the regular STM outlets. Again, not a problem as I passed through the terminus twice a day, five days a week.

With the Opus card it’s even easier. I have one rechargeable card that I can recharge at a machine. Sadly, although Opus recharging machines exist in virtually every Metro station on the STM system, I could only recharge my combined RTL/STM pass at the terminus Longueuil. A bit of a setback, but no biggie since passing through the terminus was part of my commute.

Then, last June, I was thrust into a new situation. Due to an externally imposed (but ultimately welcome) “sabbatical,” I did not have a need to commute into Montreal five times a week. I knew I’d be going into town frequently, but I didn’t think it was worth buying a full monthly pass. I thought it might be better to buy my tickets a la carte.

That’s where it gets complicated.

It’s complicated because when you’re paying “per ride” on my commute, you’re not just dealing with two systems, you’re dealing with three. Or more precisely, two and a half. Or maybe two and a virtual. It’s like this:

  • RTL tickets are needed to ride the bus from my house to the Terminus Longueuil, where the STM Metro’s yellow line terminates (and all RTL busses terminate). Those tickets are $3.10 each, or six for $16.75.
  • STM tickets are needed to ride the Montreal Metro and bus system. Those tickets are $3.00 each, or six for $14.25 and 10 for $22.50.
  • Special STM tickets are needed if you are starting your STM ride in Longueuil. This is because some idiots feel that any Metro station that’s “off island” should charge more. (People taking the Metro from any of the three stations in Laval also pay extra.) These tickets cost $3.00 with no discount for bulk purchases. (Re-read that, and ask yourself if it makes any sense.)

It gets worse:

  • RTL tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines at the Terminus Longueuil, on the ground floor level.
  • Regular STM tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines in STM Metro stations, with the exception of the Longueuil station (and most likely the Laval stations).
  • Special Longueuil STM tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines at the Terminus Longueuil, on the Metro level (the level below where the Opus machines for the RTL are).

Did you catch that? I have to go to three different locations to buy all the tickets I need to get around on a per-ticket basis.

It gets even worse:

Once you’ve put the three different kinds of tickets on your Opus card, you have to keep track of how many of each you have left so you don’t end up stuck with the dreaded red light on the turnstile when you’re in a big hurry to get somewhere. This would be OK if the readers on the Opus machines gave a clear indication, but they don’t. They do not distinguish between the two different kinds of STM tickets!

Here’s a blurry picture of what my Opus card contained one day a couple of weeks ago. It shows how many tickets I have for each of the three variations. The one in the middle is obvious, as it says “RTL.” But can you tell which, between the top one and the bottom one, is the regular STM tickets (for use only on the island of Montreal) and which is the one I need to enter the system in Longueuil?

Opus Card Recharge screen

If I’m down to one or two of the top variety and have six or eight of the bottom variety, which one do I recharge? (Bearing in mind that each requires being at a different geographical location in order to recharge.)

The Solution(s)

The solutions are easy, at least in theory. The hard part is getting the human beings behind two or more disparate systems to work together for the benefit of the riding public. Believe me, that’s no easy task.

But if they were to find the desire to fix it, here’s how to do it:

Solution, Part 1

This is easy: reprogram the interface so it differentiates between regular STM tickets and “off-island” STM tickets. Look at the photo above; by checking my status before and after using an off-island ticket, I was able to deduce that the top item refers to those tickets. I have since written it in Sharpie on my Opus card, which is about the most inelegant solution ever. But if the screen said:

  • STM-off-island
  • RTL
  • STM

…then I’d know at a glance what tickets I have available. It’s a simple matter of labeling. Is that so hard?

Solution, Part 2

This bit is harder because it involves (a) getting networks to work together (somewhat difficult) and (b) getting people to commit to getting networks to work together (very difficult).

If the networks had better awareness of each other — and the labels were clearer — then I’d be able to go to any Opus recharging station anywhere on the system and load up with whatever tickets I need.

The most frustrating part is that the systems are aware of each other; at any Opus recharging station all three types of tickets are shown on the console. They just don’t let you purchase anything other than the ones that are allowed at that station.

That is as stupid and user-unfriendly as anything I’ve seen, and it is (at least in theory) easy to fix.

Cannellini Beans

I used to hate beans. Couldn’t stand them in any variety or variation. Fortunately I managed to get over that dislike a few years ago and my colon is eternally grateful.

While I’m still not crazy about classic old fashioned baked beans (I can’t fully erase my childhood revulsion) I’ve become a big fan of some of the bean dishes that I’ve discovered since my turnaround. These include refried beans, bean salads, pork and beans, and the ultimate simple bean dish, Tuscan white beans with sage.

That last dish, Tuscan white beans with sage, is little more than white beans done up with a bit of garlic, sage, olive oil, and tomatoes. Martine introduced it to me a few years ago as a dish she used to make when she lived in San Francisco. The classic Tuscan way is to go very light on the tomatoes or even omit them entirely. But Martine and I are not Tuscan so we gladly go heavier on the red sauce because we like it so much. Intentare una causa su di me.

One of the keys to good Tuscan bean dishes is to use the right beans. There are, in fact, many types of Italian white beans, but the ones you are most likely to find on this side of the pond (and which are, for my money, the best choice anyway) are cannellini beans.

If only it were that simple.

It gets complicated because there seems to be some confusion here in North America as to what exactly are cannellini beans. The Italians don’t seem to have any problem with this, but most North American sources I’ve checked say they’re just white kidney beans. You might even find an Italian source who agrees, but if so it’s because that Italian source doesn’t really know American white kidney beans.

The two are related, but are not the same.

True Italian cannellini beans have a longer, more oblong shape than kidney beans (which are, ahem, kidney shaped). More importantly, cannellini beans have softer and more delicate skins, and a noticeably creamier interior. Taste-wise, they’re probably similar although I have not done a side-by-side comparison of undressed beans. But the texture difference is significant, and it’s enough to make me seek out the real thing for more refined bean dishes such as Tuscan white beans or Pasta e fagioli all’isolana. White kidney beans, on the other hand, are better for dishes where there’s a lot more stuff in the pot, such as chili.

cannellini beans

Beautiful cannellini beans.

In my experience – which admittedy is not vast but at least notable – I have not been able to find real cannellini beans that are sourced from North America. I recently bought some Canadian white beans that were labeled as both white kidney beans and “cannellini” (the quotation marks were on the label). They were not cannellini beans. They were decent enough white kidney beans, but not cannellinis.

Here in Montreal I’ve only found two brands of authentic Italian cannellini beans (both imported from Italy). The easiest to find are the Bioitalia brand organic cannellini beans, which you can find at any decent natural foods store and most Italian grocers (such as Milano on Boul. St-Laurent and the Valmont chain of green grocers). You can also find them in the specialty section of most regular supermarkets like IGA, Provigo, and Loblaw’s. They’re not cheap; they generally run between $2.50 and $2.80 for a 398 ml can.

If you look a bit harder you can find Bernardo brand cannellini beans (non-organic) for less. They have them at Milano for something like $1.29 for a 400 ml can. [Update: I was at Milano today (Nov. 21/11) and they are .89 a can!]

By the way, forget about finding them dried. I’ve looked all over and haven’t found them. Martine saw some marked “cannellini” in a store on Market Street in San Francisco but it was too large a bag to lug around all day so she didn’t buy them and therefore I can’t comment on their authenticity. There’s a place where you can order US-grown so-called cannellini beans online, but shipping to Canada is expensive, and based on the photographs on the site they look like white kidney beans, not cannellinis.

Thus, if you find yourself contemplating a bean recipe that calls for cannellini beans, be aware that you can substitute white kidney beans or even white navy beans, but your result will not be as refined and luscious as if you take the trouble to seek out and use the real thing.

After all that, here’s something to get you started.

Blork’s Quick & Saucy Tuscan White Beans with Sage

Ingredients

  • 2 400 ml cans of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed.
  • 1/2 a 800 ml can of whole Italian tomatoes. (You can use the other half of the can that you used a few days ago to make Pasta e fagioli all’isolana).
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced paper thin (or minced; your choice)
  • 4 or 5 fresh sage leaves, slivered (be careful not to use too much; sage can be harsh when overused)
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • A sprinkle of grated Parmesano Reggiano for serving

Method

  1. Warm half of the olive oil in a deep saucepan and add the garlic.
  2. Sweat the garlic for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until it starts to turn translucent (don’t let it brown; the heat should be low enough that the garlic barely sizzles).
  3. Add the sage and stir for 30 seconds or so.
  4. Add the tomatoes and turn up the heat so it simmers. Stir and use a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes.
  5. Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, checking two or three times to make sure it’s not cooking too hard (give it a stir and further break up the tomatoes).
  6. Add the rinsed cannellini beans and a bit of salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for another 20-30 minutes, again checking two or three times, and gently stirring.
  7. Turn off the heat. Stir in the rest of the olive oil. Check, and if necessary adjust, the seasoning.

Serve hot or warm with a sprinkle of grated Parmesano Reggiano.

Yeild: four side dishes or two hearty mains. This goes well with grilled Italian sausages, roasted meat or poultry, or on its own with some crusty bread and a salad.

Note: For a more “authentic” Tuscan version, cut the amount of tomatoes in half and add a bit more olive oil at the end. For a super saucy version, double the amount of tomatoes used.

tuscan white beans with tomato and sage

This is how tomatoey the recipe above makes it.

Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara

Don’t freak out, I haven’t become a vegetarian (not that there’s anything wrong with that). While I am trying to cut down on the amount of meat I eat, this recipe was borne of necessity: I was out of pancetta.

To be precise, it was 6:30 PM and Martine and I were pooped and hungry after a 20+ km bike ride. Unusually, I had not planned anything for dinner that night, so I had to come up with something quick using available ingredients. I knew there was a pile of cremini mushrooms that were asking to be eaten, so I thought I’d bang up a quick spaghetti with mushrooms, garlic, and olive oil, along with a bit of Parmesano Reggiano. Quick, simple, and tasty,

As I was getting the stuff ready, I found myself thinking of spaghetti carbonara and wishing I hadn’t run out of pancetta. Then it occurred to me; if I added eggs, I would essentially be making spaghetti carbonara, minus the pancetta and plus the mushrooms.

But here’s the thing; the mushrooms in this dish are not intended to imitate pancetta. That would be a hopeless ambition. However, I wanted to make sure the mushrooms were as unctuous as possible so as to at least put them in the same neighbourhood, a sort of umami that would not be found by merely sautéing the mushrooms. That meant I had to literally brown the mushrooms.

So what, you might say. Browning, sautéing. What’s the diff? Well, most people never actually brown the mushrooms that they think they’re browning. If you load up the pan with mushrooms and then sauté them (which means to cook them quickly while stirring or tossing) they will cook but they won’t really brown.

To properly brown the mushrooms you need to follow Julia Child’s classic and sage advice; don’t crowd the pan and don’t stir them too much. Crowding the pan causes the mushrooms to steam instead of brown. You need the pieces far enough apart so that the steam dissipates without blasting the other pieces. Take away the steam and you get a nice Maillard reaction, which is a fancy way of saying “browning.”

You’ll probably have to brown your mushrooms in two or three batches, depending on how many you’re browning and how big your pan is. I used a 10-inch skillet and it took two batches to brown a dozen mushrooms cut between 5 and 7 mm thick.

raw mushrooms

So here’s the deal; to brown the mushrooms, put a thin coat of olive oil in the pan and heat it up until it’s shimmering. Then put the mushrooms in the pan, one by one, until the pan is full of mushrooms with a good half centimeter distance between each. This distance will increase as the mushrooms give off their liquid. If you’ve sautéed mushrooms before you’ll know that when mushrooms give off their liquid the pan usually gets very moist. You want to avoid this, and by not overloading the pan you will.

frying mushrooms

Don’t move the mushrooms as they cook. Let ’em sit there, browning. You can lift the pan and swirl it around if there is oil or mushroom moisture accumulating somewhere, but don’t stir the mushrooms.

After a few minutes you’ll see the edges browning. At that point, flip them. I recommend using tongs and doing it one by one. (Using a spatula is frustrating because when you flip them they always land browned side down.) By the way, think in advance and add the raw mushrooms to the pan beginning at one side and moving towards the other (I go from left to right). That way, the timing works when you individually flip them following the same pattern.

At the end of this process you’ll have a nice dish of properly browned mushrooms. Julia would be proud.

bowl of browned mushrooms

Below, then, is my recipe for vegetarian spaghetti carbonara, which I’m going to call Blork’s Spaghetti alla Funghonara. This is adapted from Blork’s Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

the final result

Blork’s Spaghetti alla Fungonara (for two)

Ingredients:

  • About a dozen crimini mushrooms, thickly sliced.
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, minced.
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*).
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romana cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*).
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk (ideally, eggs should be at room temperature).
  • 180 g of spaghetti.
  • 3 tbsp olive oil.
  • Salt to taste.
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Method:

  1. Brown the mushrooms in 2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat until they are nice and browned. (See above for notes on browning.) Set aside in a bowl tossed with a bit of salt.
  2. Lower the heat, add more olive oil to the pan, and sweat the garlic for a couple of minutes until it’s translucent. (Unlike with the mushrooms, you do not want to brown the garlic). Add the translucent garlic to the mushrooms and mix well.
  3. Mix the egg and egg yolk in a small bowl with a tablespoon or two of water (you don’t have to beat it like crazy, just mix it up a bit).
  4. Mix 3/4 of the cheese in with the eggs.
  5. Boil the pasta until it is al dente. (Set aside a bit of the cooking water.)
  6. When the pasta is ready, strain it in a colander and dump it back into the warm pot.
    (Tip: let the pot cool for a minute before you put the pasta back into it: you want it warm but not blazing hot. Rinse with a tiny bit of cool water if necessary. Optionally, put the pasta in a warmed bowl instead.)
  7. Toss the egg-cheese mix into the hot pasta and stir it up so the heat of the pasta cooks the egg and everything gets nicely integrated. It should create a nice velvety sauce. If it’s a bit too thick or dry, slosh in a spoonful or two of the hot pasta water, but be careful! Too much will break the sauce.
  8. Scratch in a lot of freshly ground pepper and add the mushrooms along with some or all of the pan drippings and toss. If it tightens up, slosh in another spoonful of pasta water and stir it up.
  9. When everything is sufficiently mixed, divide into warm bowls and top with the rest of the cheese. (No salt is needed – between the salted mushrooms and the cheeses, it’s plenty salty.)

Enjoy!

* When you use a fine microplane grater (the kind that’s also use for zesting) you get a much higher apparent volume of cheese per gram because there’s a lot more air mixed in. If using such a grater, you’ll want a loose cup of each kind of cheese.  (Next time I make this dish I’ll try to remember to weigh the cheese, which will give a much better idea of the appropriate amount.)

[Update: Since the original publication of this recipe I have stopped using a microplane grater for Parmesan and pecorino cheeses that I want to melt into a sauce. I find that the microplaned cheese tends to melt too fast, causing lumps. I’m back to using a regular fine grater.]

Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.