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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon does a very believable job of convincing us that she was a drug addled sex addict who frittered away a perfectly good marriage to a seemingly likable guy and in order to get her life back on track she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail.  Which may seem like yet another symptom of bad decisions that heroin addicts make, but in many ways what did not kill her made her stronger.

She has absolutely no experience hiking when she sets off on her three month 1,100 mile adventure in endurance.  She is literally pulling everything out of it's packing material the night before she sets off in the Mojave Desert, so laden down with weight that when she tips over she is like a turtle on her back.  She gets the wrong fuel for her stove, and her hiking boots are a size too small, which is almost the most unbelievable part of the story that she made it through the desert in them.

I know, it sounds like misery to watch this movie, but it is strangely peaceful to watch a woman gradually get herself on a better path, one that she was able to sustain (in the real life version of the story).  And there is some gorgeous scenery along the way.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Arturo Garcia Bustos Mural, Oaxaca, Mexico

These are some scenes from the Palacio de Gobierno building in the center of Oaxaca.  It runs up the main stiarcase and is impossible to miss.  The mural is grand in both size and scope, and breathtaking to look at.  It was painted by Arturo Garcia Bustos.  He began his career at La Esmerelda School of Painting and Sculpture, which opened  in 1942 with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and other well-known artists as faculty.  He began his career as a muralist with Diego Rivera in 1947. 
When Frida's failing health no longer allowed her to continue teaching at the school, she invited the students to her Blue House in Coyoacan to continue their classes. Arturo and three other students continued to study with Frida. This group came to be known as Los Fridos, because of their devotion to Frida.
The painted this mural in 1980 to depict the the history of Meixco, both before and after the Conquistedors arrival.  depicts famous Oaxacans and Oaxacan history, including Benito Juárez and his wife Margarita Maza, and José María Morelos, Porfirio Díaz, Vicente Guerrero (being shot at Cuilapan) and 17th-century nun and love poet Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lemon Risotto with Summer Squash

We had a dinner for some riders on RAGBRAI.  Since they have been bicycling 60+ miles a day for almost a week and potentially eating at spaghetti dinners in churches, we wanted carbs but not pasta, and this was a delicious way to enjoy summer squash as well.

  • 7 to 8 cups vegetable stock, as needed
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup minced onion
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 pound summer squash (mixed varieties), diced
  • 1 ½ cups arborio or carnaroli rice
  • 1 to 2 garlic cloves (to taste), green shoots removed, minced
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • ½ cup dry white wine, like pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped lemon zest
  • 1 to 2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Put your stock or broth into a saucepan, and bring it to a simmer over low heat with a ladle nearby or in the pot. Make sure that the stock or broth is well seasoned.
  2. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy nonstick skillet. Add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about five minutes. Add the squash and a generous pinch of salt. Turn the heat up to medium high, and cook, stirring often, until the squash is translucent but not too soft, about five minutes.
  3. Stir in the rice and the garlic, and stir until the grains separate and begin to crackle. Add the wine, and stir until it has been absorbed. Turn the heat back down to medium, and begin adding the simmering stock a couple of ladlefuls (about 1/2 cup) at a time. The stock should just cover the rice and should be bubbling, not too slowly but not too quickly. Cook, stirring often, until the rice is just about absorbed. Add another ladleful or two of the stock, and continue to cook in this fashion, stirring in more stock when the rice is almost dry. You do not have to stir constantly, but stir often.
  4. When the rice is tender all the way through but still chewy, in about 25 minutes, it is done. Taste now and adjust seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Add another ladleful of stock to the rice. Stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley and Parmesan. Remove from the heat. The mixture should be creamy (add more stock if it isn’t). Serve right away in wide soup bowls or on plates, spreading the risotto in a thin layer rather than a mound.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Selma (2014)

This is a biopic that is focused on one moment in time for the celebrated leader Martin Luther King, Jr., much like the movie Lincoln did for the life of Abraham Lincon.  The event was a pivotal one for King, and the story allows for an illumination of his character, his charm, and his flaws while describing a time in history.

There is really no drama in the story itself since everyone knows what is going to happen.  So the telling becomes all the more important, and that is pulled off very well in this movie, despite the fact that none of the actors, with the possible exception of Tim Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson), looks at all similar the the people they are portraying. 

These people were very brave.  They were motivated by justice and their lives were oppressed, but they had a lot to lose, and the movie uses some clips of the actual march to show the risks and the marchers bravery.  Two things struck me while I was watching the movie. The first was the use of the Confederate flag to demonstrate white superiority.  It is just such a red flag, pun intended.  The other is how little has changed in the intervening years.  The suppression of voting is still with us.  The burning of black churches in the south is still with us.  The unequal treatment of African Americans under the law is still with us.  All of this 150 years after the Civil War.  The arc of history is indeed long when it comes to change.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

RollnGo, Dallas, TX

I was recently at a week long conference in Dallas.  The hotel was not in a central location, the conference was lengthy and intense, and the weather was hot and a little bit humid.  So we were far from the well-known parts of Dallas, there wasn’t much spare time, and the weather did not encourage venturing far from the meeting center.  Lucky for me, there was a nearby take out restaurant that had a range of Vietnamese food and the largest selection of fresh spring rolls that I have seen. 

I had the shrimp sausage spring roll, which was a delicious mix of shredded vegetables and a long slice of shrimp sausage (which is minced shrimp with spices and water chestnuts that is similar to what you would have in shu mei or shrimp dim sum) with a side of pickled daikon and carrots.  They were great and very different from the lemongrass chicken spring rolls that my table mate ordered.  They also have a range of bahn mi, bun bowls, pho, and rice platters as you would expect at a Vietnamese restaurant, and the price was very reasonable.  The grilled pork bahn mi did not disappoint.  The service was swift.  Don’t be dissuaded by the mirror ball on the ceiling or the music that pervades the restaurant.  The food is good and you can grab and go, or sit and eat.  It is not haute cuisine by any means, but as fast food it is wonderful.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer Squash Casserole

This is a great way to hide squash, or to take a break from it in mid-summer when the grilling and sauteeing have waned in the enthusiasm they engender. Delicious and easy.

  • 7 tablespoons butter 
  •  2 pounds yellow summer squash
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 bell peppers of any color chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped 
  • 24 Ritz crackers, crumbed in food processor
  • ½ pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Bread crumbs for the top 

    1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 21/2-quart baking dish. Cut the squash into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cook in boiling, salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Purée in a food processor.
    2. Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and peppers and cook until just tender. Meanwhile, crumb the toast in a food processor, melt remaining butter and toss together.
    3. Mix the squash purée, cracker crumbs and cheese. Stir in the eggs, cream, sugar and seasonings. Blend well. Pour into the baking dish. Top with bread crumbs and bake until browned, about 40 minutes.

    Friday, July 24, 2015

    Ex Machina (2015)

    This is a deeply creepy, very well done sci-fi thriller that explores the territory of artificial intelligence and whether we should fear it.  It is much slicker than an updated 2001:A Space Odyssey with the same final message.  The movie is equal parts ordinary and unique. 

    Ava is the robot.  Nathan is the multi-billionaire who designed her.  He made his money from designing the world's most widely used search engine, and then he used data that he mined from billions of people's search histories to create Ava.  He brings Caleb to his isolated and secure combination home/laboratory to perform the Turin Test on Ava, to evaluate whether she is actually able to think and feel on her own.  The thriller part is who is zooming whom.  The striking part is a strikingly smart, unique and profoundly powerful exploration into the very essence of existence, weaving together thought-provoking questions on everything from philosophy to psychology, language to sexuality, religion to death and art to technology.

    Thursday, July 23, 2015

    Hen of the Wood, Burlington, Vermont

     There are two of these in Vermont, but we only got to the one in downtown Burlington.  It was not our favorite place that we ate on the trip, but it was very good, and after a dinner there we returned to sit at the bar and have oysters and a cider concoction that they have that is quite good called Citizen's Punch on another occasion.  Any restaurant that is worth a return visit on a short trip has got to be good.

    Instead of having an entrée, we opted for multiple appetizers and small plates.  The restaurant is well known for hen of the wood mushrooms on toast with a poached egg on top, as well as it's home cured meats and sausages, so we opted for those, and were not disappointed.  Both were flavorful and unlike food that we can get at home, so doubly enjoyable.  The only thing that we got that I thought was not a great bang for the buck was the cheese plate.  Portions were small, quality was just okay, and it was overpriced.  Otherwise it was a great dining experience.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2015

    Spicy Lacquered Chicken Wings

     We made this on a grill extravaganza day of lower heat grilling and they were the hands down winner of the meats made.  Delicious, flavorful, spicy, and the oranges really add to the overall flavor.

    3 pounds meaty chicken wings       

  • Salt
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons rice wine or sherry
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon five-spice powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1 small cucumber, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 6 scallions, slivered
  • 2 or 3 small hot red chiles, very thinly sliced (or hot green chiles), optional
  • 2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves
  • 2 navel oranges, sliced                          

    1. Rinse the wings, pat dry, season lightly with salt and put them in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, five-spice powder, cayenne and orange zest, then pour over the wings and massage well. Let marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or refrigerate (overnight is fine) and bring to room temperature.
    2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the wings in one layer in a low-sided baking dish or roasting pan (or use 2 pans) and place on middle shelf. Every 8 to 10 minutes, brush the wings with the marinade from the pan, adding 3 or 4 tablespoons water to dissolve the juices as necessary. Continue until well browned, glazed and cooked through, about 40 to 45 minutes. The wings may be cooked ahead and reheated if desired.
    3. Pile the wings on a warm platter. Quickly assemble the garnish. In a small bowl combine the cucumber, scallions, chiles, crushed peanuts and sesame oil. Season with salt, toss lightly and scatter over the wings. Sprinkle with the cilantro. Surround with orange slices and serve.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2015

    Woman in Gold (2015)

    I very much enjoyed this somewhat syrupy but also true story about Maria Altmann's quest to compel Austria to return the 5 Klimt's that the Nazi's stole from her family home.  The woman in gold is a painting commissioned by her uncle of the Aunt Adele, who lived with her parents up until her death at a young age.  Maria and her young husband stayed in Austria almost too long, but narrowly escaped to the United States at the beginning of the war, leaving all their valuables, and her parents, behind.  When Austria begins what was largely a publicity stunt to return stolen art in the late 1990's, Maria seeks the aide of a friend's son, who is a lawyer and also the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg (aptly and understatedly played by Ryan Reynolds).  Schoenberg's law firm is extremely skeptical that he will convince the Austrian government to return a painting that is on refrigerator magnets, but they allow him to try.

    Helen Mirren is believable and likable as an elderly woman who has great ambivalence about what she is doing but firm in her belief that justice should be sought, while wanting to avoid the inevitable pain of going back to her homeland.  For Schoenberg it becomes personal somewhere in the middle of the ordeal (his family was from Warsaw, and those who did not flee died at Treblinka), and he carries forward with his case against all odds and prevails.  Nice story nicely told.