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Friday, February 27, 2015

The End of Power by Moises Maim

The subtitle of this book is "From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States: Why Being in Charge Isn't What it Used to Be".

The author had an influential position in the Venezuelan government prior to Hugo Chavez, and it is hard to imagine that what happened in his country didn't influence his world view.  The book first describes what power is, and how it has coercive components are well as ways to incentivize compliance.  He describes the rise of power, and what has happened in later later half of the 20th century into the 21st century to erode the power base of both companies and governments.  He is not predicting the end of control in traditional establishments such church and state, but rather that they have less influence than in the past.  The author attributes this to the emergence of social media and the ability of people who want change to connect with each other in a way that is unprecedented combined with the increasing globalization of the world economy.  Dominance is no longer possible, and there are two things to take away from this.  The first is that voting and staying engaged is very important, more so than at any other time in history, and acknowledging and accepting that no government will be the dominant force it might once have been.  A quick and interesting read.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Los Danzantes, Oaxaca, Mexico

This is one of the restaurants that is oft written about in Oaxaca, and the truth be told, the neuvo Oaxacan food movement is not entirely to my taste.  I prefer thetraditional over the fussy in Oaxaca--at least when I am only there for a matter of days.  Perhaps if I could get may fill of the corn tortilla and chili based cuisine then after a month or so I might have the appropriate palate for this place.  Where the food and the atmosphere are both beautiful.
Our dinner got off on the wrong foot with our beverage choices.  We had been having mescal margaritas that highlighted the smokiness of the mescal married with sweet and sour flavors.  Our drinks were odd colors and too much on the sweet side for our tastes.  The next course was a delicious salad that saved the day.  The entree pictured at left is a traditional one. The chili pepper is stuffed with a black corn mixture with the texture of posole, but without the broth.  Well done, but not quite to our taste.  The scattered grasshoppers were well fried and spiced with lime, salt, and chili. 

I would recommend trying several options amongst diners in order to sample the cuisine.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

Maggie (Kristin Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) are estranged twins.  Their relationship ruptured when they were in high school.  Milo was having an affair with a teacher, something that he feels was the best relationship of his life, and Maggie brought it to everyone's attention.  The teacher lost his job and the twins were never the same.  Maggie stayed in upstate New York and Milo went to LA to try his hand at acting, which went about as well as you might expect.  They are reunited a decade later when Milo is found with his wrists slashed in his bathtub.

Now Maggie is no paragon of mental health either--she is pictured in the bathroom about to take a handful of pills when she gets the call that Milo needs her.  They come by their dysphoria honestly.  Their father committed suicide when they were 14 and their mother is the epitome of self-centeredness.  Not up to the task of shepherding her children through adolescence, much less trauma.  The movies is about the complicated path back to friendship that the twins manage to eventually negotiate.  Nicely done, if sad.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Casa de los Sabores Cooking School, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the things I would recommend doing in Oaxaca is to take a cooking class.  I took one with Susana Trilling at Seasons of My Heart last time, and this time my spouse and I took one with Pilar Cabrera.  Both of the classes were excellent and both of them take the class to the market to get to know the food you are going to cook and the people who grow it.

Pilar's class meets at her restaurant in el centro de Oaxaca called Las Ollas, and from there proceeds to the market, and then to her house for the food preparation and the meal.

We made a quesadilla appetizer filled with squash blossoms, thinly sliced red onions, fresh epazote, and fresh Oaxacan cheese (which is wild to find in the market because it is all rolled up in a ball that resembles a ball of yarn, and the cheese is unwound from the ball to cook with it).  The end result was outstanding, but the truth is that we have squash blossoms a tiny fraction of the year and reproducing this at home is going to be an uncommon event.  The best part was that while we bought the fresh masa from the market, we learned the consistency with which to make the masa in order to have the tortillas come out right and we cooked them.  When we got home we found out two things--our local Mexican groceria has fresh masa, and we are not too bad at making it ourselves from masa harina.  We bought both a ceramic and a metal comal (the surface on which you cook the tortillas) so we have the ability to make them the traditional way.

The Sopa de Lima was the second course.  Limas are not widely available in Iowa (they are somewhere between a lime and an orange), but it may be possible to substitute.  The soup is delicious and light.  We also had cochinita pibil, a marinated pork dish that is cooked in banana leaves and also quite delicious.  The entire experience was fun, enough hands on to learn something, and to top it off, there was a mescal tasting to round out the afternoon.  Since we have been home we have used the skills that we learned in this class, which is a testament to the quality of the teacher.

Monday, February 23, 2015


These are little mouthfuls of flavor that come from the Isthmus region of Oaxaca.  The size is 3-4" in diameter, and the disks are thicker than tortillas.  They are topped with:
Shredded pork or beef that is spiced
Queso fresco
Pickled cabbage

The garnacha base is made with fresh masa, which can be bought at a Latin grocery store or made with masa harina.  If you make it, be sure to let it sit for a while so the corn flour can fully rehydrate and you can get the texture of the dough right.  It should not crack when you knead it and if it does crack, you can add a bit more water.  Rick Bayless' version starts with fresh masa, but he adds shortening or lard and a bit of sugar.  The disks are flattened like tortillas, but left about twice as thick and instead of cooking them on a griddle or a comal, you fry them in oil until they are browned and crisp on the outside.  They will still be a bit moist on the inside.  Once they are done, you top them with the meat, a bit of salsa, and then queso freco sprinkled on top.  Serve it with a freshly pickled cabbage as an appetizer.  Phenomenal!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Labor Day (2014)

This is an oddly atmospheric movie that was critically unpopular, but I, once again, felt differently.  Maybe it is because I have seen women like the character that Kate Winslet plays, and while I do not get them at all, I see that there are more than a handful of them, and so to spend 2 hours in a movie thinking about them is well worth my time.

Adele (Winslet) is a fragile woman with phobic traits who lives almost entirely within the four walls of her house.  She ventures out with her son Henry to shop when it is absolutely necessary and it is only with great effort and anxiety that she manages that.  We find out that she has had numerous miscarriages and the sadness of that endless loss broke up her marriage, but she strikes me as someone who was anxious even before that.  It is on one of her grocery trips that she and Henry are more or less abducted by Frank, an escaped prisoner convicted of murdering his wife.  His plan is to hole up with them until he can catch a train out of town.  Unfortunately for him it is Labor Day weekend and so he is stuck there for days rather than hours, and over that time Adele becomes quite fond of him.  He cooks, he cleans, he fixes things.  He teaches Henry to play baseball and make pie.  He is tightly wound and violence simmers beneath his surface, but he has something in him that makes Adele brave, braver than she has been in years.  All does not go well in the short run, but the long run is another story altogether.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

El Biche Pobre, Oaxaca, Mexico

Our guide in Oaxaca, Pablo Gonzalez Marsch, told us about this restaurant, which is an easy walk from the downtown area.  He is an exceptional guide, and he has very similar taste in food to us.  He highly recommended the sampler plate here, and even though it was only 11:00 in the morning, my spouse thought that we each needed an enormous platter with 12 different dishes on each of them.

Well, he was wrong about our ability to consume that much food that early in the day, but otherwise he was spot on.  The food is delicious, and all the classic Oaxacan dishes are represented.  Pablo said that we should be sure not to miss eating the bean tostada.  He said that every time he goes, he has to take something home and usually he chooses the bean tostada.  However, on his last visit, he ate it early on, just to see what he was missing, and the bean tostada was delicious.  That is the danger here, and if you go with someone who will share with you, I recommend sharing one of these between two people.  But I definitely recommend going.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chicken Breasts Dijon

This is an easy week night meal that is relatively low fat and very flavorful.  We served it with a green salad, roasted cauliflower with panko and parmesan, and green beans with mushrooms.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 onion, minced (about 1 cup)
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups  stock
  • 1 cup  white wine
  • 1/2 cup Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme plus thyme leaves for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon  butter
  • Heat oil in a large heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Place chicken in Dutch oven and cook until brown on both sides, 12-15 minutes total. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
  • Place leeks and onion in same pot and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, wine, Dijon mustard, and minced thyme and bring to a simmer. Return chicken to pot. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes.
  • Transfer chicken to plates. Bring liquid in pot to a boil; cook until sauce is thickened and glossy, about 15 minutes. Whisk in butter and season with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over chicken and garnish with thyme leaves.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Garden of Words (2013)

The Garden of Words is from the talented director Makoto Shinkai. The film follows Takao Akizuki, a 15 year-old aspiring shoe designer, as he ditches his first period of school on rainy days to draw shoe designs in a park that is lushly green with a shelter of sorts. On one particular rainy day, Takao encounters the much older Yukari Yukino drinking beer and eating chocolate in his favorite spot. What follows is their interactions over the course of the rainy season and beyond. Yukari has been shamed and she is slowly drowning her sorrows in two of the lesser destructive vices available to her, and Takao is both trying to save her and trying to design a shoe for her that will make him forget that she is almost twice his age.

The reason to watch this film, which is well under an hour in length, is not so much for the story line but for the lush scenery that is the hallmark of Japanese animation.  The people's faces are so undetailed as to be anonymous but the landscape and the rain are just spectacular, the best I have ever seen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oil Cloth, Oaxaca, Mexico

The name is historical rather than accurate.  Oil cloth was cotton material that was upholstery weight and then heavily oiled to make it more or less water repellant.  The industry was moved from the Untied States to Mexico long ago, but what is widely produced today under the name oil cloth retains the vibrant colors and fruit and floral designs but is now made entirely of plastic.  It is the tablecloth that graces eating establishments throughout Oaxaca, whether the diner is eating inside or out.  The designs are festive and cheerful, and the product is very affordable.
On my last trip to Oaxaca I neglected to bring back any oil cloth, save ones that had been made into bags.  I regretted that oversight and remedied it on my most recent trip.  My purchase was made at the Sunday market in Tlacalula, where there are many options to choose from and best of all, none of them is really a bad choice.  It is the sort of thing that you see so much of when you are there you wonder if it is trite to bring home, but in the end you are glad that you did.  A bonus is that it is very easy to fit into a suitcase.  I have not completely settled on what I will do with the cloth I brought home but I am very glad to have it.