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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boyhood (2014)

This is one of the best three hour movies ever.  I am still a big fan of the 1950's epoch movies, many of which clocked in at or about the same length of Richard Linklater's movie, but none of them took over a decade to finish.  So a number of richly deserved Oscar nominations came out of this endeavor.

The movie itself is a deceptively simple endeavor.  Mason and Sam are Olivia's two children.  She had them prior to finishing college and their father took off for a place far away and seemingly failed to provide much emotional or economic support for the early years of the kid's lives.  Olivia (Patricia Arquette) packs up the kids, moves to be near her mother so she can get some childcare support and goes back to school.  She makes a series of unwise choices in men and picks up the children to move them on a basis that suits her fine but is far too frequent for their taste, and over the course of 13 years they all grow up.  For better or worse.  Nothing dramatic happens--the movie ends with Mason going to college.  Their father (Ethan Hawke) makes a serious attempt at being their father throughout their teenage years.  He doesn't berate Olivia for her choice in men, nor does he try to alienate the kids from her.  He came to fatherhood too early in life, but he has good father material in him.  It is a film that feels like watching life unfold, and I mean that in the best possible sense.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Oaxacan Caesar Salad

The big substitution here is a serrano chili for anchovies.  Heat instead of unami, but it works.  Dress the salad lightly, and save the leftover dressing for another night.  It is a great accompaniment to a Mexican dinner.  Adapted from Rick Bayless.

The Dressing
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. sherry vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 fresh serrano chile, stemmed and halved
  • Zest of 1-2 limes
  • 1 egg
  • Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon
The Croutons
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 2 cups stale bread cut into 1/2-inch cubes
The Salad
  • 2 heads romaine lettuce torn into bit sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup finely crumbled Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 c. toasted pepitos
  • 1-2 avocados diced
1. The dressing. Combine 1/2 cup of the olive oil plus all other dressing ingredients in a food processor or blender and process one full minute. Scrape into a small bowl and slowly whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Taste and add more salt if you think necessary.
2. The croutons. Turn on the oven to 350 degrees. In a small (1- to 1 1/2-quart) saucepan, combine the 1/4 cup olive oil and the garlic. Set over the lowest heat and stir every now and again until the garlic is very soft, about 20 minutes. While the garlic is cooking, spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, until completely crisp and dry, about 20 minutes. Gently mash the garlic in the oil to extract as much flavor as possible, then pour the oil through a fine mesh strainer into a small bowl. Toss the oil with the bread cubes to coat evenly, return to the oven and bake until nicely golden, about 5 more minutes.
3. Finishing the salad. In a large salad bowl, combine the lettuce and a bit of dressing. Toss to coat thoroughly, adding more dressing if needed. Add the croutons, cheese,  avocado, cilantro and pepitas and toss again. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Leaving Tabasco by Carmen Boullosa

My spouse is a man who has a great deal of difficulty leaving a free book behind.  He has read countless books that he would have returned to the library had we taken them out but that he cannot leave in the seat pocket on a plane.  As addictions go, it is a benign one but that is how this book came into our lives.  We were staying at a hotel in the very center of the tourist section of Oaxaca, where the staff spoke remarkably little English, but which had a little impromptu book exchange shelf right outside our gorgeous room.  He left something there that my mother had given him and he picked this book up.

The heroine of the story is Delmira.  She is raised in an unapologetically emotionally austere home in Tabasco.  Her mother and her grandmother are singularly unappealing and unfeeling women, and in the case of the grandmother, she has the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez character.  Delmira sees her grandmother float above the bed when she sleeps.  But that is not all--stones turn to water and there are other strange goings on.  There is a backdrop of the political changes that were going on in Mexico in that later part of the 20th century, and all in all it is a good book to read when you are enjoying some Mexican sun in the dead of winter.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

This is a very silly movie complete with juvenile jokes, potty humor, and flagrant sexual humor.  It contains sexism, racism, and religious intolerance, all of which are probably meant to make you think about those things but maybe not.  There is something offensive in this movie for everyone.  So what does it have going for it, you might ask.

Surprisingly, the answer would be that it has a lot going for it.  The first thing is the cast.  Charlize Theron is great as the reluctant wife of the baddest ass in the west (played somewhat ironically by Liam Neeson--not exactly your traditional American outlaw).  Sarah Silverman and Neil Patrick Harris are excellent in their supporting roles.  The script, written by 'Family Guy" Seth MacFarlane and is entirely consistent with his previous work.  So while this might look on the surface like it would be unbearably dumb, it is not.  It is entirely well tolerated, not for the young, but would definitely be perfect for teenage boys, but not to watch with their mothers.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sauteed Zucchini with Garlic and Lime

There is no way to make a zucchini dish this simple look delicious, but trust me, it is.  Especially if you serve it along side a meal heavy with meat and carbohydrates (we had tacos, rice, and beans) and you need something to lighten everything up a bit.  The lime flavor is spectacular.

1 lb. zucchini (about 4 small), cut into 1/2-in. pieces
1 scant tsp. salt
1 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 Tbs. vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. lime juice
Generous 1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
2 Tbs. chopped parsley 3 servings

In a colander, toss the cut zucchini with the salt; let stand over a plate or in the sink for half an hour. Rinse and dry the zucchini.

About 15 min. before serving, heat the butter and oil over low heat in a skillet large enough to hold the zucchini in a single layer. Add the garlic and stir until light brown, about 3 min. Do not burn. Scoop the garlic into a fine-mesh sieve set over a small bowl, then scrape the strained butter mixture back into the pan; set the garlic aside. Raise the heat to medium-high.

Add the zucchini to the pan and fry, stirring frequently, for 8 to 10 min. until browned and tender but still a little crunchy. Remove from the heat. Add the lime juice and toasted garlic and toss thoroughly. Sprinkle with pepper, oregano, and parsley, then mix. Taste for salt, and season if necessary. Serve in a warm dish.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

This book is a young adult mystery story--a kind of updated Nancy Drew, except that it is a duo who take on the role of detectives and solve what is going on.  Greenglass House is a former smuggler's house that is now run by the main character Milo's parents.  They have more than their fair share of modern day smugglers as guests, but the one thing that they could always count on is that Christmas would be quiet.  Not so this year.  On one dark and stormy night a guest appears unexpectedly, and then another and another until there are five guests who show up on the doorstep and even weirder, they seem to know something about each other.  Then things start to disappear and while Milo's parents are at a loss as to what to do, Milo and his new friend Meddy, the cook's daughter, investigate.

The reason I liken this to Nancy Drew is that in addition to being a mystery, the overall tone is nice.  It is something that you could read out loud, or pick up before bedtime.  It is not scary nor does evil reign.  It is something an adult would enjoy reading out loud to children.  There is a touch of magic, and some things to make you think, and overall it is a very good book of it's genre.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Neighbors (2014)

This movie is perfect for a movie night where you do not want to think.  It is apologetically juvenile and in that genre it pulls that off beautifully.  I found it tolerable but my just graduated from college son loved it.  In a lot of ways he straddles the two worlds that the movie portrays.  On the one hand, there is the frat with it's complete faith in the eternal party, brotherhood, and women as sex objects.  Zac Efron's character is the party boy who doesn't know his GPA but is pretty sure that it does not crack a 2.0.  He has not given a thought to what he going to do when college ends and he has to move out on his own.  Seth Rogan's character is one step further along the road to conventionality.  He has a wife and a baby, but he has not lost his college boy priorities.  So it is hard for him to send a clear message to the frat boys that they need to obey the neighborhood norms if they are going to live off campus. 

So there is no heavy intellectual thinking in this, a fair number of laughs, albeit some of them are cheap shots, and in the end everyone grows up just a little bit.  Enjoyable for what it is.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rice Pilaf with Roasted Chilis, Corn, and Queso Fresco

This is a recipe adapted from Rick Bayless, and is a great addition to a Mexican meal.  We recently served it as a side dish, but if you have vegetarians at the table, you can use it as part of a taco filling.  If you have vegans, put the queso fresco on the side.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup long-grain rice
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups stock
Salt, to taste
4  poblano chiles, roasted peeled, seeded, and diced (or more)
1 cup corn
3/4 cup crumbled Mexican queso fresco
Cilantro or parsley for garnish

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the rice and onion and cook until the onion is translucent but not brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the stock to the rice mixture along with the salt, chiles and corn and bring to a simmer. Stir well, scrape down the sides of the pan, cover and simmer over medium low heat for 15 to 18 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the crumbled cheese and toss with a fork. Scoop into a serving bowl, sprinkle with cilantro or parsley and serve.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Us by David Nicholls

Two reasons to expect this book to not be of the most uplifting variety:  it was long listed for the Booker Prize this year and it was written by the author of 'One Day', who upset just about everyone with the down beat ending of that book.  The author has a reputation.  As Mark Lawson observed in his review of the book:   "When an acquaintance revealed recently that he'd married a woman he met by chance on a train, I said, "Very David Nicholls", to which he replied: "Yes, very. It wasn't until three years after that meeting that we actually got together."
Nicholls has become one of the few authors whose name serves as conversational shorthand: in his case, for the ambushes of romance.  However, he writes beautifully, with truth and wisdom, so you will have to forgive him his lack of uplifting themes.
The book opens with some bad news.  Douglas is told by his wife of 25 plus years that she thinks their marriage is over.  But she does want to persevere through their summer trip through the great art galleries of Europe with their aspiring artist 17 year old son for his sake.  It is unclear why people feel compelled to disclose things as they happen rather than in a kind way, but while this is fiction, the same thing happens in life as well.  The trip does not go in any way as planned.  Douglas, it turns out, is the last guy you want booking your holiday and Albie, the son, is already more than suspicious that his parents are splitting up and he doesn't want to be monkey in the middle.  Douglas works to redeem himself all the way through to the end.  All I can say on that count is that is nowhere near as dire as the ending of his previous book.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Begin Again (2014)

I loved this movie, but there is a big criteria for enjoying this film.  You have to enjoy music ballads, and it probably wouldn't hurt to enjoy music within film.  In the classic Hollywood musical, I am fond of the back stage musical, where the music is not part of the dialogue but rather the back drop to the story.  This movie is what I think of as the modern musical, where the story revolves around the music, but the songs are just songs, not ways for two people to communicate.

The director of this movie is John Carney, who wrote and directed one of my all time favorite modern musicals "Once".  This one is not a blow-you-out-of-the-water romance, but rather a quiet repairing of broken romances.  Gretta (Kiera Knightley) is a song writer who comes to New York because her long time boyfriend (playes by Adam Levine of Maroon 5) has landed a record contract.  The boyfriend falls under the sway of his new record company to the tune of sleeping with someone else and selling out his otherwise pleasant music to a decidedly pop record producer.  He's got stars in his eyes, and Gretta is left angry and sad. Fortunately she has an old school mate's couch to sleep on.

Now comes the good part.  Mark Ruffalo plays his role as Dan, the scruffy, drunk, and desperate for a winner record producer, who had a great run for awhile but has hit a significant dry spell recently when it comes to discovering new talent.  He hears Gretta play in a coffee house and envisions an album that she can't quite picture but he pulls off marvelously.  While he is recording her ballads all over New York City he also manages to romance his desperate-for-a-functional-father daughter and his estranged wife (also played pitch perfectly by Catherine Keener).  It is feel good all around and fun to watch.