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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Banana Rum Souffle

I have been on a bit of a cooking hiatus, meaning that I have been cooking less frequently and trying new things almost not at all.  The good news is that my eldest son has been actively trying new things on a weekly basis, and so I can share some of his successes.

2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 large ripe bananas
1/4 cup  brown sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons spiced rum
5 large egg whites
Pinch fine salt

Lightly butter the insides of 4 (1-cup) ramekins, then dust with white sugar. Space them evenly on a baking sheet and put in the freezer.

Put the bananas, brown sugar, lemon juice, and rum in a medium saucepan. Cook uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the bananas begin to soften, about 7 minutes. Mash the bananas with a potato masher or large fork until mostly smooth; continue cooking to make a thick puree, about 8 more minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Position the oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.

Whip the egg whites and salt in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high, gradually pour in the 2 tablespoons sugar, and whip until the whites hold soft peaks. Fold a quarter of the whites into the banana mixture and then fold in the remaining whites. (Don't dally here; timing is everything with souffles. Whip, fold, and get the souffle in the oven without missing a beat.)

Evenly divide the batter among the prepared ramekins. Bake the souffles until well puffed and golden, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pharsalia by Marcus Annaeus Lucan (65 CE)

I have been reading Roman poetry to my youngest son for the last several months, and I have to say that while I would not have guessed it, I have really enjoyed it, content wise.  Most surprisingly, this is my favorite one.  I had heard of the other three poets.  They are big names from the ancient world--Catullus, Ovid, and Virgil--heavy hitters all three.  But I had never heard about Lucan.

He was from Cordoba, a family with minimal Italian blood but his grandfather was Seneca the elder, and his uncle Seneca the younger--both big names in the ancient world.  He grew up with Nero, and died because of his opposition to him, which is why this poem was never finished.

It is a poem about the Civil War, about Caesar crossing the Rubicon and Pompey daring Caesar to a fight and then hightailing it out of Rome when Caesar took the dare.  Lucan didn't care for either of them all that much, and it is hard to disagree with the things he didn't like, but that's not what I liked about his epic.  I liked the cadence of it, which is dactyl hexameter.  Not that I would have recognized that, but I do know that is the poetic form that Homer wrote in. I also like the rawness of it, and the humor.  It is hard boiled without being bitter.  I am not what I would call a great fan of the war novel either, but somehow this really made me think.  It also gave me a window into a time long gone by.  Maybe I have reached the time in my life to pick up the Iliad.

Friday, March 27, 2015

If I Stay (2014)

This movie is an adaptation of a YA book that I have not read, but was apparently very popular and according to other reviewers, the movie is a faithful adaption.  It is a story of falling in love for the first time and the choices that you are forced to make at the end of high school when your heart says that you should stay and your head says that you should pursue the opportunities that are only available at that time in life.  Only this movie has a twist.  Mia (played beautifully by Chloe Grace Moretz, known by me best from her role in Kickass) is in a terrible car accident and her spirit is hovering around the hospital while she is unconscious.  So the 'if I stay' is more or an 'if I live' than an 'if I chose to leave home to go to college'.

That sort of story, the dying girl story, does not really characterize the movie, which is a very sweet love story between a classical cellist and the lead man in a rising rock band.  He writes beautiful ballads and she plays Beethoven beautifully.  The casting of these two is brilliant--they are believably smitten with each other and are very likable.  So it is easy to dismiss the histrionics if you are not so into that and enjoy the movie.  I am not one for weeping in movies (which doesn't mean I don't on occasion do so), but this one could lead to the shedding or tears if you are so inclined.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Easedropping in Iowa

As an Iowan for over 20 years, I am well aware that the 2016 presidential campaign is well underway.  The fact that Ted Cruz has formally announced his candidacy is almost a technicality rather than an event.  Soon there will be an uncountable number of visits from politicians who would in the absence of otherwise never set foot in the state.  It is an interesting phenomenon.  Iowans really are middle America.  The state is neither securely Republican nor is it Democratic.  A truly purple state.

So what were people saying this week?  I was at my dentist's office and overheard a conversation between a number of Republican farmers.  I know they are farmers because that is where the conversation started, and since they did not discuss one Democratic potential candidate, I am assuming they were Republicans.  They started with Cruz.  One thought he was impossibly stupid, the other two were convinced he was smart (they probably missed his performance at his filibuster, where his intelligence was certainly in question), but none of them liked him.  At all.  They did not warm to Scott walker either.  His foreign policy faux pas didn't sit right with them.  They all agreed that Jeb Bush is the best of the Bush's, but he was just to repetitious.  I think I might have to spend some time in downtown diners in small towns because I enjoyed hearing them talk.  But I do fear 2016.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Homemade Bagels

My eldest son brought these bagels fresh from the oven, still warm, and they were completely delicious. 
2 cups warm water, about 110 degrees F
2 (1/4-ounce) packets active dry yeast
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
Optional Toppings:
1/2 cup lightly toasted chopped onions (2 teaspoons each)
2 tablespoons poppy seeds (about 1/2 teaspoon each)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (about 1/2 teaspoon each)
1 tablespoon kosher salt (about 1/4 teaspoon each)

Combine the water, yeast, and 3 tablespoons of the sugar in the bowl of an upright mixer fitted with a dough hook. Stir and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Gradually add 4 cups of the flour and the salt, and mix until the mixture comes together.

Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups additional flour 1/2 cup at a time to make a stiff dough, either stirring with the wooden spoon or working with your hands. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and no longer sticky, about 5 minutes, adding just as much flour as needed. (Dough should be heavier and stiffer than regular yeast bread dough.)

Grease a large bowl with 1 teaspoon of the oil. Place the dough in the bowl, turning to coat. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until almost doubled, about 1 hour.

Remove from the bowl and punch down the dough. Divide into 12 equal pieces, about 2 to 3 ounces each, measuring about 4 inches across. Form each piece of dough into a ball. Roll each ball into a 4 to 6-inch log. Join the ends and place fingers through the hole and roll the ends together. Repeat with the remaining dough. Place on a lightly greased surface, cover with a clean cloth, and let rest until risen but not doubled in a draft-free spot, 20 to 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Grease a baking sheet with the remaining teaspoon of oil. Sprinkle the cornmeal on another baking sheet.

In a large, heavy pot, bring 12 cups of water and the remaining tablespoon of sugar to a boil. In batches, add the bagels to the water and boil, turning, for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Dip the bagel tops in desired toppings. Flip bagels onto the prepared sheet pan. Bake for 5 minutes, turn over and cook for another 30 to 35 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Five Star Life (2014)

One of the opening credits states that the film was made “with the support of the Leading Hotels of the World.” According to Wikipedia, this is the largest collection of luxury hotels in the world, and they are routinely inspected to ensure they maintain the highest standards.  I know from the Coen brother's movie 'Fargo' that filmmakers can play loose with the truth in these credits, but the premise is entirely believable.

Irene, the main character, is one of the luxury hotel inspectors.  It seems like a dream job, no?  Maybe it would be for a month or even a year, but after a while there is almost a grind about it.  Never home, never left alone, always having someone attend to your every need.  At one point a fellow guest confesses that she has tipped her attendant a 100 euros to leave her alone.

The movie is strangely soothing in it's rhythm.  It shows something not often seen in films-- it shows an ordinary citizen doing her job. The screenplay nimbly works in other characters, such as when Irene recruits her two nieces to help her test how a hotel treats families. But a large part of the movie is simply Irene doing her job while dealing with the pitfalls of the career lifestyle she has chosen. The geographical and architectural eye-candy, and the constant flow of information on how the job is done, were icing on the cake.  The question of what is meaningful work and where does it fit into a rewarding life are backdrops to the main action.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cultural Museum of Oaxaca, Mexico

Adjoining Santo Domingo church is the monastery of Museo de las Culturas who became a regional museum in 1972. I must admit that for me it is more interesting than the church, which is gorgeous as houses of worship go, but hard to look at the individual elements of its grandeur.
It is considered to be one of the best museums in Mexico. It covers the history and cultures of Oaxaca. The museum’s 23 permanent exhibition rooms offer a walk through the history of Oaxaca from pre-Hispanic times through the colonial period and independence. The most impressive display is the room showing the Treasure of Tomb 7 from Monte Alban, which is another must see stop for a Oaxaca trip.  The exhibition on the Spanish conquistadors of 1519 will really open your eyes to the impact of colonization on the region. The hoard of Mixtec treasure with glittering stacks of jewellery gives you a glimpse into an older time in Mexico.
 Also it exhibits contemporary art and designs.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Alfred Hitchcock was well known for adapting a book to his liking.  He was not one to stick too closely to the original, so if you think that having seen the movie you know what the book is about, you are both right and wrong.  The main character is the same, and the same general principle is there, that there is a spy afoot and something needs to be done to prevent the spy from passing on their secrets.  It does largely take place in Scotland and some of the people who help our hero are the same in the book and the movie, but that is about where the overlap stops.

The book is set in the days before WWI.  England is quite uneasy about Germany and what will happen next.  Much effort had been devoted to maintaining their colonies and that left them unexpectedly vulnerable.  The colonies may have been a source of significant wealth in the 19th century but they led to a lot of trouble in the 20th century and this book was written right on the brink of that change.  Much like Downton Abbey, it represents a tide change in Britain and this book is a window into what it was like before all that changed.  With espionage thrown in to make it interesting.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tasting Menu (2013)

Having eaten at Pakta, Albert Adria's restaurant in Barcelona a year or so ago, I was prepared for the type of food that was served at the restaurant depicted in this movie.  Mar is a chef who makes food that is typical of the ultra high end restaurant market--small portions, lots of them, lots to look at, little to eat, with the emphasis on the intensity of the flavor more than anything else.  It is not the way I would eat every day, but it is definitely an immersion in food and flavor experience that is very pleasurable.

This movie does not focus quite enough on the cuisine to be a truly food oriented movie, but that backdrop does make it fun.  Mar is closing her restaurant in the Girona area and she is not sure what she is going to do next.  Her lover and co-partner is clearly angling for a deal with two competing Japanese businessmen, but Mar is not enthusiastic.  There is restlessness afoot with her.  The various restaurant guests have various dramas going on, but all in all the focus of the movie is a superficial one, being happy with light entertainment and the occasional thing to think about.  Very entertaining, with enough restaurant based action for a foodie, and streaming on Netflix.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Merced Market, Oaxaca, Mexico

This is a small market on the eastern side of the old part of Oaxaca.  It is a manageable size, where you can stop at each and every vendor to see what they are offering and not take an hour to accomplish that task. The quality and quantity of fresh vegetables and herbs, including the wonderful squash blossoms pictured below (just look how many there are!), is astounding, and these pictures were taken in January, the dead of winter a little further north.

I did buy some chilis from these massive bags full of them.  I bought a Oaxacan chili which smells smoky and is more rubbery than crackly when dried, and I also bought a red mole paste to take home and try.

We also got a corn chocolate drink from one of the numerous breakfast places in the market (and were sorely tempted by some of the massive dishes bakes on a stone topped with fried eggs).  I highly recommend markets as a great place to immerse yourself in a city, even if you are not able to cook for yourself while you are there.  Oaxaca is a city that it would be very fun to spend a month in, cooking some for yourself and eating out the rest of the time.