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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Ok, the title of the movie does not inspire confidence in it’s potential for greatness, I will admit that.  In fact, if it had not been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film, I might have missed it all together.  That would have been a mistake—or at least a shame, because this is my favorite animated movie of 2012, to date.
The film is British and the animation is claymation, which I love.  It is directed by Peter Lord (who co-directed "Chicken Run"—and the sense of humor in this movie is very similar to that movie—if you didn’t enjoy that, you are unlikely to really enjoy this one), "Pirates" creates a sense of fun that feels hand-made rather than machine manufactured.  This comes not only from its absurd slap stick humor, but also from the physical nature of the stop-motion animation process Aardman Animation (of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ fame) specializes in.
The plot is the least of the fun.  Captain Pirate is not the sharpest sword in the shed, but he is a good and loyal pirate—the bad guy in this film is Queen Victoria, who is depicted entirely different from any other historical representation that I am familiar with.  She is officious, difficult, and unlikable.  Captain Pirate aspires to being the Pirate of the Year, which means that he raises the most booty of any pirate—there are so many pirates that are completely out of his league, you feel sorry for him and his loyal crew.  They encounter the world famous Charles Darwin on one of their ship raids, and Darwin lets them know that they have a thought-to-be extinct dodo in their possession.  Captain Pirate misinterprets scientifically valuable to be financially valuable, and there begins his fall from grace with his crew.  He manages to redeem himself by movie’s end, though, and it is a very enjoyable ride for the rest of us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Black Beans and Rice

This is a classic Latin flavor combination--called Moros Y Cristianos--which alludes to the Spanish expulsion of the Moors  from Spain, legend has it--but the fanning of the flames of race and religion with such a name for one simple dish, the staple food throughout Latin America, seems unnecessary.

The version that my spouse most recently made takes cooked black beans (make them in the way that you usually do--I usually just cook them in stock, but he added cumin, many chopped sweet peppers, and a hot pepper).  You have to make them because you use the liquid to cook the rice.  I prefer them as two dishes, usually--you can then adjust how much of each you would like--but this is a very nice rice side dish.

1 tablespoon canola oil or extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced across the grain
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cooked medium- or long-grain white rice, or brown basmati rice
1 1/2 c. cooked black beans with about 1/2 cup of their cooking liquid
Salt to taste
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan or skillet over medium heat, and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender, about five minutes. Stir in the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Add the rice, beans and about 1/2 cup broth from the beans. Stir gently for about five minutes until the mixture is heated through, and serve. The mixture should be moist. Add more broth if necessary.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thomas Jefferson--The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Despite the subtitle, this book accomplishes something more impressive than dissecting Jefferson's political skills—it goes about explaining his greatness, a different task from chronicling a life, though he does that, too.
One thing about Jefferson is that he was at the center of American public life between 1776 and 1826, so the biography goes  through every important event in that critical half-century.   While Meacham adroitly weaves together his narrative, we're learning how the summoning of the Estates-General in France led to revolution. Although he covers Jefferson's life comprehensively, he doesn't dwell on the more problematic Jeffersonian initiatives such as the treason trial of Aaron Burr or the Embargo of 1807.

Any author who elects to focus on what made Jefferson a great historical figure has to deal with the disfiguring features in his life: his status as a slave-holder and the likelihood that he sired children by his slave Sally Hemings.  He doesn’t focus much on the thing that I found most fascinating—Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s beloved wife Patsy’s  ½ sister.  Upon the death of Patsy’s father, the children of his slave-mistress were moved into the Jefferson household, and they held positions of prominence.  It is not clear why she so honored her father in this way, but she did.  When Patsy died, Jefferson was 38 years old—and she made him swear on her death bed to not remarry.  Jefferson was known as a man who loved his wife and children—but he also loved women.  Could Sally Hemings have had qualities that reminded Jefferson of his wife?  If that is the case, while he treated her well, she was still his slave, and he was never a father to his children by her—who were ¾ white, as well as being closely related to his own children (sharing 37.5% of their genes).

Not given to psychologizing (unlike myself), Meacham takes us into the overarching motivations and predictable reactions of Jefferson by closely analyzing his pattern of behavior. Thrust into the role of slave master and man of the family at age 14 when his father died, Jefferson tolerated no opposition from his subordinates, but, among his political colleagues, he used hospitality to grease the way to his goals. His aversion to contention was his powerful political tactic. Meacham shows how Jefferson's melding of an unrelenting drive to achieve his republican goals with a pragmatic response to the possibilities of the moment worked for him again and again.

What remains mysterious is how Jefferson acquired the reforming principles that guided his career. What was the source of his faith in ordinary men? Many of his contemporaries believed in liberty and self-government. Yet they found his convictions about the masses' capacity to take care of themselves so bizarre that they had to call Jefferson a hypocrite. The mystery deepens when you consider that the most conservative electorate in the United States — the planters of Virginia — repeatedly elected to high office this cerebral, provocative statesman for the people.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Le Havre (2011)


This is a French movie by a Finnish director, and it has a charming  Buster Keaton deadpan humor kind of feel about it.  The wonderful things that I adore in French films are present, but there is also a plot.  Just lovely.
The story follows a ne'er-do-well shoe shine man, Marcel (André Wilms).  He is cobbling out a minimal existence with his wife, Arletty in a community that lets him buy bread on credit and the shop owners cloe up when he walks by for fear that he will take more wares on credit that he cannot pay for.  His life is in slow motion—nothing much happens, nothing much changes.  That is until he gets involved with an on-the-run young African migrant, Idrissa.  Idrissa is found in a container from a ship that has been unexpectedly delayed en route to London, and a police officer Marcel knows well is tasked with finding the boy.  The cop turns out to have a heart, and redeems himself in Marcel’s eyes by the end of the movie.  The film is set in the port city of the same name, and Marcel sets about both hiding the boy, and finding out who he is and how he might help him.  "Le Havre" above all adheres to Kaurismäki's aesthetic of expressionlessness.  His actors must convey what they're feeling without changing the look on their faces.  They do this with remarkable results, and the film is a joy to watch.
A droll ode to the downtrodden and dispossessed, "Le Havre" joins Ari Kaurismäki's unmistakable stylistic flourishes with two things additional features: an overt social conscience and a sweet-natured fairy tale sensibility.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver


This is the best Barbara Kingsolver book in years.  For my taste, the very best of fiction has multiple layers of messages that are woven together in a well told story.  This book has all the elements that make a book enjoyable, thought-provoking, and memorable for me.
Dellarobia Turnbow is our heroine—she is young, just 28 years old, and she already has two young children, one of them in school.  She is trapped, not just by her poverty, her appalling education and her geography—she is trapped because she has no ability to envision another life for herself.  Her horizons are as bleak as those of inner city women who grew up in the projects, and her ability see beyond them is no better.  Dellarobia is not lucky and she is not cursed.  She doesn’t have family of origin who support her, but her spouse has a close knit family.  She finished high school, but she didn’t have the educational background to get into a four year college—her high school’s lack of a math and science curriculum were reflected in her ACT scores.  She got pregnant in high school, but her partner and his family.  But she is trapped.  Trapped in a marriage she does not love and a life that doesn’t speak to her soul.  She is not bitter about it—she sees her husband as a good man, she sees value in taking care of her family farm land and animals, and she is unhappy with her desires to have sexual affairs and cigarettes.  She is a good and understandable person with virtues and flaws and no rough edges.
Then along comes our agent of change.  Monarch butterflies, who legendarily migrate to Mexico for the winter, have gotten thrown off by the changes in the global climate and land in the millions on the Turnbow farm in the Tennessee hills.  While spectacular to watch, it is a very bad sign indeed—for the monarchs in the short run and for everybody else in the long run.  The monarchs have not landed in an eco-friendly village—far from it.  Luckily, Dellarobia helps the monarch scientists set up shop in her empty barn, and her good deed turns her life around. It is her exposure to two things at more or less the same time that end up being change agents for her.  The first is that one of the scientists, Ovid, sees Dellarobia for who she could be rather than who she is.  He teaches her about the monarchs, and she in turn gives him the language to communicate with non-scientists about the perils he sees in his world.  The second is that Ovid and his wife give Dellarobia a glimpse at what a good marriage is—that, combined with her conviction that her son needs an education that he will not get where he is, gives her both the means and the will to change.  It is moving and believable.
Then there is the not-so-subtle subtext of the novel.  Our stewardship of this warming, melting planet, with its rising seas and alarming new weather extremes, is of primary concern here.   It’s set in a rural, deep red pocket of the country, where God is presumed to work in mysterious ways and climate change is perceived as an elitist lie.  But autumn has brought rains that will not stop. The neighbors’ orchard is rotting, tree roots slip their moorings in waterlogged soil, and the mountainside forest, thick with winged refugees, is in danger of being clear-cut and leaving mudslides behind.   The butterflies are just one of many symptoms, and it is clear—there is a message here that many do not want to acknowledge.  Which it is why it is so lovely to have another story wrapped around this core message of taking care of our planet.  For Kingsolver, the tree is not a symbol of life but a herald of death. The book’s question is whether we can steer the earth toward something better than this.  This is a good one--do not miss it.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Kale, Peas, and Chorizo

My local Costco has bags of baby kale, so I am actively thinking about different ways to eat kale.
I made this one, a modification of a recipe from 'Eat Greens'.


2 tablespoons olive oil
2 c. diced onions
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 cups frozen peas--I used less--depends on how much kale you want
1/4 cup white wine
6 cups chopped fresh kale
1/4 cup finely chopped chorizo, or ham, or another cured meat--optional
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 



In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, and then the garlic  and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 minute. Add the kale and cook, stirring and shaking the pan, until wilted. Add the chorizo and salt and pepper to taste and cook for 1 minute longer. Serve at once.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Women--We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy

New Mexican State Representative Cathrynn Brown (R) introduced a bill on Wednesday that would legally require victims of rape to carry their pregnancies to term in order to use the fetus as evidence for a sexual assault trial.

House Bill 206 would charge a rape victim who ended her pregnancy with a third-degree felony for tampering with evidence:  “Tampering with evidence shall include procuring or facilitating an abortion, or compelling or coercing another to obtain an abortion, of a fetus that is the result of criminal sexual penetration or incest with the intent to destroy evidence of the crime," the bill says.  Third-degree felonies in New Mexico carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.

So, first and foremost, the basis of this is ludicrous.  Tampering with evidence definitely is an offense, and there are statutes proscribing tampering with evidence, fabricating evidence, and the concealment or destruction of evidence for the purpose of impairing its availability as evidence in an investigation or official proceeding. At common law, suppression, fabrication, or destruction of physical evidence amounts to obstruction of justice.  However, for something to be "destroyed" within the context of a tampering with evidence statute, the evidentiary value of the item must be ruined, and a mere abandonment of evidence does not amount to criminal tampering with evidence.

So abortion does not amount to tampering with evidence--once the fetus is aborted, there is a plethora of available DNA to verify the identity of the sex offender.  Evidence for the crime at hand is not destroyed.  The fact that the offense led to pregnancy has no bearing on the legality of or penalty for the crime.  So requiring the maintenance of the pregnancy provides no additional evidence of legal value, physical or otherwise.  It is just a further assault on the woman and her autonomy.

The restriction of the civil rights of women continues, and as we previously suspected, it is not just men at the helm.  Apparently there are quite a number of women that would prefer not to have their choices be their own.  Women and the men who love them need to vociferously fight back.  The two U.S. Senatorial candidates who spoke with the biological background of a kindergartner and the compassion that belongs in the 18th century are not alone.  They have a lot of company, and the defeat of the radical social agenda they represent in the last election has convinced them they need to be more vocal rather than less so—it is definitely time to redefine ‘lady like’ as someone who is a well informed, independent thinker thoroughly capable of making her own choices. Once again the party who decries ‘big government’ proposes to dictate personal health choices.  Just say no!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

This book is an old one that has been newly translated into English.  Orhan Pamuk  has now won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and so all his work can be translated into English.  When I was first in Turkey in 2006, I read his travelogue about Istanbul and not very presciently predicted he would win the Nobel Prize—he is very clearly that good.  He has always reminded me of Marcel Proust in the level of attention to detail that he gives to everything that surrounds each of his characters.
This book takes place against the backdrop of a military coup that took place in Turkey in 1980 (the book was published originally in 1983).  This history feels strongly present in the novel's governing metaphors of tradition, transition and inter-generational tension. A family reunion is taking place in a fishing village near Istanbul, where Fatma, the 90-year-old widow of a local doctor, is receiving a ritual summer visit from her three grandchildren.  The book is alternatively narrated by her, her children, and her servants.
One of Fatma's grandsons, Faruk, is following his father and grandfather in working on a manuscript which will seek to explain Turkey and the universe. The late doctor's project was an encyclopedia of everything, reminiscent of Mr Casaubon's in Middlemarch (ie. not likely to be completed—all work and no organization), although the Turkish physician was seeking to disprove the existence of God.  Faruk seems far more functional than that. Other cultural tensions within the country are represented-- granddaughter Niljun, a leftist activist who buys the communist daily paper and mesmerizes the men around her with her beauty, would choose to live in the Soviet sector, while grandson Metin would take the mandate of the Georgian peanut farmer.  Metin wants to leave Turkey for America and sees no reason why his grandmother shouldn’t sell her dilapidated but highly valued home and bankroll his dreams.  The other narrators in the story are a dwarf who cares for Fatma and his son, Hasan, who is a fundamentalist Muslim who is the center of the tragic chapter that the story builds to.  The book is sorrowful in tone from front to back, but it is a well told tale that reflects an interesting culture and country.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Burmese Tea Salad

 Ok, you have to remember, this is way better to eat than to look at.  The combination of ingredients is phenomenal, and well worth ordering the tea leaves.

This salad is often called Burma’s national dish. Laphet is the word for “green tea” and thoke means “salad” (it’s pronounced “la-pay toe”). It’s a dazzling combination of fermented tea leaves, soft-textured and a little acid and astringent, with other tastes and textures: crisp, roasted peanuts and other crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, dried shrimp, and garlic. Laphet thoke is traditionally served as a final taste at the end of the meal, much like sweetened whole spices may be served at the end of a north Indian meal, or tea or coffee at the end of a Western meal.

Packages of prepared laphet thoke ingredients—the tea leaves and all the other flavorings—are sold everywhere in Burma--but are impossible to find in the U.S.  Burmese who live abroad buy stacks of the packages when they return on visits to take back with them. In other words, finding fermented tea leaves outside Burma and northern Thailand can be a problem.  One can order them online from a New York–based company called Minthila.

Ingredients
About 3/4 cup packed fermented tea leaves, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds, lightly ground
2 to 3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, whole or coarsely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons fried split roasted soybeans
1/2 cup thin tomato wedges
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained
1 cup shredded Napa cabbage
Salt
optional dressing:
1 to 2 tablespoons Garlic Oil
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce or fish sauce
Pinch of salt
Rinse tea leaves.
Combine all the ingredients (except salt) in a bowl. Mix with your hands, separating any clumped tea leaves and the shreds of cabbage to blend everything thoroughly. Add the dressing ingredients and blend thoroughly with your hands. Add salt to taste and adjust other seasonings if you wish.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hope Springs (2012)

This is a movie that has lots of star power and very limited appeal for anyone under 40 years old—which seems so unlike Hollywood, but maybe the additional opportunities for movies post-theatrical release will allow us to see more things aimed at an older age group in the future. 
The story is about a long-term marriage that has come to an end of its intimacy.  Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arthur (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married 31 years, and while they are not looking for love outside their marriage, there is not much evidence of it within the marriage either.  They have separate bedrooms and separate lives—Kay says that she is lonelier living with Arthur than she would be living alone, and I see her point.  She is so unhappy that she blackmails him to go to an intensive couples therapy in a sleepy Maine town.  The material is uncomfortable—the couple has to talk about how they have reached a point in their marriage where they have no physical and no emotional intimacy.  They clearly care about each other.  Kay valiantly tries to figure out how to manage oral sex in her 60’s as a means of saving her marriage.  Jones spends money on a romantic evening—but it turns out they need a little more time than the week allows them to rebuild the bonds that have fallen into disuse.
This was somewhat painful to watch, but I do think it is a realistic cautionary tale.  Make sure that you aren’t losing touch with your spouse—while Kay and Arthur haven’t had sex in years, that is not their only problem—they haven’t shared much else either.  Don’t let this happen to you!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King Day

Happy 57th Presidential Inauguration!
 
It continues to be a paradox for me that with a black President the advancement of people with color who are not the president has been at a virtual standstill.  Why?  The Atlantic’s article ‘Fear of a Black President (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/) puts forward ideas about why this might be, and some very specific examples of how when President Obama has publicly talked about his race, the fact that his children look like Trayvon Martin, for example, that the conversation is completely and effectively shut down.
Well, the fact of the matter is that race is still a very big issue in America.  Our president is more of an exceptional man than a black man, the article asserts, and I think that is indeed the case.  On the day that we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in America we need to reflect on the work that is yet to be done, and how to maintain the gains that have been made.  I think the right to vote is a great place to start—what happened in the 2012 Presidential election with voter suppression had got to be squashed.  Early voting should be an option in all state, and for everybody.  Voter identification needs to be off the table everywhere.  There should be laws against lying about voting.  People who put up intimidating advertisements with misinformation about voting should be prosecuted.  
Lying and intimidation took a big step forward in the 2012 election, and the press, perhaps in an effort to not appear biased toward one side or the other, did a miserable job of fact checking.  So as a consequence, things that were untrue passed as at least unquestioned, and that is harmful.  It is particularly harmful when the distortion of reality disproportionately affects one group—like immigrants, or people of color, or women, or gay people.  Those things happened, and in the spirit of equal protection for all people, I hope we can move away from those lies in 2013—although so far Congress does not seem eager to do so.  Accountability for your actions is the key to the success or failure of our current government. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss

Happy Inauguration to a second term, President Obama.  I love it when I wake up in the morning and you are President.

To celebrate, let's look at your life.
This book about our current president, which is on the New York Times 100 Notable Books for 2012 list,  is massive in scope.  Maraniss has written a global, multi-generational saga that spans decades and ends right before Obama goes off to Harvard Law School—but in the end, I am not sure that it culminates in the emergence of a young man who is knowable, recognizable and real.  Recognizable and perhaps more real, but I am not sure how much more knowable he really is at the end of the day.
The book goes back to his great grandparents on both sides, and ironically, there are almost more pictures from the era that ended before Obama’s birth than there are from his growing up experiences.  What we do figure out pretty quickly is that he was not lucky in his parentage.  His father was all sorts of things that the son is not.  Obama the senior was brash, arrogant, a heavy drinker, a womanizer, an abuser, and someone who burned out rather quickly when things did not go exactly his way.  He saw himself as the smartest man in the world and woe those who failed to grasp that—Obama the younger’s real luck in his father was that his mother cut ties with him early enough that there was not much in the way of damage done.  His father bestowed his talented genes upon the son and high tailed it out of Hawaii.

The story with his mother was almost as sad—she did not really focus on her son in many ways.  He lived briefly in Indonesia with her when she remarried, but the fact that he didn’t quite fit in there meant that he went back to Hawaii to live with her parents.  They were good parent figures for him and he got a quality education there, on an island that was more multi-cultural than most of the United States at the time—but those cultures didn’t include his, and that served to further isolate him.

Our 44th President comes across as smart, hard working, and not attention-seeking—his drive to enter politics was very different from his father’s.  He was not seeking the center of attention.  He wanted to solve problems.  The comparisons of his demeanor during his student days to Bill Clinton’s are very telling of who they became, and why they are not friends.  Their skill sets are entirely different as well—and Clinton is undeniably the better politician but Obama is the guy you would want to discuss the book you just read with. Obama also seemed like better boyfriend material.  By the end of the book, I could see the struggles that Obama faced in his family of origin, and why he might appear to be more withholding and aloof—but otherwise, it left more questions than it answered for me.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Incendies (2012)


Huge spoiler alert!  There is no way to respond to this movie without giving away a central element of the plot—which we learn about 7/8 of the way through the movie, but it goes a long way toward explaining why the movie has a powerful impact.
This is a variation on the Oedipus story—but it is told from Jocasta’s point of view, or, in this case, it is Nawal’s story.  The story opens and comes close to closing at a community swimming center in takes place in a fictional Middle Eastern country which bears a remarkable resemblance to Lebanon, both topographically and politically.  Lebanon was created from the ashes of the Ottoman empire post-WWI as an enclave for the Maronite Christians.  At the time, Christians made up 84% of the territory that became Lebanon, and it was one of the less controversial requests that France and Britain grappled with after the First World War.  But then came WWII and in it’s aftermath, the establishment of Israel out of Palestine.  That brought a large influx of immigrants into Lebanon from the south, and that is where Nawal’s Christian family lived.  She fell in love with a Muslim, which did not sit well with her brothers—he was killed, and so would she have been if not for the intervention of her grandmother.  She is pregnant, and gives birth to a baby she gives up, but not before the grandmother tattoos the babies heel.  Nawal wants to find him in the future.
The war ruins everything.  When her college is closed, Nawal travels southwards in search of her son, and what she finds changes everything—the Muslims have bombed the Christian towns and the Christians are killing Muslim civilians.  It is bedlam and the orphanage has been reduced to rubble.  Nawal becomes militarized by this, and that decision seals her fate once and for all.  She ceases to be a mother and instead becomes a martyr, and she murders and goes to prison for 15 years because of it.  A part of her soul is broken off and while it is not enough to kill her, it is a crippling blow.  Her son was swept up by  war lords who teach him to be a killer, so a piece of his soul is ripped away from him as well, and together they unknowingly create a future problem.  They meet up in prison—she the prisoner, he the torturer, but just like the myth, they do not recognize each other.
Nawal has twins while in prison, and after her release she emigrates to Canada with them—when she discovers the truth, it is too much for her.  She dies, but in death she sends the twins off to discover her past—and theirs.  I am not sure that the truth will help them, and it could very well hurt them—in the myth, Etiocles kills Polynices over ruling Thebes—but they may be able to start working through the trauma that life them off with through no fault of their own. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Shrimp and Corn Salad

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We made this for New Year's Day, but used langostinos from Costco instead of shrimp--the smaller the shrimp, the better.  This was delicious with pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad, and bean salad.

Shrimp:
·  8 cups water
·  1 lemon, halved
·  1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning 
·  2 bay leaves
·  1 tablespoon  kosher salt
·  pinch of cayenne powder
·  1 lb. medium-size cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined

Salad: 
·  2 cups fresh sweet corn kernels (from 2 medium-size ears)  
·  1/2 cup olive oil
·  2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
·  1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
·  1 teaspoon hot sauce
·  1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
·  1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
·  2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, chopped
·  1/2 cup red onion, chopped
·  1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
·  1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
·  1/2 cup yellow bell pepper, chopped

In a large pot, combine the water, lemon halves the boil, the bay leaves, the cayenne, and the salt. Bring to a boil, add the shrimp, and cook for 3 minutes. Pour into a shallow bowl with ice, toss, and let it cool completely--drain off liquid.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, hot sauce, the black pepper and garlic. Whisk to blend well. Salt to taste.
In a large salad bowl, combine the corn, shrimp, basil, onion, tomatoes and bell pepper. Add the dressing and toss to mix. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel Presilla

This is a magnum opus for Latin American cooking in every sense of the phrase.  It’s a huge work of 900+ pages which took Presilla nearly 30 years to research and write. And it shows. It covers the history, the lore, the culture and the recipes of Latin American food & cooking.  It’s more than a recipe book: it’s social history and travelogue too.
All put together in a beautiful package.

The book starts with explanations and descriptions of Latin America and the Latin kitchen. Presilla clearly explains how in Latin cooking the flavours are built up in layers: from adobo and sofrito through to the table condiments. This contrasts with other cuisines which may fuse or blend flavours.

She clearly places Latin cooking in its geographical, historical and socio-political context as this has changed and developed through the centuries. She says: “Again and again, I was forced to remember that food is always deeply political…the love of food transcends even the most bitter of realities.”
The middle chapters are divided into 16 food groupings:
  • tropical roots; 
  • starchy vegetables; 
  • squashes, corn, quinoa, and beans; 
  • rice; 
  • drinks; 
  • little Latin dishes; 
  • empanadas; 
  • the tamal family; 
  • ceviches; 
  • La Olla (soups and hearty potages); 
  • salads; 
  • breads; 
  • fish and seafood; 
  •  poultry and meat; 
  • hot pepper pots and  
  • dulce Latino (sweets and desserts).

Each chapter starts with a ‘Chapter at a view’ page: a mini-contents for that chapter. This makes choosing recipes really easy without having to thumb endlessly through this enormous book. Then there is a really useful introduction to the particular topic covering its place in Latin cooking, its history, typical ingredients and dishes as they vary around the continent.  Such an exquisite addition to my cookbook library!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chilaquiles

This is the pitch perfect way to use up restaurant acquired chips--the ones that have been made with real tortillas.  If you order a basket and you have them leftover, I highly recommend this way of using them up.

I use an enchilada sauce as the base:
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil or corn oil
  • 1 medium onion,chopped fine (about 1 cup)
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons coriander
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon  salt
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 cans tomato sauce (8 ounces each)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1 can (4 ounces) pickled jalapeños, drained and chopped (about 1/4 cup)
You can add a can of chopped tomatoes to this to make it more full bodied.
Then you layer sauce, chips, cheese, more sauce, and so on.
The top is covered with a  mixture of 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup milk, and it is baked at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or so.  The key is the balance of sauce to chips.  If you want some of the chips to be recognizable--like in the photo--less sauce.  If you like it more of a porridge, then more sauce.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Garrow's Law (2009)


Sir William Garrow  (13 April 1760 – 24 September 1840) was a historically real British barrister, politician and judge known for his indirect reform of the advocacy system, which helped usher in the adversarial court system used in most common law nations today.   He introduced the phrase "presumed innocent until proven guilty", insisting that defendants' accusers and their evidence be thoroughly tested in court.

 Born to a priest and his wife in Monken Hadley, then in Middlesex, Garrow was educated at his father's school in the village before being apprenticed to Thomas Southouse, an attorney in Cheapside, which preceded a pupillage with Mr. Crompton, a special pleader.   A dedicated student of the law, Garrow frequently observed cases at the Old Bailey; as a result Crompton recommended that he become a solicitor or barrister. Garrow joined Lincoln's Inn in November 1778, and was called to the Bar on 27 November 1783.   He quickly established himself as a criminal defense counsel, and in February 1793 was made a King's Counsel by HM Government to prosecute cases involving treason and felonies.

The BBC crime drama reflecting his court room successes is wonderful, especially Season 1.  There is the usual out-of-court drama is also very good.  Andrew Buchan is extremely charming as Garrow--he has an intelligent passion and a knowing smile that are quite winning.  Admittedly, I am a huge fan of this genre, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt, but it is a very interesting time in British history, what with their losing the American colonies, followed by the French Revolution, so Garrow's ability to change the process of justice at that particular time is admirable--and very entertaining to watch.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich


The background of the story is very familiar to the author and her readers—it takes place on a North Dakota reservation in the not too distant past. The most consistent elements of Louise Erdrich’s fiction for me over time has been her ability to convey the unique effects that the treatment of Native Americans in the United States has had on them over the generations since the Civil War.  It has been over a 100 years, but the legacy of that era lingers on, and it is especially significant for those who live on the reservation, who are choosing, for whatever reason, to live away from both mainstream America as well as urban America.   We are resistant to confront the consequences of our past—maybe that is true of every nation—and perhaps fiction makes that confrontation more palatable.  In any case, this is an excellent installment into Ms. Erdrich’s body of work—and it recently received the National Book Award, so I am not alone in thinking that.
In this tale, thirteen year old Joe is the one telling the story, and while it includes a lot of things that you would expect of Erdrich in the way of details about everyday lives on a tribal reservation, the main event in the book is the brutal rape of Joe’s mother.  The rape is an act of revenge, and the story unfolds to reveal why retribution that is taken out of the hide of another can be far more effective than directly damaging the hated person—it can affect everyone for years to come.  The book doesn’t play this up, but it is not possible for tribal police to prosecute white people who perpetrate crimes on reservations.  There is a substantially higher risk of being raped if you are a Native American, and over 80% of rapes on reservations are perpetrated by serial rapists.  They are too complicated to prosecute, and the people who suffer are not the people who can mete out justice, which is very wrong.  The Violence Against Women Act would close that loop hole, but it was voted down by House Republicans.  So the situation described in this book still exists.  The family gets revenge, but at a cost, and the law is something that really needs to be fixed.  This book is an excellent story that is spun around this real life problem.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ode to Aioli

For New Year's Eve, one of the courses we served was steamed mussels, with toast and aioli.  Very traditional, very simple, and very delicious.

Here is Mark Bittman's recipe for the versatile condiment (I love it on French fries, but it goes with practically everything)

1 large egg yolk
2 cloves garlic, grated
1/4 tsp. kosher salt, more to taste
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. olive oil
black pepper
lemon juice

Whisk egg yolk*, garlic, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 2 tsp. water in metal bowl to blend well. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in vegetable oil, 1 teaspoonful at a time, until sauce is thickened and emulsified. Whisking constantly, add olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Season aioli with lemon juice, pepper, and salt.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Looper (2012)


The future in this movie is not quite as dystopian as has been depicted in 'The Road' or 'The Book of Eli', but it is not an improvement on what we have now.  The plot line is simple and a bit gruesome--time travel is illegal, but crime syndicates use it to cover up their hits--they send the victim back to a time and place, the hit man is already there, they kill him on arrival, and strapped to the victims back is the pay off--bars of silver.  The hit men are known as Loopers, hence the name of the film.  The time travel is well described and it is not necessary to read the Wikipedia summary of the movie prior to watching it in order to follow the plot (which is what I wished I have done with 'Inception').

The story takes place between 2044 and 2074--which gives us two versions of the main character, Joe.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the younger Joe and Bruce Willis plays the older Joe.  Older Joe has come back to 2044 in order to prevent something from happening in the future--the murder of his wife.  His goal is to prevent that murder by killing the child who grows up to be his wife's killer.  Young Joe is trying to prevent that, and the crime syndicate is trying to stop both of them--so plenty of shoot-'em-up action, which is the key attraction of this film.  The story of the future killer as a young man is unexpected, as is the ending, and the film is very entertaining in a diversionary way.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sibling Sonata


Siblings have a life long relationship.  Marriages come and go.  Parents are significantly older, in many cases at least, than their offspring.  So in the end, our siblings are the ones we know the longest.  I am fortunate to have a good relationship with my brother—and the credit goes entirely to him.  He has always maintained good contact with me, and he has been a terrific son to my parents and uncle to my children.  He takes his family relationships seriously and he is good at them.  When we have had to make joint decisions, he has been helpful, fair, even tempered and in good humor.  What more could a sister ask?  
My husband has great siblings as well.  I hope that my children are as lucky as we have been in their future relationships with each other.  They have grown up in a close knit family—part of that is by design.  We are a family that spends time together—both in the local sense, and in the sense that we attend major life events in far flung places, and we enjoy it (no choice not to).  Part of it is bad luck.  One of my sons had a brain tumor and that experience, like any catastrophe in childhood, has consequences.  One of them is that it disrupts childhood in a not very good way—that part causes trauma in ways that are difficult to predict, and may even be overlooked until there is real trouble emanating from them. It is hard to watch and even harder to prevent sometimes.   The upside is that they all went through it together and that made them closer.  Part of the reason I hope for closeness is that they will need each other in the future.  Part is that I hope they will take reasonable care of us when the end is near!