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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

The author is a native Nebraskan, and has chosen to set this novel at the Omaha World's Fair in 1898.  The setting is the still rural Midwest that is somewhat removed from the rapidly changing world on the brink of the 20th century.  It is a popular time to set a novel because of the second Industrial Revolution and the wave of immigration it brought to the northeastern United States, but this book is very much removed from that.  Instead, Nebraska is the scene of traveling circuses and carnival people.  Ferret Skerritt (say that out loud) is an orphaned and impoverished ventriloquist always on the lookout to make a quick buck from a vulnerable and unsuspecting rube who falls quickly and madly in love with Cecily.  Cecily is an actress herself, a new and unmarried mother with a precious daughter and a fondness for Ferritt.  In many ways it is unfortunate for both of them that the rich and reasonably charming Mr. Wakefield falls for Cecily.  Despite her strong emotional attachment to Ferritt, neither of them stands a chance against the persistent Mr. Wakefield, who is not only wealthy but also very willing to fight unfairly for what he wants.  The novel thing about the story is that it does not end with Cecily's premature death, nor does it end sadly.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Grilled Cheese

Grilled cheese is the classic make anytime comfort food that can be whipped up with a simple tomato soup and transport me back to my childhood (when in truth the soup was Campbell's,  the cheese was American, and the bread was nothing to write home about.  Thank goodness the 1950's are behind us).

This is a great technique with a secret ingredient that every experienced sandwich maker knows can add the umami needed to make a good sandwich great.

  • 20 (1/2-inch-thick) slices rustic bread (from about 1 1/2 loaves)
  • mayonnaise 
  • 1 pound shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
  1. Heat the oven to 300°F and arrange a rack in the middle.
  2. Place half of the bread slices on a work surface and spread with half of the mayonnaise. Flip the bread slices over and evenly divide the cheese among the slices.
  3. Spread the remaining bread slices with the remaining mayonnaise and place them mayonnaise-side up over the cheese to form 10 sandwiches.
  4. Heat a large nonstick frying pan or griddle over medium-low heat until hot, about 4 to 5 minutes. Place 2 to 3 of the sandwiches in the pan and cook until the bottoms are golden brown and the cheese is starting to melt, about 5 minutes. Flip the sandwiches and cook until the second sides are golden brown and the cheese is completely melted, about 5 minutes more. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining sandwiches.
  5. When all the sandwiches are cooked, remove the baking sheet from the oven and place on a wire rack. Let cool 1 to 2 minutes before cutting each sandwich in half.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dumplings in Xi'an

Xi'an is a wheat growing region in China and so while meals come with rice just as you would expect , but there are a lot of noodles and dumplings.  The hotel had a noodle soup station at the breakfast buffet, with a man who took a small wad of dough, repeatedly kneaded it, and then quite dramatically stretched it and stretched it into dozens of individual noodles.  The end product was the best noodle soup that I have ever had, but in truth, watching the noodles being made was even better.
Xi'an is known for it's uniquely shaped dumplings and we spent one night at a dumpling restaurant that highlighted that speciality.  The duck dumplings are in the shape of ducks, the ham dumplings are in the shape of pigs, and there are very elaborate versions of all the various meats and vegetables that the dumplings contain.  Sometimes they are better to look at than they are to eat, but the best combination is that they are both beautiful and delicious.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

This is an action movie first and foremost.  Anyone looking for something deeper should turn away.  However, as spy thrillers go, this is a bit of a cut above, perhaps owing to it's director, Kenneth Branagh and a solid cast of Chris Pine as Jack Ryan, Kiera Knightly as his fiance and reluctant co-conspirator, and Kevin Costner as the man who recruits Ryan for the CIA.

The character Jack Ryan was created by Tom Clancy, but this movie breaks from the previous Jack Ryan movies in that the story line is not based on a book and with a new portrayal of the character.  There are the inevitable improbable paths that the  story line goes down, there are elements of a good thriller.  Branagh makes a convincing bad guy vis-a-vis Chris Pine's pretty squeaky clean, brave, and terribly smart good guy.  The prevalence of U.S. surveillance capabilities in modern day Russia is perhaps overstating the actual case, but maybe that is naive of me.  The action propels you safely to the end of the movie, and overall it is enjoyable if not all that deep.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Kale and Feta

It is true, this has been a summer full of kale.  I came home from my CSA and got to work.  I shredded some cabbage, kohlrabi,  and carrot to make an Asian style slaw while my husband used our new cast iron grill pan to make all the summer squash into a dressed room temperature salad.   Then I tackled the kale.  This can be served room temperature or cold.  Perfect picnic food.

1 bunch kale, chiffoned
4 cloves garlic minced
1/4 c. spring onion, thinly sliced
1/3 cup feta, crumbled

Steam or boil the kale until it is tender, then drain completely, and add to a bowl with the garlic and onion, and toss.  Add in feta.  At this point you have a lot of options.  In addition to squeezing a lemon over the dish and drizzling some olive oil, tossing in some chopped fresh herbs,  and salt and pepper to taste, you can mix in one of a few other things depending on where you want to take the flavor profile, including:

Diced Apples
Chopped Pecans

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The recession has just hit a small community in Ireland, one of the countries who has struggled most in the Euro zone since the world wide financial collapse started a domino effect of misery.  Ryan's book is a series of linked stories with 21 voices that puts a face on that problem.

The book pieces together a fractured portrait of a community in shock. The local building firm that was the motor of its former roaring prosperity has collapsed, and crooked boss Pokey Burke has fled the country, leaving his employees betrayed as well as broke: here, the global crisis wears the face of your neighbor. His foreman Bobby, once the village's golden boy, is now the visible face of that abandonment.

We hear from builders and their wives, anxious mothers and fathers, young people looking for a better life elsewhere, a prostitute who has seen the class of her clients take a nosedive, a child who reflects the world of the parent in a heartbreaking way.  In fact, the whole book is heartbreaking with a remarkably light touch (and it weighs in a well under 200 pages, so an afternoon read).  The tone is conversational and people are for the most part trying to tell their stories.  Coping exceeds whining, but the long range outlook remains bleak.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)

I have been almost completely divorced from popular culture for so long that I never saw the TV series that inspired this movie.  There were three seasons and they were critical if not commercial successes.

After the series was cancelled, the writer, Rob Thomas, and the star, Kristen Bell, wanted to do a movie, but they had trouble interesting a studio.  So they did what all good hipsters do, they launched a Kickstarter campaign, which yielded their goal of $2.1 million in just 10 hours and ultimately raked in $5.7 million.  Not bad at all.  They then got Warner to distribute the finished DVD.

The story line closely follows the original series, only now Veronica has just graduated from law school--the years have moved on and so has she.  In the middle of her interview for a high powered New York law firm she gets a call from an old high school fried.  He is accused of the murder of his ex-girlfriend and the openly corrupt sheriff's department shows absolutely no interest in justice.  They are all on the take, and her home town of Neptune has become a place of have's and have not's.  While the plot is pretty predictable, the dialogue is very good, and is on par with some BBC crime dramas.  You have to like detective dramas to enjoy this, but if you do this one is well worth watching.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bok Choy in Coconut Red Curry Sauce

My CSA has had oodles of bok choy these days and I really love it.  The mild flavor combined with the crunchy texture when cooked is a winner in my book, and I can get bok choy at my local Asian market for a reasonable price throughout the year, so a good bok choy recipe won't go unused year round.  Here is an adaptation from the New York Times.  The sauce is prepared on it's own, and so can be poured over any vegetable--I quick fried some shrimp, put them on top of the bok choy and then poured the sauce over them.

1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon red curry paste 
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon nam pla
1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 cup basil leaves
1 lime, cut in half
3/4 lb. bok choy

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, sauté the carrots and onions until onion become translucent, about two minutes.
2. Stir in the curry paste, and sauté for 30 seconds.
3. Add the sugar and stir until it begins to dissolve, about 30 seconds.
4. Stir in the nam pla and coconut milk. Turn the heat up to high and bring to a simmer.
5. Once the mixture reaches a simmer, turn the heat down to medium and let reduce for five to seven minutes.
6. Taste for seasoning. If more salt flavor is needed, add more fish sauce (or table salt). If more heat is needed, add more curry paste.
7. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the Thai basil and cilantro leaves.
8. Squeeze the juice of one lime half into the sauce. Stir and set aside.
9. Using a steamer basket, steam the bok choy in a covered pot for two minutes or until bright green.
10. Remove the bok choy from pot.
11. Ladle the sauce into shallow bowls. With tongs, top each bowl of sauce with the prepared bok choy. Squeeze the remaining lime half over the greens and serve.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Forbidden City, Beijing

Lying at the city center and called Gu Gong in Chinese, it was the imperial palace for twenty-four emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was first built throughout 14 years during the reign of Emperor Chengzu in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Ancient Chinese Astronomers believed that the Purple Star (Polaris) was in the center of heaven and the Heavenly Emperor lived in the Purple Palace. The Palace for the emperor on earth was so called the Purple City. It was forbidden to enter without special permission of the empeor. Hence its name 'The Forbidden City'.
It is the world's largest palace complex.  It is divided into two parts. The southern section, or the Outer Court was where the emperor exercised his supreme power over the nation. The northern section, or the Inner Court was where he lived with his royal family. Until 1924 when the last emperor of China was driven from the Inner Court, fourteen emperors of the Ming dynasty and ten emperors of the Qing dynasty had reigned here. Having been the imperial palace for some five centuries, it houses numerous rare treasures and curiosities. it was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1987.  My favorite piece of knowledge gained in this whole sprawling crowded place was that the lion with a ball under it's paw is a male lion and the lion with a cub under it's paw is a female.  Now you know too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Alan Partridge (2013)

This is apparently a reappearance of Alan Partridge, resurrected by his creator, Steve Coogan.  He is still in Norwalk, where no one who has a chance to get out has remained.  Partridge is still doing his mediocre radio show, with a small but seemingly faithful following.  He has been taken down a notch or two--he is driving a compact with the local dealership's logo on the outside.  He is middle aged and very clear on what the implications are for him.  When his radio station is bought by outsiders, he realizes that he is very vulnerable to being fired, but manages to avoid the axe by encouraging the new management to fire another old timer who is even more terrible than Alan.

The fired employee takes the station with a shot gun, holding the new crew hostage.  The local police are singularly incompetent, and send Alan in to hostage negotiate, which he is extraordinarily poor at.  But very funny.  He manages to single handedly keep the laughter rolling through one improbable scene after another to the film's bittersweet end.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Broiled Chipotle Chicken with Greens

This recipe is an adaptation from Rick Bayless, and you could certainly do the greens without the cream sauce--I do think the marinade is fantastic and should not be skipped.  The resulting chicken is moist and flavorful, which can be a difficult quality to achieve with BLSL chicken breasts, and it is another way to have greens.
  • 3 chipotles chopped with adobo sauce
  • 1/3 cup  half-and-half or crema
  • 4 medium-large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  •  1 bunch greens, chopped
  • Salt to taste

    1. Mix 3 chipotles with 2 tablespoons of the half-and-half or cream. Smear the mixture over the chicken, cover and refrigerate for several hours, if time permits.
    2. Lay the chicken breasts in a single, uncrowded layer in a metal baking pan. Broil, 6 inches below a very hot broiler, until richly brown, about 6 minutes. Turn the breasts over and broil until cooked through, about 6 more.
    3. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter, cover with foil and keep warm in a low oven. Set the baking pan over medium heat and stir in the chicken broth. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chopped greens and remaining half-and-half. Cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. Stir in the sour cream and salt to taste. Spoon the greens around the chicken and serve immediately.

    Sunday, July 20, 2014

    Mao's Tomb, Beijing

    This is something that I totally do not get.  Mao's body, perfectly preserved, has been on display in Beijing Tiananmen Square since 1977 and to this day there is an hours long line to get in to see him.  The building itself is strikingly similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and includes a larger than life Mao.  That seems tribute enough, and far less gruesome than viewing a long preserved corpse.
    It also seems profoundly disrespectful of the memory of Mao, as he was a proponent of cremation.  He was trying to move into modern times and leave the past behind in every way, including how the dead are handled, and wanted to be an example of that.  He failed miserably in that goal, but through no fault of his own.  he was, after all, dead at the time.  He is just one of a surprisingly long list of totalitarian dictators (either in name or in practice) who are embalmed for all eternity.  The Russians are the masters of this and can be credited with perfecting the technique, having both lenin and Stalin preserved.  Other Asians who have undergone the treatment are Ho Chi Min, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Il Sung, and Ferdindand Marcos.  The latest leader to be so preserved is Hugo Chavez.  So one can make a tour of sorts to see these specimens, years and even decades after their deaths.

    Saturday, July 19, 2014

    The Great Wall at Badaling

    When they said Great Wall, they were not kidding--it is an amazing feat.  The only other civilization that could have pulled this off were the Romans (who spent a good deal of time during the reign of Claudius onwards, peaking with Hadrian, building walls and aqueducts and temples that were on a grand scale that has withstood the test of time).
    So here we are, on the wall itself.  On some level it was hard to believe that I was there, it is such an iconic monument.  Climbing on it brought me quickly back to reality.   There is a lot of up and down in the wall.  They did not go for a wall that was more or less flat and build down to the ground.   No way.  This is in the hills and it reflects those hills almost exactly in it's ascents and descents.  The wall near Beijing was built during the Ming Dynasty (1504 for this section), and it was restored and made open to the public in the 1950's.  Interesting that during the Cultural Revolution Richard Nixon came to this section of the wall.  He represented capitalism and the wall represented both tradition and culture, everything that Mao's regimen was against.

    In modern China, there is a lot of interest in the past, and the day we were there the most visited section of the wall at Badaling had thousands of domestic tourists, people whose ancestors built this structure so enormous that it can be seen from space.  I was huffing and puffing just to get to a few guard towers, but there were lots of people enjoying picnics on this magnificent ancient accomplishment.

    Friday, July 18, 2014

    Ernest and Celestine (2012)

    The Academy Award for Best Animated Film has become a nice showcase for animated films that are made elsewhere.  I grew up on the Disney style of animation and story telling, and I continue to be very fond of those films, but the French animated films that have made it to the final 5 in this category have been wonderful. It is a children's fable with a wise and grown up heart.  The movie is about the friendship between a mouse and a bear has a simple story that even the youngest viewers could understand, yet it also possesses a refined, almost melancholy sense of goodness. It has things to say about the world, but it does so gracefully, without hitting you over the head with them.

    Ernest and Celestine are from different worlds, and never the twain should meet.  The problem is that neither of them got the memo on that.  They are both outsiders within the social world of their own species, and yet they discover that they are perfect for each other.  They are put on trial for the crime of befriending each other (although they are wanted for grand theft auto and some petty larceny), and i

    Thursday, July 17, 2014

    Broccoli Salad with Lemon and Red Chili Pepper

    There is a plethora of fresh broccoli at the farmer's market and in people's gardens these days, and since it is warm out, it is nice to have a salad.  This is a recipe that I adapted from 'Cucina Fresca', a cookbook that came out almost 30 years ago devoted to foods that are eaten either cold or room temperature.  I love that concept, and may have to put together my very own collection of recipes that fit the bill.  If you live a life of leisure you could think of them as picnic recipes but if you are like my daughter-in-law, who is a park ranger, you could be someone who has to take their lunch to work but has neither a refrigerator nor a microwave at hand.

    1 1/2 lbs. broccoli
    1/4 c. olive oil
    3 anchovy fillets
    1 clove garlic
    1 red chili pepper, either fresh or dried
    3 Tbs. lemon juice

    Steam or blanch the broccoli--drain and let dry off.  Put the dressing ingredients into a blender and pulse until smooth (a Vitamix is perfect for this)--alternatively, you can saute all but the lemon juice and dress that way.  Either way, the anchovies make this fantastic.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2014

    The Sacred Way, Beijing

    We visited the Sacred Way after the Ming Tombs and I was not excited to see it.  That was a mistake--if you want to skip the tomb, that would be acceptable, but the Sacred Way is spectacular.  It is also free of charge and one of the few tourist sights near Beijing that was not completely packed with people.  
    So do not miss it!  As you can see from the photo above, there are paired statues along the way.  There are animals at first and then the closer to the tomb you get, men appear.  There are increasingly important military figures lining the path.  These are very interesting to look at individually and as a group. 

    The Ming Tombs site was chosen by the third Ming Dynasty emperor YongLe (1402 - 1424), who moved the capital city of China from Nanjing to the present location of Beijing.

     He is credited with envisioning the layout of the ancient city of Beijing as well as a number of landmarks and monuments located therein. After the construction of the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) in 1420, YongLe selected his burial site and created his own mausoleum.From the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming Dynasty Emperors were buried in the area now known as the Ming Tombs. The tombs of the first two Ming Emperors are located near Nanjing (the capital city during their reigns). Emperor ChongZhen, who hung himself in April 1644, was the last to be buried here, but on a smaller scale than his predecessors. The Ming Tombs form the most extensive burial complex of any chinese dynasty and are one of the finest preserved pieces of 15th century chinese art and architecture.. is

    Tuesday, July 15, 2014

    The Temple of Heaven, Beijing

    The Temple of Heaven Park is located in the Chongwen District, Beijing.
    Originally, this was the place where emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and Quing Dyansty (1644 - 1911) held the Heaven Worship Ceremony. It is China's largest and most representative existing masterpiece among China’s ancient sacrificial buildings. First built in 1420, the 18th year of the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), it was enlarged and rebuilt during the reigns of the Ming emperor Jiajing and the Qing emperor Qianlong. In 1988, the Temple of Heaven was opened to the public as a park, showing ancient philosophy, history and religion. Its grand architectural style and profound cultural connotation give an insight into the practices of the ancient Eastern civilization.

    The Temple of Heaven is larger than the Forbidden City--even though it has many fewer buildings and many fewer tourists. As the 'Sons of Heaven’, Chinese emperors were no allowed from building a dwelling for themselves that was greater than the earthly residence dedicated to Heaven hence the difference in overall size of the two complexes. The temple is enclosed by a long wall. The northern part within the wall is semicircular symbolizing the heavens and the southern part is square symbolizing the earth. The northern part is higher than the southern part. This design shows that the heaven is high and the earth is low and the design reflected an ancient Chinese thought of 'the heaven is round and the earth is square'.

    Monday, July 14, 2014

    Cauliflower Salad with Greens and Tomatoes

    Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi have some wonderful salads, and this is one of them.  If you are using a tougher green than spinach, when you toss the greens with the hot cauliflower to wilt them a little they are somewhere between cooked and raw--marvelous!

    2 tbsp capers, drained and roughly chopped
    1 tbsp French wholegrain mustard
    2 garlic cloves, crushed
    2 tbsp cider vinegar
    1/4 c. olive oil
    1 small cauliflower, divided into florets
    1 tbsp chopped dill
    1 bunch greens (spinach, kale, beet greens)
    20 cherry tomatoes, halved
    coarse sea salt and black pepper

    1. First make the dressing, either by hand or in a food processor. Mix together the capers, mustard, garlic, vinegar and some salt and pepper. Whisk vigorously or run the machine while adding half the oil in a slow trickle. You should get a thick, creamy dressing. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

    2. Add the cauliflower florets to a large pan of boiling salted water and simmer for 3 minutes only. Drain through a colander and run under a cold tap to stop the cooking immediately.Leave in the colander to dry well. Once dry, place in a mixing bowl with the remaining olive oil and some salt and pepper. Toss well.

    3. Place a ridged griddle pan over the highest possible heat and leave it for 5 minutes or until very hot. Grill the cauliflower in a few batches - make sure the florets are not cramped. Turn them around as they grill then once nicely charred, transfer to a bowl. While the cauliflower is still hot, add the dressing, dill, spinach and tomatoes--if using baby greens, wait for the cauliflower to cool a bit before tossing them in. Stir together well, then taste and adjust the seasoning.

    4. Serve warm or at room temperature, adjusting the seasoning again at the last minute.

    Sunday, July 13, 2014

    At Middleton (2013)

    This movie is flawed in a number of ways, but pleasant to watch and has a couple of take home messages that are probably not all that important for 20 somethings to think about, but hit close to home for me.  It is a romantic comedy that takes place on a college campus but the main stars of the show are not the rising freshmen who are on the campus tour but rather their parents. 

    George (Andy Garcia) is enthusiastic about the college application process and his son Conrad is not.  Edith (Vera Furmiga) is almost painfully difficult as the parent of Audrey, who is not only set on Middleton as her school of choice but on the path that her life will take.  The dialogue in the film is a bit stilted, and that is the major problem to get over here--that, and the fact that Edith is anything but attractive in the beginning so it is unclear why George would spend any more time with her than absolutely necesary.

    But he does, and what unfolds across their day is that they are both desperately unhappy in their marriages, and with their children on the brink of leaving the nest they are having to face up to that. Some people do a much better job than others at maintainging and nurturing their marriages across the many years spent in child rearing, and it is something to think about.

    Saturday, July 12, 2014

    80 Years Ago Today

    My mother turns 80 today, and this is a shout out to her.  This photo was taken when she was 25 years old--the age that my eldest son is now.

    The world was a different place in the 1930's than it is today and I think it must be amazing to have lived through all those changes.  The world of technology is one enormous change.  She was born in rural Maine and so knew people who did not have electricity or indoor plumbing and a party line was the norm for telephone service into the home.  She is not the most technologically savvy grandmother on the block.  She still goes into the bank to complete her transactions, does not have an ATM card, and does not have an email account.  However, she has taken like a duck to water for two things that the information age has to offer--computerized mah jong and streaming Newflix. 

    The other thing that has changed are social norms--when George Will noted that the opposition to gay marriage was literally dying, that young people almost universally accept it and it is people my parents age who do not, he was not talking about my mother.  She is accepting of same sex marriage, as well as a woman's right to choose.  She is politically conservative and socially liberal--too bad there isn't a political party for her right now, but I am proud of her ability to change with the times.  So wishing her the happiest of birthdays and hope to have her living close by soon.

    Friday, July 11, 2014

    And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

    I haven't kept up with this author well since her first novel 'Three Junes' came out.  It was given to me by one of my wonderful sister-in-law who gives me books for my birthday.  I picked this up because of how much I liked that first book.

    This one starts off a little on the slow side, but it is worth sticking with.  Kit is stuck.  His wife is the bread winner since he lost his job as a college professor, and while he has become a wonderful cook while he is taking care of their children, there is a restless unhappiness to him that is driving his wife crazy, more crazy than the fact that they have limited financial resources.  She insists that Kit leave home and not come back until he has done some soul searching.

    The big hole in Kit's past is his father.  His mother had the classic first love, no birth control, and now there is a baby on the way end of adolescence and she out and out refuses to talk about it.  Kit realizes that he is not like an adoptee, he feels that loss and his mother will not budge.  So he goes to his former step-father, who he had a good if emotionally distant relationship with, and they figure it out.

    The last half of the book is the effect that finding his father's family has on him and the first half of the book is the effect not knowing that has on him.  It is well written, emotionally savvy and ultimately fun.  It is also connected to the story line in 'Three Junes'.

    Thursday, July 10, 2014

    The Birder's Guide to Everything (2013)

    This is an entirely enjoyable indy movie about a 15 year old boy, David (played so naturally by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has lost his mother 18 months before.  He is struggling mightily with his grief and add onto that the anger he has at his father, who is getting remarried, and to one of the nurses who took care of his mother over the course of her illness.

    David's mother was an exceptional birder, and she passed the love of the hobby onto her son, who recognizes birds by their GISS (which is pronounced JIZZ,for reasons which escape me because it seems like potty humor and many birders are well above the age where that would be appropriate)--the general impression of their size and shape--as well as by their songs.  He is humble and shy and intense all at the same time.

    The movie is about how he uses birding and his peers to find a way to forgive his father, to let go of his anger and see what his father is going through.  It is a sweet story that is told in a soft way.  Very enjoyable.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2014

    Green Soup

    This soup is yet another way to enjoy the abundance of greens that spells summer.  There are a multitude of ingredients that you can use to make this soup, so I will start with one version, and end with variations.  The most important step is to turn the broth off as you add the greens so they retain their vibrant green color.

    4 c. stock
    1 onion diced
    1 carrot diced
    3-4 cloves of garlic minced
    2 medium potatoes diced
    1 bunch of greens coarsely chopped (I like kale, or kale and spinach, but any greens will work)

    Saute the onions in a little olive oil until onions are becoming translucent then add carrot and garlic and saute a couple more minutes.  Add stock, potatoes, and some salt and pepper and put soup on a slow boil until potatoes are soft.  Turn off the heat, add the greens, stir until they wilt, and then puree (if you have a Vita mix, fantastic--the smoother the texture the better), and serve.

    The potatoes add starch and heft to the soup so you do not have to add cream, but you can finish it off with that at the end if you want, or add a dollop of creme freshe or sour cream as you serve.

    You can substitute rice or white beans for the potatoes if you prefer--or as might be the case, that is what you have in the fridge.

    You can add mushrooms--think about the color of these--paler will keep the soup this bright green, which I think is one of it's biggest attractions.  The mushrooms add unami, another flavor dimension.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    Ming Tombs, Beijing

    The Ming Tombs near Beijing were built in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui (because who wants to have bad luck for all eternity, after all).  According to these, bad spirits and evil winds descending from the North must be deflected; therefore, an arc-shaped valley area at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, north of Beijing, was selected. This 40 square kilometer area—enclosed by the mountains in a pristine, quiet valley full of dark earth, tranquil water and other necessities that are felt to bring luck in the Chinese culture.

    The Ming emperors were lucky--China was no where near as densely populated when they were planning their final resting place (which has been looted a few times over the centuries, so while the exterior of the building is beautiful, the inside is a bit underwhelming).  The principles of Feng Shui make building apartment buildings in modern China a challenge.  One bathroom misplaced can significantly decrease the value of an otherwise perfectly nice place.

    Monday, July 7, 2014

    The Book Thief (2013)

    I was avoiding watching this movie for quite a while because I had read the book and knew that it was going to be hard to watch.  I wasn't wrong about that--any movie set in Germany in WWII is going to contain a fair amount of difficult material.  It was not a mistake to wait until I was ready to watch it, but it is a very good movie.

    Liesel is a young girl who is adopted by a family after her mother is sent to a concentration camp.  Her situation prior to this has been difficult--her brother dies en route to Berlin and they pull over to the side of the road and bury him there.  Then when she arrives at her new home, her new mother Rosa (Emma Watson) is none-too-welcoming, but her father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) more than makes up for it.  She is illiterate when she arrives, and her new father teaches her to read, which becomes an obsession for her.  She breaks into the mayor's mansion on a regular basis to borrow books to read, returning the one she took on a previous trip before removing another.  Over the years of  the war she becomes not just well read but a good story teller.

    The story that is told lacks some of the grittiness of the book--as the war progresses, German citizens are getting less and less food.  Liesel's family talks about starving, but they don't get progressively emaciated.  They hide a Jew for a period of years (which is how we know that Rosa is much better than she first appears) without much difficulty, a feat that few accomplished.  The movie is narrated by death, which is a bit histrionic.  Overall, though, I really liked the movie, which puts me at odds with the critics, but that is nothing new.

    Sunday, July 6, 2014

    The Hutong, Beijing

    It was a little bit camp, but we took a took through one of the last (if not the last) old neighborhood in Beijing in a modern rickshaw (meaning it had a bicycle driver).  The predominant color in the neighborhood was red--red signs, red lanterns, red items for sale.  The color of good luck was very much in evidence in this crowded area with narrow streets that would no accomodate a full sized car.
    Here is an aerial view--see, no room to move, really.  We were able to gointo the home of an artist who lives in the Hutong, and he was asked about the ownership of the house and the Cultural Revolution.  Yes, the house was divided into four dwellings during that time, and while his family maintained their deed in secret, when it was all over, all they were able to keep was the 1/4 of the property that they occupy.  Such is the immediate past of modern China.
    The name Hutong comes from the Mongolian word for town, and dates back to what is called the Yuan Dynasty but was really a time of occupation for China.  Khuba Khan, one of the all too numerous offspring of Ghengis Khan, was running the show and had been for years, but in 1271 he proclaimed the Yuan Dynasty and declared himself Emperor of China.
    The Ming Dynasty followed the Yuan Dynasty, and hutongs were organized with the Forbidden City in the middle of Beijing, and hutongs going out in ever expanding circles, the richest hutongs being closer to the center and the poorer ones furthest away.  Now they have largely been bulldozered over and had high rise apartment buildings put on top of them--all but this one.

    Saturday, July 5, 2014

    Garlic Scape Pesto with Kale and Basil

    'Tis the season for kale to be abundant, and the window when garlic scapes are too.  I have been making everything I know to make with kale, and this is a nice addition.

    ½  pound or 6 leaves of kale, strip leaves from stem and chop finely
    8-10 garlic scapes, trim off tough end and green end above the bulb part
    ¼  to ½  cup olive oil
    Handful of basil
    ¼ cup grated fresh parmesan
    Salt and pepper to taste
    Combine ingredients in food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Makes enough for a pound of pasta--reserve the pasta water to add a little to the pesto if you refrigerate it before hand.

    Friday, July 4, 2014

    Modern China's Move Towards Freedom--Tiananmen Square

    Here is the famous gate at Tiananmen Square, which separates the large square in Beijing from the Forbidden City.  The day that I was there it was impossible to get this photo.  The place was teaming with people, most of them domestic tourists from other parts of China visiting the attractions of their capital city.  There is no hint of what happened in this spot 25 years ago.

    In the summer of 1989 thousands of Chinese students gathered to protest the lack of freedom in their country at the time.  They were seeking three kinds of freedom: economic freedom, political freedom, and religious freedom.  At that time none of those were available.  The world was shocked when China moved in tanks and literally rolled over students--there has never been an admission of the death toll, and since the Chinese government controls the internet in the country, any mention of the protest is expunged from the record there.

    In the 25 years since, there has been an astounding change in economic freedom in China, with a rapidly expanding middle class and widespread education available to what was a largely illiterate country in 1989.  The ability to choose your spiritual beliefs and follow them has also become widely available in China today--Confucius' house is open to the public, Buddhist temples are reopened, and people openly display their religious beliefs.  So all that remains is political freedom, which is no where in evidence.  Mao ruled China with an iron fist.  Millions of people died of starvation under his rule, and yet there is much admiration for him today.  He brought the country out of a feudal time and set in motion what modern China has become.

    Thursday, July 3, 2014

    Arriving in China

    Coming from the United States, even on an exceptionally good itinerary, the traveler has been on the road for hours, and is likely to have lost some sleep somewhere along the way.  This trip was my first to China and my third to Asia, so the cultural shock was still quite real, even if I had been 100% rested, which I was not.

    The elements of culture shock for me included things that I had experience before and things that were new.  The language barrier is often there--I am not a multi-lingual polyglot and I like to travel so that is almost a given.  I expected to have trouble with the characters, but amazingly almost all signs that had a government connection to them were also in English.  So getting to the bathroom was never an issue--what you would find there is another story.  For some reason I find the squatting toilet to be a challenge.  The second thing is that I became an instant ethnic minority.  By far the most common tourist in China is Han Chinese.  They out number those of European origins by a long, long shot, and so even in the airport I stood out.  But the thing that surprised me the mist was that you had to pass through a temperature sensor to enter the country.  Big brother is literally watching.

    I had booked my tour through a Chinese company and was a bit trepidatious about whether I would be met at all.  I had crowd sourced my choice, and in the past that has been a very good strategies--no surprises--you are apprised of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and you make a choice with your eyes wide open.  But there she was, right outside of customs, and we started our tour of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

    Wednesday, July 2, 2014

    The Hand of Fatima

    On my recent trip to Morocco, I was fascinated by the prevalence of the Hand of Fatima, which marks the house as a Muslim home.

    It is an ancient talisman for protection against malocchio, commonly known as the Evil Eye. Since the dawn of time, humans have used symbols of protection against malocchio. Traditionally, it is believed that the curse of the Evil Eye may befall a person who is the target of willfully directed negativity in the form of envy, jealousy, or hatred. Some cultures adopted the eye as an amulet for protection while others favored the Hamsa (hand). Over time the two symbols were married and thus the Hand of Fatima was born.

    This symbol is commonly seen hung at the threshold of homes where it is believed to guard the household and all who dwell there from the influence of negativity. The talisman is purported to offer special protection against fires making it a prominent fixture in many businesses.

    Worn on the person as an amulet, the Hand of Fatima offers not only protection, but blessing. The wearer will be granted abundance, luck, vitality and will find the favor of benevolent forces. Many belly dancers have adopted the Hand of Fatima as a luck charm. It is considered most fortuitous to wear the talisman as a bracelet. This is especially potent when one finds themselves at a crossroads in life. The Hand of Fatima will shelter the bearer from obstacles, strife and adversity, helping the seeker transform fate into destiny.

    The Hamsa is recognized as a sacred symbol in many cultures and religions including Judaism, Buddhism, Shamanism, Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Islamic belief. The Hamsa is a symbol of the "one hand that writes all" and has associations with Divinity. The Hand of Fatima can be seen both upright or upside down, depending on the culture. Additionally, the symbols featured within the hand are of significance and vary in different parts of the world. Despite variations, it is an archetypal motif that speaks across borders of language, cultural and religious belief.

    Tuesday, July 1, 2014

    Spicy Ginger Noodles with Bok Choy and Pork

    Yet another culinary adventure into Asian cuisine--this one with rice noodles.  Yum!

    • 12 ounces baby bok choy (3 or 4 small heads)
    • 1 ounce ginger root (1 fat 2-inch-thick knob)
    • Kosher salt
    • 8 ounces rice noodles, not too thin(if using partially hydrated rice noodles, 12 ounces)
    • 2 tablespoons peanut or safflower oil
    • 1 pound lean ground pork
    • 1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
    • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
    • 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
    • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
    • 1 fresh Thai or habanero chile, seeded if desired, thinly sliced
    • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil, more for drizzling
    • Cilantro or torn basil, for serving
    • Black vinegar, for serving
    Trim bok choy and separate dark green tops from white stems; leave tops whole and thinly slice stems. Peel ginger and finely chop half of it. Slice remaining ginger into thin matchsticks.
    Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add noodles and cook according to package instructions. Drain and run under cool water; drain again.
    Heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook, breaking up with a fork, until golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1/2 tablespoon rice wine vinegar. Use a slotted spoon to transfer meat to a bowl.
    Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to skillet. Stir in half the scallions, the finely chopped ginger, the garlic and the chile. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add bok choy stems and a pinch of salt. Cook until bok choy is almost tender, about 2 minutes. Toss in leaves and return pork to skillet.
    Toss noodles, remaining 1/4 cup soy sauce and 1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar into the pan. Cook until just warmed through.
    Transfer to a large bowl and toss with remaining scallions, sesame seeds, sesame oil and herbs. In a small bowl, combine ginger matchsticks with just enough black vinegar to cover. Serve ginger mixture alongside noodles as a garnish.