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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Cochinita Pibil

  • 6 pound boneless pork shoulder (not lean), cut into 3-inch chunks
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 3 Tbs. lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
  • 3 tablespoons achiote seeds
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3 fresh or thawed frozen banana leaves
1.  Put pork in a large bowl and rub with 1 teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons juice.
Toast peppercorns, cumin, and allspice together, then cool slightly. Transfer to grinder along with achiote seeds and grind to a powder. Transfer to a small bowl.
Mince garlic and mash to a paste with remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt using side of a large heavy knife. Add to ground spices along with oregano and remaining 6 tablespoons juice and stir to make a paste.
Toss pork with paste to coat well.

2.  Line roasting pan with banana leaves, shinier sides down, by arranging 1 leaf lengthwise and 2 leaves crosswise, letting excess hang over sides. Trim overhang to about 8 inches on all sides.
Transfer pork mixture to banana leaves, then fold overhang of leaves over pork to enclose completely. Cover pan tightly with foil and chill, at least 6 hours and overnight preferably.
Put oven rack in middle position, then put pan with pork in oven and heat to 400°F (to take chill off pork gently).
Once oven has reached 375°F, bake until pork is very tender, 2 1/4 to 2 3/4 hours.
Discard foil and open banana leaves, then serve pork with salsa, pickled onions, sliced radishes, and tortillas.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Erotic Poems by Ovid

Ovid was a poet during the lengthy time that Augustus was the emperor of Rome.  He was from an equestrian family in the north of Italy, but unlike Virgil, he loved Rome.  He loved the plays, the music, the parties, and the people.  He thrived on the city life.  Unfortunately for him, he made a mistake and Augustus banished him to a distant, cold, and inhospitable place for the rest of his life.  The work that he is best known by lay folk like me for was Metamorphosis, which he wrote while in exile in the hopes that Augustus would be pleased and allow him to come back to Rome.  No such luck befell Ovid, but his work relied upon many ancient sources, some of which no longer exist, so he did modern man a favor, or at least those modern men who wanted to know more about the myths and legends of the ancient world.

The Erotic Poems were the work of Ovid's heart.  The Amores are elegaic poems that were written by a young man.  They describe a consuming love, fueled by equal parts passion and jealousy, that ends badly.  The emotions are strong, almost frightening at times, and always frank.  The Art of Love poems are written in middle age, when passion has cooled a bit.  They are instruction manuals for men and women interested in fomenting love.  He is a teacher of the art of love, an apprentice at the knee of Cupid.  The Cures for Love are intended for the man who cannot survive love.  Ovid is a healer, giving instructions in how to manage an addiction to love that had failed.  The writing is frank, understandable, and in many ways it seems quite contemporary.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boyhood (2014)

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Oaxacan Caesar Salad

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Leaving Tabasco by Carmen Boullosa

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sauteed Zucchini with Garlic and Lime

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

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

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

Friday, January 23, 2015

Neighbors (2014)

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

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rice Pilaf with Roasted Chilis, Corn, and Queso Fresco

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Us by David Nicholls

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Begin Again (2014)

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

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

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

I Have a Dream (MLK, August 28, 1963)

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."¹
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
                Free at last! Free at last!
                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

This is an Ian McEwan book, so you can almost bet on the fact that there is a morally complicated theme.  This book focuses on the tension between the autonomy that families have in making decisions about the health care of their children and the state's right to intervene.  The situation is this.  An almost 18 year old has Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and in order to treat the disease he will require blood transfusions as a result of the chemotherapy.  The family and the child are refusing this because they are Jehovah's Witnesses.  The case is brought before judge Fiona Maye, and she is tasked with deciding what to do.

The book handles this real life situation very well (there is a current case in the news about an almost adult who is refusing treatment for Hodgkin Disease), including the fallout that occurs when a child is forced to do something that their parents do not agree with.  The legal system provides no support for that child who is now at odds with the beliefs of their family and can therefore no longer count on them, all the while they have a life threatening illness.  The reader sees Fiona's dilemma in this, and sympathizes with her choices, but all does not end well, which is yet another realistic depiction.

The side bar to all of this is that Fiona's husband Jack is pursuing an affair with another woman, all the while telling her that he loves her and doesn't want anything to change with their relationship, which Jack describes as more like a relationship between siblings than a passionate one.  The book does not deal deeply with the inevitable cooling of ardor over a decades long relationship, but does a good job of depicting Fiona's response to the situation put in front of her.  All in all it is a compact book full of wit and insight.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pride (2015)

Wow, I really liked this movie.  It is set in the mid-1980's and based on actual events.  Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister and the mining strike is in full force.  Thatcher is playing hardball, having confiscated all the national union's funds in an effort to starve the miner's back to work.  It is a gritty time in British history.  So a group of gay and lesbian men and women decide that they are going to support the miners.  Why?  Because they are the only group that the British press has treated worse than them.

So they form a charitable organization Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.  Their next hurdle is to get a town to accept their support, which is easier said than done.  The Dalais Valley Miners of South Wales agrees to accept their support based on a misunderstanding--but once the community committee meets them, they present them to the community as a whole where the reception is significantly less warm.  No surprise.  But over time they too warm to the group, and eventually come to support gay rights as a sign of solidarity.  In 2015 this doesn't seem exceptional, but 30 years ago it was, and the film is a good reminder of where we have come.  The movie is also set in the time when HIV was on the rise and there were no mitigating medications in sight, and that forms a poignant backdrop for the movie as well.  Very well done and heartwarming in all the right ways.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Baisha Tablecloths, China

I was astounded when I saw the tie dyed technique used to dies table clothes is a Baisha village, and I have not been able to find anything about the history of this other than what everyone there told me--that it is a traditional style of dying and no one there had every heard of the Japanese tie dying style that is very similar known as shibori.

There are many traditional techniques for the Japanese Shibori, but the particular technique that these Baisha clothes use is what is called Nui shibori.  Nui shibori includes stitched shibori. A simple running stitch is used on the cloth then pulled tight to gather the cloth. The thread must be pulled very tight to work, and a wooden dowel must often be used to pull it tight enough. Each thread is secured by knotting before being dyed.
This technique allows for greater control of the pattern and greater variety of pattern, but it is much more time consuming.
The astonishing thing is that these table clothes are incredibly cheap--it is time for someone to discover these and import them.  The entire time I was in China I did not see a lot in the way of unique indigenous artisans, although looking at the wealth of ancient arts there is a rich tradition of making beautiful things by hand.  These are quite lovely and I wish that I had had room to bring home more than one.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

It was a week of reading trilogies for me.  In the case of this book, it is the final installment.  The first two books, "Gilead" and "Home", were both excellent, and this book is very good, although it is my least favorite of the three (although my spouse really liked it, so it is a matter of taste.  The writing is excellent).

The story includes the preacher, John Ames, who is a constant in all three books, and focuses on his young wife, Lila.  Lila is a furious outsider, a woman with a hard life that included a stint in a St Louis whorehouse. She was rescued as a neglected child by Doll, an old woman who cared for her and took her on the road with a what amounted to a traveling work gang. They toiled in the fields and slept beneath the stars and for a year, while Doll managed to put Lila through school.  Eventually they parted, and Lila, after miserable years alone, found her way by chance to Gilead and an unlikely husband. They each believe that they are unworthy of the other, and in that space they make a life together that is better than either of them is apart.  Lila and Ames are lonely souls, worn out by sadness and suffering, but they learn how to be together and find salvation, of a sort.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mary and Max (2009)

Mary and Max owes a lot to Harry and Maude.  It is an incredibly bittersweet tale about two lonely people, one a girl and one a middle aged man, who form a friendship. It wavers between poignant and absurd.  There's a childlike naivete and innocence to both Mary, a little Australian girl, and Max, a New York Jew with Asperger's syndrome, but also cut with a sense of cynicism and black comedy. The fact that this is stop-motion animation, beautifully done in black and white with small touches in color is a boon. Had this been shot live action, it would just be dreary and melancholy. But because it's happening to goofy little clay figures, it gives it just the right sense of detachment where you can love the characters for all their foibles and the awful experiences they endure rather than feel dragged through their own private hells. It's not a happy little film, but it's certainly a rich and sweet one.

Young Mary Dinkle (Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a friendless eight-year-old with a pet rooster named Ethel, a frumpy pair of glasses, and a birthmark on her forehead. Her father fills teabags and spends his spare time doing amateur taxidermy in a shed, and her mother is an alcoholic shoplifter who steals and drinks to excess.  Her grandfather tells her that in Australia babies are found at the bottom of beer glasses. Wondering how babies are born in America, she chooses a name at random from a phone book and sends her first letter, along with a crayon self-portrait, to Max Horowitz.

Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a 44-year old overweight Jew living alone in his post WW II apartment in New York. He attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings, which are his only social interactions. He keeps numerous pets, watches children's programs, and eats a steady diet of kugel and latkes. He receives Mary's letter, and writes back to her on his old typewriter, telling him about himself and his theories on life.  Their friendship is not linear and they both have psychiatric issues that interfere with their communication and their ability to get pleasure from life.  Theirs is not a romance but they have a major impact on each others lives.  This is not a cartoon for children, but one not to be missed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Little Bird, Portland, OR

This is a beautifully appointed restaurant in the downtown Portland area.  The configuration of the tables and the tone set by the decor are French bistro like and very inviting.  I think my grandmother, whose birthday it would have been today had she made it well past the century mark, would have enjoyed joining us for lunch here.

My spouse and I were on a weekend getaway to Portland where our two goals were to eat well and to walk around the rest of the time.  No museums, no culture, just criss-crossing the city on foot, weather permitting--which it did.
Our lunch included a duck confit, which was the most traditional French dish that we had--it was well prepared, but ended up being the least memorable part of the meal, along with the braised kale--both of which I love, so that is in many ways a compliment.  The crab roll was perfect--the bread it was served on was a brioche dough in the traditional hot dog bun style, lightly buttered and toasted. The crab salad was lemony with tarragon and very good.  The highlight of the meal was a spaghetti squash gratin with a bechamel sauce, gruyere cheese on top and toasted walnuts.  Delicious!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

I have very much enjoyed reading Jane Smiley over the years, starting with A Thousand Acres and growing from there.  And it is not just because she has a tendency to set every other book in the beautiful, complicated, farming state of Iowa.  She is a master storyteller, and that is something I very much like about fiction.

This story is set in Denby, Iowa.  Each chapter covers a year in time, and spans 30 years of the Langdon family's life.   It starts after WWI, in 1920.  The Depression came early to farm families, and the Langdon's are no exception.  The book contains a family tree so that if you can't quite keep everyone straight over the course of the story, which swings from one family member to the next as time goes on, you have something to fall back on.  What I love most about the book, beyond the sustainability of the characters over the course of the story, is that there is a backdrop that reflects what is happening in rural America over the course of the beginning of the move from a rural life for the majority of Americans to an urban one.

The good news is that "Some Luck" is the first in a trilogy to be called "The Last Hundred Years." Smiley's  intention is to cover 100 years of Langdon family life in 100 chapters, starting with the 34 contained in Book One. The author's gift of storytelling keeps the reader interested in what happens to all the characters over time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hinterland Brewery, Green Bay, WI

I was in Green Bay in the late summer this year and had a really wonderful meal at this brewery/restaurant.  It is a great combination between a wonderful array of beers that are brewed on site and a small but very good menu that paired well with the beer.  My brother, whose birthday is today, would love this place.  A gastropub with vegan options and great beer--what is not to like?
As is true in the best of brew pubs, there is a sampler available.  There are a number of beers that are made on site (Saison, Maple bock, Octoberfest, 2 Stouts, Pilsner, 2 IPAs, a Pub Draught, an Amber and a Winterland) and the sampler allows one to try 4 at a time.  The bar menu is pizza from a wood fired over that was excellent.  There are a nice range of starters and main courses, and I was able to sampel a range of the menu by tasting what each of my 3 co-diners had, and everything was very good.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Shopping for Food in Yunnan Province, China

This is my second to last post on my trip to China last summer and I am posting it on my spouse's birthday because while he wasn't crazy about going in the first place, he did so for me, and in the end we had a very good and even more interesting time.

The thing that we love to do is to walk around new places, see what is different and fun and unusual about them, and then try some of what we see.
When we were in Yunnan province we did have yak in a village (tastes like beef), but best of all the restaurant had a delicious and spicy array of all sorts of food.  Some restaurants that we visited had the raw ingredients displayed on racks in front.  As a diner you would choose the ingredients for the dishes that you ordered, then sat down to some tea while they whipped up your food.  It was fantastic and fun.  My spouse ate a cricket, but I maintained that I am saving bugs that I eat on purpose for the end times.
If you like the sort of sensory assault that a foreign culture can offer, then China is definitely a great country to visit, especially if you get out of the new parts of each city (which dwarf the old parts in size and scope) and walk around the old neighborhoods, take pictures, pause and let it sink in, and stop at restaurants and take a chance on what you will get.  It is well worth it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Roe, Portland, OR

The dinner my spouse and I had here was hands down the most elegantly prepared meal that we had on a short trip to Portland recently.  The key ingredients to the success of the meal included remarkably fresh seafood, careful and beautiful preparation of the food resulting in dishes that were unquestionably things we could not go home and make ourselves, and impeccable service and atmosphere.  The restaurant is located behind The Block and Tackle, a seafood restaurant that has a wonderful selection of beverages at the bar, small plates that are reasonably priced, and we would have been happy to start the meal off there if we had arrived earlier than our reservation or had to wait.  The menu at Roe had a few appetizer options, and then a 4-course seafood meal that included a raw fish course, a seafood course, a fish course, and a dessert.  We were able to try almost everything on the menu by ordering different options for each course, and everything we had was pitch perfect.  The salmon was surprisingly delicious, as was the ceviche.  Final note is that the wine pairing that went with each course was the best food-drink pairing that we have experienced.  Very impressive meal in a lovely location.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Wind Rises (2013)

After an astoundingly successful career as an animator with a style that is enviable, luscious, and brilliant, Hayao Miyazaki announced that he is retiring.  His last film, 'The Wind Rises',  is a breathtaking dream of flying that is crafted with hand-drawn attention to detail/  It is a rich treat for the body and the mind alike. The film is nspired by the life of second world war Zero fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi, and the writings of Tatsuo Hori.   The movie plays out over a troubled historical canvas encompassing the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, years of depression, the tuberculosis epidemic, the descent into World War II.
The movie includes details of Horikoshi's personal life as well as his professional accomplishments.  He is a man who is passionate about his work, but he had an equal passion for the woman who became his wife.  He credited her living with him rather than in a sanatorium for suffers of TB with his ability to concentrate fully on his work.  The film does not shy away from the war applications of Horikoshi's plane, but it does depict him as a man devoted to building the best flying machine rather than the best fighter plane.  He knew what it would be used for and he did not resist that, but he is not depicted as highly nationalistic.  His coworkers and his supervisor are all supportive, nice, and I wouldn't mind working in a place that functional myself.  Wonderful visual experience with a bit of history wrapped up inside it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fish Cakes with Herbs and Chilies

This is a great way to have fish if you have someone who is not crazy about it.  It is in disguise.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, more for frying
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed 
  • 1 pound firm white fish fillets
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dry vermouth or white wine
  • 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (2 cups)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped basil
  • 1 scallion, white and green parts, finely chopped
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
  • Pinch cayenne
  • Finely grated zest of 1 small lime
  • cup panko bread crumbs
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons chopped lime pickle or preserved lemon (optional)
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • Lime wedges, for serving
  1. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic and cook until golden brown at the edges, about 2 minutes.
  2. Season fish with 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper, add to pan and let cook for 1 minute. Add vermouth and 2 tablespoons water. Turn heat to low, cover and cook until fish is just barely cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Move fish to a plate, keeping any liquid and garlic in skillet.
  3. In the same skillet over high heat, add potatoes, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and water to just cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook until tender, about 15 minutes.
  4. Flake fish. Drain potatoes and garlic, and place in a large bowl. Roughly mash potatoes and garlic, then add flaked fish, eggs, cilantro, basil, scallion, chile, cayenne, lime zest and panko, and combine. Season with salt if needed. Cover and chill for at least 3 hours.
  5. Place flour on a plate. Form generous 1/4 cup fish patties about 1/2 inch thick. Dip patties into flour to lightly coat each side.
  6. In a large, preferably nonstick skillet, heat 1/8 inch of olive oil over medium heat. Cook fish cakes until golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes each side, adding more oil as needed. Move to a paper-towel-lined plate.
  7. If using lime pickle or preserved lemon, stir into mayonnaise. Serve fish cakes with the mayonnaise (with or without pickles) and lime wedges.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Flex Mussels, New York City

This is a restaurant that celebrates the bivalve.  There are literally dozens of variations on the theme of mussels steamed and served with a broth.  Some of them are cream based and some of them are not, but they all feature the PEI mussel and the five varieties that I tried on a recent trip to Manhattan were all delicious.  The menu does feature some non-mussel dishes, but why go to a mussel place and not try mussels?  If our experience was any indication, you really can't go wrong with them.  The mussels are small to medium size, so if you are not into the larger versions, have no fear, you will be happy here.

We did have two of the salads, both of which were delicious, and an appetizer of fried calamari, oysters, and shrimp that demonstrated good frying skills as well as fresh ingredients.  The noise level was above average, but that was the only down side.  The meal was fantastic, complete with lots of crusty bread to mop up the broth underneath the bed of shellfish.   The service was attentive and casual, and it was just a lot of fun.

Monday, January 5, 2015

This is Where I Leave You (2014)

I loved this book, and the movie is more or less faithful to the tenets of the book and quite enjoyable, despite what Rotten Tomatoes would have you beleive.

Judd (Jason Bateman) is having a bad week.  He has caught his previously adored wife in bed with his boss, which means he loses his marriage and his job in one fell swoop.  He is ill equipped to deal with this because he is a man who does not like change and he does not like things to be messy.  The blame for that lays pretty squarely with his mother, who wrote a book about child rearing where she shared every embarrassing thing that he did as a child with her readers, so no secrets and a fair amount of bullying at school ensued.  Hilary, the mother/author/therapist (Jane Fonda) is annoyingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory but where she fails to accept responsibility for what she has wrought for her children, she is pretty dead on about who they are as adults  She just hasn't left them equipped to feel joy.

Then Judd's father dies, and Hilary insists that the family sit shiva for a week under the dame roof, and Judd is not the only family member who has problems.  His older brother married an ex-girlfriend of Judd's so that is awkward.  The younger brother (Adam Driver) is a likable but total screw up who arrives driving a fancy car with a rich older girlfriend in tow.  The sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is bitter an unhappy--her high school love, who still lives across the street from her childhood home, was in a car accident that left him brain injured and unable to be on his own.  She has allowed her guilt about leaving him and escaping uninjured to rule her life.  So you can imagine what happens when they are forced to live together for a week.  Wise and funny and a cautionary tale.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Kai Yaang or Whole Roasted Game Hens

This is an absolutely delicious recipe from Andy Ricker at Pok Pok.  But we warned, if you start it today you will not be eating it for a while and you will know the inside and outside of each and every bird quite well by the time you get to taste it.  The end result is entirely worth the wait.

  • 3 Cornish game hens, rinsed inside and out
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup superfine sugar
  • 10 cups tepid water
  • 5 or 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon white peppercorns
  • A thumb-size hunk of unpeeled ginger, coarsely sliced against the grain
  • 1 large unpeeled stalk lemongrass, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • A small handful cilantro stems, preferably with roots attached, torn in half
  • 2 or 3 whole green onions, torn in half
  • 3 large stalks lemongrass, outer layer, bottom 1/2 inch, and top 4 inches removed
  • 3 3/4 ounces unpeeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 2 ounces thinly sliced cilantro stems (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons water
Basting Liquids
  • A couple tablespoons garlic oil
  • 1/4 cup honey mixed well with 2 tablespoons hot water
  1. Brine the birds: Whisk the salt and sugar with the 10 cups of tepid water in a large mixing bowl or pot until the sugar and salt fully dissolve. Combine the garlic, peppercorns, ginger, and lemongrass in a mortar and lightly pound to bruise and slightly crush them. Add them along with the cilantro and green onions to the brine, then add the birds breast side down. If they float, weigh them down with a plate. If the birds still aren’t completely submerged, choose a different container. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or, even better, overnight.
  2. Make the stuffing and stuff the birds: Remove the birds, discarding the brine, and sit them ass down in a colander to drain.
    Cut the lemongrass crosswise (tough parts, too) into rough 1/8-inch slices. Firmly pound it in a granite mortar until it’s very fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the garlic and pound to break it into small pieces (you’re not making a paste), about 20 seconds. Add the salt and pepper, pound briefly, then add the cilantro stems and pound to bruise them, about 10 seconds more.
  3. Divide the stuffing equally among the birds’ cavities, set the birds breast side up on a plate (or even better, a rack set over a tray) so there’s some space between them. Tuck each wing tip under the body. Put the birds in the fridge, uncovered, to dry out for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours.
  4. Marinate the birds: Stir the fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl along with the 2 tablespoons of water until the sugar is fully dissolved. Brush the birds with the marinade, then put them back, uncovered, into the fridge for about 2 hours.
  5. Cook the birds on the grill (highly recommended): Prepare a charcoal grill to cook at 350°F to 375°F. If your grill doesn’t have a firebox, which allows for easy indirect cooking, push the coals to one side of the grill and form them into a mound. Add the birds, breasts up, to the grill rack opposite the charcoal, and cover the grill, opening the vents and rotating the grill cover if possible so the vents are directly over the birds. Positioning the open vents above the birds will pull the charcoal smoke toward them, giving them a little more smoky flavor. While you cook, you’ll have to add more charcoal as necessary to maintain the temperature.
  6. Cook for 25 minutes, flip the birds over to get some color on the other side, and after about 5 minutes more, flip the birds over again.
  7. If you’re not cooking on a grill with a firebox, carefully remove the birds and the grill grate. Spread out the coals so that instead of mound, they’re lying in one or two layers, still on one side of the grill. Return the grate and the birds to the grill.
  8. Continue cooking, covered, with the birds on the side opposite the coals. After 5 minutes, brush the birds all over with the shallot oil and re-cover. After 5 minutes more, brush the birds all over with the honey mixture and move them so they’re directly over the coals. Keep cooking, covered, turning over and rotating the birds as necessary to achieve even browning and brushing occasionally with the honey mixture, until the skin is a slightly glossy golden brown with some dark patches and the juices of the thigh run clear, 5 to 10 minutes more, depending on the size of the bird.
  9. In the oven: Move the oven rack to the bottom third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Put the birds breast side up on a baking tray (or even better, a rack set over a tray or roasting pan).
  10. Roast the birds for 30 minutes. Rotate the pan and brush the birds all over with the shallot oil. Cook for 5 minutes more, then brush the birds all over with the honey mixture. Crank up the heat to 400°F. Check on the birds every 5 minutes, brushing them with the honey mixture, until the skin is a slightly glossy golden brown with some darker patches and the juices run clear when you pierce the thickest part of the thigh, about 10 minutes more, depending on the size of the bird.
  11. Rest and carve the birds: Let the birds rest for at least 10 minutes or up to 30 minutes. Serve them whole or carved—it’s up to you—with the dipping sauces. At Pok Pok, we halve the birds lengthwise, then remove the hindquarters and separate them into drumsticks and thighs, remove the wings, and chop the breast portions through the bone into two or three pieces.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

I picked up this book at the library because it was named one of the New York Times best works of fiction of 2015, but I knew nothing else about it until after I read it.  So I did not realize that it is a work of historical fiction about Margaret Mead, her first husband, and her subsequent husband.

The threesome are anthropologists in the field in New Guinea.  Nell (who is Mead) and her husband Fen (who is Reo Fortune) come to join Bangston (who keeps his real name).  Bangston has been living amongst a tribe for 18 months when they arrive, and while he has learned the language, managed to not get killed, and has some friends among the natives, he really doesn't have a clue about the whole culture is about.  Nell and Fen have abruptly left the village they were studying when they felt that they might be on the menu soon, and settle into a nearby village with Bangston's help.  It is immediately apparent that Nell and Bangston are much better partners than Bangston is alone and Nell is with Fen. It is also apparent that there is a love triangle developing and the ever violent and jealous Fen is unlikely to come off well.  It is brilliantly written and a wonderful read.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Chef (2014)

This movie is definitely a foodie movie, as you would expect from the title.  Do not watch it if you are fasting or in any way hungry!

Jon Favreau is the writer, director, and lead in this film about a chef who showed great promise young but got paradoxically stuck as the head chef in a very good but unimaginative restaurant that keeps him so busy that he lost his marriage and hasn't enough time for his son.

The turning point comes when a well known critic for the LA Times (played officiously well by Oliver Platt) is coming  to dine and the restaurant owner (played small and miserly by Dustin Hoffman) forces him to cook old stand by's rather than bold new food.  He gets a mediocre and somewhat childish review that enrages him to the point where he gets his 10 year old son to help him create a Twitter account for him so that he can follow all the meanness that people are throwing at him.  In a classic move for someone social media naive he flames the critic on Twitter, and gains a bit of fame himself.  Which at first is quite bad, because he not only riled the critic up, he then confronts him in a video that gets up on YouTube.  He is fired from his job and starts spiraling downward.

His ex-wife comes to the rescue (she is a gem of an ex), paying for him to go to Miami with her and their son, back to where his career started.  He is gifted a food truck by his ex' ex (ably played by Robert Downey, Jr), fixes it up improbably fast, is joined by one of his line cooks, and off he goes cross country cooking out of the truck and gaining momentum in popularity--through Twitter--as he goes.  The food is sensational looking and his passion is contagious, but best of all, he reconnects with his son and his love of life.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings

These are the famous Pok Pok chicken wings--so delicious!  But not a one step meal.  So if you are planning to take them to a football watching marathon, start well ahead of time, but you will definitely be making the chicken wings next time if you do so, because these are outstanding.

  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1/2 cup Vietnamese fish sauce (Phu Quoc)
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar
  • 2 lbs medium-size chicken wings (about 12), split at the joint
  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/4 cup tempura batter mix (Ricker recommends Gogi brand)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Optional: 1–2 tspnaam phrik khao soi (roasted chile paste, for “spicy wings”)
(1) CHOP garlic finely, sprinkle salt, and chop together for about 15 more seconds.
(2) SCRAPE into a small bowl, add warm water, and let sit for a few minutes. (3) POUR through a fine sieve set over a bowl, and use the back of a spoon to stir and smoosh garlic against the sieve, reserving leftover garlic. (4) ADD fish sauce and sugar to bowl and stir until dissolved. (5) PLACE chicken wings in a separate large bowl, add 1/2 cup of fish sauce mixture (reserve the rest in the refrigerator), and toss well. (6) COVER and refrigerate wings for at least four hours, or overnight, tossing every hour or so. 
(1) HEAT 3/4-inch vegetable oil in a small pan over high heat and add reserved garlic.
(2) REDUCE heat to medium-low, fry until garlic is lightly golden brown, about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels to drain (set aside until final cooking stage).
(3) TRANSFER wings from refrigerator to a colander in the sink and let drain for 15 minutes.
(4) STIR together rice flour and tempura mix in a large bowl and toss wings until coated well.
(5) POUR enough oil into a wok or dutch oven to completely submerge the wings, about 2 inches, and bring oil to 325 degrees (measure with a candy thermometer).
(6) FRY wings in two batches, gently knocking them against the bowl before adding to the oil.
(7) COOK each batch until evenly golden brown, about 10–12 minutes, prodding every few minutes.
(8) TRANSFER wings to paper towels to drain. 
(1) ADD 1/4 cup water to the reserved fish sauce mixture.
(2) COMBINE 1/4 cup of the water–fish sauce mixture and half the chile paste (if you are using it), bring to a full boil in a nonstick wok, and reduce for about 45 seconds.
(3) ADD half the wings and toss every 15 seconds, until a caramelized glaze coats the wings, about 1 minute.
(4) ADD 1 tbsp of the fried garlic, toss well, and cook about 30 seconds longer.
(5) RINSE and wipe out wok, and repeat with the next batch of wings.
(6) SERVE wings with pickled vegetables, cucumber spears, and herb sprigs.