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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, Mexico

The Temple of Santo Domingo de Guzmán was built in the 16th century and is just as beautiful as any restored church form the time of the Conquistadors in Mexico.  A truly incredible legacy from a time of war, subjugation, and slavery. As with almost all temples of this type it is oriented east-west with it’s façade to the west, which reveals a symbolic sense that the divine light, the sun comes from the east.

Together with this is the combination of aspects that are similar to those in vogue in Europe during the years of its construction. The façade shows renaissance characteristics, among them is a bas relief of Santo Domingo and San Hipólito, while the interior is Baroque, the main knave is flanked by lateral chapels and has a canon dome that is decorated with scenes from the old and new testaments.

The pulpit was constructed with wood from the region and bears the image of some Dominican Saints. On the ceiling of the choir loft is the molded, polychrome and gold genealogical tree of Santo Domingo, which is without a doubt on of the most outstanding examples of the art of those days. However, to fully describe the architecture of this place would use rivers of ink, better to just visit.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Birdman (2014)

I have been watching a lot of crazy on film this week, and this is the latest installment.  Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former action hero portrayer of Birdman who is now attempting to gain a modicum or respectability by writing and  performing a play on Broadway based on a Raymond Chandler story.  If you watched Robert Altman's exhaustive film 'Short Cuts', you know how painful Chandler's work can be, and the play within the movie is no exception.  Then there is the story outside the play but within the movie, which could easily be another Chandler movie.

What is unusual is that Birdman does appear to have some super powers.  Is it real, or is it fantasy?  There is no way to tell.  What we do know is that he is challenged in his everyday relationships with pretty much everyone, but in particular his daughter and his co-star in the play, acted by the equally intense Edward Norton.  Norton gives a gigantic push back to Keaton's character, and creates believable tension within the movie.  It is like watching a man on a high wire, which holds your attention mostly because you are worried he is going to fall off.  Well acted but painful.  It is also an homage to the long shot, which if you are a film buff, makes this a must see for that alone.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Banana Rum Souffle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pharsalia by Marcus Annaeus Lucan (65 CE)

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

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

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

Friday, March 27, 2015

If I Stay (2014)

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Easedropping in Iowa

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

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Homemade Bagels

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

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

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

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

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

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Five Star Life (2014)

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

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

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cultural Museum of Oaxaca, Mexico

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

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

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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tasting Menu (2013)

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

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Merced Market, Oaxaca, Mexico

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

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

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Res Gestae Augustus Divi by Augustus (2 BCE-14 CE)

Augustus had a long and successful life as the emperor of Rome.  Which was no small task.  The Roman Republic was a government headed by 2 leaders and a complex system of checks and balances that had become intolerably corrupt and dysfunctional.  It was a story of the Optimates, who favored the rich, and the Populares, who were rich themselves, but believed in spreading the wealth rather than hoarding it amongst themselves (is any of this sounding familiar?).  There was significant conflict between these two, a fair amount of fighting, and ultimately the Optimates found Caesar so threatening that they banished him from Rome in 44 BC.  Big mistake.  The most successful general and leader of men in the history of Rome, who still had a standing army was told to disband his men and live in exile.  That, as we know, did not go well for them.  It went so badly that when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, meaning he defied the order the senate had given to him, the supposed defenders of Rome left.  Caesar won the war, but was later assassinated by Optimates.

In steps Augustus, then known as Octavian.  He was the 18 year old nephew of Caesar and not a battle hardened warrior.  He was clever and politically savvy, and he had a life long faithful companion who was a brilliant general.  Augustus managed to take Rome into peace after it had been at war with itself for over a 100 years.  Before he died he wanted his accomplishments recorded and he wanted his mistakes forgotten, so he wrote what was short for a work of writing, but long for an inscription, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, and had it inscribed on his mausoleum and on monuments across the Roman empire.  Remarkable, and not too long a read.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Life is a Breeze (2013)

This movie is a movie with a small scope.  There is a disturbance in the force, which drives the plot forward, but the movie is much more about the characters than the action that occurs on screen for an hour and a half.  The movie is about how this family is coping with the world at large.

Nan (the incomparable Fionna Flanagan) is a good old-fashioned Irish hoarder. The Dublin resident has never been much trouble to her neighbors and generally keeps to herself.  Despite her family's need of a matriarch, she is not fitting that bill.  They all circle around her, but she in no leader. Her unemployed son Colm (Pat Shortt) rally his other family members to give Nan a gift she could never give herself—a clean house. Niece Emma (Kelly Thornton) takes Nan out for the day, and they return to a spotless home. Old newspapers, broken kitchen appliances, endless piles of junk are all gone. So is the old mattress Nan has been sleeping on and shoving her money into because she doesn’t trust the banks. That’s right: there’s lots of money in a mattress now winding its way through the Dublin recycling system. A journey to find it ensues.

But as is so often the case, it is not the destination but the journey itself that is so telling.  In times of stress, everyone shows their true colors, and this movie is no exception.  While Nan doesn't come off as an inspirational family head, she is not one to blame and she is not one to give up.  Emma has been given the opportunity to rise above her family's pathology and she has a hope of following through.  It is an enjoyable movie, streaming now on Netflix.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Itanoni, Oaxaca, Mexico

I missed this restaurant on my first trip to Oaxaca, and it turns out that that was a serious error on my part.  This is a place that is all about the corn.  They buy native varieties of corn and then they make the tortillas on site.  It is worth the price of admission just to watch that part of the meal being made.  But wait, there is more.  The tortillas themselves are so flavorful and delicious that it is hard not to compare every other tortilla that you have to them.
The dishes at Itanoni are anteojitos, which are little dishes, although the word is sometimes translated as appetizers the better way to look at it is like tapas or little dishes.  This is very good news, because you can order 2-3 per person at lunch and not be overwhelmed.  The Pictured at left is a tetela, a triangle of tortilla filled with various stuffings, and it is outstanding.
If you want to revel in the simplicity of corn, then the memelitas are the way to go.  I ordered one and loved it so much that I ordered another one.  The first was made with red corn, and the second with black corn--they were so different in flavor that it was hard to tell they were otherwise identical.  It is a place that is well worth coming and returning to.  It is said to be Alice Waters favorite place in Oaxaca and I can see why.  The simplicity of the food married with it's deliciousness is a part of her mantra.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

I picked this up to read it because it was on the New York Times 100 Notable Books, but I should have picked it up because it is a well above average quality murder mystery.  Except in this story, the identity of the murderer is not really the mystery at all.

This is really a story about profoundly unhappy people who remain together.  We never find out why.  Is is because of their unhappiness or in spite of it.  The children and the parent are stuck in the story but the couple have a choice.

Here are the bare bones of what is going on.  In the weeks leading up to widowed matriarch Jenny Brodal's seventy-fifth birthday, Jon (the compulsively unfaithful husband and Jenny's son-in-law), Siri (the purposefully myopic and long suffering wife), Alma (the odd pre-teen daughter), Liv (the blameless sister to Alma), and Milla (the young and shapely babysitter who Jon manages to not sleep with) congregate in Siri's ancestral summer home outside Oslo to prepare for the party and set up for the tragedy that is about to occur.

It is a bit like returning to the scene of a previous crime, because Siri's brother died there many years before.  Jenny was not a natural mother and she left Siri in charge of her brother when she was far to young to understand exactly what that entailed, and he died as a result.  That is the elephant in the room throughout the story, the tragedy that set up the lives of all these people.
Siri works day and night in the restaurant business, Jon pretends to complete the last book in his trilogy, Jenny falls off the wagon after twenty years sober, Alma begins to develop a complex and Milla -- well, Milla's not part of the family dynamic. She's a doe babysitter, decided outsider and as the book's first act concludes, a  missing person. This is a well written, softly delivered look at just how lonely people who live together can become.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Grantchester (2014)

The subtitle on the poster is what I love about this new PBS series--it interweaves murder with faith and love. I am an inveterate reader of murder mysteries, but the series that I like best are not the thriller sort, but rather the ones that weave life into the story, and that is what this BBC crime drama does.

Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is a vicar in the small town of Grantchester in 1953.  He is a WWII veteran who has PTSD and he regularly experiences flashbacks and nightmares.  He uses the same sorts of therapy that many veterans of the most recent wars do, which is smoking, drinking, and avoiding talking about what's bothering him.  He is different in that instead of turning away from faith he has instead embraced it.  He has all of the requisite talents that make him good in that role.  He is eloquent and inspirational in the pulpit.  He has a generous spirit, forgiving of all behaviors he encounters (including suicide and homosexuality, both of which are dimly viewed in the era that the series is set in).  He is also quite insightful, which brings him into the sphere of police work.  His path crossed with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), and together they solve a crime, and then form a friendship.  The episodes are about an hour in length, which is a bit on the short side for my taste, but that is the only downside of this very enjoyable new series.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Green Bean, Snap Pea, Cherry Tomato, and Fresh Mozzarella Salad

I was visiting my friend who gave me this cookbook last week and she made this great salad out of it.  It would be wonderful at a picnic, or to take to a pot luck, as well as to serve along side other sides.  The mozzarella is a very nice addition, but it could be eliminated for a vegan in the crowd.

1/2 lb. green beans
1/2 lb. snap peas
1/2 lb. small tomatoes, halved
1/2 lb. pearl mozzarella balls
2 Tbs. pesto
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Fill a  saucepan two-thirds full with water and add 2 teaspoons salt; bring to a boil.
Add beans to boiling water and boil until beans are tender to the bite, 4 to 8 minutes. Use tongs to lift beans out of water and spread them out on the towels to let them cool. Add snap peas to boiling water and cook until they're bright green and just slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Drain and let cool.
Season the tomatoes and mozzarella with a pinch or two of salt. Put them in a large mixing bowl and add the beans, snap peas and ½ teaspoon salt. In a small bowl, whisk together pesto, lemon juice and olive oil. Pour over vegetables and mix well. Season with several grinds of fresh pepper. Toss well and serve.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You by RIchard Ford

I have loved Frank Bascombe for a very long tie, going back to his emergence in The Sportswriter in 1986.  He is back, at age 68: retired but not retiring. These four linked novellas show that retirement is no cake walk. Frank is on his second wife, and his ex-wife has buried her third husband.  The quality of those relationships is adroitly depicted.  Frank and Anne share children but she leaves him cold.

Hurricane Sandy is the calamity that is a constant thread through the novellas. Happily for Frank, it has done no serious damage in suburban Haddam and he is relieved to have moved house, in the nick of time, from the battered coast. Frank’s second wife, Sally, is mainly absent because she is grief counseling survivors (the more one dwells on this, the funnier her absenteeism from the marital narrative seems). Frank, an ex-realtor, goes out to view his old beach front house with it's current owner, who seems to somehow blame Frank for his loss, and Frank shoulders that burden in a way that lets you know that he is at core a very good guy.

Frank is not the captain of his ship, and neither are we the reader.  In Ford’s fiction, we are helpless figures in our habitats. In the most extreme example, an unknown black woman turns up uninvited, tells Frank she used to live in his house and leaves him with a devastating, unsolicited, indigestible slice of her family history. What one realizes is this: Frank is never anywhere absolutely of his own volition.  Chances, random encounters, hitches set Frank helplessly in motion and, in consequence, the book’s atmosphere is only just the right side of ruefulness. It is a narrative ruled by comic passivity that rings so true.  We are not in control, and the grace with which Frank accepts that fate is inspirational in a very low key way.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Let me start out by confessing that I do not, nor have I ever, inhabited the Marvel Universe.  So the extent to which this adaptation is faithful to the original is not something that I can comment on.  I watched it with an afictionado who was entirely satisfied, but that is the extent of my ability to discern the quality of the movie on that level.

The story line is pretty straight forward. A band of intergallactic misfits who don't much like one another are thrown together by circumstances that are beyond their control and in the interest of battling a greater evil than they see in each other, they form a team with an odd assortment of personalities and supernatural powers and in the end, good triumphs over bad, at least for the moment.  Vim Diesel does an excellent job inhabiting a plant based life form whose only line until the very end is "I am Groot" with remarkable charm, and overall it is a diversionary bit of entertainment.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

I hadn't made ricotta cheese in a very long time when an old friend who always gets me out of my cooking ruts and trying new things showed me the Fine Cooking.  Very yummy!

Unlike other homemade cheeses, ricotta requires neither cultures nor rennet. All you need is a half-gallon of milk and a lemon or two. The secret is to heat the milk slowly at a low temperature, stirring only a few times. Make it in the morning and by lunch time you can just drizzle it with honey or olive oil and herbs and eat with crusty bread and call it dinner.  This recipe makes about 2 c. of ricotta.

  • 1/2 gallon whole milk
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1-1/2 to 2 lemons)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 1/2 Tsp. Kosher or sea salt 
 Add the milk and cream, if using, to the pot and stir. Place the pot over low heat and attach a candy or cheese thermometer to the inside of the pot. Heat the milk mixture to 175°F. This should take 40 to 50 minutes, and you can stir once or twice over the course of this time.
Raise the heat to medium-high, and without stirring, watch the pot until the temperature reads 205°F. The surface of the milk will look like it is about to erupt, but it shouldn’t boil. Remove the pot from the heat and add lemon juice and salt.  Stir gently, and watch the change occur. Gradually you will see the separation of the curds and whey.
Lay a fine-meshed sieve over a large bowl or jar and line it with a double layer of damp cheesecloth. Pour . Let the cheese drain for an hour, or longer if you want it to be thicker.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

La Teca, Oaxaca, Mexico

This little restaurant in the Colonia Reforma neighborhood in Oaxaca is the best place that we ate in a city that is full of spectacular food.  One day we attempted to eat at a street taco stand and when we found it closed, we went back to this restaurant to eat again.  If we were there a bit longer, we might have gone back a third time, and by then we would have largely been able to have explored the entire menu.  Happy in our knowledge of Isthmus food.

Pictured above are garnachas, small discs of masa that are patted out and fried, and then topped with well flavored meat.  We could eat these every day, they were so delicious.  The next best dish is the chile pasilla oaxaqueño relleno (a regional dried chile, reconstituted, stuffed with a flavorful chicken mixture, and fried), which is small but packs a wonderful flavor punch.  I could eat one of these every day as well.  The tamales (there are three kinds, one on the sweet side, but all are delicious, and the main courses are remarkable, but seem like you would have a hope of making them at home.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

I watched this movie for the first time since my kids stopped watching it this week for my son's film class and I learned two things that I had not known or seen when I viewed it long ago.

The first is that it is a film adapted from a book--the adaptation is loose, and the movie is far superior to the book (which is a nice change of pace), but there you have it.  The idea for people and toons cohabitating was not an original one, just a well done rendition of the story.  The thing that I still don't quite agree with is that it is a noir film.

The basic story for the five people who haven't seen it is that Roger Rabbit, a cartoon character, is accused of killing R.K. Maroon, a human.  This is a crime punishable by death and no trial is required.  Toons are second class non-citizens.  Eddie Valiant (ably played by the late great Bob Hoskins) is a well known hater of toons, but he is won over by Roger and his protestations of innocence, which turn out to be quite true.  The thing that I still had trouble seeing even after reading about it is the subtle but clear parallel between toons and other marginalized populations.  The justice for toons is very much like that of a lynching in the American South.  Roger gets drunk after one drink, can't control his behavior, and is overall depicted as a lesser being.  The problem is deeper still in two ways.  One is that cartoons are for children.  The acceptance of unequal treatment can be learned early.  The other is that once that is innoculated, it is hard to see, even when it is pointed out.  Not good.  Take another look at the movie and see what you think.  Racism is deep deep down, and sometimes very hard to look at.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Carrot and Cauliflower Puree

In the winter time I frequent the Costco vegetable section on a regular basis, and two of the things that I always have on hand over the winter months (defined by me by when my fall CSA ends and when my spring CSA begins) are carrots (the Costco bag is ten pounds, which is a lot of carrots) and a bag of cauliflower. The carrots keep beautifully for months, but the cauliflower can becomes a little unattractive if not used within the first few weeks, and that is where this recipe comes in handy.  To use up cauliflower that has lost its appeal.  It is simple and delicious.

3/4 lb. cauliflower
1 lb. carrots
2-4 Tbs. browned butter
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the cauliflower and carrots up into small pieces, about 1-2" in size.  Boil a pot of water with some salt to season, and cook the cauliflower until tender, scoop it out, then cook the carrots.  They should be soft but not falling apart, which takes about 7-10 minutes.  While this is going on brown the butter in a small saucepan. It will froth up, and develop brown bits on the bottom of the pan--when that happens it is done.  This is the key ingredient in this dish.  It gives it both it's flavor and it's richness, which is complimented by the nuttiness of the cauliflower and the sweetness of the carrots.  Put them all into the bowl of a food processor and puree, adding salt and pepper to taste.  The dish can be served right then, or put in an oven proof casserole dish and heated up.  This is adapted from an Ina Garten recipe that had far more butter in it.  The flavor is sublime and a little bit addictive.  Great with a roast chicken.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Air We Smell

The Southern California problem with the air quality around the Sriracha plant may at first sound frivolous, or like a first world problem, but as a long time Midwesterner, I do get how the smell in your neighborhood could drive you to distraction.

There are two things--the first is that when city folk move to farm country they may not at first fully appreciate that the romance of living amongst livestock comes with some attendant noise and aroma.  Like the children's book says, everything poops, and it usually doesn't smell all that wonderful.  On the other hand, high density animal feeding lots can make the air quite aromatic (and maybe not innocuous to the lungs) for neighbors all around.  It is time to start facing the fact that when we live densely we need to have different air quality standards in order to co-habitate.  I love Sriracha, but I do have an element of sympathy with the factory's neighbors.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Death Comes to Pemberley (2014)

This mini-series is for people who enjoy solid Jane Austen (and Austen-adjacent) adaptations and other fare of that kind. The BBC adaptation of the P.D. James book is exactly what I expected it to be: A pleasingly executed diversion featuring capable and textured performances from actors in key roles. Here is what I mean.  Elizabeth is just as practical and likable as I would expect.  Darcy is a bit of an ass, but certainly a ramrod straight shooter and one who would never leave family in a lurch, no matter how annoying and troublesome they might be.  Lydia is self-centered and Wickham is a cad.

The weaving of a murder mystery into the cast of Pride and Prejudice will undoubtedly set the teeth of some Austen fans on edge, but as a big fan of both James and the genre, I was quite happy with the result.  The lushness of Austen's settings, the classism of the era, and the costumes are all wonderful.  Trevor Eve gives a good performance as a nuanced bad guy.  Recommended, and it is streaming on Netflix.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

The beauty in Toibin's writing is in it's normalcy.  He is a good story teller who makes ordinary lives interesting.  Nora Webster is unexpectedly widowed in a small Irish town.  She hasn't worked in 20 years and she has almost nothing to live on.  It is the story of a woman who stayed home to raise her children after working as a shop girl, so that when she is faced with going back to work again the only job she knows is one that can barely put food on the table.  She has no skills and no resume.  To top it all off, she has four children, two girls who are out of the house and two boys who are not.  She is also bereft at the loss of her husband, so sad that she is unable to provide any comfort to her children.  She can barely hang onto the home they grew up in, and it is not enough for them.

I know, this sounds unbearable, but it is not. It is well told and while the story itself is one of a slowly unfolding grief, it is so well written that the reader is swept along with the story, feeling what the character feels. Nora is very likable.  She doesn't have much in her corner other than her innate goodness, but that is enough, and while things do not go her way much of the book, the reader is squarely in her camp. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pork with Achiote Rice

I love this dish, which requires quite a bit of preparation to make, but has a sublime flavor.  I read a blog post that described achiote as the saffron of Oaxaca, and it is true that it is widely used, and colors food just as brightly and imparts a flavor that is just as distinctive.  this is adapted from Rick Bayless, who popularized Oaxacan food.

Carnita with Rice

1 lb bonelss pork shoulder, cut into 1 inch squares
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 each poblano chile
1 cup cooked peas
1 cup rice
1 small white onion
2 cup broth (pork)
2 medium carrots

Garlicky achiote seasoning paste

2 tbsp achiote paste
2 tsp allspice
1 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
3 tbsp cider vinegar
6 clove garlic
1 tbsp cilantro for garnish
  1. Mix achiote paste allspice, black pepper, oregano and vinegar. Roughly chop garlic, sprinkle with salt. Mix into a paste by blending with the back of a spoon. Add a little water if necessary until it is a thick spreadable paste. Add broth and heat to simmer.
  2. Cut pork into 1 1/2 inch cubes place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
  3. Cook uncovered until meat is browned evenly. Remove meat, pour off all but enough fat to coat bottom pan. Set aside.
  4. Broil chile until blistered and blacken on all sides.
  5. Cover with kitchen towel and let stand 5 minutes.
  6. Peel pepper, cut out seed pod and dice.
  7. Add rice and onion to pan with drippings.
  8. Cook and stir until onion begins to brown. Add broth with spices, browned pork, chile, and carrots.
  9. Stir once scraping rice from sides of the pan. Cook medium low for 15 minutes. Once rice is almost ready, stir in cooked peas, re-cover and let stand 5 to 10 minutes for rice to complete cooking. Salt to taste. Garnish with fresh cilantro and lime juice.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ida (2014)

This is a road movie.  It is a journey into the past to discover one's roots, and it is not a happy story.  Ida was dropped at an orphanage in a Catholic convent at the end of WWII, and it is now 1962.  She is raised as Anna and is on the brink of taking her vows, but her Mother Superior insists that she go to talk with her aunt, Wanda, who has steadfastly refused to adopt her throughout her life.  Ida is resistant but she is left with no choice.   She meets Wanda, a worldly, hard-drinking woman who lives on her own and is a magistrate and a communist zealot. Bleary, boozy Wanda reveals the truth to her niece: Anna’s name was originally Ida Lebenstein and she is Jewish. Wanda proposes they go on a road trip together to discover what became of Ida’s parents during the war. It is something Wanda herself has clearly been dreading, and she has also been dreading Ida’s arrival in her life. Now she must face up to her own memories (and while I won't go into details, it doesn't end well for her.

Theirs is a journey into the heart of Poland’s church and state, into its Catholicism and anti-Semitism. The nun’s habit and her girlish, almost childlike demeanor enforce a reflex respect from the people she meets: clearly, the prestige it confers is not to be abandoned lightly – it is all that she has. Conversely, the irascible Wanda stirs up the past and riles everyone with tactless questions about Ida’s Jewish parents. She knows, and they know, that there were collaborators, but also those who helped and hid Jews – and still others whose behavior was ambiguous. Despite the grim back drop, the black and white filming, and the paucity of speech, this is a moving and thought-provoking film, worthy of the Best Foreign Language Film award it won at the Oscars last week.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The book was long listed for the Booker Prize, which gives you a sense that you might be in for something that is not entirely straight forward.  It has two interconnected stories. There is a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father. And then there is an Italian renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure responsible for a series of striking frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

I did not realize this until I read a review of the book afterward, but depending on which copy you pick up at random, you will either be presented with George's story first or with Francesco's. The two narratives twist around each other like complicated vines – one of George's last trips with her mother was to see the Ferrara frescoes and del Cossa is haunted by strange visions of a teenage girl who uses "a votive tablet" and holds it to heaven "like a priest raising the bread". The fact that this votive tablet is an iPad and that the reader is in on the joke while Francesco isn't--that is the heart of the novel, that these two figures are linked by their stories and not by their times, and it is an innovative and interesting book to read from start to finish, so long as you can take the criss-crossing of time periods without warning.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Pitiona Restaurant, Oaxaca, Mexico

This is, in my experience, the most innovative of the upscale restaurants in Oaxaca.  I like it better than Casa Oaxaca, which is better known, but for my taste, the emphasis on wild game is less appealing than the emphasis on bringing new age food into the realm of traditional Oaxacan cooking.  The restaurant is housed in an older building that harkens back to a more colonial time, but the paintings on the walls are thoroughly modern, as is the table ware.
The restaurant gets its name from the pitiona plant, a verbena-like herb that is used extensively in Oaxacan cooking. Pitiona is an exercise in versatility and diversity--sometimes successfully, and to my taste, sometimes less so.

Chef Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez gives diners a gastronomic tour of Oaxaca, from the valley to the coast, passing the Mixtec region along the way, with a cooking style that walks the line expertly between the hyper-traditional and the ultra-experimental. Many of the chef’s recipes can be traced back to his mother and grandmother but I am pretty sure they would not recognize them.
Pictured above is the octopus and white bean tostada that we had.  It was exquisite in its range of flavors and textures--light, chewy, lemony, crunchy, fresh, it was delicious, and yet nothing like any tostada that I had ever tasted.  A real success.  The dish pictured at left was less so.  It was an avocado frozen crema with what amounted to raw shrimp underneath it's ever melting dome.  The shrimp were not the least bit ceviched--although they were fresh, and they did not meld well with the creaminess of the avocado roof over their headless bodies.  I would definitely return here, but I would ask more questions about preparation of each dish before I ordered.