I'm always looking for new things to cook, and I recently ran across the video above, and I immediately decided to make it. It was delicious, deep red and warm and just the thing for a fall night. But I had a couple of issues with the recipe. First off, it was huge, which isn't always a problem, but meant that it was a lot to do on a week night, and had a ton of leftovers. So, in my version below, I've scaled down the size and made a few other changes that I think will help improve the flavor a bit. But if you're looking for a deep, smokey, deliciously filling soup, I recommend this one highly.
Last year, I purchased what has quickly become my favorite kitchen tool: a pressure cooker. It's a simple, cheap aluminum number, and I love it. I have always been a fan of simple recipes like beans and rice, but I have never had any success in making beans from dried. It's a frustrating conundrum. But with the pressure cooker, making a whole pot of delicious, creamy, smokey beans is only about an hour and a half away.
There are a number of guides online for how long to cook beans in a pressure cooker, but I've found that for mine, in my kitchen, they take about fifty minutes once they've come up to pressure. I usually stick with pinto, red beans or black beans. The recipe varies with my mood, and what kind of bean I'm looking for: pinto beans get the whole treatment, with a mix of diced red, jalepeno and poblano peppers, onion, garlic and two 15 ounce cans of diced tomatoes. I'll saute the peppers and onions in either a bit of left over bacon fat, or just olive oil if that's what's to hand. Once they're cooked, I'll usually puree a couple cups of beans and liquid to release some starch and thicken them up. Black beans are simpler: four cloves of garlic, a medium onion cut in half, half a carrot, some bay leaves and a tablespoon of cumin. There's really not much you can do wrong with them.
While it's not cooked in the pressure cooker, for the rice, my new trick is dropping in a couple bay leaves, some salt and some dried herbs in when I turn on the rice cooker, then cutting in the juice of one lime once the rice is done. It's seriously delicious, and it's amazing such a small addition makes such a huge difference.
Everyone I try and convince to give pressure cookers a try has had some sort of variation on "oh, those things are scary" or "don't they explode?" All I can say is, mine hasn't exploded yet, and there are a number of pressure valves and safety features that make an exploding pressure cooker vanishingly unlikely. Beyond the fact that (at worst) you'd see the lid gasket break and release the pressure, you're not going to blow yourself up using one.
And while beans have been my go-to for pressure cooking so far, there are a number of different recipes I've tried and absolutely love. Serious eats is a great resource for that, and here are a couple of my favorite recipes that I've tried. The chicken chili verde is especially amazing, and unbelievably easy.
Give it a try some time! The investment is minimal, but the results are incredible.
Finally caught up with The Martian this weekend, and it was for better or worse pretty much exactly what I expected of it. It did a competent job of translating a dense, plot heavy novel into an entertaining piece of science fiction movie making. Matt Damon’s performance was excellent, and really captured the Mark Watney’s essential can do spirit, while also managing to round out what is a fairly flat and static character in the book. My biggest complaint for the adaptation was the look of it, which is very much that of a late-period Ridley Scott movie. The space suits, the habitats, the ships and the equipment all have just a bit too much of movie magic for my tastes. None of it has the drab, utilitarian look of products designed and constructed by committee.
The novel is an entertaining slab of problem solving, a book essentially about process. It’s told mostly in the first person, by a character undergoing a tremendous amount of stress and being somewhat glib about the situation to cope. That, of course, is perhaps a generous reading. I haven’t read anything else by Weir, but his prose in this novel is serviceable. I think that may come across as a damning with faint praise, but it’s really not. The pleasures of the book aren’t sensuous, and there’s no need for lyrical reveries – especially when they wouldn’t fit in with the character anyway.
And as in any adaptation of a novel into a film, they are forced to drop a lot of incidents and problems. Most of the time, when characters and subplots are dropped, I think it’s either for the best or at least indifferent (hello, Tom Bombadil). However, the pleasures of this particular book are so wrapped up in the way Watney walks us through his problem solving that seeing fewer of those instances on the film was something of a letdown. I think for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, this isn’t going to be a problem – there are enough problems for people to be wrapped up in that most folks won’t notice. The filmmakers definitely respected what the novel was in making their version of it.
But sitting and watching it this weekend, I was struck by the idea that this might have been better served with a smaller budget and a longer run time. Syfy Channel (ugh, I hate that name) has recently been adapting James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse novel series into a well-received adaptation. I watched the first episode and enjoyed it, and I’ve read the books and enjoyed them quite a bit as well. I’m looking forward to checking out the series further. But The Expanse is the kind of grand scale space opera that would really benefit from a big screen, big budget adaptation, where The Martian is a small story, told in only a few locations – a habitat, the deserts of Mars, and a few JPL meeting rooms – that a modest budget could handle. It seems a shame to me that a small story that calls out for a modest budget gets the Ridley Scott treatment, while a bigger, much more expansive story is confined to cable. Ah, well.
I worked as a taxi driver for six months in a small (~70k) city. Here's how it worked.
Shifts were twelve hours, and there were no on street pick-ups. You had to be dispatched from the central company. You began your shift by renting a cab ($50 a day -- all money in 2006 dollars). Hopefully it would be running okay, because after twelve hours in a cab with bad shocks, you'd feel beaten up. You paid twenty-five cents for each mile you drove to the cab company at the end of each shift. This usually worked out to be about $25-$30, so a regular twelve hour shift would be about 100 to 120 miles.
A fare anywhere in town was six dollars. Didn't matter if it was a two minute ride or a half an hour ride: $6. Of that, the cab company got three dollars. However, if they had a token, which were sold at all of the local grocery stores and employment agencies, you had to take that. A token cost the riders three dollars, of which the cab company would pay you out $1.50. Ninety percent or more of fares, in my experience, used tokens to pay for rides. The town had no serious public transit system, so people who used cabs tended to use them regularly, and planned ahead.
Tipping was very much optional, and almost always non-existent. At the end of the day, you had to wash the cab, and you'd have to fill it up with gas. These were big ol' decommissioned Crown Vic police cars, and they got maybe 20mpg, if you were lucky. Depending on the car, it could be a lot worse.
There were a couple of factors at work on how much money you were making. The main one was if the dispatcher liked you. The most lucrative fares were out to the airport, a forty minute drive away. You might be gone for an hour and a half, but it was $60. In the six months I drove a cab, I got one of these. The dispatcher would assign you your fare and you'd have to go get them.
Days were usually easier, because people weren't drunk, but they also paid less. It was mostly people who were going to work but had lost their licenses for DUI, or the severely mentally handicapped going to adult day care or work programs who weren't able to drive in the first place. These people always used tokens, and they often lived in out of the way places and would travel halfway across the county to get where they were going.
Nights were harder, but you made slightly more money. Drunks were trouble. Some could be threatening, one threw up in my cab and I had to wash the car twice in one day. Several jumped out of the cab and went tearing off without paying. That caused its own problems. The first time, I had the dispatcher call the cops, and they came and knocked on the door and no one answered, and the cops shrugged and drove off. Took about forty minutes. Afterwards, I just decided it wasn't worth the last time. I could have picked up and delivered a fare in the time I sat and waited for the cops to go through the motions.
Most days I walked away with maybe twenty or thirty dollars, after cashing out and filling the car. I once made $100 (airport trip) -- that was the most I made. One day -- my last day -- I lost money. It's probably easier in a bigger city, but I can't imagine it's all that great.
So, when people complain about how badly Uber treats their drivers, it really makes me wonder. I use Uber because the city I live in now (~250k) is next to a much bigger city, and has extensive public transit, including light and commuter rail and buses. But the buses don't run after midnight, and the train doesn't go to my apartment. So I take cabs. And I can't tell you how many times, prior to Uber, I would call for a cab to go to the airport and they just wouldn't show. You had to build an extra hour into getting to the airport just to account for the cab. It's a bad system.
Straight Outta Compton is a biopic, with all of the attendant problems and pleasures that that entails. The film is also uniquely compromised by being actively produced and stewarded by its (living) subjects and families. Hell, one of the characters is played by that character’s actual, real life son. There is absolutely no editorial distance or critical evaluation in this adaptation. This is straight hagiography, and to an unknown extent, wish fulfillment.
There is also an unintentional air of sexual menace that the film exhibits towards its often nude, seldom-named female characters. The famously egregious “bye, Felicia” scene especially comes across as cruel, adolescent wish fulfilment. The scenes of debauchery and excess are played for either laughs or in wide-eyed admiration.
Once the film brings all of its characters together at the end of the first act, there’s a long sequence of NWA at the top of their game, interspersed with a few broad bits of foreshadowing. After that, the film breaks into three parallel stories: Ice Cube’s burgeoning solo and acting career (here summarized by Cube congratulating himself on Friday’s still-being-written screenplay), Dr. Dre’s move from Ruthless to Death Row, and his relationship with Suge Knight, and Eazy-E’s relationship with Jerry Heller. MC Ren and DJ Yella, here as in real life, are mostly background players.
I found Jason Mitchell and Paul Giamatti’s relationship in the film to be easily the most emotionally resonant thing in the film, and the most compromised, in a way that seems to speak to the problems with biopics generally, and this film in particular. Eazy-E is obviously dead, and Jerry Heller has been in litigation with the surviving members of NWA on and off for the last twenty-five years. To the extent of what we know about Eazy-E and Heller’s relationship, it is here filtered through the perception of people who are antagonistic towards Heller, and with a vested interest in making him look as bad as possible. Eazy-E himself is presented as young, vulnerable man who allowed a surrogate father figure to take advantage of him, and by extension his friends, the ones he should really have been looking out for.
And yet, mostly through the acting of Mitchell and Giamatti, I more or less bought the relationship. I don’t know that I believe it, in the sense that I don’t know the truth behind it, but by being dead, Eazy-E is allowed to be emotionally and narratively vulnerable in a way that Dre and Cube won’t allow their on-screen doppelgangers to be. Both move from strength to strength, with occasional violent outbursts to assert their masculine dominance over people who have wronged them.
The close involvement of the subjects obviously means that there will be little in the way of critical distance on the characters and their actions – the obvious lack of Dre’s assault of a journalist, even as it depicts him reacting in violent rage at several points, is indicative. But when the subject turns to someone who is no longer around to be concerned with how he’s depicted, we get a glimpse of what could have been a much richer film with more distanc
Today is the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. I can see form twitter that a lot of folks who are roughly my age have a similar memory of being brought out of class to watch the launch, thanks to the presence of astronaut and teacher Sally Ride. I remember it being sad and being affected by it, but as a child, things outside of your life are necessarily more abstract. Of course, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in 2003, I also remember it as sad, but not impacting my life in as major a way. I don't have any vivid memories of where I was when that disaster happened. It's strange that something can be both formative and abstract when you're young, but a similar disaster feels both more concrete and more diffuse.
The long term implication of both disasters, of course, was the curtailment of manned space exploration. While there is an undeniable romance to manned space flight, it just doesn't make much sense. Space is dangerous, and inhospitable. The Apollo 13 disaster aside, it's vanishingly unlikely that a scenario like The Martian would play out that way in real life. Compared to the incredible advances over the last twenty years of robotic and unmanned probes -- the Martian Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, the New Horizons probe opening up a view of Pluto to us for the first time, the ESA Rosetta and Philae comet probes -- have returned an amount of science and wonder that I do not believe that manned space exploration could surpass -- if not equal.
Science will continue, and more wonders will be discovered. The crews of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia died in the pursuit of knowledge, and I remember them.
Fall is probably my favorite time of the year. I love the cooler weather, the jackets, the smell of burning leaves (less of that since I moved to New Jersey). Shorter days mean longer nights and more opportunities to get out and take long exposure photos at night. I love Halloween and Thanksgiving. I love hearty comfort food, stews, chili and other traditionally fall-ish foods. And I love fall music. There's no science about this, of course, but it's music that strikes me as indelibly autumnal. Slow, languorous, melancholy and a bit chilly, it always puts me in a certain mood and makes any long, cool walk thorough leaf-strewn sidewalks more cinematic. And there's no music that fits that category more than the albums that Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto produced in the aughts.
The basis of this dish is something that my mother made when I was growing up. I always enjoyed it, and I've made it many times myself. My mom usually made it with jarred gravy and boxed mashed potatoes, and when you've worked a full shift and have to feed two small boys, I can understand why you would. But I've been going through the recipes I remember best from my childhood and trying to remake them without processed ingredients. I'm really happy with how this turned out.
The basic recipe is more or less a deconstructed shepard's pie (or cottage pie, really, since it uses beef instead of lamb). That hadn't really ever occured to me until I made it this time. Maybe it makes it a little bit classier? This is still more or less classic midwestern comfort food, but that's what I am usually most at home making.
I'm a pretty poor blogger, and every time I make something, it occurs to me after I've sat down and eaten that I should have taken a few photos. So, the only thing I've got is a cell phone photo of my bowl right before I eat it all. If this at all appeals to you, believe me: it tasted much better than it looked.
Hamburger Gravy and Mashed Potatoes
1 medium onion, diced fine
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 lbs lean ground beef
1/3 cup flour
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 cups chicken stock
1 lbs frozen peas
In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute onions until translucent, then add garlic and saute until fragrant. Add ground beef and seasonings and cook until browned. When the meat is browned, sprinkle on the flour and stir until no flour is visible. Add the tomato paste and stir into the meat until it’s combined. Continue to stir until the meat begins to darken and look dry, and the pan begins to develop a layer of brown crust or fond. Pour in generous splash of the stock and begin to scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pan, then pour in the rest of the stock. Bring to a boil, add the peas, cover and reduce the heat to a low simmer. Let simmer for twenty minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
For the mashed potatoes
2 lbs russet baking potatoes, peeled, rinsed and chopped into one inch cubes
1 ½ cups plain yogurt
4 tbsp butter
Salt to taste
Peel, rinse and chop the potatoes, and then put them in a large stock pot, with enough cold water to cover by a couple inches. Put on medium high heat and bring to a boil. Allow to boil for about twenty minutes. When a knife or fork slides easily into the potatoes, they’re done. Remove from the heat and drain in a colander. Put all of the potatoes through a ricer (or with a masher), add the yogurt, butter and salt and stir to combine. Avoid over stirring, but combine all ingredients into a uniform whole. Check for salt and serve.
I participated in a chili cook off this weekend, and brought two chilis with me: one is just the usual tomato chili I make and have been refining over the last few years. The other was a Cincinnati chili (served over noodles with cheddar cheese, of course) that went over way better than I thought likely, since it's a pretty unusual flavor. But both were very well received, if running out of both is any measure to go by.
My chili recipe has its origins back in Kurdzhali, Bulgaria. I had been cooking for myself during college, of course, but Bulgaria offered me a real opportunity to experiment and try different things. Chili was one of the things that I made once a month or so. I remember making one particularly spicy batch that my friend, a fellow American, and I really enjoyed, but his Bulgarian girlfriend found it a bit too much.
I didn't have a set recipe for chili when I began preparing for the chili cook off, so I had to sit down and type one out and think about my options. It's really a pretty straightforward recipe. I think one of the important tricks to it, though, is to add the spices to the ground meat and saute them for a few minutes, until fond begins to develop on the bottom, then deglaze with red wine. Sauteing the spices in the fat from the meat really helps to open up the flavors. Other than that, the nice thing about chili is that it's forgiving. It's very easy to make changes, try different ratios of meat or veggies, more beans or fewer. It would be easy to adapt it into a vegetarian chili by using seitan or other protein replacements.
For the Cincinnati chili, I used this recipe and doubled it. I also backed off on the cocoa a bit -- I found it to be a little overwhelming the first time I made it. So I would only use one and a quarter tablespoons instead of one and a half. Otherwise, that's a great, simple recipe.
2 tbs chili powder
1 tbs salt
1 tbs cumin
½ tbs dried oregano
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp red pepper flake
½ tsp sugar
1 large onion, diced
2 large red pepper, diced fine
2 large poblano peppers, diced fine
2 jalapenos, diced fine, seeds removed
1 serrano pepper, diced find, seeds removed (optional – this adds some heat)
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 lbs lean ground beef (I usually use 85/15)
1 lbs hot Italian sausage, casings removed
2 tbs tomato paste
2 cups black beans, drained
2 cups kidney beans, drained
1 cup dry red wine
1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock or water
In a large dutch oven, heat olive oil until shimmering and sauté onions until translucent. Add the peppers and sauté until soft. Add garlic. Once vegetables are fragrant, remove them to a bowl and add the beef and sausage. Brown the meat, breaking it up fine as you go. Once all of the meat is browned, five minutes, add the tomato paste and stir until combined. Once the color begins to darken, add the seasonings. Stir until aromatic and bottom of dutch oven begins to develop fond. Add red wine and deglaze until the wine is mostly incorporated. Return the vegetables, add the beans, crushed tomatoes and stock or water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a bare simmer. Add sugar and adjust seasonings to taste. Cover and cook on low for half an hour to an hour, or until the sauce thickens to desired consistency.
My girlfriend introduced me to this dish when were in Bulgaria in the Peace Corps. It's incredibly simple and totally satisfying, and a great week night dish. I can imagine a million variations -- in the photo above, they've got some chorizo links wrapped in bacon. That'd be good, but it's really not necessary. Two eggs and a big mound of rice and I was a very happy camper.
The sauce you wan to be something very simple, with a big emphasis on a fresh tomato flavor -- I love highly seasoned tomato sauces, but for this you want something that will let the unctuousness of the egg yolk shine through. To that end, I've been using Marcella Hazan's simple four ingredient tomato sauce -- a simple dish that lends also lends itself to an almost infinite number of variations. But this is how I did it last night, and I was very pleased.
Cuban rice with fried egg and tomato sauce
For the sauce:
1 large can of crushed tomatoes
5 tbs butter
1 onion, cut in half and peeled
Salt and pepper
a cup steamed rice of your choice per serving
2 eggs with soft yolks per serving
Combine the ingredients for the sauce in a small sauce pot and bring to a gentle simmer. Stir in the butter when it melts and allow to simmer for half an hour to forty minutes -- basically until the rice and eggs are ready. Discard the onion before serving.
Cook rice however you want -- there are garlic rice recipes that would definitely be more authentic and delicious, but this was more of a week night thing, so I wanted something simple. To that end, I just dumped some medium grain rice in my rice cooker and turned it on. That usually takes about twenty-five minutes, so by the time it was ready, the sauce was ready as well.
For the eggs, again, however you like your eggs done, as long as the yolks are soft. I fried them, but poached or soft-boiled eggs would also be delicious, and a bit healthier. Up to you!
Combine all ingredients on a plate and stir them together to combine the yolk with the tomato sauce and enjoy!
I saw Ant-Man last night and found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable film, full of charming performances, especially the always charming Paul Rudd and Michael Peña, intermittently amazing special effects and a breezy, light-footed affect that served the material well. Some of the macro photography when Rudd's character shrinks to the titular ant-size is fantastic, and they make great use of the juxtaposition of the stakes of the conflict with the size of the world around it.
It also can't be ignored that Ant-Man seems to be where Marvel finally got it's act together and did something about their third act problem. The pomposity and overblown effects orgies that the third acts of most Marvel films so far has become something of a cliche, but Ant-Man manages to avoid that with two separate, but related strategies. First off, the third act actually continues the plot. Novel! In most Marvel films, the third act is an extended denouement, with the hero(es) chasing after a bad guy who has a macguffin, and needs to have it taken away from them. In Ant-Man (spoiler alert, obviously), the third act is in part an extended heist, a chase after the bad guy, and a stand off who's stakes are at once momentous for the characters (Rudd's daughter is in danger), but undercut by the film's wry juxtaposition between the ostensible stakes and the actual scale of the conflict. It's clever and satisfying that most Marvel films haven't quite managed to pull off.
Part of what I find fascinating about the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe is the way they've found to move away not just from the grim, dark, grimdark DC cinematic efforts like the Nolan Batman films and the atrocious Snyder-helmed Man of Steel, though that is worthy of celebration in itself. What Marvel seems to be trying to do is open up a shared universe of films that contain not just the same characters, or an ongoing story, but one where different stories are told in different registers, as best suits the material. Seems like an obvious choice, but no one has brought the kind of resources and thoughtfulness to it yet.
To that end, like last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man (almost) never takes itself too seriously. It winks at the material, even if it never embraces the campiness of it the way the '60s Batman series did. It's a middle way between the two approaches, and it works very well for a character who can shrink and rides ants around.
What Marvel is doing is crossbreeding other genres with superheroes. So far, we haven't seen much in the way of great leaps. Guardians of the Galaxy was better than two thirds space opera, and Ant-Man was half two fifths heist movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a third paranoid conspiracy thriller. While Marvel has been fairly tentative in feeling this space out, I think there's actually a lot of room for them to do some truly fascinating things with it, especially with the upcoming slate of films.
It's interesting that for the (third) reboot of Spider-Man, Marvel is going with an actor who seems a lot younger than Andrew Garfield or Tobey Maguire. Spider-Man meets John Hughes? There's all sorts of room for Doctor Strange to be, well, strange, and Black Panther and Captain Marvel are both such fascinating properties that go against the established grain of superhero films, they could be really fascinating.
Of course, all of this could just totally collapse. Marvel's track record so far has been pretty great, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it will continue to be that way. Certainly, Edgar Wright's departure from Ant-Man was a less than positive sign. Marvel needs to ensure that they can continue to pull in talented, interesting directors, writers and performers with unique visions for their characters, and make sure that those people aren't stifled under the weight of MCU-service. That might prove a tricky maneuver to pull off, especially as the universe starts to expand and grow. But it'll be interesting to see where they go with it.