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2019 – The Rest of the Best

10 Jan

final ruminations on 2019

When I looked back over my notes from the past year, I was shocked that some of my favorites were actually from 2019, not 2018; it seems so long ago when I read or watched some of these.

I guess it’s been a very long year.

Thankfully, the content has been tremendous. Last week I posted my favorite films. Here’s the rest of my “Best of 2019” in no particular order or genre:

1917

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I had not yet seen 1917 when I did my best of film post last week. I was a little reticent to see this movie, thinking the technical virtuosity (even more jaw-dropping than I anticipated) would overshadow the emotional side of the story. Not at all. I was deeply, deeply moved by 1917,  less a traditional war movie than a ticking clock thriller within the war genre. 1917 is a wildly audacious, risk-taking film… against all odds, everything works brilliantly. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins deserve many accolades but my overwhelming shoutout goes to George MacKay as a soldier tasked with a dangerous mission. If this actor wasn’t perfect, the entire movie would fall apart. MacKay carries the movie on his considerable shoulders. See this in the theatre if you can.

Fleabag – Season 2

 

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Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge

 

The note I give my screenwriting students more than any other is “You’re writing about polite people acting politely. Lovely… and completely boring.” Great storytelling, whether comedy or drama, comes from savage conflict and troubled characters. Look no further than Fleabag. I know some have a hard time getting past the opening of Season 1, the literal definition of “in your face.” I implore you to continue. Season 1 is terrific. Season 2 is one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen. With the brilliant addition of Andrew Scott as the second lead, playing a devastatingly attractive priest, and the surprising addition of God as the third lead, the second season of Fleabag is hilarious, devastating and complex.

Creator/writer/actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Scott are both incredible. Equally genius are Sian Clifford as Fleabag’s sister Claire and Olivia Coleman as a truly evil stepmother. It was also wonderful to see Kristen Scott-Thomas (sigh) being given such a meaty, wonderful guest starring role. How cool is it that with all the accolades and awards, Waller-Bridge decided to stop the series at the end of Season 2 rather than extend it on and on, as do so many other shows. The last episode is perfect. As is the rest of the series. I love me some Fleabag.

Dignity by Chris Arnade

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Dignity will break your heart. Then get you off your butt to go do something. A moving look at displaced and forgotten people of all races all across America, Dignity has been criticized by some for being too empathetic. Fuck you critics living in a bubble. This is a profound book about people with devastating stories who struggle to survive, often with a strength that should put these shameless critics to shame. If you check out only one piece from my list, make it Chris Arnade’s book.

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

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This wonderful novel chronicles the courtship of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. Author Louis Bayard kept Jane Austen in mind when writing this historical fiction; Austen’s influence is clear… you really begin to worry Mary Todd and Lincoln won’t end up at the alter. That Bayard can keep us in delirious romantic suspense, even though we know the outcome, is only one of the many reasons Courting Mr. Lincoln is one of my favorite novels in many a year.  

The book is told from two perspectives: Mary Todd’s as well as Lincoln’s best friend, Joshua Speed. Bayard restores Mary Todd’s reputation in this novel. She is a smart, witty, terrific romantic heroine, struggling to find her place and her love. Bayard’s depiction of Speed, whom many, with good historical reason, believe was in love with Lincoln, is just as compelling. The actual letters between these two men are extremely intimate. Bayard creates a David and Jonathan type relationship, borne out by the men’s letters.  His Lincoln stays true to the man, a funny, wise, enjoyable person ultimately very difficult to get to know, which makes Bayard’s decision to keep us from Lincoln’s own perspective a smart choice.  Courting Mr. Lincoln is warm, generous, insightful, funny, heartfelt, emotional and delightful.

Chernobyl

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What else is there to say about Chernobyl? It’s one of the most powerful pieces of television ever created. If you haven’t watched it, you must. Though you might not sleep. It’s brilliantly crafted and impeccably acted. Television — or, well, art — doesn’t come much better. A chilling masterpiece.

Catastrophe

 

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Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan

 

As much as I love Fleabag, I think I love Catastrophe even more. It’s not just that the two leads are stunning. Or that the supporting cast is equally amazing. It’s not just that the show is outrageously, painfully funny. It’s that Catastrophe throws two people together who barely know one another and shouldn’t ever be together, and shows them slowly, beautifully fall in love with one another over the course of four short seasons. If you watch this wonderful show, you might find yourself surprised by how emotional and powerful the final season becomes. I’ve seen the whole thing twice and will watch all of this modern love story yet again. I love Catastrophe.

Me by Elton John

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Relatively early in Elton John’s autobiography, Me, he describes his suicide attempt in his twenties. I was on the floor convulsing with hysterical laughter. You will be, too, if you make the smart decision to pick up one of the most entertaining reads in years. Seriously, this book is incredible. Elton John is shockingly, brutally honest, about himself more than anyone else. Self-effacing is an understatement when it comes to his approach in the book. His insight into himself, the people around him, and the world in general is sharp and illuminating. Because he worked with or met just about everyone, the glimpses we get into the rarified world of music and celebrity is eye-opening. But the book is never gossipy or mean. He simply tells it like it is with a bracing honesty that is as funny as any comedian at The Improv. If you’re looking for a entertaining read with depth, this is the book.

Market Cooking by David Tanis

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I love cookbooks. They comfort me. I often go to sleep with one in hand and read 30 or 40 a year. David Tanis’s Market Cooking is by far my favorite cookbook this past year. Tanis, who cooked for years at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, has written two of my favorite cookbooks already, A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke. His recipes are purposefully simple; I’ve never cooked a recipe of his I didn’t enjoy. Laid out in encyclopedia fashion, centered on ingredients you’ll find at the farmer’s market, Market Cooking is his best yet.

Barry

 

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Bill Hader and Henry Winkler

 

Barry is another show I was forced to watch at gun-point, only to then think, “What the hell was my problem?” This show is awesome. Very, very funny and occasionally very, very bloody, Barry starts as a satire of everything from acting and entertainment to assassins and mobsters, only to evolve into something much richer. I’m amazed how after just two short seasons the show has caused me to care deeply about the characters, many of whom are less than admirable. Chalk this up to remarkable performances by Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan (!!) and Sarah Goldberg, who has a monologue in season two that made leap up from the sofa in awe. And then there’s Bill Hader. I didn’t much care for Hader before Barry. “What the hell was my problem?” He’s amazing in Barry, and not just as an actor. His writing and directing can be astounding. Take the now famous “ronny/lily” episode that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on TV ever. Kudos to Hader, I’m now an Uber-fan. Barry is terrific.

Shadowlands by Anthony McCann

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Another book attacked by some for being too empathetic and even-handed (such are the ridiculous times in which we live) Anthony McCann’s Shadowlands is a deep dive into the 2016 Oregon occupation that transfixed the country. McCann is a poet; his writing is beautiful, insightful and searching. It’s a remarkable book, the kind of reporting I wish most journalists today would emulate. Highly recommended.

Something Wonderful by Todd Purdum

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Something Wonderful is actually from 2018. I somehow forgot to include one of my favorites when I did my end of year post a year ago. If you like musical theatre, or just like Rodgers and Hammerstein, you will love this beautifully researched and written book about their lives and careers, together and apart. Something wonderful, indeed.

And finally…

Game of Thrones

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The best show in the history of television came to a conclusion last Spring with a brilliant, controversial final season. I’m tempted to repeat my comment about critics from above. I’ll refrain. But for those who complained, what I will say is I don’t know what show you thought you were watching all these years. Anyone, for instance, who didn’t think Dany was going to turn bat-shit crazy by the end had their head stuck in the sand ostrich style. (If you named your baby after her, or tattooed her name on your arm, you got what you deserved.) I refused to watch GOT until after Season 3, when I then became one of the show’s biggest fans. I still am. I love the show, love the final season and can’t wait one day to start all over again. It’s that damn good.

 

A Delightful Stir-Fry

13 Dec

This feisty and ultra-satisfying vegan dish turns carnivorous in one simple step

Winter may seem an odd time for a stir-fry. Aren’t vegetables best in the spring and summer? But most of the vegetables used in a stir-fry… onions, peppers, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, etc… are available year round. On a cold night, yes, a hearty stew or soup is wonderful… but so is a delicious bowl of perfectly cooked vegetables. Finished with a savory sauce and fresh herbs, this stir-fry will satisfy the hungriest soul.

StirFry ingredient line up

Stir-fry lined up and ready

I’ve been playing around with this recipe for a while, working to get it just right. I discovered there are two keys to making the best stir-fry possible:

  1. the order in which you cook the vegetables
  2. the sauce you use to bring the dish together. 

When it comes to cooking the vegetables, for ease you certainly can throw everything in a sauté pan and quick cook the vegetables all together. But different vegetables have different cooking times and if you cook everything together, you end up with a less than satisfying mush. Additionally, I like certain vegetables (onions, chili peppers, garlic) cooked down soft for flavor, while others (colored bell peppers and zucchini) I like to remain just a touch undercooked to give the stir-fry different layers of texture as well as a satisfying crunch. It takes a little more time to cook this way, but the final dish is infinitely better. Acid and fresh herbs at the end brightens the dish enormously. 

As for the sauce, most recipes I saw online were way too sweet. Experimenting with a variety of choices, over time I narrowed the sauce down to three savory ingredients with a dollop of honey. It’s killer. A lot of stores are carrying these ingredients now but you can easily order them from Amazon; just click the links in the recipe. It’s worth having these in your pantry.

Finally, if you want some protein, thinly slice some chicken or beef or pork (or a combo), marinate the meat in the sauce while the first round of vegetables cook, then slide the protein into the pan at the time mentioned in the recipe below. 

This recipe is highly adaptable. You can use whatever vegetables you like or what you have on hand. (While the freshest vegetables are ideal, I’ve used this recipe to clean out the vegetable drawer in the fridge… works great.) You can even do a lot of chopping/prep on a Sunday afternoon or one evening and have vegetables to use all week.

With a salad as your starter and the stir-fry served over a bowl of rice (or another grain or ‘cauliflower rice’), this is a stir-fry you will make often. I’ve been hitting it at least twice a week for well over a month and haven’t tired of it one bit. 

VEGETABLE STIR-FRY

(serves 2 hungry people with a little left over… this also doubles easily)

Ingredients for sauce

1/2 cup soy sauce or Nama Shoyu

1/2 cup Sambal Chili Paste

1/2 cup Chili Garlic Sauce

1 large dollop of honey

Ingredients for stir-fry (in order of cook)

1/2 red onion, sliced into thin half moons

1/2 fennel bulb, cored, sliced thin

1 or 2 chilis, sliced, seeds removed… or use a few seeds for some spice! Fresno Chili is best but use your favorite or what you have on hand… Jalapeño, Serrano, Anaheim, etc.

1 stalk celery and leaves, sliced thin

4 cloves garlic, sliced thin

2 carrots, sliced on the diagonal into coins on the diagonal (I don’t peel and I like the carrots about 1/4 or half inch so they don’t get too soft)

1 t cumin seed

optional protein: a chicken breast, or some filet or flank steak, or pork tenderloin, sliced very thin

3 bell peppers (I like one red, one yellow, one orange) sliced into vertical strips

1/2 t white pepper; salt

knob of fresh ginger, peeled

rice wine vinegar

fish sauce

a carton of sliced mushrooms 

1 large zucchini, halved vertically, then sliced into thin half coins

1 lemon or 1 lime

4 green onions, sliced horizontally, white and green parts 

handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

handful fresh mint leaves, chopped

handful fresh basil leaves, chopped

Cooked rice for serving

*NOTE: easy additions:

chopped broccoli

Snow peas or snap peas

water chestnuts and/or bamboo shoots (for that classic American Chinese food feel)

Directions

Mix the sauce ingredients well. You will have more than enough. It saves for a few weeks in the fridge.

If using protein, right before you start your sauté, put the sliced protein in a bowl and pour a little sauce over, just enough to cover, and toss.

Heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium-low heat in your widest pan.

Add the red onion, fennel, and chili. Sauté slowly to maximize the flavor. In about 8-10 minutes when they are soft, add the sliced garlic. Cook only a minute or two, never let the garlic brown.

NOTE: while you don’t need to hover over this dish, stir a lot at every stage.

Add the carrots and cumin seed. Stir and sauté five minutes.

*if using protein, add here, stir and cook a few minutes.

Add the mushrooms, a few shakes of fish sauce and a few shakes of rice wine vinegar. Turn the heat up to medium. Mushrooms can give off a lot of liquid so I turn up the heat to burn off the liquid.

While the mushroom stage cooks, take your knob of ginger and grate/rasp it over the stir-fry. Stir to incorporate. 

Add your peppers, salt and white pepper. Stir and sauté a few minutes. Keep tasting… what else do you need?

Add the zucchini and stir. After a couple of minutes (get the zucchini to your desired crisp/soft level) add just enough sauce to cover the vegetables. You don’t want this swimming in sauce and you can always add more. 

Turn the heat to medium high and let simmer and bubble until the sauce is warm.

Turn off the heat and toss in the green onions. Mix well. You are ready!

Put a scoop of rice in a bowl. Add the stir-fry. Squirt with lime juice and sprinkle the chopped fresh herbs on top.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

An Elevated Potato-Leek Soup

6 Dec

This revamped classic, flecked with fresh herbs, hides a delicious addition

My dentist said, “soft foods only for a couple of days.” Who was I to argue? For me that meant making both the best macaroni and cheese ever, and soup.

But which soup?

In fall and winter my mom often made a terrific and comforting potato-leek soup. Bingo: perfect for cold weather and just what the dentist ordered. But I have no recipe from mom. A wonderful cook, she rarely used recipes and when she did, she deviated every time, giving each dish her personal flair. So I had to come up with my own.

Potato leek soup

elevated potato-leek soup

Looking at various recipes online, I realized most versions of potato-leek soup are solid… and boring and a little bland. Most are also ridiculously simple, which is certainly a plus, but little time is taken at the start to prep the ingredients to insure the soup has depth of flavor. Many versions do no prep, instead throwing raw leeks, potatoes and onion in a pot with broth, boiling, then blending… easy, yes but, again, bland and a bit lifeless. I wanted to see if I could liven it up without taking the comfort out of the dish. After a little experimentation, here’s a fresh yet rich version of the classic.

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Your Perfect Thanksgiving

23 Nov

While this is an amalgam of previous Thanksgiving posts, I hone every year. I know you have your favorites! We all do. But trust me… add a few of these (the cocktail and the turkey in particular.. and the dips… and, well, you know… ) and you will have the best dinner ever. Hell, just follow it all! I won’t let you down. 

Not a lot of writing below… you can scan other Thanksgiving posts for more detail. If it’s on the list below, I’ve made it many times, it’s easy, and your friends and family will be thrilled. 

COCKTAIL

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Cranberry Daiquiri

This is my signature cocktail for people from Thanksgiving thru New Years. Not too sweet and incredibly tasty. Once you have the syrup made, you can make it fast anytime:

Cranberry Daiquiri

DIPS

Pim Cheese corn dip

Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip

The pickle dip is killer. The pimento cheese dip is now referred to as “crack” by everyone who has tried it. Both will make you supremely happy:

Dill Pickle Dip

Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip

* For more recipes Continue reading

Breakfast Tacos

17 Nov

A Texas staple that will become a regular part of your repertoire

Breakfast Tacos

Breakfast Tacos

It was called The Lazy Daisy: a 24 hour restaurant on ‘the drag’ in Austin, a locally owned Denny’s like place that was so much better than Denny’s. When I was in college at The University of Texas at Austin, The Lazy Daisy was always filled, even at (or particularly at) 2:30 AM in the morning after all the bars closed and people wanted good sustenance to help mitigate their buzz.

“The Daisy” as we came to call it, was also one solitary stumbling block from my fraternity house. The most inebriated person in the world, and their equally drunk date, could manage to get there in minutes on foot.

Needless to say, many of us were fixtures.

While I enjoyed a lot of different foods at The Daisy — they had surprisingly good salads, for instance, and a better than decent chicken fried steak — by far the greatest menu item, which I came to know intimately, were the breakfast tacos.

Breakfast tacos are one of my favorite foods. They are so incredibly satisfying I’m always shocked I can’t find them anywhere but Texas. Yes, breakfast burritos are ubiquitous. I like them, too. But there are subtle yet huge differences between a breakfast burrito and a breakfast taco. Give me a breakfast taco any time.

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A Hearty Mushroom Ragout

4 Oct

A delicious Autumn meal I eat year round.

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I love fall. Hands down my favorite season. It’s not because I look my best in fall clothes… although, to be honest, that is part of it. I love everything about fall: cool crisp sweater weather, football games at twilight, County Fairs, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Fall Back from Daylight Savings Time (an extra hour of sleep, yes!!), earth tones, melancholy (can’t be beat) and of course all kinds of fall food… from soups to stews to root vegetables to pie to, well, any food that warms the soul and speaks to Autumn.

I love Fall so much I even have a playlist I created that makes me feel like Fall, all year round:

To start fall off right I present to you a divine Mushroom Ragout, one you can serve in a variety of ways. Vegetarian to the max (and even Vegan if you omit the final pad of butter) you’ll never think of this as a vegetarian dish, it’s so hearty and meaty and satisfying.

A twist on a ragout by the incredible chef David Tanis (his books are wonderful) this easy ragout will satisfy your soul.

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Mushroom Ragout over polenta

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A Platter of Tomatoes

19 Sep

A perfect way to slide from summer to fall… with an additional secret recipe.

I realize the subject of tomatoes is late given some of you are probably past tomato season. Summer in Southern California, however, starts and ends late (mid-July thru sometimes mid-October) and we remain in the midst of a glorious tomato bounty.

Tomatoes are like my other favorite food, the egg: the uses and recipes for each are endless. Even so, if you’re lucky enough to be in possession of fresh, best of season tomatoes, nothing satisfies like a simple platter of tomatoes.

Platter of Tomatoes

a platter of tomatoes

I realize there are a few sad souls who don’t like tomatoes raw. One of my best friends is such a person… I’m looking at you, Tanja! (We’ve somehow managed to remain close friends.) In my house growing up, we ate tomatoes off the vine like you would a fresh apple. Just pick and bite right in. If it squirts all over your face and runs down your forearm, you know you have the perfect tomato.

Like any good southerner, l don’t serve a meal during tomato season without a platter of tomatoes. This is as ubiquitous on the dinner table in the South as salt and pepper or bread and butter. I’ve easily made over a hundred of these platters and while the prep is fast and easy, there’s an art to the prep as well, a perfect combination of seasoning and herbs to maximize your tomatoes. I’ve tried many variations and have landed on the best.

So scroll down to find out to prepare your perfect platter of tomatoes. Then keep scrolling for the other perfect use for a perfect tomato… 

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