Friday, February 26, 2010

Birfday birfday birfday

What I really wanted to do today was have someone take me to a department store so I could get Clarins cream for my aging face. However, my face felt sorry for me feeling all old and whatnot, so it got me its own birthday present!

THANK YOU FACE for breaking out. I feel fifteen again!! Also this morning my parents and I reenacted our yearly birthday ritual, which is either my mom or dad (or both) saying "We/I wanted to get you insert-item-I-would-never-buy-for-myself, but we/I didn't know what you wanted so we didn't." WOW THANKS GUYS YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE.

They do this every year. I stopped planning my own birthday parties last year because 1) I never really liked celebrating it and 2) every year I would plan whatever we were going to do and then spend most of the party worrying if everyone was enjoying themselves, which was less than fun for me, so I stopped.

Mad thanks to Amanda for the Cake Wrecks book though, which I am seriously tempted to sneak into the bakery amongst all the other boring cookbooks we have by the couches, because it's hilarious.

In other news:

Custard from the Diary Godmother from Wednesday. The daily flavor was coffee with Heath bar bits. SCORE. We got a quart of it and I ended up eating it for breakfast.

I got these little panda prints from the Old Town Festival of the Arts last summer and they had been sitting around my room waiting for frames since then. Finally finally bought frames for them, which now means they will sit around for a few more months until I decide where to hang them. The prints are from artist John Hungha.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Well now that I'm old...

Hey, everyone feel free to contribute to my eye cream fund.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bag Lady

There are a lot of great consignment/thrift stores that have opened around Alexandria in the last year. The newest addition is Label Exchange in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood on Mount Vernon Avenue (near Los Tios)-it's so new, it's not even on Google yet. I got this great leather tote there, made by Rowland Leather of Canada (it even had a shiny Canadian penny in the bottom of the bag). It's the perfect size for lugging my notebooks, library books, lip balms, apples, pens, and other bits and pieces around (but I NEED everything in my purse! Waaah!). They carry men and women's clothing and some furniture/housewares type stuff, and because it's a mix of thrift and consignment store, you can find stuff like Steve Madden shoes and leather jackets next to costume jewelry. Definitely worth a look.

Also from this weekend:

My extraordinarily delicious lunch from Rosa Mexicano in National Harbor. Right now, National Harbor is having its Restaurant Week, and most of the restaurants there are offering prix fixe lunch and dinners. For only 20 bucks, I got delicious, smoky adobo chicken soup, this awesome deconstructed steak taco dish, and a really great chocolate hazelnut cupcake.

Leaning tower of chocolate

And finally, since this post is a collection of random stuff I haven't gotten to putting up yet, here is a tasty vegetable side dish the next time you have noodles:

You will need:
1 pack fresh snow peas (if you use frozen, defrost and drain them well first)
1 onion
A clove or two of garlic
A handful of mushrooms (if you like them-this version did not have them, but I love mushrooms)
Some oyster sauce (not totally vital, if you don't have it lying around, skip it)
Some soy sauce
Some hoisin sauce
A little bit of oil. You could use anything from sesame oil to olive oil (just enough to grease pan so the veggies don't stick)

Chop onions and garlic cloves. Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add oil and garlic. If using mushrooms, add those first and cook for a minute or two, then add onions. Cook for another few minutes, until the onions start to soften. Add a glug or two of soy sauce, about a teaspoon of oyster sauce (if using), and a teaspoon of hoisin sauce. Stir. Add the snow peas. Cook until snow peas are coated but still crisp (should only take a minute or two). You can taste the veggies as you go along to see if you need more of the various sauces, but it's so good that you may end up eating most of it before it makes it to the plate.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Remarkable writing.

The remarkable creatures in Tracy Chevalier's new novels aren't the fossilized ammonites and bellemnites that litter the beaches of England's Lyme Regis, but her two main characters and the poles between which the narrative sways: Elizabeth Philpot, a lantern-jawed spinster resigned to living out her life with her natural history books and two unmarried sisters and fully conscious of a system that has no place for curious women like herself, and Mary Annings, a poor Lyme Regis girl who, despite her lack of education, has a gnawing intelligence and an uncanny eye for fossils.

Chevalier is the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Remarkable Creatures has a very similar pacing: deliberate and measured, which some critics have faulted as plodding. But unlike Girl, which was at its heart a love story, despite trappings of historical fiction, Remarkable Creatures casts a wider net, and as a result, is a much deeper and more fulfilling book. Although Chevalier skillfully explores the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth (a relationship Elizabeth expresses surprise about forming, although she and Mary aren't all that different-both are lonely and lack an outlet for their intellect, and both feel their inability to fit into Lyme Regis' close, gossipy community keenly), the book also delves into the intellectual debate about evolution that had begun to rage in England.

Mary enters the debate after discovering the fossil of an ichthyosaurus buried in the cliffside. Unclouded by religion or scientific education, Mary refuses to believe that her "monster" is a crocodile, although she's more concerned with the money the skeleton may bring in for her impoverished family than contributing to scientific debate. Elizabeth enters the fray on her behalf, crashing a meeting of scientists in London after Mary is accused of fossil forgery by French scientist Couvier and attempting to protect Mary from unscrupulous (or just uncaring) men who are eager to claim her discoveries for their own.

Very little of this book rings false, and Elizabeth and Mary's estrangement is rendered in sparing, painful prose. The abrupt about-face of one of the fossil hunters, a bogus colonel who Mary and Elizabeth are both attracted to, is rather unbelieveable (especially after Chevalier's parade of unsavory male characters-even those with good intentions are too distracted to understand the desperation of Mary's family), but even minor characters, especially Elizabeth's younger sister, Margaret, are well drawn.

Like the ichthyosaurus, Mary and Elizabeth don't fit into the worldview of their time period, although one senses the beginning of a new era as the book closes-an era, unfortunately, that Mary and Elizabeth are a little too early for.

Chevalier's eye for historical detail is as sharp as ever, and the notes in the end of the book are fascinating. It's a relief to the reader to see that Mary Anning's contributions to the scientific community are acknowledged, even though her gender and social station prevent her from really participating.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Boston Cream Cupcakes

Hello gorgeous.

These are great-imagine, a Boston cream pie you can eat in one (maybe two) mouthfuls! I overcooked the glaze a little bit, hence the slightly gritty look, but otherwise they were delicious. The cupcakes are sturdy, almost like a pound cake, and filled with delicious pastry cream, which I could eat by itself. Here is a very easy recipe for pastry cream. You will need:

1 2/3 c heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla (more if you want a strong vanilla flavor, or you could use a vanilla bean)
3 teaspoons cornstarch
pinch salt
2 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 pieces

Put the cream into a small pot and put it over medium heat. While it heats, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and salt. If you're using the vanilla bean, cut it open and scrape out the seeds. Put the seeds into the cream and throw in the vanilla bean (you'll remove it later). Put the cornstarch into the egg yolk mixture and whisk until it's pale and thick.

Let the cream come to a simmer. There will be small bubbles forming on the edges of the cream but it shouldn't be quite boiling. Take the cream off of the heat but leave the stove on. Carefully pour a little hot cream into the egg mixture while whisking to temper it. Add the rest of the cream in a slow stream while whisking.

Return the mixture to the pot and put it back over the heat. Whisk for a minute or two until the cream becomes thicker and shiny. (When the cream coats the back of a spoon you dip into it, it's done. If you overcook it it will still be good, it'll just be pudding.) Take it off the heat and add the vanilla extract (if using), then the butter. Whisk until melted. If you used the vanilla bean, remove the bean halves.

Put the pastry cream into a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface (this prevents it from getting a skin as it cools). Let it cool in the fridge for at least two hours. You can then put it into an airtight container.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I am Conan the Grammarian!

I wonder if American Public University is interested in knowing that their big, expensively printed banners in the Metro are misspelled? I would have taken a picture but since I was in a super secret location today I couldn't bring my camera.

Maybe I should call them and offer my editing services. For the greater good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Listen, dame, I will solve the crime...

once I am done sipping my bourbon, staring out the window, driving around town really fast, doing pushups, and walking in the rain. Okay?

Frank Behr is a man. A man with a past. An ex-cop who wrestles with his demons, inability to set aside a case, and the toll its taking on 1) interpersonal relationships, 2) eating habits, and 3) propensity for getting beaten up.

Where the Dead Lay has pretty much every tortured-cop cliche down. Behr's got an ex-wife, a personal tragedy, a nascent drinking problem, a fractured relationship with his current squeeze, Susan, and his Brazilian jiu jitsu teacher Aurelios Santos just got splattered on the gym mat. Behr, a PI on the wrong side of forty (which is the right side? I'm going to start telling people I'm on the underside of thirty) who nonetheless keeps it real and takes it to the streets, sometimes stepping it up or bringing it on, is determined to find out who killed Santos.

Behr's quest takes him back to the police department, to a private security firm, and into a crime family that's like something from The Hills Have Eyes, but transplanted to the grimy 'burbs of Indianapolis and armed with shotguns and baseball bats.

Levien has a good eye for criminals-his perps aren't particularly smart or put-together, they're dumb and cruel enough to be believable, and murder scenes are gritty enough to make your stomach clench. Behr's just not that compelling, and that makes the book feel kind of hollow (Levien's dig at the Marines in the final pages is kind of weird too). But it's snappily written, the villains are scum and it's satisfying to see Behr get his guys and solve the case, and you get to take a little tour of the notorious pea-shake houses of outer Indianapolis, which I had no idea existed, having never been to Indianapolis or had a gambling habit. The plot doesn't really throw anything at you that you weren't expecting, and it's pretty clear that the characters who matter will make it to the end, so it's sort of like pretty much every cop movie ever made. But it'd made a good beach read and most readers can get through it in one sitting. Think of it as the Big Mac of crime novels. Predictable but filling.

From the mouths of Buffalonians:

In today's Washington Post Metro section:

"Steven J. Stepniak, who oversees the streets department in snowy Buffalo, N.Y, said District officials should have called up the heavy equipment before the first storm began...but Stepniak, who lives in a city that averages 93 inches a year, said even Buffalo would struggle to clean up from the consecutive blizzards that hit the District last week. "It is very hard for any municipality of any size to handle back-to-back snowstorms of that caliber," Stepniak said." (B6).

See?? It's not just us! And in other news, if your fingers are not right on home row, you'll keep typing Buffalo "Buggalo" and that will make you laugh, because it sounds like the town where Slipknot fans would all want to live.

Oh, and, super cool, if you go to the Washington Psychotronic Film Society tonight, they're showing "Zombies versus Mardi Gras" at the Warehouse Theater , for the low low price of two dollars. Tonight at 8.

Happy Fat Tuesday, everybody.

Monday, February 15, 2010

But no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

There is a lot of striding in Phillip DePoy's The King James Conspiracy. A lot of striding-up stairs, down stairs, through hallways that are inevitably stone and freezing cold, into stables, and in the back rooms of inns. And a lot of wide-eyed exclamations, dramatic faints, and general clutching-of-robes.

Oh, and the main character, bad-ass Italian assassin "Brother Timon," is a nutmeg junkie.

For real. In between raiding the spice cabinet to feed his jones, Brother Timon zips around Cambridge trying to find a murderer who is offing the translators of King James' new Bible. Except, the translators all get whacked in the Cambridge main hall, and instead of moving to, say, a portable out by the swing set, they keep translating in the main hall, even though old guys keep getting knifed there in the middle of the night (which, I guess, could be a clever allegory about the sluggishness of academia, but it's not).

Brother Timon, super secret agent of His Holiness Pope Clement and possessor of a memory wheel that lets him memorize lots and lots of stuff (his character is based on Giordano Bruno, the inventory of the memory wheel, who was 1) burned 2) exploded and 3) nailed to death all simultaneously during the Inquisition. Apparently they had just run out of squishy pillows and comfy chairs.). Timon is dispatched to disrupt the translation of James' Bible while pretending to hunt for the killer with the help of Cambridge's Deacon Marbury, who conveniently has a daughter who is extraordinary smart, well-read, and a great cook. Fortunately, although DePoy employs a lot of cliches, he avoids having Timon and Anne get entangled, which is refreshing, although Anne's character is a little too sexy-librarian (in a totally post-Elizabethan way) to be believable.

Translators are stabbed, the King's English is mangled, revelations about the Bible's translation errors and the Apocrypha are had ("This changes everything!" "This changes nothing!!"), crazy King James dispatches foppish emissaries, Anne and Timon spend a lot of time thundering up and down the hallways, Timon gets into wicked knife fights despite being over 50, which in Jacobean years means you're actually dead, and lots of dramatic speeches about the sacred texts that keep turning up are delivered.

DePoy's constant attempts to ratchet up the tension are tiring, and some of the dialogue is unintentionally hilarious (as is the aforementioned nutmeg pipe, which has me looking at my spice rack with renewed interest). Even the plot twist isn't especially twisty, and the random involvement of a pagan with a grudge may have been interesting if it hadn't been squeezed in so improbably.

The notes on historical sources and texts in the back of the book are interesting, and if you're into 1) spice addicted monks, 2) the Jacobean era or 3) Biblical translation conspiracies, you could probably do worse than pick up the novel, but the fascinating aspects of the Apocrypha and debate over the veracity of the Jamesian translation are unfortunately glossed over-the Bible seems like a footnote to the plot, and none of the characters are that compelling. Even Timon/Giordano, who goes through all the tortured-soul standard experiences (flashbacks of torture, losing and then regaining his faith, having epiphanies at really inconvenient times, and being way better at combat than he should be) is sort of two-dimensional, and it's hard to ignore how ridiculous the murders are. After the third body turns up in the same damn room, you'd think the translators would either relocate or get some guards. Or at least use the buddy system.

Things to do this weekend

New Rock Church of Fire plays at IOTA Cafe and Club in Arlington.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bleeding Heart Cupcakes.

Does your heart feel like this?

If so, make these cupcakes. You will need:

12 ounces of butter
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups of beets (this is about three beets)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cups toasted chopped hazelnuts, pecans, or walnuts (if you use hazelnuts, toast them a few minutes longer than the walnuts or pecans. They have more water and need more time in the oven.)

12 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces butter
8 ounces confectioner's sugar
Pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Orange zest from about a quarter of an orange

An hour or so before you're going to bake, put the butter for the cupcakes and frosting, the cream cheese, and the eggs on the counter so they'll be soft when you're ready to make them. You can toast the nuts at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes on a baking sheet on the highest rack in the oven. Give them a shake halfway through so they toast evenly, and you'll know when they're done because the kitchen will smell really good. Leave the oven on, since the cupcakes will need to be baked at 350 degrees too.

Wash the beets and cut the tops and the little tails off. Peel them like you would an apple and throw away the peels. Then, use either a food processor with the shredding blade or a grater (if you use a grater, don't be like me and feed bits of your thumbs to your friends. SORRY, GUYS.) and shred the beets. They'll shred just like carrots, but will get red juice everywhere, so wear an apron. Stick the beets in a bowl and let them hang out.

Using a stand mixer or handheld mixer, cream the butter, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon together until it's fluffy. It will look like gingerbread cookie dough:

If you're using a stand mixer, leave the mixer on low and add the eggs one at a time. Scrape down the bowl between eggs. If you're using a hand mixer, just mix and scrape after each egg is added. Then add the vanilla extract and give the batter one more whirl. It will smell really, really good:

Next, take a small bowl and mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Take the bowl of beets and squeeze most of the beet juice out of the beets. You can do this by either just grabbing handfuls of beets and squeezing them over the sink (a lot of dark red juice will come out and turn your hands pink. I think this is the easiest way.). Or you could put them in a colander and press down really hard on them until most of the juice comes out. Put them back in the bowl and dump in the orange juice.

Put the beets into the dough and mix until combined. The dough will turn pink.

This looks sort of like a brain.

Put the chopped nuts in the bowl and mix them in. If you want to save some for garnishing the tops of the cupcakes, you could do that. I used sprinkles instead.

Drop in the dry ingredients and fold into the dough until no floury streaks remain.

Put the dough into cupcake tins lined with cupcake papers, or spray with nonstick spray. Don't overfill the cups (fill them about 2/3 full). You should get 24 cupcakes. Bake them for 20 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center cupcake comes out clean.

Let them cool in the pans for a few minutes, then take them out and put them on a wire rack or on the counter to cool completely. Meanwhile, make the frosting.

Put the cream cheese into a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or use a handheld mixer and mix on medium speed until smooth. Dump the cream cheese into a bowl (don't worry about cleaning off the mixer or getting all of the cream cheese out). Put the butter into the mixer, paddle it on medium speed until smooth, then dump the cream cheese back in and continue paddling on medium-low speed. This way you'll get dense, smooth icing. Stop the mixer for a minute, put the confectioner's sugar through a sifter above the cream cheese and butter, and paddle it until it's smooth. While you're paddling it, you can pour in the vanilla, salt, and add the orange zest. You may need to stop the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides.

When the cupcakes are cool, ice them with the frosting and add whatever garnish you want-sprinkles, candied nuts, a curl of orange peel. Mine looked like this (as you can see, the pink batter turns light brown as it cooks):

FInal verdict: this cupcake is really more like a muffin than a cupcake. It's got a nice variation of textures, between the chopped nuts and shredded beets, that's a lot like carrot cake. You could play around with this recipe (for example, leave out the nuts but put in chopped dried apricots or cranberries, or add some chopped crystallized ginger instead of the ground ginger). The cream cheese icing has a nice zing to it from the orange zest. If you prefer your icing fluffy, not dense, you could substitute a different type of icing. Vanilla icing would be good, too, and since the icing is white, you could throw in some food coloring as well. It's a good winter dessert and would be good for breakfast or brunch. It's very moist (all the eggs) and the cupcakes are pretty dense.

The original recipe came from Kathryn Guy-Hamilton at the Breslin, but I changed some of the proportions and rewrote the recipe (the original recipe was pretty badly written).

Are you lonely on Valentine's Day?

That's okay- Hotel Monaco will take care of that with their goldfish companion program.

From their website: Guppy Love. Can't bring Spot or Kitty with you this time? Not to worry—Hotel Monaco Alexandria will bring you a complimentary goldfish to keep you company during your stay. Sometimes a little extra color, companionship and quiet relaxation are all you need. And without any extra effort—our staff is trained to feed and care for the fish—all you need to do is enjoy.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Thank you, American Apparel.


Tom Sietsema doesn't like black licorice.

Or as I like to call it, "liquorice." I love black licorice, but I think it's one of those foods that you either love or hate, and I'm convinced that liking it is an inherited trait (my dad also loves black liquorice). But it's kind of nice to like something a lot of other people don't, because I get to snarf up all the black jelly beans that no one else will eat.


A University of Alabama professor went on a shooting spree yesterday after being denied tenure.

Maybe she should have called Death Bear instead.

And the rest of the opening ceremonies...

That kid in the wheat field looks like Corey Hart. There's something very 80s about him. Maybe it's the denim shirt.

Those projections are neat!

Spiky-haired canoe guy is like something from Cirque du Soleil. Which would make sense.

Punk fiddler tap dancing?

FLAME SHOES. I want a pair of those for walking through the snow here.

"Hallelujah?" Really? That's an incredible song but it seems horribly depressing.

Olympic torch lighting fail.

Still fail.

Got it. Kind of. Two-thirds lit.

And we're off!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Some thoughts on the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Really? Germany von Germanburg is from Mexico??

Nepal has the only nonrectangular flag. Expect to see that on Jeopardy soon.

The guy from Kazakhstan has the coolest hat in all the land(s).

Why is everyone chewing gum? They should have someone standing at the entryway being like, hey, spit out your gum, dammit.

Props to New Zealand for the fur cape.

It seems like places with snow have a disproportionately high number of athletes at the Winter Games. Go figure.

Hey, hi Iran!

Why do the little country-sign bearers not get to wear pants if they're women?

Azerbaijan has great pants. And I spelled that right on the first try.

Dear Republic of Georgia: I'm very sorry and I couldn't watch the filming of the luger's accident, I kept shutting my eyes. That track is scary and I hope they fix it.

I wonder what it's like to train and train your whole life to become the best in the world at something for one year, and then...what happens after that? I've never shown a natural aptitude for sports (except for Ping Pong, I'm sort of naturally good at that even though I've only played it a few times) and I wonder if there's a sport out there that I'd actually be good at but I haven't tried it or don't even know it exists.

I doubt it.

Hey, I wonder how you apply to be one of the people who stands around and dances while the countries walk in?

Switzerland's skiier is a trained butcher. That's cool. Maybe he could stuff some brats while pulling a triple lutz (is that figure skating?).

For outfits-most-coordinated-to-their-flag, the medal goes to Ukraine.

Aaaaaan here's the U.S!

Boring outfits but nice hats. White pants? Eeegh.

Joe Biden!!

Lindsay Jacobellis has massive hair.

So does Shaun White.

Caaaaanaaaaada. I've never been to Canada. I have a lot to cram into the next four weeks. Maybe I'll go to Canada so I can scratch that off the list (which I realize is going to stay blank for the most part) and eat some poutine.

And it's past my bedtime. We'll check in later.

Delicious Foods.

This is really good! You could make it, if you wanted to:

Yummy Veal and Mushrooms in a Tortilla

This will make enough for two, you could just double it for leftovers. You will need:

2 tortillas
1 pack of veal or lamb. You can buy it ground, or just get whatever cheapest and grind it yourself. If you grind it yourself, if you buy it unfrozen, put it in the freezer for about 20 minutes and then throw it in a food processor. If you buy it frozen, let it thaw until you can poke it with a finger but it's still frozen inside, then throw it in a food processor and grind it.
One red onion (a white one would work too)
Two portobello mushrooms
Some bread crumbs, if you have them (like enough to cover your palm)
Some sage, some garlic, some black pepper, some salt, some basil, and some oregano

First, pop the stems off of the mushrooms and hang onto them. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Using a razor or a sharp knife, make little crosshatches on the portobellos. Drizzle a little olive oil on the baking sheet, put the mushrooms cap side down, and put them in the oven. They'll hang out in the oven while you're cooking the rest of the stuff.

Put a large saucepan on the stove on medium heat. Dice the onions and throw them in the saucepan. Cook them for a few minutes, then put in the ground veal or lamb. Throw a sprinkle of salt, a sprinkle of pepper, a sprinkle of sage, garlic, basil, and oregano, and pop the cover on the saucepan. Chop up the portobello stems and put those in too. Let that hang out what the meat cooks.

Check out the mushrooms. You'll see that some water is coming out of them, so turn them over so their caps are facing up and let them keep cooking (the idea is to get them to dry out a little bit).

Let the meat cook until it's browned and the onions are soft. It won't take long, maybe 15 minutes. Turn the heat off.

Take the mushrooms out of the oven and let them cool enough so that you can touch them without burning yourself. When they're cool, chop them into little squares and throw them into the meat mixture. Stir them up and add the breadcrumbs if you're using them.

Since the oven will still be warm, put the tortillas in there to heat up, and then put them on a plate and put the meat into the tortilla.

It'll be really good. If you want asparagus like I had, I just bent the asparagus until they snapped, threw away the woody ends, cut the asparagus in half, and cooked them on medium heat in a pan with bacon grease until they had browned spots and were softened. If you don't eat pork, use butter instead. You could throw some garlic in too (fresh chopped up, dried, or minced in a jar) if you like garlic as much as I do.

And that's it!

Let's have a moment of silence and a round of Frisbee.

Walter Frederick Morrison, the inventor of the Frisbee and an all around cool guy, died today at age 90. His spirit lives on, wherever college kids gather on the quad and throw a Frisbee around.

Things to do this weekend

I'm still bummed about missing the Baltimore Tattoo Convention because of the snow, but there is another convention in town at the National Harbor. Get ready for....Katsucon 16!

Which is funny, because the National Harbor management sent out an e-mail with this:

Get ready for a big, big convention at the Gaylord National this weekend. A fan convention of Japanese pop culture, better known as Katsucon, will be coming to the National Harbor this weekend. You will see fans dressed in their favorite Japanese pop culture outfits walking around National Harbor.

Which I think is the Harbor management's nice way of saying, hey, please don't point and laugh, they're fragile.

Image credit Daniel Taraschke

I may go, just to bop around and take pictures, although it's going to be crowded. An estimated 6,000 attendees are expected (which is great for National Harbor since they've taken a beating with the snow). This reminds me of the Comicon in Baltimore, which although I have never attended, I have mysteriously ended up in Baltimore twice on the day it takes place although I don't go there very often, and both times have ended up right outside the convention center without any actual intent of being there. It's very weird, unless being followed by conventions is my superpower. I guess it's better than ending up at a dentists' convention (I'm sure you're all lovely people! I just don't like going to the dentist even though mine is very nice!). I do question the wisdom of holding Katsucon in February, because I imagine that would make it uncomfortable for people to wander around in boots, bunny ears, and a bikini.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

If the government is coming in your house while you sleep and putting microchips in your molars, rest easy...

...because the Virginia legislature is all over it.

A Slew of Pictures from this Weekend

First, some pictures of the storm:

The street outside before the plows came.

Captain's Row is allegedly somewhere under all this white stuff.

My prize icicle, Wilber. Sadly, from the way he was dripping, he's probably going to crash down pretty soon, which makes me want to put a pack of Skittles and a "stand here!" sign underneath him.

My very own ice sculpture. I call this one "Tentacles of the Frozen" and it's on display in the drainpipe in the alley until the weather warms up.

Lemon cupcake with cream cheese frosting and spice cake cupcake with cream cheese frosting: best buds forever. The nice man at Chadwick's gave these to us from Lavender Moon Cupcakery in Old Town. The cream cheese frosting was delicious and rich, with flecks of vanilla bean, and the lemon cake was brightly lemony with a delicious lemon curd filling (I am a sucker for lemon curd). We gave the spice cupcake to some nice ladies at the bar because I had eaten most of a pie earlier that day since there was nothing else to do but sit on the couch and eviscerate the apple pie I made earlier.

This weekend I plan on making cupcakes for dinner on Sunday with a SECRET INGREDIENT, and I will post the recipe and photos when they're done.

Also, if you're searching for an easy glaze for salmon (and aren't we all??) try mixing several glugs of soy sauce and a few squeezes of maple syrup in a saucepan, cook then down for two or three minutes, then pour over the fish before you broil it. You could add some chopped ginger if you like ginger.

McQueen is dead, goodbye McQueen.

Alexander McQueen committed suicide in London today.

Image credit: Associated Press

An article on HuffPo about his death. McQueen was fairly reclusive, an unlikely figure for a fashion designer-slightly chubby with buck teeth and a penchant for wearing jeans and ill-fitting button down shirts. Completely unlike, say, Karl Lagerfeld with his spray-on tan and military-esque uniforms, complete with ascot. But McQueen made some of the craziest and most amazing clothes, like the claw shoes from his last show that poured across fashion blogs (how do you walk in them??):

I desperately wanted the ones on the right, in black. Wearable sculptures. I'm sorry McQueen is gone.

Year of the Noodle

Finally, a zodiac I can really get behind.

Year of the Noodle

Photo of udon noodles with shrimp from DC Noodles, taken by Michael Temchine for The Washington Post.

A New World Disorder

Today and yesterday's newpaper actually made it to my house, which is sort of a minor miracle, and this was on the front page: The Next Generation of Mental Disorders?
Changes to the DSM are, you know, a big deal. Since I dabble in psychiatry and home surgery, I've taken the liberty of diagnosing myself with bacon affective disorder (inordinate affection for bacon, symptoms: patient feels agitated if they've gone more than eight hours with bacon, regularly puts bacon even in foods where it doesn't normally go [ex: chocolate, peanut butter, crumbled on frosting], patient hoards cold bacon fat in teacups in the fridge, patient has been known to insist that "everything tastes better with bacon!").
I'm sending my disability paperwork in today and lobbying to add this to the DSM.

In other news, I need some beets. Red or purple beets. 3 cups of them, shredded, to be exact, so I'm going to bundle up and attempt a pilgrimage to Safeway, although I think the odds of me getting there are slim and the odds that they'll have beets even slimmer. If this blog goes dormant, it's because I got a) buried in a snowdrift that is in the shade and won't melt even though all the other snow is melted and it's hot out, and you drive by and it wonder, man, will that snow bunker ever melt? or b) brained by a wad of snow falling from a roof or c) speared by an icicle similarly falling, which I imagine is sort of like that scene is the latest version of The Omen, the one with Liev Schrieber and that woman with the sort of puffy face who kind of resembles several other blonde actresses. You know, that scene where the priest is running to the church in a lightning storm and gets speared by a chunk of roof.
But with even less dignity and potentially surrounded by spilled beets.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It

Which is quite a coincidence because I also want it both ways, but both of my ways involve pie. How perfect is that book cover for snowed-in reading? Oh, and since everyone has taken a crack at clever names for this storm, I think it's gone past snoverkill and straight into snorture (bada bing, thank you, I'll be here all week because it's going to take a while to dig out my car).

I'm a sucker for short story collections, and Maile Meloy's don't disappoint. Both Ways is Meloy's second short story collection (the first was Half in Love). Most of her stories deal with infidelity, fidelity, and the slippery emotional minefield between the two. One gets the sense that her characters are always looking for something, something new, something else, but not really knowing what it is (which of course, means you can't find it). The American West is almost a character itself in several of her stories, alternately liberating and threatening, as the plots unfold on ski slopes, rivers, and the barns and factories of remote towns. In "Travis, B.," a limping cowpoke is defeated by the vastness of Montana, and a ski lodge is the backdrop for a vicious fight between brothers that has been raging for decades and finally spills over in the snow in "Spy vs. Spy." The father of a murdered girl in "The Girlfriend" blames his daughter's love of "bigness, ruralness, and westernness" for fostering a deadly independence.

"Two-Step," "O Tannenbaum," and "The Children" all focus on unfaithful partners and the dissolution of partnerships-quickly, brutally, or slowly after thousands of tiny cracks. "Liliana," about a dead and glamorous grandmother, is hilarious and sad, and like the rest of Meloy's stories, about the impossibility of hanging onto someone who is determined to leave. The idea of leaving, alternately impossible and unavoidable, freeing and damaging, runs through Meloy's stories like a ribbon.

Meloy demonstrates a remarkable restraint in her prose, which is clear, uncomplicated, and incisive. Her details never feel superfluous but unfold organically, pulling you into a nuclear power plant, South America, and college towns with equal ease. The collection itself is short and the tightly knotted stories speed you through them, which left me feeling a little breathless and wishing there was one more story at the end. Although her short stories are not as chameleon-like as T.C. Boyle's (one of the best short story writers, in my opinion) this icy little collection is perfect for waiting out the snowpacalypse.

In the nefarious tunnels of Old Town.

Desperately seeking a gallon of milk, snow melt, and a shovel. None to be found in this barren wasteland.

More snow.

Me on the frozen tundra.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Some thoughts on the Superbowl.

(Am I going to get sued for using Superbowl on this blog?)

In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say that I don't really understand football. This is not because I am trying to perpetuate the stereotype of women not getting football, but I grew up in a country where football was soccer and didn't see a football game on TV until I was in college. I don't understand the scoring system, the little lines painted all over the field, the weird moving computer generated arrow thing that follows people around, "yardage" and how one loses and/or gains it, penalties, why it matters where your toes are when you catch the ball, and how falling on top of someone is perfectly acceptable except when it isn't and you get in trouble for it. It's a lot more complicated than get the ball down the field into the net and don't kick anyone in the face or pull hair while you're at it.

But I watched the Superbowl and really did try to pay attention and the game went by pretty fast and it was nice that the underdogs won and made New Orleans happy and I had a pizza too so I was pretty happy and besides, since it's hard to leave the house because you have to struggle over waist-high snowbanks, there wasn't much else to do.

But I paid a lot of attention to the commercials because I have been told by more than one person that they are actually the best part of the Superbowl and the reason why a lot of people watch it, and the ads are very expensive and there is a lot of talk after the Superbowl about the ads. Besides, this year there was a nice frisson of controversy about the Tim Tebow ad. You know, this ad:

Which, first of all, I could not even tell what the ad was supposed to be about, and secondly, I don't think an ad for keeping your baby (ooh ooh, I'm gonna keep mah baby) should include you sacking a very frail-looking older woman. I kept expecting to hear her yell that she had broken her hip. Of course, if that had been my mom and older brother, my mom would have sidestepped him as he came flying by, then delivered her trademark sharp slap to the back of the head, which she deploys whenever we aren't listening. That would have been a more effective commercial.

In other ads, one for flo TV:

And one for the Dodge Charger:

So I'm feeling a little bit left out by these commercials. Granted, I understand that I am really, really far from the target demographic of these commercials (hello, futbol, anyone?). But I don't care if Matt shaves and/or cleans the sink, I do not watch vampire TV shows, I do not take him shopping with me, I do not care what type of car he drives, I do not mind if he eats fruit for breakfast or not (I had leftover pizza but there was onion on it which practically is an apple, so that counts, and yesterday I had apple pie for breakfast which similarly is fruit, ergo, healthy), and scented candles give me hives.

Also I would like to take Pam Tebow out for a sandwich because she is looking sort of wan.

Sir Shackleton gets even cooler...

Two cases of Mackinlay's Rare Old Scotch were found buried underneath Ernest Shackleton's base camp.

Even neater, the distillery that made the whiskey is hoping to recreate it, as the original recipe was lost.

More Book Reviews

I'm still plowing through Guenter Grass' The Tin Drum, which I'm enjoying immensely, so that review will have to wait. First up:

J.D. Salinger's been on my mind lately since his recent death and Lowboy reminds me very strongly of The Catcher in the Rye: the flight, the trains, the city, the alienated teenager. But Wray's William Heller isn't a refugee from Pencey Prep, he's an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic on the run from an institution. Will believes that if he doesn't have sex, soon, the world will end (which, when you think about it, perhaps isn't all that different from non-paranoid schizophrenic teenagers). Will crosses New York City in pursuit of his childhood crush, Emily, while his mother Yda "Violet" Heller and a policy officer, Ali Lateef, try to find him before he hurts himself or someone else. Meanwhile, the voices in Will's head are getting louder and more insistent.

Wray does an excellent job capturing the cacophony and occasional piercing rays of clarity of Will's schizophrenic mind, and the novel ratchets up the tension when Will tracks Emily down, as the reader can't be sure that he won't injure her, which is what got him institutionalized in the first place. Emily's eagerness to abscond with Will and her growing horror when she realizes that he is truly dangerous is arresting.
Be warned, though, reading this book through in one sitting may leave you with an intense sense of vertigo. Will's narrative slides from fairly coherent to extremely shattered as the book progresses and his mind starts to fall apart.

Chris Cleave's Little Bee deals with a different kind of insanity, the kind of insanity that takes over a country until it becomes part of the fabric of the country itself. Little Bee tries to unravel that fabric, with gut-wrenching results. It's not surprising that Cleave's novel is excellent. His first work, Incendiary, won several awards and established him as a talent to watch, and Little Bee doesn't disappoint.

The novel opens with the titular character being released from the Black Hill Immigration Centre outside of London with a small group of young women from different countries. Little Bee becomes their spokeswoman by virtue of her ability to speak English, an ability that Little Bee understands holds the key to acceptance. Even the taxi the girls try to summon to the immigration center won't come pick them up until Little Bee speaks to the dispatcher.
Little Bee's rumination of the power of language are heartbreaking. I volunteer as an English as a Second Language tutor for adult learners, and I am constantly amazed at what my students have accomplished in the face of odds that would make most people crumble.
Little Bee travels to Surrey, to the home of Andrew and Sarah O'Rourke, a bourgeois English couple who, after a horrific experience on a Nigerian beach while on holiday, have retreated to their upper-class cocoon and set about trying to forget what they've witnessed. But the past, in the form of Little Bee, won't let them escape.

Little Bee is an extremely powerful novel, touching on themes of colonialism, globalization, and the atrocities visited upon countries like Nigeria with the collusion of transnational corporations. But Little Bee distills the vastness of these themes into one pivotal scene on a Nigerian beach and shows the corrosion caused by cowardice and the impossibility of forgetting. Although it may be easy to ignore disaster on a larger scale when it's more removed, when it becomes personal, the results of refusing to become involved can eventually prove fatal. There is and is not a happy ending for Little Bee and Sarah, but the novel ends with a heartbreaking sense of weightlessness on another Nigerian beach.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Food Writers' Mixer, Irony, and Apple Pie

Last night's food writers' mixer and book reading was...interesting. And ironic. But more on that later. The Washington Post's Joe Yonan and Jane Black read their contributions ("Deep in the Heart of Texas, We Bread Steak" and "Go Slow, Foodies, It's the Way to Win," respectively) and Tim Carman of Baltimore City Paper read his "How Not to Hire a Chef."

Carman's piece was interesting, not the least because a large part of it was an interview with Michael Babin, one of the four co-owners of The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, local restaurateur powerhouses behind Tallulah, EatBar, Rustico, Buzz, Evening Star, and Churchkey. I worked for NRG at Buzz for about six months, and Babin was a delight to work for-extremely polite and considerate of all of his employees. We ended up at Churchkey after the reading and I had a tasty Allagash White and some charcuterie and pate. Incidentally being the one person who really likes liver means I had most of the pate to myself, which was great, although no one would try to fried sweetbreads with me and I knew I couldn't eat them all myself. Next time!

As for chicken-fried steak, well, I lived in Texas for a while and have only had a chicken fried steak once, and that was in Arlington. (It was gross.) Although anyone who knows me knows that a breaded steak would seem like something I'd be in to, the weird language barrier between my accented English and Texas-ese meant that I thought chicken fried steak was somehow, I don't know, fried in chicken as opposed to being fried like chicken. I had images of a steak with chicken somehow adhered to it. I regret never trying chicken fried steak in Texas and wish someone had pointed out that it is in fact akin to schnitzel, which is something I understood.

So! I plan to try a chicken fried steak at the next opportunity. Maybe I'll make one.

Jane Black's piece on sustainability and food policy was delightfully ironic when contrasted with the spread of cupcakes, cakes, cookies, and a particularly awful bright pink punch-type concoction thoughtfully provided by Giant. The cakes weren't particularly good (gritty overly sweet buttercream, a chocolate cake still frozen in the middle) but I don't blame the Post because we all know they're broke.

Food trends of the future (according to the speakers): small plates, niche markets for food writing and recipe books, underground supper clubs, and food blogs. Lots of food blogs.

Is this a food blog? No. But a lot of what I do revolves around food.

Since we here on the East Coast are hunkering down for Snowpacalypse (or Snowmageddon, whichever you prefer) I thought I'd put together something delicious and filling to eat before I had to resort to devouring other people in the barren wasteland that I am told is soon to materialize. So, apple pie!

Trying out a new crust recipe, courtesy of Cook's Illustrated. Yes, that is vodka. Normally I would put a link to the recipe up, but Cook's puts a lot of time and money into testing their recipes, and if you only get one cooking magazine, make it Cook's. Or register for their website. I bought their most recent baking cookbook and have been plowing through the recipes, all with great success.

Cooking down the apples.

A raw pie looks out at the falling snow and contemplates its short, delicious life.

The final product.

It's still cooling so I haven't had a chance to cut it yet, but I'll report back after I eat about half of it. Probably in one sitting.

Since we're apparently not going to be able to go anywhere this weekend, I've laid in a stock of books: John Wray's Lowboy, T.C. Boyle's The Women, and Chris Cleave's Little Bee. Also on the horizon: curried lamb, fajitas, and probably some Discovery Channel.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

An amazing article in today's Washington Post

Just read this article in The Washington Post about a study of brain activity in patients in a vegetative state. It's really amazing. Using brain scans, scientists were able to communicate with patients who had been declared completely unresponsive, and even had one patient answer questions by having him think of certain activities that cause certain parts of the brain to light up.
Amazing. And sad. And should make us rethink the idea of being declared "unresponsive."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Things to do this weekend

Tattoo convention in Baltimore:

More snow, and an attempt at Momofuku buns

The view from the window last night (the picture doesn't capture the pearliness of the light).

Our attempt at Momofuku pork buns (the pork):

The buns:

Final product (with a few bites taken out):

A spicy soup with pork to go with the buns:

Final verdict? The pork was delicious, fatty, and juicy, but VERY salty. Next time we'll rinse it before putting it into the buns. The buns themselves were great. I could probably have eaten most of the batch on my own. Our jury-rigged steamer worked out pretty well too! This could be the start of a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's writing contains wave after wave of narrative description that gradually pulls at you until it's got its tentacles deep into your brain (and heart) and then rips. A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's first novel after a long hiatus, is no exception.

Sweet Midwesterner Tassie, a liberal arts college student with amusingly daft and hippie-ish farmer parents (dad grows potatoes prized by expensive restaurants, mom mostly farms neurosis in mirror-lined flower beds) is drifting through her college days without much aim or direction. She searches for a job as a nanny and accepts one with Sarah Brink, a tightly wound local restauranteur with a distant and peevish husband. Sarah is in the process of adopting a baby and ends up with Mary, whom she renames Emmie, a sweet biracial toddler. Tassie and Emmie quickly bond, with Tassie spending more time with Emmie than Sarah or her husband, Edward.

As character studies, Tassie, Edward, and Sarah are richly, terrifyingly alive. Tassie's butter-bland exterior hides a watchful and wondering character, and Sarah is more than a self-righteous yuppie-she's hiding a deep, awful grief and has built a new life on the thinnest thread of deception. Even Edward, originally painted as a narcissistic and self-absorbed partner, hides a sense of quiet, strangling desperation.

Moore's one misstep is in Tassie's burgeoning relationship with a classmate, the purportedly Brazilian Reynaldo. Like all of her characters, Reynaldo is simultaneously more and less than he seems, but his appearance and then abrupt disappearance does little for the plot, aside from reminding the reader how tenuous a grip love holds when faced with dishonesty.

The book moves from Tassie's small hometown and farm, where her brother is marking time until graduation and his entry into the military, and her college town, where she's settled into a routine of class, Emmie, and Reynaldo, until Sarah's revelation uproots her (and Emmie). Tassie returns home only to face the loss of her sibling in Afghanistan and the subsequent unraveling of her parents' life.

A Gate at the Stairs examines racism and the political and social upheaveal after 9/11 through Tassie's provincial but open mindset. Her lack of pretensions is especially refreshing juxtaposed against Sarah and her cohorts artificial and self-conscious 'openmindedness' (Sarah's support group for adoptive parents of multiracial children is chilling in its callous treatment of race relations), and after the death of her brother, Tassie's grief has the hysterical depth of the real. The actions of the adoption agencies Sarah consults during her search for a child are equally disturbing in their determination to do the 'right thing' as they consider it for the children they are placing.

Moore's novel was worth the wait. The disarming opening chapters leave you unprepared for the breathless and terrible twist the novel takes midway, and her characters' grasping for atonement and connection is, like all of her writing, painfully authentic.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book review-Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer

The first effort from author Jonathan L. Howard, Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer is a wittily written and entertaining first effort, even if its charms are mostly on the surface. The titular character, Johannes Cabal, is in hock to the devil after selling his soul to learn the secrets of necromancy. Unfortunately for Cabal, he realizes that his lack of a soul is keeping him from completing his experiments and journeys to Hell to get it back from the Big Daddy himself. Cabal wagers that he can get 100 souls for Satan in a year, and Satan throws in a defunct carnival for Cabal to use to attract those who may be persuaded to accept eternal damnation in exchange for riches or looks (or a goldfish or candyfloss). With the help of his vampiric brother Horst and a team of inhuman carneys and sideshow freaks, Cabal's traveling circus takes to the railways as Cabal tempts, tricks, and traps visitors into giving up their souls.

Johannes Cabal has an irreverent, dry humor reminiscient of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens and scenes with the demonic carneys, escapees from a lunatic asylum, and bewildered townsfolk are snappy and amusing. The book suffers from a disjointed plot and the characters are all surface shine (perhaps apropos for a book about a carnival). Instead of building the tension through Cabal's year-long search for souls, the narrative moves abruptly from the early days of the carnival to the last fateful night before Cabal's performance review with Satan, and the book's ending is particularly weak. Cabal himself is not particularly engaging: not evil enough to be entrancing and not likeable enough to make the reader root for him. His undead brother, Horst, is a more interesting character but doesn't get the chance to do more than appear and caution Cabal about his underhanded dealings before blurring into the night, and Cabal's abrupt about-face is shallow and unfounded.
Still, certain scenes in the book shine, especially Cabal's two trips to Hell. Cabal's encounter with Hell's gatekeeper, a bureaucratic minion given unlimited authority and an endless stack of forms, is particularly hilarious and wince-inducing. Satan and his underlings are cleverly sketched, which makes the thinness of the rest of the book's narrative all that much more disappointing, but hopefully Howard will publish a meatier book in the future.