Monday, January 31, 2011

The Weekend Report: Black Swan and Ghana Café

Happy Monday! I know it's a little random, but I had two completely unrelated blogworthy events this weekend.

On Saturday afternoon I finally saw Black Swan. My opinion? Love. 

Some people said Black Swan was disgusting, I thought it was unique and edgy and artistic. Everyone warned me about how disturbing this movie was, so I was mentally prepared for the worst, which made the actuality not so bad. I think that people expect ballet movies to all be silly and pretty like Center Stage, but Black Swan is more of a psychological thriller set in a ballet. Natalie Portman was amazing, and there are scenes I can’t get out of my mind (the final black swan dance where she grows wings was breathtaking and the Swan Lake music is so dramatic!).

I don’t want to give too much away, but there is so much more to this movie than a ballet-dancer-gone-nuts. Everything in the movie has meaning, and it all relates back to the Swan Lake story. (Click here to watch the trailer.)

Then on Sunday night 6x6 and I met a friend for dinner at Ghana Café. Again, love. I lost track of how many times 6x6 said “This is really delicious.” At first we weren’t sure about the menu – it offers a selection of stews/curries with your choice of unrecognizable carbohydrate:
  • BANKU: Fermented and cooked corn made into balls
  • FUFU: prepared from plantain or yam & cassava
  • JOLLOF RICE: Ghanaian-style rice cooked in savory seasons
  • KELEWELE: Ghanaian-spiced diced fried soft plantain
  • KENKEY: “Komi” fermented and cooked corn made into balls, (a little harder than "Banku")
  • OMO TUO: Mashed rice balls
  • RED RED: Fried plantain and beans stew
  • WAKYE: Rice and beans
  • YAM “AMPESIE”: Boiled yam 

I have experience with a few African staples: Nigerien tuo made out of millet (ick), Congolese sorghum (yum), and of course Ethiopian injera (yummm!).

Luckily our friend is Ghanaian and could help us decipher our options. (I wish I'd taken pictures, Google Images is not delivering in the Ghanaian food search!)

6x6 went with Plantain Fufu with Spinach and Egusi “soup.” The fufu came in a slightly sticky ball – imagine a ball of really starchy mashed potato (but with a banana-ish plantain flavor). And the spinach and egusi wasn’t soup-y at all. Egusi is ground pumpkin seeds, so the dish was julienned spinach in a salty pumpkin-y sauce. Then there was a side of absolutely fabulous rich tomato sauce.

I got Banku with Chicken Curry. The chicken is cooked in that same tomato sauce, and was soooo flavorful and rich and delicious! I liked my banku more than the fufu – it also came in a ball - imagine a starchier and more flavorful polenta. Delish!

Our Ghanian friend got the Wakye (rice and beans) with Beef Stew – he said it was pretty good and very authentic.

“Shito” is the condiment they give you on the side. It’s a mixture of dried ground shrimp and chilies. It’s spicy and salty and very classic Ghanaian.

Overall the meal was a total win – we’ll definitely return to the Ghana Café. And next time I'll take pictures, because these ones I found do not do it justice! 

(And get excited…there are plans for an actual Ghana trip in the works!). 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Best of the Week #8

Oh dear. So far this has been a morning of mild incompetence, scheduling shenanigans, and a generally snowed out brain (on my part). 

But let’s focus on the positives – LLC’s birthday was on Wednesday! Everyone say HAPPY BIRTHDAY NATALIE! (More on the awesomeness I made for her later…get excited.)

And we had a late start at work yesterday due to snow. God bless DC’s incompetence at snow-removal! The only downside is that I was looking forward to a pool workout...and it was closed. Wednesday and Thursday! BAH! Exercise videos in my living room had to satisfy me on Wednesday night, but by Thursday I was desperate enough to resort to sneaking into a friend's gym to use the elliptical. 

On the way to work this morning I listened to this song four times in a row. LOVE Zac Brown Band!

Anywho, my most popular post this week was Wedding Food (again!). 

This is pretty cool – the Earth might get a “second sun” for a few weeks later this year when a star explodes. Interesting…

I thought this chopstick sculpture was pretty cool – 100 trees go to making chopsticks in China every day. This sculpture signifies the waste and was made of 3000 disposable chopsticks.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have a keyboard like this one? Though I’d be way too tempted to eat the keys.

This is the most adorable pet ever. I want one. But only when it’s a baby (they’re not so cute when they get older!). Read the article here

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Literary Bite: The Elephanta Suite

I've come to realize that a good author can make you love their characters, but a great author can make you despise them. It takes some serious literary magic to make readers hate someone but still want to read the book, and that's why Paul Theroux is (in my humble opinion) a great author. I loved his non-fiction Dark Star Safari, and The Elephanta Suite is an equally great book in its own bizarre way.

Let me explain. The cover tell us it is, "Thought-provoking...beautifully paced, by turns moving, sexy, and disturbing." That sounds ridiculous, but as I read the book I came to think Huh, yeah, that's actually exactly what this book is.

The Elephanta Suite is not one narrative, it is three consecutive stories that share one common plot point and a few common themes. The most obvious commonality is that at some point the main characters in each of the stories stay in the Elephanta Suite, a fancy hotel room in Mumbai.

The first story is about an older couple staying at an ashram in the Himalayan foothills. The second story is about a businessman who facilitates outsourcing relationships between America and India. The third story is about a recent college graduate who travels to Bangalore alone and tries to make her way while finding herself.

Despite the fact that the stories are all distinct, the book feels very cohesive because there are common themes throughout. All of the stories deal with Americans traveling to India. These characters are trying to lose themselves in the most populous country in the world, but eventually are dismayed to find that in India, someone is always watching. The stories are very sexual - infidelity, prostitution, and rape are all addressed and each story's turning point is somehow related to sexual transformation. 

I found that the men in The Elephanta Suite are particularly detestable. I wondered if Theroux thinks that little of his own gender, but then I realized that maybe he's just that good of a writer. The semi-disturbing encounters in this book definitely serve to drive his points home.

And he approaches India in a very unique way. From TIME: "Theroux is the rare writer to see that the fascination, the power of India today, lies in the commute between the two [India and America]. His characters begin in manicured, air-conditioned places, but it is the clammy grasp of desire, the smells and the slippery deals of the back alleyways, that really bring them out. The human bestiary has rarely found a more spirited observer."

Definitely read this book. I know I'm saying it's disturbing, but more for the ideas than anything explicit (if this were a movie it'd be PG-13). That's the beauty of it - Theroux's writing is subtle enough to invoke powerful emotions almost without the reader realizing it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Running for Happiness

A friend recently asked me why I want to run every day. And to my surprise, I didn’t really know what to say. I just, I mean, I like to run, it’s what I do. And I like doing it every day….I stuttered. Nonsensical as my response was, I think runners know how I feel (or anyone who has a hobby/obsession). I need to run every day because running every day makes me happy. 

To make this make sense, let’s start with the opposite – what happens when I don’t run?

Well, let me tell you, it’s not pretty. When I don’t run the pressure and the crankiness and the unhappy builds. Bad days are exponentially worse - a stressful day at work becomes an gah-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life??? anxiety-fest. And little things that shouldn't bother me make me upset - I trip walking home and it becomes I can't even walk! Worst. Day. Ever. It’s very sneaky, but it slowly creeps up on me until I’m cranky 95% of the time, I don’t want to interact with other people (or myself for that matter) and I cry over everything.

As I boarded the Metro to go to practice last night, this days-without-running cranky-pants-wearing person was me to the max. I was a little concerned - I almost turned back. Oh no, I thought, how am I going to go out to dinner with my teammates after the run? I don’t know if I can be around people right now…

But then, magic happened. As my teammates began their track workout, I went off for a 30 minute run on my own (I’m trying to come back slowly - more on my new plan later). The run was unremarkable, but the change in my mood was intense. I started running and gradually all the stress and misery melted away until by the end I had a distant memory of my recent crankiness but it was totally gone. Just 30 minutes and I’m a real person again. 

It's like a pressure gauge - I need to run to let off some steam. And if I run every day, that pressure doesn't build up nearly as much.

So it’s really not about the immediate post-run “runner’s high.” It’s about a lifestyle of runner’s happy.

Why do you like to run every day?

More posts on running happy:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cake of the Week: Big Chocolate Chip Cookies Made Small

This might sound blasphemous, but I prefer my cookies small. I don’t need to eat a chocolate chip discus the size of my face - cookies are supposed to be snackable! (Or stackable?)

They’re supposed to be ok-to-eat-two-(or maybe even three)-sized. They’re supposed to satisfy that cookie craving without filling me up for the day. They’re supposed to be meh-sure-I’ll-have-one-with-my-breakfast-yogurt, and also maybe another right before bed-sized.

So when I see a recipe for giant cookies I think yum! But when I get in the kitchen they inevitably end up on the itsy-bitsy side. This recipe caught my eye because it’s supposed to be like Levain’s cookies in NYC. Unfortunately, they’re not really at all. But fortunately, they are delicious!

Big Chocolate Chip Cookies Made Small Eat Run Read Style (adapted from My Baking Addiction)

2 sticks cold and cubed unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon table or fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 1/2 cups good quality semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
add in 1 cup of walnuts if you fancy them

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle, cream together butter and sugars until well blended and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mix in vanilla and beat until well incorporated.
2. Add flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and mix until just combined. Gently fold in chocolate chips/chunks and nuts.
3. Transfer dough to clean work surface and gently mix dough by hand to ensure even distribution of ingredients.
4. Roll cookie dough into 2-tablespoon sized balls and place at least 2 inches apart on a baking sheet.
4. Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on how gooey you like your cookies.
5. Let cool on rack and store what you don’t immediately eat in an airtight container.


Monday, January 24, 2011

The Weekend Report: Ballet and the Natural History Museum

Saturday afternoon I saw American Ballet's The Bright Stream at the Kennedy Center. It was soooo good! I do love ballet, but this performance would be good for anyone who enjoys any kind of dance.

The music was fantastic, so lively and up-beat. The plot is a bit Shakespeare-ish, complete with cross-dressing and mistaken identities. They were the happiest Soviet-era Russians I think I've ever seen. (The ballet was banned in Russia because it was suspected to be poking fun at farm workers, rather than giving them the respect they deserved.) The Bright Stream is tagged as a “comic ballet” and it really was laugh-out-loud funny! Read more about it here

On Sunday I took my refugees to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Nothing says fun “American” experience like looking at stuffed dead animals, right? But seriously, they loved it. They were amazed by the ocean exhibit – looking at the giant squid, they pointed in awe, It is real????
Yes, I confirmed. In the ocean. Very deep water.
The family has never seen the ocean.

Next we hit up the Mammal Hall. They recognized all the standards: lion, giraffe, zebra, and were really excited to see an antelope-ish thing with a zebra-striped butt.
Okapi! Okapi! Swahili is Okapi, what is it in English please?
I looked at the placard. Um, it’s an Okapi. Same.
Wow! Swahili, English, same? Wooowwww.

Clearly they’ve seen this animal before, despite the fact that the placard also informed me that they are extremely rare and officially “threatened.” So that’s kinda cool.

Things got really confusing as we made our way through the dinosaur fossils. First I explained, No, they’re not dragons. They’re dinosaurs. Then Leyla (the mom) saw the huge diplodocus and then turned to me, a look of wide-eyed concerned confusion on her face. She pointed, It’s big! In USA?

And then it occurred to me – dinosaurs were almost definitely not a part of the curriculum in the Tanzanian refugee camp. They have no idea what they’re looking at. So I launched into my best beginning-English explanation. They lived a very long time ago. One hundred forty million years (as I pointed to the writing on the display), all gone now. All dead. Scientists dig up the bones and put them together, so we know they lived. But not any more.

Oh dear. I hope they learned something.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Best of the Week #7

Apparently I was busy this week…because it’s Friday and I had to scramble to pull together a Best of the Week post!

The most popular on Eat Run Read (second week in a row!) was Wedding Food. People LOVE the vegan chocolate cupcakes.

Catalog Living, as always, is hilarious. If you’re not familiar, a fictional couple (Gary and Elaine) live in a catalog and write about it daily. Here are a couple examples from this week:

Gary’s years of experience told him that his son could never expect to conquer more than four states with a password as flimsy as “No Girls.”

Gary only bought it to justify wearing aviator goggles when he pays the bills.

You’ve heard of Charter Schools…how about a Charter City? Honduras is considering implementing this idea “so crazy it might work” - Hondurans in search of a better life could choose the new Charter City, where they would find jobs created by new export industries, with no crime, first-class education and health care, clear property rights, and a fair courts system, instead of the US “where they suffer all sorts of situations at odds with human dignity,” said the President.

If you're wondering what the big deal is about Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier returning to Haiti this week, read this article about the top 5 reasons he's infamous.

I'm in a cookie monster mood an would pretty much kill for one (or two!) of these right now!

According to the Russian Orthodox Church – “Women, said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, can't be trusted to clothe themselves properly.” (Read the article here.)

This is one for 6x6 (who is oddly obsessed with maps and last names) - National Geographic created a map of the most popular surnames in the US. Click here to read more.

On the more personal side, I ran a whopping 19 miles this week (hey, I gotta start somewhere)!

Hope you have a happy Friday and a great weekend!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Literary Bite: Women of the Silk

Since finishing Bleak House right after Christmas I have been devouring books. My mama sent me back to DC with a stack of reading. When I glanced at that stack a couple days ago I had to do a double-take. Huh? That’s weird. I thought mama gave me a lot of books… I wondered if I had somehow forgotten? Oh wait, I looked at my bedside table where books I’ve finished tend to pile up, there they are. Hmm, I guess I read them all!

Maybe I’m just looking for some good winter escapism. I’ve been to New Orleans, Syria, China, India, Ireland and Brooklyn already and it’s only January 20! That’s 1,183 pages…so I’m averaging almost 60 pages a day!

Anywho, this week’s Literary Bite is about Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama. This was her first novel. Overall, it was interesting, amusing, but ultimately forgettable. 

An initial googling of book reviews gives me this:

If Charles Dickens had lived in early 20th-century China, he would have been Gail Tsukiyama and would have enjoyed the well-deserved praise with which Gail Tsukiyama's first novel Women of the Silk was lauded. A quiet and moving coming-of-age novel about a young Chinese woman sold into the silk trade by her poor parents, Women of the Silk is so full of intensely drawn characters and unpredictable acts that it is very difficult to put down.

What’s the deal with comparing all authors to Charles Dickens??? (Remember the NY Times review of Zeitoun?) Again, I have to disagree. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but the story felt a little contrived, a little too Westernized. The suppressed Chinese women felt like stereotypes of real people – the Disney equivalent of a silk worker struggling in rural China.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh - I definitely enjoyed it. The writing flowed seamlessly, and the time period was interesting (the novel takes place as the Japanese are invading China pre-WWII). And there are some taboo issues addressed – lesbianism anyone? Tsukiyama delicately touched upon the relationship between Pei and Lin, and that was it – so that definitely threw me for a bit of a loop.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Running with Podcasts

I got a new ipod for Christmas! WoooHOOOOOO! It's tiny! It's awesome! I love it! Because though I love a certain amount of time alone with my thoughts, I can’t handle one-on-one Mollie time all the time.  (The rants! The inner monologues! The panic attacks! Sometimes I’m just too much…)
I prefer to run with people, but if no one’s willing or able I’ll substitute some electronic distraction. There are so many great workout songs out there. Good music, bad music, fun music and ridiculous music – but don’t worry, I won’t subject you to my amazing taste right now (that’s for another post).

Instead let me tell you about my favorite thing to listen to: podcasts. They sound so insider, but once you get them you’ll never go back!

They work kind of like a blog – some podcasts are updated daily, some weekly. Like Google Reader (or any RSS feed), new episodes are automatically updated in your itunes. And then when you plug your ipod into your computer, you can sync your library and get the new episodes onto your ipod. (If this is too obvious, sorry. Just take this moment to feel technologically superior. I recently introduced my mama to the glory of podcasts and she needs all computer knowledge in the super-simplified version.)

Back to running. Why podcasts instead of music? Because they’re completely distracting (in a good way). I would never listen to anything during a workout, but on a mileage run I need someone or something to keep me company. When I’m listening to a podcast I’m totally engrossed in the story I’m listening to, and running becomes an automatic and almost secondary activity.

WARNING: Don’t listen to anything too loud. Especially if you’re running in sketchy or traffic-heavy areas it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Safety first!
Most podcasts are free, and I subscribe to few. My favorites are both NPR. I love The Moth. It’s dedicated to the art of story telling: basically, once a week you get a 5-20 minute story about anything told by writers, comedians, or professional story tellers, and sometimes audience members. They are fantastic. You must subscribe.

My other favorite is NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Because I am a liberal news-loving nerd. This show is hilarious! Think of a cross between the Daily Show and a quiz gameshow with different celebrity guests every week. And it’s 50 minutes long – about the amount of time it takes me to run 5 miles and cool down. Perfect. I’m not even kidding, this podcast makes me laugh out loud while running. Subscribe here.

Do you listen to podcasts? Any recommendations for me?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cake of the Week: Citrus Tart

Winter can be dreary. Gray skies, freezing rain, icy winds and swirls of snow. I wear full length dark coats on top of sweaters, knee socks under boots, tights under jeans. I can’t resist sleeping in late, curled under blankets, dreading the outside.

And winter food can be just as heavy and dark. Gone are the days of a light summer salad – instead we have chilis and stews, big bowls and steaming pasta. But there is a bright light in this mid-January darkness. It’s sweet and juicy, brilliant and sunny, and it’s only in season in the winter! This is Mother Nature’s consolation prize in a food-scape of kale, parsnips, and all those canned/frozen/preserved relics of summer and fall.

Ta-DA! I give you the glorious grapefruit! In a Citrus Tart! It’s radiantly shiny, bringing light and joy to an otherwise gray January.

Grapefruit, named for how it grows in bunches, is a notoriously healthy breakfast, scooped out of its peel with a serrated spoon. But there is so much more to this tangy fruit than just a non-fat snack! Try it on a tart? Peeled and sectioned on top of buttery crust and rich citrus curd (or custard – call it what you will – the difference is in the quantity of citrus juice - curd has more).

I combined my grapefruit with oranges, to mellow it out a bit and add some extra color, but pure grapefruit would be fine too.

This recipe was inspired by Southern Living. I made Sprinkle Bakes’ tart crust, and then followed the Southern Living recipe for the rest of it. It was actually very easy – just a little time-consuming. Keep in mind that you have to make the dough, then chill it. Then cook the crust and cool it. Also, the Buttery Citrus Curd is supposed to chill for 8 hours! But mine only did for about 2 hours, and it turned out fine.

PhotoMan came over to hang out...and I may have made him go home to retrieve his camera (what can I say? This was too good a food-photography opportunity to pass up!). Plus a non-chocolate citrus dessert is exactly his sort of thing. This tart makes a great dessert, afternoon, snack, and could even be served at brunch!

Citrus Tart

Tart shell:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp water
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Liberally butter a 11" tart or quiche pan and set aside.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, sugar and salt.  Pulse to combine.  Add butter pieces and pulse until fine crumbs form.  Add yolk, vanilla and water.  Pulse in quick bursts until dough forms a ball.  Press dough into buttered pan (flour hands if your dough is sticky). Chill shell for 40 minutes.
After chilling, prick the tart shell with a fork and bake for 20 minutes.  Let shell cool completely before filling.

Buttery Orange Curd (Filling) - (Looks kinda gross, tastes fantastic!)
Total: 8 hours, 15 minutes
Yield: Makes about 2 cups
2/3  cup  sugar
2 1/2  tablespoons  cornstarch
1 1/3  cups  orange juice (I used pulp-free)
1  large egg, lightly beaten
3  tablespoons  butter
2  teaspoons  orange zest
Pinch of salt
1. Combine sugar and cornstarch in a 3-qt. saucepan; gradually whisk in orange juice. Whisk in egg. Bring to a boil; boil, whisking constantly, 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Remove from heat; whisk in butter, zest, and salt. Place heavy-duty plastic wrap directly on curd (to prevent a film from forming), and chill 8 hours. Store leftovers in refrigerator up to 3 days.

Tart Assembly
Peel and section about 5-9 assorted citrus fruits (See below for how to section citrus - it's harder than it looks on TV!). The amount of fruit depends on their size - I used 3 large grapefruit, and 4 oranges.

Spread Buttery Orange Curd over completely cooled crust. 
Top with citrus sections.

How to Section Citrus:
1. Cut off top and bottom.

2. Cut off peels on the sides so that fruit is exposed.

3. Carefully cut along the skin between sections to get the fruit out in sections without any white stuff attached.