Sunday, August 29, 2010

For the love of cooking

I have to thank my mother for my love of cooking.  As a child I would often hang around the kitchen, watching her prepare fresh beans from the garden, freshly shelled peas, carrots, white rice, oven-broiled potatoes and all kinds of tasty meat dishes such as pork chops dredged in flour and then dipped in an egg wash, covered with crumbs and sauteed in olive oil.  Delicious.  As were the really special event meals such as whole roasted chicken or leg of lamb.  Rarely would a week go by without a beet or carrot salad, tomato or green pea soup, and everybody's favorite - young gem squash halved and filled with a mix of peas and carrots.  I didn't know or appreciate it then, but it was all organic, wholesome and local.  Not to mention lovingly prepared and presented.  It is no wonder that all four of us children grew up to be healthy adults.  Thanks mom.

In my college years I started to expand my culinary horizons a little bit.  At the local library I would page through some recipe books, find something 'easy' (not too many ingredients, brief instructions) and try it later on my more than willing room mates who would quite happily consume even my biggest flops, such as fish fillets coated in mustard.  Too much mustard!

As a young single guy in an apartment in northern Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington D.C., I grew a little more creative and then confident, working my way from Chicken Maryland (long since gone from the culinary scene), to quiche (it was the 70's!) and then to dozens of recipes in what was one of my favorite cookbooks - Pierre Franey's 'The 60-minute Gourmet'.  I still think one of the best desserts ever (not for vegans, sorry) is his Creme Anglaise, with fresh raspberries. 

It was a short step from there to much more ambitious fare including many dishes from the late James Beard's books.  How can I ever forget my first authentic Cassoulet - it was a revelation on many levels. How can plain old white beans taste this good?   A few more years and I was ready and able for any challenge.  Puff pastry - from scratch?  Mais oui.  Follow the instructions in  Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking to the letter and believe me, the results are astonishing. For my birthday one year the kids gave me a copy of Paula Wolfert's 'The Cooking of South-western France'.  I doted on that book, discovering depth of flavor I never knew existed.  Having mastered the art of cutting up a  fresh duck (courtesy of James Beard), I was more than ready for the superb duck recipes in Ms. Wolfert's book.  I am still hankering for those delicious slices of grilled duck breast with garlic, rock salt and black pepper.  So is Kathleen, I know. The book had an entire chapter devoted to various versions of Cassoulet. I was in cooking heaven.

Of course nowadays, having been vegan for about two and a half years, my cooking has made a veritable 360.  Gone are the lamb chops, the beef burgers, meat loaf and chicken breasts.  Now it is all about whole grains, tofu, beans, brown rice, lentils, quinoa and vegetables. It wasn't easy at first.  How do you say seitan?  What exactly is TVP?  Does anybody even sell nutritional yeast in Houston?  But I learned quickly (Veganomicon!) and I'm churning out a respectable range of plant-based dishes nowadays.  Today it was a pretty tasty pot of beans Bourguinon from 1000 Vegan Recipes.  Very simple, just some red kidney beans, a few carrots, a can of crushed tomatoes, three shallots, white mushrooms, a vegan beurre manie and a 'better than bouillon' broth from a jar.  And of course the star of the dish - a bottle of Helderberg Pinotage which proved to be undrinkable (despite being a Specs recommended buy!).  Saute the shallots, carrots and a little garlic, add some thyme, the tomatoes, mushrooms, some of the wine, saute some more, add more wine, the beans of course, a little more fresh thyme, thicken with the vegan beurre manie and voila - Beans Bourguinon.

James Beard would have approved.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer doldrums

Both my blogging and running are mired in the summer doldrums.  Possible also partly because I have been very busy at work which is a good thing in this economy!  I'm managing to eke out 3 or 4 miles every second day (at best);  this pesky left knee is just not getting back to 100%.  Maybe I will have to live with 80% for a few weeks more - it took many weeks to run it into a problem, it will probably take as many to get out of it.

Kathleen, on the other hand, is doing a sterling job preparing for the Mohawk-Hudson Marathon on 10 Oct.  She managed her first (ever!) 50 mile last week, capped off with a 19 miler on Saturday morning and then another 10 miles on Sunday.  I tagged along for 4 of the 10 on Sunday at Terry Hershey Park.  On Saturday morning I was out there too with some Gatorade, cold towels, freshly cut orange slices, a few Fig Newtons and some pretzels.  It felt good to be on the giving as opposed to be on the receiving end, for once.  I'm not a big 'sagger' as I am usually running myself.  So Kathleen, don't get too used to the idea of yours truly hanging out there with a bucket full of cold water... :-)  Enjoy it while it lasts.

Last weekend the townhouse smelled like a barbecue joint as I tried three different vegan barbecue recipes, from the internet (where else) and from 1000 Vegan Recipes.  The Barbecue tempeh sandwiches turned out ok - more like a BBQ sloppy joe than anything else, but certainly ok.  Another version of BBQ Tempeh (from 1000 Vegan Recipes) was likewise pretty tasty - even though I used a different barbecue sauce from Veganomicon.  And then finally I think we hit the jackpot with Eddie G's BBQ 'Beef' Sandwiches.  Very spicy just like the real (Texas) thing!  Now if only I could find a recipe for Field of Green's BBQ sandwich - killer. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

More progress on the comeback path

I managed an easy 5.5 miles with Kathleen this morning along Buffalo Bayou under less than ideal (hot - duhh!) conditions.  I had driven out to Terry Hershey Park to accompany Kath on the last portion of her 12-mile long run.  She has been struggling for a couple of weeks now to overcome bronchitis which finally seems to be receding.  Tough to run with an upper respiratory infection in this heat but she has been a real trooper.  Kathleen is really determined to do well in October at the Mohawk-Hudson and to qualify for Boston.  I hope she can pull it off - as always conditions on the day are likely to be the clincher.  I think if she can manage a few good solid long runs between now and October, to build up her endurance, all will end well.

While my knee is not 100%, it is probably 80% and that is no thanks to the orthopedic surgeon, who gave me no real advice or suggestions for dealing with the ITB issue, other than the cortisone shot.  Actually I don't think the cortisone shot really had any effect.  Several weeks of near daily knee rehab exercises (the same set of exercises from my earlier knee issue a couple of years ago) combined with some rowing have helped to strengthen the musculature surrounding the knee.  This takes pressure off the joint and voila - less knee pain, stiffness etc.  Having worked with 5 lb ankle weights up to a couple of weeks ago, I recently increased that to 7 lbs - now up to 7.5 pounds.  Will steadily increase the weight in half pound increments up to 10 lb for each ankle, by which time I hope this issue will be a thing of the past.

Yesterday we saw 'The Disappearance of Alice Creed' which I thought was reasonably well done, and certainly enjoyable enough, mainly due to superb acting performances by all three characters.  There's only three characters in the movie which helped.  The story is replete with twists and turns and moments of tension and drama.  The script jars here and there, but all in all this is a taut and well-made character study.  The lock/bolt and door opening and closing sequences with exaggerated sound effects were overdone but it is a minor complaint. Be on the lookout for great things in the future from director J. Blakeson.  With a decent budget and a more polished script, he will go far.  This one I will have to rate 'almost' but not quite there.

I don't think I've said anything to date about 'Salt', with Angelina Jolie.  I quite enjoyed this highly entertaining chase and pursuit drama. The movie might very well have been a complete bomb without Ms. Jolie's megawatt star power.  Looks, charisma, charm, style (blonde or brunette) - she has them all by the bucketful.  Fortunately Jolie is on the screen most of the time, always highly visible to the audience and - predictably - staying just a few steps ahead of her pursuers. She really burns up the scenery in a Bourne-type role which seems to have been written just for her.  Some of the stunts are beyond unbelievable - in fact they are downright ludicrous.  Even so, it doesn't really matter if you are an Angelina Jolie fan and most of us are, aren't we?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Small steps & a few punches

I managed my first real 'run' in about two weeks yesterday afternoon: all of 2 miles from the house to the bridge over Rummel Creek, at the start of the Terry Hershey Trail by Beltway 8.  Not much but better than a kick in the head, as my old boss Martin Pieterse used to say.  So far so good, no pain or tightness in the knee this morning.  The strengthening exercises seem to be working - I've increased the size of the ankle weights from 5 to 7 pounds and will gradually add more weight up to a maximum of 10 pounds per leg.

Other than the running I have been doing some Crossfit type workouts with a mix of rowing, stretch bands, general calisthenics and punching the heavy bag.  My boxing skills (that's a stretch) are woeful, too bad there's not one of those old-fashioned gyms around here to get some instruction on throwing an uppercut or a left hook.  A 1-2 (jab-straight right) or a 1-2-3 (jab-straight right-left hook) combination?  Mix in a few uppercuts?  Land a few body blows, step back, step forward - weave and bob, left right left.  Doesn't that make you want to take up boxing right away?  I would box more if it weren't so tedious to put the gloves on and take them off.  First you have to protect your hands by wrapping with yards of tape or using a separate shock-absorbing glove.  Then you get to the actual gloves themselves.  The first one is not so bad, but the second one is a battle.  Once you've got them on, no way you can press the button on a timer or hold a cup of tea.  Trust me, I've tried...

Kathleen and I saw Inception over the weekend and while I was impressed with the entire production, and marveled at the depth of the fascinating concept and its brilliant execution, I had my hand in my pocket for the car keys, about 15 minutes before it was all over.  Just one too many shots of vehicles sliding around or falling off bridges, gun-toting skiers flashing by, and seemingly never-ending general mayhem and pyrotechnics.So put me down as entertained but not enthusiastic - I liked Memento a whole lot more. Inception ends up with too much exposition and too little emotion.  This is a dream that goes on far too long.  Wake me up already.

By contrast, Jean Luc Goddard's Breathless, which we saw at the Museum of Fine Arts on Friday night, in its recently restored version, is a masterpiece on many levels.  Shot 50 years ago, it still feels fresh and imaginative. Beautifully shot in black and white with (then) revolutionary techniques such as hand-held cameras and long tracking shots, there's really not much to the story but Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are quirky and fascinating.  The boulevards and alleys of Paris make for an appealing backdrop to this slice-of-life drama where spontaneity and unpredictability trump story or plotline.  Breathless has some banal sequences but even those scenes, like the two main characters just chatting away in a small apartment room, contribute to a satisfying and memorable 90 minutes at the movies.