Thursday, November 1, 2012

Coconut Butternut Bread Pudding

Lynne Rosetto Kaspar is one of my idols. The host of The Splendid Table is not only a wonderfully engaging radio personality but a brilliant chef as evidenced by her Stump the Cook segments. Listeners call in with five ingredients from their fridge and she has to come up with a new dish the listener will actually eat by adding only three free ingredients (not including salt, pepper, and water). It's absolutely brilliant.

Therefore, I dedicate this recipe to Ms. Rosetto Kaspar, particular since I started...sort of...from her Impromptu Savory Bread Pudding recipe. The recipe has a mild sweetness and can be served as a breakfast or dinner side dish. Or...more can sit by yourself in the corner with a spoon and finish it in a single setting. Yeah, it's pretty good.

Coconut Butternut Bread Pudding

1-2 tablespoons of butter or margarine
6-8 cups of stale French or Italian bread
1 cup raisins
1 cup pureed butternut squash
1 cup grated coconut
2 cups milk
4 eggs
½ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ginger

  1. Preheat the oven to 350oF.
  2. Melt the butter or margarine and spread it in an even layer in a 9x13 inch glass baking dish.
  3. Tear the bread into medium chunks, about 1 inch square, and put them in a single layer in the pan, completely covering the bottom of the dish.
  4. Add raisins evenly to the bread.
  5. Whisk together the squash, coconut, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and spices until smooth.
  6. Pour the mixture evenly over the bread and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes until the milk mixture is completely absorbed.
  7. Bake for 30 minutes or until the pudding is just set. The pudding should be firm but just barely moist in the middle.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Lucas Mistake

I have come up with a new catchphrase for the entertainment media, and I want to see if it will gain traction. I call it "The Lucas Mistake." Boiled down to its essence, the Lucas Mistake is, "waiting too long to answer unnecessary questions and doing it badly." George Lucas was not the first person to do this with Episodes I, II, and III (a.k.a. "Aaaaaahhh...what the !$!@# did you do??!!"), but The JarJar Menace was such a spectacular failure to those of us who grew up with the original, that I believe George should forever have his name associated with this phenomenon.
Others have made the Lucas Mistake. Spielberg made the Lucas Mistake with "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" when he asked the unnecessary questions, "Whatever happened to Marian?" and "What would Indy be like as a grandpa?" and "What if Indiana Jones met...aliens."

The most recent perpetrator of the Lucas Mistake was Ridley Scott with "Prometheus." Roger Ebert gave it four stars. Roger Ebert is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.


The biggest problem to me was that the entire movie felt cobbled together from sci fi movies and themes that have already been explored ad nauseum. Human evolution being guided by an alien intelligent species? It's been done. A lot. An android forcing his makers to evaluate their own humanity? Also done. A lot. Strange genetic material that accelerates cellular development and tissue growth to the level of the ridiculuous? Um...can anyone say "Species" (1995) or "Evolution" (2001).
Even worse, the film violated the rule of Chekov's gun, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Why would you put Guy Pearce in mediocre age make-up if you don't plan to remove the make-up later? Why would you create a hackneyed theory of human existence only to leave unanswered all the questions that you posed to the audience?

I'm always eager to give a director the benefit of the doubt for a movie that pushes the limits of storyline, special effects, and general creativity. "Avatar", for example, was a great success story, even though I'm sure the producer went to the studio and said, "Picture 'Dances With Wolves' only with big blue aliens!"

"Prometheus," unfortunately, is not a success story. Although I enjoyed the special effects on the big screen, they didn't have the colorful flair of "Avatar", nor did the movie elicit the effective claustrophobia of the first "Alien" movie.  The story didn't hold together, the motivation of the characters was poorly explored, and the plot elements were jumbled. More importantly, the movie suffered from the Lucas Mistake by asking the question, "Where did the Ridley Scott aliens first come from?"
I don't care. It doesn't matter. They're "aliens". That's all you need to know. Just leave it alone and move on.

Monday, May 7, 2012

With Great Power...

After much anticipation and fanfare, I took my family to see The Avengers on opening weekend. All I can say is “Whoa!” 

It is important to understand the basis of this “whoa.” I am not basing my “whoa” on the special effects which were certainly good but not cutting edge. I am not basing my “whoa” on the acting, which was certainly effective, but not worthy of any academy awards. I base my “whoa” on the fact that the movie worked…plain and simple. The movie was exciting, engaging, entertaining, interesting, funny, and…most of all…against all odds, competent. Yes, competent. By all rights, this movie should have failed, and under the direction of anyone other than creative demigod Joss Whedon, it certainly would have. 

“How could it have failed?” you ask. Easily. Think of everything the movie had to do. It had to live up to the writing, directing, acting, storyline, and special effects of the precursor movies (Ironman, Ironman 2, Thor, Captain America, and the various takes on the Hulk). It had to mesh the different worlds of each superhero, each of whom lives in distinct realities within the Marvel universe. Ironman lives in a world of technology and wisecracking quips, Thor lives in a world of Wagnerian costumes and Shakespearian dialog, Captain America lives in a world of 1940’s patriotic war movies and patriotic rhetoric, and the Hulk lives in a world of mediocre CGI. All of these back stories, all of their dialogs, and all of their visual styles had to be pulled together into a seamless tapestry that should mimic more a fine Persian rug and less a first grade 4H quilting project. In addition, the director had to work with the A-list actors from all of these movies, give them equal screen time, and manage their sizeable egos.

Joss was just the fanboy to pull it off. On top of everything, he created a summer blockbuster that worked for many audiences. It was an exciting diversion for the casual moviegoer (whom I tend to refer to as “the common folk”). It was a faithful adaptation for the comic book faithful. And it was a cleverly written Joss Whedon oeuvre for film geeks like myself who wait patiently for Stan Lee to make his cameo appearance, watch for bit part actors who are now stars in Joss’s personal black book (eg, Enver Gjokaj and Alexis Denisof), and analyze the screenplay for Joss’s wordplay, stylistic elements, and careful balance of tension and release.  

 Joss shared screenwriting credit with Zak Penn, whose superhero screenplay resume includes “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Fantastic Four,” “Elektra,” “X2,” “Last Action Hero,” and the TV show, “Alphas.” Joss no doubt had the executive producers looking over his shoulder every step of the way, including Marvel Comics CEO Avi Arad and Marvel All-Father Stan Lee. And, he had a variety of other heavy hitters on the payroll, including Alan Silvestri writing the original score.

So, yeah. Whoa.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, make sure you stay through the credits. Partway into the credits, you will get a teaser about the next Marvel movie, although to fully understand the reference, it helps to have a comic book maven like my wife sitting next to you (who spent two years archiving comic books for the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.) At the very end of the movie, there is a very funny tag that will make you glad you waited to find out who was the second second assistant director (who by the way is Julian Brain). And, if you already saw the movie and ran out as soon as the credits started rolling, fine. That’s your prerogative. But I ain’t gonna tell you what happens at the end. That’s what you get for being common folk.

Speaking of Mr. Whedon, according to IMDB, his next big project, now in post-production, is a movie adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. This ought to be interesting because the cast list is completely filled with actors from Joss’s  black book; actors and actresses from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse,” and now “The Avengers.” Hey, why not? He’s Joss “The Boss” Whedon, and he can pretty much do what he wants at this point. I just hope he remembers the mantra from the Marvel universe, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Passover Confession

I have a confession to make. I really like Passover. And, although I realize that I may be banished from the “cool table” at lunch for admitting this, I even like matzah. I like the crunch, the simple flavor, the nostalgic memories of childhood seders that it evokes as the subtle umami washes over the back of my tongue. I like the horseradish root (usually raw) and the biting mixture of sweet and spicy in Hillel’s sandwich of charoset and bitter herbs. The man hit upon a great idea. Why no one has commercialized it is most likely an unfortunate residual stigma of its religious time and place. “Yeah…uh…I’ll have a Hillel sandwich, small fries, and a diet Coke. To go, please.” No, I can’t see it happening either.

I suppose I’m still riding the glow of the seders. With any luck, I’ll be able to ride that glow through the rest of the week.

Riding that enthusiasm all the way to the end is definitely a challenge. Despite my love of the holiday, by day four I have re-evaluated all my personal values, I have taken stock in all my blessings, I have squeezed every bit of relevancy out of the book of Exodus , and, most importantly, I have eaten up all the good leftovers. Suddenly, I am faced with flagging enthusiasm matched with diminishing creativity, and, as I stare at the carton of eggs in the refrigerator, I am left with that nagging thought, “Is this all really worth it?”

For those of you who have never kept Passover, or never kept it beyond reducing your donut intake from three per day to two, Passover is not simply about unleavened bread. The laws of Passover have evolved over the millennia to not only include breads made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt, or oats, but basically any product made from the grain that has not been baked and processed as matzah. The Ashkenazi (Eastern European) tradition could never leave well enough alone, and added corn, rice, millet and legumes to the list, along with all of their associated products. If you ever wondered why there is such a booming Passover food industry, just consider all the commercial foods that contain corn starch, corn sweeteners, or grain vinegar. Even if you mix and match traditions (allowing legumes but not allowing corn or rice, allowing corn and rice but not allowing wheat, barley, rye, spelt, or oats), keeping kosher for Passover is a major ordeal. It takes commitment, planning, and BELIEF. Not necessarily a belief in a divine covenant or retribution, but rather a belief that you are tapping into something spiritually important. Correction…something spiritually critical.

At its core, Passover is about freedom: freedom from slavery, freedom from oppression, freedom from absolute control. And yet, it isn’t until maybe the fourth day, the spiritual hump day of the Passover week, do we truly start to understand the meaning of the holiday. It is only after we start fantasizing about thick crust pizza, only after we find ourselves slowing our pace as we walk through the bakery aisle at the grocery, only after we consider pulling the bottle of Karo corn syrup off the shelf, ripping off the top, inserting a straw, and going to town, do we realize that we are still slaves ourselves. We are slaves of convenience, slaves of habit, slaves of routine. We have relinquished control of our lives, and we rarely stop to appreciate our connection to the world until we do something as simple as remove all grain products for a week. The more complex your world, the more you will be thrown for a loop.

So, stop. Take note. Feel the world spinning out of control for a minute. Then pull yourself out of your complacency, and reach deep into yourself for that spark of creativity and that resurgence of enthusiasm.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go prepare dinner. I have no idea what I’m going to make, but I’m sure it will come to me in time. And I'm sure it will be delicious.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Globe Spinner Dinner Rides Again

A couple of years ago, I wrote about “Globe Spinner Dinners,” a fun, family activity in which one spins a globe, selects a country at random, and plans a dinner around the cuisine and culture of said country. To do this right (i.e., the way my mother used to do it), one does not only plan the meal around the local cuisine, but one gets the entire family involved in dressing up in native garb, researching demographic and historical information, and generally enlightening each other on trivia about the native culture and traditions.

I had been planning to do more Spinner Dinners over the years to edify my children culinarily and culturally. And then it was now. Hmph. Strange how the best laid plans always fall apart under their own inertia. Nonetheless, my youngest son suggested that we give it another go, and I agreed, partly because I love the challenge, but mostly because it tends to force my family out of their comfort zone. The last time we spun, I ended up with Botswana. What would we get this time? Spain? Rwanda? Swaziland? Monaco?

Despite my older son’s suggestion that we use Google Earth to randomly select a country, I insisted on using a real live, old-fashioned globe. Give me tactile sensation over virtual experience any day. I want to know that my stochastic selection is real, not a computer-generated artifact. I want to feel that globe a-spinning.

Naturally, the first three times we spun, we landed on water. “I guess we’ll do sushi,” my younger son quipped. Yeah, it was funny the first time; not so much the third. But eventually he hit a country. American Samoa. Yes, you heard me, Samoa, a tiny unincorporated U.S. territory hidden in the South Pacific. Do you know how hard it is to hit Samoa? My son, who had been hoping for Italy, opted for spinning again. No, I admonished him; the purpose of a Spinner Dinner is to try out new cuisines from exotic lands. You can have pizza any old time.

The Internet is invaluable for preparing a Spinner Dinner menu. I don’t know how my mother did it. Maybe she was lucky enough to hit European and Asian countries every time. Or maybe she used a weighted globe that just “happened” to land on Italy again and again. But, oh no, not me. I had Samoa to contend with. And of course, I had to make it vegetarian. This is not an easy feat in Samoa, where the national bird appears to be corned beef. Samoan cooking does not use much spice, but it does use a lot of coconut and cream…which explains why Samoans are not a particularly diminutive people.

After some research and recipe hopping, I came up with following menu below:
  • Vegan Palusami (spinach and vegan corned beef cooked in coconut milk)
  • Sapa Sui (basically chop suey) with marinated chunk TVP
  • Panipopo (sweet coconut buns
  • Panikeke (deep fried banana pancake balls)

  • In my opinion, the palusami was delicious, but I seemed to be in a minority of one. So, naturally, UI will be the only person taking the palusami leftovers in my lunch. The sapa sui went over better with my family because it more closely resembled my typical stir fry. The panipopo and the panikeke (which I made for dessert) were big hits. Let’s hear it for simple carbs.

    All in all, the dinner was successful. I pulled out my laptop while we ate and educated everyone about Samoa while they pushed the spinach around on their plate and devoured the coconut buns. And now I’m feeling energized and empowered to try this again very soon. Of course, while that globe is spinning, I’ll be thinking, “Please not Europe. Please not India. Please not China.”

    I mean, come on…they can have pizza and curry any old time.