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Holiday Moviegoing

David and I went to see a matinee of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe yesterday. It’s gotten pretty decent reviews, so I figured it would be at least entertaining. I read the books a few months back and was fairly unimpressed. They’re blatant morality tales, almost completely lacking in humor, and fairly medieval in their take on race, gender and other religions. Still, sometimes simpler stories translate better to the screen as much less editing is needed.

The visuals of the movie were overdone. WETA (the production company that worked big screen magic for the Lord of the Rings trilogy) was up to it’s usual tricks, but to much less effect. All the cgi animals were highly cartoonish, except that in cartoons, the movement of the animals is generally portrayed accurately. These creatures had none of the fluidity of the animals they represented – the movement was spasmodic and unnatural.

The White Witch had some interesting costumes, the main one looked like a wedding gown that had been created entirely of dryer lint and shoulder pads. She herself was good and scary, but as her dialogue sucked, so she wasn’t as creepy as she should have been.

The children were not great actors, and terribly overshot. There were far to many lingering moments of looks of fear or sadness or strained delight that broke the pace of the movie, and highlighted that the kids were not the most seasoned or talented actors.

The most annoying aspect of the movie was the music. It was a constant barrage. From the minute Lucy first steps into Narnia to the end, your ears are bombarded with sappy, sweeping, or soporific, and incredibly loud music. My voice teacher in college taught me to work with the whole range of my voice. If you sing at the top of your lungs all the time, you have no where to go when you reach a climactic moment in the piece. The director obviously missed the memo on that point.

To sum up, watching this movie was like being rythmically beaten over the head with a sugar-coated baseball bat for two hours and fifteen minutes.

Austin Food Bytes – Texas Cuisine

Austin Food Bytes
Texas Cuisine

When my family comes to visit, I like to take them to at least one very down-home restaurant. You just can’t get good chicken fried steak or fried green tomatoes in California. In fact, you pretty much can’t get anything good fried in California. If you like smoothies, sushi and seafood, California is great. But when the family is in town, I try to take them out for some food they can’t get at home.

I’ve only been to Hoover’s a couple times, so I’m not an expert, but everything I’ve had there has been excellent. I love fried chicken, and they do a fried chicken breast with gravy that is to die for. They have a plethora of great sides, some regular, some special. The mashed potatoes are excellent, as are the mustard greens. Hoover’s is always packed, so schedule some extra time to wait to be seated.

Threadgills has been around in one form or another for almost three-quarters of a century. An Austin original, it’s been a major hangout for some notable musicians over the years, whose pictures and artifacts you can see all over the walls. It’s kind of an authentic Texas version of the Hard Rock Café. With much better food. Threadgills is a great place to take out-of-towners for that “Austin” experience. My favorite dishes include the blackened catfish and the fried green tomatoes. The sides are really good too, especially the spinach casserole and the garlic cheese grits.

Top Notch
Top notch is a little burger joint on Burnet Road, just below Anderson. It’s a favorite place for my team to grab a quick but satisfying lunch when we’re in the mood for comfort food. The décor is straight out of the 60’s, and it’s always packed. You can also drive up and order food to-go outside. Top Notch grills their burgers with charcoal, so the flavor can’t be beat, but my favorite is the fried chicken. You can get a fried chicken sandwich, or a plate, which includes a fried chicken breast, salad, Texas toast and fries.

This is not California cuisine, folks. What it is, is satisfying, tasty and very authentic Texas cooking.

Top Notch Restaurant
7525 Burnet Rd., 452-2181
Monday-Saturday, 11am-8pm

6416 N. Lamar, 451-5440
Monday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday,11am-9pm

Threadgill’s World HQ
301 W. Riverside, 472-9304
Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-10:30pm; Sun, 10am-9pm

2002 Manor Rd., 479-5006
Monday-Friday, 11am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 9am-10pm

packing up an era

I spent the better part of Saturday packing up my apartment. I got rid of more stuff than I packed. It’s way easier to get rid of stuff when you haven’t used or even looked at it in a year and a half. But it’s also really strange. The strangest part was going through my sheet music and realizing that I was never, ever going to use most of it again. I kept everything I had a real emotional attachment to, anything I might get hired to sing at some point, but I got rid of pretty much everything else. My entire operatic career has been condensed into two boxes. Psychedelic.

Austin Food Bytes
NI Cooking School, Indian Food 101

While I love to eat out, I actually enjoy eating in much more. My whole family cooks, my brother and mother professionally, so I guess it’s in the genes. I have a tendency to fixate on a certain type of cuisine for a while, trying recipes and adapting them until I’m comfortable with the style. For the better part or this year I’ve been learning to cook Indian food from a really excellent cookbook called Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking.

Madhur Jaffrey is a celebrity in Britain and India, she’s acted in several films and hosts a cooking show on the BBC. Her cookbooks are always very well written, nicely illustrated, and quite detailed. This is often necessary when westerners are trying a foreign cuisine as ingredients can be hard to find or replicate and cooking techniques can differ. The great thing about this particular cookbook is that it’s adapted for a western kitchen, but still creates very authentic tasting results. There are no required ingredients that I couldn’t find at the grocery store. A couple of optional ingredients necessitate a trip to a local Indian market, but you could do all your shopping at HEB or Whole Foods and get almost equal results. Here is a list of the most common ingredients you’ll need to cook a tasty and authentic Indian meal:

Ground cumin
Cumin seed
Cardamom pods
Whole cloves
Cinnamon stick
Ground coriander
Coriander seed
Garam masala (this is a pre-made spice mix)
Mustard seeds
Cayenne pepper
Black peppercorns
Asafetida (optional)
Other ingredients
Half and half or heavy cream
Coconut milk or light coconut milk
Ginger (you can buy this pre-peeled and crushed in a jar)
Basmati Rice
Tomato paste
Curry leaves (optional)

The hook for this cookbook is the speed at which these dishes can be prepared. With a little advanced planning, I can execute a three course meal in under an hour. All the seafood, chicken and vegetarian recipes have a maximum 40 min cooking time, most are under half an hour. Jaffrey recommends a pressure cooker to speed time for lamb and beef dishes. Prep is usually chopping a few items like chilies, onions or garlic and measuring out some spices. I’ve made most of the seafood recipes in the book, several of the chicken, and several vegetable and other side dishes. Here are a few of my favorites:

Stir-Fried Green Cabbage with Fennel Seeds
– this is fast, easy and healthy. The caramelized onions add a mild sweetness to the dish, and the cabbage doesn’t get soft enough to lose it’s texture.

Chicken Breasts Baked with Green Chilies and Onions – I made this recipe for the first time this weekend, and it came out delicious. The curry sauce is highly flavorful, and the chicken came out tender and perfect. In general, I try and reduce the fat content in recipes where I can, so I used half and half instead of heavy cream, and reduced the oil by a tablespoon.

Turmeric Rice – This rice is really simple to make, looks beautiful and smells amazing. I make it almost every time I cook Indian food.

Stir-Fried Shrimp in an Aromatic Tomato-Cream Sauce – This recipe is delicious, and it’s worth the extra trip to get the two optional ingredients – curry leaves, and asafetida. There’s a store called Gandhi Bazaar on Parmer near NI that stocks them, and also MGM Grocery on Burnet. This dish is great with the Turmeric Rice and any vegetable you wish. The curry leaves add an intense fragrance and extra kick that the dish lacks without. The creamy sauce and the mustard seeds enhance the shrimp uniquely. I cheat, and get pre-peeled shrimp at Central Market.

As a special treat, I’ve included an Indian recipe by NI-er Tasneem Abbas, who also sells her delicious creations.

Aloo Pakoras (potato gram fritters)

2 potatos*
1 cup gram flour
2-3 tsp red chili powder (vary to taste)
1 tsp lightly crushed cumin seeds (optional)
salt to taste
oil for frying

Boil the potatoes till almost cooked (if they are too soft, they can break before they get in to the frying pan).
Peel and let cool before slicing in to 1/4″ circles.
Mix the flour and spices with enough water to make a thick smooth paste (shouldn’t drip easily from your fingers).
Coat the potato slices with the gram flour paste and fry, turning once, in medium-hot oil.
Remove on absorbent paper when golden and serve hot with tamarind chutney or ketchup.

Tip: to test the heat of the oil, drop a little pinch of the gram flour paste. It should sink a little before rising up to the surface. If it turns color within 5 seconds, your oil is too hot.

*Potatoes can be substituted with other vegetables like cauliflower, peppers or onions.

I. Am. A. Wimp.

I officially hate winter. All that wanking about the heat, all the time I spent as a child, whining about the blistering 85 degrees it occasionally hit in California, and now I’m cold all the time. 90 degrees is balmy and pleasant. But this week it’s positively Baltimore-ish in Austin, and I’m not liking it one little bit. Plus I don’t want to drive my new baby in anything resembling inclement weather. It’s supposed to get back up into the 60s this weekend, I can hardly wait.

Food Articles

I’ve been writing a column for work called “Austin Food Bytes”. I’m going to start posting it here. You can read all the old ones here.

Austin Food Bytes
Give yourself a holiday present – breakfast out!

Austin is overrun with excellent places for an early breakfast or a leisurely brunch. From breakfast tacos at Tamale House to brunch at Fonda San Miguel, you can have just about anything you can think of for breakfast, and in any price range. This week I’m going to feature some lovely places to have a moderately priced, but fancier brunch – perfect when you have visiting family and don’t feel like cooking breakfast for eight.

East Side Café
I love East Side Café for dinner. This well-known restaurant features locally grown and organic ingredients, the regular menu items are always good, and the specials and freshly made soups are usually wonderful. But not everyone knows that East Side is a great place for brunch.

They have a special menu comprised of half lunch and half breakfast plates, all of which are tasty, filling and reasonably priced. My favorites are the Apple Almond Waffle ($8.95); a Belgian waffle topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds, served with sautéed apples and three pieces of crisp bacon or garlic cheese grits, and the Smoked Salmon Benedict($7.75); two poached eggs and smoked salmon on an English muffin, topped with hollandaise sauce, served with homefries and a blueberry bran muffin. The menu also features blintzes, migas, and lunch favorites like burgers and sesame-fried catfish.

1886 Café & Bakery at The Driskill

The 1886 Café is much more casual that the Driskill Grill, but features some comparably tasty food. The atmosphere is light and airy, décor is comfortable and old-fashioned. Since it’s downtown, you’re walking distance from some excellent museums, galleries and shops.

The Café serves excellent coffee and espresso, and has an innovative but hearty menu. My favorite item is the Cast Iron Skillet Texas Two Step ($10);
eggs and cheddar cheese with grits, corn biscuit and chorizo gravy. That’s right, biscuits and chorizo gravy – it’s heavenly. Forget everything I said last week about healthy eating if you go here, it’s worth it.

Fonda San Miguel
Fonda San Miguel is world renowned for it’s Interior Mexican food. It’s one of my favorite places for happy hour and dinner, but I’ve actually never had their famous brunch. So, guest writer Melissa Maldonado has provided us with her own recommendations:

Brunch at Fonda San Miguel offers old-world, interior Mexican favorites that are as rich as the chocolate in the Pollo en Mole — grilled chicken breast with a berry-enhanced chili, chocolate, and nut sauce. The elegant, villa-like setting instantly transports you to an easier pace of life that prepares you for an amazing cultural dining experience. My favorites include a salad with slivers of nopales (cactus pads) in a tangy vinaigrette, but you’ll also find the sweet corn pudding is something to dream about until your next visit. !Buen provecho! $20-$40 (very well worth it!)

This holiday season, treat your relatives to something special from Austin, and treat yourself to a morning off!

okay, we're in business

As my knowledge of the web is antiquated at best, it took me a while to get this whole “publish to my own site” thing. But I persevered, and here it is.

So here’s the latest, for anyone who cares:

  • I just bought a fab new car
  • This is because I crashed my old car last Saturday.
  • I’m moving in with David, officially, in early January.
  • I’m starting school in late January.

I think that’s enough new stuff for now. I’m also growing my hair out. Happy Holidays!

starting a blog for news and stuff

I’m starting a blog, which I’m going to attempt to feed into my home page, where I can post updates on my favorite subject, me! Or on stuff I’m thinking about, or stuff I’m doing. Won’t that be fun?