Monday, July 26, 2010

Wuthering Heights Film Review

To continue on my 20th-21st century interpretations of 19th century chick lit kick (bonus points if you understood what I just said on the first try), I will now treat you to a movie review!  I was inspired to watch a made-for-TV film adaptation of Emily Bronte's famed novel, Wuthering Heights, by Nora at Pride & Vegudice and I couldn't be happier about it.  Like her sisters, Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre which is the basis for Wide Sargasso Sea) and Anne, Emily's writing is dark and gloomy which makes for a delightfully disturbing movie.

For those who aren't familiar with the novel, Wuthering Heights takes place on the wild and stormy moors of Yorkshire, a setting which perfectly illuminates the turbulence of its characters.  The novel is replete with death, misery, thwarted love, and inbreeding (at this time the union of first cousins was acceptable and often desirable).  It is also marked by a notable lack of mothers, who rarely make it past childbirth, a fact which is not noted but clearly influences the lives of the characters.  It is truly a soap opera but of the darkest and most disturbing order, supremely satisfying in its drama and captivating in its darkness.

The first and most obvious thing that struck me about the film was that it took out the layers of narration that stand between readers of the novel and its story.  Whereas Bronte's tale of the Earnshaw and Linton families is merely repeated by an outsider who has the story narrated to him by a servant who is loyal to the family, the camera merely follows all the characters.  While it splits its time between all the characters and story lines with the same attention paid to them in the novel, this erasure of the layers of narrations offers a deeper look at the story than Bronte gave.  Because the story isn't filtered through the servant, Nelly, who has her own best interests to look out for and a stranger who doesn't really understand what happened or the people involved, the viewer is allowed more access to the characters.  This of course comes at the price of some 21st century writer's interpretation of the text which can be risky but in this case turns out really well.  Some liberties are taken, which is to be expected, but none are unreasonable and many the reader may have thought of on her own.  It seems as though the film reveals what Nelly chose to censor, and you know that something that believable has got to be good.

Another benefit of the alteration in narration is the humanization of Heathcliff.  Sure, he's still the classic villain - gambling, cheating, violent, disrespectful of other men's property women - but he's also a man who feels.  Bronte reveals his pain but the film really examines it.  We see a man who loves desperately and we empathize with him rather than reviling against him.  My husband, who has never read the novel,  felt bad for him which is a level of empathy that I'd imagine few readers come away with.  This could of course be due to the fact that the book takes longer to read so its easier to forget his tortured childhood when reading the novel than seeing the film, and thus forget what molded him into the man he becomes.  The camera merely shows what happens without passing judgement whereas Nelly, as a human and faithful servant, is unable to separate her feelings about the man who ripped her employer's family apart and brought pain to the children she raised as her own.  We see Heathcliff's anguish directly and feel for a man who has lost so much and been driven to such extremes.

For the strict 19th century-philes (is there a word for that?) out there, you may be disappointed that the costumes and music aren't exactly authentic to the time period but the score itself is quite lovely.  You will quickly forget, or at least manage to ignore, any anachronisms in light of the quality of the film as a whole.  It is upsetting, disturbing, and moving - everything I would expect from a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.  It's really quite well done, something I rarely say about films that are based on books (the other most notable exception being The Hours, one of my all-time favorite movies), and well worth your while.  Fortunately, the film is available instantly on Netflix so you really have no excuse for not watching it immediately.

I'll leave you with an interesting little tidbit about the actors: Charlotte Riley and Tom Hardy, who play Cathy and Heathcliff, met on the set of the film, began dating, and are now engaged.  A bit disturbing to think about really, once you've experienced their turbulent and destructive love.

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. (Cathy, Chapter 9)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wide Sargasso Sea Book Review

Jean Rhy's Wide Sargasso Sea was a strangely appropriate and completely undesirable book to bring on my honeymoon to the Bahamas.  Appropriate because it takes place in the Caribbean and, for about half the novel, follows the lives of a recently married couple.  Completely undesirable because the marriage turns sour immediately as it is discovered that they were pushed into it for economic reasons, the bride seems to go crazy, and, finally, the groom locks his wife in a attic where she stays for years except for two escapes: to set just his bed on fire and then set the whole house on fire and jump to her death from the roof, ending her captivity for good.  Does this sound familiar to you?  It should, as Wide Sargasso Sea is a response in the form of a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's famed novel Jane Eyre, and an effort to vindicate the madwoman in the attic.  So assuming that you are familiar with Jane Eyre, I did not just spoil the whole novel in the first paragraph of my review, not that the fiery suicide is really even the point of the novel.

To start off, Wide Sargasso Sea can be difficult to read.  It's written in a very conversational, almost stream-of-consciousness style from, remember, the mind of a supposedly crazy woman.  This language reflects well the inner turmoil of her mind and life yet may make it difficult to become absorbed in the novel.  The narration also changes halfway through the novel to her husband, Rochester, and back again without notice either time.  Further sources of confusion can be discussions of race and class: it can be very difficult to remember who's who (black, white, mixed, and/or whatever offensive term is used to describe them) and why they dislike each other.  All I'm really saying is that this book requires your attention and active participation, which is not unreasonable.

Whereas Bronte made a cliche out of her madwoman in the attic - Bertha Mason is everything Jane Eyre is not, the "bad" to her "good," - Rhys brings her to life, dissolving the stereotype.  Bertha Mason is not just a loose woman who married for money, embarrassed her husband, and eventually lost her mind.  In fact, she is very few of these things.  Rhys rechristens her Antoinette Cosway, a child born into a broken home who experiences first-hand trauma that very few of us can relate to, classism (she and her family are called "white niggers"), upheaval, and grows into a woman who is used to satisfy men's greed.  She has the roots for insanity, but also the roots for a sad, lonely life which she is forced to experience in Rochester's attic.

What Rhys does is humanize Bronte's characters.  Antoinette was described unforgivingly by the plain Jane Eyre as "the foul German spectre - the vampyre," with a purple face, swollen lips, and bloodshot eyes.  Rhys makes a person out of this monster who feels the pain of her brother's death, being disowned by her mother, cheated on by her husband, and tortured by neighbors.  Yet this book does more than humanize the madwoman - it humanizes the man who locks her up as well.  Rochester is an obvious villain; despite the innocent Jane Eyre's acceptance and forgiveness of him, he is guilty of locking a woman away, driving her to murder and suicide, and (in Jane Eyre) attempting to marry another woman despite his extant marriage.  Yet Wide Sargasso Sea show his vulnerability in his efforts to please his father and succumbing to the trickery of his own family, who compel him to marry Antoinette for her money.  He is flawed, yes, but human as well.

Wide Sargasso Sea is not the easiest of reads and probably not worth the effort if you haven't already read Jane Eyre.  Yet if you're willing to read actively and reshape or at least reconsider your preconceptions of its principal characters, it is well worth the effort.


PS. It is unforgivable that it has taken me this long to post this book review as I read the book more than a month ago, but let's just say that book reviews are harder to write than you'd think.  What made this one even harder is that I finished the book more than a month ago.  I've done my best and if I missed a major point, I apologize.  Hopefully I'll do a better job on the two other books I have awaiting review.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit: How to Cook Them

Lately I've been trying to get into the habit of cooking a whole pound of dried beans at the beginning of the week and then using them in various recipes throughout the week.  I'm going to start a little series here on the blog tracking my use of beans: whenever I prepare from scratch a new kind of bean, I will blog about it, sharing ideas and recipes on how to use up a whole pot of beans in a reasonable amount of time without eating the same thing every day.

Beans are a staple food all over the world, and with good reason.  Beans are, as most people know, quite nutritious: they are a powerhouse of fiber, protein, and phytochemicals, and you get all this nutrition for a very low price!  They are also quite versatile and can be prepared in a number of ways: whole, mashed, pureed, made into patties, curries, dips, soups, etc.  There are all different spice combos that you can use with them and they go well with rice, pasta, grains, tortillas, etc.

Why prepare your own beans?
  • Control the sodium levels.  Canned beans are often packaged in a sodium-filled gloop that can result in you over-salting your dishes which in turn can increase your own sodium levels.  Cooking your own beans gives you more control over the nutrition and flavor of your meals.
  • Reduce your trash.  One thin plastic bag's worth of dry beans is the equivalent of about three cans of beans.  You can also often buy beans in bulk, meaning you can reuse a container and waste even less.
  • Save money!  Dried beans cost less.  I compared the store brand costs of Great Northern beans at the grocery store and this is what I found: a one pound bag (yields 4½ cups of beans) cost $1.  A can of beans (1¾ cups) cost 85 cents.  This means that 4½ cups of canned beans costs about $2.18 or more than double the cost of dried beans.
Possible downsides (and reasons why they shouldn't stop you from preparing your own beans):
  • They take a long time to cook.  They also take very little attention so if you're prepping other food for the week or just doing stuff around the house, they can easily be added to your to-do list without causing extra aggravation.
  • Because of the long cooking time, they use up more energy.  I have not done any research on this so don't quote me, but logic rules: a lot of energy is also used to cook and package canned beans in factories, then ship them to your local store.  Canned beans also take up a lot of room on the grocery shelf, and grocery space is sold by the area.  You pay for all of this with every can of beans!  The costs of preparing your own are far more straight-forward.
  • They make you toot!  Many raw foodies actually avoid beans because they are inherently miscombined (both a starch and a protein) and cause stomach upset.  This rarely stops the rest of us though, but rest assured: the more beans you eat over time, the better your tummy handles it and the less tooting you do!  Also, the addition of kombu while cooking apparently helps you digest the beans, though it's not necessary.
So how do you cook beans?  It's really quite simple, though time-consuming, so I suggest you do it over the weekend or any time that you might be spending more time in the house.  This is pretty much what's involved: rinsing, soaking, rinsing, cooking.  It's only four easy steps to a quick and nutritious base for all sorts of meals!  Here's a basic guide to how to cook meals that I'm borrowing from Eat, Drink & Be Vegan by Dreena Burton, which is one of my favorite vegan cookbooks and resources by one of my favorite vegan chefs.  (Normally I would not share information from a cookbook, but this is not original - it can be found on any dried bean packaging, Dreena just gathers it all in one place.)
  • Step One: Rinse and Sort.  This is exactly what it sounds like.  Just pick over your beans, looking for any tiny stones or split beans and get rid of them.  Then rinse and drain, and you're ready to soak!
  • Step Two: Soak.  You have two options here: an overnight soak and a "quick soak."  For an overnight soak, just combine 1 part beans with 3-4 parts water in a large pot before bedtime, cover, and forget about them until the morning.  If you forgot this step, then do a quick soak: combine 3-4 parts water to one part beans in a large pot.  Boil for 5-7 minutes, turn off heat, cover, and let sit for 1½ - 2 hours
  • Step Three: Drain and Rinse again.  This is important because soaking the beans helped to get rid of some of their gas-causing sugars and helped finish cleaning them, and now all that yucky stuff is in the water.  Wipe out the pot while you're add it.
  • Step Four: Cook the Beans.  Combine 1 part beans with 3-4 parts fresh water in a large pot.  Bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat to simmer partially covered until tender, using the times below.
Cooking times:
Adzuki Beans: 45-60 minutes
Black Beans: 60-90 minutes
Black-eyed Peas: 45-60 minutes
Cannellini Beans: 60-90 minutes
Chickpeas: 1½-2 hours
Kidney Beans: 1½-2 hours
Navy Beans: 1½-2 hours

Storing beans:
  • In the fridge: After cooling, put beans in a container with a lid and cover in cooking liquid.  This keeps them from drying out and provides you with some beany liquid too moisten recipes with.
  • In the freezer: Put in a freezer-safe contained with a lid (optional: cover in cooking liquid).  It helps to measure your bean before freezing - either in one cup increments or 1½-1¾ cup increments (the equivalent of a can's worth, which many recipes call for).  Defrost in fridge over night or the morning before you plan to use them.
Some notes:
  • Don't add salt while cooking.  This will lengthen the cooking time, as will acidic ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar.
  • One cup dry beans yields 2-3 cups cooked beans.  A one pound bag of dry beans will leave you with about _ cups cooked beans.
  • One 15 oz can of bean is about 1.5 - 1.75 cups of cooked beans.
  • You can cook more beans!  Don't feel like you need to limit yourself to one bag of beans.  To really get ahead on your bean prep, cook a couple bags at a time and freeze what you can't use in a week.  That way you can switch to a new bean sooner and save yourself some stove-time in the future.
I am no bean expert and there's more to the subject, like pressure-cooking beans and sprouting beans.  Here are some other resources should you decide to expand your bean knowledge beyond this blog:
  • Miss Vickie's Pressure Cooking Dried Bean:  Contains information on cooking beans in a pressure cooker as well as bean basics: nutrition, digestibility, etc.  It's much more expansive than what I've written here.
  • The Basics of Sprouting: Contains info on how to sprout all sorts of legumes and seeds, including beans.
Now that you've got your beans, you're ready to make your meals!  Stay tuned for ideas on what to do with your beans and get multiple meals out of one bag's worth.  First up will be black beans!  I will also be updating this page if I find out any new exciting bean information.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My First 5k

There's a saying in my family: Marckettas don't run.  It's not a particularly interesting saying, nor very inspiring, but there you have it.  Marckettas don't run and Marckettas don't dance (or at least not well), either.  Apparently we really like to limit ourselves.  I certainly used to believe it.  I never used to run any distance longer than required for kickball or ultimate frisbee, and my (required) efforts to run a mile in gym class in middle school were just a joke.  It seemed true.  Marckettas don't run.  This is not to say that Marckettas never run.  I have an aunt who has run not one, but two marathons.  We tend to forget that, though.

Last year around this time, I decided that I wanted to lose some weight.  I wasn't fat or overweight, but I was past the weight where I wanted to be and didn't want to gain anymore so I decided to do something about it before it got out of hand.  I said No, thank you to all the crazy fad diets and decided to do it simply: eat healthier, track calories, fat, protein, etc. with the Lose It! app on my i-pod touch, and exercise more.  Normally my exercise of choice is yoga with a smattering of pilates but suddenly, I was inspired.  Maybe it had been a while since I'd heard my family's catchphrase, but I decided to just do it.  Run.

At the time I lived in an apartment complex which was built around a circle - a convenient place to start jogging.  I clocked the mileage around the circle: ⅓ of a mile.  Doable, right?  I dragged my athletic then-fiance out and forced him to jog with me.  Our first time out, I made it halfway around the circle before I had to stop, gasping for air.  One-sixth of a mile, and I only made it that far thanks to his encouragement.  This kept up for a few weeks, with him eventually returning to his video games and me very slowly improving.  Then school started and completely ruined my routine, as normal, and jogging was forgotten in favor of the school's pilates and belly dancing classes and my yoga DVDs.

Come winter break and suddenly, with extra time on my hands, I remembered my decision to jog.  I started the whole process over except this time, right from the beginning, I could make it around the whole circle at a go and last longer.  It's as though my body remembered the improvements it had already made, despite the four month gap.  I started improving much faster, despite the road's many icy obstacles and my freezing ears.  I started dreaming of a 5k.  Then school started and… well, you know what happened.

So here we are.  School's done, the wedding's over, I'm unemployed and searching for a job meaning extra time on my hands, and I've decided to give it another go.  Third time's the charm, right?  It wasn't even a very intentional decision.  I got up one morning and out of nowhere decided that I wanted to run (in my body, not my head).  I've moved to the next town, which is far hillier, and the gap in time has been much longer, but my body still remembers its improvements.  My first jog was about 1.75 miles with a couple short walking breaks to recover from particularly steep inclines.  To keep myself motivated, I suggested a friendly competition to my brother who has recently also taken up jogging.  First one to run a 5k wins / fastest time wins.  We didn't really nail out the details but the motivation still works.  I need to beat PJ, therefore I need to run.

And on Thursday, I did it.  I jogged 3.34 miles, which is about 5.37k, without any breaks despite several hills.  Check out the route.   I made it.  It's time.  Hoping it's not a fluke, I've signed up for a 5k race next weekend, supporting a local hospital's Center for Brain Injuries (being organized by a very impressive friend of mine who asks that you join if you can).

Me all sweaty and gross after my longest jog to date.
Feel free to mock my yuckiness and ridiculous outfit.
This isn't to say that I've become some amazing jogger with great form and fancy shoes churning out six minute miles like its nothing.  My shoes are falling apart (there's a plastic piece in the back that poked through years ago but I can't bring myself to shell out the money for new ones while I'm unemployed) and I'm averaging something like a twelve minute mile which is pretty much as close to walking as you can get while still jogging.  But at least I'm doing it (or trying to) and I am improving.  My endurance increases every day even if my speed doesn't, and I tend to think that that's more important.  Plus, it just feels good to be out there, doing something in the fresh (though humid) air, strengthening my body.

Just a note: my brother is up to two mile runs which, I believe, means that I win!  I'll just ignore the fact that he's running a ten minute mile and therefore will most likely win the second part of the competition.  Not the point.  :]

This week my goal is to run 3-4 times and have the majority of those runs be over 5k to make sure that I'm ready for my race on the 25th.  I'm so excited!  I've never done anything like this before and it's great to know that my body is improving.  It's even more satisfying to contradict my family's negative claims on our abilities.  Marckettas do run and I'm the proof.

Questions:
  • Do you jog?  How did you get into it? (i.e. Did it come naturally, as part of a high school sport, or did you have to convince your body like I did?)
  • How often do you jog?  I'm currently going out about three times a week.
  • Which is more important to you - endurance or speed?
  • What do you do to prepare for a race?  What do you recommend I eat the night before my 5k?
  • Does your family have catchphrases that inhibit rather than inspire?  Does that deter you?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Disappointment at the Co-op

Being unemployed leaves me lots of time to accomplish things.  In my case "accomplish things" means "buy yummy food," which explains why this is my third post in about a week about making grocery purchases.  Today's trip was very different than most though, and not in the good way.  I hopped on my bike, invigorated by the thought of a bike ride culminating in the support of a local non-profit vegetarian co-op and the acquisition of some delicious vegan foods.  The veg co-op is a bit expensive so I kept my list short (tortillas and soyrizo) and expected to be in and out.

I couldn't find the soyrizo.  The only person working was engaged in conversation with a customer so I looked around for a bit while I waited, loaded myself up on some additional treats, and was just scanning the rows of food when I saw it: cod liver oil.

It's got to be a mistake, I thought.  It can't be fish oil.  I was grasping at straws, hoping that it was some oversight or that cod liver was actually some sort of weird, fishy-smelling plant.  And then I spotted a sign advertising fish oils.  No mistake.  A second glance at the jar told me that the fish oil also contains gelatin and was formulated especially for the co-op.  My heart sank and I became impatient for the employee (or volunteer) to end his conversation so that I could share my concerns.  (It turns out that plopping your purchases on the counter is an effective way to get attention.)

First I asked, Isn't the co-op supposed to be vegetarian?  At his affirmation I asked, Well why do they sell cod liver oil?  Apparently there is some unresolved conflict between policy and practice: the official policy is that everything, from cheese to detergent, be vegetarian, but some customers insist that they need this supplement and that request has been granted.  I was told that there are others who are upset about it and it could still go either way and I should definitely voice my concerns.  I also learned that they have other products (all capsules, I believe) that contain gelatin.  Not everything is what it seems.

Here's my problem with his assertion that there is a true conflict over this issue: the specific product I picked up (there were other fish oils as well) was a store brand.  I didn't even know that this store had its own line of products but it clearly stated on the packaging that it was made for the co-op.  Do you know what that says?  Commitment.  You don't go through the trouble of developing your own product and packaging it unless  you are committed to it.  It is clear to me that the co-op is committed to its decision to provide animal products to its members and customers, despite claiming to be vegetarian.

This comes as a real blow to me.  I've only been shopping there for about a year, but I've really come to trust the co-op.  It's one of the very few vegetarian establishments around here and, as a vegetarian with nearly all omnivorous friends, it's one of the few places outside of my own kitchen that I really feel comfortable as a vegetarian.  I am fully committed to my choice to be a vegetarian (with heavy vegan leanings) but it's nice to have support.  Up until today, just being in the co-op made me feel that I was not alone.  I was even considering membership and working there as a volunteer; I had mostly decided not to, at least for now because of the associated costs, but the decision is final for me.  I now feel like I need to question the values of this establishment that I once admired.

I have posted a message on the co-op's forum asking about this decision and if there's anything that can be done to reverse it.  For now, I guess that all I can do is wait.

Questions:

  • Is it hypocritical of the co-op to claim itself as vegetarian and sell fish oil and products that contain gelatin?
  • Should this affect my decision to shop there in the future?
  • Is it worse to shop at a conventional grocery store that sells murdered animals but is everything that it claims to be or at a "vegetarian" co-op that violates its own principles?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Friday Farmers' Market

Friday's are a good day around here and this is why: locally grown, organic Jersey corn.  Also greens, zucchini, pretty flowers that I can't bring myself to spend the money on, the Pickle Guy, fresh bread, and freshly picked fruit bursting with sweet, ripe juice.  Yes, my local farmers' market is on Friday and, to be a dork, I admit that I look forward to it all week long.  And for the seven months a year that it doesn't run.

I've gone three times so far this year; it didn't start until the week of our honeymoon but I've gone every week since.  Last week was a bit of a dud, since I didn't get there until late in the day, but this week and my first week were glorious.  The only problem is that every week I go, I wonder how much longer I will be able to.  I am currently unemployed, which allows me the luxury of mid-day produce purchases, but ideally this situation will not last because we need money!  The market is only open once a week, on a weekday, from 11am to 5pm.  It seems as though it's designed for only those who can afford to be there (i.e. can afford to have a family member who doesn't work or are lucky enough to have a job flexible enough to allow a midday grocery trip).  This is much the same problem that we see with most organic foods - only the wealthy can afford them, which continues to feed this nation's obesity crisis and denies health to millions who deserve it.  Even though the market is cheaper than the grocery store, it's still less accessible  It's a Catch-22 of course - organic foods cost more to grow and, thus, are only sustainable if the growers and producers charge more.  It's either organic foods for the rich or none for anybody.

Happily, my town is trying to find a solution to this very problem.  Today I saw a flyer asking local growers with a surplus to donate organic produce to the local food pantry, to provide residents who need it with fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.  The town describes itself as "New Jersey's First Green Community."  I'm not sure how accurate this is but within its two square miles, it does manage to host a weekly farmers' market, maintain both a community garden and a garden shared by the middle school and high school, and recently open A Better World Cafe, which strives to provide seasonal meals at affordable prices and flexible serving sizes with minimal waste.  (Read more here... I haven't been yet but I really want to check it out!)  I think it could do more, particularly in the realm of promoting vegetarianism (which is very green) but there's always room for improvement.  It seems to do what it can with its resources and has a long-term plan with more steps to implement.  It may not be perfect, but it's better than a lot of places and seems sincere in its efforts.

But this post isn't about the social health divide or my town's efforts at being green.  It's about my local farmers' market and the goodies to be found there!  I'll start with my first bounty of the year:
Kale, the afore-mentioned Jersey corn, zucchini, green onions, stuffed bread, and the famous sour cherries.  There was a lot more that I would liked to have bought, but I went a little crazy on my first produce purchase at Stop & Shop after the honeymoon, so I was trying to be practical and not fill my fridge with food that would inevitably be thrown out.  The cherries of course became a cobbler, the bread was devoured, the zucchini became a raw lasagna, the green onions went into something or other, the kale is miraculously still holding on, and the corn flowered!

The husband, our friend and former roommate Robin, and I had a little fourth of July barbecue at a little park and the corn made a guest appearance.  That's me pre-grilling on the left, and Robin, post-grilling on the right.  We removed the silk and grilled the corn in its husks but it didn't go very well.  It may partially have been because the corn itself was not very good (I know, that's impossible but it was early in the season) but it's probably mostly due to us not knowing what we were doing.  The grill wasn't hot enough and everything I've read online since says that we should have only left on one layer of husk and left the corn on the grill for longer.  Oh well - at least it was pretty!

On to yesterday's bounty:
Another stuffed loaf of bread, some broccoli, blueberries, more corn, and this week's new-to-me fruit - sugarplums!  I have yet to do anything with any of it, though the husband has nearly finished the bread already.  Sadly, the market has lacked cherries since that one fortuitous happenstance.  Apparently, unlike Bing cherries they have an incredibly short growing season which both explains why they don't show up in the grocery store and probably won't show their faces on this blog again until next year.  :[  As for what I did actually buy this week...  The broccoli, corn, and blueberries are all pretty straight-forward but the sugarplums I have some plans for.  I have already determined that they are delicious raw but would also like to create something with them...  I'm really enjoying finding these new fruits at the market and hope that it keeps happening!  Stay tuned to see what happens to those vision-inducing sugarplums...

Questions:
  • Do you prefer to buy your produce at the grocery store or farmers' market?  Why?
  • What do you think of the social divide regarding the availability of organic foods?  Is it fixable?
  • What would you do with a basket of sugarplums?
Not to be outdone by Turbo's cameo yesterday, today Ralph insisted on hamming it up in front of the camera as well...
What a big yawn for such a little boy! <3



Friday, July 9, 2010

A Trip to the Asian Supermarket

Yesterday I took a little trip to the local Asian grocery store.  The Hong Kong Supermarket is a place of endless condiments and even better deals.  The reasons for this little adventure?  A fancy little meal that I wanted to make from my Candle Cafe cookbook: Spicy Soba Salad with Creamy Wasabi Dressing.  This simple grocery trip turned into something more - a self-discover of sorts.  But first, the Hong Kong Supermarket.

What strikes you when you first step into the Hong Kong supermarket?  The first thing I and anybody else with a nose notices is the smell.  A most unpleasant odor of fish and meat smacks you in the face upon entering and never truly fades throughout the visit.  It's so bad that even if I ate meat, I wouldn't be buying it there.  It's easy to miss the cornucopia of inexpensive and culturally varied produce laid out in front of you because you're trying to figure out where that smell is coming from (the back right corner) and if it's at all acceptable to be smelling it (probably not).  But once you learn to ignore the smell (because escape it you will not), you're in for a treat.

What the produce sections tends to lack in basics (apples, bananas, etc), it makes up for in variety and deals.  Yesterday I scored 99 cent apiece avocados (3 for $5 at my local store) and some ridiculously cheap bok choy.  And oh, the choices of bok choy!  Who knew?  There had to be at least six varieties and, as my grocery list said nothing more detailed than "bok choy" and I don't actually know anything about bok choy, I chose the prettiest variety.  What else is a girl to do?  And what else was there?  Mushrooms aplenty, young Thai coconuts, whole stalks of sugarcane, white cherries in bags marked grapes, breadfruit, and who knows what else?  ME, ME!  Near the perimeter of the produce section were plastic bags filled with whole, dehydrated sardines.  Oh the treats to be found at every step.

The cornucopia didn't end there.  There's an aisle devoted to different varieties of soy sauce and its relatives (tamari, shoyu, etc), vinegars (white rice, brown rice, black rice, etc), chili pastes, stir-fry sauce, etc.  There's also an impressive collection of unidentified dried seaweed, dried vegetable (though vague, the only ingredient), Domino sugar that was uncomfortably close to a display of meat, some really cheap tofu, and a selection of ramen-style noodles that would make the cheapest of college students swoon.

 Of course, despite such a selection, I was unable to locate what I really wanted - umeboshi vinegar - which brings me to the real point of this ever-lengthening post.

What's the problem? you ask. What are you going on about?  Just ask for help already and end this diatribe!  Well that's the thing.  I can't ask for directions there.  I tried once when I had the husband for support.  My first trip to this store I was looking for miso, something that I knew of but knew nothing about.  Therefore, I spent what felt like hours wandering up and down the soy sauce aisle, as well as its neighboring aisles, vainly searching for the elusive substance and, finally, broke down and asked for help.  And asked.  And asked.  Nobody spoke English.  I wasn't too surprised by this, nor offended, but I was affected.  Why, you ask?  I asked myself the same question during yesterday's trip and here was my conclusion: I am intimidated by Asian people.

One of my oldest friends, Stephanie, is the child of two Chinese parents.  In retrospect, her parents were quite generous, inviting me into their home, giving me rides home from school, etc.  At the time though, I was terrified of her mother.  Short and tidy, she appeared to me to be a fireball of wrath, always yelling, rarely speaking English, often criticizing Stephanie.  To her I attribute this sense of intimidation.  Just to note, the last time I saw her which was after a multi-year gap, I found her quite friendly and amusing.  I mentioned this to Stephanie and her response was along the lines of I know!  I don't know why everybody was always so scared of her!

While on my knees in the vinegar section, searching for English ingredient labels listing the elusive plum and trying to bully myself into asking for help, I realized that I was scared of being yelled at.  Which is completely unfair considering I know now that Stephanie's mother was not after all yelling at me, and I only thought that because of the differences in the tonal qualities of languages.  Which is all well and good but really didn't solve my problem because an intellectual dissemination of tonal qualities is going to do nothing to alleviate my deep-seated, unreasonable sense of intimidation in the presence of Asians.  East Asian immigrant women to be exact.

So, pathetic creature that I am, I left without my umeboshi vinegar.  I gave up, defeated but what I acknowledged to be an unreasonable, paranoia.  I also left without mochi, arame, garam masala (which was a bit of a stretch, but they had packaged rotis so I wasn't too unreasonable in that expectation).  I did however come away with this haul:
Bok choy (I forget which variety), avocados, firm tofu, a huge package of cheap soba noodles (same price as a three-serving box at the regular grocery store, soy sauce, tamari, shoyu, mirin, pure sesame oil, wasabi power...

'Twas a good haul, though not quite complete.  Fortunately, the aforementioned health food store was able to make my dining dreams come true:
This resulted in the following:
The noodles are seaweedy, the tofu yummy, the wasabi dressing a nice little kick of spice without being too overpowering, the bok choy a delight...  Overall, this is satisfying though probably not a repeat.  I'll finish the leftovers (all the leftovers, because the husband was not a fan) but leave it at that.  I find that this kind of dish is not really for me.  It reminds me a bit of the Miso-Morphosis from Angelica's Kitchen: good but not for me.  The good news is that it was worth the search for the ingredients!

Back to the true topic of this post: I fear that what I've said can be easily misconstrued.  I don't dislike Asians and have had many as friends.  This realization of an unreasonable paranoia within myself is upsetting and not something that I'm okay with.  I'm not really sure what to do about it though: spend more time at the Honk Kong Supermarket?  Set up a coffee date with Stephanie's mom?  Just ignore it and hope it goes away?  I'm typically comfortable among most people and fear that this can be seen as a subtle racism or something equally negative.

Questions:

  • Can you relate to this experience of being uncomfortable around a certain group of people without reason?  What do/would you do about it?
  • Do I sound racist?  I'm really paranoid about this because I really don't think that I'm a racist person!
  • What are your favorite treats to pick up at the Asian grocery store?  I'd love ideas on something new and different to get on my next trip!
  • How cute is this?
Okay, that was a trick question.  We all know the answer is "super-cute"!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Veggie Heaven Restaurant Review

Chinese food has never been my favorite cuisine.  In high school I went through a roast pork lo mein phase and I have had some truly exceptional sesame tofu but other than that, I've generally been a pizza-girl on take-out nights.  The ongoing exception to that is the appetizers: wonton soup, crab rangoon, scallion pancakes, cold sesame noodles.  There was a time when I could make a meal out of that but alas!  Scallion pancakes and cold sesame noodles can be hard to find and my decision three years ago to be vegetarian erased wonton soup and crab rangoon from my list of options.  What's a girl to do?  Beg for pizza or Thai food on take-out night of course!

Enter Veggie Heaven.  Last week the husband and I went out with our lovely friend Sarah for her birthday.  (Happy Birthday Sarah!  That's her enjoying a Tropical Combo smoothie.)  After much discussion of the venue, we settled on Veggie Heaven, an all-vegetarian Asian food restaurant in Northern NJ (maybe elsewhere too, I don't know).  Before going, I squinted at the horrible-quality menu they have online to start planning my meal.  Scallion pancakes?  Wonton soup?  Cold sesame noodles?  Crispy tofu?  An entire page of fish-free sushi?!  YES PLEASE!

Suffice it to say that when we arrived at the restaurant, some decisions had to be made.  As much as I would have liked to have a little of everything, that would mean paying for everything and my unemployed wallet is not up to that.  After much inner turmoil, I decided to rule out sushi and stick with Chinese.  At that point, my inner pig won out: three courses?  Um, yes.

Here's what we finally decided on (I'm giving everyone's choices because I sampled and will review everything):
Me: wonton soup, scallion pancakes, General Tso's crispy tofu
The husband: avocado salad, spring rolls, basil fried rice
Sarah: avocado salad, roast "pork" spring rolls, pineapple "chicken"

Something I forgot to mention: Veggie Heaven specializes in "meat," something I try to avoid, though it is a nice little curiosity every now and again.  I decided not to order any but Sarah did and I sampled and enjoyed her choices.  I like to stick with things called what they are like tofu or tempeh because there's less chance of disappointment.  Plus, I don't miss meat in the least so I feel no need to imitate it.
A sneak peek at Sarah's "chicken."
The first thing that struck us was the service.  Remember how we ordered a combined total of six pre-entree dishes?  Those drifted out of the kitchen, one by one, in no particular order.  First came my soup which I, feeling guilty to be eating alone but not wanting it to get cold, started slurping while the others eyes me with jealous eyes and empty bellies.  Next up?  My scallion pancakes.  I guess I looked hungry. At my invitation, the others dove into my stack of crispy, greasy, delicious - NO WAIT!  I'm not reviewing the food yet!  The rest of the dishes slowly made their way to the table, all except the husband's salad.  I guess We'll each have an avocado salad really means You'll share it and like it! Anyway.  At least we saved on the tip, right?  Don't worry, I gave 15%... I usually give 20.  Moving on to the food.

As I've mentioned, all of my choices were things that are unusual to find vegetarian versions of or hard to find at all.  I started with the soup: wontons are something that I haven't had in at least three years (probably much longer) and never in vegetarian form.  Wonton soup was always my choice when my family ordered Chinese food up until middle school or so.  It's likely that I haven't had it since then so lets just say that our reunion was long overdo, which is true of everything I ordered.  Ahh... sweet wontons.  They were great.  The filling was actually a little disappointing; I expected something hearty in place of the pork, like chopped mushrooms or TVP, and what I got was some shredded cabbage and carrots.  The good news though is that I learned that the wonton filling doesn't make the wonton soup.  The broth and wonton dough were enough for me to devour the soup and recall eating it as a child with the fancy Chinese-style spoons that my family probably picked up on a trip to Epcot.  I have a recipe for mushroom-filled wontons floating around somewhere but it always seems too involved and I never seem to get around to it but after this experience, I think it's worth it.  They are definitely getting added to the things I want to recreate for myself.
Slurp.
Moving on... The scallions pancakes were greasy, crispy goodness and especially delicious when dipped in the soup broth.  I've actually made them before and think that I may have to do so again.  The General Tso's crispy tofu was amazing.  I love, love, LOVE crispy tofu, which is always best in Asian restaurants, and the sauce was the perfect balance of sweet and spicy.  It definitely deserves a try at recreation.  In fact, this whole meal does.  I see a homemade take-out night in my future.  Probably in Sarah and the husband's futures too.

A quick reviews of the others' choices: the avocado salad was yummy, though the dressing was a little off.  The roast "pork" spring rolls were good, though I'd stick with regular vegetarian spring rolls in the future.  It's really all about the sauce anyway.  The husband's rice was okay.  It was just a little boring to be honest but he loved it and that's what counts.  Sarah's pineapple "chicken" was yummy: sweet and wheat-y (I can taste the breadiness of seitan which sounds unappealing but I love it!).  Overall I liked my choices best, largely because they were my tried and true choices in the past so I pretty much knew what I was getting.  I usually like to try new things and will do so the next time I go, but for my first trip I just wanted to revisit the past, via my plate, and I'm glad I did.

I give Veggie Heaven the double thumbs up and I suggest that come your next craving for Chinese food you find the closest location and give it a try.  You won't be disappointed.

Oh, and how could I forget my fortune?  What's Chinese food without a fortune?!  I'll leave you on a silly note (Or weird...or creepy...or...?????  You pick.):

"Attend to Business today.  Leave that street-side flower alone."

Monday, July 5, 2010

VegNews Giveaway!

Sadly, this giveaway is once again not being hosted by my blog.  Rather, it's being hosted by Tasha at The Voracious Vegan in honor of her recent recognition by VegNews as one of today's top ten vegan bloggers.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Tasha, she's an American expat feminist vegan who currently lives and writes in Saudi Arabia.  Her blog is personal, passionate, and generous.  It's always fresh because she strikes a great balance between the quotidian and her passions, like discussions of feminism, inequalities, dogs, et cetera.  She is incredibly genuine, recently having fasted herself in solidarity with all those in this world who face hunger every day of their lives.  But of course, she loves food - Tasha always has delicious food porn to share and, unlike many a blogger out there, she actually shares her amazing and original recipes with her readers (I recently made the chickpea curry -  so delicious!).  This is not a blog to drool jjj in envy - it's a blog to drool over and then partake in because Tasha is nice and doesn't make you pay.  She shares her veganism and inspires others rather than turning it into a way to profit.  Tasha is also incredibly enthusiastic and upbeat, finding joy in the smallest things and inspiring others (read: me) to do the same.  In case you can't tell by my adoring outburst or repeated links to her blog in past posts, Tasha is one of my favorite bloggers as well so I am delighted that she was recognized for her contributions to the blogger world.

Now onto the giveaway: Tasha is giving one lucky reader a subscription to VegNews and it could be you!  Just head on over to the giveaway post on her blog and leave a comment telling her that you want to win and you'll be entered into the contest.  It's as easy as that!  Or you could just tell her that your entry is in my honor.  I have no idea if that's allowed, but I'm cool with it!  :]

Congratulations to Tasha and good luck to all who enter the giveaway!