27 February 2008


I learned this one a while back while listening to super sweet tech news podcast Buzz Out Loud. (If you're into that stuff, please listen to them. You'll quickly find yourself in geek heaven.)

If you're annoyed by the endless amount of previews on DVDs, every DVD player has this nifty feature built in to skip straight to the feature presentation. Simply press stop, press stop again, then press play. Your player will then skip to the main feature. It may flash an FBI warning or other such legal babble, but otherwise you're home free.

So, when you're mired in a seemingly endless montage of a studio's action movie back catalog edited to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out For A Hero," just remember to hit STOP-STOP-PLAY on your remote.

(You think I'm joking. One of my Paramount titles has it, complete with Harrison Ford in Witness ducking out of a grain silo with a shotgun. It's actually quite glorious.)

20 February 2008

Surfas Restaurant Supply & Valentine's Day

It seems there's a frozen food for every level of foodie. Convenience stores have those wonderfully cheap Tina's frozen burritos. Supermarkets take it up a notch, with everything from Michelina's (my college preference) to Lean Cuisine and Smart Ones (Camille's work food of choice) to those frozen pasta bags that actually resemble real food after some time in a frying pan. Trader Joe and trader pals Jose, Ming, and Giotto have stuff that you could seriously fool people into thinking was more expensive.

And then there's Surfas Restaurant Supply in Culver City, which is more expensive and could seriously fool people into thinking you're some kind of chef. In fact, when I went to buy my Valentine's Day dinner ingredients, the kindly clerk asked, "Are you a chef?" Apparently, duck confit, dried figs, juniper berries, and foie gras are not the normal purchases of, say, aspiring screenwriting foodies who blog in their spare time.
I found Surfas because they are one of the few places in Los Angeles that sells foie gras, which Camille and I tried for the first time a couple months back and which I've been anxious to cook myself. It's insanely delicious, and not just because it makes you sound like a peace-mongering Frenchman when you say it. Rich, creamy, smooth, delicate -- it tastes absolutely sinful. And according to animal rights activists, it is sinful. Look, if these geese and duck had watched The Shawshank Redemption, then they'd know to get busy living and fly away. Really, it's their fault.

Anyway, I'd planned on only buying foie gras, but being in Surfas is being the proverbial kid in the candy store. The fridge and freezer section alone contained numerous items of culinary holiness like creme fraiche, duck fat, rillettes, and, yes, frozen duck confit. Confit is another dish I've wanted to try, except it's one of those things that requires a lot of lead time, what with the curing in salt for days. Now, in the time it took me to grab the frozen duck and foie gras out of cold storage, I had pretty much finished my main dish. And get mistaken for a chef, no less!

Duck confit, seared foie gras, fig and port charoset, pine nut cous cous.

This dinner is incredibly rich. The duck confit is wonderfully crisp on the outside, juicy within, and savory all over. It could easily be replaced by a lighter poultry dish to help offset the richness of the foie gras and the figs and port. I mean, if you're a wimp like that.

The thing that puts seared foie gras over the top is the texture. Yes, it's creamy and rich, but searing it properly gives it a crust and a lovely bite. It crunches slightly, then melts in your mouth. All geese should have the good fortune of exiting the world in this fashion.

According the the Epicurious recipe I got, the fig and port charoset is apparently a staple of Jewish seder. I don't know anything about that, but it ends up being a sweet, sticky fig chutney mush which works really well as a side dish. Plus, you'll have an open bottle of port begging you to finish it off while you're cooking, which is just fine and dandy.

The first two ingredients are cheats. Of course, cous cous is insanely easy, so it's not much of a shortcut to buy the prepackaged box. As for the confit, there's that curing in salt business. Yeah, no...

2 confit duck legs and thighs
1 package pine nut cous cous
1/3 lb. foie gras (about two 1" slices)
1/2 cub dried figs, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup port wine
3 tbs. vegetable oil
1 tbs. butter

2 small pots (seriously, who calls small pots "saucepans?")
1 frying pan

Preheat oven to 375.

Place duck confit into the oven and bake 20-25 minutes. Good job, chef.

Combine port and figs in small pot #1, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium-high heat, add the onions, and cook, stirring often, until the onions lightly caramelize, about 15-20 minutes.

Place the onions in a bowl and let cool slightly, add the port and figs, and mix. Add pepper to taste. Set aside.

Cook the cous cous. It should take about 6 minutes tops.

Turn the oven off, flip on your broiler, and move the duck confit to the top rack just underneath. Broil for 1-2 minutes until the skin is crisp. Remove and let rest.

Wipe down the frying pan (or use a fresh one) and melt the butter over high heat until the bubbles subside. Lay in the foie gras slices and sear for about a minute. Flip and repeat. In order to quasi-sear the sides, tilt the pan so the butter pools in one end, then use your spatula to splash the hot butter over the foie gras. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

Plate and serve.

16 February 2008

No Country for Old Men

There are swift thematic undercurrents just under the violent surface of No Country for Old Men. From the lean, nuanced writing to the quiet, confident performances and the Coen Bros. restrained direction, the whole film is an exercise in understatement. Yes, there's a lot to digest in this high-minded action/western/thriller. The real question to ask after taking this film in is: really, who gives a shit?

The Coen Bros. can do and have done every type of movie. They have an off-kilter sense of humor, a real mean streak, and an uncanny ability to balance the two. Sometimes they create moments so tense and unnerving that an audience's only recourse is to laugh. Such is the case with most every scene involving Javier Bardem's amoral Anton Chegurh. He's quiet, composed, and sinister, a supremely chilling villain.

Sadly, the rest of the characters exist on another, less involving plane. They are flat, uninteresting people who speak in vague, ambiguous statements, if they speak at all. Tommy Lee Jones' retirement-avoiding sheriff opens and closes the film with two meandering soliloquies that deal with who-freakin'-knows-what. There's man's violent nature, retirement, the conflict in men between staying and going from their chosen lives, the eternal conflict of good and evil, violence begetting violence, and other such high-minded concepts that have fans of Cormac McCarthy's source novel sloppily wetting themselves.

I am a fan of the Coen Bros. and I do appreciate it when filmmakers let their audiences connect the dots. Forcing the audience to figure out what exactly the dots are is another matter, one that I feel should take a back seat to simpleton stuff like interesting characters and emotional thematics.

Make no mistake, I'm not knocking the film for being uniquely literate and intellectual, but strip the rosy prose away from the characters, and No Country for Old Men is a lean thriller about the mechanics of running and hiding with a big bag of money. If the medium is the message, then that is what's happening for two hours. When the Academy Awards do their featurette on this film during the ceremony and someone describes it as a provocative, insightful look into the dark souls of men, please remember that a significant portion of the film's running time is devoted to Josh Brolin screwing and unscrewing air vents.

The presence of Anton Chegurh changes and elevates things. His actions and their curious motivations are in such stark contrast to the film's protagonist that it leaves you craving more. But "less is more" is the theme of the day here, and No Country for Old Men left me underwhelmed. It's tense, involving, and meticulously plotted. I'll even throw in the adjective "diabolical" for good measure. But the hype is too much. If I had stumbled upon this film a few years down the road, I probably would have wondered, "Why haven't more people seen this?" But critics and (gulp) the literati are falling over themselves kissing this film's ass, and all I have to say is, "Really?"

UPDATE: Ask A Ninja agrees with me.

07 February 2008

BFT is on the Foodie Blogroll!

So, I've been added to the Foodie Blogroll, which is organized by The Left Over Queen. Check her out, or go on a foodie adventure by scrolling through the member blogs in the right margin (underneath my labels).

06 February 2008

Kare Kare

Get a slow cooker.

If I've learned one thing over the short life of this blog that I can impart, it's that. Get a slow cooker. It's like cooking but... not. For some reason, I used to associate slow cookers with gimmick culinary contraptions like salad shooters, knuckle guards, or the Ronco Food Dehydrator (it makes turkey jerkey!). In fact, it probably does less than all those Magic Bullet-type devices. The only thing it does is slowly but surely heat whatever you put inside it.

But, oh, the magic it did for my latest batch of kare kare.My recent foray into Filipino cooking was inspired by my recent Christmas trip home to the Bay Area. It was the first time I'd ever spent Christmas day without my parents, who flew south for the winter. So, when I wasn't officially upgrading Camille from girlfriend to fiance or playing Guitar Hero, I was watching Camille's mother cook. Because she's the working mother of four kids, she has an amazing shorthand for pinoy dishes that are notoriously laborious. And using only two burners and a turbo cooker, to boot.

I'd previously tried kare kare, the peanut-based oxtail stew, once before using a recipe from Memories of Philippine Kitchens, which has more traditional leanings in terms of flavor and preparation. The recipe calls for an initial stewing to soften the meat and make a broth, cooling overnight to separate the fat for use the next day while cooking an assortment of veggies. It also uses equal portions of peanuts and peanut butter while more contemporary recipes pour on the peanut butter for a richer flavor and texture.

Camille's mom? She cuts onions and minces garlic, tossing them into a hot pot as she goes, then sears off the oxtail, boils it down, dumps a combination of sauce and flavor packets, then the peanut butter, then bok choy and longbeans. Hour and one-half, two hours tops. She has kids, she says.

And it works. It's really good. Sweet and savory, beefy, peanut buttery goodness. The gooey thickness of the peanut butter sauce with balance from the mildly sweet, leafy bok choy and the bite of the green beans. Except the oxtail meat is just a tad too firm. I wanted to do a hybrid of the two methods, but unfortunately there's really no short cut for breaking down beef into a tender, juicy wonder.

Enter the slow cooker.

2 lbs. oxtail, cut into 2-inch pieces
5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and mashed
2 medium onions, chopped
1 1/2 - 2 cups peanut butter
2 handfuls (about 1 lbs.) longbeans, trimmed and halved
4-5 heads baby bok choy, rinsed
3 tbs. oil
2 eggplants, halved and chopped into 3/4" pieces (optional)
steamed rice

slow cooker
large, heavy pot

(I bought a Le Creuset dutch oven a few years back that's big and heavy and beautiful. There are probably cheaper dutch ovens that are reasonably comparable performance-wise, but they ain't as good and they're definitely not as beautiful, and no one brags about their reasonably comparable and ugly dutch oven. My point: go cheap everywhere else, but indulge yourself with at least one Le Creuset.)

My cousin recommended slow cooking overnight, which I did by simply placing the oxtail in, filling the crock pot with water, covering, and setting to low. No need for refrigeration or fat-skimming or any of that. In the morning, the meat was still a touch on the firm side. So, I just left the thing on and went to work.

When I returned home, the oxtail had been slow cooking for about 18 hours, resulting in suitably beefy broth and meat that was fall-off-the-bone tender. Not a figure of speech, it was falling clean off the bone. The fat and cartilage melted away and the meat fiber sloughed off when I tried fishing it out of the crock pot, leaving white, clean bones that looked like a cross between a biplane and an X-Wing fighter. Cool.Set aside the oxtail, heat the oil, and saute the onions and garlic about five minutes. Add the peanut butter and the broth. I used about eight cups of broth, but if it's not enough you can add more later. Let simmer until the peanut butter has incorporated well, then add the oxtail and eggplant. Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes.

Add the longbeans and bok choy and simmer another 10 minutes for the flavors to combine. Taste and adjust the texture to your liking by adding either more broth or more peanut butter.

Portion rice into bowls, then ladle the kare kare into it. Now, all you need is a spoon. Though Camille and I have been on a brown rice kick lately, I found that the dryer, nuttier brown rice wasn't able to soak up the stew as well as white rice.

The Boondock Saints (sucks your will to live)


The cult success of The Boondock Saints confounds me. In my mind, there are only two possible explanations for its relatively high regard: 1) a halo effect from the well received documentary Overnight, about writer/director Troy Duffy's abrupt rise and ego-laden fall from Hollywood's good graces, and 2) nostalgia for the mid to late 90's when every other movie was a shameless rip-off of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Considering that Pulp and The Professional, two of my favorite films, are shamelessly looted from here, I was almost bemused watching it. It's like I was in high school again.

Reminiscing aside, The Boondock Saints is ridiculously stupid. It's built around the intriguing premise of two blue collar immigrant hoods becoming vigilante killers, but the writing is all over the map. It wants to be gritty and bold and daring and dynamic, but succeeds only in being juvenile and inane. The fact that it's a rehash in terms of characters, tone, the fractured timeline, and a pop philosophy, only adds to its maddening retardedness. That's right, it's so dumb I had to use the word "retardedness."

The real trouble with the film -- aside from the retardedness -- is its wildly uneven tone. Portentous religious overtones give way to farcical fat jokes, followed by obligatory timeline manipulation, and then Willem Dafoe's sitcom creation of a character. It's been almost a week since I've seen the movie and I still can't wrap my head around Dafoe's Will & Grace-esque gay FBI agent who's childish putdowns are made to be intelligent by virtue of the other policemen being stupid. I suspect the character is supposed to subvert expectations, but it's a nonsensical mish-mash of caricatures. It's like Duffy didn't want to offend gay people, FBI agents, or children, so he combined all the worst stereotypes into a cartoon and then directed Dafoe to channel Gary Oldman in The Professional. I could be paraphrasing, but he actually razzes another cop with, "Who's getting coffee? THIS GUY!"

Seriously, WTF?

I don't say juvenile to mean I was offended. The film simply feels like it was vomited into existence, the half-digested remains of something tastier and more satisfying. It wants to be vibrant and fresh by punctuating its serious moments with silliness, but it ends up undermining any pathos the story had going. One scene features an accidental shooting of a cat that's so awkwardly handled, the ensuing scene just gives up on the joke, turning what was an (unfunny) bit into a boilerplate argument between previously simpatico characters. The film wants to subvert your expectations, but it doesn't set up any expectations, nor does it establish any kind of heightened reality. It assumes you've seen the films of Tarantino, Scorcese, Besson, et al. Except if you have seen those films, then The Boondock Saints sucks even more.

I'm proud to say I've never walked out of a movie, but The Boondock Saints pushed me to my limits. And I was watching it at home, so walking out would have been a tremendous feat. But who would consider walking out of their own living room to get away from an atrociously conceived and produced movie?

This guy!

05 February 2008


I wonder if the found footage/shaky cam sub-genre of film will branch out from witches and monsters to include an actual domestic-themed "home" movie. But then I suppose no one would care to watch meandering stories of dysfunctional families. Oh wait, Little Miss Sunshine happened.

Anyway, 1-18-08 has finally delivered the film initially code named "Cloverfield" and shot under the names "Slusho" and "Cheese," and finally released as... Cloverfield. It follows through on the cryptic, gripping teaser trailer that promised a disaster/monster movie told from the point of view of the man (or Abercrombie & Fitch model) on the street.

It reinvents the genre in such a simple way that the film has an immediacy lacking in the likes of bloated behemoths like Godzilla (1998) or even the big event movie that carried Cloverfield's teaser trailer, Transformers. All the cheesy artifice that plagues these movies -- the military officers and government officials with their needless explanations, the interminable "something strange is going on" sequences followed by the "this can't be happening!" sequences -- all of that melts away. If you're someone who demands to know what this monster is and where it came from, you're going to be disappointed. This is a monster movie boiled down to the essence of what we all truly want: people running from something scary. It's surprising how spine-tingling the appearance of stealth bombers and machine guns can be when their arrival is a signal of danger, and not a precursor to more needless plot.

However, one thing Cloverfield doesn't reinvent is melodrama. Fans of JJ Abrams and his gang from their work on Alias and Lost will know they have a deft way with banter and group dynamics. Their characters are always endearing even if they're not terribly interesting (save for the notoriously inane Nikki and Paulo from Lost). The film takes a healthy amount of time to set up Rob, a young man who's childhood friendship with Beth has finally turned into romance on the eve of his career taking off. Unfortunately, the characters that end up together for the majority of the film are a hodgepodge bunch. While I applaud the filmmakers' willingness to kill characters, we end up with a group that lacks much chemistry.

What I especially was disappointed with was the character of Hud, who's basically the cameraman. He is Rob's awkward friend, saddled with the job of taping well wishes and turning it into a chance to hit on a girl. He easily could have been the voice of the audience, but instead he becomes a punchline, uttering some overtly obvious lines for the sake of humor. It's not that the character is dull or poorly written (his musings in the subway tunnel are hilarious), it's that the approach of telling the entire film through one single camera creates opportunities that are missed. The film could have subverted even more genre conventions by deliberately toying with the point of view or having Hud deliver more biting coments, but instead it opts for long, motion sickness-inducing takes. There's a lot of shaky cam for the sake of shaky cam, which is especially frustrating during the quiet moments. And there are moments with the monster when Hud points the camera at his friends, and instead of screaming at the stupid characters to run, the audience screams at the stupid characters to point the damn camera at the monster.

But here I am, after the fact, criticizing a fresh and inventive film for not being inventive enough. Cloverfield is undeniably involving, a special effects spectacular that you experience and not just observe. The standard built-in features of the camera (the light, the nightvision) are used to terrifying effect, and the approach creates startling moments that simply aren't possible in a conventionally shot film. The mere sound of the creature is terrifying because the camera could whip around and suddenly find it breathing down the characters' necks.

Even Rob's melodramatic motivation, which I didn't completely buy into amidst all the chaos, pays off in the end in a surprisingly poignant climax. It's icing on the cake, really, because at the end of the day the characters don't really matter, anyway. Cloverfield's approach is to trim the fat and make the audience an active participant. The point is to take part in this visceral, frightening roller coaster experience, and it works. Sure, you may laugh about the experience once the adrenaline has left your body, but you'll probably want to get on again afterwards.

01 February 2008

Lechon (or, How to Commit Suicide by Deep Frying)

Lechon Kawali

One of the most iconic traditional pinoy dishes is lechon, the spit-roasted pig. Sadly, I have neither a whole pig, large skewer, nor a large fire, not to mention the wherewithal to clean, season, and skewer a whole pig. Which is why I opted for lechon kawali, the indoor version that involves boiling, drying, and deep-frying pork belly.
It's a celebration of fat. Making it helps you realize it's basically a bacon slab deliberately cooked in such a way so the thick layer of fat under the skin doesn't melt away. You want that fat. You need that fat. It's good eating, that fat. Looking at lechon kawali is looking at a chunk of boiled, deep-fried fat that's been seasoned with a touch of meat.

This is atypical Filipino family party food, but my mom never made it at home. And now I know why. My soon-to-be mother-in-law taught me her simplified method that replaces frying with a turbo broiler, but since I don't have a one I had to mix and match various methods.

You will need...

3-4 lbs. pork belly, cut into strips
salt & pepper
cane vinegar (sukang maasim)
a large pot
a lot of piping hot oil for frying
acceptance of your own mortality
a splatter shield
a draining station (paper towels, or a slotted baking sheet set over paper towels, etc.)

Cut the pork belly into long strips, about 1 - 1 1/2" wide. Season with salt and pepper. Boil for about an hour, until the meat is tender and the layer of fat has swollen considerably. Remove the strips and let dry on paper towels for at least one hour.

The proper post-boiling step as taken from the terrific book Memories of Philippine Kitchens...

"3. While simmering the pork, preheat the oven to 400. Using tongs, transfer the pork to a roasting pan fitted with a wire rack, pat the pork dry with paper towels, and brush on both sides with vinegar. Transfer to the oven and roast for 20 to 30 minutes to dry, turning onces with tongs. Remove from oven and keep in a cool place to dry for another 4 hours."

Then fry the pieces about 6-7 minutes until the skin is crispy all the way through. Set aside to drain and cool.

Now, I'm making a point of referencing and quoting because that isn't what I did.

Following the boil, I gave the strips several pat downs, cut them into large chunks, and popped them into the freezer for about ten minutes while I heated the oil. Despite the vast majority of recipes I looked up -- you know, the recipes based on generations of experience -- recommending to dry the pork for a prolonged period, I went with the one recipe that said one hour of air drying would do the trick. Yeah, not so much.

Quick and dirty science lesson if you've never thought about why hot oil goes batshit crazy when water is introduced: water and oil do not mix (clearly I am a genius). When molecules of water are surrounded on all sides by hot oil, the water instantaneously boils. The resulting vapor then goes racing up towards the surface and looks around to see there's a microwave and a floor and my face within reach, and explodes like so much nitroglycerin.

Of course, I knew this and figured all the drying was for this exact reason. But, damnit, I wanted lechon kawali NOW!

Well, it seems pig fat does a reasonable job of holding a lot of water. I'm going to estimate that the top of my microwave is about three and a half feet above the stove. Scorching vegetable oil exploding through a splatter shield and above the microwave might possibly be the scariest thing I've witnessed in person.

Anyway, be sure to fry the pieces until they are crispy and don't give under a little pressure from tongs. Lechon sauce would be nice (like Mang Tomas "All Purpose Sauce"), but Camille simply likes to drizzle some vinegar over it. The crispy, rich fat and the lean meat, combined with the acid saltiness of the vinegar makes for some addicting, life-affirming food.
Paksiw Na Lechon

And it doesn't stop. No, the real beauty of lechon is the leftovers can be cooked into a completely different dish. Most Filipino restaurants are casual turo turo joints, which means "point point." But when I'm in line with my tray, staring down at my choices, I'm always looking for one thing: paksiw na lechon. (As for the Filipino trend of doubling up on words... don't don't ask.)

Using vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, and a whole lot of "All Purpose Sauce" to stew the meat and reverse all that drying and deep frying, paksiw na lechon is more hearty and savory. It's absolutely required to have rice on the side to soak up the juices (not that any Filipino would be caught dead eating this without a side of rice). Unlike lechon kawali, the meat takes center stage. The pork flavor really comes to the fore with the sweet and tangy stew, the richness of the fat working more as a balancing counterpoint.

I used a recipe from pinoycook.net which basically calls for letting the meat break down in the stew, then adding All Purpose Sauce (which, by the way, is used for all purposes lechon, but nothing else) to smooth things out. In restaurants, it's usually fairly thick, but this preparation is runnier, more in line with most stews.
Salty, sweet, savory. I love this stuff.