The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom – 2014) A-

Funny impersonations, witty conversation, lovely food and a wonderful locale. Very much like The Trip of course and I like that a lot. Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves and this time it’s Brydon who seems to be getting more of the acclaim and success while Coogan is connecting with his son. All that really is just another frame or excuse for the basic premise of this film…funny impersonations, witty conversation, lovely food and a wonderful locale.

Scallops with Butternut Squash Puree and Quinoa

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Scallops and sweet winter squash are a perfect combo and this quick dish brings them together in a delicious and beautiful plate of food. It was not a planned fancy dinner or anything. I bought the large scallops because Diana loves them and had the butternut squash on hand at home.

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Initially I had thought of just sauteing the pumpkin and serving it with the seared scallops, but then figured that with a little more effort I can make something new, more impressive and at the same time incorporate more flavors and textures. The squash became a loose puree – almost a soup. To make that I baked the halved the squash lengthwise and baked it on an oiled sheet -seeds included- until it is soft. Then I flipped the halves over and baked for an additional 10 minutes or so to get more caramelized flavors and to dry out the squash a bit. The seeds and pulpy bits from the squash get thrown away usually at this point. I decided to toss them in a small pan and gently cook them with butter with the idea to flavor the butter and use later on.

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To finish the pumpkin soup/puree I sauteed onions and a little chopped golden potatoes in butter and added some stock to the mixture. When the potatoes where sufficiently cooked I put in the squash meat and pureed the mixture.

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I brine most of the seafood I cook for a several reasons. It enhances the texture by firming it up a bit, it also removes any impurities on the surface and helps the seafood get a better color when seared. Last but not least it of course seasons the seafood. I first started doing that after reading about it in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home book and getting great results from it. Since then many other sources recommended brining the fish such as the folks from Ideas in Food and ChefSteps. The key here is to make a high salt solution, 10% salt to be exact and to brine the fish or shellfish for no more than 15-30 minutes depending on the size or else you end up with very salty fish. Scallops only get about a 15 minute dunk in there and then they get patted dry really well.

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To cook the scallops I seared half of them “naked” and the other half got a quick roll in a mixture of Wondra flour and finely chopped parsley. I then sliced the scallops into quarters and plated them up. The quinoa was really a late addition. I wanted to make the dish more substantial since it was our dinner but I did not want something too heavy like pasta, rice or potatoes. Quinoa fit the bill nicely. It cooks quick, is light and has a great nutty grassy flavor that paired well with the pumpkin and scallops.

That pumpkin butter I prepared using the seeds and pulp of the squash was a great flavor boost for the garnish. I used it to saute some pumpkin seeds and crisp up a few leaves of fresh sage. I tossed these with a touch of salt and pepper and used them as a topping for the finished dish. A final touch of creme fraiche rounded everything out very nicely and gave the plates a welcome touch of clean white streaks.

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Stand by Me (Rob Reiner – 1986) A+

I love it and love watching it every time. Nathan, my 11 year old, was very surprised that this film was “that old”. It really has a certain timelessness to it even though it is almost 30 years old. It captures the beauty of friendship, the perceptiveness of children and portrays those relationships that we forge early on in life that can just never be duplicated. It’s a perfect little gem this one.

The One I Love (Charlie McDowell – 2014) A-

A couple are having troubles in their marriage. After trying multiple avenues to fix their relationship, their counselor advises them to go to a particular retreat. From that point on, the movie goes places that I completely was blindsided by in the best possible way. It’s a movie that is tough to categorize. The closest that comes to mind is maybe the feel of a Twilight Zone episode. It is much more than that though, it tackles long term relationships from a very interesting angle and poses some challenging ideas. What would one really do if they can fix up their mate and make them perfect? Is that something we should strive for or just love the imperfections that we get as part of the deal? There are only two characters in the film played by Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass and they do tremendous work here in demanding roles. This is one of those small films that might not be perfect but is made with a lot of care and skill. I can spend a long time thinking about why it would not work but I really do not care and would rather just appreciate it for what it does so well.

Guardians of The Galaxy ( James Gunn – 2014) A-

What a blast this one was. When I first saw the trailer months ago I had zero interest in seeing a racoon, a talking tree, a green lady and a “star lord” in a space adventure. This film works though. The characters are interesting, funny and have great chemistry. It looks great and Gunn injects just enough of his style to make this funny but not cheesy and really appealing to both myself and my 11 year old son. Looking forward to the next installment.

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu – 2014) B+

It’s been more than a couple of weeks since I’ve seen Birdman. I wanted to let it sit and see how that ending …sits with me. The good news is that the film is very good. It’s such a refreshing entry in Iñárritu’s filmography. I just could not care less for anything after the great Amores Perros. This one is fresh on many levels. It is fun, it has an effective style that puts us right “there” it seems . You get to be a proverbial fly-on-the-wall during the days leading up to a Broadway opening of a play. That play is the last effort of a once famous super hero movie star played brilliantly by Michael Keaton who is trying to do something meaningful. The actors are all great here especially Edward Norton who almost steals every scene he is in. Even the sparse soundtrack (basically just drums) works very well. As for the ending, well, I am not crazy about it. It just could’ve ended 5 minutes earlier and the movie would’ve been better for it.