R.I.P: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 – 2014)

He was an every man. He was not by any means your typical Hollywood star in looks or in the roles he chose to play on the big screen. He was one of my favorite actors. Actually right now I cannot think of anyone who comes even close. Hoffman played many supporting characters and some leading roles and he owned every one of them. Even in shitty movies, he was great and brought humanity to his characters enough to make you care or chuckle. I remember him first as the journalist Lester Bangs from Rolling Stone in Almost Famous and his memorable line to the young William Miller”…I met you, you are not cool”. Hoffman was cool and was not. He played roles that made us care about those undesirable and sometimes repulsive people in our society and he played them so so well, like the “perv” phone breather in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. I think that’s a great movie, but I mostly remember him.
True, Hoffman played several leading roles and won an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Capote, but to me his most memorable role is Scotty J. in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. It’s a small role in a film that is over 2.5 hours long spanning decades but that one scene when Scotty is making his pass/confession at Dirk Diggler is one of the best, heartbreaking and pathetic all at the same time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was not one of the best actors of my generation. He was the best actor of my generation and will be sorely missed.

Roger Ebert: 1942 – 2013

Whether I agreed with him or not about whatever movie he was reviewing I owe most of what I know about film and the way to watch movies and how to appreciate them to the great Mr. Ebert. I felt it would be a big miss not to mention on my little corner of the web the passing of this “movie critic” who is one of the few celebrities that I oddly enough feel was sort of a friend. I read his articles regularly and even more so since he started his hugely popular blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, a few years back. The writing on that blog -about film and other topics- is personal, sharp and prompted the most intelligent comment discussions on the web. It’s I suppose appropriate for me to be halfway through reading his personal memoir right now “Life Itself” just as he leaves it. Roger will be greatly missed and his passing, for me, is really an end of an era and will leave a vacuum on the web and print. Thank you Mr. Ebert for the many years of wonderful writing and for introducing me to and teaching me to appreciate the likes of Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Krzysztof Kieslowski and many others. I could write more, but really, and oddly enough, The Onion News had one of the most poignant and touching words about Mr. Ebert in their post “Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence as ‘a Triumph‘”

so I’ll leave you with that:

“CHICAGO—Calling the overall human experience “poignant,” “thought-provoking,” and a “complete tour de force,” film critic Roger Ebert praised existence Thursday as “an audacious and thrilling triumph.” “While not without its flaws, life, from birth to death, is a masterwork, and an uplifting journey that both touches the heart and challenges the mind,” said Ebert, adding that while the totality of all humankind is sometimes “a mess in places,” it strives to be a magnum opus and, according to Ebert, largely succeeds at this goal. “At times brutally sad, yet surprisingly funny, and always completely honest, I wholeheartedly recommend existence. If you haven’t experienced it yet, then what are you waiting for? It is not to be missed.” Ebert later said that while human existence’s running time was “a little on the long side,” it could have gone on much, much longer and he would have been perfectly happy.”

elBulli

On July 31st, 2011 elBulli served its last meal as a restaurant. It’s owner and brilliant chef Ferran Adria is transforming it into a sort of think tank for innovation in cooking. He is not closing it because business is bad or because it’s a fading “fad”. elBulli still gets a few million reservation requests (yes that’s a few million!) for every season and they can only serve about 8000 of those. It is now, as it has been for over a decade, one of the most influential restaurants in the world. You can find many articles about elBulli’s last season across the web and in print, one of my favorites is by Anthony Bourdain in which he really captures in a few paragraphs why elBulli and Adria are so beloved and improtant. My post here is more personal. On May 26th, 2005 my wife and I were lucky to get a reservation at the restaurant for our 4th wedding anniversary. It was my first ever try. I sent the email and in a few weeks I got a confirmation for the exact date I requested. It was easily one of the most memorable meals of we shared.

The whole trip to Barcelona that year was amazing. We ate great food and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city. We visited La Boqueria market and took in all it’s glory. Then on the day of our elBulli dinner, we drove to the tiny town of Rosas, on the Costa Brava in Catalunya. Of course we stopped along the way to visit the Salvador Dali’s museum in Figueres and had a light lunch there (seafood Fideos to be exact). We wanted to drive to the restaurant from our hotel. That was Hotel Goya, a small but very welcoming hotel that since then closed. The elBulli staff wisely suggested we take a cab to the restaurant. Afterall, the meal will last a good 4 hours, the road is treacherous and we will be drinking a good bit of wine. Like I said, that was a very wise decision.

The meal was magical and like nothing I’ve had before. How do I know that a film is great?  I do because I  cannot seem to forget about it. After watching a truly good movie, I cannot wait to see it again and every so often I want to revisit it. Sometimes it is more of an emotional connection than a technical one. I love the movie “Love Actually” because my wife and I saw it years ago and enjoyed it very much. We watch it at least once a year. It has “something” that we love. The meal at elBulli was like that. It was technically superb. The service was perfect, polished and casual at the same time. The tastes and presentations remain unique and unmatched. However, it goes beyond that. It’s a time and place that my loved one and I shared. We could’ve had a spectacular meal somewhere else, somewhere local in Houston and it would have been fine. We did not. Even though we did not have money to spare, we booked our trip and went to Spain when I got the confirmed reservation. It was a special occasion and it remains special because we will never be able to repeat it.

We still talk about our trip to awesome Barcelona and the small amazing restaurant that is elBulli. It’s a rare experience that I am glad we got a chance to share. We talked about trying to snag a reservation at some point in the future, but now we cannot anymore. We’ll see what Adria makes of elBulli next, but for me, for now, I like to remember it like it was on the eve of that May 26th.

Meyer Lemon Bees

All I can think of when I see the Meyer lemon tree in my backyard buzzing with bees is “Man, do I wish I can taste some of whatever honey these little bugs are going to be making”. I love how prolific this tree is and use its fruit whenever I can, but my favorite time is now. Even if I do live in Houston, Texas where seasons mean little, the flowers and bees in our Meyer lemon tree seem to declare that spring is here.

It’s not just about spring though, it’s about nostalgia. The crazy amazing aroma that fills the air from those flowers takes me straight back to Lebanon, its citrus groves and my grandmother making orange flower water. Watching those bees do their work with my 4-year old is really a pleasure. Incidentally Barbara Massaad has a recent post about making orange flower water in Lebanon, it’s a very good read.

Alinea, Food “documentation” and the DBwRCF

Really? A tripod and a video camera? I guess I was too naive to think that people know when there are lines that they should not cross in a restaurant before becoming a nuisance! I am referring here to the post that Chef Grant Achatz put up on Alinea’s Mosaic forum and that Carol Blymire linked to on her blog. Carol’s very well worded post is a very good read and makes some excellent points. 

I will be the first to admit that I love taking pictures of food (hence the blog) and to see what others have photographed. However, I always assumed that bloggers or food groupies are using small cameras and no flash. I am sure this is mostly the case. Most bloggers and food lovers are courteous to others and to the establishment they are dining at. I think what we have here is a case of “The Douche Bag who Ruins Casual Friday” syndrome. If you work in an office environment you probably know the DBwRCF Syndrome. Or maybe in your case it might be the DBwRFDWW Syndrome (that’s the DB who Ruins Four Day Work Week).

Here’s what happens, you have a company policy or maybe a policy for your team/group/office that says Fridays are casual fridays. This means you can come in to the office wearing casual clothing. For most people this means a pair of jeans (pants not shorts) and a decent T-shirt. On your feet? a pair of tennis shoes or Sketchers. It goes well for a few weeks or maybe months until Mr. DB decides to push the limits of decorum. He comes one week wearing his nice flip-flops. The boss lets it slide. Next week he decides to ear a T-shirt that was probably new when he was in college. More points if the said T-shirt is sporting a beer or bourbon add. Again, the boss lets it slide. Mr. DB, thinking he is a trailblazer starts coming in wearing the flip-flops, the said T-Shirt and some ripped jeans or worse – shorts! Now, the boss has to have a talk with him and Mr. DB complains that it’s “Casual Friday”, so he should be able to wear whatever he wants. After some back and forth, the boss decides to basically cancel Casual Friday for everyone because of Mr. DB. That happens all the time. It’s just much simpler to do that than to deal with the shenanigans of one asshole.

I really hope this does not happen at Alinea, but it seems that that’s where most restaurants are heading. It is clear that Acahtz has no problem with anyone taking pictures, he has a problem when a few start pushing the limits of what is acceptable. It really is a problem when some simply have no common sense. It is simpler to just state “No Cameras” as opposed to dealing with “guests” on a one off basis, even if it is unfair to the non-offending majority. I am looking forward to eating there and would love to take a few pictures. If the “no cameras” rule  does go in effect, then so be it. Achatz has all the right to enforce any reasonable rules in his house. I really do not need to take photos to enjoy or remember great meals. We ate at el Bulli in 2005 and took maybe one photo of the food.The rest were photos with the chef and a few of my wife and I. I saved the menu and I still can remember pretty much every dish from that wonderful meal.

Of Bresaola and Other Ike Survivors

Well, Houston was not as lucky with IKE as it was with Gustav a few weeks ago. The storm hit us pretty hard as a very strong Category 2 Hurricane. The island of Galveston took the brunt of the storm, but even inland Houston suffered considerable damage. Some parts of the city still have no power today! We were lucky that our house suffered very minor damage. The problem was that we had no power for over a week and a fridge and freezer full of food. Foods, like pounds of homemade sausage, a few quarts of stock, vegetables, meats and sauces. All that was gone, and it was a pretty damn sad loss.

However, not all was lost thanks to old fashioned food preservation methods. I was very gald to come back and find the Bresaola I had been curing and dry aging for about a month was covered in a fine powdery mold. In case you are wondering, yes, that’s good. Now if it was green and fuzzy, then it would have gone to the trash. This was the best tasting Bresaola I have ever had. I sliced it as thinly as possible and shared it with some family members who were a big source of help during the last week.

Another survivor was the batch of confit I made right before the hurricane. The legs of duck and a few sausages were perfectly preserved under a couple of inches of duck fat. I cooked a leg and sausage for dinner a day after we returned. I served it with potatoes sauteed in a couple of tablespoons of the flavorful fat. All I was missing was a glass of wine. I sure would’ve raised one to the gods of curing, salting, dry aging and preserving food.

Two New Projects for 2008

Introducing the two new projects for 2008.

Vegetarian Dinners Project (VDP)“, a decision to eat at least two vegetarian dinners per week. This decision was made for three reasons:

1- It is more environmentally friendly to eat more non-meat dishes. Since we are trying to be more ‘green’ this year (switched to non-polluting electric provider, using more environmentally friendly cleaning supplies in the house,…), a diet with more non-meat choices fits right in.
2- It is healthier to incorporate more vegetables, grains, fruits and legumes in our meals and cut back on meats and fats. Who knows, we might even lose a few pounds.
3- It is damn cheaper to eat more meals with no meat! Since I try to avoid mass produced meats as much as I can, it can get pretty pricey buying the ‘Humanely Raised, Grass Fed, Organic, Antibiotic Free, Free Range…’ critters. With two or three meals a week that contain no beef, poultry, pork or fish the food cost is significantly reduced. Lets call it a more quality but less quantity kind of thing

To motivate me even more I have decided to chronicle this project right here. I also created different categories for the meals we will be enjoying. These are:

  • Grains
  • Green Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Root Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Bread and Pies
  • Pasta and Noodles
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Tofu
  • Mushrooms

I will be using several references to get ideas or recipes from. My primary go-to books will be:
Mediterranean Grains and Greens” by Paula Wolfert
The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean” by Paula Wolfert
Mediterranean Vegetables” by Clifford Wright
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” by Mark Bittman
The New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking” by Claudia Roden

A couple more disclaimers, I’ll never ever use any fabricated crap to substitute for meat. You know what I mean, stuff like Tofurkey and Veggie Dogs. It’s just wrong, I’ll be having the real thing instead for dinner on those nights. For the purposes of this project, fish sauce counts as vegetarian. I cannot make decent southeast Asian food without it, so it does not count.

Another project I’d like to work on this year is the “Happy in the Kitchen Project (HKP)“. Here I am planning to cook as many recipes as I can from Michel Richard’s fantastic book “Happy in the Kitchen: The Craft of cooking, The Art of Eating“. The recipes are unique, a little experimental, beautiful and the few I’ve tried so far are delicious. I’ve had the book for almost a year, but never seem to get around to cooking from it much. Once again, I am hoping posting about the meals would be a good motivator to keep on cooking.