Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Fun — Eleni Mandell edition

I've come across several artists lately I need to own — Glasvegas and The Hold Steady among them. I'd say Eleni Mandell rises to that list as well...

Friday Fun — absurdity edition

Lego Stop motion. The Beer song. Picked up from Serious Eats. Brilliant.

TJ's and fast home-cooked meals

The latest easy-to-prepare meal turns out to be a variation on one of my mother's mainstays when I was growing up — a casserole we always called "Goo." Basically, it amounted to macaroni and some kind of sauce and meat in a casserole dish. My variation is an easy TJ's concoction. If you're only feeding a couple of people, you'll end up with at least two meals out of it as well.

Boil a pound of pasta — penne or fusilli work best. While the pasta water is coming to a boil, remove the casings from a few sweet Italian sausages — about a pound — and thoroughly brown the meat in a cast-iron skillet. When cooked, drain the meat to take some of the fat out. Let it cool while the pasta cooks. Combine the pasta, sausage and a jar of TJ's traditional marinara (shockingly good for the price and ease) in the pasta pot. Add a couple handfuls of shredded mozzarella, mix again, and pour it all into a casserole dish. Grate Parmiggiano Reggiano on top and put it in a 350º oven for twenty minutes.

Pasta : $.99
Sauce: $1.29
Sausage: $3.50
Cheese: minimal cost if you keep a stash around
Grand total: $5.78

Time of preparation: 20 minutes active; 40 minutes total.

a little more wine for now

Following our trip to Barboursville and little time warp in Grand Junction, we continued on to Keswick Vineyards. Unfortunately, I can't recommend Keswick. Their wines weren't necessarily bad so much as underwhelming. A couple of red flags popped up during the tasting, too.

First was the limited number of wines. It's not necessarily bad to focus a wineries output, but since every other winery in the state does Cab Franc and Viognier and half of them do a faux ice wine with Vidal Blanc, I'd hope a winery pushing bottles at prices between $20 and $40 would try to do them a little better or with some distinguishing features. Keswick did not. Red flag number two came when I saw that they were decanting their top pour — a meritage-style — into carafes before pouring. The explanation that the wine was young and we needed the full experience of it suggested they weren't ready to sell it. The final red flag came when the pourer pulled out a bottle of "gourmet" chocolate sauce and Nilla wafers. The chocolate sauce was made with the same wine as the blend (another red flag) and they were very proud of its quality. Word to the wise: it's chocolate sauce. Nothing special. Just chocolate sauce. And any time a winery needs a specialty food item served with Nilla wafers, it suggests their wines may not be up to speed yet.

To wit, this throws Keswick into another category of Virginia Wineries. In this category fall the wineries that sell themselves on the beauty of their location and produce serviceable-but-undistinguished wines. No bottles were purchased here.

After this stop, we decided to sandwich one more C'ville area winery in before heading back to Richmond. The debate was between Kluge and Jefferson. We opted for Jefferson for proximity and decided to save Kluge for another time. The decision proved to be a good one.

Jefferson Vineyards has been around since 1981, but word on the street was that their quality had fallen off in recent years. Our pourer (anyone who has a better term for this please let me know in the comments) was knowledgeable and attentive. She talked about food and what she used the wine for in cooking and pairings. And the wine? Overall, very good. There was a sweet white — oh-so-popular with the habitués of wine tours around these regions — that we didn't care for, but overall the varietals were quite good. We went back to a couple and settled on a bottle of Petit Verdot.

For our last stop of the day, we chose Grayhaven. With its backwoods location, in Louisa County, it's off the beaten path and is a little different experience than the rest. They're proud of their wines and do a good job of making visitors feel at home — including being willing to stay open an extra hour and a half for conversation and tasting. As for the quality of the wine, I'd call it mixed. There are a couple of sweeter blends that are their nod to the tastes every Virginia winery seems required to support. They had a Cab Franc that moved more to the character of a Claret rather than a traditional Cab Franc. I thought it was drinkable while L found it barely palatable. Their Touriga and Chambourcin, however, were quite good and worth buying.

As Virginia wineries go, they represent the smaller, family-run operations that dot the state producing occasionally stunning, sometimes mediocre, and periodically bad wines. As far as such wineries go, however, I'd put Grayhaven near the top.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A little wine for now

Saturday morning, L and I decided to take advantage of a sunny, cool day and hit a few of the wineries out near Charlottesville. We had hit wineries out near Crozet and Afton earlier in January and had tried unsuccessfully to hit a few wineries on the Northern neck early in February.

We plotted the trip carefully—follow a rural route out to Barboursville, then make a circuit of a couple before looping back on I-64. Between Barboursville and Gordonsville, we skipped Horton; the quality of their wines has dropped significantly since the cut the Devil's bargain and started focusing on sweet wines and big events like the Mardi Gras celebration they were running that afternoon. Instead, we headed straight for Barboursville.

Virginia wineries fall into a few tiers. First are the serious wineries that have a real focus and sophistication on the wines they produce. Barboursville falls into this category. Unlike the younger wineries who use their location and/or their architecture as a selling point, Barboursville puts its focus squarely on the wines. (Sure, the location is spectacular and the restaurant and Shakespeare in the castle ruins are nice parts of the experience, but they aren't positioned as the main draw.) And the wines are impressive.

Highlights included a very nice Sangiovese, a Barbera, the Cab Sauvignon, the Nebbiolo, and their Octagon blend. I liked the Cab Franc and Viognier as well, but L wasn't sold on those. We considered picking up a couple of bottles, but in the end just opted for a bottle of the Cab. There were, after all, a few wineries left to go.

By now, it was lunch time. Unfortunately, the restaurant was completely booked up, and we hadn't seen any of the little cafés we'd hoped for in town. The hostess recommended a stop along Route 20 heading south to Charlottesville. We lit out in search of Grand Junction, and nearly missed the place as we came over a hill and around a bend.

To call Grand Junction quirky would be an understatement. The one-room general store and lunch counter offered everything from batteries to local eggs to boxes of pad thai to lollipops and toys. And Vicky, who was holding down the fort, seemed to be just a neighbor or friend who'd popped in to take care of things. She was casual and friendly as she put together our sandwiches. Unfortunately, the menu was light on vegetarian options. L opted for the one veggie sandwich on the menu, and asked for a few minor substitutions. Somehow, this resulted in a turkey and mozzarella sandwich. When we pointed out the problem, Vicky was apologetic and offered us a couple pieces of cake as an apology after she pulled together the correct sandwich.

While Grand Junction won't win any great culinary awards, the food hit the spot and the price was more-than-reasonable. It was like eating in someone's living room, a throwback to a time when the corner store was more than just an anachronism. In the end, we also found that it pays to get to know locals — Vicky filled us in on a shortcut over the mountain to Keswick Vineyards, our next stop.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mardi Gras!

(stay tuned for an account of the weekend's adventures)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Fun

It's a strange time. There is so much potential and joy in life and so many creative possibilities that are beginning to gain some traction. At the same time, the level of fear in the anxiety in the world around combined with my endemic fear that the worst may happen keep everything feeling a little unsettled for me and so many of the people I know. That said, let's split the mood a little this week...

Mavis Staples pulls out some classic strains.

Michael Franti drops the politics for a few minutes and dives into pure joy. I can't wait for his show next week.

And then there's this one from BPA featuring David Byrne. Caught it on WNRN this week and was utterly infected by it. Fair warning: the video is moderately NSFW unless you have a very understanding boss and coworkers.

Feel free to throw suggestions for tracks popping to mind in the comments.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

No new news...

It's nice that the New York Times has seen fit to address the problem of uninsured twenty-somethings. And from the tone and timing of the article, you'd think this was a new phenomenon. Or maybe it's just that the writer and editor of the piece never lived in the city (or anywhere else for that matter) without employer-paid health insurance because what the piece most lacks is a good sense of perspective.

This isn't NEW news. A lot of us struggled through the booming nineties without health insurance — it was too damn expensive then too, especially on the intermittent pay of the freelance life. Grad school wasn't much better with expensive health insurance that offered too little coverage.

The fact is our "system" treats quality, affordable health coverage as a privilege and a reward rather than a right — no matter what age you are, what you do, or what city you live in.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

R.I.P. - Cedar Tavern

Word has it that the Cedar Tavern has closed for good. It's another sad loss for New York, another piece of the city's history that is being lost in the wave of real estate development. The Cedar played home over the years to many a writer and artist.

By the time friends and I decided to start up an informal Sunday writing workshop there, the luster and history were most of what was left. Sure, F. Murray Abraham drank at the bar. Sure, some of the old-timers and bartenders recalled the writers who drank their hours away there and the painters who took breaks from the studios. But by the time we were taking up a booth in back every Sunday evening, the neighborhood had already lost the bohemian character that drew the artists and writers there.

We chose the Cedar for our workshop for a couple reasons. First, of course, was the history. What better place to drink and talk about the stories we were trying to pound out every week than the place that had spawned more than a few writing talents in previous generations. Then there was the convenience factor. We were coming from Washington Heights, Williamsburg, Queens, Park Slope, and Manhattan and needed a spot that was near-enough to trains we could all use. Finally was the fact that we could always get a table. In fact, they began to hold a booth for us.

We'd tried Old Town for a couple of meetings. It had the right age, the right vibe, decent food, the massive old bar and inexpensive beer. It was perfect, except we couldn't get a reliable table, and more often than not, the noise overwhelmed our attempts to read work out loud. After a couple of other short-lived attempts at other joints, we landed at the Cedar. It had all the character we were looking for, and it had a more open space to diffuse the noise with relatively private booths to shield our literary forays from the rest of the restaurant.

It was easy to understand how previous generations of writers and artists had found homes there. In some sense, it was those ghosts that had drawn us there. In fact, New York's ghosts are what give the city much of its character—whether you're talking Lady Day at the Five Spot, Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field, or Frank O'Hara at the Cedar—and with each passing year, it seems like another ghost is lost.


Addendum: I should add that my melancholy is increased by February and by the recent news that the owner of the Holiday Cocktail Lounge has passed away.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

TJ's finds

Among my favorite reasons for shopping at Trader Joe's are the new finds that seem worth trying. There are occasional misses, but in most cases the finds are hits. This week's was a grandslam. In their prepared foods cooler, Diner Classics Macaroni & Cheese. The cheese had a good flavor to it, and the breadcrumbs and panko on top were perfect. I added a little salt and pepper, but other than that, it was a perfect comfort food lunch at work. And at $4.29, it cost less than almost anything I could have picked up at our local (fill in the blank lunch spot).

I also dig the icons they're beginning to use on various products. It's a nice design quirk.

Monday, February 16, 2009

seen on the street

Saw this in the parking lot at Pho So today at lunch. Couldn't resist snapping it. (Excuse the poor quality cellphone pic.) Yes. It's the naked figure from the truck flaps reimagined as a chrome angel. Brilliant.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

wrapping up

It's late, but I wanted to wrap the weekend up with at least a quick post here. There are moments you realize how valuable the people around you are. There are also moments you realize true friendship holds through tough times and down times. There are also moments you realize how amazing children can be — no matter how difficult they can seem at times. All of these and more occurred to me in the past couple days.

Above and beyond that, I offer this: Perfect Mushrooms. They were part of my sous-chef-ing duties last evening. Cover the bottom of a sauté pan with olive oil. Heat the oil to near steaming and add a handful of pine nuts. Sauté until they are browned. Add sliced mushrooms (button or more exotic varieties; for fun try a mixture). Add healthy amounts of freshly cracked pepper and sea salt and saute for a minute. Add a pinch of tarragon and crushed chili. Sauté two more minutes while stirring vigorously until the mushrooms are just beginning to soften with the oil. Add a half cup of decent red wine and allow to reduce. Taste occasionally and adjust the seasonings as needed — the final flavor should be a perfect balance of sweet and savory.

One more tip: When cooking Swiss Chard, add a splash of balsamic vinegar. It will help balance the flavor of the chard, no matter how you're preparing it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Fun — on my mind edition

No theme this week. Just songs that have rattled through my mind lately.

The Arcade Fire

Mr. A.C. Newman

And a couple from The Hold Steady...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Right Tools for the Job...

Banana and I have had our little adventure with skating going for about three and a half years now. It started with a trip to Charlottesville with Banana Mére and part of an afternoon spent at the wonderful skating rink on the downtown mall. (Pictured at right in a trip this past fall.)

With the exception of an afternoon skating with friends, there was a hiatus for about two years after that until Santa magically brought her a pair of skates for Christmas a year ago. It was Santa's attempt to get Banana and me doing activities together and also give her a sport she could begin to work toward—one that would jive well with her overall balance and coordination.

Having her own skates rather than rentals helped build some confidence on subsequent skating trips. But as with many things, we paused for several months through the summer. Until the trip to Charlottesville. When we got there, I worried that her skates might be a little too small, but she assured me they were fine. For the next hour, I wondered why she was falling so much, and why she seemed to tire of it so quickly. Until she took her skates off. She had practically pulled a Cinderella's-sister trying to get the too-small skates on her feet.

After Christmas this winter, we took her skates to the sporting goods store and traded them in for a new-used pair that fit her. This pair lasted for two trips to the rink. The first was with friends and their daughter; the second trip I took a spill and we ended up forgetting her skates in the rush of things. As it turns out, this may have been a blessing.

We went skating once on rentals, and it was an awful experience. The blades were bad and Banana was losing her confidence. On the bright side, we figured out that she needed to bump up another size, AND I happened across a pair in her size on Craigslist. The skates I picked up were Gams, which retailed for almost five times the retail of the skates we'd had. The difference in construction, from the padding in the ankles to the quality of blade was obvious. I did not, however, tell Banana about this before we tested the skates. Still, we hit the ice, and in no time she was skating better than she ever had. She was gliding and gaining enough control and enough of a cut to make some decent moves on the ice. It seems that having the right tools for the job made the difference.

This leaves me with a quandary, however... I'm leery of pushing lessons and competition for reasons of money and time. (Not to mention the fact that splurging on the sport will necessitate me getting a pair of skates too.) By the same token, I also see a distressing lack of discipline in Banana — as her teacher put it today, she often does the minimum amount of work necessary. If I can find one thing that she will really latch onto and push herself to do as well as she can, my hope is that the discipline and drive will spread out to other areas.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Snack Fail

Last week, I picked up a few snacks in our break room at work. One in particular intrigued me. The Fuji Apple Crisps seemed like a healthy interesting snack alternative. I thought, "Dried apples? Perfect." Except they weren't. They were like apple flavored styrofoam, like shrimp chips but less interesting. And as they sat in my mouth, they got soggy and sad, like dehydrated ice cream without the novelty. To wit, they looked like this:

And in half an hour they got progressively more like apple-flavored foam rubber. I recommend steering clear.

midweek absurdity

Today's dose of absurdity comes courtesy of List Of The Day. I must admit I'm amazed I haven't seen this on Neatorama yet...

Monday, February 09, 2009

crazy ads

Picked this one up via Gawker, because I apparently missed it during the Super Bowl. Still, the Nannerpuss may qualify as one of the most disturbing ad images ever...

Shepard Fairey, Milton Glaser, and design as art or appropriation

Via Boing Boing comes this reaction from Milton Glaser to the controversy brewing over Shepard Fairey's iconic Obama poster:

For myself—this is subjective—I find the relationship between Fairey’s work and his sources discomforting. Nothing substantial has been added. In my own case, when I did the Dylan poster, I acknowledged using Duchamp’s profile as an influence. I think unless you’re modifying it and making it your own, you’re on very tenuous ground. It’s a dangerous example for students, if they see that appropriating people’s work is the path to success. Simply reproducing the work of others robs you of your imagination and form-making abilities. You’re not developing the muscularity you need to invent your own ideas.

I'm of two minds on this one. First, I think that Fairey added significantly to the photo. His treatment of the angle and expression elevate Obama's profile to the iconic level. His use of the campaign logo and color treatment create a new work — one that is admittedly propaganda. Moreover, the design of the poster has lent itself to a thousand variations, which helps it rise to an iconic level. At the level that design-as-art must also communicate, I see his work as entirely separate from its source.

Glaser's second point about a student's reaction to this work is an interesting point. Fairey lent a perspective and an idea to his work. The fact that he was able to lift it from the source and the fact that someone can create a similar effect using Photoshop does, however, risk teaching students that they can succeed by simply creatively manipulating someone else's work.

That said, I recommend checking out the comments on the Boing Boing thread. It's an interesting discussion.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Friday Fun — more animation edition

A few more recent videos that play off a really cool animation aesthetic...

Warning: this last one is beautiful but haunting, sad.

Bonus track This one isn't animated, but it came up on my radar. I happen to like it a lot...


UPDATE: Thanks to Ben for suggesting this one...

more rail...

I love it with the NY Times follows up actual reporting with strong op-eds:
In the Senate, Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, spent the day working with Republicans to dangerously strip down the Senate’s version of the economic measure. What noxious programs were they so eager to dump? Money for the Amtrak passenger rail system, the shortchanging of which has been a damaging annual ritual that has put America decades behind most of the world.

Now, if someone would just listen...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

What's wrong with rail?!?

From the NYT today:

Anxious over the ballooning size of the proposed economic stimulus package, now at more than $900 billion, lawmakers in both parties are working on a last-minute plan to strip tens of billions of dollars from the bill.

The effort is being led by two centrist senators, Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who say they would like to pare from $50 billion to $200 billion from the package...

This sounds like a reasonable effort to focus the bill, but it's things like this that I don't get:

Among the initiatives that could be cut are $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $14 million for cyber security research by the Homeland Security Department, $1 billion for the National Science Foundation, $400 million for research and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, $850 million for Amtrak and $400 million for climate change research...

I don't understand why our lawmakers are congenitally opposed to supporting transportation (specifically rail) measures. Amtrak provides jobs, transportation, and the potential for reducing congestion on our roads and highways, and yet it always seems to be one of the first on line for the chopping block. Seriously: what the fuck?!?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Roads and Republicans

I'm increasingly convinced that many of our lawmakers in Washington never actually travel on roads around the country. Whether they're visiting their districts or simply taking a Sunday drive, they can't possibly be using the thoroughfares that most of us use every day. If they were, I can't possibly believe they'd put tax cuts for corporations and the top 2% of the population ahead of infrastructure projects to repair our roadways.

Then again, I'm sure someone is prepared to argue that deteriorating roadways are a perfect way to keep the automotive parts and repair sector of the economy moving along. In which case, you should aim for that new pothole and appreciate your part in helping the economy as you shell out for the new axle, wheel, tire, alignment and balancing you'll need... *sigh*

Welcome to the deteriorating American empire.

Photo from Flickr by Creative Commons