Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Recipes From A to Z: C is for Clams

 It's been awhile since I posted in this series, so, a refresher: My goal is to cook a meal with one ingredient I've never used before for each letter of the alphabet. I didn't set a time limit, but I'm hoping to be done by the end of the year. I created this series in an effort to break out of my dinner comfort zone, and find some new go-to recipes that the whole family would enjoy. (Not counting the 2-year-old. She won't eat anything but fresh fruit.)

 I didn't have to look hard to find an entry for C - I found a recipe for shortcut Manhattan Clam Chowder in a magazine, and I was halfway through before I realized, hey, I've never used clams before!

 I'm not a fan of clams, raw or cooked - too chewy. But I do like an occasional clam chowder, especially Manhattan-style, which is broth-y rather than creamy. The recipe in my Cooking Club magazine looked both easy and fast, so I gave it a try. The verdict: pretty good for a first attempt, but I found a few things to tweak for next time. Soup may sound easy, but it is improved by time and attention to detail. It takes a lot of layering of flavors to reach the depth and richness you want in a bowl of winter comfort. When you take shortcuts, you get something that might taste pretty good, but is just a little thin, which is what I ended up with here. Here's the recipe to try for yourself:

Quick and Easy Manhattan Clam Chowder
1 (10 oz.) can baby clams
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 cups frozen potatoes O'Brien
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 (8 oz.) bottle clam juice
1 tsp. pepper
2 T. chopped fresh parsley

1. Drain clams, reserving liquid. Cook bacon in medium saucepan over medium heat 5 -7 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally.
2. Add potatoes; reduce heat to medium low. Cook 3 minutes or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds or until fragrant, stirring constantly. Stir in tomatoes, bottled clam juice and reserved liquid; increase heat to medium high. Cover; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low to low; simmer 10 minutes. Stir in clams and pepper; simmer 3 minutes or until hot. Stir in parsley.

My notes: I didn't use the parsley, since I don't much care for it. Next time, I plan to pump up the flavors a bit with about 1 T. of Worcestershire sauce, some white pepper, and a dash of Tony Cachere seasoning (I like a little kick.) Also, I'll probably triple the amount of bacon, because, hey, more bacon = good. Sorry there's no photo, we ate it before I remembered I should take a picture.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Movie Review: "Oz the Great and Powerful"

 So, last Saturday we went to the first big popcorn fantasy pic of the year, "Oz the Great and Powerful." I'd heard a lot of good things about this one, and I'd say it (mostly) lives up to the hype. I'm not too familiar with the Oz books, so I don't know how it stacks up in comparison, but I think this movie fits in nicely with the 1939 "Wizard of Oz." Filming the beginning in black and white, then changing to color when he reaches Oz was a nice homage to the original movie.

 This one is a prequel, telling the story of how a carnival magician made his way to Oz and became the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. James Franco is a great Oz, oozing smarmy charm with just enough heart to make you believe he could come to care about something more than himself. Michelle Williams is a charming Glinda the Good, though she really doesn't have all that much to do until the end. As the wicked witches who control the Emerald City, Rachel Weisz as Evanora is quite entertaining. She pulls off menacing evil without crossing the line into cartoonish melodrama. 

 Mila Kunis as the younger witch, Theodora, isn't quite as successful in my opinion. Fantasy dialogue is hard, and if the actor doesn't buy into it completely, it comes across as just so much gibberish. Mila seems awkward and uncomfortable with the lines at times, and after Theodora's transformation, she's a little too over-the-top to be believable. Nothing against Ms. Kunis as an actor, I've liked her in other roles, I just think she was miscast here. (I'd like to see what Natalie Portman would have done with the role.)

 The computer animation is beautiful - it really looks like another world. At times, it's easy to forget that Oz's companions for most of the movie - flying monkey Finley and the little China Doll - are computer generated. Though there's still a ways to go before interaction between human actors and computer characters is completely flawless, this movie comes pretty close.

 All in all, worth the money to see in the theater.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Top 10 Movie List

 Today I'm doing Alex J. Cavanaugh's blog hop to blog about my favorite movies. Been mulling this over almost a week now. I was going to research and plan, and go through my DVD cabinet for inspiration, but then I kept thinking of more and more movies I love, for different reasons, and I didn't see how I could ever cut it down to 10. So I decided to just wing it and see what pops out of my head. My only criteria: It has to be a movie I never get tired of watching - as in, if I run across it on cable, I automatically stop and nothing gets done until it's over.

1. Star Wars
  I prefer to take the Star Wars series as one giant mega-saga. I refuse to pick one favorite movie out of the six - when asked, my answer changes from day to day anyway, depending on my mood. I even enjoy the much-maligned "Phantom Menace." (Although, confession time, I find "Attack of the Clones" almost unwatchable. Jango Fett is its only redeeming feature.) The original Star Wars is timeless. I was almost seven when it came out, and I can't think of one other movie from my childhood that has made as big an impression on my adult life.

2. Lord of the Rings
 Once again, treating the trilogy as one epic saga for the purposes of this list, (although "Return of the King" is my favorite of the three). Everything about these movies is perfect - the actors, the costumes, the special effects, the music - all work seamlessly together to immerse the viewer in another world, one that seems as real as the "real" one.

3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
 Although I enjoy all the Harry Potter movies, this one is my clear favorite. I think it's the best cinematic interpretation of a Harry Potter novel, without trying to copy the book exactly. Which is funny, because it's one of my least favorite of the books.

4. Galaxy Quest
 An hilarious "Star Trek" parody, but it also works on its own terms - you don't need to be familiar with Star Trek to find it funny. The talent involved - Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub - makes this one of the best ensemble comedies ever.

5. The Hunger Games
 It's rare that a movie is just as good as the book, but this one nailed it. Almost everything was as I envisioned it in the book,  and it didn't matter that I knew the ending, I still felt the heart-pounding suspense. I hope they didn't set an impossible standard for the next movies - it's going to be difficult to live up to this one.

6. Airplane
 A movie that has aged with me. I find it just as funny now at 40-something as I did at age 10 - I just process the jokes a little differently. Has lines that have become such a part of my every day life, I sometimes forget where they originally came from. It was such a proud moment when I told my 6-year-old son, "Surely you're not going to throw that at your sister?" and he responded, "Of course not mommy. And don't call me Shirley."

7. The Princess Bride
 The best fairy tale movie ever. Princes, pirates, sword fighting, witty dialogue, plenty of quotable moments and appropriate for all ages. Plus, the first movie my now-husband and I ever saw together.

8. The Incredibles
 The best animated movies are the ones that can be enjoyed equally by all ages, and this is right at the top. A great story about family being the most important thing - but they don't beat you over the head with the moral. Aesthetically, I love the mid-century modern feel to the design. And Edna Mole: best scene-stealer ever!

9. Toy Story
 Another animated move that works for all ages. I think every kid suspected his toys came alive when nobody was looking - this movie just confirmed it.

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
 When I heard about this one, I was highly skeptical of any movie based on a theme-park ride. Luckily, I was proven wrong. The time was just right for an old-fashioned swashbuckling movie, and you can't go wrong with pirates, a poor but plucky hero and a curse. Personally, I prefer to pretend this movie doesn't have sequels, since each successive "Pirates" movie seemed to get worse. Hopefully, they've given up beating that dead horse.

 So here it is, as of today. Any other day and the movies and their order might change, but this will do for now. Might be interesting to do this every year, just to see what changes...

Now, go check out some of the other participating bloggers, and find some new favorite movies!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea
by Susanna Kearsley

  I don't usually get into historical romances, unless there's a bit of fantasy or sci-fi involved, and this one qualifies. A writer, researching her historic novel of early eighteenth century Scotland, stumbles across a ruined castle that inspires her. She leases a cottage in town, hoping to break her writer's block, and is successful as the story comes pouring out of her, driven by a new character's point of view. Things get weird when some fact checking reveals the people and events she thought she was inventing actually existed.

 This novel is actually two stories running concurrently: The writer in modern-day Scotland, and the historical novel she's writing. Though switching back and forth between them is confusing at first, both stories are compelling. Kearsley paints such a rich word-picture of the rugged coast of Scotland, both ancient and modern, that I feel I've been there to see it myself. In the modern story, the writer is likable and believable, surrounded by charming, helpful villagers and potential love interests. But for me, the really engrossing story is the one in 1708 Scotland. Even though it's centered around an historic event, I found myself hoping for a different outcome than the one I know happened, just to save the heroine some pain. And though the way the two stories dovetail at the end is a bit contrived, it's still ultimately satisfying.

 It was so easy to immerse myself in this novel, I found after finishing it, I was still thinking in a Scottish brogue. This is one of those books where you're sorry to turn the last page, which is one of the best recommendations I can give.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Movie Review: "Jack the Giant Slayer"

  So, for the first movie we see in the theater in 2013, we picked "Jack the Giant Slayer." (Had to see it, it has Ewan McGregor.) This is actually a pretty entertaining movie. It uses the fairy tale as a basis, but expands it to include a princess, her father and her evil suitor. And instead of one giant, there's an entire army of giants. The CGI is extensive, and very well done for the most part. I thought the beanstalk looked fake, or just off somehow in some scenes, but it's a fairy tale, so realism isn't that big an issue.

  It's a fairly standard fairy tale plot: Jack trades his horse for magic beans, a bean falls under the house, grows a beanstalk that takes the house, with the princess in it (subplot - the princess is a runaway in search of adventure) up to the land of the giants. Jack, the captain of the guard (Ewan McGregor) and the evil suitor (Stanley Tucci) go up the beanstalk to rescue her, and prevent a war with the army of giants. Except for evil suitor, who actually wants to use a giant-controlling crown to create his own army to take over the kingdom.

 There's not a lot of depth to any of the characters, and at almost two hours, it could certainly be shorter. But the dialogue rings pretty true, there's nothing too clunky or awkward. (That can be a real problem in fantasy movies.) I'm not going to watch this over and over - it's mildly entertaining, but not very memorable. I had a problem with the ending: not to give anything away, but I thought the wrong person ended up wearing the crown at the end. But overall, not a waste of money.