Archive

Archive for March, 2010

Style your garage

March 28th, 2010

This German firm sells photo-tarpaulins that are meant to turn your grey and ugly garage doors into something fun and exciting, causing “neighbours, friends and passers-by to stop and stare”.

They have dozens of designs. I am torn between these:
 

Tank in the garage?

 
 

Wine cellar in the garage?

 

Tip of the hat to Anya S.

Idle Amusements

Chicken with shrimp

March 27th, 2010
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It’s been a long time since our resident chef made a guest appearance on the blog. It was not that we did not have culinary experiments during that time, it is simply that we did not bother to take pictures and write up recipes.

Correcting that oversight, here is rather modestly named chicken with shrimp (it sounds more sophisticated in French: Poulet aux Crevettes). Trust me, there is nothing bland about this dish.

Ingredients:

  • 3 pound chicken, cut into 8-10 pieces
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 12-14 large shrimp or live crayfish, with heads if possible
  • 1 small onion, halved and sliced
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • 2 tbsp brandy
  • 1 ¼- 1 ½ cup chicken broth
  • 3 medium tomatoes, cored and quartered
  • 1 or 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • bouquet garni (bunch of herbs such as bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley stalks)
  • 6 tbsp heavy cream
  • salt, pepper
  • fresh parsley, to garnish

Here is what it looks like in the pan when ready:
 

 

Directions:

  1. Wash the chicken pieces, then pat dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole and cook the shrimp or crayfish over high heat until they turn a bright color. Remove the shrimp or crayfish, cool slightly and then peel away the heads and shells and reserve. Chill the peeled tails.
  3. Add the chicken to the casserole, skin side down, and cook over medium until golden brown, turning to color evenly and cooking in batches if necessary. Transfer the chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 tbsp of the fat.
  4. In the same casserole, cook the onion over medium-high heat until golden, stirring frequently, then add the wine and brandy and bring to the boil, stirring constantly.
  5. Add the broth, shrimp or crayfish heads and shells, tomatoes, garlic and bouquet garni with the chicken pieces and any juices. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low. Cover the casserole and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the chicken is tender and the juices run clear when the thickest part of the meat is pierced with a knife.
  6. Remove the chicken pieces from the casserole and strain the cooking liquid, pressing down on the shells and vegetables to extract as much liquid as possible. Skim off the fat from the cooking liquid and return liquid to the pan. Add the cream and boil until it is reduced by one-third and slightly thickened.
  7. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Just before serving, add the shrimp or crayfish tails and heat through. Arrange on warmed plates, pour over some of the sauce and garnish with fresh parsley.

Here is what it looks like served on a plate:
 

 

Have pieces of bread prepared to wipe off the sauce from your plate! You will not be able to resist!

Who's Hungry?

Skaters’ autographs

March 25th, 2010
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It occurred to me that my girls now possess skates signed not only by the Olympic silver medalists, but an Olympic champion as well. Becky participated in a 2004 edition of Stars Stripes and Skates gala with Nancy Kerrigan. Next year, she attended a skating clinic in NYC’s Central Park hosted by Sasha Cohen. Now, Kimmy has Oksana Baiul’s autograph.

Not that I am big on autographs, but it is a pretty cool little collection that has a chance to grow.
 

 

Children, Sports

Fish

March 23rd, 2010

Remember the pond in our backyard and the story associated with it?

The funny thing is, we were assured repeatedly by the previous owners and their landscaper that there was fish in that pond. But we did not see a single fish after we had moved in.

Until now. Here are the residents of the famous water body. They must have been hibernating already in the cool September of 2009, finally waking up in the nice weather of last week.
 

 

Photography

Skating with an Olympic champion

March 22nd, 2010

Today’s Russian word is захолустье. Most closely translated as “a God-forsaken place”, it means a backwater, marginal, more likely than not unattractive, sparsely-populated periphery town or village with rudimentary, if any, modern infrastructure and nothing to be proud about. (To pronounce it, start with “z” as in “zoo”, followed by “ah”, followed by “ho” as in “horse”, followed by “loost”, which is exactly like combining the vowel sound in “loose” with the consonant ending in “lost”, finally followed by “yeh”. To make it sound really Russian, you need to soften the “t”, which I do not believe has an English phonetic equivalent.)

The area of New Jersey where we live can hardly be called a захолустье on merit. It is well built-up, has all of the attributes of modern infrastructure aside from local public transportation, provides for quite a number of diversions, and some townships even have their own theatrical societies. And yet, the City commuter lot that resides in this area chooses it precisely for its comparative sleepiness in the shadow of the Big Apple.

A celebrity appearance at a low-key local event is what brings the backwater-ness of Central Jersey into focus. “What might she be doing in our захолустье?” is the understandable reaction.

We had precisely that reaction when, upon arriving at the local ice arena for the end-of-season children skating competition, we learned that the 1994 Olympic champion Oksana Baiul was in attendance and scheduled to skate a couple of exhibition programs.

The incongruity of a non-resident, non-native Olympic champion making an appearance in “God-forsaken” Old Bridge was easily explained. A local skater is part of Ms Baiul’s ice-skating Broadway musical, and he arranged her appearance as a sort of a promotional stint. She signed programs and skates, posed for pictures with kids, and performed both a current number from the musical and a simplified version of her Olympic gold medal winning “Swan Lake” routine. I have no doubt that at least a dozen families who would otherwise not bother to go see Cold as Ice will now do so.

Baiul is still very graceful on the ice and a pleasure to watch, even though her most challenging jumps these days are mere doubles.

She tried her very best to charm the public, who gave her a thunderous reception, but her infamous temper almost got the best of her precisely at the moment when it was my little girl’s turn to get her skate signed. Without going into much detail on the unfortunate mishap, Kimmy still got the autograph, but no personal picture with the star. This shot was taken seconds before Ms Baiul got temporarily put off by a child’s behavior.
 

 
When it was her turn to perform, Kimmy coolly skated a clean and composed program. From this un-objective spectator’s perspective, she was hands down the best in her skill-level/age group. The judges agreed.

Chronicles

In favor of travel agents

March 18th, 2010
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It turns out that even in this age of DIY web-enabled travel planning, a good old travel agent has its uses.

Case in point. Natasha is planning a half-week getaway for the two of us and, as always, she has spent considerable time online figuring out the most enticing place for us to stay at (and by “enticing”, I mean “not expensive, clean, conveniently located”). After she identified the target, she decided to call the travel agent that we periodically used in years past to see if she had any deals that we could take advantage of.

And what do you know!? The online promotion listed on the property’s website was reduced by a whopping third through whatever agency discount the woman was able to obtain. The rate went from being in the upper reaches of what we consider “not expensive” to being decidedly cheap.

One for the services industry.

Travel

Daylight

March 17th, 2010
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I love stepping out into the bright sunlight at the end of a long workday. I love even more getting off the bus at the end of my lengthy trip home and still having daylight to enjoy.

I am a big fan of Daylight Savings for that, if nothing else.

Stray thoughts

Depressing

March 16th, 2010

Russian language has a vast trove of colorful gems that remain on the fringes of literary norms. On different levels of obscurity even in the street vernacular, these nouns and adjectives often sound out-of-place in a refined discourse among educated adults. Yet, they often provide the most eloquent and brilliant descriptions for some commonplace phenomena.

Take, for instance, лахудра. Pronounced luh-WHO-druh (try “lump” without “m” and “p”, followed by stressed-syllable “who”, followed by “drug” without “g”), it means a slovenly, uncombed, unkempt woman. It is a derisive term, not meant to convey any degree of destitution, but rather an advance state of neglect of personal appearances. Which, astonishingly, can be glimpsed quite frequently in our environs.

Taking the kids to various activities, Natasha regularly comes in contact with other mothers bringing their children. A surprising portion of said mothers look like they just got out of bed, put on random outer garments and left their houses without given any thought to what they look like. Wearing what appears to be rumpled sleeping garments (or, at best, less-than-fresh track suits), their hair not having been touched by a brush for seemingly weeks, their faces showing not the slightest hint of make-up.

Ok, I’ll give it to you feminists out there that somewhere in your hard-core credo it is postulated that a woman is not truly emancipated until she is free from the make-up that the sexist society forced on her for untold generations. I’m sure if you subscribe to that you’re in a minority.

There is obviously a varying need “to impress” in the corporate world, and you are not likely to show up bedraggled and disheveled at a social event. In those instances, you either want to look good or you have to look good, but the bottom line is you will most probably choose to look good one way or another.

But, is making yourself presentable to an outside world something you do for other people or something you do for yourself? Away from business world or social occasions, why wouldn’t you go at least part of the way to keep a pleasant appearance. Even if you don’t care about others looking at you and thinking “what a лахудра!”, doesn’t your inner voice scream the same at you?

We don’t seem to recall seeing much of the kind in Europe. Nobody puts on a ball-gown every time they get out of the house, obviously, but when people do appear in public, whether for work, social occasion, or for a mundane trip to the supermarket, they tend to wear something other than pajamas or sweat-suits and at the very least have their hair combed.

Must be some new levels of the world-famous American self-confidence that now excludes any notion of self-regard.

Re-pat's culture shock, Suburbia

Rainstorm aftermath

March 15th, 2010

All houses but three on our street lost power on Saturday, and it is yet to be restored. Ours is one of the three lucky ones.

Becky says more than half of her friends said today that they had flooded basements. We found one single glass doorway that had water seeping through when the wind and the rain were at their strongest.

Our neighborhood was thoroughly decorated with fallen trees on Sunday morning. Our most troublesome tree was kind enough to break on earlier occasions.

We did lose cable services and, because we are on Optimum Triple Play, did not have phone service, TV or internet connection for roughly 48 hours. Mobile phones sufficed, and while it is hard to live without the other two in this day and age, it was not nearly a true hardship. We were told at some point that the service could not be restored until power came back to all houses on the street, but I just drove down the street: Our neighbors are still without power; we already have cable back.

No wonder I can never win a lottery. I’m using up all of my luck elsewhere. (Well, that, and I don’t buy tickets…)

Chronicles

Behind on a major project

March 10th, 2010
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Don’t tell my younger daughter, but I am awfully late with what she surely expects will be my gift to her on her next birthday. Given that the similar enterprise for the benefit of her older sister six years ago took me roughly nine months to finish, I shouldn’t have waited until March to start something that I need to complete in June.

One thing works for me: I do not have to digitize hundreds of hours of 8mm video recordings this time around. Also, I now have a considerably more powerful hardware than I had then. And I am undoubtedly more skillful with the various media software. On the other hand, I haven’t done much movie-making since before our England years; I could be rusty, for all I know.

My activity log so far has a couple of hours for photo prep and about the same amount for introductory slideshow. I expect the total time to be in the vicinity of 150 hours. I better get on with that.

Chronicles

Movie [drive-by] review: Alice in Wonderland

March 9th, 2010
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The children and I went to see Alice in Wonderland on Sunday. We are all big aficionados of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, and anything coming out in 3D these days has a strong attraction for us anyway.

We weren’t disappointed. The 3D experience is quite rewarding, special effects and amalgamation of live action and CGI continues to amaze, Johnny Depp is brilliant, other members of the cast were all quite good, Tim Burton’s take on the familiar story is appropriately dark and hilarious by turns. Kimmy, who is normally easily scared by on-screen monsters and startling action cuts, did not find the proceedings too scary.

My only problem was with Mad Hatter falling into Scottish accent during his rants. It must have been too long since I left UK – I had a bit of trouble deciphering his speech. Becky, on the other hand, had no such problem.

A solid on my scale.

Movies

Oscars

March 8th, 2010

NBC pissed me off with their atrocious Olympics coverage. ABC then decided to get on my bad side by making me miss Oscars.

Almost.

I was almost expecting the looping “important message from Cablevision” that blamed all ills on ABC throughout the day on Sunday to be replaced by live Oscar feed just in time for the ceremony. That the feed was restored about an hour into the broadcast partially mitigated my displeasure with both ABC and Cablevision (which, I’ve no doubt, was shared by the 3 million Cablevision subscribers residing in WABC-7 broadcast area), but it still does not excuse either company. The Dolan family, cheapskates extraodinaire, seem to have positioned me and other subscribers as potential hostages in any dispute with content providers (which, judging by the fact that this is the second time this year that a popular channel was taken off the air, may become a regular happenstance). In this particular case, the little I understand about TV content economics does suggest that ABC is more at fault; I can’t imagine why a local affiliate in one specific region of the country, who produces very little of original content beyond local news broadcasts, would be suddenly worth 20% more than before, especially since it is, in effect, a free channel. (And I do know several friends who bought themselves digital antennas to ensure that they could watch Oscars even if the dispute was not resolved in time.)

The outcome will undoubtedly be higher rates for my cable subscription. The Dolans will quote-unquote apologize and blame it on the greedy networks, but that hardly makes me any happier.

As it were, we missed only the opening part of the ceremony, which might have been one of its more entertaining parts. We seemingly did not miss any of the actual awards, joining in when the Best Supporting Actor – which, I believe, is traditionally one of the very first categories to be awarded – was up.

There were surprisingly few entertaining bits in the rest of the broadcast. Only one production number, with brilliant street dancing to the nominated Best Original Scores. No live performances of the nominated Best Songs, which must be the newest trend. Several presenter routines were clever (Ben Stiller, or Diaz and Carell), while quite a few people looked uncomfortable and camera-shy. I liked the recently adopted practice of giving each of the Best Actor/Actress nominees a personal panegyric by a co-star; some of those salutations were quite charming. The Martin/Baldwin duo, conversely, was not at all funny and looked out of place – I can barely recall a joke of theirs that I laughed at (ok, the Paranormal Activity spoof wasn’t half bad); overall, IMHO, they were a huge downgrade from Hugh Jackman’s performance last year.

A number of acceptance speeches for “lesser” awards was quite rudely cut off, which may have helped to move things forward (nonetheless, the broadcast lasted a bit over 4 hours), but also probably contributed to there being very few good ones – I think Sandra Bullock’s was the only one that managed to be both funny and heart-felt without sounding arrogant or patronizing; I can only recall a couple of others (the French guy who won the Best Animated Short, the winner for the Best Score) who stayed away from the tired formula of “I couldn’t imagine this X years ago – Look at me now! – Thank you the managers and the agents and the members of the crew [and James Cameron the Visionary]“.

The Hurt Locker looks like a great movie that I definitely want to see, but its haul of Oscars and especially its Best Picture award look to me a bit of a stretch. Ever since Shakespeare in Love won over Saving Private Ryan in ’98, the Academy has been trying to over-compensate in favor of the socially- or politically-profound movies, and this must have been the case of the voters being biased towards a current-events, touches-the-nerve story over a fantastic allegory. Still, I felt that a ground-breaking movie a decade in the making, and one that so effortlessly became the most widely seen movie in the entire history, was slam-dunk deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. Makes it even more of an anomaly that The Return of the King cleaned up in ’03.

Also, the Best Picture award provided a single exception that I noticed this year to the trend of the same people winning all awards during the season. Jeff Bridges won a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and an Oscar for his role. Sandra Bullock did likewise. So did Christoph Waltz. So did Mo’Nique. I can’t imagine that their performances are such stand-outs compared to those of their fellow nominees that different voting bodies would each agree. Only when it came to the best movie, did the Academy of Motion Pictures vote differently from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Weird.

In any case, Oscars always rekindle my interest in watching movies. That, and the sight of gorgeous women in beautiful gowns – hey, I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I enjoy that sight tremendously! – makes the Oscar night one of the most important TV nights in my viewing calendar. Good thing ABC and Cablevision came to their senses before it was too late.

Movies, TV

Business and pleasure

March 6th, 2010
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Spent a few days in Chicago on business. The schedule was fairly packed, but I managed to squeeze in an evening with the little brother and his family. Did not manage to find much time for idle city-seeing, although I did try to take different routes between the hotel and the office, as I aways do.

From a point of view of an architecture lover, Chicago must be one of the most impressive American cities. All over the Loop, there are gorgeous examples of a wide variety of architectural styles. The concept of uniformity was seemingly paid no heed whatsoever when Chicago was built up in 19th-20th centuries, so there are literally no two like buildings in any proximity of one another. On a bright, sunny day, even the heart of the city’s concrete jungle is rather pleasing to the eye.

I’ve been to Chicago quite a few times in the past, and yet I never knew that many streets in its Downtown area exist on two levels, with the lower level providing a quicker driving route between various points; much fewer cars use those lower streets. When you walk around Chicago on foot, you may never realize that a wide thoroughfare such as North Michigan Ave is, in fact, an elevated roadway, with the ground-level street directly underneath it. When a taxicab suddenly took me along the lower-level route, I was stunned by the discovery.

I also feel like I should have been familiar with that before.

Having had been a comparatively frequent business traveler prior to the family move to England, I have not been on a business trip for nearly three years. The shaving cream can felt victim to my lack of recent exposure to traveling without checked-in luggage. It was a large container, well above the 100g limit allowed in the carry-on these days. The TSA agent looked at me with barely concealed disdain and my pride took a serious hit for being publicly nailed in an attempt to break the law, however inadvertently, especially as I was unable to conceal my incredulity and duly attracted the attention of everyone behind me in the security check line. It all makes sense, I suppose: Idiotic rules make you feel like an idiot.

On the other hand, I consoled myself, at least I can hope that a truly dangerous object would not escape TSA folks’ scrutiny, seeing how successful they were in preventing various bottles, cans and containers to accompany their hapless owners. My shaving cream joined a pile of at least 50 similar objects…

Chronicles, Travel

Being cool

March 1st, 2010

I am getting into a car to go pick up my teenage daughter and a couple of her friends from a trip to the mall. Because I’ve been volunteered to deliver those kids to their homes, and because one of them lives as far as is geographically possible from us while still technically residing in the same township, I am looking at 45-50 minutes of total driving. I want to have some music playing while I’m driving, and not of the kind that kids these days prefer.

My little problem: I don’t want to embarrass my kid. I want to be a cool Dad. And yet, 90% of music on my iPod is in languages other than English and hardly any is in genres that teenagers would appreciate. The rest falls into the “oldies” category, with a good chance of appearing too dated to the kids.

My only safe choice seems to be in going with my 50-song Beatles playlist. The Beatles are kinda undissable; even if the other kids don’t like it, I can’t imagine them giving my daughter hard time about her old man being a Beatles’ fan.

At some point after the kids get in the car, Hello Goodbye comes up in the shuffle. Suddenly, they all start singing along from the backseat1. Becky notices my apparent surprise of that and remarks: “See, Daddy, my friends are cool!”

If they are cool singing to it, I must be cool playing it.

Whew! Aced it!

———–
1 It came up in a conversation afterwards that the teens know the song mostly because of Jonas Brothers’ cover, but they all agreed that they hated that and that the original version was much much better…

Music