Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Film Review: John Wick

I rarely post film reviews. In fact, this is only my second one (here's the first). However, I was
so taken by John Wick I felt compelled to write about it.

I'm not going to bother with recounting the plot. You can find that anywhere. Besides, plots are for graveyards. Also, consider this the official SPOILERS AHEAD warning. 

John Wick is another entry in the tough-guy-coming-out-of-retirement-to-wreak-havoc genre. What sets it apart from lesser movies of this ilk is the style and care that obviously went into it. 

Perkins enjoys a drink between hits.
The cast is top-notch. Keanu Reeves is so good it's almost as if he's a different actor. I don't know if it's because he's a bit older now, but he seems to have way more (cliche alert!) gravitas in this film. Mikael Nyqvist portrayal of crime-lord Viggo Tarasov brings complexity to what otherwise could be a standard villain role. Alfie Allen is at his sniveling best. Adrianne Palicki gives it her all as assassin Perkins. Equally good are the character roles: Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and John Leguizamo all prove the maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors. It was also great to see David Patrick Kelly on the big screen again. You might nor recognize his name, but you've surely seen his work.

There are several homages to classic thrillers. In one scene, an extra is seen reading a copy of Trevanian's Shibumi, which is one of the great hitman novels. The concept of The Continental—a hotel that serves as a sanctuary for assassins and where no "business" can take place—echoes the Abelard Sanction safehouses of David Morrell's book The Brotherhood of the Rose.

One of the most prominent homages involves the name of the club that serves as the setting
Inside the Red Circle.
for one of the film's best action sequences: the Red Circle. In French, the red circle is le cercle rouge, which happens to be the name of an excellent crime drama directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville also directed Le Samourai, one of the coolest, most influential hitman films ever made.

The idea of the circle manifests itself not only in the name of the club, but in the film's dramatic arc. Early on, it is revealed that John Wick is largely responsible for creating the crime empire of Russian gangster Viggo Tarasov. Wick worked for Tarasov, but wanted to leave the criminal life to get married. Tarasov said Wick could make a clean break if he carried out a seemingly impossible assignment. Of course, Wick succeeded in his task, and from that Tarasov was able to built his extensive operation. Years later, Wick manages to destroy the same organization he helped to built. A red circle, indeed.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Recipe Wednesday: Pasta with Olive Oil, Garlic, Pepper, and Nutritional Yeast

This recipe is a slight variation on the classic Neapolitan dish spaghetti all'aglio, olio e peperoncino

I first had aglio e olio on a trip to (you guessed it) Naples, Italy. My wife and I were visiting our friend Mike, who was stationed at the U.S. Naval base in Naples. The first night we were there, we all went to dinner at a mellow family restaurant. It was called Angela's, or something similar. 

Still a bit tired and jet lagged, I wanted something comforting. Mike recommended spaghetti all'aglio, olio e peperoncino, a basic dish made with pasta, olive oil, dried red chili flakes, garlic, and Italian parsley. Heeding his advice, that's what I ordered. When the food arrived I took a few forkfuls and was instantly in a state of bliss. How could something so incredibly simple taste so incredibly good? By the time I finished my meal (and a few bottles of wine), I had a new favorite Italian dish.

On returning to the U.S., I started experimenting with different recipes and making my own aglio e olio. What follows is more or less my go-to method of preparing the dish. I say "more or less" because I don't put much thought into it when I make aglio e olio. I just sort of do it.

A major change I make involves switching out Italian parsley for nutritional yeast. To be honest, most of the times I make aglio e olio it is a spur of the moment thing and I usually don't have Italian parsley on hand. Plus, nutritional yeast gives the pasta a nice nutty, cheesy flavor. The  extra B vitamins are a good thing, too.

So here is my rough recipe. It's a one-pot dish:
Pasta with Olive Oil, Garlic, Pepper, and Nutritional Yeast
8 ounces pasta
4-6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/3 cup of olive oil (or more!)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes

1. Cook the pasta until al dente ("to the tooth"). Right before you drain the pasta scoop out half a cup of the cooking water and put it to the side.
2. In the same pot you used to cook the pasta, add the olive oil and reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and stir frequently for about two minutes. Add the pepper flakes and continue to stir.
3. Just as the garlic begins to get soft but before it becomes too brown, toss in the pasta. Stir it around, and then add the reserved pasta water. The pasta water contains starches that will help the ingredients stick to the pasta. Continue stirring for another two or three minutes. Don't overcook!
4. Serve the pasta immediately topped with nutritional yeast to taste, fresh ground pepper, and cheap wine (optional, but recommended!)

I make this at least once a month. I recommend enjoying a cocktail such as a Martini or Negroni while cooking, and listening to this cool track by Nicola Conte.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Recipe Wednesdays: Babe's Bocadillos

Today I'm launching a new feature: Recipe Wednesdays. Here and there I'll be posting some of my favorite recipes.

A few quick caveats...
  1. I'm 100 percent vegetarian and 95+ percent vegan. This will be reflected in my recipes.
  2. Most of the recipes I'll be sharing are not my own. They will usually be from one of the many cookbooks I own and enjoy. Credit will always be given, as will links to the relevant cookbook.
  3. To be honest, while I am a pretty good cook, I'm still working on my food photographer skills.
Today's recipe is for Babe's Bocadillos. It comes via The 30 Minute Vegan's Taste of Europe by Mark Reinfeld. The 30 Minute Vegan series is one of my favorites, and are among the best vegan cookbooks available.

The bocadillos are a vegan version of a type of ham found in Spain.

Babe's Bocadillos
2 tablespoons tamari or other soy sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon of smoked paprika or 1/2 teaspoon of liquid smoke (I prefer the liquid smoke)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
1 14 oz. pack extra firm tofu

Ready to bake!
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Place all the ingredients except for the tofu on a baking sheet (I actually prefer a shallow casserole dish) and mix well.
3. Slice the tofu into cutlets. The original recipe calls for 12 thin cutlets, but I often cut the tofu into four or six big, thick slices.
4. Place the tofu on the baking sheet and let it sit a few minutes. Then flip the tofu, put the sheet in the oven, and cook for 20 minutes, flipping the tofu again midway through.

And that's it. Babe's Bocadillos are excellent on sandwiches, or as a bacon replacement for a tofu scramble. If you are of a Hawaii state of mind, they also can be used to make a veganized Spam musubi.
On rye with fries.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Vodka Martinis for National Vodka Day

Raising a toast to your cat is optional, but I like to do it.
Did you know October 4 is National Vodka Day in the U.S.? Me neither. Apparently it's some sort of bogus holiday that exists only for marketing purposes.

That being said, it seems as if post-Vodka Day is as good of a time as any to discuss Vodka Martinis, aka Vodkatinis, aka Kangaroos (really). 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I tend to prefer tradional, gin-based Martinis. However, sometimes I do opt for the vodka option. A Vodka Martini can be quite refreshing on really hot days, and it's a good choice to have with lighter fare, such as Japanese food. 

When I make Martinis with gin, I use the following recipe:

2 oz. gin
0.5 oz dry vermouth
A splash of orange bitters
Shaken over ice, served in a chilled cocktail glass with a twist of lemon

Alas, this recipe doesn't work too well if you are using vodka instead of gin. There's too much vermouth, and it will overwhelm the vodka. This is why many bartenders make Vodka Martinis with no vermouth at all. However, with no vermouth, the drink isn't really a Martini. I tend to go along with Esquire's suggestion of an 18 to 1 vodka to vermouth. So my recipe for a Vodka Martini ends up looking like this:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thought of the Day, October 1, 2014: Bruce Lee on the Now

"Look to this day, for it is life. The very life of life. Within its brief span, lies all the verities and realities of your existence. The bliss of growth. The glory of action. The splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is but a vision. But, today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this day."

—Bruce Lee

More on Back to Basics Training

Yesterday I posted about taking my fitness routine back to the basics. I quickly got a few requests for details about exactly what sort of workouts I've been doing. Well, as James Bond once observedthe first rule of mass media is "Give the people what they want." So here's a snapshot of what I've been doing for the past couple of months training-wise... 

Monday, Wednesday, Friday

I have a red neck, but I'm not a redneck.
Kettlebell Turkish Get-Ups: I was using a 20kg 'bell and doing about a dozen reps each side. A few weeks ago I moved up to the 53kg and have cut my reps down to three or four each side. I do single reps of TGUs, and do an easy set of Push-Ups in between reps. I'll do a TGU on my left, a few Push-Ups, a TGU on the right, a few more Push-Ups, and so on. By the way, doing Push-Ups and TGUs together makes my abs want to jump out of my body and run and hide.

After TGU's and Push-Ups, I move on to Pull-Ups and Push-Ups. For the Pull-Ups, I vary my grip on each set. My favorite grips are neutral grip (palms facing each other) and mix-matched grip (one palm facing me, one palm facing away from me). I seldom do more than 5 reps in a set. I usually do at least 50 Pull-Ups total, and do about a quarter of those wearing a 20lb. weight vest.  

As seen on TV!

For Push-Ups, I aim for 100 total. I keep the number of reps per set around 7 to 10. As with Pull-Ups, I vary what type of Push-Ups I do. Mostly I do standard Push-Ups, but I also throw in Diamond Push-Ups, Hindu Push-Ups, and Push-Ups using the surprisingly effective Perfect Push-Up handles.

If I'm doing Goblet Squats, I do them on TGU day. I use a 44kg kettlebell and keep the numbers of sets and reps a bit low, because my legs have already gotten a workout from the TGUs. Plus, Goblet Squats are biomechanically a bit tricky for some one who is 6'3" with an inseam of about 36".

Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday

An arty Swing photo.
I do a Kettlebell Swing/Push-Up routine inspired by something I saw from coach Dan John. It's simple. Do 10 (or 15 or 20) Swings followed by 10 Push-Ups. Repeat the same number of Swings, but do 9 Push-Ups. Work your way down to just one Push-Up. Keep rests periods as short as possible. Right now I'm doing sets of 20 Swings with a 53kg 'bell, for a total of 200 Swings and 55 Push-Ups. When I'm done, I do 45 more Push-Ups to bring the total up to 100. (And no, I have not found that doing 100 Push-Ups a day six days a week leads to overtraining.)

After finishing my Push-Ups, I usually do a short core routine based on Dr. Stuart McGill's Big 3 Core Exercises.

I always start my workouts with a few minutes of meditation and some dynamic stretching. I always conclude with about 10 minutes of yoga based on the Eischens yoga sequence I learned at Monkey Bar Gym.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Back to Fitness Basics

Kettlebells are a fantastic training tool. Not only are they incredibly effective, but they are also a lot of fun and versatile. There are countless exercises you can do with them.

My cat Ziggy likes kettlebells, too.
Ironically, the fact that kettlebells are so fun and so versatile can pose problems. At least, they did in my case. I found myself changing up my kettlebell routines far too often, just because I wanted to try new things. While variety can be a good thing, it can also work against you. There's something to be said for doing the same things over and over. Consistency counts.

Swings in the park!
In an effort to cure by Kettlebell Attention Deficit Disorder (KADD?), for the past several months I've only concentrated on a few basic kettlebell and bodyweight exercises...
  • Push-Ups
  • Pull-Ups
  • Turkish Get-Ups
  • Swings
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I do Turkish Get-Ups and Pull-Ups. 

Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I do Swings and Dr. Stuart McGill's Big 3 Core Exercises.

I do Push-Ups and about 10 minutes of yoga daily.

Occasionally, I'll throw something else into the mix; usually Goblet Squats. But the above has been the basis for my workouts for the last six months or so.

TGUs in a faux gangsta environment.
There's a reason I chose the exercises I did. They work. And doing them a lot and often makes them work even better.

Have I become bored? No. In fact, I've grown to love the grind of doing the same things over and over. There's something almost Zen-like about it.

Am I still getting results? If by "results" you mean getting stronger and leaner, then yes.

I plan to stick with the basics for the foreseeable future, adding moves such as Snatches and Goblet Squats here and there. But since I'm still improving, I have no intention of making any drastic changes anytime soon. As they say, if it ain't broke...