Sunday, May 31, 2015

Steven Wilson in concert

On Friday I went in search of ingredients for my shredded beef tacos that I wanted to prepare for my showing of Savages at TSMC, one of the few Hollywood movies with a (reasonably) happy poly ending for a trio of lovers. This was a lot more involved than I expected it to be, mostly because I don't have a go-to Latino supermarket on my radar. So I started by getting beef short ribs and most of the fresh ingredients at the Korean supermarket, leaving dried ancho chilies and queso fresco as the major missing ingredients. I took a longshot and went to nearby Jack's, but struck out.

Then I took a bus up Eighth Avenue to Gristedes, where I knew I could get corn tortillas but no peppers or cheese. I went across the street to Westerley and found chipotle instead of ancho chilies, so I had something at least. I stopped at the Food Emporium on the way home to get shredded mozzarella in lieu of queso fresco. It kind of burns me how there are at least 10 different versions of feta on store shelves and hardly any other kind of crumbly cheese. So four grocery stores and a fifth variety store visited and I still couldn't get everything I needed, but I got enough to make it work. 

Unfortunately all this took so long that by the time I started cooking, it was going to be well into the event by the time the meat would be cooked (it takes three hours to braise short ribs in the oven). So when Michelle came over for the movie, we started the movie and then took a break to finish the cooking and eat dinner. She shredded the cooked meat while I prepared the sauce and we put them together with my homemade slaw, cheese and a squeeze of lime. Very tasty although a bit too spicy for Michelle! She gamely ate a couple of them before her tingling lips made her stop. If I'd found anchos instead of chipotles, this wouldn't have been a problem. Here's the recipe if you want to try it.

Shredded Beef Tacos (Carne Deshebrada)
Serves 6 to 8


1 1/2 cups beer
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 ounces (4 to 6) dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded, and torn into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons tomato paste
6 garlic cloves, lightly crushed and peeled
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large onion, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
3 pounds boneless beef short ribs, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes

1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 head green cabbage, cored and sliced thin (6 cups)
1 onion, sliced thin
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
18 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed
4 ounces queso fresco, crumbled (1 cup)
Lime wedges


1. FOR THE BEEF: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine beer, vinegar, anchos, tomato paste, garlic, bay leaves, cumin, oregano, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, cloves, and cinnamon in Dutch oven. Arrange onion rounds in single layer on bottom of pot. Place beef on top of onion rounds in single layer. Cover and cook until meat is well browned and tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

2. FOR THE CABBAGE-CARROT SLAW: While beef cooks, whisk vinegar, water, sugar, and salt in large bowl until sugar is dissolved. Add cabbage, onion, carrot, jalapeño, and oregano and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours. Drain slaw and stir in cilantro right before serving.

3. Using slotted spoon, transfer beef to large bowl, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and set aside. Strain liquid through fine-mesh strainer into 2-cup liquid measuring cup (do not wash pot). Discard onion rounds and bay leaves. Transfer remaining solids to blender. Let strained liquid settle for 5 minutes, then skim any fat off surface. Add water as needed to equal 1 cup. Pour liquid in blender with reserved solids and blend until smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer sauce to now-empty pot.

4. Using two forks, shred beef into bite-size pieces. Bring sauce to simmer over medium heat. Add shredded beef and stir to coat. Season with salt to taste. (Beef can be refrigerated for up to 2 days; gently reheat before serving.)

5. Spoon small amount of beef into each warm tortilla and serve, passing slaw, queso fresco, and lime wedges separately.

I woke up Saturday just in time to meet Liz for a play reading for Articulate at Bunga Din, a bar down on 14th Street. My friend Kelly wrote a play called "Lauren and Logan Are Gonna Be Fine," a self-described rom-com play set in New York. I first knew Kelly as one of the actresses in Joan and Kacey's play, "The Tragedy of Dandelion" that I saw twice last year. Marguerite read one of the roles of Kelly's new play, and I was happy to see Joan and Bruce there, just back from their tour of Prague where they performed their play "Kafka's Belinda" at the Prague Fringe Festival. Joan had invited me to a free preview last week and it was a very interesting play. Bruce co-wrote it, Joan directed, and Storm actually did the sound design.

In the evening Puck and I attended the Steven Wilson concert at Best Buy Theater, the second time I've seen him at this venue as a solo artist, and the fifth time I've seen him (including Porcupine Tree tours). 

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

The concert was unlike any rock concert I've ever been to. The last time I saw SW on the tour supporting his last album, "The Raven That Refused To Sing" I had to stake out a spot on the rail standing at the front of the mezzanine, continuously fending off encroachers from all sides. For my reward, I got a stellar view of the concert but I had to work for it.

So this time SW set up the concert much like a classical music concert, with full assigned seating and multi-channel sound. Which was great because our seats were in the center section at the rear of that self-same mezzanine on a step-up riser. When he took the stage, SW explained that he was getting up in years and recognized that many of his fans were too (he's one year older than me, biologically speaking) and might appreciate a show enjoyed from the comfort of their seats. However, he encouraged everyone to "rock out" as much as they wanted to, but from the comfort of their seats. He also took a cue from Diana Krall and asked everyone to refrain from taking photos or videos during the concert, which I really appreciated so I didn't have to see hundreds of glowing screens held up in my sightline as I do with every other concert. Clearly, SW is courting a different audience as a solo artist than the Porcupine Tree fanbase.

The concert setlist started out with several tracks from his new album, "Hand. Cannot. Erase." with video on a huge LED screen across the rear of the stage. I loved how SW let his personality and sense of humor come out much more than he does at PT concerts. He joked about how most of his music is about isolation, misery and pain, saying "I don't do happy. Happy makes me depressed."

He also had more time to talk about how songs came about. For example, he prefaced the song "Harmony Korine" from his debut solo album "Insurgentes" with a little musical history about growing up with 80s music and the small musical sub-genre known as shoegaze that influenced the song. It's fascinating to hear even just a little bit about the inspiration of musical genius, and SW is one of those rare unquestioned musical geniuses of the modern rock era.

I also loved the multi-channel sound effects, reminiscent of the DVD-Audio mixes that he is justifiably famous for in the industry, on tracks such as "Perfect Life," synced with the video content and the performance of the musicians. Then he surprised me by pulling out "How Is Your Life Today?" an old PT song from the 2000 album "Lightbulb Sun" that is a vocal solo with guitar and keyboards, in addition to solo acoustic performances of two of PT's biggest hits, "Lazarus" and "Trains."

For the encores the band performed behind a draped scrim on which was projected somewhat creepy images for "The Watchmaker." For the finale, he performed his biggest recent hit, "The Raven That Refused to Sing," with the short film directed by Jess Cope shown on the high-def screen.

What I love the most about SW's concert is how you can see his hand (no pun intended) everywhere in the performance. He clearly had a vision of precisely the kind of performance he wanted to put on and executed its many components, from recorded voices and sounds to video content to an immersive surround sound mix and audience participation, to perfection. He's one of the few musical performers that I've had the privilege of seeing in their prime, at the absolute top of their game in the genre that they occupy. It was, quite simply, the most stunning and brilliantly executed rock concert I've ever seen.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Food and drink

So the Rockets lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors 4-1 tonight, ending the basketball season as far as I'm concerned. It was the first conference finals since 1997 when they lost to the Utah Jazz. Anyway, life goes on.

It sometimes strikes me as odd that I hang on to my Rockets fandom so tenaciously when I've let go nearly everything else that ties me to Houston. But I think it all comes down to the things I really love, like the food I grew up with: Cajun food, Sichuan cuisine, jalapenos on hamburgers, 24 hour Tex-Mex and Texas barbecue. So when the Rockets won their back-to-back championships in 1994-1995, I fell irrevocably in love with the franchise and have been a loyal fan even from afar.

In the evening on Mother's Day I met up with Chelsea to see a SAG screening (she's a member of the Screen Actors Guild) of a movie called I'll See You In My Dreams followed by a talkback with the stars, Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. Afterward we went to a pub and had a bite to eat, and found out from the bartender that my elusive Swedish pear cider was available at a bar called House of Brews across Eighth Avenue from where we were sitting. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening and helped to distract from the unpleasantness of the holiday for me.

On Friday the 15th, Katie B invited me to another happy hour and I suggested the House of Brews - quite selfishly because I wanted that Kopparberg pear cider and it's close enough for me to walk. It was nice to see Carolyn there, a familiar face, and I finally got to meet Rin, of whom I've heard much about. I actually didn't stay too long because I was pretty tired after having come back from Staten Island and Princeton in the prior 48 hours, but I will see Katie on Saturday for our long-awaited Steven Wilson concert.

Last weekend I attended the 60th birthday of Puck's dad with all the usual fanfare that brought their extended family from all over to the Verrazano Grill near their house. The food was very good, although the Russian music got a little loud for my taste.

On Sunday Puck went to Philly for their session while I met up with Liz, Josh and Lytle at the Brooklyn Bagel Company for breakfast and then went on a whiskey distillery tour in Red Hook. It took a few tries to get there - subway, buses and shuttles, but we finally found it. Since the distillery was so small the tour was short but it was followed, as such things usually are, by tastings and free drinks of Old Fashioneds and Gold Rushes in a charming tasting room hosted by a friendly Chihuahua.

Lytle had to scoot after a few rounds, but we made plans to meet up the next day to see the new Mad Max movie. The three of us had an early dinner at Hill Country Barbecue (which I'd been to once before after the New York Audio Show. We ran into one of Josh's friends from the PIT at the place next door and he treated us to dessert pies. I got some very tasty barbecue pork belly that was dripping with fat - so delicious but so bad for me - with green bean casserole and coleslaw.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Eating through Chicago

My trip to Chicago on the last weekend of April was met with equal parts anticipation and dread. On the one hand, I've always wanted to visit the Windy City, mostly for its culinary destinations since I'm quite the fan of Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza. I've only been there once before and that was for a high school band trip so it was ages ago - a lifetime ago.

On the other hand, the reason I was going this time was to move my dear friend Kristina, whom I've grown quite fond of since first meeting her at Shotz and at Kacey's birthday in 2012, and then getting to know her one-on-one after one of my all-time favorite Shotz performances ("Finding fun time" - Nov. 12, 2013) and highlighted by some epic conversations over dinner ("Work hard, play hard" - March 9, 2014). I haven't had to say farewell to anyone close to me the way we have become close in quite a long time.

The day before departure was quite an ordeal in itself. Puck's family weren't coordinated with our plans so Puck's dad took Yoshi to work so that their mom could drive Puck's sister and niece to Penn Station for a train back to Vermont. So in order to get Yoshi, Puck and I intercepted the mom, sister and niece at Penn Station, drove to New Jersey to meet up and switch vans with the dad, drove back to Staten Island to empty the van and then to Brooklyn to meet up with Kristina.

The next morning we packed up everything Kristina owned, strapped her mattress on the roof, and her bicycle on the back and started driving west with the three of us and Sam the cat. We drove through a little rain, but since we weren't going very fast, the plastic cover held up okay. However, by the time we started encountering snow in the high altitudes of Pennsylvania, the cover had started to tear apart. By the time we stopped for the night at a Clarion Inn in Ohio, it was in tatters, but fortunately, it was not raining and didn't rain for the rest of the trip right up until the moment we pulled into Kristina's friend Carol's parking lot.

We unpacked Yoshi into Carol's studio apartment (they now have a two-bedroom, but it wasn't ready until May 1) and then went out to dinner, at which point the rain was coming down in buckets. We made it to Lou Malnati's Pizzeria with three more friends, who all went to college with Kristina and Carol. It was the first authentic Chicago-style pizza I've ever had and it was very tasty (I had five slices!).

Despite the engorgement, we decided to visit Publican Quality Meats for brunch the next morning to sample some of their amazing house-cured charcuterie. TV host Andrew Zimmern had a delicious-looking blood mortadella egg salad sandwich on Bizarre Foods that we wanted to try, but it wasn't on the menu that day, so we just had the mortadella itself as part of the charcuterie plate, along with a rillettehead cheese and sausage of various proteins.

Since it was a cold and rainy day, we decided to visit the Field Museum and spent several hours looking at exhibits of bio-diverse wildlife, Egyptian mummies and ecological outreach around the world. On the way out we said a quick hello to Sue, the world-famous T-Rex fossil residing in the great hall.

Afterward we explored the park and waterfront surrounding the museum, which also includes a view of the skyline, an aquarium and observatory. The wind blew the water into a steady chop that occasionally splashed onto the promenade, threatening to soak us if we didn't pay attention.

In the evening, I got to cross off another culinary bucket list item with a visit to the famous Chicago landmark Superdawg drive-in. The classic Chicago Dog is an all-beef sausage topped with mustard, sweet relish, onions, tomatoes, pickled peppers, and a spear of pickle. There are tons of restaurants and stands in the city that serve the Chicago Dog and I've had versions of it at hot dog places all over the country, but never in Chicago until now.

The next day dawned clear and bright so we started our day at a nearby coffee house before heading downtown. We spent a good deal of time at the Chicago Cultural Center, which used to be the main library but now houses art exhibits and features two extraordinary Tiffany glass domes. There's also a nice view of Millennium Park from the upper floor conference rooms.

We had planned to visit the Art Institute but we didn't really have enough time to make it worth the price of admission, so we contented ourselves with exploring the public art, fountains and playgrounds in the various parks, just enjoying the beauty of the day.

For our final meal of the day, we took the train out to Wrigley Field to meet up with Puck's childhood friend Jessica at Al's Italian Beef, which achieved notoriety from Bobby Flay and Adam Richman on the Food Network.

Puck and I awoke at 5 the next morning, packed quickly and silently, and started back home. Without all the baggage, we drove a lot faster and only stopped briefly for breaks. It took more than 18 hours of drive time over two days coming out, but we made it back home to Staten Island in under 14 hours.

I took most of the following week to recover from the trip, although I did manage to make it out to Open Love NY on Tuesday and then my women's group on Wednesday. But I've been slowly resuming my usual pace of activity - Sunday I visited Kacey at the performance she's stage managing, Eleven Reflections on September, a powerful multimedia and performance piece about 9/11 from a Lebanese poet. Afterward we did a yoga class together and then came back to TSMC to watch The Wings of the Dove, continuing our long-standing marathon of literary movies.

Monday night Puck joined me for dinner at The Bao, followed by "The Shotz Guide to Survival." This month's conditions were: 1) characters must face an absurdly perilous situation, 2) someone laughs out loud, and 3) includes the line "Don't worry, I've been doing this for years." It wasn't my favorite performance, mostly because of the violence. One person was gunned down; another was stabbed with a fork. Three characters had their necks snapped by a witch. Just not my cup of tea, really, even in fun.

Tuesday night I made dinner for Liz and then we walked a block down my street to see Airline Highway, which is nominated for four Tonys this season. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, as it touched on the themes of intentional family and inclusiveness that we talk about a lot. Liz even managed to snap a photo under the nose of the hyper-vigilant usher.

Wednesday I woke up at 7 to meet Katie M in the line for rush tickets to see Finding Neverland on Broadway and this time we managed to snag some for the afternoon show. She went to brunch with her father and boyfriend while I went home for a nap and we met up again for the 2 pm show. The partial view seats were not very good - they were in the front row on the extreme left of stage and since it was above our eyelines we couldn't really see the back half of the stage. However, we did get to see some of the action very up close, nearly getting a glass of fake liquor spilled on us. At intermission a stagehand came by and asked us if we saw the fallen stemware - that's when we found out it was not supposed to have been dropped into the pit. Despite the limited view, we both enjoyed the show and the music immensely, especially since Katie is such a fan of the Peter Pan myth.

After the show we actually tried to win tickets at The Book of Mormon ticket lottery, but were unsuccessful so we went back to TSMC and watched the Finding Neverland movie, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. It turns out the musical is almost a carbon copy of the movie, but the addition of the music makes it much more enjoyable. We had a quick dinner at the nearby Five Guys before saying goodnight.

Today I gathered up a couple bags of clothes, sheets and other items to donate to the Salvation Army. Then I stopped by the drugstore on the way back to pick up 20 liters of Diet Mountain Dew since it was on sale. In the evening I met up with Erika, one of the newer members of my women's group, to talk about her fledgling photography project involving open relationships.

Tomorrow night is the second iteration of "The Conversation," the multidisciplinary think tank meets artists collective that is curated by Storm. I've also started putting out resumes this week to various job postings, which is what I'd planned to do after returning from Chicago. Hopefully the job search will progress quickly and satisfactorily.