Leftover makeover – Breakfast egg bake

I’m always at a bit of a loss when it comes to figuring out what to do with leftovers. Sure, you can pop them in the microwave and eat them again, but then you’re really just eating a sub-par version of the thing you ate the day before. (Unless you had soup. That reheats like a champ.)

I decided I’d try merging together last night’s dinner with this morning’s breakfast, and I’m very pleased with the results. It’s a pretty simple process, and you could use all sorts of things for the base. I happened to have roasted sweet potatoes, but that bottom layer could be any cooked vegetables, rice, beans, or even a bit of pasta. In fact, I think pasta would work splendidly.

To start, preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease a ceramic dish with your oil of choice (I went with a bit of olive), and add your bottom layer of food.

Roasted sweet potatoes

Then, put a few spoonfuls of something tomato-based on top of your bottom layer. I used salsa, but you could also use tomato sauce, chopped fresh tomatoes, bruschetta topping, etc.

Potatoes and salsa

Since these leftovers are presumably coming out of the fridge, put the dish in the oven to heat up the bottom layers. 7-10 minutes should do the trick, but this will vary based on what you use for your base. It’s not an exact science, so don’t sweat it. Whatever food you’re using has already been cooked previously, so you’re just warming it.

Take the dish out of the oven and sit it on a heat-proof surface (e.g. the stovetop or a folded dish towel on the counter). I had a slightly larger ceramic container so I was able to crack two eggs into the dish. If you only have ramekins you can follow the same steps, dividing the ingredients between two small ramekins and cracking one egg into each ramekin.

Baked eggs

On top of the eggs I sprinkled salt and pepper, then added a bit of shredded cheese. This part is very adaptable as well. Want to keep it paleo? Skip the cheese. Want to give it more bite? Add chopped scallions or a handful of fresh herbs. Want more spice? Dot the top with some Sriracha.

Eggs and cheese

Put the dish back in the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, essentially until the whites are just set and the yolks are soft. The cooking time depends on how runny you like your yolks, and also a bit on how reliable your oven temperature is. I cooked mine for 12 minutes and it was the perfect consistency for me. There was a little bit of liquid from the salsa, so just take a look when you take it out of the oven to make sure you’re seeing salsa liquid and not uncooked egg whites.

Baked eggs

All that’s left to do is grab a spoon and dig in! If you’re a wheat-eater, feel free to dip some toast in this bad boy. Want to dip without the wheat? Rip a corn tortilla into strips and go to town.

From start to finish this took me about 20 minutes, which is a perfectly respectable amount of time to spend making weekend breakfast.

IMG_20150425_103130

How to feed (another) niche: Brunch edition

It has apparently been over a year since I last explored the bizarre treasure trove that is Williams-Sonoma. This must be remedied immediately. Since we all know that the only thing I could possibly love more than a collection of completely frivolous items is a thematic collection of completely frivolous items, this time I entered their cave of wonders with brunch on the brain.

The obvious place to start when it comes to brunch is eggs. They’re tasty any way you cook them, but there is something childishly delightful about whacking the top off a soft-boiled egg and dunking strips of buttery toast in it. However, Williams-Sonoma thinks that childish delight is… well, childish. Civilized adult-persons engaging in brunch do not decapitate their eggs while screaming like a samurai.

Egg topper

Instead, they apparently open them up with the cold, calculated precision of a serial killer. The Rösle Egg Topper description explains that it gives you “easy access to the silken white and creamy golden yolk inside.” Which is not creepy in the slightest. Nope, not at all.

Hitchhiker's Guide Arthur

The instructions read like the wet dream of a breakfast-loving mad scientist:

Simply place the topper on your boiled egg, pull the handle up, then release – the spring-loaded mechanism causes just enough vibration for the sharp blade to cut through the shell.

Unsurprisingly this item is made by Germans and only available online. They wouldn’t want you acting out your egg-topping fantasies in the store.

Toast tongs

And that aforementioned toast? Yeah, they’ve got something for that too. You can purchase Toast Tongs, which “deftly remove slices of bread from a toaster while safely keeping your hands away from the heat.” They also come complete with a magnet so you’ll never lose them (if you stick them to the toaster) or never lose any other metallic utensils that end up in the same drawer you shove them in.

Luckily, these are available in stores. You may want to go road test them so you don’t end up as disappointed as this customer was.

Toast tong review

I figure we may as well add some good fats into the mix to counteract all that buttered toast, and nothing fits the bill quite like avocado. There are all sorts of ways to enjoy avocado with your brunch, but the first step is getting it out of the skin. I’ve always just used a spoon, but apparently I am a savage who knows nothing about the finer points of avocado liberation.

The Avoloop, in addition to being terribly named, is “ideally shaped to scoop out the flesh from an avocado half in one clean sweep.” They make a point of letting you know that you could also use your Avoloop for “peeling mango, papaya, baked potato, squash and melon.”

But not kiwi. You’ll need to buy a Kiwi Loop for that.

Avoloop and Kiwi Loop

I don’t know about you, but my biggest fear is that I’ll no longer be able to serve properly made salsa at my post-apocalyptic brunches once the power grid fails. Recognizing that this is a fairly common fear, the crack team at Chef’n developed the VeggiChop Vegetable Chopper exclusively for the discerning customers at Williams-Sonoma.

I can’t decide which feature I love most – The blade’s “safety sheath”, having to pre-chop vegetables to fit inside the VeggiChop, or the fact that you operate it like a stubborn lawn mower that refuses to start. Apocalypse be damned, we will have salsa at this party! Reach for the sky, Chef’n!

Woody Toy Story

Film review – It Follows

When I visited Detroit last summer, my first impression was that it would make an amazing setting for a horror movie. I’ve never driven through such a large city that seemed so empty, void of both cars and people. And it wasn’t just a regular kind of empty. It felt stuck in mid-stride, as if it were suddenly but calmly abandoned.

It Follows - Detroit

When I heard someone actually had filmed a horror movie in Detroit, I was instantly on board. Honestly, just knowing that Detroit was the backdrop for It Follows was enough for me to know that I was going to enjoy the film. It was really just icing on the cake when the critics started raving about its fresh take on the genre, although I’m generally wary about any piece of entertainment that comes to me pre-hyped.

The basic premise of the film is fairly simple, and is laid out right there for you in the title. There is some… force. It’s not clear exactly what it is, whether it’s a creature or a spirit or maybe just fear personified. Once you’ve been cursed (more on curse transmission in a moment), this unnamed thing follows you. If it catches up with you, it will kill you. The only way to get it to stop following you is to pass the curse on to another person. But even then, you’re really not safe, because if the person you infected is killed by this force, then it will turn its attention back to following and killing you.

I should pause and say that I’m going to discuss some plot details and cinematography. While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, if you want to go into the theater knowing nothing else beyond the trailer, here is your point to stop reading. Just know that if you’re a fan of horror (in particular psychological horror) I would recommend you see it, and see it on the big screen.

Maika Monroe in It Follows

So, how exactly is this curse transmitted from person to person? Sex, naturally. I’ve been jokingly calling it an STD – Sexually Transmitted Demon. While it could come across as tired horror trope, there are a few reasons I think it doesn’t. For starters, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the sex scenes. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of nudity in the film, but the nudity does not come from the people you would expect it from.

Second, while the characters are young they’re not teenagers (not all of them, anyway). They are not fumbling around, having their first sexual encounters. I think this is an important point, because your classic puritanical horror equates sex with loss of innocence but It Follows definitely does not. What it also does not do is introduce rape into the equation.

Jay (the main female protagonist, played expertly by Maika Monroe) is given this curse from a guy she’s been on several dates with. He doesn’t force himself on her, he woos her. He takes her out a few times and waits for her to initiate sex. It’s not exactly spelled out, but I get the distinct impression that consent is part of the package deal with passing along the curse. That, more than any other aspect of the sexual transmission, is why I would say that this movie is more than just groundbreaking horror – It’s mature horror.

It Follows - Sisters

The other main reason to go see this film (and see it in the theater) is the unbelievably delicious ambiance. It’s due in part to the Detroit setting, but all the choices in cinematography really come together to create something new and exciting. Visually, what I like most about the movie is that it’s totally unclear when it is supposed to take place. The interior home shots could be right out of the late 70s – heavy shag carpeting; wood-paneled television sets with dials and antennae; melamine trays, bowls, tea pitchers and glasses; landline telephones with long spiral cords.

But then again, one of their friends spends the entirety of the film scrolling through The Idiot from an e-reader shaped like a clamshell compact. They drink beer out of modern pop-top cans, iced coffee from Starbucks-esque plastic cups. The cars are classic, the wardrobe both vintage and contemporary. There are no computers in their homes, and aside from the appearance of one in the opening scene, no cell phones in their pockets. It takes place now, and yet it doesn’t. It has no definitive place in time.

The other essential component to setting the mood is the stellar soundtrack. All of the music in the film was composed and performed by an artist named Disasterpeace, and the movie would not be what it is without his contribution. I think the most apt comparison would be Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides (honestly one of my favorite albums, soundtrack or otherwise). It’s the kind of music that causes the hairs on your arms to stand up, that crawls slowly into your ears and makes its way to your brain. The music is a huge part of what makes seeing the movie in the theater imperative.

Considering it started in very limited release (and only just got wider release from some larger theater chains last week) if I were you I would haul ass to a theater and see It Follows while it’s still available to watch on the big screen. The film isn’t perfect, but the plot flaws are minimal and in my opinion overshadowed by the enormity of the concept and the symphonic complexity of the execution.

4.5/5 stars

Recipe – Chinese tea eggs

A lot of the food I miss from living in Beijing is difficult to near impossible for me to cook now that I’m back in the states. Some of it is lack of ingredients, some just lack of specialized skills, and some of it is (in my opinion) a hearty dose of wizardry. I have never had properly cooked 干煸四季豆 (Sichuan dry-fried green beans) outside of China, not even in a Chinese restaurant. It’s like there’s some sort of magnetic field that keeps all the deliciousness on the mainland.

However, one of my absolute favorite Chinese breakfast/snack foods is actually easy (and fun!) to make at home. 茶叶蛋, known in English as “tea eggs” are a staple in China. You’ll see them bubbling away in vats at grocery stores, neighborhood restaurants, and sometimes just on the sidewalk with a long extension cord reaching back to someone’s apartment.

They’re made by cracking the shells of boiled eggs and then simmering them in a savory broth. The end result is a subtly seasoned egg with a pretty marbled pattern on its surface. While they’re great for eating pretty much any time, tea eggs would make a particularly great addition to your Easter brunch or Passover seder.

Lapsang souchong tea

The most important element to a delicious tea egg is obviously the tea. I am a firm believer in using Lapsang Souchong (known in Chinese as 正山小种), a variety of tea from Fujian Province. After the leaves are picked they dry them over a wood fire, resulting in a very smoky tea. You can probably find it in any large specialty market (like a Wegmans or Whole Foods) or you can do what I do and buy it online.

Now, when I say the tea is smoky I mean very smoky. It smells like a campfire when you open the bag. In addition to tea eggs, I think it’s great for making a hot toddy, especially if you’re a fan of earthy liquors like Laphroaig. If you can’t find Lapsang Souchong, yerba mate tea also has some of the same smoky qualities.

Some people just use regular black tea, and in a pinch it will certainly do the trick. The flavor won’t have quite the same depth, but you will still get the lattice patterns. I am a huge fan of this smoky Earl Grey tea from Fortnum & Mason, and if I ever find it for sale locally I would love to give tea eggs a try using it.

star anise

There are just a few other spices involved, but it’s important that you use quality star anise here. I promise that the eggs won’t come out tasting like licorice. It helps enhance the herbal qualities of the tea, especially when paired with the cinnamon sticks. It’s also important that you buy the star anise from a shop that you trust, because there are two different types. One kind (from China and Southeast Asia) is delicious and edible, while the other (from Japan) is poisonous and should only be used as potpourri. The link I provide above is for a reputable source, and although a pound of star anise is a lot to buy, there are all sorts of amazing recipes you can make with it.

Ingredients

  • 6-8 eggs, hard boiled (reserve boiling water in pot)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. coconut palm sugar (or your sugar of choice)
  • 1/2 tsp. celery salt (optional)

Sachet containing:

  • 4g Lapsang Souchong loose tea (equivalent to 2 tea bags)
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick (broken in half if necessary to fit)
  • 2-4 pieces fresh orange peel

Recipe instructions

Place your eggs in a pot and add enough water to cover them, plus about two inches. I’d say just go ahead and cook them to hard boiled, but if you feel comfortable handling a medium boiled egg that would work as well. Once your eggs are cooked, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and leave the water in the pot. Turn the heat down to low and leave the water simmering. Place the eggs in a colander and run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle.

Once the eggs are cool, take each egg and tap all over the surface of the shell with the back of a spoon or the dull side of a knife. This is the only step that requires a bit of finesse – crack too lightly and the broth won’t make it through the layers of the shell; crack too hard and the shell will fall off and disrupt the pattern. I would say err on the side of gentle at first, until you get a feel for it. You can always give the shell another few whacks if you don’t think it was adequate the first time.

tea egg spices

Let the eggs sit for a few minutes on the counter before you put them back in the pot. This will allow for some of the water to drain from within the shell. While the eggs are sitting, add the soy saucesugar, and celery salt to the simmering water and stir to dissolve. Using the slotted spoon, carefully lower each egg back into the broth. Then, add the tea sachet into the pot and cover it.

The length of time that the eggs simmer is really a matter of preference. I like to let them simmer, covered, over low heat for about an hour. Then, I take the pot off the heat, leave it covered, and let the eggs steep in the hot broth for another hour. At this point, if you’d like to eat the eggs you totally can. But I would recommend transferring the eggs and the broth to a glass container (removing and discarding the sachet), covering the container, and leaving it to steep in the fridge overnight.

tea eggs

The eggs pictured here were steeped overnight and eaten cold, because I was lazy and anxious to bite into them. When I’m not feeling that lazy, I prefer to eat my tea eggs slightly warm (not piping hot). To do this, take the eggs (still in the shell) out of the fridge and simmer them in the steeping liquid until warm. Then peel and enjoy!

I think the flavor stands out enough on its own, but if you wanted to get a little fancier with your brunch presentation tea eggs also taste great with a little dollop of sriracha mayonnaise (1 part sriracha to 3 parts mayo).

Update 3/29

I had a lot of leftover tea eggs in the fridge from recipe testing, so I decided this afternoon to turn them into egg salad. You don’t get the cool presentation of the pattern, but I will say that chopped tea eggsmayo = super delicious egg salad. No other spices necessary, unless you want to add in a bit more salt.

Book review – Horrorstör

There are few pastimes in this world that make me happier than reading scary books or watching scary movies. One of those few happens to be strolling through Ikea. I know it’s probably indicative of some sort of psychosis, but I find Ikea very soothing. The second time I moved to Beijing I lived pretty close to one of the 10 largest Ikea stores in the world and I went there often. Sometimes just for dinner.

So, when I heard about a horror novel that takes place inside an Ikea knockoff store I knew that I absolutely had to read it. Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix, follows a group of employees who stay overnight at Orsk, “The Better Home For The Everyone”. They’re trying to figure out why the morning crews keep arriving to unwelcome surprises like broken Liripip closet solutions and a Brooka memory foam sofa covered with putrid goo.

Horrorstör novel by Grady Hendrix

Before I get into the finer points of the plot, I think it’s important to talk about the stunning design of this book. It’s larger format, the exact dimensions of an Ikea catalogue, and organized like one as well. The inside front cover has a map of the store, followed by a welcome page and how-to guide for shopping at Orsk. There’s a detailed home delivery order form that slyly and seamlessly integrates the copyright and publisher information.

Orsk yourself

Take it from someone who derives great enjoyment from the Ikea design esthetic, this book fully embraces their iconic combination of form and function. All of the chapters are even named for imaginary Orsk products, and the products become more twisted as the paranormal plot progresses.

As for the plot, the best synopsis I can give without spoilers is that it builds in a very expected way until very suddenly it diverges into something wholly unexpected. The characters are your standard horror archetypes: A snarky skeptic who just wants the overtime pay; A ditzy babe with a ghost obsession; A suave hunk who feigns interest in spirits to get a date; A nervous older woman with a fear of “Creepy Crawlies”; A level-headed manager whose religion is the Orsk ethos.

The basic premise is that things are getting busted up overnight while the store is empty, and Basil (the manager) wants to get to the bottom of things before representatives show up from the Orsk corporate offices. He asks Amy (the skeptic) and Ruth Anne (the nervous older woman) to stay in the store with him overnight and catch the assumed vandals in the act. They both say yes, because Amy is perpetually short on cash and Ruth Anne is a dedicated lifelong Orsk employee. Matt (the hunk) and Trinity (the babe) sneak into the store the same night, convinced the vandals are actually angry spirits, armed with gear to film a concept episode of their ghost-hunting show.

The entire first half of the book, this is what was playing in my mind:

The second half of the book completely justified the feelings of “hell no”, with a darkness that is made perhaps even more dark by the flippant humor of the first half of the book. It’s not the most original plot, but it is the most original telling of a classic plot that I’ve read in a while. Overall it was an enjoyable book, written with a unique voice and an admirable attention to thematic details.

Horrorstör is available in print or as an ebook, but if I were you I would buy a print copy. You can find it at any major book retailer or get it directly from its publisher, Quirk Books.

The Return of the Cereal Killer

Last summer I wrote about replacing my morning cereal with a tasty mix of raw nuts and seeds. While it’s filling (and easy to mix up a different batch day to day), I’ll admit that the base of coconut flakes exponentially increased the amount of time I spent chewing in the morning. Like, an insane amount of chewing. Delicious chewing, but time-consuming.

So, I started adding a few oatmeal mornings into the rotation. I prefer to make overnight oats, for the same reason I like pre-mixing my faux cereal the night before. It’s nice to just walk into the kitchen in the morning, grab breakfast out of the fridge, and be on your way.

Grain-free granola

On one of my recent treks to Wegmans to stock up on siggi’s, I decided to poke around their specialty food aisles to see if there were any other non-cereal (but still cereal-esque) breakfast options available. It turns out LÄRABAR, despite having kind of a ridiculous name, makes a new granola product that is gluten free, grain free and totally awesome. I’ve tried all three flavors and I’d have to say my favorite is the Cinnamon Nut because it pairs well with pretty much anything.

siggi's yogurt and grain free granola

In honor of this new discovery, I figured it only made sense to (as I did previously) take a look at some more recent cereal television ads. While the previous spate of commercials seemed intent to cash in on adults remembering what it was like to be a kid, the ads I’ve been seeing for the past few months focus more on actual adulthood.

Lucky Charms seems to have a very specific demographic in mind here, namely creepy roommates and the people who room with them. Dude just wants to wake up and make himself a tasty(?) bowl of styrofoam puffs, but it seems his roommate has other plans. Never mind how much effort it must have taken to paint himself to the exact specifications needed to blend into the bookshelf, Kyle would also have to know his roomie’s morning schedule and gotten up early to be in place before someone saw him. Which is damned creepy, when you think about it.

Oh, Cheerios. I know you’re trying to be hip and all, but there is a time and a place for Usher’s seduction and the breakfast table is not that place. I mean, I guess it could be that place, but I don’t think you intended to make me picture Usher sweeping away cereal bowls in a fit of passion. Or maybe you did, because you chose a song that is literally about how to achieve sex with a lady.

It’s a catchy song, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say if your product is a honey “O” you should probably not advertise it with a lyric like “she came to give it to you”.

I really really really like this Shredded Wheat commercial. It’s actually pretty rare to see an ad aimed at people over the age of 50 that has some genuine humor in it. I chuckle every time I see her start to wolf down that bowl of cereal, then a little more when she tells her husband to “eat up”. I also appreciate that not once does Post claim that Shredded Wheat is worth eating for the taste. They’re basically admitting that they know it tastes like carpet fibers, so instead of trying to sell you on the flavor they’re promising more lifetime years of sex. And while they’re not doing it subtly, they are doing it without Usher’s gyrations, which takes some real skill.

I’m still going to stick to my faux-nola, though. For now.

Snow day sampler

A three-day weekend (thanks, dead presidents) has now turned into a four-day weekend (thanks, snow), which means I’ve had lots of time to write. Just kidding, it means I’ve plowed through my Netflix watch list and clicked my way through at least 60% of the internet. It’s possible I also watched the first two Twilight movies on ABC Family while drinking bourbon and questioning my life choices.

So, in no particular order, here’s a collection of things I’ve spent time on.

Stuffing food in my face

I promise, it tastes better than it looks.

I promise, it tastes better than it looks.

I’ve been messing around in the kitchen, and come up with a few gems. In trying to make myself a not sad Valentine’s Day dinner for one, I somehow thought microwave cooking was the answer. I took my recipe for quinoa flakes, swapped the milk for chicken broth, and added celery salt, garlic, parsley, Parmesan and tuna.

On the flavor scale I’d give it a 7 – nice and creamy, kind of like risotto, all in all an enjoyable meal. On the sadness scale I’d give it a 9, but this is probably because I ate it directly out of the microwave-safe bowl while watching an insufferable teenage girl choose between two metaphors disguised as abs.

I also found a not-so-guilty cookie recipe that I think I like even better than the one I’ve blogged about previously. This new one has a combination of almond and coconut flours, which leaves the cookies softer. Not quite like a soft-baked chocolate chip cookie (more like cookie-cake) but still tasty. I used coconut palm sugar as my sweetener and Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips.

Movies, movies and more movies

I’ll be honest, I spend so much time watching Netflix that I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the streaming barrel. There were a few films that had just been sitting in my queue gathering dust, so I figured I’d spend my weekend watching through them. The only film that I genuinely enjoyed was John Dies At The End. It’s a really refreshing addition to the horror genre (or I guess, more accurately, the horror-comedy genre) that had me simultaneously grossed out and laughing out loud.

Movies that I now can, without any hesitation, tell you not to bother watching include HickMr. Nobody, and World War Z. That last one really disappointed me, because I enjoyed the book immensely. The movie is absolutely nothing like the book, except for the fact that there are zombies in it.

I’d say maybe give Electrick Children a try if you like coming-of-age stories and magical realism. I’m not much a fan of either, so the film wasn’t really for me. However, I did really like the song that plays as a constant refrain throughout.

So much internet

Even on a regular day, I spend more time online than is probably medically advisable. More so on the weekend, and monumentally more so on a long weekend (now an even longer weekend, as I’ve found out since starting this post that my office is closed tomorrow too).

long-weekend

The past few weeks I’ve been working on a little Twitter side project as a sort of snark outlet. I get an email every day from one of those daily deal sites, and while sometimes there are actual bonafide deals, there’s mostly just bizarre dreck. So, I gather up the weirdest of the weird and post one every day. It’s nice to have something that prods me to write each day, even if it’s just a snappy caption.

Because obviously I’m not spending enough time as it is watching moving pictures, I’ve also been catching up on some of my favorite YouTube channels (and watching some of their back catalogs that I haven’t seen yet).

And catching up on current events.