Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Marvelously Obscure

In the summer of 2014, Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy and it was a runaway hit. In the fall of that same year Disney released Big Hero 6, which is also a Marvel property, and it too was a big hit. When both were announced many thought they would flop, because they were not the more popular and well known of Marvel properties. Except for Howard the Duck and Man-Thing, the obscure characters tend to do well or sometimes better than the more well known properties.

The first successful Marvel film was Blade. Blade was a supporting character in Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula from the 1970’s. He was a minor supporting character that gained some stature as the series continued being published. When the film came out and became a surprise hit everyone was shocked. Marvel had not had a hit in film.  It did not help that the quality of those productions, Howard the Duck (1986), Punisher (1989), Captain America (1990), and Fantastic Four (1994) were not the best. Many of these were made by lower budget production houses.

When the Marvel movies started to breakout many people did not know who the X-Men were either. There have been some duds; this was before Marvel started to produce their own films as their own studio. The Marvel Studios as we know it started with Iron Man. Since that started they have been putting out many of the Marvel Comics heavy hitters. In my opinion that would not have been possible if not for the success of Blade (1998). Blade paved the way for the X-Men films, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, and ultimately the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reason why I think the more obscure Marvel properties are so successful is because the audience has no expectations. That means they can sit back and enjoy the ride. They do not see a new version of a character they think they know. They are able to take the film at face value. Also when I say obscure I mean obscure to mainstream films audiences. Comic book fans may be very familiar with these characters, but to the average folks out there, they have no clue.  It is easier to suspend your disbelief if you are new to a character.

Some characters people unfamiliar with Marvel’s comic book line up would be thought to be obscure are not.  For example Ant-Man, Black Panther, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Quicksilver are all considered A-List Tier 1 Marvel characters.  Plus they are all Avengers.  Like the obscure, the least familiar characters because of mainstream influences are also clean slates. Hopefully after the third Captain America, Thor, and the Avengers: Infinity War films, we will see some of the more obscure and unfamiliar to mainstream audience properties utilized more.

With the first Marvel comic I bought for myself being the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, there are few characters that I am unfamiliar with and most of those popped up since 1995. Marvel’s Jessica Jones is one of those properties, I have glancing familiarity with the character, mostly second hand through Wikipedia and the like. I am not familiar with where the Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) has gone since 1995, specifically since she gained the Captain Marvel moniker. Big Hero 6 I had a vague sense of those characters. With the Guardians of the Galaxy I knew many of the characters, but the film went in new and unexpected directions. Being unfamiliar or vaguely familiar definitely helps. This Has Been My Not So Humble Opinion. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kitchen Comeback Update 1

Now that I am cooking from scratch again, I am actively seeking out things I miss from my youth.  In July I made the meatloaf recipe I grew up with. In July I also finally made Filipino adobo, although it was chicken not pork like I had planned in May.  Filipino adobo was my signature dish back pre-old life.  I had not made it in over a decade.  The last time I made it, I struggled because I used old white vinegar that had become more potent sitting around.  This time I used rice wine vinegar.  I was extremely proud of the results.  In September I finally made Filipino pork adobo.  My version is not traditional.  I cut the meat in bite size pieces and thicken the sauce to gravy consistency.  I also tend to simmer the meat from 45 minutes to an hour, for more tender meat.

                                   Hawaiian chicken teriyaki

In August, I made Filipino chicken pancit with mung bean threads for the first time.  I was happily surprise with how well the first attempt went.  I learned a few things, especially since this was the first time I used mung bean thread noodles. In June and August I made my maternal grandmother’s zucchini casserole. Each attempt leads to me perfecting things.  In May I used a microwave and in August I baked it.  I need to cook it longer and beat the eggs better in the next attempt.  For the first time using a new cooking method, things went well.  Another old favorite that I cooked as a youth I revisited in August was homemade taco meat.  I made ground turkey tacos; this was my first time using ground turkey. They came out very good, so good I ditched the plan for ground turkey steaks for another batch.  August I was shown how to make my mom’s pot of beans, this time we use smoked pork shank.  I learned a wonderful trick to thickening the beans take the vegetables and puree them, then add them back to the cooking liquid.  It came out wonderful.  I made it again by myself and mom gave it her seal of approval.

                          Hawaiian chicken teriyaki with rice

A Facebook friend noticed that my dishes are extremely eclectic with ethnic origins.  Part of that is growing up in an ethnically diverse family and in an ethically diverse town in Southern California.  I have cooked dishes from or inspired by the following cuisines: Mexican, Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Indonesian, Filipino, Greek, Middle Eastern, Thai, Russian, Cuban, Spanish, Irish, classic American, Indian (as in India), Hawaiian, Portuguese, Polish, German, Cajun, and Creole.

                                            Pork chile verde

One of the growing pains is not having some equipment.  When I ended my old life in December of 2011, I left all my cooking utensils and equipment. I work my way around that stuff.  My mother has been gifting me equipment almost every gift giving occasion she can.  I have a few kitchen appliances I have no clue to use.  I also have a few that are a godsend.  My Vitamix and my microwave rice cooker are wonderful.  Originally I was going to make sorbets with my Vitamix, but I really enjoy the yogurt fruit smoothies I have been making instead.  Since I do not have a whisk the Vitamix at low has been doing the job for eggs.  I started doing this after the fact the whites and yolks were not complete mixed in August’s version of Grandma’s zucchini casserole.

                                         Pork chile verde

In August I finally had a culinary stumble.  I made Hawaiian chicken Teriyaki.  I found the version I made too sweet, almost cloyingly.  The plan is to add more soy sauce and reduce the honey and the pineapple juice.  Enough honey and pineapple juice will be in it for flavor, but not to be the overpowering.  I am not sure the overly sweet flavor profile was from too much honey, too much pineapple juice, or both.  I did learn that honey as a sugar substitute is not 1 for one but 2/3rds to 1. This was bigger than something that needed tweaking.  This was making the dish something I was not happy with.  In September I made Greek spanakopita, and the phylo dough seemed burnt to me.  My family thought it was wonderful.

                             Beans with smoked pork shank

One of the things I missed about cooking was cooking on the fly.  In May, I had planned Filipino pork adobo, but ended up making slow cooked pork in barbeque sauce.  In August, I had left over stuffing (Mexican chorizo, onions and cheese mixture) from the stuffed Anaheim peppers.  I had a few small potatoes and a few eggs.  I threw all of those together and ate with salsa and steamed corn tortillas.   Also in August I had planned vinaigrette marinated chicken with mashed cauliflower.   I still had leftover vinegar based coleslaw and felt more vinegar based dishes was overload. I used the left over Madras curry paste and made Madras chicken with jasmine rice.  Taking one dish and adapting it to different ingredients is fun.  It keeps excitement in cooking for me. 

                              Spanakopita with tzatziki

I had originally in August planned on making a turkey ham and cheese scramble with onions, eggs, turkey ham and cheese.  I ended up making several different dishes with it: turkey ham and eggs with hash browns, and turkey ham with corn and mashed potatoes.  I had originally planned to make a version of lasagna with zucchini and summer squash as noodles with spinach, but I have used spinach in spanakopita.  It seemed like too much of one thing.  I decided I would use mushrooms instead of spinach, which works better as a meat substitute.

                                   Filipino pork adobo

Getting back to cooking has done wonders for me.  I get to experiment with flavors, cuisines and techniques. It fills a creative void I have had for years. I did not know I missed it.  It is one thing I plan on never giving up again.  When I left the old life, a dream I had was possibly to my own food cart or truck.  In recovering my passion for cooking I want that even more.  I am going to work to get more cooking tools to make that possible. I have a few recipe ideas I need to play with, three dishes and a condiment.

Here are the past Menus:

May 2015

Chile relleno casserole, sopa de lima (Yucatan chicken and lime soup), jalapeño jelly slow cooked pork tacos, Carroll Shelby’s chili con carne using stew meat (with beans, corn, tomatoes, and Ortega chiles), Zatarain’s dirty rice, slow cooked pork in barbecue sauce with mashed potatoes and corn, Mexican chorizo and eggs, Greek tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber, garlic and dill sauce), roasted garlic hummus (Middle Eastern garbanzo beans/chickpeas pureed with roasted garlic, lemon juice, tahini{sesame seed paste}, olive oil, paprika), salsa, guacamole, olive oil baked tortilla chips, sandwiches and bratwursts with mashed potatoes.

June 2015

Thai Lemongrass and chicken soup, grandma’s zucchini casserole, Zatarain’s Black beans and rice with linguiça sausage, Cuban mojo sauce marinated roasted pork in mojo sauce with Zatarain’s Caribbean rice, Russian style beef Stroganoff with rice, hamburger steaks with mashed potatoes, Polska kielbasa scramble with hash browns and onions, Indonesian sweet pork with rice, tzatziki, roasted garlic hummus, salsa, guacamole, olive oil baked tortillas chips, and sandwiches.

July 2015

Zatarain’s red bean and rice with andouille sausage, Filipino chicken adobo with rice, tortilla Española (Spanish tortilla: an omelet of eggs, slice red potatoes and onions), Carroll Shelby’s chili con carne  using ground beef (with beans, corn, tomatoes, and Ortega chiles), California scramble (eggs, onions, mild green chiles, Spanish chorizo with avocado and salsa as garnishes), Quaker oats meatloaf with Irish colcannon (mashed potatoes with leeks and kale), Dublin Coddle (potatoes, onions, ham , parsley, Irish sausage, and nutmeg), Tamale pie (corn bread type dish with tomatoes, green chiles, olives and onions, garnished with cheese and enchilada sauce), tzatziki, roasted garlic hummus, salsa, guacamole, and olive oil baked tortillas chips.

August 2015

Indian Madras beef curry with Basmati rice, Filipino chicken pancit with mung bean thread noodles, turkey ham with hash browns and eggs, turkey ham with mashed potatoes, stuffed Anaheim peppers (stuffed with Mexican chorizo, cheese and onion garnished with enchilada sauce and cheese), Mexican chorizo and eggs with hash browns, onions and cheese garnished with enchilada sauce, Hawaiian chicken teriyaki, Mexican pork chile verde with refried black beans and homemade red rice (AKA Spanish/ Mexican rice),  ground turkey tacos with vinegar based coleslaw, Indian Madras chicken curry with jasmine rice, beans with smoked pork shank, tzatziki, roasted garlic hummus, salsa, guacamole, and olive oil baked tortilla chips.

September 2015

Chile relleno casserole, beans with smoked pork shank, salsa, tzatziki sauce, Zatarain’s dirty brown rice with ground turkey (diced tomatoes, corn, mild green chiles, roasted garlic and sweet onion added), Greek spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pie in phylo dough) with Greek tzatziki sauce, Filipino pork adobo with jasmine rice, and Carroll Shelby’s Guilt-Free turkey chili (with beans, corn, tomatoes, and Ortega chiles).

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Grim & Gritty

One of the conversations happening about comic book properties, specifically in film, is about the difference in approach between the big two, Marvel and DC, in their cinematic universes.  Marvel is going for a brighter tone that does not apologize for the four color comic book silliness of their superhero world.  DC has been taking the gritty realistic approach. My first observation is that this is slightly amusing.  Based on the comic books one would assume the two companies would take the opposing approach than they are.  This is the film universes I am talking about.  DC Comics’ approach for their television universe with the Flash and Supergirl tends to follow the same idea as what Marvel is doing with both their cinematic and television universe, which are the same universe.

A problem I have with the DC Comics’ cinematic universe approach, is that it loses sight of what made its characters so interesting. Certain characters like Batman and Green Arrow or groups like the Suicide Squad and the newer versions of the Secret Six lend themselves well to the grittier approach.  As vigilantes and characters with villainous pasts, they deal with human crime, so it makes sense to have a harder edge.  Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Atom, Shazam/Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman are the bright shiny paragons.  The darker, more realistic style clashes with their core concepts and mythos.  Superman is supposed to be a symbol of hope not fear.  Batman is supposed to instill fear in the cowardly lot that is the criminal world.

Even when Marvel does a dark storyline like Captain America: Winter Soldier, it comes out with a bright shiny superhero exterior. We are talking about a guy that literally dresses up in a flag inspired costume.  The Flash television show (2014 –present) does the same thing; they even have their characters poke fun at the absurdity of the concept of people running around in bright shiny costumes fighting crime.  Part of the reluctance to use a lighter approach by DC is to avoid the campiness of the 1966 Batman.  The 1975 television show, Wonder Woman, and the 1978 film, Superman: The Movie, were able to straddle the absurdity of the concept without devolving into complete camp.

Another thing about their differing approaches is that DC tries to make Superhero films, Marvel makes films and television programs with Superheroes in them.  Captain America: The First Avenger was a World War II drama.  Iron Man was a corporate intrigue drama as well as a personal journey story. The Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera.  Marvel’s Daredevil was a crime drama.  Captain America: Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were spy dramas.  The Incredible Hulk was a fugitive drama.  The reason the Nolan Batman trilogy worked was it was a crime story that just happened to have a guy dressed up as a bat in it. Previously with Green Lantern and others, DC has made a habit of making Superhero movies, not movies with Superheroes in them.

Let’s get back to the subject at hand.  The grim and gritty movement began in the mid 1980’s.  The two chief works attributed to starting the trend were Watchmen (1986) and the Dark Knight Returns (1986).  Alan Moore (Watchman) and Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) were trying to show are more serious side to the superhero genre.  At that time the comic book format was not taken very seriously by mainstream society. These works and Maus (1980-1991) started to change those attitudes. The comic book industry has a history of taking a successful idea and beating it to death.  That resulted in grim and gritty for most of the latter 1980’s and the 1990’s.  This approach was hit and miss.  It worked for characters like Batman, Green Arrow, Punisher, Wolverine, Swamp Thing, and Daredevil.  Other characters like Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, and the like it was less successful.

Alan Moore, one of the architects of that movement, in 1999 worked to bring back the bright shiny four color world with America’s Best Comics. Some works in that imprint were darker, but with others like Tom Strong, Promethea, and Top 10 he went back to the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books for inspiration.  Some writers bridged the more serious tone with the wildly out there concepts like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, and Mark Millar.  The comics industry went too far with the grim and gritty portrayals in the late 1990’s, afterward the industry moved away from using that approach as much.  There are still many books that use the approach, but they are not as many as they were in the 90’s.

The DC cinematic approach with a more serious tone started with Batman (1989).  In 1997 with Joel Schumacher and Batman and Robin the approach went too campy, and that soured the studio. In 2005 when Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman films, he went back to the more realistic and darker approach.  That seems to be the blueprint DC Entertainment is using.  That resulted in 2013’s Man of Steel.  I have problems with Man of Steel, by going grim and gritty it loses the emotional and moral center of the character. 

In 2008 Marvel started their cinematic universe with Iron Man. Marvel continued through with their phase one including the Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and in 2012 the Avengers. They tackled the silliness of costumed heroes, armored heroes, superpowers and mythic beings. They just rolled with it.  I am worried about the 2016 Superman v. Batman: The Dawn of Justice film. It is borrowing heavily from Dark Knight Returns without much of the history that was part of the story’s setup.   We will see how it goes.