Saturday, 28 February 2015

How To Make Popcorn Like An East Oxford Hipster

If you live in East Oxford, with its Victorian terraces and closely-knitted streets, charming potholes and rambling creepers, you are currently living in the best bit of the city for anyone with any fondness at all for food. You will have watched the regeneration of its local eateries in the past few years with grateful wonderment: Oxfork, The Chester Arms, Oli's Thai - we always knew we could get a good meal down the Cowley Road, but the demand for good food has seeped south and restauranteurs have gone with it. Meanwhile, you probably buy your aubergines from the super-ethical Cultivate Veg Van on a Thursday, and of late you will have started to pick up your organic yoghurt, almond milk, and spelt pasta from Wild Honey, the health food shop that's just moved in next to the Magic Cafe (cloaks encouraged). At home you probably snack on tofu raspberry milkshakes and tahini-dipped flatbreads. You generally pop round to your local South Asian grocery store for bags of cashews as big as your head, packages of cumin seeds that would sow a cumin farm, or dried anchovies to flavour your stocks for soup. Then you wind up in the Magdalen Arms, stroking your beard, scribbling poetry, periodically pushing your hipster glasses further up your nose, drinking your local ale into the realization that you are completely, utterly, broke.

Let's be honest here - barring the fantastic, wallet-saving South Asian groceries, buying into the East Oxford professional lifestyle costs a packet. The gloriously healthy-sounding and apparently nutrient-packed foodstuffs in kitchen cupboards round here (tahini! Pulped roasted sesame seeds! I feel healthier just writing it!) are a far cry from the Tesco Value kidney beans that were a more common feature of the cupboards I glimpsed when I was the other side of twenty-five. Nonetheless here I am, still a student, still wanting to eat well, still partial to gastronomic experiment - and on the hunt for the affordable. Enter: Hipster Popcorn.

Two of my most culinarily talented vegetarian friends introduced me to this a few months ago and it was so good I practically ate the entire bowl. We have two upfront pricey ingredients: coconut oil, £5 or £6 for about 300ml; and nutritional yeast flakes, a popular vegan supplement for its cheesy taste, £2.75, from Wild Honey. Then we have a packet of popping corn, 500g, for about £1.20 from the Co-op. Popcorn is one of those things that we pay absurd amounts of money for - whether it's a couple of quid in the supermarket for 50g of something dipped in a dozen different preservatives, or even more than that at the Odeon. The extraordinary thing about making your own popcorn is that a small number of kernels make vast quantities, so this packet will last you a while. It's a magical thing to make with children - keeping them away from the very hot pan.

Here goes, to make a snack of savoury popcorn for two people:

1) Heat a tablespoon of waxy coconut oil - solid at room temperature - in a pan on a high heat, until it's all melted.

2) Drop in three or four kernels, put the lid on, and wait.

3) When they start to pop, pour in 1/4 cup (American) of popcorn kernels, and remove from the heat.

4) Count 30 seconds while keeping these kernels off the heat. This brings them all down to roughly the same temperature, so that when they pop, they do so at about the same time - avoiding any burnt popcorn.

5) After 30 seconds, place back on the high heat, keep the lid on, and wait.

6) As they start to pop, gently shake the pan on the hob. The popping will get ferocious. It's great fun to watch if your pan has a glass lid - but keep the lid on firmly, as the popcorn will spit.

7) When the pops diminish with about two seconds in between each one, take the popcorn off the heat and pour immediately into a large bowl. Season liberally with two tablespoons of the nutritional yeast, for a cheesy flavour packed with B Vitamins, or with salt, pepper, and paprika.

Voila! Your 500g packet of kernels will last ages (wrapped up firmly so the kernels don't go stale), your vegan friends will thank you, and you will enjoy all the benefits of the B Vitamins and reduced carcinogen intake thanks to the high smoke-point of the coconut oil. If I were you, I'd pop it in a tupperware and sneak it into the Ultimate Picture Palace this weekend.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild

In 1995, a young woman named Cheryl Strayed set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon. She carried a pack that was too heavy and memories that burned holes in her heels. Four years earlier, the mother who had raised her single-handedly had died - suddenly, unexpectedly, engulfed by a fast-moving cancer. In the years that followed, Strayed had fallen headlong into self-destruction: she repeatedly cheated on her husband; she aborted her lover's baby; she divorced a man she loved and had hurt beyond repair. As she lay in the motel near the Mexican border, the last night before she started to hike the PCT, her fingers traced the bruise on her ankle from shooting up heroin the week before.

Strayed had a lot to think about on that 1000-mile hike, and yet the best-selling memoir that she published over fifteen years later was not about destruction, wallowing, or self-pity. It was about grief, love, growing up, and forgiveness, and it was about the healing power of desert, loneliness, mountains, boots that were too small, skin rubbed raw, and Snapple at the hikers' station after a hundred miles. Most importantly, it was beautifully written by a woman who loves words as much as she loves people, and whose eye for the comic is just as devastating as her articulate tragedy.

When I first read Wild, clutching it tightly on a five-hour car journey across Quebec, I quickly realized that it was a very special book. Reese Witherspoon thought so too: she snapped up the production rights and engaged Nick Hornby to write the screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian director of Dallas Buyers Club, to direct. Fans of Wild watched the film take shape on Cheryl Strayed's Facebook page last year, with joyful Instagram shots of the three ladies of the hour - Strayed, Witherspoon, and actress Laura Dern - grinning in the bright Oregon sunshine. The film disappeared into the editing room for a few months, started to hit the festivals, and accolades began to accrue for Witherspoon. Tonight she will contend with critics' favourite Julianne Moore for the Best Actress Oscar; last night, a month after its official release date, I tracked Wild down to a showing at an independent cinema in Oxford.

Strayed on the PCT, 1995; Witherspoon in Wild, 2014
At almost two hours long, Wild flies by, thanks to the bevy of talent that went into its production. It's a gorgeous cinematographic palette of mountains and water and desert, greens, blues, and greys. The silence of the desert and the wilderness is deftly captured with lingering shots, while thistles, desert sage and rattlesnakes crackle underfoot in close-up. Hornby's screenplay is skilful but not slavish, with no real liberties taken with the story; it's a shame that he is missing from the Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations. Strayed's demons are not laboured or gratuitous, but told in short and punchy flashbacks. Her vulnerability on the trail as a lone female long-distance hiker is well-handled, with judicious choice of vignettes from the richly peopled memoir. Witherspoon's performance is excellent: despite being a decade older than Strayed was at the time, she has the acting repertoire, subtlety, and passion for the story that it needed.

Wild is a winning combination of talent and loyalty, a felicitous outcome for the adaptation of a much-loved bestseller. The screen in Oxford was packed with die-hard fans, to judge by the delighted whispers as Strayed made a cameo at the beginning of the film. James Kent's adaptation of Testament of Youth had recently made me cry with frustration as much as with pathos, so I was relieved and delighted with how much I liked Wild. Both the people I went with had read and loved the book, and we all emerged happy and buoyed up, needing to walk off the magic, even on a freezing damp night in the Thames Valley. I might not get to the Pacific Crest Trail for a couple of years, but I'll be revisiting Wild from the comfort of my living-room.