“United 93;” Mass Murder as Light Entertainment

Last April, I reported on my reaction to seeing the trailer for United 93 one night at the cinema. Until then, I had not even known of the film’s existence. I was rather cynical at the time, and could only think of pessimistic reasons why the film had been made.

When the film came out, it was met with overall good reviews by both the public and the critics. Some went out of their way to point out the film’s lack of sentimentality and it’s apparently non-political/propagandistic stance. I didn’t manage to see the film in the cinema during its run, but Martine and I decided we would rent it someday.

That day arrived last week. I must say, I agree with the critics and I revoke my previously cynical view. The film was very well done, with a keen dramatic sensibility (despite our knowing its ending in advance), and a sharp sense of immediacy. It’s not about casting people as saints and sinners, it’s about trying to understand what might really have happened. It also had the full approval of the families of the victims.

Despite all that, it’s not an easy film to watch, but that was never the intention. We never really get to know the characters very well – no better than if we had been on board ourselves. They’re just people around us, some of whom are more noticeable than others. Combined with the close-quarters camera work, that is a counter-intuitive yet excellent way to give us, the viewer, a stronger sense of identity with the event and an uncomfortable sense of realism with the film.

But one thing hit me over the head like a cast iron frying pan, and it wasn’t even in the movie – it was something in the DVD’s special feature documentary about the making of the film. In the documentary, we meet a number of spouses, parents, and children of the victims of the real flight 93. We see them talk about their lost loved ones, see photographs of the victims and the occasionally fuzzy home video. We even see them meeting the cast member who will play their dearly departed. It sounds rather sentimental, and I suppose it was to some extent, but given that it isn’t the film itself, rather a documentary about the film, it is forgivable.

Towards the end of the documentary we see the director of the film welcoming a small group of the surviving family members to a special private screening of the film. I’m thinking “that must be very hard for those people to take. Imagine the queasiness they must be feeling, sitting there in the cinema, about to watch a realistic reenactment of how their loved ones were slaughtered in a murderous plane crash.”

Then I noticed a guy sitting there munching on a bag of popcorn! Whoa! What the…???

I was speechless. I still am. I’m not even going to comment any further. Just look at this screen grab and try to conjure up an explanations for this. I certainly can’t.

Hey sweetie! Let's go to the movies!

Saturday Paella! (With Recipe)

I’ve written about making paella many times, but the paella I made on Saturday night was one of my best ever so I feel the need to share again. To recap: I make “rustic” paellas, modelled after the traditional Sunday afternoon meals that grandmothers in old Valencia prepared for their extended families. Traditionally, the Sunday paella was a way of using up the week’s leftovers, so there was not a lot of fussiness and fey swooning over the precise combination of ingredients. It was more about the technique and the need to not waste food.

Nowadays, paella is, or can be, a gastronomic delight, with people arguing endlessly over whether or not seafood and meat should be mixed, or whether rabbit and chicken can go into the same pan, etc. That’s all fine and good, and if I ever make it to Valencia I will certainly enjoy the fruits of these lively debates. But for now I’m happy to channel Grandma Fernández and to make it according to a few rustic principles.

Namely: you must use a sofrito (composed of tomatoes and onions), you must use an appropriate rice (ideally “bomba” but any paella rice from Valencia will do), there must be a variety of proteins in the dish, and it must develop a caramelized socarrat at the bottom of the pan. There you go, easy as can be.


Mind you, if I were Grandma Fernández, the leftovers and accompaniments I’d be using would be things like rabbit and snails, but here in Montreal we have what we have. I didn’t even use my paella pan as it doesn’t fit on my stove properly – instead I used a well-seasoned twelve-inch cast iron frying pan. Here’s how it went:


  • 5 chicken drumsticks
  • 4 small sausages, cut into bite-sized pieces (I used two Merguez and to chipolatas, but ideally I would have used Spanish chorizo)
  • 12 shrimps, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 large onion, grated
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 green pepper, cut into smallish slices
  • 3 cups of chicken broth (heated)
  • 1 cup white wine
  • pinch of saffron (use real saffron, not the inexpensive “American saffron“)
  • 1 cup bomba or similar Spanish paella rice


Step 1: Browning

  • Season the chicken legs and brown in a bit of oil for about 12 minutes, turning as needed. (I covered the pan to create an oven effect.)
  • Half way through, add the sausage pieces, and stir occasionally.
  • Remove the chicken and sausages and set aside in a covered bowl or plate. Note: The chicken and sausages should be somewhat (but not extremely) under-cooked. There will be a second cooking phase, and you don’t want them to get over-done.
  • Drain off excess fat, leaving just a couple of spoonfuls in the pan.
  • Brown the green peppers for a few minutes (again, they should be underdone) and set aside in a covered bowl.
  • Increase the heat and quickly cook the shrimps until they are just starting to turn pink (one or two minutes, maximum). Again, under-cook them. Set aside in a covered bowl. 1

Step 2: Sofrito

  • Lower the heat to medium and add the grated onion the pan. Stir it around to pick up all the tasty bits stuck to the pan from everything you’ve cooked so far. Reduce, stirring often, for five minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste and continue stirring for another 5-8 minutes. (Note: you can use a grated tomato instead of tomato paste – in that case, add it at the same time as the onions.)
  • While the sofrito is developing, warm up the chicken stock and drop the saffron into it to infuse the stock.
  • When the sofrito has thickened and developed a nice deep red color, push it to the side of the pan and pour in the dry rice. Stir the rice around the pan for about five minutes to toast it. Move the sofrito around a bit too, so it doesn’t burn. When the rice is nice and toasted, stir the sofrito and the rice together and let it cook for another minute or two (stirring often).

Step 3: Showtime!

  • Raise the heat and deglaze the pan with the cup of white wine. Stir until most of the wine has evaporated.
  • Add the hot chicken broth and saffron. Boil for five minutes or so, stirring once or twice just to even things out. 2
  • Reduce the heat and cover so the rice is at a high simmer for about five minutes. 3
  • When the rice is looking more stewy than soupy, arrange the chicken legs, sausages, and green peppers in a nice pattern in the pan. Cover and continue to simmer until the rice is almost dry (about ten minutes).
  • Add the shrimp. Cover and let simmer until the socarrat has developed (increase the heat for the last couple of minutes, if necessary). Then take the pan off the heat and let sit, covered, for five minutes or so.

Serve and enjoy! (Note: traditionally, paella is eaten straight from the pan, which can be fun and very sociable.)


1 It might seem strange to pre-cook the seafood, as that greatly increases the risk of overcooking. This method is recommended, however, in order to give the seafood a nice crusty exterior, which is more pleasing in a robust dish like this than simply adding raw seafood to the wet rice. The pan should be quite hot when you fry it, but be sure to do it very quickly so they don’t cook through.

2 Traditionally, paella is not stirred at all. Unlike risotto, which depends on abundant stirring to develop its starchy sauce, paella is left to sit and absorb the liquid. Also, the lack of stirring helps develop the socarrat.

3 Using a cover is controversial, as paella pans are not covered. But then, traditional paella is cooked outdoors, over wood-fire coals, which give a pretty even heat to a wide pan. But when you’re cooking it on a stove top, using a cover leads to more even cooking.

24 is slipping

I mentioned recently that as wild and wacky as 24 has been this season, I don’t think it has quite jumped the shark. Not yet. But there is little doubt that the show’s efforts to up the ante and to dazzle us with plot twists has led to an overall loss of quality and credibility. The writer’s manipulations of us, the viewers, are more bald faced and obvious than ever.

That’s unfortunate because some aspects of the show are still quite good. But I’m having trouble getting past a few things. Although the show has always stretched the boundaries of believability, it has almost always been done it in a way that leaves us with just enough to cling to so that we don’t just simply shrug and say “no way.” After all, truth really can be stranger than fiction, and if you accept that premise then you can accept just about anything that 24 throws at you.

But there was something in last week’s episode that was just plain wrong. It made no sense at all, even when accounting for the possibility that there is something going on that we don’t know about (and with 24, we need to account for that possibility at all times).

– – – SPOILER ALERT – – –

Here it is, but first the setup: any seasoned 24 watcher would not be very surprised when the plot turns on Dad Bauer. Sure enough, his hired guns are actually working for Graem, who then takes charge of the situation and has the heavies march Dad and Jack out to a construction site for execution. Oh, that Graem’s a nasty one!

As you know, Jack pulls a “Jack” and kicks his would-be executioners’ asses. Dad pops one of them in the heart with a nine, which seems unnecessary. Jack yells “I needed to question him!” and Dad replies “he was going to kill us!”

Doubt creeps in. Did Dad pop the heavy so he wouldn’t talk? That’s so 24. Doubt everywhere. Always with the doubt. By the end of the episode we realize that yes, Dad is in fact the mastermind and he was never under threat of execution – although the intention was indeed to kill Jack.

So here’s where it goes wrong. Think about it: four men on a construction site, two heavies with guns and two intended victims. One of the victims is in fact in on the game and is directing the heavies. That begs the question, “why bother with the game?” Who are they faking for? Jack is the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on, and he’ll be dead in a minute. There are no witnesses, no one looking on. So why bother pretending that Dad is on the line too?

Then, when Jack fights back and gains the upper hand, why would Dad shoot the heavy instead of just shooting Jack and getting it over with? (We find out later that he is perfectly capable of offing his own offspring.)

It makes no sense at all. But making no sense is “business as usual” on 24. In this case, however, it doesn’t even offer a bit of doubt as to why it unfolded that way. There isn’t even a wildly speculative reason why it went down like that. It was clearly nothing more than the screenwriter’s manipulation of the viewer for the sake of a plot twist. And that is bad writing.

Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla carbonara is basically “bacon and eggs” spaghetti. It is a classic Roman dish that is quite popular in Italy as a “hangover lunch” after a late and boozy night out. It is very quick and easy to prepare, and is very tasty and satisfying.

Fortunately for me, I had a bit of a hangover this morning, so it was a perfect time to make spaghetti alla carbonara. Because of my recent fascination with rustic and classic Italian food, which was bolstered by the trip Martine and I took to Italy last May, I happened to have all of the ingredients on hand. (I cannot imagine being without a constant supply of pancetta, Parmesano Reggiano cheese, and pecorino cheese.)

Classic spaghetti alla carbonara calls for guanciale, which is pretty similar to pancetta except that it is made from the pig’s jowls instead of its belly. Unfortunately, guanciale is really hard to find in North America. Not a problem, as pancetta is widely available and only the most discriminating Roman would ever notice the difference.

So use pancetta and don’t worry about it. In a pinch you can even use good ol’ regular bacon, but preferably not smoked and free of “maple” and other artificial flavors. (Pro tip: find a good Italian butcher and order 500 grams of sliced pancetta. When you get home, divide it into five flat packages wrapped in wax paper, then slip the packages into zippered freezer bags and pop in the freezer. Voila! 100 gram portions of pancetta whenever you want it.)

Blork’s Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara (for two)

  • 70-100 grams of sliced pancetta, cut into smallish pieces
  • 35 grams grated Pecorino Romana cheese (see first note, below*)
  • 15 grams grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese (see first note, below*)
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk. I generally use “extra-large” eggs; if using smaller eggs, add an extra yolk. (Best-ever result came from 1 “large” egg and two “large” yolks.)
  • 200 grams of spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper


  1. Fry the pancetta in the olive oil over medium-low heat until it is nice and golden and starting to get crispy. (Frying low and slow renders off more fat and makes it crispier without burning.) Set aside when it’s done.
  2. While the pancetta is frying, mix the egg and egg yolk in a small bowl with a tablespoon of water. Mix 3/4 of the cheese in with the eggs.
  3. Boil the pasta until it is al dente.
  4. When the pasta is ready, strain it in a colander, then dump it back into the pot, reserving a bit of the pasta cooking water.
    (Tip: let the pot cool for a minute before you put the pasta back into it: you want it very warm but not blazing hot. Optionally, put the pasta in a warmed bowl instead.)
  5. Toss the egg-cheese mix into the hot pasta and stir it up so the heat of the pasta cooks the egg and everything gets nicely integrated. This takes a good bit of vigorous stirring. If you have one of those spaghetti serving spoons with fingers for gripping the noodles, use it.
  6. Scratch in a lot of freshly ground pepper. If the sauce is on the dry side, add a few drops of pasta cooking water to loosen it up (just a bit!).
  7. Add the pancetta along with some or all of the pan drippings (depending on how much saturated fat you are comfortable with**) and toss.
  8. When everything is sufficiently mixed, divide into warm bowls and top with the rest of the cheese. (No salt is needed – between the pancetta and the cheeses, it’s plenty salty.)

Serve immediately. Enjoy!

* Spaghetti carbonara traditionally uses only pecorino romano cheese, but I like to add some parmesan. You can use whatever type or combination you like. Together you should have about 50g, or about 1/2 a cup. A bit more will make it even richer, but don’t go overboard.

** While I do not want to encourage unhealthy eating, I do encourage you to add at least some of the drippings because it is packed with flavor. I sometimes use home-made pancetta which is fairly lean and very flavorful, so I don’t feel so bad about adding most of the drippings (noting that some of it is olive oil). If you’re using particularly fatty pancetta, you might want to add less.

[I updated this recipe on January 31, 2010. The main difference is that the cheese should be added to the egg mix, which was prompted by the last comment on this post and backed up by extensive research (yum!). Other differences include the notes about the quantity of cheese and the note about adding drippings.]

[Another update on March 4, 2018, in which I removed my references to microplane-grated cheese (it works better with a regular fine grater) and finally added a measurement by weight for the cheese.]