The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Sometimes a girl just needs an escape, and this book provided one hell of one! It’s probably one of the most fun, and possibly my favorite, of all sci-fi and fantasy novels, The Anubis Gates is a wild and imaginative romp through time, space, and history. Basically, a literature professor by the name of Brendan Doyle chosen to go back in time at the behest of an extremely wealthy and eccentric millionaire to hear a famous lecture by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Victorian England. He gets left behind – of course – in the past with no money or resources except his knowledge of the time period, and that’s when shit gets real.

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Throw in gates of time throughout the world and history, a murderous, deformed clown on stilts, tiny homunculi with knives, ancient Egyptian magicians who can also move through time, a body-jumping werewolf, a twist of romance, some Victorian steampunk elements, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly entertaining read. Doyle’s specialty is the Victorian poet William Ashbless, whom he intends to meet while in the past, and how this meeting comes about is one of the twistiest and surprising parts of the book, but it’s the premise on which the entire book hinges, so pay attention to the references to Ashbless.

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As with any kind of time travel book, pay attention to the smaller details, as they seemingly have no connection to anything, yet prove to be monumentally important later on. I personally loved the freaky clown on stilts, though in real life I despise clowns with a passion. Hello,  Pennywise! Otherwise,  Doyle’s grasp of history serves him well, and part of why I love this book is because you feel the Victorian environment of London so well, but without that dreary, depressing Dickensian vibe. And when Doyle is down and out and spends his last bit of money on street food, you feel his intense hunger.

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Returning to Thames Street, Doyle expended half his fortune on a plate of vegetable soup and a trowelful of mashed potatoes. It tasted wonderful, but left him at least as hungry as before, so he spent his last three cents on another order of the same.

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To me, vegetables and mashed potatoes translate naturally into one thing -shepherd’s pie. I mean, a gorgeous panful of delicious meat mixed with vegetables and topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. Hello, heaven on a plate! Of course, depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. I personally don’t give a damn what it’s called, just that is is soooo good. This method was based on the awesome recipe at Life in Lofthouse, is an excellent way to get rid of any random vegetables hanging around in your refrigerator, land is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day dish. Ideal for  soaking up all the green beer, Irish whiskey and whatever else booze you chose to indulge in.

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4 large russet potatoes
1 stick softened butter
1 cup warmed milk
2 lbs ground beef
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 turnip, cut into cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup baby carrots, cut in half
1 onion
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup beef broth

Butter a large glass or metal baking pan and heat the oven to 375.

Cut the potatoes in half and cook in boiling water until a fork pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Remember if there are hard parts still in your potatoes, those will translate to lumps in your mashed potatoes. Drain and let cool slightly.

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Dry-saute the mushrooms with only a bit of salt. This is a trick I got from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and holy crap, it really works!

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Put the sauteed mushrooms into a large bowl and add the frozen corn. The heat of the ‘shrooms will soften and thaw the corn.

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While the potatoes are boiling, finely chop the onion and garlic and cook with olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the ground beef, some salt, and the Worchestershire sauce, and cook until the meat is nicely browned. Drain the meat and add back to the hot pan.

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In the boiling potato water, cook the turnip, peas, and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the mushrooms and corn.

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Sprinkle over the flour on the meat, and cook again over low heat for about 10 minutes, to ensure the floury taste is gone.

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Add the red wine, tomato paste, and beef broth to the floured meat in the pan, stirring until everything is well mixed and warmed through well.

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Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer, add the butter and milk, and some salt, and stir. The potato ricer is a totally badass kitchen gadget because it negates the need to peel the potatoes. I personally loathe and despise peeling potatoes, so it makes me happy to bust out the potato ricer.

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Mix the cooked meat with the cooked vegetables, stir to mix well, and spread into the glass pan.

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Spread over the mashed potatoes. Doesn’t that look so yum?

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Bake for 35 minutes, until the potato topping has browned slightly and you can smell all the juices of the meat and vegetables and you’re drooling. Let cool slightly before serving, although having said that, it’s much better after a few hours in the refrigerator, eaten tipsily at midnight in the company of a handsome man after an evening out at the St. Patrick’s Day Blarney Bash. 🙂

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I remember discovering Angela Carter in my mid-20s and falling instantly in love with her lush, prosaic, luxuriant and very bawdy language. Her writing can instantly evoke palaces filled with plush draperies, languid golden bathrooms, fairylike woods filled with magical creatures…….and also be as basic and raunchy as humorously describing a cat licking his bottom, the stench of rotting food, or the very earthy pleasures of lovemaking.

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Her masterwork, in my opinion, is her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales, from which the short story I am blogging today got its title. The book itself is a collection of eight novellas based on traditional fairy tales. You’ll read fantastical revised versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, two very different and equally gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, and my own personal favorite story, The Bloody Chamber, which takes the tale of Bluebeard and twists it completely onto its head.

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I was always madly fascinated by the horrific tale of Bluebeard and the wives he’d murdered and then whose heads he kept hanging in his secret chamber, gruesome trophies of his own hunt. It’s no wonder that this particular story has never been turned into a bowdlerized Disney version – there is no way in hell you can make this story nice. You could throw in dancing candlesticks, talking animals, and singing snowmen all you want, and it remains a horrific tale of murder and ultimate redemption, when the fourth young wife takes the key – that infamous key that her husband has specifically told her NOT to use – opens the door to the bloody chamber, and discovers what happened to her predecessors.

Barbe Bleue

In Carter’s version, the young wife is ultimately rescued by her mother, so you can read it as a highly feminist archetypal tale. I think why this particular tale of Carter’s has always beguiled me so much is because the young wife is as fascinated by her older, murderous husband as she is repelled by him, which demonstrates the multifaceted nature of women. She is as happy with her husband’s wealth as she is miserable in her solitude. She orders a fabulous feast for herself when her husband leaves her to go on a business trip, and before her fateful exploration of his castle and ultimate discovery of the bodies of his three previous wives – all killed by him and preserved in a locked room.

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Then I found I had to tell her what I would like to have prepared for me; my imagination, still that of a schoolgirl, ran riot. A fowl in cream – or should I anticipate Christmas with a varnished turkey? No; I have decided. Avocado and shrimp, lots of it, followed by no entree at all. But surprise me for dessert with every ice-cream in the ice box.

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Shrimp and avocado are, in my humble opinion, a marriage made in heaven. There are so many wonderful ways to combine them, but I decided to make some appetizer bites combining shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and some homemade Creole seasoning. As I had invited friends over for Game Night, these made the perfect starter.

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30 raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon chipotle sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 ripe avocadoes
1 tablespoon lime juice
Sea salt
2 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into round slices

Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, and spices together in a bowl, and add the shrimp. Stir around to ensure they are completely covered, then refrigerate for an hour.

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Arrange the cucumber rounds on a platter.

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Mash the two avocadoes together, and season with salt and lime juice to taste.

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Spread the avocado mix onto each cucumber round.

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Heat the butter in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high, and gently cook the shrimp for 2-3 minutes per side, until they are opaque and have some nice blackened marks on them.

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This is what you want.

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Let the shrimp cool for a few minutes, then place one shrimp on each avocado-covered cucumber round.

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That’s it! Simple, elegant, and quite beautiful, with the contrast of the blackened shrimp floating on the cool green bed of avocado. And the spiciness of the shrimp is nicely offset both by the smooth avocado and crisp cucumber. So good that surely you can keep Bluebeard from killing you next.

Food in Books Has Reached 300 Followers! Book Giveaway to say “Thank you!”

I am so happy to announce that my blog Food in Books has officially reached 300 followers! Thank you so very much for your amazing support of my vision, my writing, and my cooking. I am very grateful for my readers, who offer words of encouragement and who inspire me to keep reading and cooking, as well as expand both the types of books I do read and to try new and unique recipes.

As a thank-you, I am hosting a book giveaway. All you need to do is comment below, or on my Facebook page, about which cookbook is your absolute favorite, and which recipe in that cookbook is the one you use over and over. The winner will receive Jacques Pepin’s wonderful memoir, The Apprentice, which tells the story of his journey to being one of the world’s master chefs, and also has some delicious recipes.

The winner will be chosen randomly on Monday, March 12 – just in time for my birthday! I look forward to reading about what cookbooks and recipes you love most!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve blogged, loving as I do his writing and the way he so smoothly moves his characters between reality and the shadowy, mythic “other” world where things are never quite what they seem. Gaiman’s books are universal no matter your age because he treats childhood with the same seriousness and attention that other writers attribute to the adult years, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. What happens to us as kids can seriously fuck us up, and when we’re in a situation where we are victims of those adults who are supposed to love and cherish and protect us, it oftentimes twists our perspective in ways we’d never want nor expect. That’s why this book is so beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately, satisfying.

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The protagonist, who – in a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, is never named – arrives back in his old neighborhood as an adult, attending a funeral. Memories are awoken as he visits the neighbors the Hempstocks who had such a primal influence on his youth. Lettie Hempstock befriended him after a terrifying incident with a lodger killing first his kitten (accidentally) then himself. The beautiful and hideous Ursula Monkton enters his life, representing dark magic and the power of evil, and does battle with Lettie and her mother and grandmother as they work to protect the young protagonist.

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Why this book is so beautiful is because it can be read on so many levels. It can be read as a children’s story about the power of magic and love and terror and the pain of growing into adulthood – your typical bildüngsroman. It can be read from the adult viewpoint looking back into the past and realizing how messed up adults can be and how much our parents can really screw us up. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this perfectly. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometime monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

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It can be read as a symbolic treatise on time and physics and other dimensions, with a nod to the concept of Maiden, Mother, and Crone thrown in for good measure. It can be read as a treatise on feminism and the dual nature of power in a woman – the beauty and the motherliness and the protectiveness contrasted with the ugliness and hatred and desire to destroy – kind of like the dual faces of the goddess Kali. Giver of life and destroyer of life. Or, if you’re a devoted foodie like me, you can read it with an eye toward what delicious dishes you can try your hand. I found these beautiful multicolored carrots – heirloom, perhaps? – at my grocery store and decided to try and reenact this touching scene.

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Above: three of my carrot-loving cooking companions this past weekend.

Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood.)

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2 lbs baby carrots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 400F, and finely mince the parsley and marjoram. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, garlic slivers, and minced herbs. Season with sea salt and pepper, and mix together with your hands, which are really the best kitchen tool in the world. 🙂

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Spread the herb-flecked carrots onto a large flat baking tray, preferably lined with foil or parchment.

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Roast for 30 minutes, and check to make sure they don’t burn. You want them to have that nice, dark, roasted look but not to burn. Test with a fork, and if they are still too firm, cover with foil and cook another 15 minutes.

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In the spirit of the meal described in the book, I served this with a butterflied roast chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and some delicious lavender-scented herb mixture given to me by my dear and most handsome friend Richard. A truly delicious and comforting meal.

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Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

I was going to avoid any type of love story for Valentine’s Day this year, but I decided that was rather cynical of me, since expressing love for someone is one of the best and bravest things anyone can do in this world. That being said, I loathe and despise mush. I love genuine gestures of caring, friendship and love that are spontaneous and come from the heart, and that oftentimes, are completely unplanned, but sappy gush? Hell no.

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A kiss on the hand, a light stroking of hair, an unexpected embrace, even a quick smack on the ass while I’m cooking – these gestures of affection are so treasured by me when they are given. But sappy, slobbery words of love, declarations of undying love, promises of never-ending romance………meh. I suppose that stems from watching my father – married five times and engaged to two different women at the time of his death – doing the romantic number to all his wives and girlfriends on Valentine’s Day. We’re talking roses, jewelry, cards, the works, and yet, he was never faithful to any of them. I suppose that has made me somewhat cautious of the grand romantic gesture.

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Regardless, Love in the Time of Cholera has become one of my absolute favorite love stories in the world. It’s romantic, yes, but it is also unconventional, sexually explicit, funny, dark, painful, and beautiful. The love story at its heart spans 50 years, goes from youthful obsession to accepting love, from being young to growing old and still maintaining that deep, abiding love for another. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love when in their teens, but her father refuses to allow her to marry him. She instead marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, older, wealthier, and somewhat of a local hero. Florentino maintains his love and adoration of Fermina for 50 years, going through affair after affair after affair, numerous sexual exploits, varying relationships – 622, to be exact – yet in his heart and soul, he is faithful to his Fermina because he only loves her. When Dr. Urbino dies in the first chapter, after their 50+ years of marriage, Fermina sees Florentino at the funeral where he declares his perpetual love for her, and sets out to woo her again. Thus begins the story.

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Florentino’s love for Fermina is compared to the cholera – feverish, never-ending, destructive, devastating. Those of us who have had the fortune and misfortune to have a love so encompassing, enveloping and overwhelming can agree – love is passionate, maddening, destructive, and ultimately, redeeming.

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The other reason why I love this book so much is because the daily, grinding reality of marriage is so well described. Dr. Urbino doesn’t truly love Fermina, though he is a good husband in many ways. But the daily rituals of cooking, eating, lovemaking, washing clothes, going to work, knowing the other person so well, understanding their love of cafe con leche, their hatred of a certain song, their taste in jewelry, the way they get dressed or comb their hair…………it is in these elements that that connection is created.

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In this story, one of Fermina’s most amusing quirks is her hatred for eggplant. She despises this vegetable, and the book is littered with references to her disgust, at one point comparing it to purple poison. And one of the most touching scenes is when she initially accepts Florentino’s youthful marriage proposal with a note stating:

Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.

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And speaking of my father, one of the things he loved to do was cook, and he was quite an excellent one. His specialty was eggplant Parmigiana, which I thought was highly appropriate in this context. This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous Anna del Conte’s recipe in Gastronomy of Italy, one of my absolute favorite cookbooks.

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2 large eggs
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch slices, salted for an hour then rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup fresh basil
1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 16-oz container ricotta cheese
1 large egg, beaten
1 jar homemade marinara sauce (I got mine from Tully’s Italian Deli)
2 cups mixed grated mozzarella and fontina cheeses

Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon water in a shallow dish. Combine panko and 1/4 cup Parmeggiano-Reggiano in a second shallow dish.

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Dip eggplant slices first in the egg mixture, then in the panko mixture, and shake off the excess.

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Heat canola or peanut oil in a large skillet, and brown the eggplant slices, turning once to brown both sides. Drain on paper towels.

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Make the filling. Combine the chopped basil, the crushed red pepper, the garlic, the ricotta cheese, the egg, and the heated-through marinara sauce. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Spoon about a half-cup of the marinara sauce mixture in the bottom of a glass Pyrex baking dish, and put a layer of eggplant slices onto the red sauce.

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Do one more layer, finish with the last of the marinara sauce mixture, cover with tinfoil and bake another 30 minutes. Remove foil and top with mozzarella and fontina. Bake another 15 minutes until the cheese is golden and melted.

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Serve alone or with pasta. I chose spinach noodles because I love the color and the taste.

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was previously blogged about by a fellow food blogger, Cara Nicoletti, whose page Yummy Books was one of the inspirations for starting my own food and book blog. The Vacationers is about a family’s secrets and dysfunctions that come out over two weeks when they are vacationing in their house in Mallorca. I know, I know, it all sounds very dramatic and mysterious, but ultimately, it’s not.

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Though I always try to give every book a fair shake, I have to say that this one was  boring. Franny and Jim, the two main characters/couple/parents, are celebrating their 35th anniversary during the vacation, their daughter Sylvia just finished high school and hates her family (wow, big surprise, a teenager hating her family), the token gay couple, and the son and his beautiful girlfriend that everyone hates. Pretty cardboard and standard characters – the wealthy family, the cheating husband, the unhappy wife planning to leave the marriage, the spoiled kids – to whom I had a very hard time finding any point of relating.

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I did like Franny’s foodie-ness (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and her love of cooking to work out her irritations and frustrations through her culinary adventures. Kind of like me! It’s nicely written, don’t get me wrong. The descriptions of the beach, the ocean, the house, the food………all are beautiful and lyrical. But the characters really aren’t likable, other than Carmen (the girlfriend everyone loves to despise), and overall, it just didn’t grab me and stay with me, though this food passage made me start salivating a little bit.

 Franny and the boys were making dinner – bacalao on toast, shrimp in a garlicky sauce, wilted greens. Tapas at home.

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I didn’t have the wherewithal to soak bacalao for 24 hours before putting it onto toast, good as that sounded. However, some garlicky shrimp with tomatoes and wilted spinach  sounded very doable, simple, and tasty. I had a packet of tortellini that needed to be used, and so I combined them, thus evoking a summer’s evening overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

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2 tablespoons olive oil
2 dozen grape tomatoes, halved
10 cloves of garlic, thinly slivered
1 small shallot, thinly slivered
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 lb partially thawed shrimp, tail on
4 cups fresh spinach
1 packet cheese tortellini

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Boil a large potful of water, add a generous handful of sea salt, and cook the tortellini for about 5-7 minutes. Test it to ensure it is al dente, and save a cupful of the cooking water.

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In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the grape tomatoes, garlic and shallot for about 10 minutes.

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Splash in the white wine, the lemon juice, and the red pepper flakes, and cook together another couple of minutes. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and give some structure.

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Add the spinach, stir, and cover again, cooking for about 10 minutes so that it wilts.

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Add the shrimp to the mixture, cover and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently so the shrimp doesn’t overcook. When they are pink and plump, everything is ready.

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Toss in the cooked tortellini, stir and cook another couple of minutes, so all the flavors are mixed and mingled. Then serve and eat with happiness. Delicious, just like a day at the beach!

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Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the  food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.


I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal.  I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pollo de caldo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.


Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This book, Little Women, has an incredibly special place in my heart, for many reasons. The first is that my edition, shown here, was bought for me by my father David, for my 12th birthday many years ago, in which he wrote me a deeply loving message, which I still read when I am feeling down, as I have been lately.

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The other reason I love this book is because it reminded me so much of me and my sisters growing up. My oldest sister was so much like Meg in the sense of being motherly/bossy and always directing what we should do. I was Jo, the bookworm who preferred solitude and writing and the company of animals. My younger sister always reminded me of Amy, pretty, outgoing, somewhat spoiled but with a heart of gold.

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The language is somewhat outdated, but I remember suspending my disbelief, so words I didn’t understand were transformed as part of the larger emotional narrative. My heart broke when – spoiler alert! – Beth died. In fact, I just watched that episode of “Friends” when Rachel has Joey reading Little Women, and when he comes to the part where Beth dies, he has to put the book in the freezer. Hilarious! That episode is hilarious, to be clear, not Beth dying.


Though there are numerous food segments to choose from, the one with Jo putting salt on the strawberries being a personal favorite – and not just because I made that very mistake myself once upon a time when trying to impress a man….hahahaha! – I love the chapter when Jo and Laurie become friends after she comes to cheer him up with a visit, complete with Beth’s kittens in one hand and a delicious sweet treat in the other.

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“Here I am, bag and baggage,” she said briskly. “Mother sent her love and was glad if I could do something for you. Meg wanted me to bring some of her blanc-mange; she makes it very nicely, and Beth thought her cats would be comforting.”

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Blancmange is a white custard dessert flavored with vanilla, similar to Italian panna cotta. I love almond, so I tweaked to give a more almond taste.

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3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole-fat milk
2 tablespoons vanilla (clear if possible)
1 tablespoon almond extract

Mix together the cornstarch, sugar, and salt with 1/2 cup of the milk. Set aside.

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In a small, heavy-bottomed pan or double boiler, heat the rest of the milk over low heat. Don’t let boil, but when you see tiny bubbles forming at the edges, you’re ready.

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Whisk in the cornstarch, sugar and milk mixture, stirring constantly. The whisking and stirring will get rid of the cornstarch flavor and also keep the sugar from burning, and will assist in thickening.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about an hour. Add in the vanilla, stir together, then cover and chill in the refrigerator.

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I served mine in individual ramekins, and decorated with red edible glitter because I live to bling. It is delicious, light and smooth and comforting, but with those flavors of vanilla and almond complementing each other so well.

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