Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs


The title was the hook for me with this book, not to mention the book cover. Yes, in this case, I did indeed judge the book by its cover, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though nominally a book for young adults, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a wonderful read, and I found the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob who’s at a crossroads in his life, to be funny and mature.

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One of the great joys of reading this book was seeing the eerie and unusual pictures that illustrate it. These photos are real, but show people doing the most odd things and often, give the impression of the supernatural. Yet they go so perfectly with the storyline. I normally don’t like books with pictures, other than cookbooks. But this book would not be what it is without the strange, sometimes frightening photographs that add such personality to it. It’s a perfect Halloween read!

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The book’s premise is a bit peculiar, pardon the pun. Jacob is an otherwise normal teenager, closer to his grandfather Abe than his parents, and one night finds his grandfather dying, murdered by some ghastly creature. Abe passes along some strange knowledge to Jacob, which prompts a trip to Wales to find someone named Miss Peregrine, a woman who took in Jacob’s grandfather when he was young, during World War II. What Jacob finds on the island where Miss Peregrine has a home for peculiar children is indeed odd, but funny, sad, and amazing at the same time. The peculiar children are just that, all blessed with odd talents or powers that make them “peculiar.” One is invisible, one can make inanimate objects come to life, one can levitate at will, one can set things afire with her hands, and one very peculiar child has a mouth on the back of her neck through which she eats. As Jacob arrives at Miss Peregrine’s house just in time for the evening meal, he gets to witness this odd eating habit, and the veritable feast of fresh fish and seafood, including salmon, firsthand.


Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops…….sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner. “Otters Wellington!” one boy cried. “Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown, a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter………platters of roasted vegetables……….”


So I decided to give salmon a whirl. It’s the one thing that I have always screwed up in cooking, but this method from the blog Damn Delicious looked delicious, and seemed simple enough. As I was cooking in honor of my sister Krista’s birthday and having her, my grandmother Leandra, my aunt Eva and one of my best friends Tina over for lunch, and the Birthday Queen requested salmon (along with a few other goodies), I combined this family celebration with today’s blog post and it’s one of my favorites.


This is the cooking method that worked for me.

3 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
8 salmon fillets, boneless and skinless
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup of shaved Parmesan cheese
Handful of fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 275F.

In a food processor, combine the Panko, the pecans, the parsley, and the Parmesan, until everything breaks down and you have a rough, nubbly texture. Like this.

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Rub a generous amount of butter on each side of each salmon fillet.2016-10-23-20-23-00_resized

Dredge each salmon fillet in the Panko/pecan/parsley/Parmesan mixture, again on both sides, pressing the coating in well with your hands. Heat a large grill pan over medium high heat. Liberally spray the grill pan with olive oil spray. Sear 2 salmon fillets at a time for 1 minute per side. Work in batches so the salmon doesn’t get greasy.

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Lay the nut-crusted salmon fillets on a foil-covered cookie tray. Bake for 6-7 minutes and check for doneness. The idea here is that the fish will continue baking and you DO NOT want overcooked, dry salmon. It’s better to have undercooked salmon than overcooked. And if by some unhappy accident you do overcook it, just order a pizza.

While the salmon is baking, make the glaze. It’s a quasi-teriyaki-type sauce and though a bit sweet for my tastes, actually went deliciously well with the nut-crusted salmon. I think the contrast of flavors did it.

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In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the honey, soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice and cornstarch. Whisk together and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, lower the heat and let the sauce reduce and thicken. Keep an eye on it so the sugar in the honey doesn’t burn. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. I have more of a savory tooth so I added more lemon and salt but go by your own palate.

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Decant the sauce and serve with the salmon and whatever side dishes you choose. I made the salmon and glaze with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, and roasted butternut squash with sage, pecans and blue cheese.

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And of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday celebration without a chocolate birthday cake with chocolate ganache icing. A feast fit for a birthday queen! Happy birthday to my dear sister, Krista! You bug the hell out of me most of the time, but I can’t imagine life without you. I love you!


The Witching Hour by Anne Rice


We continue with our month-long Halloween theme and a particular favorite book of mine. I’m always excited to reread “The Witching Hour” which is on my top 10 absolute most favorite books in the world.


I first discovered Anne Rice one summer when I was 12, visiting my aunt and uncle in Douglas, Arizona, a small town on the border of Mexico. I was wandering around the historic downtown area, happened upon the bookstore (of course) and while browsing, came across this luridly gold and red book cover titled “Interview with the Vampire.” I was hooked on this marvelous author from that day forward, and this one  remains high on my list of desert-island reads.


Anne Rice has a lush, prosaic style of writing. She’s a sensualist, as is obvious in her descriptions of light, darkness, death, blood, spirit encounters and lovemaking. All of these descriptions are sprinkled throughout The Witching Hour, but though she is very much a sensualist, I don’t get a sense that she’s a foodie sensualist. What food descriptions there are in her books are not very detailed or ornate, compared to her luxuriant descriptions of other things. It makes sense, of course, because many of her books center around vampires, and they only ingest blood. But her witches seem to be more focused on wealth and luxury and power……..and there’s nothing wrong with that, either!


This is an epic book, telling the story of one New Orleans family, the Mayfairs, and its history going back 13 generations. Each generation has an heiress to the huge family fortune, and each of these women are witches. These women can control spirits, at times read people’s minds and otherwise interact with the spirit world, and in fact, each generation has been haunted by a spirit called Lasher, who has helped the family amass its immense wealth and yet has caused much harm and damage.


Just the history alone in this book is enough for any devoted history buff. Just the descriptions of the city of New Orleans are enough for any devoted architectural buff. And the depiction of the romantic relationship between Rowan, the last in the line of Mayfair Witches, and Michael, whom she rescued from drowning, is both sweetly sentimental and roughly erotic, as they seem to have a deep passion for each other emotionally and physically.


In one scene, he has come back to New Orleans and is reveling in his stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which he remembers visiting as a child. He and Rowan have cemented their physical relationship with a passionate night of lovemaking – always wonderful for working up an appetite! – and orders the ultimate Southern breakfast.


“He called Room Service. ‘Send me a big breakfast, Eggs Benedict, grits, yeah, a big bowl of grits, extra side of ham, toast, and a full pot of coffee. And tell the waiter to use his key.”

Michael, a true Southern gentleman, obviously loves his grits.

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I tweaked Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for shrimp and grits, combined with a creamy sauce loosely based on this one at myrecipes.com, but with a few flavor tweaks of my own. I added the green bell pepper because it is a staple of Southern cooking, and a dash of turmeric in the grits to add to the lovely golden color.

1 teaspoon of sea salt

1 cup of quick-cooking grits
4 cups of water
1 cup of combined Parmesan and sharp cheddar cheeses

1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 large asparagus spears, cut into chunks
1 small green bell pepper, also cut into chunks
12-15 raw shrimp, deveined and shelled
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sherry
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
4 eggs

Add the sea salt to 5 cups of water. Cook at high heat and bring to a fierce boil.


Slowly pour in the cupful of grits, stirring to mix thoroughly. It will bubble up quite a bit so lower the heat immediately after pouring in the grits. Cover and cook for 10 minutes at very low heat.


The grits will have thickened into a texture like porridge. It’s a good idea to whisk for a few minutes at this stage, since grits tend to be lumpy.


Add in the cheeses and stir to mix.


Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some pepper if so desired. Pour the cooked cheesy grits into a glass pan, and refrigerate for a few hours.


Saute the asparagus and green bell pepper together, with some butter, olive oil, salt and pepper for flavor. Add the shrimp to the cooked vegetables, and cook until the shrimp are pink. Remove immediately from the pan.


In the same pan, add the butter, flour, chicken broth, and half and half. Whisk together to make a thick cream. Taste for seasoning and flavor. Add the sherry, which will give the cream a nice, creamy, ecru color.


Add the cooked shrimp, asparagus and green pepper to the cream sauce, stir to combine the flavors, and cover to keep warm.


Poach four eggs, four minutes each. Set aside.

Take the chilled grits from the refrigerator. Cut circles out, using a small glass or coffee cup. It’s the same principle as making polenta, if you’ve made polenta, that is.


In the same pan you used for the cream sauce, cook the grits patties 3-4 minutes a side, until golden brown.


Put two grits patties on a plate, top each with a poached egg, and spoon over the lusciously flavored and scented cream sauce.


It’s a lovely dish, suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I feel certain Anne Rice’s witches would not turn me into a frog if they tasted this dish made in their honor.


The Shining by Stephen King


I don’t think Stephen King has ever been accused of being a foodie, though he is most certainly the most visceral writer I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been reading his books since my early teens, starting with The Shining, as well as many others. But the story of the Torrance family remains my absolute favorite of all of his books. I have a thing for books that make the setting, the place, the hotel or house, as much a character as the people. Shirley Jackson did it with great style in The Haunting of Hill House, which I blogged about a few months back if you want to give it a whirl. Edgar Allan Poe did it with The Fall of the House of Usher. And then there’s the Overlook Hotel.

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Jack Torrance is one of the more interesting characters in literature. He is, for the most part, in tune with his own worst instincts……except for when he drinks. His intelligence makes him arrogant, yet he does truly care for his family. But it only takes a small chink in one’s armor for the enemy to pierce us, and this is what the spirit of the hotel does to him. It gets into Jack’s soul, tempts and taints him with liquor and with his violent, shadow side, and all goes to hell. His son, Danny, is the polar opposite. He is already in touch with his own shadow side, in the form of Tony, his “imaginary friend,” who is the actual, psychic side of Danny’s mind. In a sense, though their conflict takes violent place very much in the physical realm, the conflict is also mental, as both Jack’s and Danny’s emotionally tortured psyches also do battle.2016-10-09-19-39-45_resized

If you’ve read this book (or seen the Kubrick film), you know the story trajectory and I won’t bore you with a lengthy description. In a nutshell, the Torrance family is on their financial last legs and Jack Torrance accepts a job to be the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, just he, his wife Wendy and their son, Danny, who is psychic and whose power is referred to as “the shining.”


I will say, however, that Kubrick’s notoriously misogynistic tendencies turned the film character of Wendy into a shrieking, nagging, needy harridan whom you almost wanted to see get chopped to bits. In the book, she’s tough, resourceful and sharp, still a bit on the weak side as she herself acknowledges. But it’s she who mostly saves the day in the book. Her transformation at Kubrick’s hands in the film makes her nearly unrecognizable, and which is annoying, because it’s certainly possible to have feelings of weakness and inadequacy and still find your inner strength and kick ass. Which Wendy does.


Rereading this book in the here and now was fascinating. It was published nearly 30 years ago, and there are some seriously dated references that are hugely entertaining to read about. For example, when Halloran, the seasonal cook, is showing the family around the kitchen and letting them see the bounty of food he’s left them to get through the winter, he mentions something called a “Table Talk pie.” According to Google, it’s a prepackaged miniature fruit pie that was sold along the east coast. Another scene, kind of the calm before the storm, is when Wendy goes downstairs to make Danny some lunch after he’s seen the woman in Room 217 and Jack has started his spiral into menacing madness. She prepares canned tomato soup and a cheese omelette in a state of of nerves and terror.


“She opened the can and dropped the slightly jellied contents into a saucepan. PLOP. She went to the refrigerator and got milk and eggs for the omelet. Then to the walk-in freezer for cheese. All these actions, so common and so much a part of her life before the Overlook, had been a part of her life, helped to calm her. She melted butter in the frying pan, diluted the soup with milk, then poured the beaten eggs into the pan. A sudden feeling that someone was standing behind her, reaching for her throat.”


It reminded me of when I was a little girl and my paternal grandmother, Nana Baca, would make me canned soup and bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. Good stuff! I don’t buy canned soup these days, just because I prefer the taste of homemade (and it’s healthier, too). But I decided a reworking of the classic canned tomato soup and cheese omelette was in order here.


Nothing goes quite so well with tomatoes as basil, and a creamy tomato basil bisque fit the bill perfectly, along with a cheese and broccoli egg frittata, which is like an omelette for kitchen idiots like me who can’t do the omelette flip without dropping the eggs on the floor. Basically, you mix the egg with the steamed broccoli, cooked ham, milk, sharp cheddar cheese, salt and pepper, put into a skillet and heat until the bottom has set, then put into the oven under broiler until the entire concoction sets. Super easy and you don’t have to worry about doing the damn omelette fold.

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Here is the soup method that worked for me, based on my own trial and error of making this soup for over 10 years. I think I’ve got it down pat, but feedback is always appreciated.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can San Marzano-style crushed tomatoes


4-5 ripe Campari tomatoes
1 medium white onion, finely diced


4 baby carrots, very finely diced
1 small can tomato juice
1 cup sherry
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream


2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh basil leaves

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In a skillet, saute the onion and carrot together in the butter and olive oil. The reason for adding carrot is because oftentimes, tomatoes can be overly acidic and adding sugar eliminates that acid. However, it’s much healthier and tastier to add carrot, which has natural sugar and offsets the acidity just as well.

Roughly chop the Campari tomatoes, and add them, along with the the canned San Marzano tomatoes, to the onion and carrot. Stir to combine.


Add the chicken bouillon paste and the tomato bouillon cube. Taste again. Add in the can of tomato juice here.

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Add in the sherry at this point, taste yet again for seasoning, toss in some of the fresh basil, and add salt and pepper if needed. It may or may not need it, depending on your taste palate.


Let everything simmer together for a good 40 minutes. Then bust out the stick blender and go to town! Blitz it all until you have a soup the color and consistency of red velvet. Yum!

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At this point, add the heavy cream, swirling in gently and stirring. Turn off the heat, cover and let the flavors mix.


Taste for seasoning, though it probably won’t need anything. Decant into small bowls, garnished with the rest of the fresh basil, and serve alongside the frittata. Eat with happiness. Be happy you’re not trapped in a blizzard in the Overlook Hotel with a madman and ……..horror of horrors………CANNED SOUP!

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Dracula by Bram Stoker


It’s October! The month of peculiar things that go bump in the night, the season of the witch, of ghosts and haunted houses, of vampires and demons. And very appropriately, we kick off this month of Halloween-themed blog posts with the bad-ass granddad of all vampires books, Dracula, and its romantic, ghastly hero Count Drakulya, based on the historic Vlad the Impaler of Romania.


You should look up the historical Vlad sometime. He was a real bastard of a human being, and he’s called the Impaler for a reason…….his favorite method of dealing with enemies (both his fellow countrymen and foreign soldiers) was impaling them on a huge stake and sitting among the bodies while drinking wine. Nice guy.


But it’s the vampire legend created by Stoker that has fueled my imagination for years. I love vampires, with the exception of those pasty, pallid creatures in that silly Twilight series. But Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth Kostova, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon and my Irish buddy Bram Stoker here have all created truly creepy blood-sucking creatures that have stood the test of literary time.


You know the story of Dracula and Mina and Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing and Renfield, so I won’t go into detail about it. But what I find fascinating about Stoker’s vampire is that he has stood the test of time better than any other night creature. There is obviously something about Count Dracula that has perpetually captured general fascination. All the writers above have used the template of Dracula for their books, and there are vampires everywhere in modern culture.


There’s also that psycho-sexual element of the vampire in general that makes it so seductive – penetration of the other person (with teeth, you perverts), exchange of bodily fluids, biting on the neck. Dracula is also seeking his great love, which he finds in Mina. It’s incredibly romantic,and horrifying at the same time, this parasitic sucking of the blood and living off the essence of human beings…..which is what love can be at times. You can see why Dracula makes a totally sexy and hot anti-hero, even if he does leave you dead on the floor.


When I was re-reading this book a few days ago, I noticed the detailed mentions of Eastern European food by Jonathan Harker’s character while on his way to meet the infamous Count Dracula in Transylvania. He notes something called mamaliga, which is a type of oatmeal or polenta; robber steak, which appears to be a type of kebab; and paprika hendl, which turns out to be chicken paprika. I think Jonathan was a secret foodie, personally.


“We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for  Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”


I’d eaten chicken paprika a few years ago, though it was made with canned soup and wasn’t particularly good. But now, recreating this dish, I’m giving it my own twist with fresh ingredients, smoked paprika, cayenne for some heat, some red pepper strips, and lots of garlic because I like smelling like a stinking rose, and because garlic repels vampires. You just never know what might be hovering at your window this time of year, waiting to sink its fangs into your neck.


This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on a post from T.S. Bazelli’s very interesting blog, but of course, with the requisite additions by yours truly.

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
Salt and pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika (yes, I know it’s not Hungarian, but they have vampires in Spain, too, don’t they?
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 onion, cut into long strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup water
Egg noodles

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron pan and brown the chicken pieces for about 5 minutes. Set aside.


In the same pan, add the butter, onions, red bell pepper, garlic, flour, paprika and cayenne pepper. Stir briskly to get rid of any lumps the flour may create, and to get rid of any lingering floury taste.


Add the tomato bouillon cube here so that it adds a savory note to the mixture. Chicken paprikash can be a bit bland if you don’t spice it up. You could add tomatoes, but that’s your call. The bouillon cube will add the desired tang without overwhelming the overall taste of the dish.


Add the chicken stock and the water, and bring to a low bubble.


Add the chicken pieces, stir around to mix everything, cover and leave to simmer gently for half an hour or so. Check occasionally to make sure everything is cooking but not burning. After the first 30 minutes, remove the lid so that the liquid can evaporate somewhat. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.


Add in the egg noodles, so they can absorb some of the liquid, which helps both with the dish’s texture and the flavoring of the noodles themselves.


Add in the sour cream, stir together, and leave on very low heat another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally so the cream doesn’t curdle.


Serve, preferably on blood-red plates with blood-red wine in goblets, candles burning, and the menacing shadow of Count Dracula stroking your neck as you eat.


It’s a delicious dish, richly spiced with the smoky paprika and the hint of cayenne giving it heat, and the offset of the sour cream. The red peppers and onion aren’t overly cooked and still have a bit of crunch, and the garlic gives the added oomph that garlic does. Definitely something to make again!

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Autumn is in the air. The mornings have that slight chill, and you need an extra blanket on the bed at night. The days are still sunny and warm, but in the evening, the sun dips below the horizon earlier and earlier, and the pervasive scent of leaves and smoke fills the air. It’s the time to curl up with a good book and enjoy the changing season. And speaking of good books, I’ve been rereading the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder again, something I do every year as the season turns to fall. Comfort reading at its best!


It’s funny to read something as an adult that you loved as a child. These books were my escape as a little girl. I loved Laura and her intelligence and her naughtiness, and the fact that she, too, loved to read. I used to think the vagabond life lived by her, her two sisters and her Ma and Pa sounded so exciting and fun. But then reading as an adult, I found myself thinking how painful walking on a bare wooden floor would be if you stepped on a splinter, how hard it must be to sweep a dirt floor, and how horrible it would be to have to spin and dye wool and make your own clothes. And I found myself feeling sorry for Ma, what with Pa constantly running off on adventures and moving them from a log cabin in Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas to a mud house on a creek bank in Minnesota to – finally! – a nice home in South Dakota.


In the seventh book of the series, “Little Town on the Prairie,” the family is (finally!) happily settled into their home in De Smet, SD, and all the girls are growing up. There are socials, parties, sleigh rides, in addition to the daily life chores of housework, caring for the farm animals,  and cooking. In fact, reading the food descriptions in this series are a great joy for me, as a home cook. On Thanksgiving, the entire town contributes to a communal Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. There is food galore, pumpkin pies and beans and casseroles and cornbread and pickles and all sorts of goodies, and each table has its own delicious chicken pie.

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“In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food. Those tables were loaded…….there were heaped dishes of mashed potatoes and of mashed turnips……there were plates piled high with golden squares of corn bread…….there were cucumber pickles and beet pickles and green tomato pickles………on each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.”


I love chicken pot pie, and have always wanted to try making one from scratch, piecrust and all. But I’ve always wanted to make cornbread, too, so I decided to combine them into one yummy recipe, in homage of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the changing season.


This is the method that worked for me, based on my memories of chicken pot pie and all the goodies inside. The cornbread crust came from one of my Nana Jean’s recipe cards I found stuck inside her old cookery book from the 1950s……..a little bit of happy serendipity for me. And the beauty of a cornbread topping is that you don’t have to knead it into a dough. You just spread it on top of the pie filling and bake.



For the pie filling:
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached and shredded

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
12 baby carrots, cut into small circles

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1 and 1/2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cup frozen peas

1 medium-sized onion, chopped
Olive oil and butter for sauteeing
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 and 1/2 cups flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup lowfat milk
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or more depending on your taste)

For the cornmeal crust:
1 and 1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg, beaten


In a saucepan filled with 1/2 cup of chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of butter, cook the potatoes, celery and carrots until soft, but not mushy, up to 30 minutes, but check them for texture. Add the onions and cook another 5 minutes. Add the frozen peas during the last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Put this mixture onto a plate and set aside.


In the same pan, heat the olive oil and a bit more butter. Add the flour, a little at a time, to the the oil and butter, and stir to ensure all the flour is absorbed. This part is important, because you don’t want that floury taste. Gradually add the nutmeg as well, a bit at a time.


Gradually incorporate the milk and the chicken stock, alternating between the two, slowly pouring into the flour and oil. Whisk vigorously with a metal whisk, creating a roux. The roux will create that thick sauce that characterizes the inside of a chicken pot pie, thickening as you keep adding liquid. Rouxs do take awhile, so be prepared to keep whisking for a good half-hour. Add in the bouillon paste as you’re whisking, and keep tasting to see if the flour taste has disappeared.


Add the bouillon cube, the cooked potatoes, carrots, celery and peas to this mixture, and stir well to mix. Cook everything together for a couple of minutes. Add the shredded, cooked chicken, mix through and let heat through one last time. Cover and set aside.


Heat the oven to 400F, and get on with making the cornbread crust.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. In yet another small bowl, mix together the milk, oil and egg yolk, then slowly add it to the dry ingredients. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s the idea.

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Spray the inside of 4-6 ramekins with olive oil spray, then fill about 3/4 of each with the chicken mixture.


Top with the somewhat lumpy cornbread batter, as evenly as you can. Place the filled ramekins on a baking tray and pop into the oven to cook for about 15 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the formerly lumpy batter has puffed up and gotten golden-brown on top.


Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then eat happily, and be thankful you didn’t have to go out and pick the potatoes or pluck the chicken, like you lived in a little house on a prairie or something.


The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch


Though an interesting read, it was also occasionally difficult to continue The Sea, The Sea, so convoluted are the mental musings of Charles Arrowby, the main character. I never fully connected to him or any other character, though the setting – an isolated house on a cliff overlooking the ocean – sounds appropriately Gothic and Romantic and just where I would like to spend my summer vacation. Minus the sea dragons, of course.


Charles is a pain in the ass, quite frankly. He’s arrogant as hell, he writes about the most mundane things in his daily life as though they were momentous occasions, and he suffers under grand delusions that he is adored and that everyone sees the world in the exact same way he does – with him at the center of everything. Although, as he starts having his “delusions,” I felt a bit sorry for him; and when he becomes convinced that his first love, Hartley, still carries a torch for him (even though she’s been married for years, has children and shows no desire to rekindle the flame), I felt like he was crossing the line into total madness.


I think it’s safe to say that the sea is supposed to be something of a parallel for Charles’s moods. It’s calm, he has his moments of calmness. It rages and wreaks havoc………so does he in the lives of those he claims to care for. It’s a fascinating read, if you can work through all the daily detail and the inner workings of a rather twisted male mind (though I’ve yet to meet a male mind that wasn’t twisted). But the luscious descriptions of food and meals that he eats and details in his diary were his saving grace and provided me with a lot of cooking inspiration.


Lentil soup with chipolata sausages and onions and apples! Scrambled eggs with frankfurters and grilled tomatoes with garlic! Corned beef with red cabbage and pickled walnuts! Baked potatoes with cream cheese and lemon! Macaroni and cheese with garlic, basil, olive oil, more cheese and courgettes (which are zucchini – I had to look that one up.) Anchovy paste on toast with baked beans, tomatoes, celery, lemon juice and olive oil!  He also drinks wine by the gallon, so he isn’t completely without good qualities. And the man loves his food. As do we all.


“Of course reading and thinking are important, but my God, food is important, too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

I love lentil soup, and recently found a delicious one, and here’s the wonderful recipe, on Chocolate and Zucchini’s most excellent blog. I used it as a base, but as usual, with my own added taste tweaks. Having recently purchased my first stove-top grill pan, some grilled shrimp also seemed to be in order. And with that vacuum-sealed bag of fresh, peeled chestnuts waiting in my pantry……..It was meant to be.


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, peeled

4 cloves of garlic
1 rib of celery
1 and 1/2 cups lentils, any type

3 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 and 1/2 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups shrimp, deveined and thawed, but still with their tails attached

Wooden skewers soaked in water for an hour


Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor, or with a mezzaluna. I love using my mezzaluna. It makes even a total klutz like me look like I know what I’m doing.


In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and onion, sprinkle over some salt and pepper, and cook on low for about 10 minutes. The smell will rise up and hit your nose like savory heaven! Then, add the fresh herbs and stir for another five minutes.


Add the bay leaves and the lentils and give them a good stir, so they get covered with the oil, butter and cooked veggies.


Add the chicken broth and the bouillon paste. Stir gently, lower the heat, cover with a (preferably see-through) lid, and cook at a very low simmer for 30 minutes.


After half an hour, add the chestnuts. Cook another 30 minutes.


I know it’s hard, but try your hardest to resist taking the lid off and stirring the lentils while cooking. Try really hard. When they keep getting hit with air and being stirred during cooking, they get mushy. So just don’t. Have a glass of wine to distract yourself if you must.


You can either use a stick blender or a regular blender to puree this soup into a thick, luscious, unctuous mix. I chose the stick blender simply because it’s easier to clean, and I enjoy watching the puree process. I’m weird like that.


Cover the pureed soup to stay warm, and heat your grill pan. Sprinkle garlic powder, salt and pepper onto the shrimp for seasoning. Then, thread 5-6 shrimp on a waterlogged skewer, and grill in the heated grill pan. Watch the shrimp closely and when they get pink and striped like a tiger, immediately remove.


Cook the bacon in the same pan, and when cool, crumble.


Decant the soup into bowls and add a swirl of heavy cream to each one. Garnish with the beautiful grilled shrimp, and bacon, unless you’re a vegetarian……and if you are, my sincere condolences.


Eat, in Charles Arrowby style, with great enjoyment and copious amounts of red wine.


The soup is lovely, well seasoned, and the shrimp add a delicious, saline note that wonderfully offsets the richness of the chestnuts and the earthiness of the lentils. Soooooo good, and rewarms beautifully and deliciously the next day, too.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim


Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”


I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.


The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.


I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.


Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.


“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”


This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.


2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum


As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.


In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.


Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.


Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.


In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.


Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.


Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.


Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.


Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.


With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.