The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

2016-08-21 21.29.19_resized

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

2016-08-21 21.26.28_resized

The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life.It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

2016-08-21 15.03.10_resized.jpg

Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

MV5BNDg2MjQ5MzQxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTMzNDQyNw@@._V1__SX640_SY720_

There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

2016-08-21 15.07.19_resized

One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

2016-08-21 21.37.55_resized

Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

2016-08-21 21.38.31_resized

However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

2016-08-21 15.00.32_resized

2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

2016-08-21 15.08.16_resized

1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. I started mine on Saturday morning and did the final rinse and drain Sunday morning. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

2016-08-21 14.59.58_resized

Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

2016-08-21 15.02.37_resized

In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

2016-08-21 15.04.39_resized

Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Like this. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

2016-08-21 15.09.01_resized

Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

2016-08-21 15.09.57_resized

Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

2016-08-21 21.32.43_resized

Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

2016-08-21 21.31.35_resized

Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

2016-08-14 19.24.38_resized

The problem with Chocolat is that it is filled to bursting with delicious and delectable food descriptions, as you’d expect. Meringues, chocolate ice cream, any and all type of chocolate candies, a bavarois chocolate cake with caramel icing, crystallized violet candies……….but there are also savory delights to be read about! Fruits du mer, vol au vents, lobster with mayonnaise and lemon, cheeses with a tomato salad and black olives, walnut bread, French champagne! It’s almost overwhelming, the sheer amount of deliciousness in this book. How the hell does one choose only one thing to recreate?

2016-08-14 19.18.12_resized

This is a book about the power of food as medicine, the power of life over death, the power of pleasure over abstinence, the power of women and their magic – not the power of women over men but rather, what they can accomplish when they meet as equals – and most pleasurably, the sheer joy and sweetness of life, epitomized by that lush, luxurious, dark, divine, delicious chocolate. I have never agreed with the adage that life is meant for suffering and that the reward will come after we die. Call me a radical, an agnostic, a disbeliever, a bad Catholic………..that’s fine. I wholeheartedly believe that life is meant to be savored, enjoyed, tasted, kissed, embraced, made love to………which is why I love this book so much, because it believes it, too.

2016-08-15 08.45.58_resized

The premise of the book is simple. A woman, Vianne, and her young daughter Anouk, come to the small French town of Lansquenet. They open an artisanal chocolate shop, and slowly begin to win over the hearts – and tastebuds – of the residents, most of whom are under the thrall of the town mayor, Reynaud. The town and its residents are staid, respectable, do not question authority, and generally do what is expected of them. When Vianne and her mouth-watering chocolates come to town, it turns everything upside down.

2016-08-14 19.18.56_resized

It’s good to have things turned upside down in life once in awhile. If you don’t take those unexpected opportunities that come your way, if you don’t stop and enjoy the smoothness of a good red wine or taste the sweetness of a luscious meal or savor the passion that another person unexpectedly invokes in you……..you’re not living life to the fullest.

2016-08-14 19.14.52_resized.jpg

“The dessert is a chocolate fondue. Make it on a clear day – cloudy weather dims the gloss on the melted chocolate – with seventy percent dark chocolate, butter, a little almond oil, double cream added at the very last minute, heated gently over a burner. Skewer pieces of cake or fruit and dip into the chocolate mixture.”

2016-08-15 08.43.32_resized

I’m not much for sweets, as anyone in my family or circle of friends can tell you. My taste buds crave salty and savory flavors, like cheese and crackers, bread and butter, potato chips, and nuts. But I do have a great fondness for dark chocolate, and besides it’s good for you too, so we’re all happy! Reading this book also gave me great happiness, speaking as it does to all five senses, so I chose to recreate the chocolate fondue that Vianne makes for Armande’s birthday feast. I served it with a meal of salmon farfalle with asparagus in a delicious cream sauce for my sister, one of the strongest women I am privileged to know.

20160814_135755_resized

This is the method – a very simple one! – that worked for me. Minimal effort for maximum pleasure, as the beautiful Nigella Lawson would say! And how can that be a bad thing?

2016-08-14 19.15.57_resized

INGREDIENTS
2 bars of dark Ghirardelli chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or more
1/2 cup of heavy cream
1/2 cup of amaretto
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of almond extract
Cashew nuts, lightly salted

For dipping:
Strawberries
Grapes
Pineapple
Raspberries

2016-08-15 08.45.02_resized

METHOD

Add the cream to a metal saucepan over very low heat. Watch it closely. When you see tiny bubbles starting to form around the edge, turn off the burner.

2016-08-14 19.44.17_resized

Break up your chocolate into small chunks. Add them to the hot cream, whisk gently to mix, cover with a lid and leave for 15 minutes. Add the cashew nuts and stir again so they are mixed well into the chocolate. Cover and leave another 5 minutes.

2016-08-14 19.20.10_resized.jpg

Remove the lid, stir again and you’ll see the alchemy of cooking. It has turned into a rich, beautiful, luscious, unctuous dark chocolate creamy sauce.

Add the amaretto and the vanilla, and the Cointreau if you’re using.

2016-08-15 08.47.02_resized

Heat your fondue pot Sterno, and put the fondue pot over it.

2016-08-14 19.43.32_resized

Pour your chocolate mixture into the fondue pot and stir it around again. Spear your goodies with the fondue forks, dip into the chocolate fondue, and apply to your face. Repeat as needed.

2016-08-14 19.25.09_resized

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

2016-08-07 21.04.29_resized

One of the reasons I started this blog, beyond the joy of combining my loves of reading and cooking, was also my desire to travel, whether physically or through the pages of books. I wanted to challenge myself as well, to cook food that was outside my comfort zone.

2016-08-07 21.28.29_resized

I’ve always wanted to gain a better understanding of both the history of China and its cuisine, however, and when one day I discovered this book The Ghost Bride, in the bargain bin at Bookworks, my favorite independent bookstore, and having no new books to read for a whole three days (a horror, let me tell you), I bought it, and proceeded to devour it in one sitting.

2016-08-07 21.16.05_resized

It’s a very unexpected book. The premise, a young lady named Li Lan of a once wealthy but now impoverished family in colonial Malacca, is asked by her father to become a “ghost bride” to a young man who has recently died. A ghost bride is a young lady who marries a man who has died, usually who was young and had never been married before death. The idea is that the spirit will be placated by being given a bride and will not haunt his family after death. Li Lan initially balks at the idea (as we all probably would), but then is invited to the home of the dead Lim Tian Ching, whose mother had the idea of marrying his spirit to the living Li Lan. That’s when things start getting interesting.

2016-08-07 21.11.10_resized

I consider this book to be educational as well as entertaining. I learned about Malacca and the Chinese population who lived there among numerous other ethnic and religious groups, a fascinating history of the Chinese culture and their diverse spiritual belief system, which also strongly influences their belief in the afterlife. Ghosts and spirits abound in this book, demons and the shades of people who have not passed yet into The Great Beyond, whether it be heaven or hell. The shadow world resembles the government of the time, structured, bureaucratic, with hierarchies of spirits and ghosts who build opulent houses and have their own caste system, just as the living do. Li Lan is unexpectedly cast into this shadow world when she tries to escape the spiritual advances of Lim Tian Ching, and finds herself on the adventure of a lifetime.

2016-08-07 21.11.46_resized

Speaking of food, in the spirit world of Malacca, spirits cannot eat until the living offer them food and a prayer in the living world. Li Lan is starving there, until her family’s cook, Wong, who has been able to see spirits since he was a child, takes pity on her and dedicates his bowl of laksa to her. Laksa, this delicious sounding dish, is a type of soup that has elements of curry, but is loaded with lots of other goodies so it makes a full and easy street food dish. So what the hell – pardon the pun – I made the laksa and some pineapple cupcakes. Pineapple tarts are mentioned as a nyonya – a dessert – but being unable to find several of the key ingredients for making Malaysian-style tarts, I made cupcakes instead, using the recipe from Baked By An Introvert, being a glutton for punishment by cooking and baking in this muggy summer heat. Oh well. Keeps me out of trouble.

IMG_20160807_133337_resized

“Can I have noodles?” Old Wong looked indignant. “Don’t you know that they never wash the bowl and chopsticks but simply pass them along to the next customer? I can make you far better noodles than that.” “But I can’t go home right now.” “You want to get sick?” I couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of this. “You don’t know……no noodles for you. Further on there’s a laksa stall. We’ll go there, not this kind of dirty place.”

2016-08-07 21.10.26_resized

This is the method that worked for me, based on this terrific recipe from Feasting at Home, another excellent food blog. Along with tofu (which I loathe and despise), something called fish balls are traditionally added to the laksa, and as entertaining as the thought was to tell my friends that yes, the balls of a fish were part of this week’s blog, I decided against it. I’m nice like that.

INGREDIENTS
2 packets of laksa paste (available in any Asian market or online)
3 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
Chicken bouillon cube
2 cups of chicken broth
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk
4 chicken thighs, cubed

2016-08-07 21.24.19_resized
12-15 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb rice noodles
2 cups fresh bean sprouts

2016-08-07 21.27.56_resized
1 large lime, cut into quarters
Handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fried shallots (also available in any Asian market or online)
1 hard-boiled egg, cut lengthwise in half

2016-08-07 21.13.35_resized

METHOD
Heat the laksa paste, the oil and the bouillon cube until the paste begins to soften. You’ll smell the chilies and the shrimp in the paste. Divine!

2016-08-07 21.25.29_resized

Add the chicken broth and the coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, to allow the flavors to combine.

2016-08-07 21.16.55_resized_1.jpg

Add the cubed chicken thighs and cook for another 15-20 minutes, to ensure they are fully cooked through.

In another pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and allow to cook for 30 seconds or so. They won’t take long at all. Drain and set aside.

2016-08-07 21.07.33_resized

After 20 minutes of the chicken simmering, add a squeeze of lime juice to the laksa broth. Add the shrimp and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are nice and pink. Don’t overcook, because the shrimp will be rubbery. Gross.

2016-08-07 21.12.26_resized

Ladle the broth and meat into bowls, add the rice noodles, and garnish each bowl with the cilantro, a handful of the bean sprouts, another squeeze of lime, the fried shallots, and half the hard boiled egg.

You can eat this in the traditional manner, slurping up noodles with chopsticks if you can manage them, and spooning up the broth. You see I have my chopsticks for the terminally incompetent here.

2016-08-07 21.56.45_resized

Delicious! It’s spicy, tart from the limes, pungent from the cilantro, and tastes of the sea with the laksa paste. So good, healthy and, even though it’s hot outside, it’s very refreshing to eat. This one’s a keeper.

2016-08-07 21.05.30_resized

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

2016-07-31 20.29.04_resized

Dedicated to my friend and constant cooking inspiration, Luca Marchiori

I found The Fifth Gospel to be quite a great read, fast-paced and adventurous, but with a fascinating historical and Biblical premise as the storyline. It’s simple – a Greek Catholic priest living in The Vatican must defend his brother, also a Greek Catholic priest but one attached to the Pope’s staff, who is accused of murder. The victim? An artist who recreated the Shroud of Turin for a Papal art show and made a discovery that could possibly turn the Catholic Church upside down.

2016-07-31 20.50.29_resized

It’s very well written, heavy on Church history (which I like) and yet has a human side in the main character of Father Alex Andreou, whose desperate efforts to prove his brother innocent are matched only by his dedication to the Greek Catholic church, raising his son Peter, and hoping his estranged wife Mona will return to them both. She does, mysteriously one evening, and when she reunites with Peter, she brings dinner with her, in that clever way women have of knowing that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

2016-07-31 20.30.24_resized

“Mona reaches into a plastic bag by her feet and says ‘I brought dinner.’ ‘A gift,’ she clarifies. ‘From Nonna.’ Peter’s maternal grandmother. I recoil. Peter looks at the Tupperware and says…….’My favorite pizza is margherita.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Mona says, crestfallen. ‘All I brought is some cacio e pepe.’ Tonnarelli with cheese sauce. The devil inside me smiles. Her mother’s version of the dish will be too peppery for Peter. A fitting introduction to the mother-in-law I always found to be an acquired taste.”

2016-07-31 20.46.28_resized

This post came about, in part, from an IM conversation I had with my friend Luca Marchiori of Chestnuts and Truffles. Luca is not only my cooking hero, he’s a marvelous chef, a talented food and travel writer, and takes the most wonderful photographs. He also lives in Italy and gets to travel around that beautiful country ALL THE TIME. Is it any wonder I want to be him?

2016-07-31 20.48.04_resized.jpg

Anyway, I’ve gotten in the habit (annoyingly to Luca, I’m sure!) of asking his advice about the week’s upcoming blog post and my thoughts on how to make my recipe unique. Cacio e pepe is a traditional pasta dish that features three major ingredients – pasta, pepper and cheese. You really can’t go wrong with that trio, but I wanted to add my own unique twist on the recipe, so I asked Luca what he thought of perhaps a margherita-style cacio e pepe, combining two food descriptions in the passage above.

2016-07-31 20.37.55_resized

Luca didn’t think combining two separate pasta dishes into one was the best way to go, and when I mentioned wanting to make something one’s own, he talked about the writing of Philippe Conticini, who was, in Luca’s words, “a great patissiere who had the philosophy that when you were revising classic dishes you should make sure you keep all the original ingredients and not add more. Change the way they are put together rather than leaving out or adding.”

2016-07-31 20.45.32_resized

Something to consider. So, rather than trying to make it into something unique, I decided to challenge myself by simply recreating this classic recipe, and having roasted tomatoes on the side. Not IN the dish, Luca, so calm down. But as a garnish. And guess what? It worked!

2016-07-31 20.43.30_resized

This is the method that worked for me, based on this article from Business Weekly, featuring the great and notorious Anthony Bourdain – my future husband – in Rome. I mean, Bourdain, Italy and pasta – the holy trinity, in my book. (And very fitting for today’s post!)

index

INGREDIENTS
1 lb bucatini pasta. I found the De Cecco brand at Tully’s Italian Deli.
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons Pecorino cheese
Generous amount of ground black pepper

METHOD
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes, until the pasta is almost cooked, but not quite. You’ll see why in a minute.

2016-07-31 20.49.43_resized

One of the best cooking tips I’ve ever gotten in my life was to save some of the boiling water that the pasta has cooked in, and add a bit to whatever sauce you are making. The starch in the water helps the sauce to emulsify and thicken somewhat, and also adds to the dense flavor. So keep about a cupful of the pasta water before draining the pasta. But do keep some of the water on the noodles. Anna del Conte, the matriarch of Italian cooking and food writing, calls this “la goccia,” which means “a drop” to keep the pasta moist.

2016-07-31 20.41.01_resized

In a separate saucepan, add the butter and a very generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Melt the butter gently over low heat, then add the starchy pasta water. Swirl around to mix.

2016-07-31 21.17.57_resized

Add the cooked and drained pasta to the saucepan with the pasta water, butter and pepper. Stir around with tongs to finish cooking the pasta, about 2-3 minutes more. Taste to see if the pasta is al dente, with a small bite but cooked.

2016-07-31 20.42.31_resized

Remove from the heat, and add your cheeses to the hot pasta mixture. Stir again to mix and meld all the cheeses. You DO NOT want your cheese to be in lumps, which is why you want to do it when the pasta is hot off the stove. Just stir and swirl with your tongs and pretend you’re one of those bad-ass Italian chefs who have that technique down pat.

2016-07-31 20.39.09_resized.jpg

Place a swirly pile in a shallow bowl, and sprinkle over more Parmeggiano, and add another generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. Et voila! Cacio e pepe alla Romana!

2016-07-31 20.35.14_resized

Serve with roasted tomatoes on the side, which are simple to make. Slice the tomatoes thinly, and sprinkle over some slivered garlic. Toss with olive oil and dried basil, and roast at 425 for 30-35 minutes. Remove, let cool for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle over a dash of balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper as you like.

2016-07-31 20.33.29_resized.jpg

A dish fit for a Pope!

The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

2016-07-24 18.58.56_resized

Poe was always my literary boyfriend, even from a young age. I remember reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Tales and Poems as a little girl and being simultaneously freaked out and enchanted. He scared the living daylights out of me, but I still read his stories.

2016-07-24 19.05.52_resized

I remember being terrified of black cats after coming to the end of that particular short story. His writings have always fascinated me, and in fact, I wrote one of my best undergrad essays on the architecture in his stories and how they reflected the inner chaos and turmoil of his twisted protagonists.

2016-07-24 19.05.20_resized

My father, about whom I’ve written previously, and who would celebrate his 69th birthday today, loved to read also and had a collection of leather-bound classic books, in one of which the short stories of Poe were collected. I inherited these when he died, and started re-reading them earlier this month, in conjunction with finding Lore Podcast, a web-based podcast about dark, creepy history. It was the combination of rereading Poe and listening to this genuinely eerie podcast, that inspired me to create a dish for the blog. But, if you’re into scary stories, or simply enjoy the darker side of history, check out Lore.

2016-07-24 19.08.00_resized

Back to Edgar’s tales. Poe has always had a special place in my heart. His dark, dramatic, romantic, Gothic style always spoke to my dark side. His over-the-top declamatory way of writing, particularly in poems such as “Annabel Lee” or, of course “The Raven,” and in two of my absolute favorite stories in the world, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” seemed to always be pointing to that shadow world beyond the veil separating us in this one. And then of course, how could anyone forget those classic Vincent Price movie versions of Poe’s works?

2016-07-24 19.15.14_resized.jpg

“The Pit and the Pendulum” was always the most horrifying to me, in the sense of actually seeing what the dreadful fate of the story narrator is. I mean, can it get any worse than to be trapped by the Inquisition in a pit, in near darkness, to be tortured with no food and then teased with meat and drink before coming across this instrument of torture designed not only to slice you in half but to also make sure you can watch it descending upon you, inch by terrifying inch? It’s this ability to make you squirm with unease and fright, such as in my other favorite tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” that makes him a genius of the dark side.

2016-07-24 19.06.26_resized

With the Spanish references in both “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” I decided to recreate the passage in the first tale, in which the narrator finds a table of meat, and leads him to a more terrifying discovery, and led me to deciding to make Spanish-spiced pork tenderloin medallions in a mushroom-cream and – you guessed it – Amontillado sherry sauce!

2016-07-24 19.16.23_resized

“I saw, to my horror, that the pitcher had been removed. I say to my horror, for I was consumed with intolerable thirst. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate; for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.”

2016-07-24 19.07.05_resized

This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from finecooking.com, but as usual, with a few of my own tweaks.

2016-07-24 19.10.12_resized

INGREDIENTS
1 1-lb pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch thick medallions
2 tablespoons of cornstarch, divided
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
2 cups sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 shallot, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced with a Microplane grater
1 teaspoon each of dried sage, dried parsley and dried thyme
Tablespoon of Spanish smoked paprika, or pimenton
1/2 cup Amontillado sherry
1/2 cup of chicken or beef stock
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup heavy cream

METHOD
Flatten your medallions a little bit with the flat side of the knife. Lightly dredge each medallion in 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, on either side, and shake off any excess.

2016-07-24 19.17.54_resized

Heat the olive oil and butter together slowly in a large pan. Gently fry 4-5 medallions at a time, about 3 minutes a side. Being somewhat thin, they will cook quickly so watch them and turn when looking brown. Set aside on a platter.

2016-07-24 19.08.36_resized.jpg

In the pan juices, cook the shallot and garlic. Honestly, what would we do without these kitchen staples, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a savory dish I’ve ever cooked that didn’t have one or both of these flavorsome ingredients. Truly gifts from God,they are.

2016-07-24 19.12.52_resized

Add the sliced mushrooms, your three dried herbs, the smoked paprika/pimenton and a splosh of the amontillado, just a splosh to keep it moist. Stir together and cook another 5 minutes.

2016-07-24 19.10.55_resized

In a mixing cup, whisk together the other tablespoon of cornstarch, the remainder of the sherry, the chicken stock, and the Dijon mustard. Add to the veg in the pan, and simmer for about 5 minutes more.

2016-07-24 19.09.25_resized

Add the pork medallions, then slowly pour in the heavy cream, stir to combine, cover and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes. Check a few times to make sure the cream doesn’t curdle or burn. Oh that heavenly scent!

2016-07-24 19.20.05_resized

While that’s cooking, you can prepare any side dish you want. I love green beans, and I remember the “habichuelas” that my Nana Jean used to cook, with bacon and onion and, oh they were so good! When I lived in Spain for that marvelous semester, I housed with a wonderful woman named Maria Carmen who was a professional cook at a private girl’s school in Pamplona, and one of her specialities was “judias con tomates.” In both their honors, I combined their methods and made a Spanish-style dish of green beans, slowly cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, salt, Spanish olive oil, a squeeze of anchovy paste, and flaked almonds, to go with the Spanish-spiced pork medallions. Delicious and, to me anyway, redolent of Spain.

2016-07-24 19.04.35_resized

But of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

2016-07-18 05.22.36_resized

Dedicated to RP, without whom this book would not have the meaning it does. Thank you for the life lessons.

 

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

20160717_170100_resized

On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

2016-07-17 20.38.19_resized.jpg

On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

2016-07-17 20.35.18_resized

On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

2016-07-17 20.41.15_resized

Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

2016-07-17 20.36.54_resized

“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because I didn’t have a spare kidney to sell this week to buy one. As well, I had some wonderful dried mushrooms stashed in my refrigerator, waiting for a moment of inspiration, and it struck me that their reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

2016-07-17 20.50.23_resized

INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped

2016-07-17 20.37.37_resized
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine. I used Cabernet Sauvignon
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

2016-07-17 20.35.54_resized.jpg

Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

2016-07-17 20.38.59_resized.jpg

Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

2016-07-17 20.40.13_resized

Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

2016-07-17 20.48.37_resized

Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

2016-07-18 05.19.46_resized

After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

2016-07-18 05.20.42_resized

While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

20160717_164555_resized

Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

2016-07-18 05.23.05_resized

The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

20160710_170934_resized

I am a diehard Bond Girl. I’ve seen all the films, read all the books and of course, have my own opinions about who has been the best Bond of all. Having a major crush on Timothy Dalton, I am biased in his favor, but there is also something to be said for the talents (not to mention eye candy quality) of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. All three are are quite handsome in a rough-hewn, craggy kind of way. Pierce Brosnan, though also quite a gorgeous specimen of the male gender, was a bit too polished and smooth for my taste. Roger Moore and George Lazenby were the weakest Bonds, in my book (haha!).

20160710_172834_resized

In rereading Casino Royale this past week, I came to the conclusion that the reason these rough-around-the-edges cinematic 007s are more to my taste is because they are closer to his book character, which is why I like them. A man who is elegant and polished, yet still has that roughness, that “throw down,” is incredibly sexy to me.

20160710_164055_resized

James Bond is not a very likable character, for all his perspicacity as a spy. He’s witty, urbane, but with that dark edge that allows him to use people and not care about his effect in their lives. It’s not just with women, although they do tend to be rather interchangeable and disposable. As an agent provocateur, it is probably a matter of life or death to be able to sharply and coldly cut someone out of one’s life, and this aspect of Bond’s character is much more apparent in the books, as his thought process and internal meanderings are well described. In Casino Royale, you get the origin of his coldness toward women, when he meets and falls hard for Vesper Lynd, a fellow secret agent who initially is not very impressed with Bond…..which, of course, intrigues him It’s such a typically male response to a woman that it made me laugh.

20160710_172943_resized

Vesper and Bond share a luxurious dinner at the Casino Royale, while they wait for the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre, whom they have been sent to watch and infiltrate his empire. Bond tells Vesper to order expensively and do honor to her fabulous evening gown. She takes him at his word and they order their meals.

cr_136_500

“I’d like to start with caviar and then have a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes souffles. And then I’d like to have fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Is it very shameless to be to certain and so expensive?” She smiled at him knowingly…………”While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing.”

Fraises de bois are wild strawberries, and difficult to find in New Mexico. However, seeing as strawberries and cream are one of my desert island meals, with the tartness of strawberries contrasting so nicely with a lightly sweetened cream, I couldn’t not make it to go with the centerpiece meal. An avocado pear, which is a half-avocado stuffed with whatever you like, is delish! Lobster and avocado have a natural affinity for each other and I love them together, the jade green of the avocado and the deep pink of the cooked lobster creating a beautiful food palette that’s almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And you can’t beat lobster for sheer luxury. I got mine at Nantucket Shoals, and I highly recommend you visit there, either in person or via their website.

20160710_170810_resized

This is the method that worked for me for the stuffed avocado pear, taken from the great Emeril Lagasse, but with a few tweaks by me. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

For the avocado pear:
2 large avocadoes
2 cups lobster meat, cooked and finely cubed
1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise (see method below)
1 teaspoon of truffle oil

20160710_164216_resized
Juice of one medium lemon
Fresh chives, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix together the lobster meat, the mayonnaise and the truffle oil. Let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

20160710_164029_resized

Add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle in some sea salt if you think it needs it, but the homemade mayo has plenty of flavor and saltiness, so you may not.

Halve the avocadoes and carefully scoop out the meat, retaining their shape so that they form green cups. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice to keep the avocadoes from blackening.

20160710_170704_resized

Put a large spoonful of the lobster mixture into each avocado half, so you have four tasty little green cups full of seafood heaven! Garnish with the chives and admire the beautiful pink and green deliciousness before chowing down. 007 would most certainly approve of this avocado pear!

20160710_170942_resized

The homemade mayo was simply one egg yolk (organic and free range), 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one teaspoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of sea salt, and incorporated very slowly and whisked in drop by drop, a 3/4 cup of regular olive oil – all at room temperature. Don’t use a blender or it will be runny. I hand-whisked for 20 minutes and although it is quite an arm workout, the end result is so worth it.

20160710_164003_resized

The strawberries, I simply marinated in Amaretto and lemon juice for about an hour, while I whipped some heavy cream with sugar and a dash or two of Campari liqueur. The Campari makes the cream a gorgeous, pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. It creates such a beautiful accent for the glistening, red strawberries. You pile it into a fancy glass and eat. Or, if James Bond were to drop by, you could have him feed it to you, berry by berry. (sigh)  A girl can dream!

20160710_173612_resized

I would be a terrible Bond girl if I didn’t include this classic paragraph:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

20160710_171406_resized