Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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INGREDIENTS

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

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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

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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

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METHOD
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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

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

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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

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Wooden skewers soaked in water for an hour

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METHOD
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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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

METHOD

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

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roasted chileDedicated to my wonderful Nana Jean. I miss you more than words could ever express.

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

2016-09-04 17.53.34_resized.jpg It’s a true slice of New Mexican history, a beautiful small village tucked against mountain ranges, and for me, epitomizes what is so very special about my home state.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F.

Saute the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas.

Mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat.

I think my Nana would be proud!

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

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Very much a fairy tale for adults, Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a London commuter who stops to help a young woman lying bleeding on the sidewalk one night, and finds himself in the alternate universe of London Underground. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious – falling into an underground alternate reality, coming of age – yet this is a much darker and bloodier otherworld.

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Without giving too much away, the inverses in London Underground are pretty fascinating. Angels are evil, doors can be opened to anywhere, and the environment resembles more of a medieval estate than modern London. Richard goes through a significant transformation when he is there. He goes from being a young, rather naive man who is willing tolerate bad behavior from his fiancee because he simply thinks this is how it is, to having a mind and will of his own. He knows he is worthy of so much more, because he’s proven himself. In many ways, this book is a “bildungsroman” as it details his transformation from boy to man.

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In one passage, Richard and Door, the young woman he stopped to help and who essentially brought him to London Underground, wake up with ungodly hangovers from drinking heavenly wine with the Angel Islington. They’ve been found by Serpentine, a type of Amazon woman and part of a group of women who act as hunter/protectors and who, in her rough way, tries to help with the hangovers by feeding the two of them. Quite ironically, I too, woke up with a hangover this morning – my first in many years. I blame my friends Jake, Maggie and Heather, without whom I would not have overindulged in red wine last night. But we had a marvelous time, and this quiche can cure any hangover. It certainly did mine.

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“What is there to eat?” asked Hunter. Serpentine looked at the wasp-waisted woman in the doorway. “Well?” she asked. The woman smiled the chilliest smile Richard had ever seen cross a human face, then she said, “Fried eggs poached eggs pickled eggs curried venison pickled onions pickled herrings smoked herrings salted herrings mushroom stew salted bacon stuffed cabbage calves foot jelly – “

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While pickled eggs DO NOT have any kind of attraction for me, the savory tastes of fried eggs, salted bacon and mushrooms caught my attention. Remembering the wonderful fried tomatoes I had as part of a delicious morning meal when visiting London a few years ago, I decided a riff on the classic British breakfast was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups regular flour
4 tablespoons unsalted, chilled butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons chilled shortening, also cubed

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1/4 cup ice-cold water
5 slices of smoked bacon, good quality
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carton sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of grated cheese – I used a mixture of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack

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METHOD

Gradually mix together the flour, the cubed butter and the cubed shortening until it forms a “rubbly” texture. I used my most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the pastry hook attachment. It’s important that your butter and shortening are cold cold cold.

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Gradually add the cold water until a dough is formed. Mine was sticky so I added a bit more flour to the mixer. Wrap the dough in plastic, form it into a ball and knead it a bit before refrigerating.

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Heat the oven to 375F. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. Don’t use your kitchen counter as you will have a mess and if you’re doing it recovering from a hangover, it will not make you happy. Trust me.

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Press the rolled-out dough into a pie pan. Chill it again for another 10 minutes. Poke a few holes in the bottom crust with a fork. Then bake the empty quiche shell for 10 minutes.

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While the crust is both chilling and baking, fry the bacon in a little bit of  olive oil. Remove and drain, then crumble.

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Cook the mushrooms, garlic powder and thyme leaves in the bacon oil for about 10 minutes. The smell is out of this world! But do watch out for spatters from the hot oil.

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In a separate bowl, add the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk together, then add the slightly cooled mushrooms and the bacon. Add in the heavy cream and the cheese and whisk together again.

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Pour into the slightly baked quiche pieshell and top with the sliced tomatoes. Isn’t that pretty?

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Bake for up to 50 minutes, checking occasionally. When the crust is golden-brown, that’s usually when it’s ready. The filling will have set, and the smell of the mushrooms and the savory scent of roasting tomatoes will also give you a hint.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and serve in generous slices. Accompany it with a hibiscus cocktail, which is champagne and cranberry juice, very necessary “hair of the dog” for a hangover. The flavors are luscious – the sharp cheese, the savory tomatoes, the salty bacon and the nicely set eggs, set off by the bosky taste of the mushrooms.

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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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