A History of the World in Five Menus by Howard Belton

I realize this might be considered cheating, as this book is not technically a literary work, but more of a social and cultural overview of food, with a historical bent. But it’s my blog and I’ll historical if I want to. Anyway, A History of the World in Five Menus was actually recommended to me by Amazon.com, after I purchased the marvelous tome A History of English Food, by the incomparable chef and TV personality Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame. Belton’s work, though somewhat more serious, details a history of food and cooking from five cultures that have essentially given the modern palate and menu its identity. It’s actually very much like reading a work of literature, because it is written in such a descriptive way. My mouth watered at most recipes and food descriptions – a sure indicator that it’s a great book on food.

Cover pic

The more I get into cooking and learn about the different methods, and from where those methods came – often as a way of using up food in the times before electricity and refrigeration – the more fascinated I am by the history of food itself. I think food itself IS culture and history and society and art and science, and all of those keystones that make up any civilization. Food is the primary thing that bonds all of our societies, no matter our differences in politics, religion, beliefs or anything else. We must, after all, eat to live and survive, and survival of our species is what is at the heart of our societies.

2016-02-28 15.15.50_resized_1

My friends and family who know me know that I am a dab hand with the chicken. I can make the feathered fowl in more ways than I can count. I love and adore chicken. Aside from the fact that it is healthier, less fatty and in general better for you than red meat (particularly if you’re eating organic chicken, which is all I eat these days), to me, it just tastes better. It’s the taste of home and comfort. My memories of my childhood are, in general, not terribly happy, and my memories of my relationship with my mother are even less so. That being said, I do have a very pleasant memory of a meal she made when I was around 8 or 9. For all her other shortcomings, my mother was a terrific cook, and the meal she made, simple fried chicken and mashed potatoes, tasted so wonderful. It was a rare meal that no one was yelling or mad about something, and that is probably why this memory – and the food associated -stand out in my memory as a pleasant event and probably why I have such positive associations with chicken. I hate spinach noodles………but that’s another story.  When I got into my 30s and began seriously learning to cook and developing my palate, one of the first things I ever cooked was a chicken dish. It came out delicious, and was so simple to make and yet so impressive to those who ate it, that it completely took the fear and apprehension out of cooking. I’ve been a home cook ever since, and my fallback meal is the poultry.

2016-02-28 15.11.59_resized_1

Belton devotes an entire chapter to the humble, yet absolutely divine, chicken cacciatore. Chicken cacciatore, which means “hunter’s chicken,” is an Italian dish as old as time, and is somewhat of a joke, because it obviously is meant as a pointed reference to the fact that the hunter DID NOT catch anything for the pot, hence the need to cook up a chicken. The hunter’s wife no doubt either mocked him or cursed him the entire way to the chicken coop, while she swiftly strangled the bird, plucked its feathers, and eviscerated it to make it ready for that evening’s meal.

2016-02-28 15.23.18_resized

“I find the whole idea of ‘hunter’s chicken’ amusing, because it is obviously a witticism  for those hunters who fail to catch anything. From Apicius onwards, there are many chicken dishes in Italian cookbooks, so it is not surprising that there are many variants of chicken cacciatore. Mine has chicken thighs and breasts, whole tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms (some omit these), onions, garlic, capers, olive oil, white wine, chicken stock, basil, oregano, salt and pepper.”

This is the method that worked for me, being a combination of tips and recipes from sources such as Nigella Lawson’s recipe in her book Nigella Express, Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and a recipe torn out of an old newspaper that I found in one of my Nana Jean’s old cookery books from the 1960s, which I got when she died. Pretty cool to find that bit of history in one of my cherished books!

Ingredients

2-3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 generous tablespoon butter
1 red onion, finely chopped
12-15 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 ribs celery, finely diced
1/2 tablespoon of each dried herb – thyme, parsley, rosemary, and oregano

2016-02-28 15.21.01_resized

25 baby carrots, sliced lengthwise in half

2016-02-28 15.24.13_resized
1/2 cup sliced green olives (or black if that’s your preference. I like the green for color.)
2 packets sliced mushrooms. I used sliced white, but bellas are also good.
2 bell peppers of any color, thinly sliced.
3/4 cup of capers, drained but not rinsed
10-12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (yes, I know purists say to brown the chicken skin for flavor, but I find it makes the dish way too greasy)
2 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes, including juice
1 1/2 cups red wine. I used Ruffino Chianti, but any red or drinkable white will do.
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 tomato bouillon cube
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup of flour

Method

Heat the oven to 325 F.

Add olive oil and butter to a large, heavy-bottomed pot that can go in the oven safely. I used my treasured red cast-iron enamel 5-quart pot that I can barely lift, but for this dish, I made the sacrifice. Oh my arms.

Finely dice your onion, garlic and celery, and add to the melted oil/butter. Add in your dried herbs and stir until the scent of the onion and herbs wafts up and tickles your nose. Add in your sliced baby carrots, sliced peppers, and mushrooms, and saute for about 10 minutes on medium low.2016-02-28 15.24.38_resized

At this point, season your chicken thighs with salt and pepper, and add to the pot full of vegetables, letting the chicken brown a little bit. Pour over your two cans of crushed tomatoes, the wine and the chicken broth, and stir again to combine and mix well. Make sure your chicken is completely covered by the winey/brothy/tomatoey liquid.

2016-02-28 15.19.43_resized

Add the capers and olives and the two bouillon cubes, stir again for luck, cross your fingers and put the entire heavy-ass pot into the oven, to cook low and slow for 3 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more wine if needed.

2016-02-28 15.10.51_resized_1

At about 3 hours into cooking, remove about a cup of the divine-smelling juice from the pot, add to a small saucepan, slowly sift in about a half-cup of flour, and create a beautiful ruby-colored roux that will help thicken the cacciatore sauce and add to the already-heavenly tasting flavors. Stir the roux into the pot, combining with the chicken, tomatoes and all the other goodies. Cover and return to the oven for another hour or two. Long and slow is the way to go with this dish. The chicken thighs can be cooked over a long period of time and never get dry or stringy, which is why I only use thigh meat in cooking.

Breathe a sigh of relief that the lifting phase is done for now, and pour a glass of wine to celebrate the fact that you CAN lift something heavy without help! Woo hoo!

At the 4.5 hour mark, turn the oven off and leave the dish in the oven for about 20 minutes, to slowly cool off. Remove from the oven, take off the lid, give yourself a pat on the back for making something so delicious and such a part of tradition, history and culture, and eat!

20160228_171713_resized

Bellissima!

Edge of Glass by Catherine Gaskin

Catherine Gaskin’s novels could be considered romantic in the classical sense of what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “truth of the human heart.” The trappings of this book Edge of Glass are the usual: girl meets boy, girl meets other boy, girl has to choose between the two suitors, girl finds out about a secret family legacy and inheritance in a foreign country, girl is beautiful, etc. It’s HOW Gaskin writes from her character Maura’s viewpoint that sets it apart. Maura is a model in late 1960s London, the era of Twiggy, white lipstick and go-go boots, when little was expected of women other than to be decorative and have no extreme emotions. She’s not a typical model, though. Maura lives very much inside her own mind and heart, is somewhat alienated from the fast-moving city and society around her, dislikes the trappings of modeling more than she lets on, and is in search of much more than a house in the suburbs, marriage and babies, even when offered by the golden boy who looks so great on paper.

20160220_173739-1-1_resized

Gaskin writes wonderfully well about alienation and wanting more than what society expects, but her great gift is in how she writes about Ireland. This beautiful country has a long and complex history, stunning landscapes, and a complex citizenry who have broken their hearts and backs over hundreds of years to carve out a life for themselves amid never-ending war and violence, and though this book is rather dated in some respects, Gaskin’s love for Ireland is still as timely today as it was when this book came out nearly 50 years ago.

20160220_174734-1_resized

Maura’s mother has just died and she is at a crossroads in her life when the mysterious and handsome Brendan comes into her mother’s antique shop one day, purposely breaks a glass, and sets her off onto an adventure in the heart of Ireland, where she meets another handsome, mysterious Irishman named Connor, her estranged grandmother Lady Maude, a real old battle-ax of a matriarch, and Otto Praeger, a German millionaire whose dead daughter Maura strongly resembles and whom he tries to take under his wing. The book details some fascinating information about glassmaking as well, and gave me a new appreciation of a very old art form. At its heart though, this book is a love story – a love story about glassmaking, a love story about, and to, Ireland; and most of all, a love story about two alienated people who find completion in the others solitude.

20160220_175201_resized

It would be the most wonderful thing, I think, to find that partner who GETS your need for solitude and who understands when you feel alienated and outside of everything, and who is there with you in solitude and solicitousness. Someday, I hope………

And when these two literary lovers bond over a simple, homemade meal of poached salmon and shrimp in white wine, fruit and cheese, both of their lives are changed.

He had opened the small refrigerator and squatted to survey its contents. “There’s the easy stuff – eggs.” “Not eggs,” I said quickly. “Well then……..there’s sole, fresh off the quay at Cloncath today. And Dublin Bay prawns. You know the rivers and lakes of Ireland, and the seas around it teem with the best fish you’ve ever put into your mouth, and the Irish won’t eat it except as penance on Fridays….”

20160220_175712_resized(1)

Sounds pretty marvelous for fish, doesn’t it? Not to mention Ireland waterways. Anyway, this is the method that worked for me, taken in part from the great food blog website http://www.macheesmo.com, but with my own tweaks. The link to the recipe is here.

Ingredients

1 cup cup dry white wine. I used Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, and drank the rest of the bottle while cooking. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.
1 cup seafood stock
Bunch of parsley, finely chopped
1 lemon, cut into eighths
1 shallot, chopped into fairly small pieces. But don’t go measuring. Give yourself a break and drink some more wine.
4-5 fillets of sole
1/2 cup lemon juice
Bunch of kale, de-stemmed
Olive oil
Spoonful of fish poaching liquid
Splash of white wine
20160220_172138_resized
1 cup raw prawns or shrimp, whatever you can find. Being in New Mexico, we are not known for having access to exotic seafood. In fact, the catfish is considered exotic fish here. Meow! But I digress.

20160220_172150_resized
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Method

In a large saucepan, combine the wine, seafood stock, parsley, lemon wedges, and shallot pieces, and bring to a gentle boil.

20160220_170654_resized

Add in the shrimp and cook until pink, about 45 seconds because the stock is so hot. Remove, and add in the sole fillets. Again, only cook briefly, about 1-2 minutes because the heat of the poaching liquid will cook them to rags if you’re not careful. In fact, my sole did get a bit raggedy, but we won’t tell anyone, will we?

20160220_174753_resized

Remove the fish and shrimp to a plate to cool, then add a bit more olive oil, a bit of seafood stock, a bit of white wine, lemon juice, and some fresh kale and saute/steam until bright green and shiny, but still with some crunch.

20160220_174914_resized

While the kale is cooking, add capers, butter and lemon juice to a microwave-safe cup and melt in the microwave or over a burner. Stir together so that you have a simple but delicious sauce.

When the kale is sauteed to the point you want it, plate your fish and shrimp, add the gorgeous green kale, and spoon over the sauce.

20160220_175915_resized

Serve and inhale. Soooooo good, so healthy-tasting, and so evocative of the Emerald Coast!

20160220_173752-1_resized.jpg

Erin Go Bragh!

Madeleine’s Ghost by Robert Girardi

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. My sister even comments when I tell her I’m reading it again, and she never comments on my books. “What? Madeleine’s Ghost AGAIN? Haven’t you read it like a billion times?” Not quite.

I just love this novel. It hits me in the heart every time, and reminds me that the world we live in is full of infinite mystery and ultimately, love. I relate very well to the main character, having spent 10 years of my life pining for and loving someone whom I have not been able to forget. That love has colored my life forever. It’s possible to love someone always, even if they aren’t with you or even when they are not the best person for you, to realize that their presence in your soul is permanent, and that, in many ways, they’ve helped to make you the person you are today. That’s certainly true for me.20160206_161547_resized

Part of why I love this book is that most of it is set in New Orleans, one of my absolute favorite cities in the world, and particularly appropriate now. The main character, Ned, spends his formative early 20s there at Loyola, and falls in love with Antoinette, a wealthy Creole whose family has the proverbial Garden District mansion. The path to true love never runs smoothly, though, and theirs is no exception. Ned moves away to New York City, where he tries to start over with new friends, a new job, and a new apartment – one that happens to be haunted by a ghost. But there is another spirit waiting to communicate with Ned, and his life is soon taken over with finding out who these apparitions truly are.

20160206_205048_resized.jpg

The book is filled with some of my favorite things: forbidden love, the New Orleans French Quarter, ghostly apparitions, and delicious descriptions of food. Oysters eaten raw, sucking the heads of crawdads, a Sunday barbecue of marinated chicken, a pre-seance meal of broccoli and mussel salad, lemongrass soup and Chicken Jakarta, a weekday afternoon sipping Abita beer, and of course, drinking in the French Quarter. One of my favorite scenes is the excellent passage when Antoinette takes Ned to a French Quarter bar and he drinks a made-from-scratch Sazerac cocktail for the first time. And what’s a book set in New Orleans without at least one French Quarter drinking scene?New-Orleans-Bourbon-St-H

“When Henri brought the drinks, I tasted the Sazerac and it ran like fire down my throat. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘this is one hell of a drink.’ He smiled, pleased, and went away. ‘Henri used to be head bartender here till they figured he got too old,’ Antoinette said. ‘But he’s one of the few can still make a Sazerac from scratch. You know, absinthe, bourbon, sweet vermouth, sugar, bitters. The secret is you take the absinthe, swirl it around the glass,and throw it out, then add the other stuff. That’s the secret. Of course, you can’t get absinthe anymore. Pernod’s a decent substitute.”

In honor of Mardi Gras, coming up on Tuesday, I decided to try my hand at reproducing the Sazerac cocktail as described in this Big Easy-flavored novel. Cocktail experts, mixologists, historians and purists all have a variation of this recipe. Some use rye whiskey, some use cognac, some use a combination of those liquors, some use bourbon. I like the sweeter tang of Kentucky bourbon, so that’s what I used. If you don’t like anise, you probably won’t like this drink as the Pernod flavor does come through. It pains me to admit, but I really didn’t like this cocktail. I’m glad I made it, but I wouldn’t drink it again, at least, not in this iteration. Maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough? Maybe I should have used rye whiskey?

This is the method that worked for me. I also, of course, had to cook something New Orleans in mood and flavor to soak up the booze, so take a gander at my shrimp Creole (recipe found here) IMG_20160206_204320_resized

and miniature King cakes, complete with babies and fleurs-de-lys. No beads, though.

IMG_20160206_210112_resized

20160206_161528_resized

 

Ingredients

1 highball glass, chilled if possible
Absinthe or Pernod (I used Pernod here.)
Rye whiskey, bourbon or cognac of your choice. I used Maker’s Mark, and yes, I know the purists would sneer. But bourbon is what is mentioned in the book, so in the spirit of following it, I used Maker’s Mark.
4-5 dashes Peychauds Bitters
Teaspoon full of sugar, dissolved in a teensy bit of water.
Lemon peel

Method

Pour a shot of Pernod into your highball glass and swirl it around. Empty it but don’t rinse the glass. You want that hint of perfumed anise.

20160206_161400_resized

Add about two shots of bourbon, your melted sugar, your bitters, and ice into a separate glass. 20160206_161537_resized

Stir gently, and strain into your highball glass. DON’T shake the cocktail, as this will make it cloudy.

20160206_161820_resizedTake a slice of lemon peel and rub it around the rim of the highball glass, then twist it so that the lemon oils are released into the glass.

20160206_161916_resized

Take a whiff and pretend you’re walking down Bourbon Street being offered beads. Then, sip it while you turn your attention to decorating your miniature king cakes, cooking shrimp Creole and contemplating life in The Big Easy.

20160206_204857_resized

But beware. This drink will knock you on your ass but quick.