Don’t Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier

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Having had a long-time love affair with the books of Daphne DuMaurier, I was especially pleased to find a compilation of stories that included Don’t Look Now. The story, set in Venice, which is my favorite city on earth, combines creepy supernatural elements with the gorgeous backdrop of Venezia.

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The basic story is a couple, John and Laura, whose daughter has recently died, and who are visiting Venice in the hopes of coming to terms with her death. They encounter two odd old ladies – sisters and twins – who claim to be psychic and in contact with the dead daughter, and begin to have the strangest interactions with them. Cue the haunted house music here. John starts seeing a ghostly little girl in a red coat running around canals and over bridges, and at the same time, hears of gruesome murders happening in Venice. One afternoon, he follows this little girl, sensing something odd about her and also in the thrall of the supposed visions of his dead daughter. You’ll need to read the book to find out what happens next.

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If you’ve ever visited Venice and seen it in both rainy weather and with the sun shining, you’ll understand that it seems two different cities. Venice in sunshine is beautiful, golds and pinks with the water reflections bouncing off the walls of the buildings that line the canals, and even the tourist chatter doesn’t detract from its charm. Seen with rain as the backdrop, it is a dark, haunted city with dead end corners, frighteningly loud echoes of footsteps in portegos, foggy lights reflected from the ornate lampposts around Piazza San Marco, and a pervasive sense of menace. I can tell you that if I was in Venice on a rainy, foggy day and saw some little girl running around like a haunt, hell no would I follow her.

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But I don’t like kids anyway.

Campari and soda, and scampi, are mentioned in a pivotal scene when John and Laura again meet the old ladies in a restaurant, so you get two recipes for the price of one in this week’s post! Lucky you!

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I love to make scampi, and usually throw in a handful of sliced grape tomatoes in mine, for color and because tomato and shrimp have such a natural affinity for each other. Having recently discovered the joys of the green tomatillo and having had several on hand, I decided to make a variation of scampi with tomatillos. I know tomatillos are not traditionally Venetian, being much more used in Latin American recipes, but just think of it as my contribution to multiculturalism.

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INGREDIENTS

For the tomatillo scampi (adapted from this version at Simply Recipes, one of the BEST food blog sites out there)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, finely diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 jalapeno pepper, deseeded and finely chopped, or 1 heaping tablespoon of red chile flakes

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Sea salt
6-7 tomatillos, husked, seeded and quartered
1 lb. raw shrimp, shells on.
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup of clam juice or seafood stock. Either is fine.
1 tomato bouillon cube
Good squeeze of fresh lemon juice (about half a lemon), or 3 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice
Optional: 1 cup crumbled feta cheese or Cotija cheese. (I am told by my Italian friends that cheese is not eaten with shellfish or seafood, and were I cooking in Venice, I would leave it out, but half the fun is experimenting with flavors, so I did. Send the hate mail later.)

Saute the onion, garlic and minced jalapeno pepper in the olive oil and butter, for about 10 minutes. Add a sprinkle of sea salt. Add the tomatillos, give a good stir to mix, and cook over medium-low heat for another 10-15 minutes. Don’t let them cook too long and go mushy.

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Add the wine and the clam juice, let simmer and reduce it to about half the original liquid volume.

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Now add the tomato bouillon. Stir to mix and cook another 5 minutes. Toss in the raw shrimp and lemon juice, and cook over low heat, until the shrimp turn pink and look plump and luscious. If you so choose, add your cheese here and allow the cooking heat to melt it slightly before serving, but if you do add cheese, make sure your liquid has reduced significantly, or this will be runny. If you omit the cheese, serve over rice or linguine pasta.

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Having tried Campari to see if it’s really as bitter as famously claimed, guess what! It’s bitter! But the color reminded me of Italian spritzers I drank with my friend Kate in Venice at a cafe on the Fondamenta Nuova, overlooking the lagoon and San Michele, so I tinkered around with the Campari, some gin, some lemon and a few other things, and came up with what I will call a Vanessa cocktail.

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For the Vanessa cocktail – makes two generous drinks so feel free to adjust ratios as needed
1 part Campari
1 part gin
1 part limoncello or fresh lemon juice
1 part Cointreau
1 part cranberry juice
Ice
Lemon rind twists for garnish

Add all the ingredients, except the lemon rind, into a shaker, with ice. Shake well to mix. Pour into chilled glasses and garnish with the lemon rind twists. Admire the color…….kind of like the red coat on the ghostly kid running around Venice, wouldn’t you say? Knock it back with a smile or a shudder, but don’t look now.

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“All right, thought John savagely, then I will get sloshed, and he proceeded to down his Campari and soda and order another, while he pointed out something quite unintelligible on the menu as his own choice, but remembered scampi for Laura. ‘And a bottle of soave,’ he added, ‘with ice.’ “

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Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

No doubt many people saw the mediocre movie made from this book  Corelli’s Mandolin,  beautifully filmed but as usual, not nearly as compelling as the book, which is written in lively, colorful prose from the viewpoint of several unique characters. These unique individuals include the main female character Pellagia, a traditionally raised Greek daughter who dutifully cooks for her father and becomes engaged to the local stud but then flips convention on its head with her later choices; Dr.Iannis, her father, who has his head in the clouds, who cures wild animals as well as human beings and whose inner monologues kept me vastly amused and entertained; and of course, the titular character himself, Captain Antonio Corelli. It was a wonderful read, but also very depressing and sad…..kind of like life itself.  Set on the gorgeous island of Cephallonia during World War II, the heartbreak of war is brought vividly to life in this place that has remained timeless until now. I suppose it goes to show that the horror of war leaves no place and no one untouched.

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Being set in Greece, of course the food depictions are luscious, with descriptions of wonderful octopus, mezedakia, which are little finger-type foods served like appetizers, dolmades, spinach pies in miniature, and my favorite, the passage below, set during the feast of the local saint, St. Gerasimos.

“Outside, the pilgrims unloaded animals laden with feta, melons, cooked fowl, and Cephallonian meat pie, shared it with their neighbours and composed epigrammatic couplets at each other’s expense.”

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How can you not love a book that uses the word “epigrammatic” in the same sentence as such a delectable food passage?

Kreatopita is the traditional meat pie eaten on Cephallonia, and can contain ground beef, feta cheese, onions, oregano and assorted other ingredients such as potatoes, rice, garlic, or tomatoes. The idea, I gather, is that each Greek cook has their own individual version of this recipe, and that is what true home cooking is all about. Having the skills to cook something and add tweaks or twists that make it truly your own, and which is part of the joy of this blog for me. It’s the ultimate in creativity, and I did it again here with the Cephallonian meat pie, using a base recipe from the marvelous blog site Lemon and Olives, with some added tweaks of my own.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

16-20 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed and covered with damp towel
1 cup melted butter
1 lb. good-quality ground beef, preferably organic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Fresh oregano, fresh mint and fresh dill – use dried if fresh are not available but use less
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup of good, drinkable red wine.
1 cup of crumbled feta cheese
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 1/2 cups of frozen green peas

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METHOD

Preheat the oven to 365F. In a skillet under a medium burner, add the olive oil and saute the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, adding a bit of sea salt for flavoring and to keep the onion from burning. Add the ground beef to the onions and garlic in the pan, and brown for about 10-15 minutes, stirring to break up the meat.

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Chop the equivalent of a 1/2 cup each of the fresh oregano, mint and dill. In another bowl, crumble up the feta cheese with your hands, and add the fresh herbs to this mixture. Fresh herbs really allow the flavors to come through, so if you use dried, use 1/2 tablespoon of each. Stir to mix and let the flavors mix together while you attend to the still-cooking meat.

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Add the tomato paste and the wine and the beef and stir again. Lower the heat  to medium low and let the red wine reduce, stirring occasionally. Add in the peas and stir again, so that the heat of the skillet will help them defrost. The scent of the meat, the wine, the peas and the herbs will rise up and hit your nasal passages like a dream. Delicious!

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You want the liquid reduced to nothing, so as not to make the phyllo dough soggy, so once the liquid is all gone, remove the meat mixture from the heat and let it cool for about 10-15 minutes. Once cooled, add the crumbled feta and herb mixture, mix well, and leave while you prepare the phyllo dough pie base.

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In whatever type of baking pan you have – I used a buttered disposable baking pan – lay one sheet of phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Lay another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter again. Continue in this vein until you have 8-10 sheets of phyllo layered on top of each other, each layer covered with butter. You need to do this fairly quickly, as the phyllo dough dries out easily. If you cover the dough sheets with a damp towel, this should help, but don’t take too long at this stage.

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On this buttery surface, add your meat-feta-pea mixture and spread everything out so that it evenly covers the dough. Add another sheet of phyllo dough on top of the meat mixture, brush with butter, and repeat until you have a topping of 8 more phyllo sheets to cover the meat.

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Poke a few holes in the top of the dough and pop that bad boy into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll be able to smell everything baking and your mouth will probably water so much that you’ll need a swig of wine to help.

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Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and eat with joy in your heart! Opa!

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

The premise of this novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, is that books are medicine for the heart and the soul. I love that idea and believe it’s true.

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Books have been my constant companion since childhood, my comfort when sad, and my solace when all hope seemed lost. I remember my grandmother, Nana Jean, reading to me when I was perhaps three or four years old, and she skipped a few sentences and I immediately told her “Nana, that’s not how it goes!” My mother, in the rare instances that I was disciplined for being bad, had no other alternative but to ground me from reading. I didn’t care about anything else, just my books. And how little has changed.

(Yup, that’s me, with a book and our dog, Brownie……and horrible slippers!)221283_10150177679678370_742137_o

The main character, Jean Perdu, has spent years of his life mourning the loss of his married lover, Manon, who wrote him a letter when she left him. He only opens it 20 years later, and its contents spur him into an adventure along the country waterways of France in the large houseboat that is also his book apothecary. It’s a beautiful book that pays homage to grief and letting go of a love long since gone, another theme that has been strong in my life. I spent years loving a man who wasn’t able to love me back in the way that I needed, and though it was the hardest thing I ever did, letting him go and moving forward with my life has reaped many rewards and joys. This book gives us hope that we can still love someone, and yet be able to move on and find new life, new love and new happiness. Reading this book was indeed like medicine for my soul, and reminded me that we can be healed spiritually by the simple joys like delicious food and wonderful books.

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The impetus for Jean’s opening of the letter is when he meets Catherine, a similarly grieving woman, for whom he develops a deep friendship that becomes love. They get to know one another while cooking a simple, yet lovely meal of fish poached in cream and white wine, served with new potatoes roasted in garlic and rosemary, pears and cheese, and some beautiful French wine, a combination so quintessentially French that I was inspired.

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“Catherine had inspected his red mullets, the fresh herbs and the cream from broad-beamed Normandy cows, then held up her small new potatoes and cheese, and gestured to the fragrant pears and to the wine. ‘Can we do something with this lot?’ ‘Yes. But one after the other, not together,’ he said…………Soon the windowpanes had misted up; the gas flames were hissing under the pots and pans; the white wine, shallot and cream sauce was simmering; and in a heavy pan the olive oil was browning potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and salt.”

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Red mullet is nearly impossible to find in landlocked New Mexico, so my friendly fishmonger Ryan at Nantucket Shoals recommended tilapia. So I did. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from Ben O’Donogue of the BBC Saturday Kitchen, with some tasty little twists of my own.

INGREDIENTS

1 finely diced shallot
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Drizzle of olive oil (drizzle being the technical term)
6-7 tilapia fillets
1 cup of good, drinkable white wine. I used Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
1 cup of heavy cream
3-4 fresh bay leaves
About a handful of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley – my flavoring twist
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of capers – another added twist
Finely chopped almonds
6-7 new or little red potatoes, sliced thinly
1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this one!)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely minced

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METHOD

In a large cast-iron or other metal pan, add the drizzle of olive oil and saute the shallots, adding a sprinkle of sea salt to release their moisture and keep them from burning. Saute for about five minutes, until translucent, then add the white wine and the heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper, then add the parsley and bay leaves.

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Stir to mix and let come to a gentle simmer, but keep stirring it so it doesn’t curdle. Lower in the tilapia fillets and cook for about five-10 minutes, or until the fish turns opaque.  You want to make certain the liquid completely covers the fish fillet. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t overcook or undercook. Because, you know, who wants raw fish? This ain’t a sushi blog!

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In a large bowl, add the remaining olive oil, the potato slices, the minced garlic, the rosemary bits, and some sea salt. Mix together with your hands so that everything is nicely coated and harmoniously glistening with oil. Get out a skillet and toss the rosemary-garlic-flecked potatoes into it. Cook over medium-low heat, letting the potatoes dry out and brown, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes darken and crisp, and you can smell the wonderful, starchy scent mingling with the garlic and rosemary. It’s a perfume I would dab behind my ears if I could.

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Transfer the tilapia fillets to a plate with the potatoes, turn up the heat under the pan with the cream and wine, and bring it to a boil. Add a large tablespoon of capers to the liquid. Keep stirring it so that it reduces and thickens into a luscious, unctuously thick sauce. Like this!

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Turn off the heat, give a good last stir, and pour the sauce over the fish and spuds. Garnish with the almonds, which give wonderful crunch and look beautiful! Eat with the sounds of La Vie en Rose running through your imagination, or better yet, imagining you’re on board Jean Perdu’s floating bookshop. Heaven!

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“Books were my friends,” said Catherine……”I think I learned all my feelings from books. In them, I loved and laughed and found out more than in my whole nonreading life.”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

For MGC, who turned me on to Kentucky bourbon whiskey. Here’s to you, my dear.

I’ve often thought F. Scott was the man of my dreams, albeit 50 years too early. The man could write, loved to drink, was a party animal, and as handsome as any man I’ve ever seen. I mean, what else is there in life? I could totally have been his Zelda!

F Scott Fitzgerald
 

Fitzgerald is, in my humble opinion, the quintessential author of the Jazz Age, that gilded pre-war time of parties, sexual freedom, sparkly dresses and headbands bedecked with feathers, the “Charleston,” and sheer excess. Nowhere is this dazzling and dark era brought so beautifully to life than in The Great Gatsby. I had a crush on Jay Gatsby after reading this book in my older teens, and fed by watching Robert Redford play him to perfection in the original film. But as I get older and read this book over and over, I find myself increasingly……not disliking him……….but wanting to shake some sense into him. However, since I know what it’s like to carry a long-time torch for someone who’s not a part of my life, I can understand. Or perhaps I understand all too well and that’s why I want to slap some sense into J.G. – figuratively smack some sense into myself as well?

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I digress. One of the pivotal, and my favorite, scenes in the book is when Gatsby whisks his lover Daisy off to New York City to escape the heat, along with her horrendous husband Tom, her cousin Nick who is the de facto narrator of the book, and Tom’s quasi-girlfriend Jordan. They end up at the Plaza Hotel, drinking mint juleps and getting crazier in the heat, until tempers explode and truths are told that change everyone from that point forward.

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In honor of the Kentucky Derby, and my love for Jay Gatsby and this book, here is a lovely little recipe for that old Southern favorite, a mint julep. This method, which worked VERY well for me, serves one, so feel free to increase ratios as needed.

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INGREDIENTS

1 highball glass
1 spoonful of sugar
1 spoonful of water
7-8 fresh mint leaves

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Enough crushed ice to fill the highball glass
Bourbon whiskey of your choice. I love Marker’s Mark, so that’s what I used here.
Dash of nutmeg
Fresh mint leaves for garnish

METHOD

Add the sugar to your highball glass. Add the water to just dampen the sugar. Don’t souse it. This is about what you want.

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And know that this is truly for a bourbon whiskey lover, as the amount of sugar doesn’t really cut the liquor flavor. So use a bourbon you really like, or add more sugar and a bit more water.

Add in the mint leaves and muddle them a bit, if you have a cocktail mallet. If not, the back of a spoon should work. You want to release the oils in the mint. Add three or four more fresh mint sprigs to the sides of the glass.

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Put in the crushed ice to the top. You essentially don’t want there to be room for anything except bourbon. Did I mention this drink will knock you on your ass?

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Fill the glass with bourbon whiskey. It’s actually a very pretty color if held in sunlight. If this amount of bourbon freaks you out, use half that amount and add a bit of water. It won’t taste the same, but you also won’t find yourself lying on your kitchen floor drunkenly singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Not that that’s ever happened to me. I’m just saying it for YOUR sake.

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Add a small dash of nutmeg over the top, which takes this cocktail to another level flavorwise, and garnish with the remaining mint leaves.

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Sip and enjoy, preferably with a good friend while wearing a Derby-esque hat and watching the ponies.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

In honor of Cinco de Mayo and my adoration for this marvelous book Like Water for Chocolate, I decided to recreate the stuffed poblano peppers that Tita, the main character, makes for a wedding near the end of the book. This wonderful novel, which features a collection of recipes from turn-of-the-century Mexico, is also a sweet and tender love story, and also details the history, secrets, lies and loves of the De La Garza family.

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I loved this book as much for the cooking and luscious food descriptions as for the familiar family problems outlined. The bossy, mean matriarch of the family, her three daughters who play the traditional roles – for awhile, anyway – and the absent father. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of my own family dynamic growing up, and though we didn’t grow up on a farm near the Texas/Mexico border and thankfully, none of us girls were expected to take care of our mother as she got old and sick, there was still a painful dynamic at work in our coming-of-age. To this day, my mother’s relationship with her daughters is, at best, complex.

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Back to the book. It’s a compendium of marvelous recipes such as quail with rose petal sauce, Christmas rolls stuffed with delicious ground meat, and a few other interesting variants. But for me, my ultimate, favorite recipe in this book (and my favorite food in Mexican cuisine) is the stuffed pepper. This particular recipe is called chiles en nogada. Here in my home state of New Mexico, stuffed peppers are called chiles rellenos, and different kinds of chile peppers can be used, which you stuff with cheese, then lightly coat in batter and fry. What’s nice about this particular recipe is that it doesn’t call for frying and you really can play around with the stuffing and flavors. Roasting and steaming the peppers and removing their skins is time-consuming, so this is one of those things you make with an entire afternoon to while away and want to really enjoy the creative process of cooking.

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Traditionally, this recipe uses only poblano chiles, but I wanted to honor my New Mexico heritage, so I threw a couple of Hatch green chiles into the mix, and made a few additional tweaks, which I will detail below. Serve with icy-cold Mexican beer or, my personal preference, a nice, sipping shot of good-quality tequila, or indeed, with a nice deep red wine. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

4 poblano chiles
2 Hatch green chiles
3/4 lb of ground beef, preferably 90% lean
1 cup of walnuts, toasted in a dry, hot pan

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Salt
Half a finely diced red onion
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 cup blue cheese crumbles (my twist on flavoring)
1 cup Cotija cheese crumbles

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1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (use sparingly)
1 cup Mexican crema
1 cup pomegranate anils

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METHOD

Turn on the oven broiler. When super hot, rub olive oil on the six chile peppers, put them on a flat baking tray, and roast them about 10-15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes so the peppers blacken on all sides. Remove from the oven and seal in an airtight plastic bag, and cover with a warm, damp cloth. The steam will further cook the peppers and make the skins easier to peel (in theory.)

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While the peppers are roasting and cooling, cook the ground beef, seasoning with salt, a bit of black pepper and a bit of cinnamon. When cooked through, remove to a plate and cook the onions and the garlic with a bit more salt until soft and translucent. Add the cooked ground beef to the onions and stir to mix again. Let cool slightly, then add the blue cheese crumbles and the Cotija crumbles to the meat-onion mixture. Add a large tablespoon of the toasted walnuts to the mixture, and stir so that everything is well mixed.

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Take the cooked, skinned peppers and make a slit down the middle. Rub some oil, grapeseed or olive, onto your hands like you’re putting on hand lotion. This will keep the seeds from burning your hands as you remove the stem and seeds from the chiles. Rinse and let dry.

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Put the Mexican crema, half the toasted walnuts, the rest of the blue cheese, a spoonful of the Cotija cheese, salt, pepper and another small bit of cinnamon, into a blender and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce.

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Fill the roasted, peeled chiles with the meat-onion-walnut-cheese mixture. Cover with the velvety white cream sauce, and garnish with pomegranates and the rest of the toasted walnuts. They are truly delicious, very subtle flavoring from the cinnamon which lightly offsets the tangy cheese and heat of the chiles.

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Not to mention they are simply gorgeous to behold!

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“The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious – never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them. The platters of chiles proudly wore the colors of the flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, and the red of the pomegranates.”

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