The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

One of the most fun things about this blog is the opportunity to not just read new books, but also to try new food combinations. Challenging myself to step outside of my usual culinary and literary tastes has resulted in some wonderful meals, and given me the knowledge that I can probably accomplish anything I put my mind too, cookingwise.

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This book, The Mistress of Spices, caught my eye at an estate sale in my neighborhood. There was a tableful of books for sale, and a tableful of jewelry……….and was I torn! Sparkly things! Pages of words yet undiscovered! Who can choose? Not me, so I bought four books and two necklaces for a grand total of $5.00. Best money ever spent.

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Apart from falling in love with the chapter titles, each of which was named after a different spice, e.g., Turmeric, Fenugreek, Neem, Sesame, and so on, this book hooked me with its resemblance to both Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate, tying together the premises of food as medicine, and food – spices, in this case – as the key to opening up the heart. The heroine, an Indian woman named Tilo who is in the guise of an elderly crone, is actually an ancient “Mistress of Spices,” which is a type of genie who unlocks peoples hidden wants and desires with her clever applications of spices.

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Her identity is hidden to keep her magical self hidden from the world, especially those who would steal her talents. Her expertise with the spices also makes her a bit of a magician in the kitchen, affecting people and their emotions through her cooking and food. I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Food is medicine for the body and the soul, and that’s why I’m drawn to certain books that depict the alchemy of food and cooking and their effect upon people. When you cook for people, when you nourish their bodies with what you have created, you are also nourishing their souls.

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“But here is another image. A woman in a kitchen, cooking my rice. She is fragrant as the grains she rolls between her fingers to see if they are done. Rice steam has softened her skin, has loosened hair tied back taut all day……..Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to ring patience and hope.”

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Isn’t that just lovely to read and visualize?

Cooking is many things – alchemy, love, magic – and in this book, the spices add to the food a hint of immortality. Which is as it should be, since all things in this world are alchemized into something else, love is eternal, and magic is what happens each day when we wake up and embrace life one more time. This book epitomizes all of those things, and more.

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I don’t care for white rice much these days, finding it tasteless and bland. But I recently discovered the joys of cauliflower rice, and loving the many varieties of Indian curry, I decided to create a chicken curry garnished with cashew and cilantro, and some delicious cauliflower rice to go with, adapted from the this marvelous website.

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This is the method that worked for me.

For the cauliflower rice:
1 large head of cauliflower, any color you want.
Salt and pepper
1 large scallion, finely chopped.
1 tablespoon garlic oil
1 tablespoon clarified butter (left from this post I made two weeks back)

For the curry:
1 tablespoons garlic oil, divided
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

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1 large scallion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons curry paste, any color. I used green here.
1/2 cup of coconut milk
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 cup of chicken stock
1 chicken stock cube
3-4 dashes of fish sauce (nam pla) – a trick I learned from Nigella Lawson
1-2 tablespoons of lime juice or to taste
Handful of cashews, ground in a food processor

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Wash the cauliflower and break into florets. Either grate with a cheese grater, or pulse in a food processor, until the cauliflower breaks down into small, rice-like bits.

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In a large saucepan, add 1 tablespoon of garlic oil, a tablespoon of the clarified butter (though if you don’t have it, use regular butter), the cauliflower bits and one of the chopped red scallions. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, and saute for about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Using the same saucepan, add the other tablespoon of garlic oil, the other chopped red scallion, and saute until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the turmeric and the garam masala, and stir again.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs, the curry paste, the coconut milk and a handful of chopped cilantro leaves. Stir again to mix well and let the chicken pieces brown and cook for about 6-7 minutes.

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Add the chicken stock, the two stock cubes and the fish sauce. Cover with a lid and let simmer for about 30 minutes. After about a half-hour of cooking,  remove the lid and admire the lovely, bubbling greeny-gold color of the curry. Add in the lime juice, and let simmer without a lid for about 5 minutes more, to thicken slightly. Add in the cashews, stir and simmer another few minutes. I warn you, it smells like citrusy heaven!

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Put the cauliflower rice onto a plate, dollop over a good, thick, unctuous, delicious ladleful of the curry, and garnish with more cilantro, if you like. It’s a delicious dish, rich from the ground nuts and subtly flavored, spicy with the garam masala, and tangy from the lime. The cauliflower rice is surprisingly delicious, filling and has a flavor of its own but does not interfere with the curry. It’s a lovely substitute if you’re looking to omit carbs, and it’s even easier than cooking rice!

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“A warning to readers: the spices in this book should be taken only under the supervision of a qualified Mistress.”

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The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Dedicated to my father, David Baca.

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Oh, Hannibal Lecter! Probably one of my most favorite literary characters of all time, and definitely someone that all of us can relate to, on some level, anyway. Witty, cultured, and lives by his own standards of conduct, he kills those who offend him, offend his aesthetics, offend his worldview, or who are just plain rude. Can you imagine how long his list of potential victims was, using that criteria? Mine certainly is.

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I read The Silence of the Lambs the summer after I graduated high school, and it fascinated me. I was never terrified, never freaked out, though a couple of scenes did gross me out. I think most of us remember the movie much better, and it was a very faithful interpretation of the book, omitting only the storyline involving Jack Crawford’s wife but staying true to the characters. I will admit, shamefacedly, that when I saw the movie, the scene toward the end when Clarice Starling is being stalked in the pitch-black basement did scare the holy hell out of me and I ended up begging my grandmother to let me sleep with her that night.

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In the book, Dr. Lecter ends his first (thought not last) visit with Clarice by telling her “A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, little Starling.” No, not Chianti, as the film version iconically goes, but Amarone. Luckily, I am blessed with friends that have great connections in the liquor world and was able to get my hot little paws on two – count ’em – TWO marvelous bottles of Amarone. ‘Cause they ain’t cheap.


I didn’t realize that this post would fall on Father’s Day, and in rereading the book, I was reminded how poignant Clarice’s memories of her father were, and how his influence truly colored her world view, her career choices and her interactions with people, much like my own father who died when I was quite young. I often think of how my life might be different if he had lived and been part of my adult life. Though I’m sure it would have been quite different, I like to think my cooking instincts would have still come out and I can visualize having him over for a home-cooked meal for Father’s Day. I miss him terribly some days, and today is one of those days.

The madman, Jake, who got me the Amarone for free!

Anyway, back to the food. Liver. Fava beans. I pondered this food combo and one night of insomnia gave me the inspiration I needed. I’ve never been into organ meat until I tried chicken livers a few years ago, cooked as they were in a sauce of butter, white wine and Vidalia onions. Yummy! I like fresh fava beans too, though their flavor is somewhat bland and takes on the tastes of whatever herbs and spices are mixed in. So I decided to try a different twist, and create a chicken liver crostini with garlic, shallots, lemon, port, and fava beans, in honor of our favorite psychiatrist. The result -nothing short of delicious! Paired with a good, strong red Amarone, and spread on some crostini toasts, it’s a feast fit for a cannibal!

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This is the method that worked for me.

1 cup of milk
1 tablespoon of butter
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 pound of chicken livers, trimmed of all the thin, white connective tissues
2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small pieces

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6 cloves of garlic, finely diced
2 shallots, finely diced
1 pound of fava beans, steamed and shelled
1/2 cup of port or brandy. I used a splosh of ruby Zinfandel Port.
Juice of 1 lemon
Fresh sage leaves

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Soak the rinsed, trimmed chicken livers in a cup of milk for up to two hours in the refrigerator. I’ve heard various takes on doing this, but apparently the soaking gives the livers a silky texture and minimizes some of that gamey flavor that organ meat can have.


Drain and pat dry the chicken livers. Throw away the milk they were soaking in, and heat the butter and in a large skillet over high heat, and cook the chicken livers gently, no more than 3 minutes, turning once to ensure even cooking. If they are still a bit bloody, cook a bit longer. Remove from the heat and then add the bacon pieces to the pan. Cook until crisp, and remove onto a plate.

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Add the fava beans and 6-7 fresh sage leaves to the oils in the pan and give them a quick, 10-minute saute, as well. Remove.

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Add the chopped garlic and shallot to the bacony oil in the pan and saute for about 10 minutes. Toss in the port, stir and let simmer for about 10 minutes, long enough for the alcohol to burn off.

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In a food processor, finely mash the sauteed fava beans and the sage leaves, along with the chicken livers, the bacon, and the shallot-garlic mixture. You want a thick puree, but if you prefer a more smooth texture, process for longer. Taste for seasoning and add the lemon juice to flavor and also, to thin the mixture a bit.

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Chill in the refrigerator for up to an hour, before spreading onto crostini. It’s quite a rich puree, and so a little goes a long way. Eat and enjoy, and if your father is still here, hug him tight. If he’s not, like mine, toast him wherever he is. Or toast Dr. Lecter. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.

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“He (Crawford) went to his office door. She was going away from him, down the deserted hall. He managed to hail her from his berg of grief. ‘Starling, your father sees you.'”