Chocolat by Joanne Harris

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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The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12-15 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb rice noodles
2 cups fresh bean sprouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

Dedicated to my friend and constant cooking inspiration, Luca Marchiori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A dish fit for a Pope!