Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I never liked Death Comes for the Archbishop, probably because it was required reading when I was in the 6th grade. Anything forced is never something I want to do, even when it comes to reading. Isn’t it amazing, though, how different it can be when you go back and read something as an adult? I found depths of character and beauty in this book that were never apparent to my ignorant, youthful self.

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Though of course, reading as a grown-up, I also saw nuances and subtleties I didn’t clue into as a kid, such as the racism that is fairly inherent in the main characters. Well, since it was written before cultural sensitivity training, it makes sense. But there are passages that talk about the Mexican and Native American populations that made up such a large group of the  Father’s parishioners, and they are both called barbarians by a Spanish priest. So it’s quite timely for today, when there is so much racism against people of so many backgrounds, ethnicities, and faiths.

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The story is a fictionalized account of Bishop Lamy, a French Jesuit priest who came to New Mexico in the mid-1800s to help minister to the growing frontier population in northern New Mexico, and whose greatest accomplishment was building the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. In the book, the character’s name is Father Jean-Marie Latour, and he spends over 40 years in the Santa Fe region. He lives a rather lonely existence, though he makes great friends with other priests such as Father Martinez, who has a lovely singing baritone, and the Olivares. Mrs. Olivares, in particular, seems to garner much admiration from Father Latour, and if you read between the lines, she might be someone he’d have fallen in love with, if that were permissible to a Catholic priest.

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Though various dinners and feasts are sprinkled through the book, my favorite was this passage that details one of the stories told to Father Latour by one of his fellow priests, about Father Baltazar of Acoma Pueblo, who by all accounts, was a horrible tyrant and who took all the choicest fruits and vegetables of the Native Americans he was supposed to care for. (Though he did get his just desserts in the end…..hah!) Father Baltazar was an obese man who thought nothing of working the poor Acoma Indians as slaves to ensure he had the best food and service at his home.

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Friar Baltazar was one of the most ambitious and exacting. It was his belief that the pueblo of Acoma existed chiefly to support its fine church, and that this should be the pride of the Indians as it was his. He took the best of their corn and beans and squashes for his table, and selected the choicest portions when they slaughtered a sheep…………

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Squash and corn together make up a dish called calabacitas, which is truly food for the gods. I grew up eating this dish, as a side for enchiladas or tacos, and later on as an adult, in more creative New Mexican dishes like tamales. It’s pretty much one of the most divine dishes you can eat on this earth. But I’m not at all biased.

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A traditional New Mexico dish, the simplicity is enhanced by using fresh ingredients, like any other recipe. Fortunately, fresh zucchini squash is easy to find in the grocery story and at farmers markets. Fresh corn is a bit harder when not in season, so use good-quality corn kernels from a can. The only thing that is requisite for good calabacitas is green chile. You want a bite to offset the sweetness of the corn and the green crunch of the squash, but if you’re feeding wimpy types, leave it out. Just don’t bring them to my house, because I will turn them away sneeringly.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s recipe which I remember so well from childhood. I do add my own tweaks, in the form of chicken bouillon granules, red onion instead of white, and cheese, which melts so gooily and deliciously over the hot vegetables. But cheese is not required, so omit if you so desire.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 green squashes
2 large cans of corn, drained
1 large red onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon pollo de caldo chicken bouillon powder
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 cup roasted green chile, finely chopped
Optional – 1 cup grated sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

METHOD
In a large saucepan, melt the olive oil and butter together. This creates great flavor, and also keeps the butter from burning.

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Peel the onion and slice into thin half-moons. Remove the stem ends of the green squash, and cut into cubes.

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Drain and rinse the corn, and then peel and thinly slice the garlic cloves.

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Add the onions to the saucepan, and spoon in the chicken bouillon granules. Stir and cook about 10 minutes. Then toss in the garlic and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the squash, and season with salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat for another 10 minutes. You don’t want the squash soggy, so test the texture with a fork. Tender-crisp is what you want.

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Add the drained corn. Stir well to mix and cook another 10 minutes.

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This is where you will add the green chile. The smell is divine!

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Turn the heat to low, cover, and let cook for another 10 minutes, to heat through. Sprinkle over the cheese while still hot, so it melts and oozes nicely over the calabacitas.

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Serve as a side dish with enchiladas and rice, as a side for any other chicken dish, or just eat a huge bowl of it on its own. ¡Delicioso!

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This is one of those epic books that feature a cast of thousands, exotic locations that span the globe, stories within stories within stories…………and Count Dracula. I mean, how can it possibly get better than that?

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Being a former Goth girl, I still have a fondness for the darker side of things. Vampires, crucifixes, ghosts, vintage clothing and jewelry, steampunk-Romantic styles, and movies and books that feature such themes as death, spirits, things that go bump in the night and of course, passionate romance. Though I have to (somewhat) conform in my day-to-day life where I play a bureaucrat, my heart is always in the coffin with Count Dracula. Love, love, love Dracula and vampires in general.

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The Historian‘s premise is simple. It postulates that Dracula – Vlad Dracul – is not just a vampire in a book, but is actually alive and well and has been preying on people across centuries and throughout continents. A young scholar named Paul is given the charge to find Dracula when his graduate advisor and mentor, Professor Rossi, mysteriously disappears under ominous circumstances. Mixed up in this puzzle are antique, leather-bound books, each bearing the distinctive stamp of a dragon – Dracula means dragon in Romanian.

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Paul becomes enmeshed in both the search for the blood-drinking Count and with the lovely and stoic Helen, whose Eastern European lineage connects her with the Count in ways no one would imagine. Told from the viewpoint of Paul and Helen’s daughter – with a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca as her name is never revealed – the story has multiple levels, told in three different timepoints and told in the form of journal entries, letters, telegrams and book passages. It’s a book for book lovers, if you know what I mean.

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This is my ultimate type of book. Long, detailed, globe-trotting, with amazing descriptions of architecture, literature, love, and food from countries as diverse as Russia, France, Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and oh so many others! My favorite of all of them was when Paul takes his daughter to visit friends in Italy, and they are served an Italian torta, which is a flourless cake made with ground nuts in place of flour.

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Giulia lit a lantern on the sideboard, turning off the electric light. She brought the lantern to the table and began to cut up a torta I’d been trying not to stare at earlier. Its surface gleamed like obsidian under the knife.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous recipe at Proud Italian Cook’s awesome food blog, but of course with my usual tweaks. I used both hazelnuts and almonds, because I love the flavors together, I added some almond extract and some amaretto, and for more flavor, I toasted the nuts before grinding them in my food chopper. Nom nom nom!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup of ground hazelnuts and ground almonds, to make a nut flour
1 cup sugar
6 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or above
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heavy cream, whipped with sugar, amaretto and lemon
Hulled strawberries for decorating

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Lightly butter or oil an 8-inch cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Toast the hazelnuts and almonds in a dry pan until they darken and you can smell the nutty scent.

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Grind up the nuts in a food processor, so that you have a rubbly texture. The smell is out of this world!

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Break the chocolate into shards or chunks, and melt in a Pyrex bowl set over a pan of boiling water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally

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Add the butter to the melting chocolate, and add in the almond essence and the Amaretto.

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Separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites in your most awesome Kitchen Aid so that you get a cloudlike texture. If you wipe the inside of your Kitchen Aid bowl with lemon first, it really helps make the egg whites puff up.

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Whisk the egg yolks and add to the ground nuts. Add in the sugar.

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Mix the gooey, yummy, melted chocolate into the nut mixture.

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Fold the egg white mixture into the chocolate-nut mixture, using the figure-8 hand method. This method ensures air gets into the batter, making it even more light and fluffy and less apt to sink in the center, though it probably will sink. That’s just life. And cakes.

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Scrape the luscious batter into the cake pan, and bake for 18 minutes. Yes, I said 18 minutes, because that is apparently the timeframe used by the majority of the Italians I know, who make this cake regularly. I don’t ask questions of the experts, I just do what I am told.

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Allow the cake to cool for up to 1 hour before taking out of the cake pan. It likely will sink in the center as it cools, and you will just have to accept that, pick up the pieces of your shattered life, and move on.

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Serve the cake garnished with lemony whipped cream and strawberries. The cake’s richness needs an offset, and the citrus contrast in the cream is perfect with the nutty denseness. Plus it looks so pretty!

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It is a luscious cake, gooey and rich and almost melting in the center, but with the exterior forming almost a crust. Texture-wise, it’s like heaven. Flavorwise, it’s like heaven. Aesthetically, it’s like heaven.

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The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace

Not so much a novel as a dreamily connected series of 64 short vignettes, The Devil’s Larder tells of the many differing viewpoints about, from, on and against food in our culture. It’s a pretty twisted read in many ways, subversive against so many deeply held beliefs about food and nourishment and cooking in society. Some of the short stories are disturbing – cannibalistic, incestuous, sad, or just plain weird.

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The golden thread that runs seamlessly through all the tales is the luscious description of the various food. No matter how visceral the tale, it’s the food that is the centerpiece, pardon the pun. There are soup stones, manac beans, honey, blind-baked pies, razor clams, morels, kumquats, and aubergines. I warn you that many of the stories will probably turn your stomach, in that complex way that food sometimes tempts and disgusts us at the same time.

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There were three that stood out to me. The first was the tale of the young man whose grocery store card tells the story of his life – his type of shaving cream, his cat died because he no longer buys cat food, he has a proclivity for expensive beer and croissants, he hasn’t had sex in nearly two years because the condoms he bought back then are past their expiration date. This was trippy because I’ve never really thought about how our food habits are tracked by these cards – talk about Big Brother!

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The second tale was a disturbing story of a mother and 5-year old daughter who want to see if pasta really tastes the same through another’s mouth, so they proceed to eat food out of each other’s mouths. Disturbing, because it’s so matter of factly written, not overtly sexual or incestuous, but still viscerally creepy because the mother is completely all right with her daughter’s going past these boundaries. I certainly don’t look at pasta with pesto sauce quite the same now.

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The third tale, and the one that stood out to me the most was the vignette about a fondue party going wrong. The heroine, having used subpar ingredients in her fondue and serving it to her obviously unimpressed guests, suggests a game. If a bit of food is left in the fondue pot after a dip, the perpetrator must drizzle the scalding cheese onto a body part and choose one of the other guests to lick it off.

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The melted fondue was not as tasty as she’d hoped. Her seven friends were only playing with their long-handled forks. They pushed their cubes of bread inside the caquelon with hardly any appetite. She should have used a cooking cheese, or added chunks of blue, or paid the extra for some Gruyere or some Emmenthaler.

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I’m a cheese-aholic, and my grandmother used to call me a little mouse because cheese was my absolute favorite snack. In keeping with the spirit of this tale, I had a fondue party and invited some friends. No one dropped any cheese on anyone and licked it off, though. I promise. This is the method that worked for me, based on a gazillion classic fondue recipes.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb total of different cheeses. I used Camembert, Brie, Gruyere, and a few sprinkles of blue.
1 and 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

METHOD
Cut up the cheeses into cubes.2017-02-12-11-42-12_resized

Put into a saucepan over low heat. Add in 1 and 1/4 of the wine. Use something you’d drink.Mix together the cheeses and wine until you have a nice, thick, delicious, melty combination.

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Whisk together the cornstarch and the remaining 1/4 of the wine in a bowl. This will help thicken the cheese.

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Add the cornstarch/wine mixture to the melted cheese, stir again, and turn off the heat. Grate in the two garlic cloves, season with salt and pepper, and mix again. Cover the cheese while you prepare the fondue pot.

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Decant the cheese into a fondue pot over a Sterno can or spirit lamp and serve with whatever you’d like. I used cubed steak that was nicely cooked for a protein boost, and also because meat dipped in cheese is so damn good. I also used red radicchio, baby carrots, and endive leaves for dipping. So delicious! And you can lie to yourself that it’s healthy, because the vegetables offset the calories in the cheese. What, you didn’t know that?

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I would like to end this post with a little tribute to my sweet pug Sparky, who had a stroke early Thursday and who I had to put down on Friday. He was a darling baby, and brought such happiness to my life. Not to mention that he loved cheese, so he would have been particularly happy with this blog, as I’m sure I would have accidentally on purpose dropped some cheese on the floor for him. I miss him so much, my little furry baby.

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Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken by Monica Bhide

I have a thing for books that present food as medicine. Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate…..and now Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, are absolute favorites. Written by the acclaimed food writer turned novelist Monica Bhide, it extols the pleasures of friendship, giving back to those who have helped you, the power of love, and ultimately, the healing powers of cooking for those you love, and the pleasure of well-cooked food. Who couldn’t adore this book?

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The premise of this book is simple, and lovely. Set in present-day India, it tells the story of Eshaan, a young man who is raised by Buddhist monks. He has a heart that you could say is made of butter, so soft that it melts. Having nearly starved to death as a child before the kindly monks took him in after his mother’s tragic death, he one day has the idea to provide a hot meal to anyone in need. Given the vast population of New Delhi and the amount of poverty that exists in this city, to call Eshaan’s idea a momentous task is an understatement. But he starts his restaurant, and it is not quite what he envisions it. Of course, we all know that nothing ever quite turns out the way we plan or desire.

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Eshaan is such a sympathetic and kindhearted character you can’t help but cheer him on, even though he’s not the most practical-minded individual. From the get-go, he is focused on only one thing – feeding people in his restaurant and asking that they pay only what they can afford. Naturally, this leads to a horde of beggars and individuals who have zero money and who can’t – or don’t – pay for a thing. And of course, human nature being what it is, he also encounters those ungrateful types who complain about the food, who urinate on the floor of his immaculately prepared restaurant………..and these are the people he is trying to help!

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The scene that touched me the most is featured both at the very beginning and again toward the end, when Eshaan gets his golden chance to appear on the famous cooking TV competition show to earn money to fund his restaurant. The scene is given context when Eshaan’s turn comes to show the judges what he has cooked, the proviso being a dish that epitomized their childhood. Eshaan initially plans to make butter chicken, in his words, “a simple tomato, butter and cream sauce” for chicken that his mother used to make when she could afford it. But the crushing poverty of his childhood has stayed in his heart and soul all these years, and at the end of the competition, he throws away the dish he’s made and tells the judges, very poignantly, that the taste of his childhood was starvation and an empty bowl. I got choked up here and had to stop reading for a bit.

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Though of course I was inspired to cook the title dish, it was this passage that spoke to me the most. “In fact, I say a prayer for the spices, sparse as they may be, to help heal the person who eats the food. That reminds me. I have only one rule in this kitchen. The cooks’ energy gets passed into the dishes. Only food prepared with love will nurture. If not, it will just be another meal,” he said, placing his hand on his heart. That is so much how I cook – I try to always cook with love and pass that love on to those who enjoy my food. Because food is love.

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Anyway, this is the method for classic Indian butter chicken that worked for me, based on the Little Spice Jar‘s awesome recipe, with the requisite tweaks by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the meat marinade:
6-7 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 generous tablespoons tandoori masala
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil (or groundnut oil)
For the butter chicken sauce:
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), or a mixture of butter and oil
1 large red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 generous tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
2  8-ounce cans diced or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon each of: coriander, cumin, and garam masala
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder

3/4 cup heavy cream

METHOD

In a large plastic freezer bag, mix the chicken with the tandoori masala, ginger-garlic paste, yogurt and oil. Marinate for at least 3 hours before cooking, in the refrigerator.

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Melt the clarified butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan. Saute the onions about 7 minutes, until they’re translucent and you can smell the delicious scent wafting up at you. Add a pinch of sea salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the next spoonful of ginger-garlic paste to the onions, and stir well. Then, add the two cans of tomatoes, the chili powder, the coriander, cumin garam masala, and fenugreek seeds. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.

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Whip out your most excellent stick blender and blend the sauce until it is rendered down into a rich, red sauce. Turn the heat off, cover and let sit while you prepare the chicken.

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In another pan, add a bit more clarified butter and brown the chicken pieces. Make sure to use tongs and shake off the excess marinade beforehand. Cook for up to 10 minutes, to fully brown the chicken pieces.

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Pour the butter tomato sauce over the chicken pieces, and heat through. Add the cream and bring to a low simmer.

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I served this over basmati rice cooked in chicken broth, into which I put a few crushed cardamom pods, which add to the subtle flavor and scent. I have to say, this dish was FANTASTIC! The acidity of the tomatoes is perfectly offset by the richness of the butter and the cream, and the chicken marinade make the meat incredibly tender. Garnished with cilantro or parsley, it is a delicious dish.

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