American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Photography by me.

It’s a simple premise. Imagine that all the gods of ancient mythology and all the characters of folklore – we’re talking Anubis, Odin, Kali, Johnny Appleseed, John Bunyan, the Easter Bunny……well, maybe not quite a rabbit  -from every background and corner of the globe, actually existed and are still alive today, waging war with the new modern gods of the Information Age. Media, Celebrity, Technology, Drugs, etc. These gods, both ancient and modern, exist because people believe in them, worship them, pay homage to them. This, folks, is American Gods.

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We do worship our gods, if you think about it. Everyone believes in something. Whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, technology, fame, cooking, gambling, youth, beauty, sex, drugs, music, David Bowie, Harry Potter, the Dallas Cowboys, the music of Soundgarden……….we all worship at the altar of something. We may not realize we do it.

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But we all have our religions and gods that we worship, don’t we?

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Shadow Moon is the erstwhile main character, a somewhat hardened man who just got out of prison and who is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Shadow’s wife, Laura, has just died……….and yet, the beauty of this book is that things are never quite what they seem. People don’t stay dead. Sleight of hand, both literal and figurative, keeps everything off kilter. Gods and goddesses once worshipped now work as bartenders, morticians, and prostitutes. And yet, the themes of life, death and rebirth are as strong in the modern age as they ever were.

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When Shadow is on his way home to Laura’s funeral and is waylaid by Mr. Wednesday’s questionable charms, he stops to have a bite at a roadside diner. In his terrible grief, he  remembers Laura’s unique method for making chili. Having never made true Tex-Mex chili – spelled with an “i” at the end as opposed to the New Mexico “chile” with an “e,” I was pretty psyched, actually, to give this one a try.

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Laura made a great chili. She used lean meat, dark kidney beans, carrots cut small, a bottle or so of dark beer, and freshly sliced hot peppers. She would let the chili cook awhile, then add red wine, lemon juice and a pinch of fresh dill, and finally, measure out and add her chili powders. On more than one occasion, Shadow had tried to get her to show him how she made it: he would watch everything she did…………….

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There’s nothing as quintessentially American as chili concarne, except maybe apple pie, so the tie-in with these American gods seemed particularly appropriate. This is the method that worked for me, based on the self-titled “Best Damn Chili Recipe” on the Allrecipes.com website. With a name like that, I had to taste it for myself, ’cause that’s quite a claim. Requisite flavor edits by yours truly, of course.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion
5 cloves garlic
2 jalapeño peppers
1 Anaheim pepper
1 lb. organic ground beef
1 lb. organic ground bison
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 large tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 bottle dark Mexican beer, like Negra Modelo.
1 28-oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons red chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 16-oz. can of red kidney beans, drained
1 16-oz. can of pinto beans, in its juice
1 tablespoon sea salt

METHOD
Finely chop onion and garlic in a food chopper. Put in a large metal pan with the olive oil and a good scattering of sea salt. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes on medium.

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Chop the jalapeños and Anaheim pepper and add to the onions for another 5 minutes. Remove to a separate bowl.

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Add the two meats to the hot pot. Break down the meat with a wooden spoon, add the Worchestershire sauce, the beer and the smoked paprika. Cook for 5-7 minutes.

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Put the vegetables back in the pot, and stir to mix with the meat.

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Pour in the San Marzano tomatoes, and add in the tomato paste. Stir to mix, then toss in the red wine and the apple cider vinegar.

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Here is where you add in the chili powder, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, and cayenne. Go cautiously with the cayenne if you’re cooking for wimpy types; and if you’re cooking for someone you dislike, don’t worry about it.

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Cover, cook on low for two hours, and after the first hour, add in the beans and leave to cook another hour. Stir occasionally if you’re bored.

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Ideally, chili should sit overnight so that the flavors commingle and make a delicious dish. However, if you need to serve it immediately, let it simmer while you make the cilantro-sour cream garnish, which is terribly difficult and time consuming. Take a bunch of cilantro, stems cut off, mix together in a blender with a container of sour cream, and a tablespoon of salt, and serve with the cheddar-topped chili and some Fritos, wiping the imaginary – and Godlike, I daresay –  sweat off your brow as you do so.

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Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Updated on Friday, June 8, 2018:
I woke up to the devastating news that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. I never met him, but he was one of my biggest cooking influences and an inspiration for me to go out on a limb and try new recipes and methods of cooking. I feel so sad that this man of passion and foul language and angelic culinary skills and the face of a ruggedly handsome adventurer felt that he couldn’t bear the world any longer. RIP, beautiful man. I hope you find the peace that eluded you in life.  The post below was my homage to him and his life-changing (for me, anyway) book Kitchen Confidential, which I blogged a little over a year ago.

Original posting: May 2017: Oh, that damn Monday fish. Anthony Bourdain, to whom I refer affectionately as “my future ex-husband,” is never going to live that down. I didn’t eat a Monday fish special at a restaurant for  five years after reading Kitchen Confidential. Of course, in his updated version of that classic foodie memoir, he recants in his inimitable style by saying “eat the fucking fish on Monday, already!”

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Bourdain is as snarky and smart-assy as they come. God, I love him. His attitude of irreverence, particularly within an industry that traditionally holds male chefs on very high pedestals, is refreshing. Though he is somewhat of a hypocrite in how he has previously mocked celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray whilst simultaneously pursuing his own brand of foul-mouthed celebrity, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s funnier than hell, can cook like an angel, curse like a devil, drink like a sailor, and is one of those men that just get more handsome and sexy with age. He’s welcome to eat crackers in bed with me anytime.

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What sets him apart is that he doesn’t take himself seriously, either in his writing or his cooking. He’s a good chef and he knows it, but he regularly mocks himself, and I like that in a person. We none of us should take ourselves so seriously in life, because we are all going to screw up eventually. I also like that he doesn’t have any arrogance toward his staff and he gives credit where credit is due – to the hardworking cooks, sous-chefs, servers, bakers, prep cooks, dishwashers and all the unseen migrant men and women behind the scenes who make the food.

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Without these workers, restaurants would shut down. They are the true backbone of the service industry, and I say this having worked for several years in the restaurant business myself; as a table busser, a hostess, a waitress, and a cashier at a well-known Mexican restaurant; and as a cocktail waitress at a couple of dive bars while in college.

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It was fun, but physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I got yelled at by customers and dropped numerous glasses of water working in the restaurant business; I got my butt pinched so often as a cocktail waitress that I think it’s permanently bruised; and for years after I left the Mexican restaurant I could not look at a bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips without gagging. I respect the hell out of people in the service industry, and Bourdain respects them, too.

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Well, my dear future ex-husband, I am going off the rails a little bit and making this dish in your honor ON A MONDAY! I’m taking you on, baby, and making that yellowfin tuna in a braised fennel, confit tomato, and saffron sauce. Except, with my usual recipe edits. This is the method that worked for me, based on this New York Times tasty recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
For the tomato confit:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme and parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

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For the tuna:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, cut in thin slices
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 small tuna steaks, 5 oz. each
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup of seafood stock
1/ 2 teaspoon saffron threads

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small slit across the bottom of each cherry tomato. Put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in the boiling water for 30 seconds.

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Drain in ice-cold water to blanch, then remove the peels from each tomato. This will probably take a good 20 minutes.

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Put the tomatoes and garlic in a baking pan, submerge in olive oil, add the dried and fresh herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly, peel the garlic cloves and mash, mix with the tomatoes, then store in a jar.

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In a small pan, heat the seafood stock to just boiling. Add the saffron threads, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir together, and let simmer.

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Heat a cast-iron stovetop grill to high. Salt and pepper the tuna steaks, oil them lightly on both sides, and sear them each for 30 seconds per side.

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Place the tuna steaks on top of the shallot, garlic and fennel. Grate over the lemon zest.

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Pour over the seafood stock, check for taste and seasoning, cover and cook on low for another 5-7 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it overcook!

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Plate and garnish with the gorgeously red tomato confit, and maybe some black rice. It makes a stunning presentation on a plate, and better  yet, tastes delicious. Anthony, I think I did you proud!

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Do you know what it’s like to read a book and have it haunt you, like a whisper or the faint hint of perfume in an empty room? I’ve always been possessed by the gorgeous Gothic-ness of Rebecca, which has mystery, ghosts, passionate love and a big, haunted house. And then of course, the most intriguing opening line………”Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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I admit, rather shamefacedly, to having reread this on Audible, listening as I  cooked. It’s hard sometimes to put everything down and read a book with pages, as pleasurable as that is. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a very dear friend called Richard, about what constitutes pleasure in life. We both agreed that food, sex, wine, and music are all true pleasures, but I added two more – turning the pages of a wonderful book, and coming to really fantastic part in a book. You can’t beat any of those, but as with everything in life, you have to find the time, or a way to combine them. Hence, cooking with Audible.

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Anyway, the gist of this book is thus: a young woman meets the handsome, debonair and rather gloomy Max de Winter in the south of France, falls in love with him, and he whisks her off to a very quick marriage and honeymoon, before taking her home to his gothic mansion by the sea, called Manderley. Can you see why I fell in love with this book?

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Max’s first wife, Rebecca, had drowned a few years earlier, and the house is ghostly with her presence. Her initials are on everything, her clothes are still in the house, her perfume hangs in the air, and perhaps worst of all, her spirit still seems to haunt the living, particularly Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who adored Rebecca.

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I was fortunate enough to cook this week’s recipe at my wonderful friend Elizabeth’s house, when I was house- and dog-sitting for her.

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Her kitchen is absolutely stunning, full of light and gorgeous appliances, and the perfect place to both cook a marvelous meal and to also sip wine and listen to the the ongoing adventures of our heroine, Max de Winter, the evil Mrs. Danvers, and imagine myself within the marble walls of Manderley.

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The unnamed heroine – no, she is never named – meets Max when she is working as a companion to the hideous and vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper and they are staying at a fancy hotel in the south of France. The heroine loathes her employer, and this dislike comes through clearly in this passage, which inspired me.

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…..compared to Mrs. Van Hopper, her fat, bejeweled fingers questing a plate heaped high with ravioli, her eyes darting suspiciously from her plate to mine for fear I should have made the better choice.

I love a good ravioli, stuffed with cheese or anything else. Though I don’t yet have the Kitchen Aid attachments for rolling and cutting homemade pasta, that’s on my list. In the meantime, I used premade ravioli from the marvelous Italian deli Tully’s, and my own tomato cream sauce with sausage and chicken. This is my own method, devised after too many pots of tomato sauce to mention.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 white onion
5 cloves of garlic
2 14-oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 heaping tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup half-and-half
2 bags of premade ravioli
4 cups spinach
8 oz Italian sausage
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a pot. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Add to the oil and butter and saute for about 10 minutes.

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Mince the oregano, basil, and rosemary. Wonderful smells! Add to the onion and garlic, and stir together to cook, another 10 minutes.

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Pour in the tomatoes and stir again. Crimson heaven!

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Add the red wine and the chicken bouillon paste, stir to mix, then cover and simmer for an hour.

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In another skillet, cook the sausage for about 5 minutes, then add to the tomato sauce. Cook another hour on a low simmer.

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Cube and cook the chicken in a pan until it’s pink and cooked through. Add to the tomato sauce to finish cooking.

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Finely blend the sauce in a blender. Pour back in the pan to stay hot.

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Toss in the spinach to wilt in the hot sauce. Stir, cover, and let render down.

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Add the half-and-half here, to make a lovely pinkish-red emulsion.

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In another pot, boil the ravioli in salted water for 3 minutes, then finish cooking them in the hot tomato sauce.

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Plate up by putting some of the luscious sauce onto a platter, topping with some ravioli, and dolloping another large spoonful on top. Then, simply enjoy with a sigh of pleasure.

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Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado

Thanks to JP for the photography.

The connection between food and sex is one I looked at in one of my very first blog posts, which you can read here if you’re so inclined. That connection is one of the major threads in this book, as well.

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In 1925 South America, Gabriela is a young woman from a terribly poor background who is “hired” by Nacib to do the cooking in his pub in the Brazilian town of Ilhéus. She is beautiful, from a very low social status, which was (and is) very important in the Brazilian culture. She has skin like cinnamon and gives off the scent of cloves, which entices everyone who meets her. Nacib is infatuated with her and they begin an intense love affair, which binds Nacib to her even more, because the connection between her cooking in the kitchen and her “cooking” in the bedroom have become intertwined in his mind. He marries her but then the challenges start.

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The concept of change and sexual politics are major themes in the book, the new overthrowing the old, and the old-school machismo personified in the beginning of the book, when Col. Mendonca kills his wife, Dona Sinhazinha and her lover, Dr. Pimentel, for adultery. Adultery is accepted among men, but God forbid a woman take a lover.

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What is ironic about the main tale of Nacib and Gabriela is that initially, she doesn’t fit his standard of what he believes he should have in a partner. She is beautiful, can cook like a dream, fulfills all of his sexual desires and fantasies, yet he is still held back by this expectation in his own mind that a relationship has to fit a certain mold. Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot change her, and in fact, to change her would be to lose the qualities about her he most loves.

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Passion colors every aspect of Gabriela’s life and it shows up in her food. Again, another book that features food as a type of medicine, a mood-altering substance that can make others feel joy, happiness, sexual passion and release. Gabriela’s passion is food – she puts everything she feels into her food, and by extension, everything she feels into life itself.

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She does not hold back her heart, and it is that openness that ultimately makes Nacib realize the value she brings to his life……and that in loving and accepting her as she is, it helps him love and accept himself and all the roiling changes happening around him. In her unchangeable passionate heart, she becomes his anchor and a catalyst for change in the entire town.

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Obviously, a book called Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon has some amazing food descriptions in it. Being set in Brazil with a cook as one of the main characters, the food is mouth-watering. Gabriela cooks Bahaian-style dishes involving manioc, rice, jerk chicken, shrimp, peanuts, bean fritters, stews………..so many delicious choices. This passage was the one I chose for today.

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Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits.

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Bean-paste balls are a type of fritter made from black-eyed peas and called acaraje in Portuguese, and are usually stuffed with shrimp or something called vatapá, which has ground cashews as its base.  So I decided some shrimp-stuffed acaraje and vatapá were in order. This is the method that worked for me, based on these two terrific recipes at www.cynthiapresser.com/recipe-blog. As usual, flavoring tweaks were made by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the acaraje:
2 14-oz cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 large white onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
Teaspoon of cayenne powder
Red palm oil for frying

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For the vatapá:
1 cup dried shrimp
1 cup unsalted cashews
2 pieces of day old-bread, torn into chunks
3 cups coconut milk
2 tomatoes
1 onion
1 jalapeno pepper
1 piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 scallions
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked shrimp, thawed

METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor. Set aside.

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Mash the black-eyed peas in the same processor until it forms a thick paste. Season with salt and cayenne.

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Mix together with onion and garlic in a bowl. Form little round patties.

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Heat the red palm oil in a frying pan. Fry 4-5 fritters at a time, for about 3 minutes per side, until crispy and orange-red in color. Don’t cook more than that at a time, because it will lower the oil’s temperature and make the fritters greasy.

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Chop the cashews and process for another minute or so until well mixed and rendered down. Add the dried shrimp, mix and set aside.

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Soak the bread in a 1/2 cup of coconut milk for a minute. Then process for another minute, until it forms a paste-like texture. Mix with the cashew and shrimp in a separate bowl.

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Finely chop the tomato, onion, ginger, cilantro, scallions and jalapeno in your well-exercised food processor, and set aside.

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Heat the remaining coconut milk in a pan, and add the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture, then spoon in the shrimp-cashew mixture. Simmer gently at medium low for about 10 minutes, then add the bread mixture, and a tablespoon of red palm oil, for thickening and color. Cook for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.

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Top the stew with the shrimp and cilantro, and apply to your face. Delicioso!

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