The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) as retold by Hanan al-Shaykh

I don’t know about you, but when I think of One Thousand and One Nights, or as it’s more commonly known, The Arabian Nights, what comes to mind are exotic tents in the desert surrounded by turbaned thieves, camels with tasseled saddles, beautiful dancing girls draped in veils in emerald green, ruby red, and turquoise blue, exotic dishes garnished with seeds and nuts and herbs, and at the center of it all, the Pasha himself, waiting to be appeased with stories.

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Genies in bottles granting wishes, Sinbad the Sailor on the high seas battling monsters, flying carpets, Aladdin and his magical lamp, Ali Baba and his crew of 40 thieves, viziers and caliphs, all are told over a series of – yes, you guessed it – 1,001 nights when Scheherazade tells her tales to avoid being killed by her husband. The idea is that he will want to know what happens next, so he won’t kill her. Their story is the framing tale that supports the other tales, some of which have stories within stories within stories.

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I hadn’t realized that Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and others, were originally from this book, which was such a pleasure to read. The book is divided into segments for each night that Scheherazade weaves her literary magic, by story. However, I warn you that these stories are not for children, so don’t be expecting the Disney version of Aladdin, with singing monkeys and a blue genie. These tales are violent, somewhat misogynistic, often brutal and cruel, and also highly erotic……which makes sense as Scheherazade is one of many harem wives to the Pasha.

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One of the more entertaining stories is that of the Two Viziers, in which the character Badr-al-Din is supposed to have cooked a pomegranate dish for the royal household, and it is not up to par.

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The following night Shahrazad said: It is related, O King, that Ja’far said to the caliph: Badr al-Din said, “Because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper, you have beaten me, smashed my dishes, and ruined my shop, all because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper!”

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Goodness, the poor man! I’ve occasionally screwed up a dish that I was cooking for others, but luckily no one has beaten me for it……yet.  🙂  Anyway, a pomegranate dish with pepper sounded both exotic and like a culinary challenge, so I did some research and found a traditional Middle Easter recipe called fesenjan, which is spicy chicken baked in a pomegranate sauce. Being that this is the season of pomegranates, and with my love of those tasty little cluckers, and in honor of this classic book, I made pomegranate chicken. And yes, I added plenty of pepper!

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, skin on
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 cups walnuts
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup pomegranate anils
Fresh thyme

METHOD
First, make the pomegranate syrup. Pour the pomegranate juice into a small sauce pan, bring to a boil, and cook about 30-45 minutes, until it thickens into a syrup. Add a bit of salt and lime juice and allow to cool.

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Heat the oven to 325F.

In a flat pan, toast the walnuts until just brown and giving off that toasty, nutty scent. Remove from heat and roughly chop into smaller pieces. Set aside.

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In a separate pan, saute the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.

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Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and chili flakes and cook another 5 minutes. Remove from the pan.

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Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and brown them about 7 minutes on each side. You may need to brown them in batches. Don’t crowd them into the pan or they won’t brown properly.

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Put half the onion-garlic mixture into a large Dutch oven, place the browned chicken thighs on top, then put the remainder of the onion on top of the chicken, and dot with the chicken bouillon paste.

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Pour over the pomegranate molasses, and then add the chicken stock.

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Cover the dish and bake for an hour, checking to make sure it isn’t dry. If it is, add a bit more chicken stock. Allow to cool and serve over any rice of your choice – I used Japanese black rice – and garnish with pomegranate anils and green thyme sprigs. It is so pretty that you almost don’t want to eat it………almost.

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Ghost Story by Peter Straub

“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done? I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…..the most dreadful thing.” That’s how Ghost Story begins, with The Chowder Society telling terrifying tales. The Chowder Society sounds like a cooking club, doesn’t it? Not in this book, though. To close out Halloween and usher in the holiday season, I decided to finish off my spooky books with this perennial favorite of mine.

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The Chowder Society is a group of four elderly men in Milburn, Connecticut who get together one evening per month and tell ghost stories. That is the simple beginning, but these four men share a past and a secret and that secret has come back from dead to haunt them all. The nephew of one of the Society, Don Waverley, has also come into contact with this horror returned from the grave, and how this specter has come into being and how it/she returns to haunt them all is quite a story.

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This book is what I would call a “slow burn” type of book. It’s not fast-paced. The terror grows slowly and with subtlety. You can see the homage to so many other books of this genre – ‘Salem’s Lot, The Turn of The Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, and so on. It jumps from narrator to narrator, and parts of it can be confusing. However, if you can do the ol’ suspension of disbelief and go along for the ride, you’ll enjoy it.

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With a group called The Chowder Society, and this being the season of spirits, it made sense to whip up a tasty ham and corn chowder in their honor, and in honor of my dear friend Chris’ 50th birthday. I served it with roasted broccoli flavored with garlic and lemon zest, and a deliriously good German chocolate cake. The ghosts were optional.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
medium yellow onion, diced
6 baby carrots
3 celery ribs, diced
6 ham steaks, cubed
1 carton chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
10 small potatoes, cubed. I used a variety of colors
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons garlic powder
3-4 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups frozen corn kernels
1 cup milk
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups heavy cream

METHOD
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the carrot, onion and celery, and cook until tender, about 10-12 minutes.

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Pour in the chicken broth and add the potatoes, thyme, garlic powder and bay leaf. The idea is to cook the potatoes so they soften up. Cover and simmer on low for roughly half an hour.

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Add the ham and corn and stir together.

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In another saucepan, melt the other tablespoon of butter, whisk in the flour, and gently add the milk. Continue whisking for 10 minutes, until the mixture forms a roux. Pour the roux into the chowder mixture, and whisk again to make sure the roux breaks down and thickens the soup.

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Pour in the heavy cream, stir and heat another 5 minutes. Decant into bowls and devour with greed.

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