The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I didn’t intend to do a blog post this week for several reasons, the main one being that my dearest and only aunt – my dad’s younger sister to whom I am very close – had an unexpected triple-bypass on Friday and that has been weighing on me. She came out of the surgery all right, but it was still a very worrying experience. Coupled with a very ugly fight with one of my sisters (it’s funny how stress can bring out the worst in families, isn’t it?), my heart wasn’t into doing much this weekend. But I came across The Rules of Magic on one of my bookshelves and thought “hey, this will be a total escape.”

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It was simply reading for the sheer pleasure, something that I sometimes forget about doing. Reading is, after all, a true pleasure with the feel of the pages, that sense of just falling into whatever world you’ve chosen, and when you come back to yourself, it’s almost a shock that the world is still there.

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If you’ve read Hoffman’s earlier book Practical Magic, you’ll recognize the characters of Frannie and Jet Owens. In the first book, they are the great-aunts of Sally and Gillian, and in this book, they take center stage. Frannie and Jet and their brother Vincent are raised away from the shadow of their notorious witch family in a stable, upwardly mobile manner. Their mother wants nothing to do with the magic that has touched and shaped their family for centuries, and love is the element to be avoided in this book. The three Owens children are raised to never fall in love, but when Aunt Isabelle enters their lives, she connects them with their heritage of magic and witchcraft and spells and it’s so beautifully described that I wished I’d been raised as a witch.

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I think the element I loved most in this book was the sheer sensuality of how scents are described, so vividly that my mouth almost watered. The herbs used in their spells, various recipes, the delicious smells of peppermint, patchouli, flowers, eucalyptus, chocolate, almonds, and most delectably, the savory scent of bacon. And of course, there was that passage that set the tone for how the children are perceived by other kids, describing how eerie Franny and Jet are in their youth.

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“Soon enough the other students knew not to irritate the Owens sisters, not if they didn’t want to trip over their own shoes or find themselves stuttering when called upon to give a report. There was something about the sisters that felt dangerous, even when all they were doing was eating tomato sandwiches in the lunchroom or searching for novels in the library.”

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I mean, it’s a total food and books reference RIGHT THERE! Eating tomato sandwiches! Looking for books! I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect passage. And a tomato sandwich – yum! Still, a plain old tomato sandwich, tasty as it, can be made better when you have a couple of ripe avocadoes, some bacon and a bit of imagination. Here’s my take on the Owens sisters’ tomato sandwiches. Magic is optional. But make sure everything is at room temperature, particularly the tomatoes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 ripe avocado
1 heirloom tomato
4 strips bacon
1 slice good quality bread, any type you want
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Fry the bacon and enjoy the salty, savory scent of it. I seriously don’t know how anyone could be a vegetarian with the smell of bacon around. Drain on a paper towel.

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Deseed the tomato and slice it into somewhat thick rounds. Add a bit of salt to the tomato slices.

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Mash the avocado and season it with the crushed red pepper, the lemon juice, and the salt and pepper.

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Toast the bread, and slather on the mashed avocado.

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Put the tomato rounds on top of the avocado, then add the bacon slices. Admire the lovely colors and textures before applying to your face. Sooooooooooo yum, and comforting too!

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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Sometimes a girl just needs an escape, and this book provided one hell of one! It’s probably one of the most fun, and possibly my favorite, of all sci-fi and fantasy novels, The Anubis Gates is a wild and imaginative romp through time, space, and history. Basically, a literature professor by the name of Brendan Doyle chosen to go back in time at the behest of an extremely wealthy and eccentric millionaire to hear a famous lecture by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Victorian England. He gets left behind – of course – in the past with no money or resources except his knowledge of the time period, and that’s when shit gets real.

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Throw in gates of time throughout the world and history, a murderous, deformed clown on stilts, tiny homunculi with knives, ancient Egyptian magicians who can also move through time, a body-jumping werewolf, a twist of romance, some Victorian steampunk elements, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly entertaining read. Doyle’s specialty is the Victorian poet William Ashbless, whom he intends to meet while in the past, and how this meeting comes about is one of the twistiest and surprising parts of the book, but it’s the premise on which the entire book hinges, so pay attention to the references to Ashbless.

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As with any kind of time travel book, pay attention to the smaller details, as they seemingly have no connection to anything, yet prove to be monumentally important later on. I personally loved the freaky clown on stilts, though in real life I despise clowns with a passion. Hello,  Pennywise! Otherwise,  Doyle’s grasp of history serves him well, and part of why I love this book is because you feel the Victorian environment of London so well, but without that dreary, depressing Dickensian vibe. And when Doyle is down and out and spends his last bit of money on street food, you feel his intense hunger.

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Returning to Thames Street, Doyle expended half his fortune on a plate of vegetable soup and a trowelful of mashed potatoes. It tasted wonderful, but left him at least as hungry as before, so he spent his last three cents on another order of the same.

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To me, vegetables and mashed potatoes translate naturally into one thing -shepherd’s pie. I mean, a gorgeous panful of delicious meat mixed with vegetables and topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. Hello, heaven on a plate! Of course, depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. I personally don’t give a damn what it’s called, just that is is soooo good. This method was based on the awesome recipe at Life in Lofthouse, is an excellent way to get rid of any random vegetables hanging around in your refrigerator, land is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day dish. Ideal for  soaking up all the green beer, Irish whiskey and whatever else booze you chose to indulge in.

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INGREDIENTS
4 large russet potatoes
1 stick softened butter
1 cup warmed milk
2 lbs ground beef
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 turnip, cut into cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup baby carrots, cut in half
1 onion
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup beef broth

METHOD
Butter a large glass or metal baking pan and heat the oven to 375.

Cut the potatoes in half and cook in boiling water until a fork pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Remember if there are hard parts still in your potatoes, those will translate to lumps in your mashed potatoes. Drain and let cool slightly.

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Dry-saute the mushrooms with only a bit of salt. This is a trick I got from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and holy crap, it really works!

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Put the sauteed mushrooms into a large bowl and add the frozen corn. The heat of the ‘shrooms will soften and thaw the corn.

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While the potatoes are boiling, finely chop the onion and garlic and cook with olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the ground beef, some salt, and the Worchestershire sauce, and cook until the meat is nicely browned. Drain the meat and add back to the hot pan.

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In the boiling potato water, cook the turnip, peas, and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the mushrooms and corn.

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Sprinkle over the flour on the meat, and cook again over low heat for about 10 minutes, to ensure the floury taste is gone.

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Add the red wine, tomato paste, and beef broth to the floured meat in the pan, stirring until everything is well mixed and warmed through well.

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Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer, add the butter and milk, and some salt, and stir. The potato ricer is a totally badass kitchen gadget because it negates the need to peel the potatoes. I personally loathe and despise peeling potatoes, so it makes me happy to bust out the potato ricer.

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Mix the cooked meat with the cooked vegetables, stir to mix well, and spread into the glass pan.

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Spread over the mashed potatoes. Doesn’t that look so yum?

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Bake for 35 minutes, until the potato topping has browned slightly and you can smell all the juices of the meat and vegetables and you’re drooling. Let cool slightly before serving, although having said that, it’s much better after a few hours in the refrigerator, eaten tipsily at midnight in the company of a handsome man after an evening out at the St. Patrick’s Day Blarney Bash. 🙂

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

METHOD
In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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INGREDIENTS
1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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