Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

I was first given the book Winter’s Tale by a woman who worked with me in a law firm,  several years ago. She was an odd woman, claiming to be psychic and in touch with – in her own words – “the universal forces.”

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She was a practicing Wiccan, though it turns out she was in love with my then-boss and was using her Wiccan powers to try to destroy his marriage so she could have him. I digress slightly, but it was she who introduced me to this wonderful and mystical novel that encompasses magical realism, fantasy, history, metaphysics, and time travel, so I associate her with this novel. I suppose we all have that strange individual who has crossed our paths and made an unusual impression, whether good or bad.

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I love magical realism in books, though in my own humble opinion the Latin American writers do it best. Cases in point: Rudolfo Anaya, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and pretty much every book written by the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I blogged about twice previously. But Mark Helprin brings snowy, turn-of-the-century New York City in a slightly alternate universe, into this magically realistic universe so beautifully. The endless clashes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, and the eternity beyond it all, are described in such a way that you are transported there.

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The love story between Peter Lake, an Irish immigrant who is later granted supernatural powers, and Beverly Penn, the heiress dying of consumption, is stronger than death, stronger than time, and it’s that love story that colors the entire book.

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When I recently finished rereading this book, I was filled with joy and sadness; that such a world exists and that the book containing it had to come to an end. One of the lines that touched my heart and hit me so strongly in the heart was this one:  “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is shatter time and bring back the dead.” For anyone who has ever loved and lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or a lover, this line is particularly poignant. We all want to shatter time and bring these people back…….whether they have actually passed on from this world or whether it is the love between us that died.

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Peter Lake is on the run from the unusual creature Pearly Soames – devil? demon? – with whom he has previously associated and who now wants to kill him. A magical white horse called Athansor has appeared to whisk him to safety, which he finds in a hidden garret in Grand Central Station. He is able to safely stable the horse, rest, and being hungry from his recent adventures, proceeds to cook himself a delicious meal of seafood stew.

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With his strength renewed, he realized that he was ravenously hungry, and proceeded to cook an excellent bouillabaisse culled from cans of varied fish, tomatoes, wine, oil and an enormous bottle of Saratoga spring water.

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I have yet to meet a combination of fish and tomatoes I don’t love. Bouillabaisse was something I’d yet to try, though, so today, a cold, windy day heralding the beginning of winter, seemed the appropriate time to recreate Peter Lake’s homemade meal.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on methods from Emeril Lagasse and the marvelous The Ultimate Book of Fish & Shellfish by Kate Whiteman, which has a place of honor among my cookbooks. There are many ideas about what constitutes proper bouillabaisse, but the overall consensus is that you can essentially use whichever fish and shellfish you’d like, and make the classic rouille to garnish the bread eaten with this dish.

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INGREDIENTS
1 small roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded
2 chunks of baguette, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced (4 for the bouillabaisse, 3 for the rouille)
4 cups fish stock
1/2 cup Pernod
1/2 cup clam juice
2 leeks, white part only, washed and cut into rings
Handful of chopped parsley
1 fennel bulb

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Zest and juice of one orange
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, whole
Pinch of saffron threads

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4 bay leaves
8 ripe beefsteak or Campari tomatoes
4 small red potatoes, cubed
1 lb frozen salmon, cut into large chunks
1 lb. frozen cod, cut into large chunks
2 cups frozen shrimp, deveined and peeled but with tails attached
2 cups frozen clams in their shells
Remainder of the baguette, cut into thick slices

METHOD
For the rouille:
Combine the torn-up 2 baguette pieces, the roasted red pepper, 3 of the peeled garlic cloves, the Dijon mustard, the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the salt and pepper in a food processor. Mix until smooth, then slowly add the olive oil.

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Mix again until you have a smooth, thick emulsion. Set aside.

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For the bouillabaisse:
Saute the onion, celery and garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the leeks and the fennel, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until soft.

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Grate in the orange zest here, and then squeeze in the juice to the broth.

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Add 3 cups of the seafood stock. Stir to mix and simmer another 5 minutes. Then add the diced tomatoes.

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Add the Pernod, the tomato bouillon cube, the saffron, and the remainder of the fish stock. Allow to cook another 10-15 minutes, so the flavors mingle. You’ll be able to smell the saline of the stock and the anise of the liqueur.

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Once your broth has simmered 15 minutes, add a half-cup of clam juice and blend to a thick, smooth consistency with a stick blender. Toss in the parsley.

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Heat the oven broiler at this point. You’ll know why in a moment. Add the potatoes to the broth. Cook another 15 minutes, or until they soften. Add in your fish at this stage, but stagger based on thickness and delicacy. The idea is to have all the fish cooked perfectly. Add the cod and the salmon chunks first and cook for 6 minutes.

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Toss in the clams and enjoy that clatter of shells in the soup pot. Cook another 6 minutes, until the clams open up. Discard any that don’t open, unless you enjoy pain. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink.

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While the fish is cooking, toast the baguette slices under the broiler for 1 minute.  Remove, and spread with the rouille sauce.

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In a bowl, place 3 chunks of rouille-smeared bread. Ladle over some of the fish and the heavenly-scented broth. Drizzle over a bit of the rouille sauce.

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This is truly heaven in a bowl for seafood lovers. Rich, delicate and with a mix of green and salty, savory flavors that hit your tongue like a golden kiss. Soooooooooo good, and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.

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30 thoughts on “Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

    1. Thank you so much! I loved the book and the movie, although the movie definitely left out a significant chunk from the book. But I think it would have been difficult to put in a lot of the metaphysical stuff. I did love Russell Crowe as Pearly Soames. He did the evil so well.

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  1. Ooo Vanessa, What a luxurious meal! And multi-layered, like the back story of having been introduced to Helprin’s supernatural Winter’s Tale by an unusual woman.

    The books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez sustained me from the 1980s up through Living to Tell the Tale. When I was a child, I used to see One Hundred Years of Solitude at the library and I would say to myself “I’m going to read that when I’m an adult.” – and the year I turned 21, I read it and It blew my mind! I wanted to read everything he wrote over and over again. His work whet my appetite for Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel’s work; I’ve only read Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, which I remember enjoying. I always wanted to read Jorge Amado but have yet to.

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    1. Thank you! It was really fun to make, and quite luxurious to have all that fresh seafood and shellfish be part of what has usually been considered a very humble dish. I actually think it would make a lovely Christmas Eve meal. I love García Márquez myself. His style is so lyrical and poetic, magical and oddly earthy at the same time. Love in the Time of Cholera is another favorite, but for me, the one book of his I’d want on a desert island is Strange Pilgrims. Something about that book of stories……hard to put my finger on it but it’s spellbinding. Thank you for commenting!

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  2. Marvelous!! I am awed at that bouillabaisse, I have always been curious about it but never thought to make it because I’m not a huge eater of fish. But then I never thought just to put what I like in it before you mentioned it! So I had an Ah Duh! moment! Great book review. It made me think of lives and loves lost, always bittersweet….

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    1. Thanks, Mollie! It was surprisingly simple to make, so I’d recommend it if you have time. It might be a nice New Year’s Eve supper. I think if I made it again, I know I’d keep the clams and the shrimp for certain, but you could add in salmon, haddock, etc. If you make it, let me know how it turns out.

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    1. I’m glad you liked it. Yes, this is quite a unique book, isn’t it? I sometimes think of it at weird times as well. Just the metaphysics alone, plus the concept of that everlasting love and how it can be found in another person is just beautiful and fascinating.

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      1. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m not even sure I understood what the story was all about but I didn’t care because I was caught up in the beauty of the world Helprin created. I think I am going to have to see if I can find it and give it a reread.

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    1. Morgan was an interesting person, I must say. My thought is that, since there is so much Christian and pagan symbolism in this book, that she was very drawn to the pagan aspect of it. Being that she was a pagan herself. It’s a book that can be read on many different levels, and the movie that was made a few years ago didn’t really tap into that part of it but it’s a wonderful book nevertheless.

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  3. Wow! Your rouille looks AMAZEBALLS! I love tomatoes and seafood together too, especially shrimp and tomatoes. This bouillabaisse is making my mouth water. And it looks perfect for the cold weather we’re having here on the East Coast, too. I’ve never heard of this book, but upon consideration, wasn’t there a movie a few years ago called Winter’s Tale, with the actress from Downton Abbey? Anyway, looks terrific as always.

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    1. Thanks Marianne. I do think I saw the movie and I know the actress you’re talking about, I believe she was the youngest daughter who died on Downton Abbey. I appreciate your commentary on the food as well. The stew is really delicious. And making the rouille was surprisingly easy.

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  4. so with you on Marquez and Allende, and also Mario Vargas Llosa. I also like A Winter’s Tale, although not as much as Helprin’s, “Memoir From Antproof Case”. The food looks great as always, but this time, you got me with the literature!

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    1. I was rereading The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto just two days ago! Totally with you on Vargas Llosa too. I’ve never read the other Helprin novel that you mentioned, but the Winter’s Tale for me, is definitely one of my favorites. Plus it’s just so long and it’s such a book you can get lost in.

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