Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life. It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

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There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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