House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

Fairy tales are probably my favorite genre of book in the world, though like all my other favorites, I am very picky about which ones I read. The prose has to be quality and the elements of each individual story must be present, though I love it when they are presented in a new and different way, or with a twist. And my favorite fairy tale of all time has to be the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I mean, how can it get any better than 12 daughters of a king who, every night, dance through their expensive shoes and refuse to explain how, an errant knight who finds a way to become invisible, and a magical world of golden trees, diamond branches and a ballroom both magical and terrifying? So when I was recently listening to the podcast Books in the Freezer (also, how can you not love that name and the Friends reference) and they mentioned the book House of Salt and Sorrows as being part of the horror-fairy tale genre and as a retelling of my favorite fairy tale, hell yeah I immediately ordered it from Amazon!

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I actually have a very old fairy tale book of the story itself, kept from childhood when I purloined it from my school library. I know, I know, that’s a lousy thing to do but in my defense……..well, I have none. But I have the book over 30 years later and I still swoon over the gorgeous illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Feel free to judge me for being a library book thief. But just feast your eyes on these stunning images from my childhood book!

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In a nutshell, this book is told from the viewpoint of Annaleigh, one of 12 daughters of Duke Thaumas. Four of his daughters have already died under horrible – and mysterious – circumstances, and Annaleigh starts to suspect there is more to their deaths than meets the eye. The kingdom and universe created in this book are marvelous, and perhaps one of the reasons I loved it so much was because of the strong use of ocean symbolism and metaphor. There is an entire mythology of gods that rule over the world, and Annaleigh’s people are called People of the Salt and the sea, and everything related to it, including salt, are intensely tied into their lives.

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The elements of the shoes are one of the major plot points, as well they should be. The enchanted forests of gold, silver and diamonds are also part of the tale, as is the knight who helps discover the mystery behind the shoes and the subsequent enchantment over the daughters of the Duke. There is also, as there should be in any fairy tale story, a stepmother whose intentions are seemingly innocent, and although I did figure out her role in the entire mystery about halfway (as will any discerning reader), there is a little unexpected twist at the end that I appreciated.

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Probably the most fascinating aspect of the universe created in this book is how it mirrors so much of ancient Greece and Judeo-Christianity in terms of gods, religion, rites and superstitions. The role of the priest, when burying the dead, is called the High Mariner. Bodies are not buried underground, but instead, put in wooden coffins in a cave where the sea will take the body back…….just like ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or in this case, from salt you came and to salt you will return. The god who rules over the sea is called Pontus and is visualized as a giant octopus. Water imagery is everywhere in book, images of fish and mermaids and seahorses and octopi and every ocean-living creature you can think of.

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The enchantment of the 12 daughters of the Duke results in some truly creepy results. The ghosts of the four previously dead daughters start to be seen around the castle, and they are not the restful souls you might expect. Even I, a horror aficionado, was skeezed out a bit by the description of these wraiths. Annaleigh resists the longest as she continues to investigate her sisters’ deaths and as a result, is haunted by horrific visions of being drowned by a vast sea monster. In fact, though this is not what you’d expect as a food-inspired moment, it actually did inspire me but then, I’m a black-hearted bitch sometimes and the scary stuff often inspires me. As it did here.

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I tried to scream for Camille but was suddenly yanked under by an unseen force. The dark water raced into my mouth, filling it with a brackish bite as I sputtered out a cry for help. I pushed upward, gagging on the fishy tang. It was a surprisingly familiar taste. One of Cook’s favorite dishes to make in the summer months was a black risotto, full of clams, shallots and prawns. The rice was an exotic obsidian, dyed with squid ink.

Yes, I was inspired to make squid-ink risotto with seafood by a passage where a young woman is nearly drowned. I’m evil like that.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups seafood stock
2 cups clam juice
1 cup Pernod (you could use white wine but Pernod adds a delicious aniseed note that goes well with seafood)
2 squid ink packets
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 shallot, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup arborio rice
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 can cooked clams

METHOD
In a medium sauce pan, combine the seafood stock, the clam juice and the Pernod, and bring to a low boil.

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Squeeze one packet of the squid ink into the hot liquid to dissolve, until the stock is as black as your heart. Leave to simmer on very low heat.

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In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat and add the shallots and garlic. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt, and saute until soft, about three minutes.

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Add in the rice and stir, toasting it for about 2-3 minutes. This step is called la tostatura and is meant to toast the rice and give it a bit more flavor.

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One ladleful at a time, gradually add the hot, jet-black seafood broth into the rice, and stir with a wooden spoon until each ladleful of liquid is absorbed. Stir continually to allow the rice to absorb the broth. You cannot do this quickly, people. The idea is that slow incorporation of the liquid results in a lovely, creamy rice texture that is what makes risotto. Expect to stand and stir for about 30 minutes. It’s very Zen, actually.

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While you are stirring, heat the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil in a grill pan and when hot, grill the clams just a minute, then grill the shrimp until pink.

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Taste your risotto for texture and seasoning. You want it al dente – creamy but with a bit of a bite.

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Season with salt and pepper as needed and plate, first with a layer of black rice and then with the clams and shrimp. The taste of the blackest ocean is so salty and delicious on the tongue that you could drown in it.

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Possession by A.S. Byatt

For some reason, I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately. It comes on occasionally, and I try to overcome it with the comforts of reading, cooking, venturing out to new places, or writing. In poring over my library to find something that hopefully will help shake me out of my low spirits, I came across Possession, which I’d not read in a couple of years. A trip to the rainy British Isles seemed just the ticket.

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I’d forgotten what a great literary mystery this book is. It’s philosophical, analytical, and romantic all at once. Roland, the main character, is also feeling trapped in his career as a scholar and trying to find a place for himself both professionally and personally. He discovers two handwritten letters from a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, written to a mysterious woman, and Roland becomes obsessed – possessed, you could say – in finding out who she is. His researches lead him to Professor Maud Bailey, another mysterious female. Together, they embark on a quest to learn not just who the “Dark Lady” in Ash’s life was, but how and why they met, and the outcome of their meeting. The book combines literary analysis with a sense of wonder in discovering something fresh in a world where, it seems, nothing is new. The pleasures of research, of reading, of taking one’s time, of discovery, are concepts to be savored and enjoyed.

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Upon Roland and Maud’s first meeting, she invites him to spend the night on her sofa, as his lack of money makes it impossible for him to find a hotel. She cooks him dinner and they begin their literary journey together. Their quest takes them to France, as well, where they begin to discover not just who the mystery woman is, but their feelings for each other, as well. I love both passages, so I decided to make two recipes – added solace for my rather low spirits.

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“Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, with an emphasis on animals and insubordination.”

“During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Iles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.”

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Potted shrimps were something I’d never heard of, so I did some research and found that they are essentially shrimp cooked in clarified butter, and served generally as an appetizer. Making clarified butter was a new culinary challenge for me, but I was in need of distraction, so I gave it a go. Similarly, Iles Flottantes – floating islands or snowballs – were a new one for me, but I discovered that it is similar to the New Mexican dessert known as natillas, a vanilla custard. I decided that both recipes were in need of interpretation by yours truly, so here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter
Muslin cloth or cheesecloth
1 pound of raw, deveined, shelled shrimp
1 shallot, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Sea salt
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or two finely chopped anchovies
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or about half the juice of a large lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter under low heat. When completely melted, empty into a large, clear container. Allow to slightly cool, and as it does, use a spoon to scrape off the solids that form at the top. The milk solids will have sunk to the bottom of the container by then. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, or just pour very carefully into another container, so that you get just the clear, golden melted fat solids. The end result should be this nice liquid that is ideal for cooking, as it can be used at very high temperatures without burning. Who knew?

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In a small skillet, heat some of the clarified butter, the shallot and garlic, sea salt, and the nutmeg, and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovy paste and the lemon juice and cook for another minute.

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Add the raw shrimp to the pan with the other goodies, and cook briefly until the shrimp are pink. Divide this mixture into ramekins and cover with the clarified butter. The idea is to have the butter completely submerge the shrimp. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove, and spread on toast or crackers. Delish, very decadent, and quintessentially British.

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For the Iles Flottantes, which, rather serendipitously, were featured last night on a late-night rerun of that great old British cooking show, Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the blonde half of that hilarious duo, made these using a chocolate custard, so I decided to try her method, adding a couple of flavoring twists of my own:

INGREDIENTS
6 eggs, separated
1/2 pint of whole milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
4 ounces of dark, bittersweet chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

Over low heat, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, then add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites, and beat until very stiff, like little meringues.

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In another saucepan, heat the milk until simmering, but don’t let it boil, or it will curdle. Put a spoonful of the beaten egg white onto the hot milk. The idea is to poach the egg white so that it cooks slightly and holds it shape. It’s one of those things that is much easier in concept than in execution. Anyway, do this two egg white cakes at a time. Remove them to a paper towel and drain while you make the chocolate-cinnamon-vanilla custard.

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Beat the egg yolks and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Add the slightly cooled melted chocolate and the slightly cooled milk. The reason for allowing the chocolate and milk to cool is because if you don’t, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs. I mean, how gross is that? Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock would kill me! Anyway, stir this mixture together in the same double boiler under low heat, until it thickens to the texture of thin cream. Like this.

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Allow the chocolate custard to cool for about 5 minutes, then spoon into fancy glasses, top with the poached egg white, drizzle some of the remaining custard on top, and refrigerate for an hour, to set.

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Eat, then lie back and think of England. If you can still breathe, of course.

Food in Films – The Godfather Part III

I don’t even want to hear it, you Godfather III haters. I happen to think this film is an underrated masterpiece. No, it doesn’t come close to the jewels that are the first two Godfather films, but to me, The Godfather Part III it has a dark beauty and pain that makes it its own work of art.

I’m on a Godfather kick lately, probably because of the change of season. Something about the dark, cold winter makes me want to snuggle in and watch The Godfather trilogy. I think it has something to do with the colors of the films. The shades and hues are deeper, richer, more jewel-like in tone and the underlying sense of darkness in all three films goes well with the darkness of this season.

Also, I just think Andy Garcia’s performance in this film is stunning. He is the perfect embodiment of the new Don and it doesn’t hurt that he is one mighty fine piece of eye candy. I actually liked his character, Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone, better than any other in this film. He is cold, ruthless, has no problem in killing his enemies to get them out of his hair, and yet, has a soft and romantic side that you see when he falls in love with Michael’s daughter Mary (and his cousin – yikes!) and takes her under his protection.

Another reason why I also love this film is the theme of possible redemption and ultimate paying the price for the choices made in life. That is, after all, the place Michael Corleone has come to in this film. He is older, has worked to take his family out of crime and become respectable, and in the opening scenes, has just received a medal of honor and honorary title from the Pope himself. Kay, his former wife, has remarried and stays far away from him, and he’s been estranged from his children for many years. At the party celebrating his Papal honor, you see Kay, his children, his sister Connie and many other family come together to celebrate, in scenes very reminiscent of the opening of the first film when Connie gets married. Vincent and his mother Lucy Mancini – remember the scene in the first film when Sonny is banging the bridesmaid upstairs? – yup, Vincent is the result! Anyway, he’s a real tough guy, has his own criminal career on the upswing and is drop-dead gorgeous. Mary sees him and it’s love at first sight.

The film trajectory follows Michael as he tries in his own way, to make amends with his children, reconcile with Kay and, once and for all extract his family from the Mafia that controls most gambling, casinos, drugs, prostitution and other such activities. Needless to say, he doesn’t succeed. After an attempted assassination in Atlantic City where all the old-school Mafia dons are killed by an upstart Mafioso called Joey Zaza (played with a stylishly stupid menace by the wonderful Joe Mantegna), Michael reflects on the difficulty of changing his life, saying before he collapses into a diabetic coma, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Pretty much sums up The Godfather’s life.

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Anyway, I personally loved the romance between Mary and Vincent. I highly doubt they are the only cousins ever to fall in love and have an affair, and in my opinion, it’s handled with tact and delicacy, because Vincent so clearly wants to protect her above all else. He loves her and is attracted to her, it’s obvious, but the protective side of him is what I found lovely and sweet. When she comes to his apartment after the attempt on her father’s life and he teaches her to make gnocchi, it was romantic and soooooooo sexy.

I sometimes wonder if this particular scene was one of the reasons I so wanted to learn to cook, in the hopes that someday I would reenact this scene with someone. Without removing any clothes or showing any nudity, that scene left no doubt that these two were going to burn the place down with their passion. So of course I had to make gnocchi!

Gnocchi, if you don’t already know this, are little dumplings seasoned with salt. Simple to make, and this method adds the flavorful twist of pumpkin, sage, butter, garlic, and ricotta cheese to create these little bundles of deliciousness.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
Pinch of sea salt
Good grinding of fresh black pepper
2 eggs
1 cup flour, plus lots more for dusting
4 tablespoons salted butter
Large bunch of fresh sage leaves
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Combine the ricotta cheese, the pumpkin, the garlic, the eggs, the pepper and the salt in a large bowl and mix well to combine.

Add in the flour and stir until just mixed. It’s supposed to be sticky but still workable so just go by feel.

Flour a surface or a rolling board very well, place the sticky dough on the floured surface and flour the top of the dough.

Cut the dough into quarters, then roll each quarter into a long rope shape.

Cut 1-inch dumplings from each dough rope, and using a fork, press the tines into each dumpling to give it the classic shape. The tine marks also help sauce adhere to the gnocchi dumpling. I was fortunate to have help today in the form of my friend Tina and her grandson Michael, who helped with the kneading, rolling and fork-tining. It was great fun!

Lay the dumplings on a baking tray and chill for at least an hour, if not more. When you’re ready to cook them in the butter-sage sauce, you want them to be cold so they retain their shape.

Heat a large potful of salted water and boil 6 gnocchi until they float, the remove and repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.

Melt the butter and oil in a large skillet until it starts to sizzle. Fry 6-7 cooked gnocchi until they brown nicely on either side, and again, repeat until all the gnocchi are fried.

Add the sage leaves and fry until crisp, roughly 20-30 seconds. Don’t let them burn. Remove and set aside.

Pour the butter-sage sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle over a generous handful of the Parmesan cheese.

A wonderful dish! Warming, hearty and the flavor of pumpkin goes deliciously with the sage and Parmesan. My gnocchi were a bit stodgy, but I imagine with practice, that will improve. A keeper……..if only Vincent Corleone were the one showing me how to roll out the gnocchi, I’ve no doubt they’d be perfect. Or burned. 🙂