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. 🙂

Reblog from This Is My Truth Now Blog

I was pleased and honored to be asked to contribute James Cudney’s blog This Is My Truth Now. He asked me to contribute some cooking advice and I was happy to oblige. If you have time, I highly suggest checking out his blog. He shares book reviews and other amazing posts and suggestions for living a better life. Hes a terrific writer and has published 2 full-length novels already, both of which are wonderful reads. Thanks, Jay, for giving me the opportunity to be part of your writing world!

Here is the link to his post: https://thisismytruthnow.com/2020/01/24/tips-advice-general-life-cooking-guest-post-by-vanessa/

The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz ZafĂłn

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz ZafĂłn’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David MartĂ­n, and FermĂ­n Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile FermĂ­n and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including MartĂ­n, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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Food in Films – Star Wars: A New Hope

It’s the end of an era. Or at least, the official end of the Star Wars films. I haven’t actually seen the last film, but I have an idea of how it ends. Don’t spoil it for me in the comments! That being said, part of what I did to prepare for this end game was to watch the original trilogy over the weekend. I’d forgotten I had it and it was such a great trip down memory lane. I still remember seeing Star Wars: A New Hope for the very first time as a kid at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe. I was blown away, as I think every impressionable kid and teenager was at the time.

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It’s definitely a cultural icon, if you think about it. How many movie lines can you quote? I can probably quote all three of the original trilogy, so don’t watch with me if that irritates you. How many references to the film are part of our society? Endless references, I imagine, my favorite being when Ross fantasizes about Rachel in a Princess Leia costume on Friends. Can you imagine a world without Darth Vader’s ominous breathing, Luke Skywalker’s youthful naivete, Princess Leia’s iconic cinnamon-bun hairdo, Chewbacca’s growly yells, Han Solo’s swaggering arrogance, C3P0’s pedantic words, and of course, the great Obi-Wan Kenobi? I certainly can’t.

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Obi-Wan might be my favorite character in all the Star Wars films, besides R2-D2. There is just something about the classic archetype of the mentor figure that draws me. Characters like Gandalf the Grey, Professor Albus Dumbledore, Merlin the Wizard, and of course Obi-Wan, are so fascinating. The magician/wizard/mentor who guides the young knight in his quest to find the treasure is a classic trope in every culture.

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Having studied the Tarot for many years now, I also found wonderful parallels between Obi-Wan and the figure of the Magician in the Major Arcana. The Magician is symbolic of both earth and heaven, or the joining of the esoteric with the widely known, the shadow with the light. If Star Wars were a deck of Tarot cards, Obi-Wan would be the perfect embodiment of the Magician, being completely at one with The Force and at the same time, tied strongly to his physical life, demonstrated by the fact that he chooses to go into hiding until such time as he can play a role in the events of Luke’s life. I suppose the combination of the earthly and the divine attract me because, if you think about it, we as humans are all that combination of faulty humanity constantly struggling toward divine oneness with the Universe.

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Also, he has what, IMHO, is one of the most rad lines in the film series:

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The symbolism is also pretty interesting, too. Light versus dark, black versus white, The Force versus The Dark Side, the son overtaking the father……you see a lot of traditional Judeo-Christian imagery in the trilogy. If you want to stretch the analogy even further, you could argue that Obi-Wan, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker represent the Holy Trinity – Darth is the Father, Luke is the Son, and Obi-Wan is the Holy Spirit. There’s the whole story arc of rebirth and redemption, which is about as symbolic as you can get.

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I thought about what kind of food might be both fun and tasty to recreate for this latest Food in Films post. I considered blue Banta milkshakes; frog legs from the scene where Jabba the Hutt eats the frogs in the third film; Cornish game hens to stand in for the cute little Porg creatures; or even some kind of floaty fruit like what Anakin manipulates to try and impress PadmĂ© in the Clone film, but being the dork that I am and loving a good food pun, I give you……..wait for it…………Obi-Wan Cannoli. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
6 cannoli shells
1 cup finely diced prosciutto or other ham
1 cup Ricotta cheese
Zest of one large lemon
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Fresh mint and basil
1/2 cup capers, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix the finely chopped prosciutto with the Ricotta cheese until well combined.

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Add in the lemon zest and some sea salt, taste for seasoning and mix.

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Add in the Parmesan cheese and the mint and basil, and taste again. Adjust the seasoning as needed.

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Spoon the cheese mixture into a large plastic bag and refrigerate for an hour.

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Assemble your cannoli on a large platter.

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Snip a small hole in one corner of the plastic bag and squeeze the cheese filling into each end of each cannoli shell until each is filled, then garnish the ends with the chopped capers. Serve with marinara sauce for dipping and some good red wine, and know that The Force will be with you…….always.

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Talking To The Dead by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore has such a lush style of writing that you often don’t notice she’s sucking you into a maelstrom of subtle discord until it’s too late. Talking to the Dead is the first book by her I’d ever read and her literary style is absolutely amazing, combining the understated unease of family dynamics with the terror of repressed memories and the unacknowledged horror of how our childhoods can not only screw us up, but others as well.

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Nina, a London photographer, comes to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has just given birth to her first child. Isabel’s gay best friend Edward has also come to stay. Nina’s brother-in-law Richard soon starts playing a major role in her life as she cooks for her sister and begins remembering the mysterious death of her and Isabel’s infant brother. The descriptions of a long, hot, drought-ridden summer in England resonate with burning sunshine, apple trees dropping their fruit-laden branches, scalding rivers, and lush descriptions of food. Chicken risotto, rustic bread smeared with unsalted butter and homemade apricot preserves, cream-filled doughnuts, and an ultimately doomed celebratory feast featuring figs, couscous with goat cheese and roasted vegetables, and……..the soup. Keep reading. It gets better.

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This novel is one of those rare birds that feature wonderful writing, sensually lavish descriptions of food, and characters that are both unlikable and yet addicting in their dysfunction. Toward the end, a celebration dinner is planned and each character must cook a dish. Edward comes up with what sounded like garlicky, stinky heaven…….a shrimp and garlic soup, with coriander (cilantro to us desert flowers.) Nom nom nom! Garlic! Shrimp! Cilantro! A culinary holy trinity, as far as I’m concerned, and a smelling-to-high-heaven broth of deliciousness that you could feed to an angel. But don’t. Keep it for yourself and spoon it down with glee.

I’ll make a fish soup,” Edward says. “If we’re going into Brighton, I know a good fishmonger there. ‘Shrimp and garlic soup with coriander. It’s the fish soup that takes the time.”

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What a crock…….of soup!  This soup took no time at all, and the freshness of the ingredients, mixed with the strong saline flavor of shrimp, the heat of the garlic, and the pungent coriander, made this a true pleasure both to cook and to greedily eat.

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INGREDIENTS:
6 ounces of butter, preferably unsalted
6 ounces of flour
12-15 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
6 cups of seafood stock
1 cup good white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 tomato bouillon cube
2 bags raw shrimp, tails on
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Bunch of cilantro

METHOD
Melt the butter slowly over low heat using a heavy-bottomed metal or cast-iron pot.

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Gradually incorporate the flour one spoonful at a time, whisking like crazy. You don’t want to add all the flour at once, because it will turn into one big, floury-tasting lump. And who wants to eat a ball of flour? Not I. I found the best method for amalgamating the flour into the butter was to whisk when each spoonful of flour went in, then stir with a wooden spoon. Add the cayenne pepper, and the two cubes of bouillon cubes, and stir to mix, so their flavors can mix and add to the roux.

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Slice the garlic into thin shards, saute them in a separate skillet to brown and bring out their flavors. Then add them to the roux.

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Increase heat to medium and slowly add the stock, continuing to whisk so that it mixes with the roux. Again, do this gradually and stir and whisk as you incorporate the liquid. Your soup will thank you.

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Simmer on low for about an hour so the flavors can mingle and mix, and you can enjoy the heady perfume of garlic, butter and roux. Add the white wine after about 30 minutes, so that it too, can flavor the broth. After the hour of cooking time, add the chopped cilantro and the lemon juice, and which will add even more scent to the broth. Allow to simmer another 10 minutes, then add the shrimp. These will not need long to cook, just until they turn pink.

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Garnish with a bit more fresh cilantro and eat with joy in your heart. This soup is soooooooo good, and perfect served with good, crusty bread and a glass of deep red wine. Enjoy!

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I suppose this book would fall under the category “chick-lit” which I generally loathe. However, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary years ago and remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and the film version with Renee Zellwegger, was similarly hilarious and heart-felt. It’s still as funny today and I found myself snickering yet again as I reread it last week. I suppose many of us who were singletons in our mid-30s could definitely relate to many of the themes in this book – wanting to find a relationship, parental issues, being stuck between two different lovers, trying to find the right job – but for me, the underlying theme that stood out to me then and now was the concept of loving yourself and finding someone who was going to love you just as you were, warts and imperfections and cellulite and all.

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We live in a society that idolizes appearance. We all want to look our best. These two elements combined have created a sense that if we don’t look homogenized, have long straight hair, have the perfect relationship, or be a size 6, that we are not worthy, not valuable, not lovable, not NORMAL. I think why this book resonates is because it shows that when you do kill yourself to look/be “normal” or all those catchphrases that society tells us we must adhere to, oftentimes we end up looking worse, feeling worse, not being true to ourselves. When we accept our faults and our quirky unique weirdness is when we are our true selves and when we are able and open to loving ourselves.

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The book, in a nutshell, is the adventures of Bridget Jones, 30-something, still single, and her quest for the perfect job, perfect weight, and perfect man. What makes it so hilariously funny is that she is about as far from perfect as you can get – in other words, she is just like us. She is funny as fuck, totally relateable as she goes from one disaster to another, constantly trying to stop smoking, quit drinking, drop pounds, etc.

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The film version is excellent, too, and actually I prefer her mother in the movie. Bridget’s mom in the book is a horrendous human being. She isn’t even funny. In the film, Gemma Jones plays her with a ditzy sympathetic self-centeredness, but the book Mrs. Jones is just a selfish, self-centered nightmare who really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself. She was quite an unpleasant character. Other than that, the book was most amusing.

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So of course Bridget is a walking disaster in the kitchen, which lends itself to possibly the funniest scene in the book, when she decides to cook herself and her friends a lovely birthday dinner. Of course, being Bridget Jones, it gets completely fucked up, and made even more hilarious by the fact that Mark Darcy shows up at her house as she is attempting her culinary masterpiece.

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7 p.m. Just got home. Right. Calm, calm. Inner poise. Soup will be absolutely fine. Will simply cook and purĂ©e vegetables as instructed and then – to give concentration of flavor – rinse blue jelly off chicken carcasses and boil them up with cream in the soup.

8:30 p.m. All going marvelously. Guests are all in living room. Mark Darcy is being v. nice and brought champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates. Have not done main course yet apart from fondant potatoes but sure will be v. quick. Anyway, soup is first.

8:35 p.m. Oh my God. Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue.
….
Horror-struck, took mouthful myself. It was, as he said marmalade. Realize after all effort and expense have served my guests:
Blue soup
Omelette
Marmalade

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Now, making an actual blue soup would be totally fun but I can’t imagine it would taste very good. So I decided to go another route and incorporate blue cheese into a spinach soup, and it was a most inspired decision, if I do say so myself.

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INGREDIENTS
5 ounces fresh baby spinach, preferably organic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 cup half and half (or full-fat milk)
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
1-2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup blue cheese crumbles

METHOD
Chop up the spinach finely and set aside.

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Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the flour to brown it, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn.

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Add the milk and keep whisking until the mixture thickens. You don’t want lumps so stirring continually is a good thing, and better yet, if you do it with a glass of wine in hand, you’ll feel confident and competent in the kitchen, just like Bridget Jones!

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Add the spinach, garlic cloves and salt and pepper, and stir.

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Add in the chicken broth, the chicken bouillon paste and the white wine, cover, and let simmer about 25-30 minutes.

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Tumble in the blue cheese crumbles and let melt into the hot soup.

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Decant into bowls and serve with more wine, in true Bridget Jones fashion. So good, rich and warming and decadent. Yum!

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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