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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The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

I have to say I’m a bit peeved by this book. The Dinner List has a totally fascinating premise that takes that old idea of picking five people you’d want to have dinner with, whether living or dead, and runs with it………..and then, sadly, totally drops the ball. The main character, Sabrina, is having her 30th birthday dinner with her best friend, when unexpectedly, five people show up, including the late, great Audrey Hepburn.

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Yes, Audrey is a guest at this dinner party. Turns out that Sabrina was named after the iconic, eponymous character from Audrey’s film also starring Humphrey Bogart. The other guests are people who Sabrina hasn’t seen for years and all of whom have had a significant impact on her life. Her long-lost father shows up, an influential professor from her college days, and Tobias, who is presented as her ex with whom she lived for many years. So yes, the premise is fascinating and had so much potential to be a wonderful book about our life influences, who we would like to see and talk to, the meaning of life, etc. But irritatingly, it ends up being a treatise on getting over one’s first love. In other words, it’s chick-lit and we all know how I feel about chick-lit. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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It turns out Tobias and Sabrina have split up and she is still trying to come to terms with their breakup. They’ve had a typical long-term relationship – meeting in college, becoming involved, breaking up and reuniting, blah blah blah. Literally nothing in their relationship was unique. They were like any other couple. I think what gradually began to wear on me was the fact that this book has one of the most fascinating literary devices I’ve read about in ages – the dinner party with five people of your choice from history or from real life who can be either living or dead – and uses it as the backdrop for what ends up being a rather pedestrian and boring love story.  (sigh) And of course, the great shocker, the major “wow” moment of the book is something that I had figured out from Chapter 2.  SPOILER ALERT: Tobias is already dead and that’s why she has to get over him and that’s why he showed up to this dinner party.

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Well hell, no one could have seen that one coming. (As I roll my eyes in exasperation.) I mean, come on. If you could pick any five people from anytime in history to break bread with, wouldn’t you, firstly, choose people with whom you could have conversations about the meaning of life, etc? Don’t you think you’d want to talk about their lives, their impact on the world? My five dinner party guests would include Jesus of Nazareth, Cleopatra, Johannes Gutenberg, Barack Obama and Miguel de Cervantes, and I promise you that we wouldn’t spend a moment talking about our love lives. So therein lies the root of my annoyance. I hate to waste valuable time reading a book that ends up being so completely different from what I supposed it to be. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nicely written and again, the premise had so much potential. But the final execution was just……simplistic, pedestrian. Meh. However, the redeeming feature of the book are the food passages, like this one.

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The waiter comes over for the second time and I just jump in. “I’ll have the friseé salad and the risotto,” I say. I send Conrad a look. He nods. “The scallops,” he says. And some of those aphrodisiacs.” The waiter looks confused. He opens his mouth and closes it again. “Oysters,” Audrey clarifies wearily. “I’ll have the same, with the friseé salad.”

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Doesn’t risotto with seafood sound DIVINE? I chose to use shrimp with mine, based on this recipe from The Proud Italian Cook blog.

INGREDIENTS
1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 carrot, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 celery rib, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup good quality white wine
4 cups homemade stock. I used my precious last jar of turkey stock from Thanksgiving.
6-7 sage leaves
1 lb raw shrimp, thawed, deveined and shelled
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Peel, seed and cube the butternut squash, and roast at 425F for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

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Heat the stock in a large saucepot until simmering, then lower the heat so it stays hot but isn’t boiling.

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Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet, and sauté the carrot, shallot, celery and garlic for about 10 minutes, until fragrant. Sprinkle over some salt at the beginning of cooking.

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Add the Arborio rice to the cooked vegetables, stir together so that the oil and vegetables coat the rice and the rice toasts a bit (called la tostatura) but don’t let the rice burn. Stir for about 5 minutes.

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Splash in the half-cup of white wine and stir again.

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Add in one ladleful of hot stock to the rice and stir until the liquid absorbs. Plan on this part of the process taking about 20-30 minutes so be patient and have your own glass of wine nearby. Keep adding one ladleful of stock at a time and stirring until the liquid absorbs, before adding more. It’s really rather Zen to do, calming and soothing.

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After about half an hour, the rice should have absorbed all the liquid and cooked to a fluffy yet al dente (to the tooth) consistency, meaning it should still have a bit of bite in texture. Add in the butternut squash and stir together to mix.

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In a hot stovetop grill pan, cook the shrimp about 2 minutes per side, until pink and cooked through.

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Add to the rice and squash mixture, and toss over some finely chopped fresh sage. Salt and pepper to taste, and apply to your face. DIVINE!

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The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Kate Morton is, for me anyway, hit or miss. I loved The Lake House, and have plans to blog it sometime in the future. I disliked The Forgotten Garden because it was just so implausible. But I really enjoyed The Clockmaker’s Daughter. It is precisely the type of book I love – fictional but set during the Victoria era in England, a mysterious house, a group of artists, a mystery going back over 100 years, and even some eerie haunted house action.

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The premise is pretty simple. Elodie, a young lady living in modern-day London, works as an archivist and discovers a hidden satchel in her office one day. The satchel, as it turns out, belonged to a famous Victorian-era painter named Edward Radcliffe who suffered a major tragedy in his life and stopped painting before his masterpiece – which was never found – could be finished. In the satchel is his sketchbook with a portrait of a house which Elodie recognizes, though she’s never been there before. There is also a photograph of a gorgeous young woman, Lily, who was used as Radcliffe’s model, though her true  identity is unknown.

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It’s Lily’s character who is the narrator throughout the book, though in a very unusual way. SPOILER ALERT: Lily is a ghost who haunts the mysterious house seen in the sketch book and oddly recognized by Elodie, and how she got to be the resident spirit haunting the house is a major storyline in the book. It’s actually quite a clever literary device, I thought, and it doesn’t mar the flow of the words. I hate that, when a writer tries something they think will be “cool” or “new” and it ends up being more irritating than anything else.

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In feeling, this book reminded me of The Little Stranger, which I blogged last year, and which is truly one of the more eerie books I’ve read in the past few years. Anything with the whole haunted house vibe already earns brownie points in my book, and the house in this book is straight outta literary porn – hidden compartments, twisty staircases, leaded windows that may or may not reflect ghostly presences, a huge, sprawling garden in which anything can happen, and of course, those wide-windowed bedrooms that hide forbidden love affairs, hidden diaries, and any number of secrets.

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I think the only character I didn’t much care for Elodie. I know I’m mean sometimes, but goddamn it, grow a spine already! Sheesh. What a total and complete wimp this girl is. She’s engaged to someone she acknowledges she doesn’t feel deeply for, she is totally happy to let others plan her wedding and essentially run her life, she refuses to tell her landlady Mrs. Berry that she’s moving out to get married, and she is so out of touch with her own emotions and motivations that she can’t figure out why she keeps using the mystery of the satchel and the sketchbook and the photograph of Lily as her escape. HELLO! You don’t want to marry the guy, sweetie! It’s not rocket science! I saw that on page 4. But I like strong women so it’s no surprise that she vaguely aggravated me. 🙂 Anyway, she and  Mrs. Berry have a lovely ritual of having a cocktail together in the afternoons, and being that I fell in love with this drink when I was in Venice, it seemed quite appropriate to recreate it here.

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She reappeared carrying a tray loaded with a jug fizzing orange. Mrs. Berry had been on a trip to Tuscany with her watercolor group the previous year and had developed a penchant for Aperol Spritz. She filled a generous glass for each of them and passed one across the table. “Salute!”

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INGREDIENTS
3 ounces Aperol
3 ounces Prosecco
1 ounce soda water
3-4 ice cubes
Orange for garnish

METHOD
In a large wineglass or old-fashioned glass, put the ice cubes.

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Pour over the Aperol. Isn’t it pretty?

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Pour over the Prosecco.

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Add the splash of soda water.

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Garnish the glass with the orange slices, admire the color and be reminded of sunset in Venice before chugging it down. Good stuff! But it goes down so smoothly that you don’t feel it, at least until you try to stand up and can’t. Not that it’s ever happened to me.

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Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I am a diehard Bond Girl. I’ve seen all the films, read all the books and of course, have my own opinions about who has been the best Bond of all. Having a major crush on Timothy Dalton, I am biased in his favor, but there is also something to be said for the talents (not to mention eye candy quality) of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. All three are are quite handsome in a rough-hewn, craggy kind of way. Pierce Brosnan, though also quite a gorgeous specimen of the male gender, was a bit too polished and smooth for my taste. Roger Moore and George Lazenby were the weakest Bonds, in my book (haha!).

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In rereading Casino Royale, I came to the conclusion that the reason these rough-around-the-edges cinematic 007s are more to my taste is because they are closer to his book character, which is why I like them. A man who is elegant and polished, yet still has that roughness, that “throw down,” is incredibly sexy to me.

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James Bond is not a very likable character, for all his perspicacity as a spy. He’s witty, urbane, but with that dark edge that allows him to use people and not care about his effect in their lives. It’s not just with women, although they do tend to be rather interchangeable and disposable. As an agent provocateur, it is probably a matter of life or death to be able to sharply and coldly cut someone out of one’s life, and this aspect of Bond’s character is much more apparent in the books, as his thought process and internal meanderings are well described. In Casino Royale, you get the origin of his coldness toward women, when he meets and falls hard for Vesper Lynd, a fellow secret agent who initially is not very impressed with Bond…..which, of course, intrigues him It’s such a typically male response to a woman that it made me laugh.

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Vesper and Bond share a luxurious dinner at the Casino Royale, while they wait for the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre, whom they have been sent to watch and infiltrate his empire. Bond tells Vesper to order expensively and do honor to her fabulous evening gown. She takes him at his word and they order their meals.

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“I’d like to start with caviar and then have a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes souffles. And then I’d like to have fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Is it very shameless to be to certain and so expensive?” She smiled at him knowingly…………”While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing.”

Fraises de bois are wild strawberries, and difficult to find in New Mexico. However, seeing as strawberries and cream are one of my desert island meals, with the tartness of strawberries contrasting so nicely with a lightly sweetened cream, I couldn’t not make it to go with the centerpiece meal. An avocado pear, which is a half-avocado stuffed with whatever you like, is delish! Lobster and avocado have a natural affinity for each other and I love them together, the jade green of the avocado and the deep pink of the cooked lobster creating a beautiful food palette that’s almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And you can’t beat lobster for sheer luxury. I got mine at Nantucket Shoals, and I highly recommend you visit there, either in person or via their website.

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This is the method that worked for me for the stuffed avocado pear, taken from the great Emeril Lagasse, but with a few tweaks by me. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

For the avocado pear:
2 large avocadoes
2 cups lobster meat, cooked and finely cubed
1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise (see method below)
1 teaspoon of truffle oil

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Juice of one medium lemon
Fresh chives, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix together the lobster meat, the mayonnaise and the truffle oil. Let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

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Add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle in some sea salt if you think it needs it, but the homemade mayo has plenty of flavor and saltiness, so you may not.

Halve the avocadoes and carefully scoop out the meat, retaining their shape so that they form green cups. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice to keep the avocadoes from blackening.

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Put a large spoonful of the lobster mixture into each avocado half, so you have four tasty little green cups full of seafood heaven! Garnish with the chives and admire the beautiful pink and green deliciousness before chowing down. 007 would most certainly approve of this avocado pear!

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The homemade mayo was simply one egg yolk (organic and free range), 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one teaspoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of sea salt, and incorporated very slowly and whisked in drop by drop, a 3/4 cup of regular olive oil – all at room temperature. Don’t use a blender or it will be runny. I hand-whisked for 20 minutes and although it is quite an arm workout, the end result is so worth it.

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The strawberries, I simply marinated in Amaretto and lemon juice for about an hour, while I whipped some heavy cream with sugar and a dash or two of Campari liqueur. The Campari makes the cream a gorgeous, pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. It creates such a beautiful accent for the glistening, red strawberries. You pile it into a fancy glass and eat. Or, if James Bond were to drop by, you could have him feed it to you, berry by berry. (sigh)  A girl can dream!

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I would be a terrible Bond girl if I didn’t include this classic paragraph:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

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The Waiting Room by F.G. Cottam

F.G. Cottam is my new favorite author of horror, supernatural and paranormal fiction. He’s published several works, and I’d previously blogged The House of Lost Souls, which was the first book I read by him and the one that hooked me into his elegant, spare and eerie style of writing. The Waiting Room is a unique and creepy ghost story that incorporates elements of time travel, though not in a sci-fi way.

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The main character of Martin Stride reminded me a bit of Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, just in appearance and description. He’s been seeing and hearing ghostly apparitions on his large estate, his kids are having terrifying visions and dreams, and he consults TV ghost hunter Julian Creed for assistance, which is where the book starts. Creed is, of course, a total charlatan though a very good one, but when he actually experiences the terrifying haunting for himself, his entire perspective shifts.

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Elena is Julian’s assistant, and I loved her character. I think one of the main reasons I like Cottam’s books overall is because he writes so eloquently in the voice of his female characters and they are multilayered and intelligent. Sometimes, male authors try to write in the female voice and it can be jarring and usually irritating to me, but Cottam’s characterization of Elena and of Martin Stride’s wife Monica are incredibly well-done. Elena and Julian had previously been romantically and sexually involved, and though you don’t get the details, you know something bad happened that caused a personal, though not professional, rift. How they find their way back to each other is both romantic, sad, and plays a pivotal role in the book’s unusual but sad and uplifting ending, if that makes any sense.

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The haunting itself is fascinating, caused by the grieving parents of a wealthy WWI veteran who died. His parents are into the paranormal and decide to try some necromancy to bring him back. Big, big mistake. Big. Huge. If you’ve ever read the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which is one of the only stories that truly frightened me so badly that I had to sleep with the lights on, you’ll get an idea of why this is so not what to do with the dead.

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In an early sequence when Martin first encounters the haunting, he is out on his estate picking up apples from where they’ve fallen on the ground, bringing them home to his wife as she is baking pies. His estate contains an old, unused rail line and a dilapidated train station waiting room from the first World War, and it’s here that the specter appears.

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The waiting room lay to the east of the house, to its rear. One evening about a fortnight prior to seeking his meeting with Creed, Stride had been gathering windfalls in the orchard, which was situated a few hundred yards on from the kitchen garden. The orchard was small and ancient and the apples of a unique variety. They were good to the taste, but tart enough for baking, too.

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I had several apples gathered from friends’ trees and decided that it was time for me to tackle that old classic, apple pie. So here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts. Pre-bake one of the crusts and keep the other cold until ready to bake. You’ll see why below.
6 apples of any variety. I used 3 tart Granny Smith, 3 red and 1 Golden Delicious
1/2 cup of lemon juice
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 egg

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Peel, core and slice the apples.

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Put in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar, stir to mix and leave to macerate for up to 30 minutes.

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Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and pour in the apple mixture. Cook for 10-12 minutes until the fruit softens.

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Add the flour, the salt, the vanilla and nutmeg, stir, then cook gently for a few minutes until it forms a thick, caramely sauce.

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Pour the mixture into one of the empty pie shells.

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I’ve said before that no one is ever going to ask me to quit my day job to decorate cakes and pies, and they are right. I couldn’t work with the second, cold pie crust as it started breaking, so I got fancy and cut out heart-shaped dough pieces to cover the top of the pie. You can see how well it worked………not.

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Whisk the egg with a bit of water, and brush the egg wash over the top of the pie crust hearts.

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Bake for 45 minutes.

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Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or alone. Very tasty!

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

In honor of this month’s Fandom Foodie recipe takeover, of which I am the host and the theme of which is food based on Mexican literature and/or inspired by Day of the Dead – el Dia de los Muertos – as well as my adoration for this marvelous book Like Water for Chocolate, I decided to recreate the stuffed poblano peppers that Tita, the main character, makes for a wedding near the end of the book. This wonderful novel, which features a collection of recipes from turn-of-the-century Mexico, is also a sweet and tender love story, and also details the history, secrets, lies and loves of the De La Garza family.

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I loved this book as much for the cooking and luscious food descriptions as for the familiar family problems outlined. The bossy, mean matriarch of the family, her three daughters who play the traditional roles – for awhile, anyway – and the absent father. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of my own family dynamic growing up, and though we didn’t grow up on a farm near the Texas/Mexico border and though my sisters and I took care of my mother during her last illness and though there was love between all of us, there was still a painful dynamic at work in our coming-of-age. I would characterize my late mother’s relationship with her three daughters as complex.

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Back to the book. It’s a compendium of marvelous recipes such as quail with rose petal sauce, Christmas rolls stuffed with delicious ground meat, and a few other interesting variants. But for me, my ultimate, favorite recipe in this book (and my favorite food in Mexican cuisine) is the stuffed pepper. This particular recipe is called chiles en nogada. Here in my home state of New Mexico, stuffed peppers are called chiles rellenos, and different kinds of chile peppers can be used, which you stuff with cheese, then lightly coat in batter and fry. What’s nice about this particular recipe is that it doesn’t call for frying and you really can play around with the stuffing and flavors. Roasting and steaming the peppers and removing their skins is time-consuming, so this is one of those things you make with an entire afternoon to while away and want to really enjoy the creative process of cooking.

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Traditionally, this recipe uses only poblano chiles, but I wanted to honor my New Mexico heritage, so I threw a couple of Hatch green chiles into the mix, and made a few additional tweaks, which I will detail below. Serve with icy-cold Mexican beer or, my personal preference, a nice, sipping shot of good-quality tequila, or indeed, with a nice deep red wine. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

4 poblano chiles
2 Hatch green chiles
3/4 lb of ground beef, preferably 90% lean
1 cup of walnuts, toasted in a dry, hot pan

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Salt
Half a finely diced red onion
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 cup blue cheese crumbles (my twist on flavoring)
1 cup Cotija cheese crumbles

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1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (use sparingly)
1 cup Mexican crema
1 cup pomegranate anils

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METHOD

Turn on the oven broiler. When super hot, rub olive oil on the six chile peppers, put them on a flat baking tray, and roast them about 10-15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes so the peppers blacken on all sides. Remove from the oven and seal in an airtight plastic bag, and cover with a warm, damp cloth. The steam will further cook the peppers and make the skins easier to peel (in theory.)

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While the peppers are roasting and cooling, cook the ground beef, seasoning with salt, a bit of black pepper and a bit of cinnamon. When cooked through, remove to a plate and cook the onions and the garlic with a bit more salt until soft and translucent. Add the cooked ground beef to the onions and stir to mix again. Let cool slightly, then add the blue cheese crumbles and the Cotija crumbles to the meat-onion mixture. Add a large tablespoon of the toasted walnuts to the mixture, and stir so that everything is well mixed.

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Take the cooked, skinned peppers and make a slit down the middle. Rub some oil, grapeseed or olive, onto your hands like you’re putting on hand lotion. This will keep the seeds from burning your hands as you remove the stem and seeds from the chiles. Rinse and let dry.

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Put the Mexican crema, half the toasted walnuts, the rest of the blue cheese, a spoonful of the Cotija cheese, salt, pepper and another small bit of cinnamon, into a blender and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce.

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Fill the roasted, peeled chiles with the meat-onion-walnut-cheese mixture. Cover with the velvety white cream sauce, and garnish with pomegranates and the rest of the toasted walnuts. They are truly delicious, very subtle flavoring from the cinnamon which lightly offsets the tangy cheese and heat of the chiles.

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Not to mention they are simply gorgeous to behold!

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“The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious – never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them. The platters of chiles proudly wore the colors of the flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, and the red of the pomegranates.”

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‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

It’s my favorite time of year – the season of the witch! Yes, kiddos, Halloween is nearly upon us and as I do every October, I blog books that are scary, supernatural or just plain weird, and this month is no different. And of course, no scary book blog would be complete without the Big Bad Granddad of horror fiction – the inimitable Stephen King.

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the storyline. An updated version of Dracula, it features writer Ben Mears returning to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot – colloquially known as ‘Salem’s Lot – to write a book about the horrific experience he had at the town’s haunted mansion, called the Marsden House. Unbeknownst to him, the house has recently been purchased by a mysterious antiques dealer named Straker and his business partner, and strange deaths and disappearances start happening all throughout town. Ben joins forces with Matt Burke, a local teacher, and young Mark Petrie, whose friend Danny Glick (shown above) is one of the first to die. They figure out that Straker is the human servant of a vampire who is living in the Marsden House and creating more and more vampires with each person he kills. It’s one of King’s very first novels and is creepy as all get-out, more so now reading it as an adult.

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And for those of us whose childhood was forever traumatized by the 1979 film version of this scary-as-shit book, who can ever forget little Ralphie Glick at the window? Holy fuck! The ultimate creepy kid in a horror flick.

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One of the more disturbing subtexts involves the McDougall family, Roy and Sandy who are little more than teenagers, and their unwanted baby Randy. Sandy, a lousy teen mother, casually abuses Randy and Roy mostly ignores it, until he can’t anymore. This internal dialogue tells you exactly what he thinks of his wife and his life.

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He went up to the door, still steaming. His leg hurt where he had bumped it. Not that he’d get any sympathy from her. So what was she doing while he was sweating his guts out for that prick of a foreman? Reading confession magazines and eating chocolate-covered cherries or watching the soap operas on the TV and eating chocolate-covered cherries or gabbing to her friends on the phone and eating chocolate-covered cherries. She was getting pimples on her ass as well as her face. Pretty soon you wouldn’t be able to tell the two of them apart.

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Depressing as this subplot is, the thought came to me that chocolate and cherries together would make a delicious dessert, so I present chocolate pie in a chocolate crust topped with cherries and whipped cream, based on the Pioneer Woman’s classic chocolate pie, with a small flavoring tweak by me.

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INGREDIENTS
1 Oreo pie crust, pre-baked for 15 minutes and cooled
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
4 egg yolks, room temperature
7 ounces dark chocolate
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A can of cherry pie filling, or fresh cherries if you can find them
Whipped cream for topping

METHOD

Whisk together the sugar, the cornstarch and the salt in a medium-sized saucepan, then add the milk.

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Add the egg yolks, and whisk again until everything is well combined.

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Stir over medium heat for 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until it barely comes to a boil and thickens. Don’t leave it, because the sugar can burn very easily. Just keep stirring and you’ll see it come together, into a thick pudding texture.

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Remove from the heat. Add in the chopped chocolate and the vanilla and almond, and stir together.

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Add in the butter and watch it melt and make the texture rich and glossy.

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Pour the pudding into the pie crust and chill in the refrigerator a minimum of 4 hours uncovered.

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Cut into slices, garnish with whipped cream, and top with cherries. Eat and pretend there’s not a floating vampire boy staring at you through the window, gently scratching the glass with his fingernails asking to be let inside.

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Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society by Charles French

Being a fan of anything paranormal, I quite enjoyed Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, although there were some pretty gruesome parts, too. (And I admit that I was too damn hungry to pause for my usual book-and-food photo, so I improvised and did one with a glass of the wine I used in the recipe and the book itself……….see above.) I mean, I can handle horror and great scares, but I don’t do gore very well. Anyway, this book centers around three scholars who investigate paranormal goings-on. They have an investigative society, and it actually reminded me of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s creepy book Ghost Story, except that here, they take a much more active role.

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The three scholars, Roosevelt, Jeremy and Sam, are all grieving in their own ways, and this is part of what bonds them and makes up the very interesting back story. They’ve formed the Investigative Paranormal Society due to their individual interests in the supernatural and when they’re asked to investigate a “haunting” of a teacher’s niece, they instead find that the niece is being slowly possessed by the evil spirit of Maledicus, who’s a true badass evil bastard whose spirit was trapped in a statue in Ancient Rome for his horrific deeds and whose sheer evil spirit is so powerful that whoever takes possession of the statue throughout history is then possessed by his nasty spirit to wreak havoc. And boy, does he!

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Maledicus is pretty horrible in the book, and I had to skip over some of the more gruesome depictions of his torture methods. The characterizations of all the main characters are great, particularly the aunt Helen, but I like strong women. Charles French (you can see more of his writing here) is a really compelling writer, and his overall story hooked me quickly. My only real beef, and this is just my own style preference, was that the characters’ personalities were revealed very quickly in the narration. I prefer to slowly learn about characters through their actions, rather than have everything about them explained from the off. But that’s just me, and a minor complaint.

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Anyway, Michael Bruno is one of Roosevelt’s oldest friends and a Catholic priest in the book, and when Roosevelt asks him to take part in an exorcism attempt to forever rid the world of Maledicus from the body of the little girl, they do it over a delicious Italian meal, which of course, includes a bottle of Chianti. As well it should!

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Marcelo’s was a small Italian restaurant located approximately halfway between Bethberg and St. Bernard’s College. Since both Father Bruno and Roosevelt enjoyed Italian food, it was a natural meeting place for the two men……….They had finished their main courses: Bruno ate Scungilli Alla Marinara, and Roosevelt had Shrimp Scampi. They were sharing a bottle of Chianti. Roosevelt poured another glass for both of them.

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Shrimp scampi is a funny play on words, because the word “scampi” is one of the Italian words for shrimp, so you’re having shrimp shrimp when you eat it. I just love a cute foodie play on words, which is probably why scampi is my favorite shrimp dish to make. I cooked this version, using rosé wine, and it was DELICIOUS! And the best part is you can drink the rest of the wine with the meal! Win-win. Anyway, this is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 lbs raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (enough for 5-6 people)
8 cloves of garlic, 4 grated and 4 thinly sliced
5-6 green onions
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup rosé wine
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 lemons
Fresh parsley for garnishing

METHOD
Slice the garlic into thin slivers.

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Do the same with the green onion.

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Gently saute in a pan with the butter, olive oil, and salt.

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Add the wine and the juice of two lemons and let simmer another few minutes, until the sauce reduces and thickens.

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Toss in the shrimp and let cook until they are pink. Don’t overcook them or they’ll be rubbery. And who wants to eat a rubbery shrimp? Not I!

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Serve over Basmati rice that you’ve cooked in chicken broth, and garnish with the parsley and lemon slices. The sauce is divine, and with that much garlic, you’ll be certain to ward off any evil spirit, even one as god-awful as Maledicus!

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Probably one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because I love ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill House is effective because it doesn’t actually show any ghosts, there are no murderers chasing anyone, no demons possessing souls, no vampires sucking blood, no monsters under the bed. There is just the house, which both epitomizes and contains what we should call pure evil.

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I remember reading this book one very hot summer when I was in my early 20s, sitting outside on a shaded patio while the sun blazed overhead. Not a remotely scary environment in which to read a ghost story, and yet I was totally freaked out reading this book. Every noise made me jump, every shadow in my peripheral vision seemed threatening, and I ended up sleeping with the lamp on that night.

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What’s interesting in this book is the house itself is a character. It has as many characteristics as the four people who come to stay in it for a week, studying the supernatural environment Hill House is known for and hoping to evoke otherwordly occurrences. Boy, do they!  The main character, Eleanor, around whom the novel revolves, is probably one of the more irritating characters in literature. She’s an interesting character study if you can get past her annoyingness, though. Is she insane? Is she psychic? Is everyone in the house having a collective supernatural hallucination? Is Eleanor as alienated as she feels, or is she just super self-centered? My God, I wanted to smack her at times! Perhaps readers are supposed to feel sorry for her, yet when she took off up that spiral staircase and made everyone chase her, I found myself snapping at her  “Pull your head out of your ass, woman!”

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Early in the book, as Eleanor makes her way toward Hill House and her fate, she loses herself in imaginings about what her life will be like going forward. She passes a lovely house in a town with stone lions outside, and daydreams of her life there, being waited upon and  served meals.

A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a silver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table……..I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam.

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I wanted to recreate this simple-sounding meal in my own style, but I wasn’t about to go full-on Martha Stewart and make my own plum jam. So I did a little research and found this recipe for roasted chicken with plums, which is Persian in origin with the sumac seasoning, and that sounded marvelous. I added a few of my own touches,using chicken thighs instead of a whole bird, roasting and caramelizing lemons with the plums, and because I am all about roasting vegetables, alongside the chicken I served sliced radishes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
12 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
2 lemons , quartered
2 tablespoons ground sumac, found at Middle Eastern groceries or click here
2 tablespoons ground allspice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fruity wine, red or white. I actually used a rose wine.

For the plums:
2 red or black plums, cut into chunks
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper

METHOD

Make sure your birds are at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lay your chicken thighs skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Mix the sumac, allspice, cinnamon, lemon zest, minced garlic salt and pepper together in a bowl, add the olive oil and pour this over the chicken. Add the lemon, pour over the wine, cover and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Chop up the plums into rough chunks and mix with the sliced shallots, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper, the honey, and olive oil. Mix together and let the flavors combine.

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Add the plums to the chicken during the last 30 minutes  of cooking at 350F, and leave them in when you increase the heat and bronze the thighs at 450F.

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Remove the foil from the chicken, turn up the oven to 450F, and cook for another 30 minutes so the bird pieces get bronze and the skin crisps up. When you remove the chicken for the last time to cool before serving, give a final stir so that cooked plums mingle with the flavors of the bird, the lemon, and all the spices and seasonings. Let rest, and serve with the lemon-zested roasted radishes. A marvelous dish! Exotic, subtle flavors and somewhat complex, with just a hint of the Casbah, yet familiar enough to taste comfortingly of home.

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t read this book until just a few months ago, and I could kick myself for not having devoured it sooner. Such a marvelous universe, this alternate world of circuses and magic and love. It actually put me in mind of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that sense of whimsical magic and a slightly odd world similar to our own, but one much more unusual, spellbinding and mystical.

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Celia and Marco are the proverbial star-crossed lovers, though in this case, they are also opponents in a seemingly eternal game of spells and magic set in a mysterious circus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated with the circus. It’s always had a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter sense to me, the striped tents, the calliope music, the death-defying feats of acrobats and contortionists swinging high above or twisting themselves into improbable shapes…..and the ringmaster himself, whip in hand. (In fact, if you’re into circuses and the unusual and/or supernatural, you’ll love the podcast The Magnus Archives, which has a very creepy and weird circus as a main storyline, so give it a listen if so inclined.)

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The circus itself appears overnight, with its attendant staff. Black and white and red are its colors, and it is the backdrop for Marco and Celia, who initially do not realize they are meant to be in opposition to each other, to perform their illusions and spells. They have been trained since they were children for the competition by their respective father figures, both of whom are total and complete bastards. Of course, they fall in love but it’s not a love that is easy nor does their path run smoothly. Well, it never does, does it?

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It’s not a romance, though the love story at its heart is pivotal for the book. With the circus called Le Cirque des Rêves – Circus of Dreams – it would be more accurate to say it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike swathe of crimson velvet words, ice clouds of images, mystical spells that turn clothing into birds, and just an overall sense of magic and mystery. Even the more minor characters are lushly described, and all play a key role in how the ultimate destiny of the circus comes about. Chandresh is one of these side characters who plays a huge part in the outcome. He hosts divine midnight dinner parties for many of the book’s magicians, bringing together the main characters in some of the most sumptuously described food passages I’ve read in ages.

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The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.

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So the figs. Oh, the figs. A delicacy that I can only get a few times in the early autumn, I had to do something with this amazing fruit that I love so much. Not being much of a sweets eater, I thought something more savory would be delightful. Hence, prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese and glazed with a bourbon-butter sauce seemed a simple, yet delectably delicious way to enjoy this amazing fruit.

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INGREDIENTS
6 fresh figs
12 slices prosciutto
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Sea salt for sprinkling

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Slice each fig in half lengthwise, to make 12 fig halves.

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Using a melon baller, scoop out some of the fig.

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Stuff each fig opening with a teaspoon of blue cheese.

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Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each stuffed little fig.

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Repeat with the other figs, and lay out on a baking tray.

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Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the prosciutto crisps and you can smell the mingled scents of sweet fig, salty prosciutto. and and savory cheese oozing together.

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While the figs are baking, melt the butter and brown sugar and add the bourbon. Cook on high and make a reduction of thick, luscious brown syrup.

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Remove figs from oven, and gently pour the bourbon syrup over them, and sprinkle over some sea salt. Allow to cool, and cram down your throat. You could say they’re magically delicious!

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