Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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Sexy Sunday! Little Birds by Anaïs Nin

It’s Sunday near the end of Lent, so what else could I have possibly read except some hard-core erotica by one of the world’s foremost feminist writers? Yes, it’s Sexy Sunday again, and Nicole of The Bookworm Drinketh has posted her own take on this book – and her alcoholic escape – over at her blog, so once you’re done reading mine, take a gander at what naughtiness she’s up to today. Here’s the link.

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So. Anaïs Nin. If you’ve heard of Henry Miller or his book Tropic of Cancer, you’ll know about Anaïs Nin. Or if you’ve read her without any prior knowledge of her hot and heavy sexual affair with Miller, you’ll understand what I mean when I say “damn, Anaïs!” Little Birds is her collection of erotic short stories, and what’s fascinating about them is that she explores each facet of sexuality in such a nonchalant, detached way. Some of the stories are a bit subversive, touching as they do on teen sexuality (something we aren’t supposed to acknowledge), and the simple fact that women as as much sexual beings as men are.

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Nin writes very much writes from a sexually liberated viewpoint, and her erotica is very hard-edged and not written with what you might traditionally expect from a female writer in this genre, which is why these stories are so unique and, in my opinion, beyond the usual erotica. I’d imagine most people would expect more flowery, romantic prose, but Nin writes very straightforwardly. This is erotica versus plain ol’ pornography, and I don’t know about you, but I much prefer something erotic and that engages and arouses the mind as much as the body.

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My favorite line has to be this one. “He was whispering over and over again the same phrase, “You have the body of an angel. It is impossible that such a body should have a sex. You have the body of an angel.” The anger swept over Fay like a fever, an anger at his moving his penis away from her hand. She sat up, her hair wild about her shoulders, and said, “I am not an angel, Albert. I am a woman. I want you to love me as a woman.” I’d think any normal, red-blooded woman who enjoys sexuality feels this way. I know I do. I don’t want to be treated like a Victorian maiden made of glass…….I want my lover to understand that I am his equal in terms of desire, fantasies, wants, needs and sheer lust.

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The titular story details a perverted older man who lures the young women from the school across from his apartment up by putting little birds in cages on his balcony, then exposing himself to them when they come to see the birds. Pig. Perhaps I should have made a roast pig dish, but, well, what else was I going to make with that title? Pizza? Yes, I made some little birds and goddamn it, I’m not sorry. OK, I’m maybe a little bit sorry, because quails are so darn cute but I got over being sorry pretty quickly as I crunched into those tasty little baked birdies. Hey, there’s a reason we’re on top of the food chain!

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INGREDIENTS
6 quail, 5 ounces apiece
3 strips bacon, each cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste
1 head of garlic, roasted
Handful of fresh rosemary sprigs. minced
Handful of fresh thyme sprigs, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 cippolline onions, peeled and halved
2-3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 pound red grapes

METHOD
Rinse the quail and pat dry, and season with salt and pepper both inside and outside, and put a half-strip of raw bacon inside each quail cavity.

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Add some of the fresh rosemary and thyme into the bird’s cavity, then squeeze out the roasted garlic cloves and push one inside each bird cavity as well. Drizzle with olive oil and let marinate a good 1-2 hours.

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Heat oven to 450F. In a cast-iron pan, toss the halved cippolline onions with salt, pepper, olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Mix well.

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Bake the onions for 20 minutes, until they caramelize slightly and soften and brown a bit. Set aside.

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Spread the remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs out onto a baking sheet, lay the marinated quail breast-side down, and sprinkle over some of the minced fresh herbs. Roast for 25 minutes, until they have browned nicely.

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Turn the oven up to 550F. Remove the quails, turn them over breast side up, and and scatter around the roasted onions and the red grapes.

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Roast another 10-15 minutes, until the skin crisps. Remove, let rest a good 10-15 minutes, and serve with steamed asparagus. The grapes create a nice, not overly sweet sauce that melds with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and is so deliciously sensuous to eat.

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The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I love being scared, although I prefer my frights to come from supernatural elements like ghosts, vampires, demons, witches, and the like. Scares that come from real-life terrors like serial killers, home invasions, break-ins, freak me out so badly that I can’t read about them or watch them. It’s just too close to home, pardon the pun. Andrew Pyper is the kind of writer that perfectly expresses both the horror of the supernatural with the eerie “otherness” of human frailty, and he combines them perfectly in this bizarre and creepy read, so even though it ostensibly is about the breaching of one home’s security, it is also about the breaching of our own sense of identity and the concept of what home and security really mean. Which is scary enough to ponder in real life, I might add.

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The Homecoming follows the general trajectory of what you’d expect from a book with this title. Aaron, a surgeon, learns of his father’s recent death and joins his mother and two sisters Bridget and Franny, at the strange estate his father has mandated they must all stay at for 30 days in order to inherit the money in his will. The estate, called Belfountain, is unknown to them all, except it’s not really because Bridget starts remembering being brought there years earlier. So you know some weirdness is going to come at you from left field…………and yuppers, it does!

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They are joined by four other people who claim to be their siblings – you know, the ol’ sister from another mister kind of situation – and they all settle in, trying to come to terms with their father’s “betrayal” of having another entire family, and learning about each new sibling’s odd personal dynamics. And of course, the scary stuff kicks into high gear, including being chased by what appears to be a witch, being stalked by an ax-wielding crazy man, and being cut off from the world against their will. Odd memories start to surface in all of them, and even creepier, they all start to have the same unusual dream about water and being submerged, and you start thinking it’s some kind of supernatural telekinesis. But boy oh boy, it gets so much more messed up than that!

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Pyper is extremely talented at taking traditional horror tropes like demons, vampires, and other such monsters, and cleverly twisting them together with normal human neuroses until you can’t really be sure what the fuck is happening. He did it so well in The Demonologist, one of my favorite books of his, and he does it again here. This book is a twisted combination of Cabin in the Woods, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s recent creepy-ass film Us, in that it mixes together the ubiquitous isolated house theme with some messed-up family dynamics combined with the whole “strangers who look like us” and turns it into one of the more unnerving books I’ve read lately.

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When Aaron first arrives with his sister Bridget, their mother is already there, taking charge the way any mother might, getting the kids settled in their rooms, feeding them. It’s kind of funny to see these characters trying so hard to hang onto their sense of normalcy and their traditional family roles in the face of such a bizarre situation, but that is likely what any of us would do in similar circumstances. Hold onto our perception of safety and normalcy, until the illusion is torn away and we realize that there really is no safety and no normal in the world.

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By the time we gather around Mom, she’s laid out Tupperware containers of cold roast chicken, broccoli salad, spinach dip. Picnic food. We set to spooning it onto plates, eating as we stand there together, not wanting to return to the unprotected expanse of the dining room’s banquet table. “That shit’ll kill you,” Franny says as I drop a handful of potato chips onto the side of my plate. “And didn’t you used to run four times a week or something? No offense, Aaron, but don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”

Oh, siblings. Ain’t they just so great?

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Anyway, broccoli salad isn’t something I have made previously, but the idea of a broccoli-chicken salad, despite the negative overtones of church potlucks and picnics from my misspent youth in Catholic school, sounded pretty damn good. And it is Sunday, after all. It’s as close to church as you’re going to get me these days.

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INGREDIENTS
2 heads broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
6 strips bacon
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely diced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 chicken thighs, poached

METHOD
Blanch the broccoli florets by boiling them for one minute, then submersing in a bowl of ice and cold water. That way, they cook a bit but retain their color. (I hate raw broccoli so for me, this step is necessary but if you like raw broccoli, skip it.)

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While the broccoli is blanching, cook the bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel, and crumble. Set aside.

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Slice the green onions into small pieces, including the stems, and toss into a large bowl.

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Chop up the toasted walnuts and add to the bowl with the onions.

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Finely chop the poached chicken and add to the green onions, the walnuts and the cooled broccoli.

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Add the mayonnaise and the red wine vinegar to the chicken and onions, and mix together well until everything is nicely coated.

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Sprinkle over the bacon, and taste. This is a savory salad, so if you prefer some sweet contrast, add in some raisins or dried cranberries or perhaps some honey. I personally loathe and despise fruit and chicken together in a salad, so I love it just as it is, nice and salty and savory and full of green flavor. But I’m a salty bitch anyway, so it’s perfect for me.

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

The Last Supper, that immortal painting by the equally immortal Leonardo da Vinci, always fascinated me, even as a child. Just looking at it takes you into that world, sitting beside Jesus, watching the disciples react to the news he would soon die, and noticing the amazing details of the work itself.

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Reading The Secret Supper took me back to my days of persistently asking questions about the nature of religion and God, because this book raises almost as many questions as it answers. Being raised Catholic, of course I’d heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples to take this bread and eat it, and take this wine and drink it, and the mystery of transmogrification, so seeing this painting as a child made me start to question what I had been taught. Of course, when you’re young and asking questions about religion, it tends to not go over well. In this book, when the main character, Father Agostino Leyre, begins asking questions about the nature of faith, God, and Leonardo’s masterpiece, it’s no different for him.

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One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is its similarity to The Name of the Rose, my all-time favorite book in the world. The monks, the literary mystery, one man trying to answer questions………although this one is less weighty on philosophy. Still a marvelous read, if you’re into the Italian Renaissance and symbolism in paintings and Da Vinci himself. Or if you’re into references about Italian cuisine, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

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My stomach was making noises under my habit. With solicitude, the librarian led me to the kitchen and managed to rustle up a few scraps from suppertime………”It’s panzanella, Father,” he explained, helping me to a still-warm bowl that heated my freezing hands. “Panzanella?” “Eat. It’s a bread soup, made with cucumber and onion. It will please you.”

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Panzanella can be in the form of a soup, but is essentially a bread salad, rustic peasant food that used stale bread. Most likely, the very poor had only bread and onions as their panzanella base. It’s become traditional to include mozzarella, tomatoes and occasionally cucumbers, and an herb-based dressing with olive oil and vinegar, and being that I like to roast vegetables, I had the idea of roasting asparagus and garlic alongside the bread croutons, replacing the more usual cucumber which can get soggy. A traditional panzanella salad is delicious anytime of the year, and is also an excellent way to use up any bread or tomatoes you have lying around.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the New York Times version by the great Melissa Clark, with requisite changes by yours truly. As always.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 large head of garlic
1 stale baguette, cubed
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
2 large, ripe tomatoes at room temperature
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 bunch of fresh oregano
3 tablespoons capers
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Spread out the asparagus on a parchment-sheet lined baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle with more olive oil and some salt and pepper, and put into a well-soaked terracotta garlic roaster.

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Lay the cubed bread pieces on another baking sheet, and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Place all three items in the hot oven and bake for up to 20 minutes apiece, checking frequently. The bread will cook fastest so don’t let it burn and remove when it is golden-brown. The asparagus will take a few more minutes, and the garlic will take longest, so plan to cook it for up to 45 minutes.

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Cut up the tomatoes, and place them in a bowl with the mozzarella.

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Finely mince the onion, add a tablespoonful of garlic paste, and add to the tomatoes and mozzarella. Stir to mix everything.

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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Combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and the cut-up herbs in a large measuring cup, then slowly add in 3 tablespoons of Meyer lemon olive oil, whisking together to form a vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning.

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Add the cooled bread cubes to the tomatoes and cheese, then cut up the asparagus into smaller pieces and mix with the tomatoes and bread.

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Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the garlic head, and add to the tomato mixture. Toss in the capers and stir together.

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Pour over the vinaigrette, and stir to mix well. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, to let the bread soak up the delicious juices, which is the whole point of this dish.

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Enjoy with some grilled chicken or on its own as a light lunch, but don’t forget the wine. Jesus would never forgive you, nor would Father Leyre.

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Sexy Sunday! Exit to Eden by Anne Rampling (Anne Rice)

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS VERY EXPLICIT SEXUAL REFERENCES AND LANGUAGE! LUCKY YOU!

So Nicole at The Bookworm Drinketh and I are doin’ the sexy again…….no, not like that, you perverts! We’re revitalizing our blog collaboration Sexy Sunday, where we read a book notorious for its sex scenes, she blogs it in conjunction with a cocktail recipe, and I blog it in conjunction with a recipe. And yes, I know it’s Monday – I finished the blog and cooking yesterday so it still is technically a Sunday post…..I just don’t know how to schedule blog posts, apparently. 🙂 This is why I blog and cook and write, instead of work as an IT tech. Anyhoo………..

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By now, if you don’t know that Anne Rampling is actually Anne Rice, you must have been living under a rock. Anne Rampling is notorious for this steamy erotic novel that combines love with some very hot S&M sexual escapades. I think part of why I love this book so much, other than the fact that much of it is set in New Orleans (my favorite city in the world), is because the female protagonist is as open and shameless about her sexuality as is the male. She has fantasies, she has desires, and the beauty of it all is that her job is to indulge the sexual fantasies and desires of others, as well as herself. There’s no judgement, no shaming about female sexuality, and I just love that, particularly because when this book was written, in 1985, female sexuality was barely coming to forefront in literature. I mean, you had The Story of O, but beyond that, there was really nothing on this level of both sheer eroticism and erudite literary quality. Now, of course, you see books everywhere that purport to celebrate female sexuality – and I’m talking to you, Fifty Shades of Grey – but that in reality, are just badly written, purple-prose garbage. This book is the big, bad granddad of them all. Writers of erotica, take notice.

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The storyline is thus: Lisa runs a private resort island called The Club that caters to extremely wealthy  men and women who want to live out their most extreme and repressed sexual desires  revolving around sadism and masochism. Not to the point where anyone is really hurt, you understand, but gives people the opportunity to be sexual masters or sexual slaves as they so desire, indulging their wildest impulses with men, women, groups, etc. There are sports, activities, equipment, anything and everything that you’d find in a regular beach resort, except that this place is exclusively for fucking anyone you can get your hot little hands onto, in as many ways and within as many hot scenarios as possible.

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Elliott comes to The Club as a willing slave. He’s photojournalist who’s been through the wringer emotionally, having witnessed and photographed war, violence, torture, and abuse. The Club is essentially his way of dealing with all the violence he’s seen over the years, processing it all by giving himself a safe place in which to experience being out of control. If you think about it like that, acting out all your uncensored sexual fantasies in a completely safe and totally judgement-free environment, is a way better way to sublimate negative urges than drinking, drugs, or abusing yourself or others.

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Of course they fall in love, because that’s what’s at the heart of the book. They are both highly intelligent, literate, well-traveled, extremely sexual beings. And they have some pretty hot, wild, reverse-role sex on the island.

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“It’s worse than being whipped, isn’t it,” she purred, “being tortured with pleasure?”……. She’d picked up something from the dresser. It looked at first glance like a pair of flesh-colored, leather-clad horns. I opened my eyes to see it clearly. It was a dildo in the form of two penises joined at the base with a single scrotum, so damned lifelike the cocks seemed to be moving of their own volition as she squeezed the soft massive scrotum……It was marvelously well defined, both cocks oiled and gleaning, each with carefully delineated tips……”Ever been fucked by a woman, Elliott?” she whispered, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. Her face was moist, eyes large and glazed………She lowered the phallus and pushed one end of it up and into herself, her whole body moving in a graceful undulation to receive it, the other end curving outwards, and toward me just exactly as if she were a woman with an erect cock……..Then came that exquisite feeling of penetration, of being opened, that gorgeous violation as the oiled cock went in. Too gentle, too delicious, up to hilt, and then rocking back and forth, and a low buzzing pleasure coursing through all my limbs from that one heated little mouth. God, if she had only rammed it, made it a damned rape. No, she was fucking me…..she worked it like it was part of her, the soft rubber scrotum warm against me, just liker her hot naked belly and her hot little thighs. My legs had spread out. There was that overpowering sensation of being filled, being skewered, and yet that rich, exquisite friction. I hated her. And I was loving it…….She knew where she was driving it, rocking it. I was going to come, jerk right into the air.

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Whew! Let me fan myself a sec.

Then Lisa goes a little nuts and takes Elliott by private jet (and against Club regulations)  for a romp in New Orleans, where they proceed to have even more, hotter and intense sex, along with exploring the city and having adventures both in and out of the bedroom. Well, hell. Tons of sex. Hot main characters. Delicious food and my favorite city in the world. OF COURSE I love this book. In one of my favorite passages, Elliott takes Lisa to what I think is the best restaurant in New Orleans, the famous Pascal’s Manale on Napoleon Avenue, and they proceed to down platefuls of Manale’s amazing barbecue shrimp with bread and it sounds just delicious!

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And then came the barbecue shrimp, which was nothing short of fantastic, and she started in at once. I don’t think I could love a woman that couldn’t eat this barbecue shrimp. First of all the dish isn’t barbecued at all. It’s a mess of giant whole shrimp, with their heads on, baked in the oven in a deep dish of peppery marinade. They bring it to the table just like that and you tear off the heads of the shrimp and peel them and eat them with your fingers. It turns you into a gourmet, then a gourmand, then a barbarian. You can enjoy it white wine or red, it’s so peppery, but the best way is with beer………..

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Living in the Southwest, it’s difficult if not impossible to find Gulf Coast head-on shrimp, which form the basis of Manale’s shrimp dish. It’s the head that gives the dish so much extra flavor, with all that extra fatty tissue. But I did a bit of research and found this awesome version on the NPR website  which uses headless shrimp and offers added flavor variations to make up for the loss.

INGREDIENTS
1 pound headless raw, thawed shrimp, shell-on
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup Louisiana hot sauce – my twist
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil

METHOD

Wash and pat dry shrimp.

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Mix together all the dried spices with the garlic, the Lea and Perrins, and the Louisiana hot sauce in a large bowl.

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Pour the olive oil over the shrimp, and add the white wine.

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Add the oily, winy shrimp to the bowl of spices and stir to mix well.

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Add a large pat of butter to a hot skillet and dump the spice-flecked shrimp.

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Cook over high heat until the shrimp are pink and plump and finished. Don’t overcook the shrimp because they will become rubbery. And who the hell wants a rubbery shrimp?

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Serve the shrimp in a soup bowl. Eat with lots of napkins, some good hard-crusted bread for dipping up the delicious sauce, and either some cold white wine, room-temperature red wine, or an ice-cold beer. Hell, have all three! We’re not picky in this house.

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“Tell Me a Story” Podcast Interview about Food in Books

Hey, check out my interview with the wonderful Annette Rochelle Aben on her podcast!  Tell Me a Story

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The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre in the world, and anything set in my spirit country of Italy even more so. This marvelous book, The Chef’s Secret, not only meets both of those criteria, but it’s also about FOOD! And FORBIDDEN LOVE! and MYSTERY! And MORE FOOD! OK, I’ll calm down now, but you see why I am so excited about it. Aside from the fact that the author, the wonderful Crystal King, asked me to be part of the book’s publication by submitting a recipe for the companion e-cookbook, this book itself is so beautifully written, so full of familial and romantic and culinary love, that I, too, fell in love with it.

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Have you heard of Bartolomeo Scappi? Before Julia Child, before Jacques Pépin, before Emeril Lagasse and Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten and (my dearly departed future ex-husband) Anthony Bourdain, before the heyday of modern celebrity chefs, there was the immortal Scappi. He was personal chef to numerous cardinals and Pope Pius IV, was known to cook such exotic items as peacock, alligator and even fried chicken, and came to world fame when his meisterwork Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published in 1570. Though little is known about his personal life, this book tells the fictionalized account of his life in Renaissance Italy. And what a life it was!

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Scappi has just died in the opening pages, and his nephew Giovanni is mourning him terribly. Giovanni is the son of Scappi’s sister, and has been apprenticed to learn everything there is to be learned from his culinary genius uncle, and in fact, Scappi leaves him the bulk of his fortune, estate, and his collection of recipes that are hotly pursued and contested by rival chefs of the time. Among the papers he leaves to Giovanni is one book he requests be destroyed without being read. Well, in what literary world do you think THAT is going to happen? Of course Giovanni reads it, finding that it is written in a secret code, and attempts to decipher the mystery at the heart of his uncle’s life – the identity of the woman for whom Scappi had a deep, beautiful, abiding and forbidden love, whom he called “Stella” to protect her identity, and that colors the rest of Scappi’s life, and affects Giovanni in unexpected ways.

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Of course, this book brims over with luscious food passages and descriptions of simple meals, feasts, instructions on various kitchen utensils and equipment, table setting suggestions, and my personal favorite – roses carved from radishes by Scappi to show his love for “Stella.” But my own inspiration for the recipe I am detailing below and that was part of the wonderful e-cookbook, actually came from the passage when Giovanni meets Doctor Boccia in the street after Scappi’s death, and Boccia affectionately calls him “polpetta,” his endearing nickname for Giovanni reminding them both how they met when Giovanni was a young chef’s apprentice making meatballs.

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I was also incredibly touched, perhaps because I lost my mother to cancer during the time I was reading the book and developing this recipe, when I read the moving journal passage by Scappi’s affectionate family nickname for Giovanni – “little onion, cipollino.” Both affectionate names for Giovanni showed how loved he was by these figures in his life, which is the heart of the book after all.

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In Italian, what I made could be called polpette di vitello con pinoli, e cipolla con una riduzione di aceto balsamico, which has a lovely and poetic ring to it, in my humble opinion. 🙂 With that in mind, let’s go make some meatballs and onions in a balsamic reduction!

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For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon sea salt
Ground black pepper
2 large eggs, room temperature

Heat the oven to 400F. In a dry, hot pan, toast the pine nuts until they are golden brown and give off a nutty scent. Don’t let them burn. Remove from heat and allow to cool while you mix the other ingredients.

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With your hands, mix together the beef and pork. Add in the garlic, the parsley and the sage, and mix again.

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Add in the 1/4 cup of Asiago cheese and the cooled pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper.

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Add the eggs, and mix together again with your hands.

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Form small balls and lay them on a parchment-covered baking tray. Bake for 25 minutes.

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For the cipolline onions:
12 cipolline onions
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Lower the oven temperature to 350F. Peel the onions, trim the stems, cut them in half, and rinse them. Pat dry.

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Finely mince the rosemary.

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Heat a cast iron pan over medium high heat and and add the butter, the onions and sprinkle over the rosemary. Cook for 5-7 minutes on the stove.

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Transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes, until they brown and soften.

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For the balsamic reduction:
2 cups good quality balsamic vinegar. I used a Pinot Noir balsamic vinegar.
1 crushed clove of garlic

Pour balsamic vinegar into a metal saucepan, and add the crushed garlic clove.

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Boil on medium for roughly 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will reduce to a thick, syrupy glaze. Don’t leave it because the sugars in the balsamic vinegar can burn.

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Remove the garlic clove, and let cool slightly. Pour over the meatballs and cippoline onions. Eat immediately, with a glass of good red wine, and the spirit of Bartolomeo Scappi watching over you.

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Book Giveaway to Celebrate 500 Followers and Being Published in a Cookbook!

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Very excited to have reached 500+ followers this past Sunday! Thank you to everyone who reads my blog, follows it, and comments. Your support is truly appreciated, and I’m grateful every day that I’ve found this platform to share my writing, books I love, and food I enjoy cooking.

I’m also very excited to announce something I’ve had to keep under wraps for a couple of months. Crystal King, author of Feast of Sorrow, which I blogged about previously, has her second book out today, called The Chef’s Secret, and as part of the advance publicity for this new book, she published an e-cookbook made up of recipes from chefs around the world, and food bloggers, including yours truly! I am so honored and happy to have been asked to contribute a recipe based on the food in this amazing book!

To celebrate both this milestone for my blog, and for being part of the companion cookbook, which is available in e-format only, I am doing another book giveaway.  The winner of will not only get a hard copy of The Chef’s Secret, but will also receive an e-copy of the cookbook!

I will also randomly choose 10 of my longtime blog followers to receive an e-copy of the cookbook; and to top it off, the next 10 people to follow my blog will ALSO receive an e-copy of the cookbook! Just my way of saying thank you and showing my gratitude for everyone who supports Food in Books!

Thank you again for all your support since I started this blogging journey back in 2016. It’s opened me up to new literature, new foods and cooking methods, and most importantly, to all of you. I’m grateful for the support I’ve received from fellow bloggers, and for the new friends I’ve made along the way. Here’s to you all!