The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Are you a Venetian at heart? I am, and any book set in Venice has a special place on my bookshelf. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, because it shimmers. That’s the only way I can describe it. The waters surrounding the islands, the lagoons with their sea-green waves, the sight of the church towers from Piazza San Marco or Isola di San Michele from the Fondamenta Nuova……….pictures don’t do it justice and I have rarely read a book description that fully does, either. You simply have to visit Venice and see its gorgeous, watery-reflected beauty for yourself.

venice-italy

The Mirror Thief is set in three separate historical timeframes, and in three different Venices. Venice, Italy is the heart of the tale and where the story of conspiracy, theft, and some very odd metaphysical concepts of time, starts with the story of Crivano, an alchemist who wants to steal the secret of Venetian glassmaking in the late 1500s. Venice Beach, California is literally the midpoint of the book and the historical setting of late 1950s and the beatnik poet scene in which Stanley seeks out the author of the book that has affected him profoundly, and finally, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2003, when Curtis goes on a quest to find Stanley, and instead, finds the book that has colored his entire life, The Mirror Thief, an alchemical book of magical poetry written about Crivano himself.

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The three timeframes are connected incredibly well, due to Seay’s expertise in both writing and connecting disparate concepts. I was hooked from the first sentence, and although I had to make sure and not lose the threads of the complex storylines and historical timeframes, honestly, this is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. It also made me consider the concept of mirrors and reflections – do we exist only because we are reflected back to ourselves in a mirror? Can the mirror ever reflect anything but the truth? What is the truth, and how do we see it reflected back to ourselves?

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My favorite line is:  It is difficult, but probably necessary, to remember that books always know more than their authors do. They are always wiser. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas. I’ve never written a book, but I agree with the idea that books do become something completely different than what their authors intended. It’s inevitable, don’t you think? In reading any book, we all bring our own ideas, preconceived notions, heartbreaks, beliefs and convictions.

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A scene where Crivano arrives at an inn in the Rialto area to meet Tristao, one of his co-conspirators, featured some truly delicious sounding foods, including what I took to be another description for risotto.

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One of Anzolo’s Friulian serving-girls has emerged from the kitchen, bearing sweet white wine from Sopron. Before Crivano’s cup is full, a second girl arrives with food: tiny artichokes, rice porridge, Lombardy quail stuffed with mincemeat……………Crivano takes a spoonful of rice porridge – rich with beef broth and mushrooms – and chews it slowly, trying to imagine what Narkis would have him do.

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Risotto – rice porridge – is one of those deceptively simple dishes. It’s essentially stirring liquid into rice for 25-30 minutes until absorbed. Yet, like any other dish that relies on simplicity for its tastiness, it also relies on high-quality ingredients. Arborio rice is what is usually used, or Vialone Nano, which is a bit harder to find where I am. I decided some beef-flavored risotto bursting with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was in order this Sunday afternoon, based on the method clearly outlined in Chestnuts and Truffles post on making risotto like a Nonna. Ciao, bella!

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INGREDIENTS
1 14-oz jar artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby bella mushrooms (sliced)
3 cups spinach
6 cups beef stock and 1 beef stock cube
1 cup white wine
1 red onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

METHOD
Saute the mushrooms in half the olive oil and butter, about 10 minutes.

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Add the spinach, mix well and cook until the spinach has wilted. Set aside.

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Heat the beef broth in a large pan. Bring to a low boil and keep it hot.

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In another pan over medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil and butter, and cook the onion and garlic until soft.

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Pour in the arborio rice, and stir. The idea is to get the butter and onion flavors into the rice, and also to toast it a bit, again for added flavor. This is called la tostatura, as the rice toasts. So says my friend and awesome chef Luca Marchiori.

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Splash over the white wine, and give the rice another mix. Then start slowly adding the hot beef stock, one ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful until the liquid has completely absorbed.

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Continue in this vein, repeating a ladleful of stock and stirring until absorbed. It’ll probably take a good 25-30 minutes. I find stirring risotto very therapeutic, along the lines of making caramelized onions. It soothes the heart and mind.

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When the risotto is al dente, add in the wilted spinach, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle over the Parmesan and again, stir.

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Serve with more of the same white wine you used for the risotto, and eat with sheer pleasure in your heart, dreaming of Venice.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it several times. Though it’s a very irreverent re-telling of the life of Jesus, I didn’t find it at all disrespectful. It is a fictional retelling, of course, but very much grounded in historical research and definitely holds to the details of Jesus’s life that are in the Bible.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, is the story of the life of history’s most famous person told by his best friend and sidekick. Josh – Joshua bar Joseph and who would later come to be known as Jesus Christ – is a serious-minded kid, as you’d guess. Biff, his best friend, is the opposite: loud, rabble-rousing, a total smart-ass, and a total womanizer. He’s pretty awesome.

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Being raised Catholic and to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ as opposed to his humanity, reading this book and seeing another version of Jesus as a man, with the same hopes, fears, desires, and cares, is truly beautiful. The Gospels often portray Jesus in such conflicting terms, though I do realize they were written very much as propaganda to further the newly-hatched Christian religion, but for me, seeing the disparate elements of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so seamlessly melded into Josh’s character made me relate even more to him.

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The story is told in two timeframes: the life of Josh and the many adventures he and Biff have; and Biff in the present time writing his Gospel of memories and adventures with Josh. The boys travel with their families to Jerusalem for high holy days, encounter Roman soldiers, meet Mary Magdalene  -Maggie – and fall in love with her, and go in search of the three Magi who came to see Josh at his birth. Much of the book is their quest to find Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – respectively, in Afghanistan, China, and India. Josh learns from the three wise men the tenets of the Tao; the Zen school; and Buddhism, which all affect his later ministry. Biff learns the art of the Kama Sutra, the skills of martial arts and how to kill with a touch, how to create weapons, and how to charm women. In other words, all the things that Josh, as the Son of God and Bringer of Peace, can’t know. They make a great team, as they perfectly complement each other – yin and yang, carnal vs. spiritual.

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Possibly one of the most hilarious and touching moments in this book, and some clever foreshadowing, is when the origin of the Easter Bunny is explained, as a drunken Josh sits on a hill overlooking Jerusalem near Passover, cuddles baby rabbits, and declares “Henceforth and from now on, I decree that whenever something bad happens to me, there shall be bunnies around.” It’s characteristic of the book as a whole – so funny and yet poignantly moving because we all know what is going to happen to Josh. And so it does.

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In modern times, Biff is brought back from death to write his own gospel by the angel Raziel, who is sent by one of the archangels to fetch him. The archangel gives Raziel his instructions and something else to do.

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“Go get the good news, Raziel. Bring me back some chocolate.” “Chocolate?” “It’s a dirt-dweller snack……..Satan invented it.” “Devil’s food?” “You can only eat so much white cake, my friend.”

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Being Easter Sunday, a chocolate Devil’s Food Cake seemed extremely appropriate for my family lunch, especially because my very Catholic grandmother was there, and the look on her face when I told her what we were having for dessert, was priceless. To her credit, she then started laughing, so she gets points for having a sense of humor AND for tolerating me as her granddaughter.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my idol Nigella Lawson’s delectable Devil’s Food Cake recipe, with the requisite flavor tweaks by the Easter Bunny.

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INGREDIENTS
For the cake
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling-hot instant espresso
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 and 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting
1/2 cup instant espresso, cooled
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
10 ounces of dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F, spray two baking pans with butter spray, and line the bottoms with parchment rounds. Then, mix the cocoa powder and the sugar with the boiling hot espresso.

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Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.

Creamed butter

Mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda together in another bowl.

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Add the vanilla and almond extracts to the butter-sugar mixture, stir to mix, then add the eggs.

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One cup at a time, add the flour to the butter-sugar, stir to mix well, then add the next cup of flour. Do this until all the flour is combined.

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Mix in the chocolate-cocoa-espresso combination, and whisk until well combined and makes a smooth and chocolatey batter.

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Divide the batter between the two baking pans, bake for about 20 minutes, and check on them twice to make sure they are not overbaking. That would suck.

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While the cakes are baking, put the cooled espresso, the brown sugar, and the butter into a small pan over low heat.

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Once bubbling, add the chocolate pieces and whisk until they melt and are mixed together into the butter and thicken into a frosting.

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Let the cakes cool completely before attempting to frost them. Please trust me on this. I’m saving you many dropped F-bombs with this advice. Set one cake round on your fancy cake display and frost the sides and top.

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Set the other cake round on top of the frosted one, and proceed in the same manner. Then, just eat, with a choir of heavenly angels singing in your ear.

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The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

Lord John Grey was a major character in the Outlander series, being the warden of  Ardsmuir Prison in Scotland, where Jamie Fraser was imprisoned after Culloden. Lord John, being the fascinating character that he is, got his own spinoff series – of which today’s book is the latest – in which he serves in the British military, interacts with his equally interesting family, travels round the world on adventures both fun and heart-stopping, occasionally travels to the Lake District of England to check on his paroled prisoner Jamie, and has affairs with men.

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Yes, Lord John is a homosexual, and one of the most fascinating aspects of this series is understanding how homosexuals acted and survived within their repressive British society of the mid 1700s. Having friends and family members who are gay and knowing the difficulties they have dealt with, I can’t imagine how much more challenging it would have been to be born that way in a world and society that deemed them perverts and sinners. Well, our society still does that, at least some people do, so perhaps we haven’t come as far as we like to think.

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Lord John is quite an endearing character. He is intelligent, erudite, brave, loyal, and has a very dry wit and sense of humor. In The Scottish Prisoner, he is investigating a case of treason within the British army and is asked to bring his paroled Scots prisoner, one James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, to London to help in the investigation. The treason is related to the supposedly-dead Jacobite cause, and as Jamie was a known, and well-connected Jacobite during the Rising, his connections are believed to possibly be helpful. Then, they head to Ireland to further investigate, and that’s where the adventure really starts.

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Told from both the voices of Jamie and Lord John, what I loved about this book is seeing the same situations from their very different vantage points. They are both oddly similar, though. Both are men of the military, both are extremely intelligent, loyal to the death, and even though Lord John is gay and secretly in love – and lust – with Jamie, which initially disgusts Jamie due to his own horrific rape and torture many years before at the hands of another British army captain, Jack Randall (not to mention the fact that he is not homosexual), in this book they are ultimately able to come to a mutual respect and cautious friendship.

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Being 18th century London, the book also abounds with the excess of rich food that was typical of that era and place. Lord John dines at his private club one evening with friends, where they drink, gamble, and eat with aplomb a large feast, including something fascinating, called salmagundi. Don’t you just love that word?

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Grey, with some experiences of von Namtzen’s capacities, rather thought the Hanoverian was likely to engulf the entire meal single-handedly and then require a quick snack before retiring………..in the social muddle that ensued, all four found themselves going in to supper together, with a salmagundi and a few bottles of good Burgundy hastily ordered to augment the meal.

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According to Wikipedia, salmagundi is a salad dish, originating in England in the early 17th century, made up of cooked meats and seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and even flowers, dressed with oil, vinegar and spices. The meaning of the word is thought to come from the French “salmagondis” which is a mix of widely disparate things. Which mine certainly is, and a great way to use up veg, fruit, and meat left over in the refrigerator! This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken legs, skin on
6 small potatoes, mixed red, purple and white
6 sprigs thyme
1 head of garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons halved walnuts
2 cups green beans, trimmed
1 cup roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
4 cornichons or tiny dill pickles
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 hard-boiled eggs
1 tablespoon finely chopped sage
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup raw shrimp
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 green apple, cored and thinly sliced
1 beefsteak tomato, quartered
1 bunch green grapes

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

Place chicken and potatoes in a roasting pan, and drizzle over olive oil and fresh thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Slice the head off the garlic, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and put into a garlic roaster.

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Roast both for 45 minutes, until chicken is golden and crispy, the potatoes are soft, and the garlic is roasted. You’ll know by the scent.

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Melt a teaspoon butter in a large nonstick pan. Add the walnuts and green beans, and some lemon juice. Cook for about 15 minutes, until the beans are softened but still have a bit of crunch. Season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate to cool.

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Melt another teaspoon of butter, and add the chopped sage and shallot. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp is pink, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Slice the radishes, cornichons and tomatoes. Arrange on a large platter. Core and slice the apple and also arrange it on the platter.2017-04-09 19.05.29_resized

Arrange the green beans, the shrimp, chicken, and potatoes topped with the wholeroasted garlic cloves. Squeeze over the rest of the lemon juice, then arrange the grapes. Drizzle any remaining vinaigrette over the vegetables and serve immediately.

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On top of tasting wonderful, it’s also very aesthetically pleasing. The mishmash of colors, textures, tastes and smells is quintessentially 18th century, and I do feel Lord John might approve of this dish.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

A fascinating book set in a slightly alternate universe, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been touted as the Harry Potter for adults. It’s far more than that, however. Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, its a lengthy book that delves deeply into the mythology of Faerie.

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One thing that has always stood out to me is the lack of a true mythology in England. There are the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but that’s not an origin myth, nor are there gods and goddesses in British lore. Faeries and other interesting creatures abound but there is no real etymology, similar to the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians or Aztecs. Just something to ponder while you’re cooking.

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Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it, it though it did take me a few tries to really get into it. Not because the story wasn’t fascinating, but because of THOSE DAMN FOOTNOTES! I loathe and despise footnotes. Probably left over from my time in graduate school,  because the amount of books I had to read with footnotes, and all the papers I had to write with footnotes literally, at times, drove me to drink! Not that it takes much, truth be told.

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In a nutshell, Mr. Norrell is a quiet, somewhat hermited English gentleman who has spent most of his life amassing the world’s biggest library on magical books. When he is approached by a local guild of magical theorists, he demonstrates his practical magical ability by bringing the stone statues on the local church to life. He is thus brought to London to become the king’s magical advisor, and it’s there that he encounters Jonathan Strange, a young gadabout who is looking for a career so that his love, Arabella, will finally marry him. He takes up the study of magic from Mr. Norrell, becoming far more adept at the magical arts than anyone would have ever dreamed.

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There are intertwining stories involving The Raven King, the magician Vinculus, and Lady Pole and her subsequent enchantment when she is ostensibly brought back to life by Mr. Norrell. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Mr. Norrell is not really much of a magician at all, as his skills and spells are all given to him by The Gentleman With Hair Like Thistledown. The story alternates between the England of the day, and Faerieland of the night, where people dance and dance until daylight, and return to their awakened selves still under the influence of Faerie.

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Being England, there was much mention of traditional British food such as roast beef, gravy, scones, Yorkshire puddings, and other such fare. Having never had fresh beetroot and a hatred of the disgusting canned stuff I had to eat as a child, this passage caught my attention.

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He wore a mourning ring on the fourth finger of his left hand with a thin strand of brown hair inside it and Sir Walter noticed that he continually touched it and turned it on his finger. They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.

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Beef and beet root sounded unusual, and after recently coming across several references to roasted beets in the NY Times Cooking section, doable. And if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my love for cheese. Cheese is God. Next to wine and coffee, that is.  So I thought I’d combine steak, roasted beets, and blue cheese.

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I marinate my meat in olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, Worchestershire sauce, roasted garlic cloves, and salt and pepper. The golden rule of grilling is oil the meat, not the grill, or everything will smoke like hell. And make sure the meat is at room temperature before grilling. Otherwise, just order pizza and call it a day.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on this lovely recipe at Olivia’s Cuisine, but of course, with my own added twists. Gotta be unique, you know!

INGREDIENTS
1 large steak, about 1 inch thick, marinated using the method above
3 beets
1 large sweet potato
1 cup of walnuts
5 cups fresh spinach
1 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
5-6 roasted garlic cloves (use from the steak marinade)
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and heat an oiled, stovetop, ridged grill pan. Yes, you can multitask!

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Slice the sweet potato into thick pieces.

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Then slice the beets. I highly advise wearing an apron and possibly kitchen gloves for this part. And don’t wear white, unless you want to look like Lady Macbeth.

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Lay the potato and the beets on a parchment-paper covered baking tray, and pour over some olive oil. Roast for 45 minutes, checking to make sure they don’t burn.

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While the veg are roasting, cook the steak on the grill for 8 minutes total, flipping every minute so that it cooks evenly, and gets those beautiful grill mark stripes. Let cool, then slice into similarly sized chunks as the beet and potato.

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In a dry, nonstick pan, toast the walnuts until just brown.

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Remove the potato and beets from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle over some sea salt, and in a large bowl, combine with the spinach, the steak slices,  and the toasted walnuts. Toss together well.

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Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the steak pan juices and the garlic cloves from the marinade, and the blue cheese, in a blender or food processor, to make a dressing. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and pour over the salad.

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It’s DAMN delicious! Fantastic with a strong red wine, the flavors are amazing and the roasted beets are amazing, nutty and sweet and perfectly textured.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I first heard about The Help when the movie, with Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson came out, and wanted to read the book first. The storyline, in a nutshell, is the story of two African-American maids – Aibileen and Minny in 1960s Mississippi – and how the lives they lead, complete with racism, inequality, and brutality, are told by Skeeter, a white girl who has just returned home after finishing college and wants to be a writer.

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She is compelled to write about the inequal treatment of black servants after her Junior League starts an initiative to install separate toilets in every house in Jackson, for the sole purpose of keeping their colored servants from using their bathrooms. Yes, this stuff happened, and far, far worse.

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As much as I loved the kindness and wisdom of Aibileen, my favorite of all the characters was Minny. She was hilarious, and had a mouth on her that could cut! I loved the fact that, even in the segregated, rural, racist South when whites had so much power over African-Americans that sometimes literally meant life and death, Minny still stood up for herself and told her hateful employers exactly what she thought of them. Hah! Of course, that meant she had been fired from all of those jobs, too. Her initial relationship with Celia Foote was very odd and funny, yet very transformational as well, as they develop an odd sort of friendship.

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It’s so odd to think that this entire class of wealthy white women, so focused on segregating their maids and yet trusting them to care for and bring up their children, cook their food, clean their houses, and wash their dirty laundry – literally and figuratively. There is such inequality in any type of employer/employee relationship as it is. Can you imagine the dynamics of that relationship compounded by racial inequality?

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I’ve read other opinions on this book, and the main issue seems to be two-fold: 1) that Stockett is promoting racial stereotypes in her portrayals of the maids, and 2) that for all her willingness to expose the ugly racial reality of that time, she still soft-pedals it. I don’t know that I agree with that, simply because she wrote what she experienced and remembered and tried to recreate it in the voices of these wonderful maids. Maybe it wasn’t the voices with which they would have told their stories, and perhaps others of the same background and experiences would have told it differently. That’s as it should be, but it shouldn’t devalue this book, either.

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Being a story of domestic goings-on as much as a treatise on racial inequality, the book abounds with mentions of so much delicious food that it was hard to choose one. Minny’s caramel cakes, fried chicken, and of course, the infamous chocolate pie. Oh poop! But early in the book, one scene sets the tone for the type of behavior these poor maids had to deal with, when Aibileen is serving a lunch of deviled eggs, ham sandwiches, and something called a congealed salad at Mrs. Leefolt’s house, and the gossip abounds about Celia Foote, who is considered “white trash” by these supposed pillars of the community.

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I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to them chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy and I know they ain’t discussing no politic.

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A congealed salad is a Southern staple at lunch, dinner or picnics. It’s essentially a Jello salad, that can be made either savory or sweet. with marshmallows, nuts, fruit, celery (!), and cream cheese. I wanted to try and recreate it, so this is my take on that Southern classic, lime congealed salad. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe at Never Enough Thyme. I did use walnuts instead of pecan, and I left out the celery, because yuck.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-oz. packet of lime Jell-o
1 8-oz. bar of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups boiling hot water
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup walnuts
2 cups miniature marshmallows

METHOD
Mix together in your most awesome Kitchen Aid the cream cheese and the lime Jell-o. That’s a lurid green, isn’t it?2017-03-26 10.39.46_resized.jpg

Reduce the mixer speed and add a little bit of the hot water. The idea is to loosen up the mixture.

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Add in the rest of the hot water and mix well to make sure the cheese, Jell-o and water are completely combined.

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Pour into a pan and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

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Remove from the fridge, and stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and walnuts. Put back in the refrigerator for another couple of hours. You might check on it once and stir a few times, as the marshmallows tend to sink and you want them incorporated through the salad.2017-03-26 14.45.21_resized.jpg

Remove one last time, and serve garnished with lime slices and whipped cream. To go full-on Southern, serve the lime congealed salad with fried chicken and deviled eggs.

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Dune by Frank Herbert

I remember discovering the planet Arrakis when I was about 11 years old and nosily poking around my uncle Greg’s apartment. He lived in a guest apartment behind my grandparent’s house and had a taste for the music of The Police and sci-fi fiction, both of which he passed along to me. I saw Dune on his sofa and the cover just grabbed me immediately – those huge spice worms! So, of course, I had to sneak away with it and read it.

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Admittedly, it was somewhat over my head but the great thing about reading something new at that age is that you’re still open to new concepts and ideas and so suspension of disbelief is much stronger. I fell in love with Paul Atreides AND Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and never had any trouble believing in that otherworldly planet of sand where the worms excrete the spice of life and the sand inhabitants have blue-upon-blue eyes.

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If you haven’t read this book, or seen the DeLaurentiis film, the basic premise is thus: Set hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, there are two warring empire families who are vying for control of the Planet Arrakis. The House Atreides and the House Harkonnen battle it out for the Planet, which is the only known place in their universe where they can mine the spice “melange,” which can extend life, grant extrasensory powers, and even allow people to travel through time. Paul Atreides is the hero of the book, and of course, every hero must have an antagonist. In this case, Feyd-Rautha, the nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, becomes Paul’s enemy as their families fight to control the spice, Arrakis, and indeed, the universe itself.

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It was interesting for me to reread this book as an adult, because I actually found myself not liking Paul Atreides very much, especially later in the book when he goes to war against the Baron and becomes fully the Kwisatz Haderach. I suppose when someone gains that level of power, it’s difficult not to allow it to change you, though. Another interesting tidbit that I don’t think I paid attention to was the subtext of Duncan Idaho’s secret love for Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica.

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My dad loved this book, too, and I remember he and my uncle Greg having long, intense conversations about it when I was little. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they were analyzing a book, not world politics. It just always seemed so very important, like they were debating the fate of the world or something. Not that this book isn’t marvelous and very detailed, but still. Kind of funny to realize what sci-fi nerds they both really were. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from tree, though. Ahem…..

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Anyway, when rereading this book, I came across this passage, when Lady Jessica and Duke Leto Atreides (Paul’s father) are entertaining a group of bankers from the Empire, serving them dinner but also trying to find out if they are secretly supporting House Harkonnen. Lady Jessica calls for a most unusual dish.

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Jessica signaled for another course of food and drink. Servants appeared with langues de lapins de garenne – red wine and a sauce of mushroom-yeast on the side………..”Very important,” he agreed. “What is this dish? It’s delicious.” “Tongues of wild rabbit in a special sauce,” she said. “A very old recipe.”

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I hadn’t had rabbit in years, and though I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit tongues, rabbit braised in red wine and mustard, with mushrooms, sounded divine. So that’s what I made, using a combination of rabbit methods from Simply Recipes, The New York Times, and The Two Fat Ladies. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs organic rabbit pieces, skinned and bone-in
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
4 pieces of bacon, cut into strips
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons grain Dijon mustard
2 cups red wine
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh parsley

METHOD
Salt and pepper the rabbit pieces, and brown them in the butter and olive oil. Set aside.

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In the pan juices, add the bacon strips and cook until brown. Yum bacon!

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Remove the bacon, and add the onion, the mushrooms, and the thyme; and cook for about 10-15 minutes. The smell alone will transport you!

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Add the cooked mushrooms and onions to the plate with the bacon, and splash in some red wine to deglaze the cooking pan. Scrape up the lovely brown bits, as they add so much flavor to the dish.

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Whisk together the rest of the red wine with the mustard and the flour, creating a kind of thin slurry. Place the browned rabbit pieces into the pan, and pour over the red wine-mustard sauce.

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Add in the bacon, onions and mushrooms, and gently mix everything around so that the sauce covers everything.

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Cover and simmer on very low heat for up to an hour. After an hour, remove the lid, and remove the rabbit pieces to a plate. Turn up the heat, and let the winy sauce boil hard for about 10 minutes, to thicken.

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While the sauce is reducing, boil some egg noodles in salted water, until al dente, maybe 6 minutes at the most.

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Add the cream to the reduced sauce, stirring so that everything melds harmoniously. Don’t let it curdle.

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Plate the rabbits atop the egg noodles. Ladle over the beautiful, creamy sauce. Garnish with parsley.

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Soooooo good, and just different enough to make a Sunday lunch feel a bit more special. Do try this if you find some good-quality rabbit, or if you’re not a bunny boiler, it’s also delicious with boneless, skinless chicken thighs!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The reason I love Sarah Waters’ books is because there is always a sense of pervasive menace throughout her pages. Her settings are innocuous: British post-war, large rambling houses, upper-class families who have fallen on hard times and must economize in ways they never had to before, and a way of life that has always seemed incredibly romantic. These are environments that you’d expect to be comforting, old-fashioned and a little bit staid, but in The Little Stranger, the  house is haunted by dread, darkness and spirits……though not quite in the way you’d expect.

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I realize, of course, that none of these houses had central heating, that it rains incessantly on the British Isles, and that these once-wealthy families probably didn’t have enough money for firewood to heat the houses. Living there would have been a misery, I’m sure. But there is just something that draws me to this way of life that probably doesn’t exist any longer. I am an Anglophile, when I’m not dreaming of Italy…….so maybe you can call me, in the words of one of my cooking heroes Anna del Conte, a “Britalian.” I like that term.

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Told in the viewpoint of their family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother was once a maid at the house in more affluent times, he has always been obsessed with the house and Ayres family who live there. As society has turned on its head after WWII, he soon becomes close friends with the family, something that would never have happened in earlier years. He grows fonder of Caroline, the Ayres daughter, and they begin a relationship.

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All seems well, and yet………..there’s that menacing sense, again. Very strange things begin to happen. Mrs. Ayres gets terrifyingly locked in the nursery where her first daughter died as a little girl. The family dog, a gentle and sweet canine, mysteriously attacks a neighboring child. Bell pulls ring in the middle of the night from rooms where no one has been for over 20 years. Handprints from a child appear on the walls in rooms where children haven’t set foot in decades. Again, that pervasive sense of something waiting, lurking, stalking.

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Sarah Waters can create atmosphere in a single sentence. But what I love about her books, aside from the setting and her atmospheric abilities, is simply the way she describes the rituals and niceties of British society. Tea is a constant and a comfort to the family, one of those rituals they hold onto to give structure to their lives even as the world around them seems to be crumbling daily.

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So I moved back, and she set the tray down among the books and papers on a cluttered table, then poured the tea and passed round the cups. The cups were of handsome old bone china, one or two of them with riveted handles; I saw her keep those back for the family………”Oh for a scone, and jam, and cream!” said Mrs. Ayres, as the plates were handed out. “Or even a really good biscuit.”

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I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I’m a sucker for scones. I had a mad crush on a man named Cord McQueen many years ago, who was a very accomplished cook and baker. He owned a coffee shop and I used to go in to get my vanilla coconut latte and a scone, and just drool over him. Aside from being handsome and charming and intelligent, the man could cook. Dream Man material for sure! Anyway, he made scones that were out of this world. Not overly sweet, perfect texture to hold together, and yet crumble off if you wanted to dip a chunk into your coffee, and he always used cranberries, my personal favorite. I’d forgotten that he had written down his scone recipe for me and discovered it recently, so using his method and having both dried cranberries and fresh blueberries on hand, I gave scones a whirl. This method makes 12 scones.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of two clementines or one medium orange
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup buttermilk

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400°F and prepare a baking tray by lining with parchment or lightly spraying with baking spray. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cranberries, blueberries, sugar and orange zest.

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In your most wonderful and awesome Kitchen Aid, add the flour, salt and baking powder, and mix well. Add in the cubed butter a few chunks at at time and mix with the pastry hook attachment until the texture is crumbly.

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Add the cranberry-blueberry mixture to the flour and butter mixture, and mix a couple of times.

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Add the buttermilk and mix together until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 10-15 minutes.

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Roll out the dough on a floured surface, somewhat thickly, and cut out rounds using a floured biscuit cutter.

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Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just golden.

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Ideally, I would have attempted clotted cream to go with, but decided that was making things very stressful for myself. Besides, there is nothing wrong with buying a jar of ready-made genuine Devon clotted cream from your friendly neighborhood Cost Plus World Market, which I did.

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Serve the scones in proper British style, with cream and black cherry preserves. Sooooooo yummy! Not too sweet, with the tart cranberries nicely offsetting the sweeter blueberries, and the orange zest adding a zip of citrus.

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And a very happy birthday to me, this 12th of March!

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The Feet Say Run by Dan Blum

The Feet Say Run is a beautifully written, lyrical, and somewhat surreal book. The main character’s time on the island, where the book opens, has a strong, otherwordly vibe that also presents the world around us in, at times, a brutally realistic fashion.

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Hans Jaeger, the narrator, is trapped on an island, we are never quite sure where. He’s there with some other odd characters, so I was immediately put into mind of the TV series “Lost.” It has that kind of magical realism, weird feelings where things seem dreamlike and hyperreal at the same time.

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The theme of questioning one’s life and choices, the “dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross so eloquently put it, is at the heart of this book. Very existentially, Hans remembers his previous life and questions his ongoing existence, because let’s face it, he’s done some pretty crappy things. He worked for the Nazis in  Germany, despising them at the same time. Who among us hasn’t done that, albeit on a less extreme level. We get up, we oftentimes have to do things we don’t like or want to do. But we do them, in order to survive, to exist. As does Hans.

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The storyline arcs between Hans’ entrapment on the island and his struggle for survival there, and his life before, both the awfulness of the Nazis and the beauty of his own love story with Hilda. The lyricism in Blum’s writing – and he is quite an excellent writer – gives the brutal passages an almost fantasylike feeling, like you’re experiencing the horrors through a film of milky glass.

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Hans is not the most likeable character in the world, and there are times when I felt like he was trying to make excuses for what he had done in his life, to try and justify the choices he made that led him to being a Nazi. He’s participated in some terrible things, and given the current state of our country and the fear and anger so many people feel these days, I found it sadly and frighteningly timely to read.

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Two food passages stuck out to me. The first is Hans remembering his mother and aunt having lunch in pre-war Germany at a very posh French restaurant. Hans’ mother is a terrible snob, and she meets her match that day with the waiter. If you’ve experienced a true French waiter, you must know that no one, and I mean NO ONE, outsnobs him. Hans’ mother keeps trying to get the waiter to explain what is in the sandwich, and he continues to needle her by saying there is nothing in the sandwich “except ze bread, madame,” “ze limburger” and “ze tomato.” It gave me the giggles, reading about this dreadful woman being put in her place by a supercilious waiter.

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The second passage takes place on the unnamed island. Andre is one of his Hans’ compatriots, and one day, foraging for food, they come across a cache of dove eggs. Hallelujah, it’s breakfast time! Hans watches Andre with consternation, thinking to himself – quite facetiously – how they will have their feast of eggs.

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Talking to him and listening to his babbling replies. Look, Andre. One of the doves has laid an egg! Are you going to help me cook it? How should we prepare it, do you think? Scrambled? Eggs Benedict?

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I considered doing something involving limburger cheese, but aside from the fact that it is not available in the United States, it really has a horrendous smell. I love a strong, raspy cheese, but limburger is a bit much, even for me. So another strong-scented and flavored cheese seemed in order – gorgonzola! And having done Eggs Benedict in an earlier post, I thought about what else I’d love to eat if stuck on a deserted island, and smoked salmon immediately came to mind. So baked eggs with smoked salmon, gorgonzola and spinach was my riff on the desert island dove eggs. I think mine is probably a bit better.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on too many oeufs en cocotte recipes to mention. The addition of blue cheese is my own.

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INGREDIENTS
6 large eggs
2 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
6 oz. smoked salmon
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper for seasoning

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Spray three large ramekins with butter spray.

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Wilt the spinach in a skillet, adding some salt for added flavor.

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When the greens are wilted, line the bottom of the three ramekins with it.

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Sprinkle some gorgonzola atop the spinach in each ramekin.

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Then add the smoked salmon to each dish, covering the cheese and spinach. Crack two eggs into each ramekin.

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Top the eggs with one spoonful of heavy cream each.

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Sprinkle over more gorgonzola on the eggs, and season with salt and pepper. Put the ramekins onto a shallow baking tray, and bake for 20-25 minutes. You don’t want them to burn or get leathery, just set.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a bit, and put additional strips of the smoked salmon atop each ramekin. 2017-03-05 20.00.58_resized.jpg

Serve with toast and some lovely rose wine.  It’s simple, yet rich and sumptuous, something that a snotty French waiter or a refugee on an island would both be happy to eat.

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And if you’re interested in reading more of Dan’s work, check out his scathingly satirical blog The Rotting Post. If you’re a fan of sarcasm, snark and smart-assery, you will love his writing!

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I never liked Death Comes for the Archbishop, probably because it was required reading when I was in the 6th grade. Anything forced is never something I want to do, even when it comes to reading. Isn’t it amazing, though, how different it can be when you go back and read something as an adult? I found depths of character and beauty in this book that were never apparent to my ignorant, youthful self.

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Though of course, reading as a grown-up, I also saw nuances and subtleties I didn’t clue into as a kid, such as the racism that is fairly inherent in the main characters. Well, since it was written before cultural sensitivity training, it makes sense. But there are passages that talk about the Mexican and Native American populations that made up such a large group of the  Father’s parishioners, and they are both called barbarians by a Spanish priest. So it’s quite timely for today, when there is so much racism against people of so many backgrounds, ethnicities, and faiths.

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The story is a fictionalized account of Bishop Lamy, a French Jesuit priest who came to New Mexico in the mid-1800s to help minister to the growing frontier population in northern New Mexico, and whose greatest accomplishment was building the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. In the book, the character’s name is Father Jean-Marie Latour, and he spends over 40 years in the Santa Fe region. He lives a rather lonely existence, though he makes great friends with other priests such as Father Martinez, who has a lovely singing baritone, and the Olivares. Mrs. Olivares, in particular, seems to garner much admiration from Father Latour, and if you read between the lines, she might be someone he’d have fallen in love with, if that were permissible to a Catholic priest.

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Though various dinners and feasts are sprinkled through the book, my favorite was this passage that details one of the stories told to Father Latour by one of his fellow priests, about Father Baltazar of Acoma Pueblo, who by all accounts, was a horrible tyrant and who took all the choicest fruits and vegetables of the Native Americans he was supposed to care for. (Though he did get his just desserts in the end…..hah!) Father Baltazar was an obese man who thought nothing of working the poor Acoma Indians as slaves to ensure he had the best food and service at his home.

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Friar Baltazar was one of the most ambitious and exacting. It was his belief that the pueblo of Acoma existed chiefly to support its fine church, and that this should be the pride of the Indians as it was his. He took the best of their corn and beans and squashes for his table, and selected the choicest portions when they slaughtered a sheep…………

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Squash and corn together make up a dish called calabacitas, which is truly food for the gods. I grew up eating this dish, as a side for enchiladas or tacos, and later on as an adult, in more creative New Mexican dishes like tamales. It’s pretty much one of the most divine dishes you can eat on this earth. But I’m not at all biased.

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A traditional New Mexico dish, the simplicity is enhanced by using fresh ingredients, like any other recipe. Fortunately, fresh zucchini squash is easy to find in the grocery story and at farmers markets. Fresh corn is a bit harder when not in season, so use good-quality corn kernels from a can. The only thing that is requisite for good calabacitas is green chile. You want a bite to offset the sweetness of the corn and the green crunch of the squash, but if you’re feeding wimpy types, leave it out. Just don’t bring them to my house, because I will turn them away sneeringly.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s recipe which I remember so well from childhood. I do add my own tweaks, in the form of chicken bouillon granules, red onion instead of white, and cheese, which melts so gooily and deliciously over the hot vegetables. But cheese is not required, so omit if you so desire.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 green squashes
2 large cans of corn, drained
1 large red onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon pollo de caldo chicken bouillon powder
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 cup roasted green chile, finely chopped
Optional – 1 cup grated sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

METHOD
In a large saucepan, melt the olive oil and butter together. This creates great flavor, and also keeps the butter from burning.

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Peel the onion and slice into thin half-moons. Remove the stem ends of the green squash, and cut into cubes.

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Drain and rinse the corn, and then peel and thinly slice the garlic cloves.

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Add the onions to the saucepan, and spoon in the chicken bouillon granules. Stir and cook about 10 minutes. Then toss in the garlic and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the squash, and season with salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat for another 10 minutes. You don’t want the squash soggy, so test the texture with a fork. Tender-crisp is what you want.

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Add the drained corn. Stir well to mix and cook another 10 minutes.

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This is where you will add the green chile. The smell is divine!

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Turn the heat to low, cover, and let cook for another 10 minutes, to heat through. Sprinkle over the cheese while still hot, so it melts and oozes nicely over the calabacitas.

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Serve as a side dish with enchiladas and rice, as a side for any other chicken dish, or just eat a huge bowl of it on its own. ¡Delicioso!

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This is one of those epic books that feature a cast of thousands, exotic locations that span the globe, stories within stories within stories…………and Count Dracula. I mean, how can it possibly get better than that?

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Being a former Goth girl, I still have a fondness for the darker side of things. Vampires, crucifixes, ghosts, vintage clothing and jewelry, steampunk-Romantic styles, and movies and books that feature such themes as death, spirits, things that go bump in the night and of course, passionate romance. Though I have to (somewhat) conform in my day-to-day life where I play a bureaucrat, my heart is always in the coffin with Count Dracula. Love, love, love Dracula and vampires in general.

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The Historian‘s premise is simple. It postulates that Dracula – Vlad Dracul – is not just a vampire in a book, but is actually alive and well and has been preying on people across centuries and throughout continents. A young scholar named Paul is given the charge to find Dracula when his graduate advisor and mentor, Professor Rossi, mysteriously disappears under ominous circumstances. Mixed up in this puzzle are antique, leather-bound books, each bearing the distinctive stamp of a dragon – Dracula means dragon in Romanian.

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Paul becomes enmeshed in both the search for the blood-drinking Count and with the lovely and stoic Helen, whose Eastern European lineage connects her with the Count in ways no one would imagine. Told from the viewpoint of Paul and Helen’s daughter – with a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca as her name is never revealed – the story has multiple levels, told in three different timepoints and told in the form of journal entries, letters, telegrams and book passages. It’s a book for book lovers, if you know what I mean.

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This is my ultimate type of book. Long, detailed, globe-trotting, with amazing descriptions of architecture, literature, love, and food from countries as diverse as Russia, France, Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and oh so many others! My favorite of all of them was when Paul takes his daughter to visit friends in Italy, and they are served an Italian torta, which is a flourless cake made with ground nuts in place of flour.

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Giulia lit a lantern on the sideboard, turning off the electric light. She brought the lantern to the table and began to cut up a torta I’d been trying not to stare at earlier. Its surface gleamed like obsidian under the knife.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous recipe at Proud Italian Cook’s awesome food blog, but of course with my usual tweaks. I used both hazelnuts and almonds, because I love the flavors together, I added some almond extract and some amaretto, and for more flavor, I toasted the nuts before grinding them in my food chopper. Nom nom nom!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup of ground hazelnuts and ground almonds, to make a nut flour
1 cup sugar
6 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or above
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heavy cream, whipped with sugar, amaretto and lemon
Hulled strawberries for decorating

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Lightly butter or oil an 8-inch cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Toast the hazelnuts and almonds in a dry pan until they darken and you can smell the nutty scent.

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Grind up the nuts in a food processor, so that you have a rubbly texture. The smell is out of this world!

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Break the chocolate into shards or chunks, and melt in a Pyrex bowl set over a pan of boiling water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally

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Add the butter to the melting chocolate, and add in the almond essence and the Amaretto.

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Separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites in your most awesome Kitchen Aid so that you get a cloudlike texture. If you wipe the inside of your Kitchen Aid bowl with lemon first, it really helps make the egg whites puff up.

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Whisk the egg yolks and add to the ground nuts. Add in the sugar.

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Mix the gooey, yummy, melted chocolate into the nut mixture.

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Fold the egg white mixture into the chocolate-nut mixture, using the figure-8 hand method. This method ensures air gets into the batter, making it even more light and fluffy and less apt to sink in the center, though it probably will sink. That’s just life. And cakes.

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Scrape the luscious batter into the cake pan, and bake for 18 minutes. Yes, I said 18 minutes, because that is apparently the timeframe used by the majority of the Italians I know, who make this cake regularly. I don’t ask questions of the experts, I just do what I am told.

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Allow the cake to cool for up to 1 hour before taking out of the cake pan. It likely will sink in the center as it cools, and you will just have to accept that, pick up the pieces of your shattered life, and move on.

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Serve the cake garnished with lemony whipped cream and strawberries. The cake’s richness needs an offset, and the citrus contrast in the cream is perfect with the nutty denseness. Plus it looks so pretty!

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It is a luscious cake, gooey and rich and almost melting in the center, but with the exterior forming almost a crust. Texture-wise, it’s like heaven. Flavorwise, it’s like heaven. Aesthetically, it’s like heaven.

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