The Investigative Paranormal Society Cookbook by Charles French

French has a wonderful blog – here’s the link – that I follow and enjoy so very much, in addition to his first book Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, which I blogged about last year. The book is the story of three older gentlemen who form a paranormal group and go ghost-hunting, only to find that there are spirits and specters more terrifying in life and death than they ever would have thought possible. They do battle with the titular character Maledicus, a wonderfully evil and thoroughly nasty and despicable spirit who was just as bad when he was alive, and it is overall a wonderful, fast-paced and adventuresome book.

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Being a book and food aficionado and having combined these two in my own blog, I was very pleased with the number of cooking and foodie references in Maledicus, and was happy to see that Charles French had decided to pay homage to his characters and their love of food and create this cookbook filled with delicious recipes from the characters in the book. What I like about French’s characters is that they are all so different and yet have the same love of cooking, though they all create different types of cuisine based on their own lifestyles, backgrounds, and abilities. The main character, Roosevelt Franklin, is a widower whose wife Sarah passed away. She was quite the gourmet cook, often making him lots of delectable meals that he would never attempt after her death, missing her so terribly as he does. It’s odd, because although Sarah is dead, she is as much a character in death as anyone else in the book.

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This marvelous little cookbook has such culinary delights as Carrot Cake, Grape and Walnut Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing, Chicken Parmigiana, Quiche Lorraine, and other yumminess, all made by the various other characters in the book. Two main characters and the other two original members of the Investigative Paranormal Society, Jeremy Roche and Sam Sadlowski, are also quite good cooks in their own ways, though rather different in their methods. Jeremy is much more refined than Sam, who’s a retired police officer and whose tastes run to the Hungarian classics of his own family background. Two of the recipes I most wanted to try in this book are both Sam’s.

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I limit my carbohydrate intake most of the time, so I decided to make Sam’s Hungarian Green Beans and Chicken Paprikash, omitting the noodles or rice that traditionally go with this type of dish, and the green beans provided a very nice contrast. The only things I did differently were to add some lemon and more salt to the green beans and cut down the sour cream and heavy cream somewhat to make it lighter; and to use red bell peppers and smoked paprika for the Chicken Paprikash, simply because I prefer their flavors instead.

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INGREDIENTS
For the Chicken Paprikash:
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, preferably organic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and chopped into long slices
2 onions, peeled and diced
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 14-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 cups sour cream

For the Hungarian Green Beans:
2 lbs fresh green beans, trimmed
1 large onion, sliced
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/4 cup paprika
1 generous tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Poach the chicken for 10 minutes, then pat dry, before shredding.

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In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil and add half the smoked paprika so that the oil looks red, and saute the vegetables for 10 minutes.

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Add the canned tomatoes, a dash of salt and pepper, and stir again to mix. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with more paprika, salt or pepper.

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Add the chicken chunks, cover and simmer on low for up to 2 hours.

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After 1 and 1/2 hours, add in the sour cream and taste again. Let heat, but don’t let the cream curdle.

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During the last half-hour of the Paprikash’s cooking, par-boil the green beans for two minutes in salted water, then immediately blanch in ice water. You want them still a bit crunchy and with their green color intact.

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Saute the onion in a bit of oil and some salt, until softened and slightly starting to caramelize. Just keep an eye on it and keep stirring.

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Mix together the heavy cream, the sour cream and the paprika, and add in the cooled green beans.

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Add in the sauteed onions and the paprika, stir to mix well, and taste. Add the lemon juice here as well as the salt and pepper, and taste. Adjust seasoning as needed. NOTE: this is rather bland so I would recommend more salt and more lemon, for certain.

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Serve together, and enjoy with a nice, full-bodied red wine like Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, and toast the culinary genius of Sam Sadlowski! And a most sincere thank-you to Charles F. French, who created these wonderful characters and recipes. Check out his blog and give the man some love and kudos! And a huge thank you to Charles French for writing this wonderful cookbook and giving me much more cooking inspiration! If you get a chance, head over to his awesome blog and show him and his writing some extra love and attention!

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I don’t know about you, but I have an incredibly developed sense of smell. Annoyingly so at times, because I can pick out the scent of body odor from 50 feet away. My sister always tells me I have the “nose from hell” and there are times when it feels like hell to be able to smell so intensely. However, the flip side is that I can also smell wonderful, heavenly scents from miles off, like someone brewing fresh coffee, the scent of someone baking a few streets away, the difference in wine bouquets (and if the wine has turned and become oxidized) and many other smells that make up daily life.

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If you think about scent, it’s perhaps the most immediate and visceral when it comes to memory association. I smell certain scents, certain perfumes or colognes, and I am immediately transported to certain places in my past. Smell can be considered a type of defense mechanism when it comes to food because if we can’t visually determine if something is “off,” one good whiff of it can keep us from food poisoning. So can you imagine either not having any sense of smell, or in this case, having the most intense sense of smell ever?

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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is the anti-hero of this book, born in a fishmonger’s market in Paris in the mid 1700s. (Can you get more French than that?) He is ordinary in every way other than the fact that he has no scent to him whatsoever but he has an abnormally developed sense of smell, so intense in fact that he is able to discern the individual scents of people as well as objects. He becomes a perfumer, working for various powerful people as he develops his own obsession in creating the ultimate scent.

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The kicker? He must kill the people who emit the scents that he finds so enticing and irresistible. Of course, they mainly tend to be young virgins because their scent is so pure to him that he must have it. So begins his career as a murderer in tandem with creating perfumes to sell to the public. His scent obsession is creepily psychosexual as he deeply inhales every single part of the women he kills, including their genitalia.

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Grenouille is so talented at creating scents that he is able to create the scent of anonymity, so that he is able to navigate the world around him, picking out the scents of virginal young women and murdering them to keep their scent, without being noticed. He is eventually so inconspicuous that people who normally wouldn’t give away their own breath have no problem giving him everything he needs or wants.

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Once they caught a whiff of him, the market women filled his pockets with nuts and dried pears because he seemed to them so hungry and helpless. And the butcher’s wife, an implacably callous old hag if there ever was one, let him pick……

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Of course, Grenouille gets his come-uppance in the end, after he’s arrested and purposely emits a scent he’s created that not only makes everyone adore him and have a major orgy in the streets outside his prison cell, but in the end, he is literally consumed by his scent. I won’t go into detail but it’s pretty intense and fairly visceral. This pear and walnut tart should provide a nice offset to his ultimate end.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 cup toasted walnuts, divided
Pinch of sea salt
7 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 and 1/4 cups flour plus two tablespoons
2 eggs, one separated out by yolk and white
2 tablespoons softened butter
1/4 cup brandy or orange liqueur
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 medium sized Bosc pears

METHOD
Mix half the sugar, half the toasted walnuts and salt in a food chopper and process until you have a flour-like texture.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and using the pastry hook attachment, add the flour, the sugar-walnut mixture, and mix together, gradually adding in one butter cube at a time until a rubbly dough forms.

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Add in the yolks and mix again, scraping the sides as needed, until a ball of dough forms. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

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Heat the oven to 400F and press the dough into each mini tart pan. Mine are non-stick with removable bottoms, which makes life so much easier.

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Line each tart crust with foil and add some lentils or beans or baking weights to each and blind-bake for 15 minutes, then let cool. (NOTE: Don’t forget to line with foil like I did, dummy that I am. I spent 15 minutes picking lentils out of the blind-baked crust. Yes, I’m a moron at times.)

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Mix together the other half of the walnuts and sugar in the food chopper, until you have a coarse texture, then add in the butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix again until smooth.

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Slice the pears lengthwise and put in a large bowl with the sugar, brandy and lemon juice for about 15-20 minutes, until the pears start to release their juice. Drain.

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Spread the walnut filling into each tart pan.

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Arrange sliced pears over the walnut filling in each pan so they overlap. As I’ve said before, I am the world’s worst cake decorator and we can include tarts in that category. But hey, at least you know mine are homemade, right?

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Put a small sprig of rosemary on each tart, arrange the tarts on a baking sheet and bake until golden, around 30 minutes.

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Once completely cool, push each tart out of the pan from the bottom and serve. The smell of toasted nuts and baked pears spiked with rosemary is out of this world, and likely would invoke the murderous instincts of Grenouille.

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The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

This book, though incredibly beautiful and lyrical and so very funny at times, is also so heart-wrenching to read that I considered not going with it. And I’ve read it before, but I think sometimes when you read things at a younger age, you haven’t either gone through the devastation and heartbreaks of adulthood so you find yourself feeling more intensely things that perhaps didn’t touch you as much when you hadn’t gone through hell and come back to tell the tale.

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At its heart, The Prince of Tides is about family. The betrayals and bonds and fucked-up connections and small heartaches and deep love and hate that any family goes through in life. The story is told from the viewpoint of Tom Wingo, one of the three Wingo children. Tom is an adult now, going through his own marital woes and never quite able to get to the place he wants, either emotionally or financially. It’s like all those things he wants are just out of his grasp. His twins sister Savannah, who lives in NYC, attempts suicide and Tom goes up there to care for her during her recovery. He meets Savannah’s therapist, Susan Lowenstein, and as part of trying to help his emotionally wrecked sister, starts to gradually tell stories of their life growing up on Melrose Island, about their abusive father and self-centered mother, their older brother Luke whose ultimate fate breaks your heart, and how their overall life and and one hour of brutal horror and its aftermath, has continued to affect them in such deeply dark ways.

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I suppose my takeaway from this book is how much you can love the people in your family who have caused you the most pain, grief and anger. It resonates so powerfully for me, particularly Tom’s relationship with his mother Lila because he does love her, as much as he hates her. Our families can put us through the emotional wringer like nothing and no one else. I had a very strong bond with my maternal grandmother precisely because of the fact that my own mother and I had one of the most challenging and difficult relationships I’ve experienced. And yet…..I loved her. I didn’t realize how much until she died last October. I always thought I either hated her or was indifferent to her because of all the pain she inflicted on her kids, on her own family. It just goes to show that family bonds can be the most enduring, the most painful, the most strangulating, and the most fulfilling……all at once.

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Though the book is quite lyrically beautiful and, at times, hysterically funny – the scene where Tom’s mother cooks a can of Alpo dog food to his father because he is being a total horrible prick – is classic. But it’s a book that will tear out your heart. It touches on so many painful topics and how all the crap we endure as kids can have such an enduring effect upon us as adults in ways we never truly consider. It strikes home for me right now because I am going through what feels like a very intense emotional transformation and depression because of dealing with my memories and grief over my mother, over the death of my first love, over so many work difficulties, over the betrayal of a man I have loved so deeply……….and I realize that so much of how I dealt with emotional upheavals as a child and what I learned from my own family dynamic has informed why I’ve done so many things as an adult. Going through transformations later in life is so much harder because we know how much emotional shit can hurt us, more so than as a kid. It’s tough, that’s for certain.

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The bond that Tom shares with Lila is predicated very much on their shared love of food and cooking. Lila is an amazing cook and shows Tom how to cook such delicacies as shrimp mousse, bouillabaisse, and wild duck, the recipe for which is described in mouth-watering detail. Being that this book is set in the South, I could have made any number of delectable dishes mentioned between the pages, but when Tom waxes poetic about Lila’s cooking ability, I was inspired. You see, Lila wants to be accepted among the snobby, wealthy women of the Colleton League, an elite group of rich women married to the rich men who essentially run the town. Lila, who is poor and incredibly beautiful, is of course shunned by these women but that doesn’t keep her from trying to get acceptance by continually submitting recipes for inclusion into the cookbook the League publishes each year, made up of genteel dishes submitted by the wealthy wives. But ultimately, it was this passage that inspired me to try something I’ve never yet made in the kitchen – Southern style barbecue pork ribs.

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She did magic things with pork that and changed the way I looked at the flesh of pigs forever. If she had published her recipe for pit barbecue, it would have altered the quality of life in the South as we knew it. But barbecue was indissolubly linked to her past and she eliminated it from contention as too simple and pedestrian.

Southern-style pork ribs are something I’ve never cooked before, so I am using a method that is a combination of suggestions from many of my Facebook followers, a few ideas from my dear friend Jake Goodmon who is a BBQ master, and my own taste palate.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pounds St. Louis-style pork ribs
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon liquid smoke
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sea salt
2-3 tablespoons fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoons dry mustard
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons dried onion
3 tablespoons garlic powder
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons red chile powder
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons dried parsley

METHOD
Marinate the ribs overnight in the grapeseed oil, liquid smoke, and apple cider vinegar, in the refrigerator.

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The next day, remove from the refrigerator and drain the marinade, but don’t throw it away.

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In a small bowl, mix together the sea salt, pepper, mustard powder, paprika, dried onion, garlic powder, brown sugar, red chile powder, red chile flakes, and dried parsley.

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Rub over the damp ribs on both sides, and leave to sit for about an hour.

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Preheat the oven to  200F and lay the ribs out on a baking tray. Pour the reserved marinade over them, cover with foil, and bake low and slow for up to 5 hours, turning after the first two hours and occasionally pouring over the juices. The smell is out of this world!

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At the five-hour mark, turn on the broiler and remove the foil from the ribs. Broil for maybe 15 minutes, until they get dark brown and crunchy. Heat up the pan juices and reduce them until they thicken, then pour over the ribs.

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Let cool about 10 minutes, then eat like a caveman, with lots of napkins for the sauce. So very good and perfect with a glass of red wine, though really, what DOESN’T go well with wine?

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

No doubt many people saw the mediocre movie made from this book  Corelli’s Mandolin,  beautifully filmed but as usual, not nearly as compelling as the book, which is written in lively, colorful prose from the viewpoint of several unique characters. These unique individuals include the main female character Pellagia, a traditionally raised Greek daughter who dutifully cooks for her father and becomes engaged to the local stud but then flips convention on its head with her later choices; Dr. Iannis, her father, who has his head in the clouds, who cures wild animals as well as human beings and whose inner monologues kept me vastly amused and entertained; and of course, the titular character himself, Captain Antonio Corelli. It was a wonderful read, but also very depressing and sad…..kind of like life itself.  Set on the gorgeous island of Cephallonia during World War II, the heartbreak of war is brought vividly to life in this place that has remained timeless until now. I suppose it goes to show that the horror of war leaves no place and no one untouched.

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Being set in Greece, of course the food depictions are luscious, with descriptions of wonderful octopus, mezedakia, which are little finger-type foods served like appetizers, dolmades, spinach pies in miniature, and my favorite, the passage below, set during the feast of the local saint, St. Gerasimos.

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“Outside, the pilgrims unloaded animals laden with feta, melons, cooked fowl, and Cephallonian meat pie, shared it with their neighbours and composed epigrammatic couplets at each other’s expense.”

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How can you not love a book that uses the word “epigrammatic” in the same sentence as such a delectable food passage? Anyhoo, kreatopita is the traditional meat pie eaten on Cephallonia, and can contain ground beef, feta cheese, onions, oregano and assorted other ingredients such as potatoes, rice, garlic, or tomatoes. The idea, I gather, is that each Greek cook has their own individual version of this recipe, and that is what true home cooking is all about. Having the skills to cook something and add tweaks or twists that make it truly your own, and which is part of the joy of this blog for me. It’s the ultimate in creativity, and I did it again here with the Cephallonian meat pie, using a base recipe from the marvelous blog site Lemon and Olives, with some added tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
16-20 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed and covered with damp towel
1 cup melted butter
1 lb. good-quality ground beef, preferably organic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Fresh oregano, fresh mint and fresh dill – use dried if fresh are not available but use less
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup of good, drinkable red wine.
1 cup of crumbled feta cheese
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 1/2 cups of frozen green peas

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 365F. In a skillet under a medium burner, add the olive oil and saute the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, adding a bit of sea salt for flavoring and to keep the onion from burning. Add the ground beef to the onions and garlic in the pan, and brown for about 10-15 minutes, stirring to break up the meat.

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Chop the equivalent of a 1/2 cup each of the fresh oregano, mint and dill. In another bowl, crumble up the feta cheese with your hands, and add the fresh herbs to this mixture. Fresh herbs really allow the flavors to come through, so if you use dried, use 1/2 tablespoon of each. Stir to mix and let the flavors mix together while you attend to the still-cooking meat.

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Add the tomato paste and the wine and the beef and stir again. Lower the heat  to medium low and let the red wine reduce, stirring occasionally. Add in the peas and stir again, so that the heat of the skillet will help them defrost. The scent of the meat, the wine, the peas and the herbs will rise up and hit your nasal passages like a dream. Delicious!

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You want the liquid reduced to nothing, so as not to make the phyllo dough soggy, so once the liquid is all gone, remove the meat mixture from the heat and let it cool for about 10-15 minutes. Once cooled, add the crumbled feta and herb mixture, mix well, and leave while you prepare the phyllo dough pie base.

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In whatever type of baking pan you have – I used a buttered disposable baking pan – lay one sheet of phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Lay another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter again. Continue in this vein until you have 8-10 sheets of phyllo layered on top of each other, each layer covered with butter. You need to do this fairly quickly, as the phyllo dough dries out easily. If you cover the dough sheets with a damp towel, this should help, but don’t take too long at this stage.

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On this buttery surface, add your meat-feta-pea mixture and spread everything out so that it evenly covers the dough. Add another sheet of phyllo dough on top of the meat mixture, brush with butter, and repeat until you have a topping of 8 more phyllo sheets to cover the meat.

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Poke a few holes in the top of the dough and pop that bad boy into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll be able to smell everything baking and your mouth will probably water so much that you’ll need a swig of wine to help. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and eat with joy in your heart! Opa!

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Book Giveaway to Celebrate 700 Followers!

Another milestone has been reached with Food in Books! I have officially hit 700 followers and I am so appreciative and grateful! Thank you all for the support of my little ol’ blog. I started blogging in 2016 and it’s been both a much-needed creative outlet and a comfort during difficult times, like the one I’ve had recently.  It means so much to know that you all support my writing and my vision and my passion for books and food. THANK YOU again from the bottom of my heart! To celebrate, I am hosting another book giveaway. If you want to enter, please comment below about what your ultimate “last supper” would be and why, and one random winner will be chosen in two weeks. The winner will win a hardback edition of one of my favorite food books My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals.

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As my main man Anthony Bourdain wrote the introduction and we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of his horrible suicide on June 8, I thought it was fitting to remember his legacy and humor by sharing this book with my followers. RIP, Tony.

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For sure. Xoxo

A Non-Food/Non-Book Post

I very rarely post here about anything other than food and books. Those are, after all, the reason for this blog to exist. However, life itself refuses to stay neatly within the confines of my blog topics, and often, the messiness that exudes affects my desire and ability to write the blog. So I figured that perhaps a confessional vent might help me regain some perspective and get back into my writing groove.

It’s funny how something that you take for granted, something that you experienced long ago, can come back and hit you in the heart at a different time in your life. Let me explain.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with “R” for nearly 15 years. It’s a very long and complicated story, but the one thing that I was always 100% certain about was my love for him. It survived lies, betrayal, heartbreak, rage, abandonment…….this feeling for him was like the flame of a candle inside my heart. It never went out. The best way I can describe it was a small warmth that was perpetually alight inside me. It flickered, it wavered, it flamed in intense heat, but it never vanished, never went out. It was perpetual. It didn’t mean that what he did was OK; it simply meant I knew him for who he was and loved him not just in spite of his faults and imperfections but also because of them.

A few weeks ago, I texted R that I’d be in his neighborhood and had something to drop off at his house and would he be there? No response. I arrived at his house and when walking up to the front door, I noticed that the security door was closed but that the inner door was open and I could smell cooking and hear voices. So I rang the bell. He came to the door, with a rather guarded look on his face, and closed the door behind him and came out to the patio. His only words were “I have someone here with me.”

Like I said, my feelings for him have survived tornadoes of emotion, tsunamis of rage, anger, love, friendship. This was not the first time I had found out he is incapable of being faithful. Part of my very complex feelings for him are based on me realizing that it’s possible to love a highly flawed human being and it’s possible to understand their reasons for acting the way that they do, without accepting it or justifying it. In other words, I am the last person R has ever needed to lie to, then and now. It doesn’t make it ok, but knowing his bad side and his good, I think I probably know him better than any other person on this planet, precisely because I have seen both sides and see how they have shaped the man he is. So in this case, the feelings were familiar – anger, frustration, betrayal, pain, heartbreak – but there was something different now. Bewilderment. Why? After all this time, after all the years and everything that’s happened between us, after 15 years of friendship and laughter and passion and emotion and anger and hard-won trust and easily broken trust and loss and rage, why? Why?

Why do you still have to lie to me after so many years? We have been friends. We were friends long before anything else developed between us. The friendship is what survived when nothing else seemed to. We went through some very intense life experiences with each other, because of each other, without each other. We went an entire year with no contact, and in his words “during that dark year when we had no contact,” it solidified the fact that neither of us was willing or able to fully let the other one go. Call it dysfunctional, call it messed up, call it addiction, call it fucked up. You’d be right. Believe me when I say that everything and anything you could throw my way about R has already been said and done and internalized by me more times than anyone might realize.

But this time, something broke inside of me. It sounds either very dramatic or very simple. I felt it, like the snapping of a flower stem when you pull it from the bush.

My mother died of lung cancer last October. My first love S. died a month later from complications related to liver cancer. These people represented aspects of me that I didn’t even fully realize were there until they were gone. R had told me that he wanted to be there for me in the aftermath of losing my mother and losing S, because he had not been there for previous losses in my life. When my beloved grandmother died in 2010, R was on work assignment in in West Texas, not too far away from where we buried her, but he said, and I quote, “I have too much work to do.”  When my dear grandfather died in 2013, again the same excuse from R. “I’m too busy.” Him being too busy to be there for me is the significant theme of our relationship, but like anyone who loves someone else deeply and who hasn’t had healthy relationships modeled in life, I learned to live in perpetual hope.

Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time something will shift.

I truly believed that when my mom died and when S died, and when R specifically that he wanted to be there for me, that this cosmic shift had happened. It felt different this time, he seemed different, more open to being there for me, he wanted to attend my mom’s memorial service, he was there for me emotionally in a way that I hadn’t previously ever experienced with him. As I said, I had hope.

Over the past few months, the upheavals of losing my mother, of losing my first love without having been able to say goodbye to him, so many workplace upheavals and uncertainties, the sadness and depression and anger and grief of losing these people who were so pivotal in making me the woman I am today……..has all culminated into what’s been the worst and hardest time in my adult life. And this final act of betrayal, this lying by omission, this repetition of the same pattern of behavior that R has followed for nearly 15 years and that I have, in many ways, allowed………….something has finally shifted.

That cosmic shift that I thought had happened in the aftermath of losing my mother is, in fact, a cosmic shift inside of my heart where R is concerned.

Going back to taking something for granted that’s been around a long time, I’ve found myself listening over and over to Bruce Springsteen, in particular the album Tunnel of Love. It popped up on my Spotify suggestions and for some reason, I listened to the entire album and then immediately listened again and then again. It’s really amazing how something that was written 30 years ago still resonates today, and even stranger, it resonates in a way that it never has with me. The album is about romantic love and all of its permutations. Romance, marriage, betrayal, lies, cheating, divorce. I think what resonates so powerfully with me is the song Brilliant Disguise. I love this song and have loved it since it came out but I never fully internalized the lyrics. Now I can’t get them out of my head.

“I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust. ‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself.”

That hits me in the heart every single time I hear it, and even more poignantly now. Can there be anything worse than self-doubt when you realize that the thing, the concept, the person on which you built a foundation is in fact, just a mirage?

“God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he’s sure of.”

The idea of not truly knowing the person you love is a powerful one. I never thought the foundation of what I felt for R would ever shift. I was sure of what I felt for him, right or wrong. It lasted over a decade, and in many ways, I felt like we’d been to war together and against each other, and come out on the other side still connected. In many ways, going through hell with someone creates a stronger bond than going through the easy times. Now…….I feel not only like that connection has been severed, ripped, mangled and torn, but I feel crippling self-doubt. How could I have built this foundation of love on this person? I thought I knew him. I knew his ugly side, I knew his dishonest, judgemental side, I knew his kindness and his intelligence and his love for his sons………..and I truly believed that he knew me and knew that I was the one person to whom he never had to lie.

 “When I look in your eyes, is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”

How can we ever know if the person we love is not just a figment of our own desires and projections? More to the point, how do we recover from having this foundation blasted out from under ourselves and destroyed? In many ways, it’s like a death and I feel the same grief I have been dealing with in losing my mother, in losing my first love, in the loss of belief in myself, in the loss of a certain security in my job, and in the loss of this foundational belief in this man who has been one of the greatest influences in my adult life.

The entire album Tunnel of Love conceptualizes this evolution of love. The song One Step Up and Two Steps Back details the breakdown of a marriage, the death of commitment and infidelity. That entire song seems to sum up so much between R and I, even though we were never married. But in a way, I feel as though what has ended between us is like the death of a marriage because it does feel like a death in my heart.

Giving each other some hard lessons lately, but we ain’t learning. We’re the same sad story, that’s a fact. One step up and two steps back.

That is R and I to a tee. We come back to each other, we seem like we’re working toward something good, and then he pulls away and retreats back inside his damaged heart, and I am left wondering what happened and nursing a broken heart and realizing that we are still in the same place we always were. It’s a pattern we followed for so long, and there was always certain comfort in the familiarity of it, even though it tore me into pieces when things came to their inevitable and familiar end. Even now, when this connection has been severed once and for all, the sense of loss is as intense as the relief.

Forgive the confessional tone in this post. I didn’t realize how strong the need was to get all of this out. Thanks for reading.

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

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Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

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The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

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You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

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However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

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There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

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Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

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Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

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Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

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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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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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