The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

METHOD
Chop up the spinach finely and set aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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

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

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

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Well, I had to, didn’t I? It’s October. What other book could I possibly blog about other than The Exorcist, that classic tale of demonic possession, faith, and terror? I’d never read the book, though I’ve seen the movie many times, especially in October. The film hasn’t lost its shock value, though it’s not as terrifying as it was when I saw it as a young girl.

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But the book is genuinely unnerving, creeping up with subtlety and giving you more insight into the characters than is comfortable. Chris MacNeil, in point of fact, is a much more likeable character in the book, though she is still somewhat irritating. Father Karras is even more likeable, particularly because his own crisis of faith and personal guilt are given much more attention and backstory.

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Blatty’s writing is accessible – short sentences, everyday words, and concise narration – which makes it all the more powerful in telling this horrific tale set in Georgetown. This is even more effective when describing some of the more disturbing scenes – Regan and the infamous crucifix, her head twisting completely around, some of the more profane and filthy things she says, the priest falling down those vicious stairs – which really exist, by the way. See below, from my trip to Washington a couple of years ago. A genuinely creepy spot.

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I think, at its heart, it’s a book about faith. Whether it’s faith in God, faith in the power of love, faith in science, or faith in the unknown, it’s the idea of believing in something greater outside of ourselves that is the thread tying it together. And then, of course, there was this passage. Of course you know what comes to mind when you read it.

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They went to the Hot Shoppe. Chris ate a salad while Regan had soup (haha, of course she did!), two sourdough rolls, fried chicken, a strawberry shake, and blueberry  pie topped with chocolate ice cream. Where does she put it, Chris wondered, in her wrists? The child was a slender as a fleeting hope.

2017-10-30 06.30.07_resizedSo soup. Of course I made soup! You’re damn right I made soup! SPLIT PEA SOUP! This is the method that worked for me, based on this recipe from Allrecipes.com, and of course, with my own additions. Plan for about 4-5 hours prep and cook time total.

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INGREDIENTS
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 large carrots or 10 baby carrots, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 lb. dried split peas
3-4 ham steaks, cubed
3-4 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 and 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons liquid smoke
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed

METHOD
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook and sweat them down for up to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash of salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the peas, and stir around to get the vegetable flavors incorporated.

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Pour in the chicken stock, the water, and the wine (how Biblical, right?), and give one good stir.

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Toss in the bay leaves and the sliced-up ham chunks.

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Add the liquid smoke, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, and cook on medium-low for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. The soup will thicken as it cooks.

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For the last hour, check the texture of the peas. If they are still somewhat hard, turn up the heat and bring to a hard boil for at least 45 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

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The potato chunks go in for the last hour, to soften up and break down. This also adds to the soup’s thick, unctuous texture.

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Serve in large bowls and eat with gusto and the knowledge that, with a soup this good, the Devil surely cannot possess your soul. This soup is perfect for a chilly autumn day or if you need to start spewing at a priest. The power of Christ compels you, you know.  #monstermenu

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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Apparently I missed National Hobbit Day, which was on Sunday, September 22. Well, hell! Who knew this was a thing? Me, it would seem. Anyway, three days later, I present this lovely blog post in homage to my favorite fictional fantasy foodies! Who, I ask you, doesn’t love The Lord of the Rings trilogy, whether the books or the films? Or, like me, both! But the books are a pivotal read in anyone’s life, especially those of us who live primarily in their imaginations, who are fans of fantasy and sci-fi, or who study and love the construction of language and linguistics. The Lord of the Rings trilogy fulfills all those, plus they are just damn good adventure stories unto themselves.

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I read them all when I was about 13. They were my dad’s, who was also a huge bookworm, and the book containing all three stories is one of the things I’m most proud to have inherited from him, along with his love of books and reading. (That’s my dad! Wasn’t he handsome?)

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He always had several books in his car, and it was like a movable feast of novels to climb in and see what he’d been reading. I think most of the books I was turned onto in my early teens were books he himself was reading. It by Stephen King, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, The Collected Works of Guy de Maupaussant, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, and of course, Tolkien’s masterpiece.

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My version has all three of the novels – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King – all in one large tome, and I’m on Book 2 – again. One of the funniest scenes in the book, and which was brilliantly visualized in the film, was from The Two Towers, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit,” when Frodo and Sam are searching for the One Ring, and they’ve captured Gollum to be their guide into Mordor. Sam, as usual, is hungry, which is the the usual state for a Hobbit, and tries to get Gollum to find some herbs to make a rabbit stew, which he dreams about garnishing with potatoes, or as he endearingly calls them “taters.”

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“Smeagol won’t go, O no precious, not this time,” hissed Gollum. He’s frightened, and he’s very tired, and this hobbit’s not nice, not nice at all. Smeagol won’t grub for roots and carrotses and taters. What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?” “Po-ta-toes,” said Sam. “The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly.”

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In the film, Sam is very sarcastic in describing what they are, telling Gollum “boil em, mash em, ‘stick em in a stew.” The movie scene is, of course, hilarious, but I also loved the scene in the book because I could just imagine Sam whapping Gollum upside his head for not understanding how important potatoes really are.

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Humor aside, The Lord of the Rings books are such a wonderful adventure of friendship, love, sacrifice, linguistics and symbolism, and ultimately doing something for a cause greater than yourself. The books have been analyzed and reviewed hundreds of times by scholars and readers far more intelligent than me, so all I will say is that everyone should read these books.

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Back to the po-tay-toes. Potato soup. With cheddar. And Guinness. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound delectable, fit food even for a Hobbit, who we know are discerning eaters and love their beer. I found this recipe on the delicious food blog Simply Recipes, and though I tweaked it slightly, the overall recipe remains faithful to Elise Bauer’s version and is, I think, a wonderful homage to Tolkien, Frodo, and of course, our own chef of Middle-Earth, Sam.

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INGREDIENTS
Butter and olive oil
1 yellow onion
3 ribs of celery
4 cloves of garlic
2 carrots, peeled
4-5 russet potatoes, peeled and sliced fairly thinly
3-4 cups chicken stock, enough to cover the potatoes
1 1/2 cups Guinness extra stout (probably the whole bottle because why waste it?)
Chicken stock cube
Ground thyme
2 bay leaves
7 ounces of extra sharp cheddar, shredded
Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
Paprika and fresh thyme leaves for garnish

METHOD
Finely dice the onion, celery, garlic and carrots, and cook in a large soup pot with the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Sprinkle over some salt to release their juices and keep from burning. Cook about 10 minutes, or until the veg are soft and translucent.

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Add the potato slices, stir so they are covered with the vegetable mush, then add the chicken stock, the Guinness and the stock cube.Oh, that lovely scent!

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Toss in a good tablespoon of the ground thyme, two bay leaves, cover and let simmer for about 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and tender and can be easily cut with a fork.

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Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. What’s fun about making this soup is it gives you an excuse to bust out the stick blender. I love playing with the stick blender, because it makes me feel competent and like I know what I’m doing. Add about a handful of the shredded cheese to the soup mixture, then blitz with the hand mixer. Go cautiously, so you don’t splatter yourself with hot soup. Continue adding in the cheese and mixing until all is combined into a smooth, golden consistency.

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Stir to mix and amalgamate everything, and put on low heat to gently get back to a nice, piping hot temperature, then add in some dashes of Worchestershire sauce – dashes being the scientific measurement here – and strip off some fresh thyme leaves and sprinkle across the top. Add a sprinkle (another scientific measurement!) of smoked paprika for color and added garnish, and swallow down one heavenly mouthful at a time. Very good with any extra Guinness you might have on hand, or with a nice, bold red wine.

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Ode to Tomatoes (A Poem) by Pablo Neruda

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been big on poetry. The rhythm and meters necessary to appropriately read poems just bog me down. I love hearing poetry read by someone who understands how it should be enunciated, but when I try to read poetry, either in my head or out loud, I sound like an idiot. Well, with the exception of the poems of Pablo Neruda.

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Neruda is my favorite poet in all the world. He writes in a sensual, lyrical rhythm that is a gorgeous combination of the magical realism so common in Latin American writing, and a pure, romantic worldview centered around love. His arguable masterpiece of love poetry is his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, though I personally love Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets). Cien sonetos, in my humble opinion, is probably one of the most beautiful and erotic collections of poetry in the world, mature and beautiful and quite sensual. I highly recommend you read them if you haven’t already.

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As much a political figure as a poet, Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Chile. His poetry was considered beautiful, avant-garde, and at times, very subversive to the repressive government in his home country. Highly respected as both a writer and a political figure, he traveled extensively throughout the world, both as a diplomat and after he was forced into exile by after Chile outlawed Communism. A believer in pure Communist ideals, he was associated such other exalted revolutionaries as Garcia Lorca, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Allende. It is believed he was killed by the Pinochet government, which he had fervently criticized. Proof that words can be as powerful as any other weapon, if used correctly.

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Though I adore Neruda’s love sonnets, the Odes he wrote in homage to everyday, normal items such as food, are my absolute favorites. He wrote odes using these mundane objects as personification of the human experience. Odes to a tuna he saw in the marketplace, golden lemons, pearly onions, jade-green artichokes, ruby and topaz-colored wine, and tomatoes, comparing the crimson flesh of the tomato to the bleeding and suffering of mankind, but also finding the sheer joy in these common foods.

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Being both a reader and an avid cook, I’ve always found his odes to food so filled with pleasure and sensuality. It’s interesting that Neruda is as comfortable detailing his political beliefs in a logical manner as he is describing the eroticism of kissing his lover or the joys of drinking wine or eating a tomato.

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The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is halved like
a
tomato,
its juice runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
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among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding of the day,
parsley hoists its flag,

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potatoes bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent and fertile star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Isn’t that just beautiful? In honor of this magnificent poet, I decided to create an homage meal that incorporated tuna, onion, lemon, tomatoes, artichoke, and of course, wine. This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous recipe from Beauty and the Foodie, creating tuna-stuffed tomatoes alongside lemon-steamed artichokes and a beautiful, garnet-hued Chilean wine. I do think Neruda would approve wholeheartedly of this meal created in his honor.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1-6 ounce can of good-quality tuna, drained and flaked
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 red onion, finely minced
1/2 celery rib, finely minced
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1/2 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
2 slices cheddar cheese
METHOD
Pre-heat your oven to 400F and spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray. While the oven heats, saute the diced onion in a bit of olive oil and salt, just until it’s translucent.
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While the onion is cooling, cut the tops of the tomatoes off about 1/3 from the top. Scoop out the seeds and pulpy juices, saving some.
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Drain the tomato halves upside down on a plate while you prepare the tuna salad. Mix the now-cooled onion with the flaked tuna, the celery and parsley, the tomato seeds and the lemon juice.
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 Add in the mayonnaise and mustard, and season with salt and pepper.
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Fill each tomato half with the tuna mixture, and top with a slice of cheddar cheese.
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Bake for 15 minutes, or until you see the cheese getting meltingly golden.
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While the tomatoes are roasting, boil two trimmed and stemmed artichokes in salted, lemony water for 15 minutes. Drain and allow to steam for another 5-10 minutes. Melt some butter and lemon juice in a bowl, and season with salt.
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Serve the luscious, meltingly good stuffed tomatoes on a platter with an artichoke, and with a lovely glass of Chilean wine, and enjoy the visual poetry of this ode to good food.
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Don’t Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier

Having had a long-time love affair with the books of Daphne DuMaurier, I was especially pleased to find a compilation of stories that included Don’t Look Now. The story, set in Venice, which is my favorite city on earth, combines creepy supernatural elements with the gorgeous backdrop of La Serennissima.

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The basic story is a couple, John and Laura, whose daughter has recently died, and who are visiting Venice in the hopes of coming to terms with her death. They encounter two odd old ladies – sisters and twins – who claim to be psychic and in contact with the dead daughter, and begin to have the strangest interactions with them. Cue the haunted house music here. John starts seeing a ghostly little girl in a red coat running around canals and over bridges, and at the same time, hears of gruesome murders happening in Venice.  His dead daughter died wearing a red coat so he thinks he is seeing her ghost.

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If you’ve ever visited Venice and seen it in both rainy weather and with the sun shining, you’ll understand that it seems two different cities. Venice in sunshine is beautiful, golds and pinks with the water reflections bouncing off the walls of the buildings that line the canals, and even the tourist chatter doesn’t detract from its charm. Seen with rain as the backdrop, it is a dark, haunted city with dead end corners, frighteningly loud echoes of footsteps in portegos, foggy lights reflected from the ornate lampposts around Piazza San Marco, and a pervasive sense of menace. I can tell you that if I was in Venice on a rainy, foggy day and saw some little girl running around like a haunt, hell no would I follow her.

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But I don’t like kids anyway. Anyhoo, Campari and soda, and scampi, are mentioned in a pivotal scene when John and Laura again meet the old ladies in a restaurant, so you get two recipes for the price of one in this week’s post! Lucky you!

“All right, thought John savagely, then I will get sloshed, and he proceeded to down his Campari and soda and order another, while he pointed out something quite unintelligible on the menu as his own choice, but remembered scampi for Laura. ‘And a bottle of soave,’ he added, ‘with ice.’ “

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I love to make scampi, and usually throw in a handful of sliced grape tomatoes in mine, for color and because tomato and shrimp have such a natural affinity for each other. Having recently bought some fresh green tomatillos at my local farmer’s market, I decided to make a variation of scampi with tomatillos. I know tomatillos are not traditionally Venetian, being much more used in Latin American recipes, but just think of it as my contribution to multiculturalism.

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INGREDIENTS

For the tomatillo scampi (adapted from this version at Simply Recipes, one of the BEST food blog sites out there)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, finely diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 jalapeno pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
Sea salt
6-7 tomatillos, husked, seeded and quartered
1 lb. raw shrimp, shells on
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup of clam juice or seafood stock
1 tomato bouillon cube
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Optional: 1 cup crumbled feta cheese or Cotija cheese. (I am told by my Italian friends that cheese is not eaten with shellfish or seafood, and were I cooking in Venice, I would leave it out, but half the fun is experimenting with flavors, so I did. Send the hate mail later.)

METHOD
Saute the onion, garlic and minced jalapeno pepper in the olive oil and butter, for about 10 minutes. Add a sprinkle of sea salt. Add the tomatillos, give a good stir to mix, and cook over medium-low heat for another 10-15 minutes.

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Add the wine and the clam juice, let simmer and reduce it to about half the original liquid volume.

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Now add the tomato bouillon. Stir to mix and cook another 5 minutes. Toss in the raw shrimp and lemon juice, and cook over low heat, until the shrimp turn pink and look plump and luscious. If you so choose, add your cheese here and allow the cooking heat to melt it slightly before serving, but if you do add cheese, make sure your liquid has reduced significantly, or this will be runny. If you omit the cheese, serve over rice or linguine pasta.

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Having tried Campari to see if it’s really as bitter as famously claimed, guess what! It’s bitter! But the color reminded me of Italian spritzers I drank with my friend Kate in Venice at a cafe on the Fondamenta Nuova, overlooking the lagoon and San Michele, so I tinkered around with the Campari, some gin, some lemon and a few other things, and came up with what I will call a Vanessa cocktail.

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For the Vanessa cocktail – makes two generous drinks so feel free to adjust ratios as needed
1 part Campari
1 part gin
1 part limoncello or fresh lemon juice
1 part Cointreau
1 part cranberry juice
Ice
Lemon rind twists for garnish

Add all the ingredients, except the lemon rind, into a shaker, with ice. Shake well to mix. Pour into chilled glasses and garnish with the lemon rind twists. Admire the color…….kind of like the red coat on the ghostly kid running around Venice, wouldn’t you say? Knock it back with a smile or a shudder, but don’t look now.

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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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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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