The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a heavy and weirdly surreal read, but it’s far more lighthearted and satiristic than many other Russian novels of the similar period. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote this book as a sharp commentary and satire on the communistic and atheistic government of time, top-heavy with government bureaucrats and processes. This book was actually banned in the Soviet Union for many years, and with Bulgakov’s sharp eye for calling bullshit in his country and his scathing tongue when satirizing the government and religion, it’s no wonder the bureaucrats couldn’t handle it. Most people who abuse their power in government can’t handle being satirized and criticized. Sound familiar? ūüôā

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Anyway, the story is told in three parts. The first section is where Professor Woland (the Devil in disguise, with apologies to Elvis Presley) appears in 1930s Moscow with his minions, including Behemoth the black cat who is my favorite animal character in any book. He’s a real smart-ass, wears a bow tie, totes a Kalashnikov and dude! Get this! The cat DRINKS VODKA! Professor Woland proceeds to turn the Russian government and wealthy society upon its head as he asks aggravating questions, pisses off the Establishment and makes a nuisance of himself pointing out the obvious nonsense going on in society and government.

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The second part of the book takes place in ancient Jerusalem and tells Pontius Pilate’s version of the story of Jesus Christ prior to the Crucifixion, which is not at all what one would expect, and although this was interesting, to me it was the weakest part of the book. I guess it’s because I know that story so well, but it’s interesting to see how tormented Pilate is over his part in Jesus’s crucifixion.

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The eponymous Master and his mistress Margarita appear about halfway into the book, and are the third part of the story. The Master, a tormented and failed writer during the 1930s, has written a book about Jesus and Pontius Pilate that has not sold. Margarita, madly in love with the Master, makes an odd agreement with Woland in which she acts as hostess for Satan’s midnight ball and and flies over Moscow naked on a broom. Yes, you read that correctly. She is able to torment the horrible publisher who rejected The Master’s book and made him so miserable. This is a woman unlike any other – she is brave, loyal, adoring, smart and unafraid to use the powers of Darkness to help the man she loves.

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I personally liked the irony of reading this book – which you could also call “Sympathy for the Devil” on Easter, but since it’s also April Fool’s Day, it seems rather appropriate. Woland is a rather sympathetic Devil, and actually quite a just one, as he rewards Margarita’s love and loyalty to her Master and punishes wrongdoings and injustices, particularly those perpetrated by the corrupt and evil Russian bureaucrats whose greed and selfishness condemn them. One such bureaucrat, Nikanor Ivanovich, who has a rare and expensive apartment in the heart of Moscow gained by greed and illicit actions, serves his Chairman a rather delicious sounding meal before he is later arrested and punished for his horrible deeds.

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“His wife brought pickled herring from the kitchen, neatly sliced and thickly sprinkled with green onion. Nikanor Ivanovich poured himself a dram of vodka, drank it, poured another, drank it, picked up three pieces of herring on his fork….and at that moment the doorbell rang. Pelageya Antonovna was just bringing in a steaming pot which, one could tell at once from a single glance, contained amidst a fiery borscht……..”

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A spicy, fiery borscht! Oh yeah! But I held off on the pickled herring. One has to have standards, you know.¬† ūüôā My borscht was a take on¬†Elise Bauer’s recipe at Simply Recipes, which is my go-to website for many dishes, with my own tweaks, as usual.

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INGREDIENTS
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. cubed boneless beef chunks
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 cups organic beef stock
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup red wine
3 large red beets
2 large potatoes
12-15 baby carrots
1 small head of red cabbage
5-6 bay leaves
2 tablespoons fresh dill
Sour cream for garnish

METHOD
Heat the olive oil a large cast-iron pot, and brown the beef chunks for about 5 minutes, turn them to brown on the other side, then add the onion and garlic, and cook those down for another 5 minutes.

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Pour in the beef stock, cover and cook for 45 minutes, until the meat is tender.

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While the meat is cooking, heat the oven to 375F. Slice the potatoes and beets into roughly similar slices, lay on a baking tray with the carrots, and pour over the olive oil. Roast them for about 30 minutes, then add to the beef and stock.

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Slice the red cabbage and add it to the pot, along with the fresh dill, the red wine vinegar, the red wine, and some salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper as needed.

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Add the bay leaves, cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, until the cabbage is cooked through. The color of the beets will deepen with cooking and you’ll have this beautiful ruby-red potful of stew that begs to be eaten.

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Serve in bowls with a tablespoon of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill, and optionally, an ice-cold sipping shot of Russian vodka, and pretend you’re soaring naked on a broomstick over Moscow………or not. Maybe just eat your borscht instead.

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I didn’t intend to do a blog post this week for several reasons, the main one being that my dearest and only aunt – my dad’s younger sister to whom I am very close – had an unexpected triple-bypass on Friday and that has been weighing on me. She came out of the surgery all right, but it was still a very worrying experience. Coupled with a very ugly fight with one of my sisters (it’s funny how stress can bring out the worst in families, isn’t it?), my heart wasn’t into doing much this weekend. But I came¬†across The Rules of Magic on one of my bookshelves and thought “hey, this will be a total escape.”

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It was simply reading for the sheer pleasure, something that I sometimes forget about doing. Reading is, after all, a true pleasure with the feel of the pages, that sense of just falling into whatever world you’ve chosen, and when you come back to yourself, it’s almost a shock that the world is still there.

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If you’ve read Hoffman’s earlier book¬†Practical Magic, you’ll recognize the characters of Frannie and Jet Owens. In the first book, they are the great-aunts of Sally and Gillian, and in this book, they take center stage. Frannie and Jet and their brother Vincent are raised away from the shadow of their notorious witch family in a stable, upwardly mobile manner. Their mother wants nothing to do with the magic that has touched and shaped their family for centuries, and love is the element to be avoided in this book. The three Owens children are raised to never fall in love, but when Aunt Isabelle enters their lives, she connects them with their heritage of magic and witchcraft and spells and it’s so beautifully described that I wished I’d been raised as a witch.

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I think the element I loved most in this book was the sheer sensuality of how scents are described, so vividly that my mouth almost watered. The herbs used in their spells, various recipes, the delicious smells of peppermint, patchouli, flowers, eucalyptus, chocolate, almonds, and most delectably, the savory scent of bacon. And of course, there was that passage that set the tone for how the children are perceived by other kids, describing how eerie Franny and Jet are in their youth.

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“Soon enough the other students knew not to irritate the Owens sisters, not if they didn’t want to trip over their own shoes or find themselves stuttering when called upon to give a report. There was something about the sisters that felt dangerous, even when all they were doing was eating tomato sandwiches in the lunchroom or searching for novels in the library.”

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I mean, it’s a total food and books reference RIGHT THERE! Eating tomato sandwiches! Looking for books! I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect passage. And a tomato sandwich – yum! Still, a plain old tomato sandwich, tasty as it, can be made better when you have a couple of ripe avocadoes, some bacon and a bit of imagination. Here’s my take on the Owens sisters’ tomato sandwiches. Magic is optional. But make sure everything is at room temperature, particularly the tomatoes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 ripe avocado
1 heirloom tomato
4 strips bacon
1 slice good quality bread, any type you want
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Fry the bacon and enjoy the salty, savory scent of it. I seriously don’t know how anyone could be a vegetarian with the smell of bacon around. Drain on a paper towel.

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Deseed the tomato and slice it into somewhat thick rounds. Add a bit of salt to the tomato slices.

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Mash the avocado and season it with the crushed red pepper, the lemon juice, and the salt and pepper.

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Toast the bread, and slather on the mashed avocado.

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Put the tomato rounds on top of the avocado, then add the bacon slices. Admire the lovely colors and textures before applying to your face. Sooooooooooo yum, and comforting too!

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested.¬†We Have Always Lived in the Castle¬†is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

METHOD
In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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INGREDIENTS
1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I remember discovering Angela Carter in my mid-20s and falling instantly in love with her lush, prosaic, luxuriant and very bawdy language. Her writing can instantly evoke palaces filled with plush draperies, languid golden bathrooms, fairylike woods filled with magical creatures…….and also be as basic and raunchy as humorously describing a cat licking his bottom, the stench of rotting food, or the very earthy pleasures of lovemaking.

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Her masterwork, in my opinion, is her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales, from which the short story I am blogging today got its title. The book itself is a collection of eight novellas based on traditional fairy tales. You’ll read fantastical revised versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, two very different and equally gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, and my own personal favorite story, The Bloody Chamber, which takes the tale of Bluebeard and twists it completely onto its head.

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I was always madly fascinated by the horrific tale of Bluebeard and the wives he’d murdered and then whose heads he kept hanging in his secret chamber, gruesome trophies of his own hunt. It’s no wonder that this particular story has never been turned into a bowdlerized Disney version – there is no way in hell you can make this story nice. You could throw in dancing candlesticks, talking animals, and singing snowmen all you want, and it remains a horrific tale of murder and ultimate redemption, when the fourth young wife takes the key – that infamous key that her husband has specifically told her NOT to use – opens the door to the bloody chamber, and discovers what happened to her predecessors.

Barbe Bleue

In Carter’s version, the young wife is ultimately rescued by her mother, so you can read it as a highly feminist archetypal tale. I think why this particular tale of Carter’s has always beguiled me so much is because the young wife is as fascinated by her older, murderous husband as she is repelled by him, which demonstrates the multifaceted nature of women. She is as happy with her husband’s wealth as she is miserable in her solitude. She orders a fabulous feast for herself when her husband leaves her to go on a business trip, and before her fateful exploration of his castle and ultimate discovery of the bodies of his three previous wives – all killed by him and preserved in a locked room.

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Then I found I had to tell her what I would like to have prepared for me; my imagination, still that of a schoolgirl, ran riot. A fowl in cream – or should I anticipate Christmas with a varnished turkey? No; I have decided. Avocado and shrimp, lots of it, followed by no entree at all. But surprise me for dessert with every ice-cream in the ice box.

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Shrimp and avocado are, in my humble opinion, a marriage made in heaven. There are so many wonderful ways to combine them, but I decided to make some appetizer bites combining shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and some homemade Creole seasoning. As I had invited friends over for Game Night, these made the perfect starter.

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INGREDIENTS
30 raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon chipotle sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 ripe avocadoes
1 tablespoon lime juice
Sea salt
2 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into round slices

METHOD
Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, and spices together in a bowl, and add the shrimp. Stir around to ensure they are completely covered, then refrigerate for an hour.

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Arrange the cucumber rounds on a platter.

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Mash the two avocadoes together, and season with salt and lime juice to taste.

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Spread the avocado mix onto each cucumber round.

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Heat the butter in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high, and gently cook the shrimp for 2-3 minutes per side, until they are opaque and have some nice blackened marks on them.

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This is what you want.

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Let the shrimp cool for a few minutes, then place one shrimp on each avocado-covered cucumber round.

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That’s it! Simple, elegant, and quite beautiful, with the contrast of the blackened shrimp floating on the cool green bed of avocado. And the spiciness of the shrimp is nicely offset both by the smooth avocado and crisp cucumber. So good that surely you can keep Bluebeard from killing you next.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve blogged, loving as I do his writing and the way he so smoothly moves his characters between reality and the shadowy, mythic “other” world where things are never quite what they seem. Gaiman’s books are universal no matter your age because he treats childhood with the same seriousness and attention that other writers attribute to the adult years, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. What happens to us as kids can seriously fuck us up, and when we’re in a situation where we are victims of those adults who are supposed to love and cherish and protect us, it oftentimes twists our perspective in ways we’d never want nor expect. That’s why this book is so beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately, satisfying.

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The protagonist, who – in a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, is never named – arrives back in his old neighborhood as an adult, attending a funeral. Memories are awoken as he visits the neighbors the Hempstocks who had such a primal influence on his youth. Lettie Hempstock befriended him after a terrifying incident with a lodger killing first his kitten (accidentally) then himself. The beautiful and hideous Ursula Monkton enters his life, representing dark magic and the power of evil, and does battle with Lettie and her mother and grandmother as they work to protect the young protagonist.

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Why this book is so beautiful is because it can be read on so many levels. It can be read as a children’s story about the power of magic and love and terror and the pain of growing into adulthood – your typical bild√ľngsroman. It can be read from the adult viewpoint looking back into the past and realizing how messed up adults can be and how much our parents can really screw us up. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this perfectly. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometime monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

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It can be read as a symbolic treatise on time and physics and other dimensions, with a nod to the concept of Maiden, Mother, and Crone thrown in for good measure. It can be read as a treatise on feminism and the dual nature of power in a woman – the beauty and the motherliness and the protectiveness contrasted with the ugliness and hatred and desire to destroy – kind of like the dual faces of the goddess Kali. Giver of life and destroyer of life. Or, if you’re a devoted foodie like me, you can read it with an eye toward what delicious dishes you can try your hand. I found these beautiful multicolored carrots – heirloom, perhaps? – at my grocery store and decided to try and reenact this touching scene.

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Above: three of my carrot-loving cooking companions this past weekend.

Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs baby carrots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 400F, and finely mince the parsley and marjoram. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, garlic slivers, and minced herbs. Season with sea salt and pepper, and mix together with your hands, which are really the best kitchen tool in the world. ūüôā

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Spread the herb-flecked carrots onto a large flat baking tray, preferably lined with foil or parchment.

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Roast for 30 minutes, and check to make sure they don’t burn. You want them to have that nice, dark, roasted look but not to burn. Test with a fork, and if they are still too firm, cover with foil and cook another 15 minutes.

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In the spirit of the meal described in the book, I served this with a butterflied roast chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and some delicious lavender-scented herb mixture given to me by my dear and most handsome friend Richard. A truly delicious and comforting meal.

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was previously blogged about by a fellow food blogger, Cara Nicoletti, whose page Yummy Books was one of the inspirations for starting my own food and book blog. The Vacationers is about a family’s secrets and dysfunctions that come out over two weeks when they are vacationing in their house in Mallorca. I know, I know, it all sounds very dramatic and mysterious, but ultimately, it’s not.

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Though I always try to give every book a fair shake, I have to say that this one was  boring. Franny and Jim, the two main characters/couple/parents, are celebrating their 35th anniversary during the vacation, their daughter Sylvia just finished high school and hates her family (wow, big surprise, a teenager hating her family), the token gay couple, and the son and his beautiful girlfriend that everyone hates. Pretty cardboard and standard characters Рthe wealthy family, the cheating husband, the unhappy wife planning to leave the marriage, the spoiled kids Рto whom I had a very hard time finding any point of relating.

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I did like Franny’s foodie-ness (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and her love of cooking to work out her irritations and frustrations through her culinary adventures. Kind of like me! It’s nicely written, don’t get me wrong. The descriptions of the beach, the ocean, the house, the food………all are beautiful and lyrical. But the characters really aren’t likable, other than Carmen (the girlfriend everyone loves to despise), and overall, it just didn’t grab me and stay with me, though this food passage made me start salivating a little bit.

 Franny and the boys were making dinner Рbacalao on toast, shrimp in a garlicky sauce, wilted greens. Tapas at home.

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I didn’t have the wherewithal to soak bacalao for 24 hours before putting it onto toast, good as that sounded. However, some garlicky shrimp with tomatoes and wilted spinach¬† sounded very doable, simple, and tasty. I had a packet of tortellini that needed to be used, and so I combined them, thus evoking a summer’s evening overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 dozen grape tomatoes, halved
10 cloves of garlic, thinly slivered
1 small shallot, thinly slivered
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 lb partially thawed shrimp, tail on
4 cups fresh spinach
1 packet cheese tortellini

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METHOD
Boil a large potful of water, add a generous handful of sea salt, and cook the tortellini for about 5-7 minutes. Test it to ensure it is al dente, and save a cupful of the cooking water.

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In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the grape tomatoes, garlic and shallot for about 10 minutes.

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Splash in the white wine, the lemon juice, and the red pepper flakes, and cook together another couple of minutes. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and give some structure.

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Add the spinach, stir, and cover again, cooking for about 10 minutes so that it wilts.

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Add the shrimp to the mixture, cover and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently so the shrimp doesn’t overcook. When they are pink and plump, everything is ready.

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Toss in the cooked tortellini, stir and cook another couple of minutes, so all the flavors are mixed and mingled. Then serve and eat with happiness. Delicious, just like a day at the beach!

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Bless Me, √öltima by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, √öltima was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called √öltima who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and √öltima’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that √öltima teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the¬† food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while √öltima prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal.¬† I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pollo de caldo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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The Apprentice by Jacques P√©pin

There are three celebrity cooks  РAnthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Emeril Lagasse Рwhom I love, but who are as much shrewd self-marketers as they are cooks. Then there are the three honest-to-God gourmet chefs whose writings have heavily influenced my own cooking and writing. Julia Child, the Goddess; Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame and an amazing food historian as she is a chef; and last but not least, my dearly beloved Jacques Pépin, who I remember watching on PBS as a little girl and being fascinated by how easy he made it all look.

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Jacques Pépin is my hero, for many reasons. He has had more than his share of trials and tribulations, and had to relearn many skills and reinvent himself many times. He survived a terrible car crash that could have permanently taken away his arm movement, and thus, his ability to cook. He has persevered to become the Grand Master of chefs in the world, and he continues to cook and learn and share.

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Many of his family memories and anecdotal stories are those that we can all relate to. He and his brothers learned to cook very early, working in their mother’s cafe, which served hearty buffet-style meals at what would be the equivalent of $1 today. I can’t even imagine having such deliciousness as a steak with frites for that amount!

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My favorite of his stories is when he goes to visit the late, great James Beard (of the Beard Foundation and one of the world’s great chefs) and is nearly kicked out for bringing him salmon baked in a rich, buttery sauce. Beard is in the hospital for angina, and so of course, what better for the heart than some butter! I laughed out loud reading this section.

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This beautiful crystal bowl was a Christmas gift from my dear and wonderful friend Richard. Had to show it off!

Peppered throughout the books are recipes that all have special meaning for Pepin, including his mother’s cheese souffle, her apple tart, a salad of dandelion greens, and what sounded to me like a plate of heaven – Ed Giobbi’s Primavera Pasta. Now, this recipe should by rights be made in the late summer when home-grown tomatoes are deeply red and ripe and bursting with flavor. But I figured, to hell with it. I found as good of quality tomatoes as I possibly could, let them ripen a few more days, and made this in the winter. And it was delicious, simple, and full of flavor.

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This gorgeous glass cutting board was another Christmas gift, this time from my beloved Aunt Sandy. Guess I was a good girl to get such great gifts! 

INGREDIENTS
5 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes
Handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil (my flavor addition)
1 tablespoon finely grated garlic
1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta
Abundant boiling and salted water

METHOD
Heat the water to boiling point, add a generous handful of salt, and cook the farfalle for 8 minutes, or until al dente, just cooked but still with a hint of firmness. Reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water and set aside.

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Slice the tomatoes lengthwise and deseed them. Put them in a large bowl and add the salt and pepper. Stir and leave a few minutes.

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Add the garlic, then the chopped basil, and stir again to mix the flavors. Pour in the lemon olive oil, and give another good stir.

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Add the cooked pasta to the tomatoes in the bowl, stir, and then add in a bit of the hot cooking water. This helps the starches in the pasta emulsify and helps make a sauce.

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Serve hot, with generous handfuls of shaved Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese. It’s truly delicious, strongly flavored but light and fragrant. I can imagine eating this in the south of France with a glass of rose wine with Chef Pepin himself. Wonderful!

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Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

Written by fellow blogger James J. Cudney, whose awesome blog This Is My Truth Now is among my favorite sites,  Watching Glass Shatter was a lengthy and awesome read about family secrets, family dysfunction, and ultimately, family bonds and love that keep people connected, even during some of the worst times.

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The premise of the story is thus: Ben Glass, the patriarch of the family, has just died. His widow Olivia – who I totally picture as Helen Mirren – learns of a potentially devastating family secret Ben kept from her. You learn one of the secrets early on in the book, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t reveal it. However, it is the impetus for Olivia to get to know all five of her sons in more depth, and as a result, learns that they each have secrets of their own.

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I like the analogy of glass shattering as representing the calm family facade that Ben and Olivia maintained throughout their marriage and the play on the word as it is also the family surname. Olivia reminded me a great deal of my own grandmother, very stoic and calm, sometimes cold in her manners, but with this smooth facade hiding lots of emotion and love.

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Each of the sons –¬†Teddy, Matt, Caleb, Zach, and Ethan – have their own distinctive personalities and voices that come through very clearly, sometimes irritatingly so, because they are far from perfect. Yet, as I kept reading, I started understanding and even relating to each of them in their quest to maintain that Glass family facade. I liked Ethan the best because he is so close to his mother and seems initially to be the only son that truly cares for her well-being.

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In one early pivotal scene, Olivia’s sister Diane serves them both breakfast after the funeral, in Olivia’s elegant, calm, and beautifully decorated dining room. The room is very much like Olivia – almost untouchable in its exquisitely detailed beauty, and the appropriately elegant breakfast of gourmet coffee, juice and quiche that is described so delectably made me salivate just reading this scene.

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Grabbing a quiche out of the refrigerator, she sliced two giant wedges and put them in the broiler to warm up. While the coffee dripped, Diane set two places at the breakfast nook in the corner, her favorite spot in her sister’s house……..She checked the quiche, savoring the golden-brown crust and bubbling Gruyere, her nose tempted by the comfort it offered.

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Quiche Lorraine is that classic French dish that combines Gruyere cheese, eggs, and bacon into something heavenly that angels could eat happily.¬† I had some caramelized onions leftover, so I added those to the mix. And yes, I used, premade Marie Callender pie crust instead of making it from scratch. Don’t judge.

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INGREDIENTS
2 premade pie crusts (or go all out and make your own!)
6 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
8 slices of bacon
1 cup caramelized onions
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and prick the crusts in the center with a for, then blind-bake them for 10 minutes. Let cool.

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Cook the bacon, and when slightly cooled, crumble and sprinkle into the bottom of the piecrusts.

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Add a layer of onions on top of the bacon in the crusts.

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Beat the eggs together with the cream, the Gruyere, and the nutmeg, and add salt and pepper. The Gruyere is salty, so don’t go overboard with the salt.

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Pour the egg mixture on top of the bacon and onions in the piecrusts, and bake for 25 minutes. Check for texture and remove from the oven if it’s not wobbly anymore. If it’s still a bit wobbly, leave another 2-3 minutes.

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Let cool and serve. I personally think quiche is the most perfect dish in the world, and this recipe hasn’t changed my mind. DELISH!

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