The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Special thanks to RP for the photography and kitchen assistance.

Having minored in art history in college, I always fall in love with books that tell stories about painters and their inspiration for famous works. I previously blogged about Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of Vermeer’s masterpiece. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the painter herself is the enigma. Is the titular painting autobiographical? What is it supposed to mean? Most importantly, and a key element of this book, which of the two titular works is real? And if both of them exist and tell the same story and share the same heart, does it matter?

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Told in three different timelines, it is the story of the painter Sara de Vos, and her “most famous” painting in 17th century Amsterdam during the famous tulip mania that gripped that country in the 1600s; Ellie the young forger who recreates it for reasons of her own in 1950s New York City; and Marty, the owner of the painting in modern-day New York City with his own complicated past.

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Grief is the persistent thread running throughout this book. Sara de Vos mourns the loss of her young daughter and the abandonment by her husband; Ellie mourning lost opportunities and her own complicity in forgery; Marty mourning a lost wife, a life that never was, and punishment of the young Ellie’s transgression into his life and art. Sara’s grief is particularly poignant, though she is later hired in the household of Cornelis Groen and slowly begins to reclaim her life, her heart, and most importantly, her art, with the quiet courtship of Tomas, Cornelis’ manservant.

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They head out of the grounds toward the back country in an open wagon, Tomas on the box seat and Cornelis and Sara in the rear………..also bundled along in the wicker baskets Mrs. Streek has prepared. Bread rolls, Leiden cheese studded with cumin seeds, strawberries with sour cream, marzipan, and wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

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Strawberries and cheese have to be two of my most favorite foods in all the world. I’d never tried Leyden cheese but it sounded unusual, so found some on Amazon.com. Hurray Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! The idea of making a Dutch-style grilled cheese sandwich occurred to me, and pairing the cumin-seeded Leyden cheese with caramelized onions and tomato was a creative twist. And of course, strawberries in sour cream, with a touch of brown sugar, has to be one of the most heavenly things to eat on earth.

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These are the methods that worked for me, based on childhood memories of strawberries and cream and sugar, and a lifelong love of grilled cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen ripe strawberries
1 small container of sour cream
Zest and juice of one clementine
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large bread roll, cut in half
6-7 thick slices of Leyden cheese
1 spoonful of caramelized onions (see my method for caramelized onions here)
1 tomato, thinly sliced

METHOD
Wash and let dry the strawberries, leaving their stems intact.

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In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, the zest and juice of the clementine, the vanilla, and the almond extract. Taste for additional flavoring. In another small bowl, put the brown sugar and the cinnamon.

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Dip the strawberries first in the sour cream mixture, then roll in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

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Slice the cumin-studded Leyden cheese into thick slices. It was nice to have a strong pair of hands do this for me, as this cheese is quite thick and firm.

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Add more butter to the skillet and melt it. Lay two bread halves in the hot, melted butter and layer the cheese slices generously on each piece of bread, to begin melting.

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Lay the tomato slices and onion mixture generously on the other bread halves.

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Lay the onion-tomato laden bread on top of the cheese-covered bread in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the sandwich occasionally so both sides cook evenly and don’t burn.

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Serve on a platter with the strawberries, and admire your Dutch still life food work of art before devouring.

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Photography by me.

It’s a simple premise. Imagine that all the gods of ancient mythology and all the characters of folklore – we’re talking Anubis, Odin, Kali, Johnny Appleseed, John Bunyan, the Easter Bunny……well, maybe not quite a rabbit  -from every background and corner of the globe, actually existed and are still alive today, waging war with the new modern gods of the Information Age. Media, Celebrity, Technology, Drugs, etc. These gods, both ancient and modern, exist because people believe in them, worship them, pay homage to them. This, folks, is American Gods.

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We do worship our gods, if you think about it. Everyone believes in something. Whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, technology, fame, cooking, gambling, youth, beauty, sex, drugs, music, David Bowie, Harry Potter, the Dallas Cowboys, the music of Soundgarden……….we all worship at the altar of something. We may not realize we do it.

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But we all have our religions and gods that we worship, don’t we?

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Shadow Moon is the erstwhile main character, a somewhat hardened man who just got out of prison and who is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Shadow’s wife, Laura, has just died……….and yet, the beauty of this book is that things are never quite what they seem. People don’t stay dead. Sleight of hand, both literal and figurative, keeps everything off kilter. Gods and goddesses once worshipped now work as bartenders, morticians, and prostitutes. And yet, the themes of life, death and rebirth are as strong in the modern age as they ever were.

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When Shadow is on his way home to Laura’s funeral and is waylaid by Mr. Wednesday’s questionable charms, he stops to have a bite at a roadside diner. In his terrible grief, he  remembers Laura’s unique method for making chili. Having never made true Tex-Mex chili – spelled with an “i” at the end as opposed to the New Mexico “chile” with an “e,” I was pretty psyched, actually, to give this one a try.

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Laura made a great chili. She used lean meat, dark kidney beans, carrots cut small, a bottle or so of dark beer, and freshly sliced hot peppers. She would let the chili cook awhile, then add red wine, lemon juice and a pinch of fresh dill, and finally, measure out and add her chili powders. On more than one occasion, Shadow had tried to get her to show him how she made it: he would watch everything she did…………….

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There’s nothing as quintessentially American as chili concarne, except maybe apple pie, so the tie-in with these American gods seemed particularly appropriate. This is the method that worked for me, based on the self-titled “Best Damn Chili Recipe” on the Allrecipes.com website. With a name like that, I had to taste it for myself, ’cause that’s quite a claim. Requisite flavor edits by yours truly, of course.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion
5 cloves garlic
2 jalapeño peppers
1 Anaheim pepper
1 lb. organic ground beef
1 lb. organic ground bison
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 large tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 bottle dark Mexican beer, like Negra Modelo.
1 28-oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons red chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 16-oz. can of red kidney beans, drained
1 16-oz. can of pinto beans, in its juice
1 tablespoon sea salt

METHOD
Finely chop onion and garlic in a food chopper. Put in a large metal pan with the olive oil and a good scattering of sea salt. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes on medium.

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Chop the jalapeños and Anaheim pepper and add to the onions for another 5 minutes. Remove to a separate bowl.

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Add the two meats to the hot pot. Break down the meat with a wooden spoon, add the Worchestershire sauce, the beer and the smoked paprika. Cook for 5-7 minutes.

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Put the vegetables back in the pot, and stir to mix with the meat.

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Pour in the San Marzano tomatoes, and add in the tomato paste. Stir to mix, then toss in the red wine and the apple cider vinegar.

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Here is where you add in the chili powder, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, and cayenne. Go cautiously with the cayenne if you’re cooking for wimpy types; and if you’re cooking for someone you dislike, don’t worry about it.

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Cover, cook on low for two hours, and after the first hour, add in the beans and leave to cook another hour. Stir occasionally if you’re bored.

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Ideally, chili should sit overnight so that the flavors commingle and make a delicious dish. However, if you need to serve it immediately, let it simmer while you make the cilantro-sour cream garnish, which is terribly difficult and time consuming. Take a bunch of cilantro, stems cut off, mix together in a blender with a container of sour cream, and a tablespoon of salt, and serve with the cheddar-topped chili and some Fritos, wiping the imaginary – and Godlike, I daresay –  sweat off your brow as you do so.

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Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography.

Oh, that damn Monday fish. Anthony Bourdain, to whom I refer affectionately as “my future ex-husband,” is never going to live that down. I didn’t eat a Monday fish special at a restaurant for  five years after reading Kitchen Confidential. Of course, in his updated version of that classic foodie memoir, he recants in his inimitable style by saying “eat the fucking fish on Monday, already!”

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Bourdain is as snarky and smart-assy as they come. God, I love him. His attitude of irreverence, particularly within an industry that traditionally holds male chefs on very high pedestals, is refreshing. Though he is somewhat of a hypocrite in how he has previously mocked celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray whilst simultaneously pursuing his own brand of foul-mouthed celebrity, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s funnier than hell, can cook like an angel, curse like a devil, drink like a sailor, and is one of those men that just get more handsome and sexy with age. He’s welcome to eat crackers in bed with me anytime.

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What sets him apart is that he doesn’t take himself seriously, either in his writing or his cooking. He’s a good chef and he knows it, but he regularly mocks himself, and I like that in a person. We none of us should take ourselves so seriously in life, because we are all going to screw up eventually. I also like that he doesn’t have any arrogance toward his staff and he gives credit where credit is due – to the hardworking cooks, sous-chefs, servers, bakers, prep cooks, dishwashers and all the unseen migrant men and women behind the scenes who make the food.

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Without these workers, restaurants would shut down. They are the true backbone of the service industry, and I say this having worked for several years in the restaurant business myself; as a table busser, a hostess, a waitress, and a cashier at a well-known Mexican restaurant; and as a cocktail waitress at a couple of dive bars while in college.

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It was fun, but physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I got yelled at by customers and dropped numerous glasses of water working in the restaurant business; I got my butt pinched so often as a cocktail waitress that I think it’s permanently bruised; and for years after I left the Mexican restaurant I could not look at a bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips without gagging. I respect the hell out of people in the service industry, and Bourdain respects them, too.

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Well, my dear future ex-husband, I am going off the rails a little bit and making this dish in your honor ON A MONDAY! I’m taking you on, baby, and making that yellowfin tuna in a braised fennel, confit tomato, and saffron sauce. Except, with my usual recipe edits. This is the method that worked for me, based on this New York Times tasty recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
For the tomato confit:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme and parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

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For the tuna:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, cut in thin slices
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 small tuna steaks, 5 oz. each
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup of seafood stock
1/ 2 teaspoon saffron threads

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small slit across the bottom of each cherry tomato. Put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in the boiling water for 30 seconds.

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Drain in ice-cold water to blanch, then remove the peels from each tomato. This will probably take a good 20 minutes.

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Put the tomatoes and garlic in a baking pan, submerge in olive oil, add the dried and fresh herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly, peel the garlic cloves and mash, mix with the tomatoes, then store in a jar.

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In a small pan, heat the seafood stock to just boiling. Add the saffron threads, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir together, and let simmer.

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Heat a cast-iron stovetop grill to high. Salt and pepper the tuna steaks, oil them lightly on both sides, and sear them each for 30 seconds per side.

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Place the tuna steaks on top of the shallot, garlic and fennel. Grate over the lemon zest.

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Pour over the seafood stock, check for taste and seasoning, cover and cook on low for another 5-7 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it overcook!

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Plate and garnish with the gorgeously red tomato confit, and maybe some black rice. It makes a stunning presentation on a plate, and better  yet, tastes delicious. Anthony, I think I did you proud!

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Do you know what it’s like to read a book and have it haunt you, like a whisper or the faint hint of perfume in an empty room? I’ve always been possessed by the gorgeous Gothic-ness of Rebecca, which has mystery, ghosts, passionate love and a big, haunted house. And then of course, the most intriguing opening line………”Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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I admit, rather shamefacedly, to having reread this on Audible, listening as I  cooked. It’s hard sometimes to put everything down and read a book with pages, as pleasurable as that is. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a very dear friend called Richard, about what constitutes pleasure in life. We both agreed that food, sex, wine, and music are all true pleasures, but I added two more – turning the pages of a wonderful book, and coming to really fantastic part in a book. You can’t beat any of those, but as with everything in life, you have to find the time, or a way to combine them. Hence, cooking with Audible.

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Anyway, the gist of this book is thus: a young woman meets the handsome, debonair and rather gloomy Max de Winter in the south of France, falls in love with him, and he whisks her off to a very quick marriage and honeymoon, before taking her home to his gothic mansion by the sea, called Manderley. Can you see why I fell in love with this book?

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Max’s first wife, Rebecca, had drowned a few years earlier, and the house is ghostly with her presence. Her initials are on everything, her clothes are still in the house, her perfume hangs in the air, and perhaps worst of all, her spirit still seems to haunt the living, particularly Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who adored Rebecca.

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I was fortunate enough to cook this week’s recipe at my wonderful friend Elizabeth’s house, when I was house- and dog-sitting for her.

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Her kitchen is absolutely stunning, full of light and gorgeous appliances, and the perfect place to both cook a marvelous meal and to also sip wine and listen to the the ongoing adventures of our heroine, Max de Winter, the evil Mrs. Danvers, and imagine myself within the marble walls of Manderley.

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The unnamed heroine – no, she is never named – meets Max when she is working as a companion to the hideous and vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper and they are staying at a fancy hotel in the south of France. The heroine loathes her employer, and this dislike comes through clearly in this passage, which inspired me.

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…..compared to Mrs. Van Hopper, her fat, bejeweled fingers questing a plate heaped high with ravioli, her eyes darting suspiciously from her plate to mine for fear I should have made the better choice.

I love a good ravioli, stuffed with cheese or anything else. Though I don’t yet have the Kitchen Aid attachments for rolling and cutting homemade pasta, that’s on my list. In the meantime, I used premade ravioli from the marvelous Italian deli Tully’s, and my own tomato cream sauce with sausage and chicken. This is my own method, devised after too many pots of tomato sauce to mention.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 white onion
5 cloves of garlic
2 14-oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 heaping tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup half-and-half
2 bags of premade ravioli
4 cups spinach
8 oz Italian sausage
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a pot. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Add to the oil and butter and saute for about 10 minutes.

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Mince the oregano, basil, and rosemary. Wonderful smells! Add to the onion and garlic, and stir together to cook, another 10 minutes.

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Pour in the tomatoes and stir again. Crimson heaven!

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Add the red wine and the chicken bouillon paste, stir to mix, then cover and simmer for an hour.

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In another skillet, cook the sausage for about 5 minutes, then add to the tomato sauce. Cook another hour on a low simmer.

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Cube and cook the chicken in a pan until it’s pink and cooked through. Add to the tomato sauce to finish cooking.

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Finely blend the sauce in a blender. Pour back in the pan to stay hot.

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Toss in the spinach to wilt in the hot sauce. Stir, cover, and let render down.

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Add the half-and-half here, to make a lovely pinkish-red emulsion.

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In another pot, boil the ravioli in salted water for 3 minutes, then finish cooking them in the hot tomato sauce.

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Plate up by putting some of the luscious sauce onto a platter, topping with some ravioli, and dolloping another large spoonful on top. Then, simply enjoy with a sigh of pleasure.

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Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado

Thanks to JP for the photography.

The connection between food and sex is one I looked at in one of my very first blog posts, which you can read here if you’re so inclined. That connection is one of the major threads in this book, as well.

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In 1925 South America, Gabriela is a young woman from a terribly poor background who is “hired” by Nacib to do the cooking in his pub in the Brazilian town of Ilhéus. She is beautiful, from a very low social status, which was (and is) very important in the Brazilian culture. She has skin like cinnamon and gives off the scent of cloves, which entices everyone who meets her. Nacib is infatuated with her and they begin an intense love affair, which binds Nacib to her even more, because the connection between her cooking in the kitchen and her “cooking” in the bedroom have become intertwined in his mind. He marries her but then the challenges start.

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The concept of change and sexual politics are major themes in the book, the new overthrowing the old, and the old-school machismo personified in the beginning of the book, when Col. Mendonca kills his wife, Dona Sinhazinha and her lover, Dr. Pimentel, for adultery. Adultery is accepted among men, but God forbid a woman take a lover.

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What is ironic about the main tale of Nacib and Gabriela is that initially, she doesn’t fit his standard of what he believes he should have in a partner. She is beautiful, can cook like a dream, fulfills all of his sexual desires and fantasies, yet he is still held back by this expectation in his own mind that a relationship has to fit a certain mold. Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot change her, and in fact, to change her would be to lose the qualities about her he most loves.

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Passion colors every aspect of Gabriela’s life and it shows up in her food. Again, another book that features food as a type of medicine, a mood-altering substance that can make others feel joy, happiness, sexual passion and release. Gabriela’s passion is food – she puts everything she feels into her food, and by extension, everything she feels into life itself.

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She does not hold back her heart, and it is that openness that ultimately makes Nacib realize the value she brings to his life……and that in loving and accepting her as she is, it helps him love and accept himself and all the roiling changes happening around him. In her unchangeable passionate heart, she becomes his anchor and a catalyst for change in the entire town.

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Obviously, a book called Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon has some amazing food descriptions in it. Being set in Brazil with a cook as one of the main characters, the food is mouth-watering. Gabriela cooks Bahaian-style dishes involving manioc, rice, jerk chicken, shrimp, peanuts, bean fritters, stews………..so many delicious choices. This passage was the one I chose for today.

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Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits.

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Bean-paste balls are a type of fritter made from black-eyed peas and called acaraje in Portuguese, and are usually stuffed with shrimp or something called vatapá, which has ground cashews as its base.  So I decided some shrimp-stuffed acaraje and vatapá were in order. This is the method that worked for me, based on these two terrific recipes at www.cynthiapresser.com/recipe-blog. As usual, flavoring tweaks were made by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the acaraje:
2 14-oz cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 large white onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
Teaspoon of cayenne powder
Red palm oil for frying

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For the vatapá:
1 cup dried shrimp
1 cup unsalted cashews
2 pieces of day old-bread, torn into chunks
3 cups coconut milk
2 tomatoes
1 onion
1 jalapeno pepper
1 piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 scallions
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked shrimp, thawed

METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor. Set aside.

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Mash the black-eyed peas in the same processor until it forms a thick paste. Season with salt and cayenne.

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Mix together with onion and garlic in a bowl. Form little round patties.

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Heat the red palm oil in a frying pan. Fry 4-5 fritters at a time, for about 3 minutes per side, until crispy and orange-red in color. Don’t cook more than that at a time, because it will lower the oil’s temperature and make the fritters greasy.

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Chop the cashews and process for another minute or so until well mixed and rendered down. Add the dried shrimp, mix and set aside.

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Soak the bread in a 1/2 cup of coconut milk for a minute. Then process for another minute, until it forms a paste-like texture. Mix with the cashew and shrimp in a separate bowl.

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Finely chop the tomato, onion, ginger, cilantro, scallions and jalapeno in your well-exercised food processor, and set aside.

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Heat the remaining coconut milk in a pan, and add the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture, then spoon in the shrimp-cashew mixture. Simmer gently at medium low for about 10 minutes, then add the bread mixture, and a tablespoon of red palm oil, for thickening and color. Cook for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.

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Top the stew with the shrimp and cilantro, and apply to your face. Delicioso!

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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Photography by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to TB for the photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.

Creamed butter

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

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

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

flour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Plug for Almost Home NM – a pet rescue that needs your help on Facebook!

Instead of my usual food and book post, I’m going to take a moment instead to talk about my favorite non-profit, Almost Home NM, which specializes in rescuing dogs and cats who are special cases. They take in animals that have often been in awful circumstances, and they turn things around for these critters. They work on a shoestring, and as a huge dog lover, I’d love to see them get some extra help.

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This is Baby! She’s adoptable.

The store Wild Pet Food, in Albuquerque, is sponsoring a Facebook contest right now, in which they will donate $500 to the logo with the most likes. The album is on their Facebook page, and the link is right here:  https://www.facebook.com/pg/WildPetFoodPlus/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1685948694754934

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This is Moonshine. He’s also up for adoption!

If you could find the Almost Home NM logo, like the logo, and also like the Facebook page for Wild Pet Food, that will go a long way toward helping them reach their goal of the most logo likes and perhaps the $500 prize.

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Atlas, left, is also available to adopt!

And if you’re interested in simply helping out the organization personally, you can visit their website here and make a donation. Thank you for anything you can do to help this very worthy organization!

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The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Thanks to JG for the photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slice the sweet potato into thick pieces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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