The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace

Not so much a novel as a dreamily connected series of 64 short vignettes, The Devil’s Larder tells of the many differing viewpoints about, from, on and against food in our culture. It’s a pretty twisted read in many ways, subversive against so many deeply held beliefs about food and nourishment and cooking in society. Some of the short stories are disturbing – cannibalistic, incestuous, sad, or just plain weird.

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The golden thread that runs seamlessly through all the tales is the luscious description of the various food. No matter how visceral the tale, it’s the food that is the centerpiece, pardon the pun. There are soup stones, manac beans, honey, blind-baked pies, razor clams, morels, kumquats, and aubergines. I warn you that many of the stories will probably turn your stomach, in that complex way that food sometimes tempts and disgusts us at the same time.

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There were three that stood out to me. The first was the tale of the young man whose grocery store card tells the story of his life – his type of shaving cream, his cat died because he no longer buys cat food, he has a proclivity for expensive beer and croissants, he hasn’t had sex in nearly two years because the condoms he bought back then are past their expiration date. This was trippy because I’ve never really thought about how our food habits are tracked by these cards – talk about Big Brother!

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The second tale was a disturbing story of a mother and 5-year old daughter who want to see if pasta really tastes the same through another’s mouth, so they proceed to eat food out of each other’s mouths. Disturbing, because it’s so matter of factly written, not overtly sexual or incestuous, but still viscerally creepy because the mother is completely all right with her daughter’s going past these boundaries. I certainly don’t look at pasta with pesto sauce quite the same now.

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The third tale, and the one that stood out to me the most was the vignette about a fondue party going wrong. The heroine, having used subpar ingredients in her fondue and serving it to her obviously unimpressed guests, suggests a game. If a bit of food is left in the fondue pot after a dip, the perpetrator must drizzle the scalding cheese onto a body part and choose one of the other guests to lick it off.

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The melted fondue was not as tasty as she’d hoped. Her seven friends were only playing with their long-handled forks. They pushed their cubes of bread inside the caquelon with hardly any appetite. She should have used a cooking cheese, or added chunks of blue, or paid the extra for some Gruyere or some Emmenthaler.

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I’m a cheese-aholic, and my grandmother used to call me a little mouse because cheese was my absolute favorite snack. In keeping with the spirit of this tale, I had a fondue party and invited some friends. No one dropped any cheese on anyone and licked it off, though. I promise. This is the method that worked for me, based on a gazillion classic fondue recipes.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb total of different cheeses. I used Camembert, Brie, Gruyere, and a few sprinkles of blue.
1 and 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

METHOD
Cut up the cheeses into cubes.2017-02-12-11-42-12_resized

Put into a saucepan over low heat. Add in 1 and 1/4 of the wine. Use something you’d drink.Mix together the cheeses and wine until you have a nice, thick, delicious, melty combination.

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Whisk together the cornstarch and the remaining 1/4 of the wine in a bowl. This will help thicken the cheese.

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Add the cornstarch/wine mixture to the melted cheese, stir again, and turn off the heat. Grate in the two garlic cloves, season with salt and pepper, and mix again. Cover the cheese while you prepare the fondue pot.

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Decant the cheese into a fondue pot over a Sterno can or spirit lamp and serve with whatever you’d like. I used cubed steak that was nicely cooked for a protein boost, and also because meat dipped in cheese is so damn good. I also used red radicchio, baby carrots, and endive leaves for dipping. So delicious! And you can lie to yourself that it’s healthy, because the vegetables offset the calories in the cheese. What, you didn’t know that?

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I would like to end this post with a little tribute to my sweet pug Sparky, who had a stroke early Thursday and who I had to put down on Friday. He was a darling baby, and brought such happiness to my life. Not to mention that he loved cheese, so he would have been particularly happy with this blog, as I’m sure I would have accidentally on purpose dropped some cheese on the floor for him. I miss him so much, my little furry baby.

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Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken by Monica Bhide

I have a thing for books that present food as medicine. Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate…..and now Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, are absolute favorites. Written by the acclaimed food writer turned novelist Monica Bhide, it extols the pleasures of friendship, giving back to those who have helped you, the power of love, and ultimately, the healing powers of cooking for those you love, and the pleasure of well-cooked food. Who couldn’t adore this book?

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The premise of this book is simple, and lovely. Set in present-day India, it tells the story of Eshaan, a young man who is raised by Buddhist monks. He has a heart that you could say is made of butter, so soft that it melts. Having nearly starved to death as a child before the kindly monks took him in after his mother’s tragic death, he one day has the idea to provide a hot meal to anyone in need. Given the vast population of New Delhi and the amount of poverty that exists in this city, to call Eshaan’s idea a momentous task is an understatement. But he starts his restaurant, and it is not quite what he envisions it. Of course, we all know that nothing ever quite turns out the way we plan or desire.

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Eshaan is such a sympathetic and kindhearted character you can’t help but cheer him on, even though he’s not the most practical-minded individual. From the get-go, he is focused on only one thing – feeding people in his restaurant and asking that they pay only what they can afford. Naturally, this leads to a horde of beggars and individuals who have zero money and who can’t – or don’t – pay for a thing. And of course, human nature being what it is, he also encounters those ungrateful types who complain about the food, who urinate on the floor of his immaculately prepared restaurant………..and these are the people he is trying to help!

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The scene that touched me the most is featured both at the very beginning and again toward the end, when Eshaan gets his golden chance to appear on the famous cooking TV competition show to earn money to fund his restaurant. The scene is given context when Eshaan’s turn comes to show the judges what he has cooked, the proviso being a dish that epitomized their childhood. Eshaan initially plans to make butter chicken, in his words, “a simple tomato, butter and cream sauce” for chicken that his mother used to make when she could afford it. But the crushing poverty of his childhood has stayed in his heart and soul all these years, and at the end of the competition, he throws away the dish he’s made and tells the judges, very poignantly, that the taste of his childhood was starvation and an empty bowl. I got choked up here and had to stop reading for a bit.

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Though of course I was inspired to cook the title dish, it was this passage that spoke to me the most. “In fact, I say a prayer for the spices, sparse as they may be, to help heal the person who eats the food. That reminds me. I have only one rule in this kitchen. The cooks’ energy gets passed into the dishes. Only food prepared with love will nurture. If not, it will just be another meal,” he said, placing his hand on his heart. That is so much how I cook – I try to always cook with love and pass that love on to those who enjoy my food. Because food is love.

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Anyway, this is the method for classic Indian butter chicken that worked for me, based on the Little Spice Jar‘s awesome recipe, with the requisite tweaks by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the meat marinade:
6-7 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 generous tablespoons tandoori masala
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil (or groundnut oil)
For the butter chicken sauce:
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), or a mixture of butter and oil
1 large red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 generous tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
2  8-ounce cans diced or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon each of: coriander, cumin, and garam masala
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder

3/4 cup heavy cream

METHOD

In a large plastic freezer bag, mix the chicken with the tandoori masala, ginger-garlic paste, yogurt and oil. Marinate for at least 3 hours before cooking, in the refrigerator.

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Melt the clarified butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan. Saute the onions about 7 minutes, until they’re translucent and you can smell the delicious scent wafting up at you. Add a pinch of sea salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the next spoonful of ginger-garlic paste to the onions, and stir well. Then, add the two cans of tomatoes, the chili powder, the coriander, cumin garam masala, and fenugreek seeds. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.

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Whip out your most excellent stick blender and blend the sauce until it is rendered down into a rich, red sauce. Turn the heat off, cover and let sit while you prepare the chicken.

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In another pan, add a bit more clarified butter and brown the chicken pieces. Make sure to use tongs and shake off the excess marinade beforehand. Cook for up to 10 minutes, to fully brown the chicken pieces.

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Pour the butter tomato sauce over the chicken pieces, and heat through. Add the cream and bring to a low simmer.

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I served this over basmati rice cooked in chicken broth, into which I put a few crushed cardamom pods, which add to the subtle flavor and scent. I have to say, this dish was FANTASTIC! The acidity of the tomatoes is perfectly offset by the richness of the butter and the cream, and the chicken marinade make the meat incredibly tender. Garnished with cilantro or parsley, it is a delicious dish.

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A Scandal in Bohemia (Sherlock Holmes) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Who doesn’t love the adventures of the erstwhile Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson? So ingrained in our culture are these two literary detectives that the image of a deerstalker cap and pipe, the phrase “elementary, my dear Watson,” and the address 221-B Baker Street in London, need no other explanation.

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I first read the stories of Sherlock Holmes when I was eight, finding a leatherbound collection of tales in my father’s library. As my readers probably know, I inherited his books when he died, and among his wonderful treasures was the collection of tales about Holmes and Watson.

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SPOILER AHEAD! My favorite Holmes tale is “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” just because it’s such a great story, and of course, I love dogs, so it was sad at the end when the poor “demonic” hound was killed. My second favorite Holmes tale is “A Scandal in Bohemia,” because this is where we meet Irene Adler, the only woman to gain a hold on Sherlock Holmes’ mind and heart. In fact, the opening line of this story says it all……..“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” I think we all have that one person in our lives who is THE person for us. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, why certain people get such a hold in our hearts and minds, but hell, if a detective with a mind like a steel trap can have feelings like that, the rest of us mere mortals should be excused for having those emotions, too.

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Anyway, the storyline is pretty basic. The King of Hungary comes to Holmes’ house in disguise and hires him to get back a photo of he and the self-same Irene Adler, with whom the King had an affair a few years earlier. Now engaged to a young woman of a very prim and proper family, the scandal that would ensue should it be known the King had a liaison with such a woman as Irene Adler would be momentous. So Holmes and Watson proceed to find out where Irene Adler is, follow her through a few adventures, and in the process, Holmes falls in love with her, though it’s never explicitly stated. She is able to outwit him at the end, earning his respect and regard and of course, his eternal infatuation with her.

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I always like it when a woman outwits a man. It’s the feminist in me. Anyway, when Holmes recruits Watson to find Irene Adler with him, they first have a nice little repast, as Holmes has been so wrapped up solving mental puzzles and taking cocaine that he has forgotten to eat. Yes, our detective was a cocaine addict. You didn’t know that?

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“I heard no more. They drove away in different directions, and I went off to make my own arrangements.” “Which are?” “Some cold beef and a glass of beer,” he answered, ringing the bell. I have been too busy to think of food, and I am likely to be busier still this evening. By the way, Doctor, I shall want your co-operation.”

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I don’t like cold beef, and am not much of a beer drinker. But, beef cooked in beer? I could totally get behind that. Carbonnade is a very well-known method of cooking meat in beer, because it tenderizes the meat so beautifully, and if you use a Belgian ale, you have carbonnade a la Flamande. Yeah, whatever. It sounded good. This is the method that worked for me, based on Saveur.com’s delicious recipe, but with some flavoring tweaks of my own, and using Belgian “saison” ale recommended by my good friend Jake, who is a liquor guru and an overall pretty cool guy.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lb. beef chuck, cut into 2″ x 12″-thick slices
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper for seasoning
14 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter
4 slices bacon, finely chopped

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6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, sliced into thin half moons
1 shallot, cut similarly

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2 cups Belgian saison ale
1 cup beef stock
1 beef bouillon cube
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
4 sprigs fresh tarragon
Handful fresh parsley
3 bay leaves

METHOD
Season beef with salt and pepper in a bowl. Then, toss the meat in the flour so it’s lightly coated.

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Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the meat and brown it. You will probably need to brown in 2-3 batches, for about 8-10 minutes per batch.

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Set meat aside on a plate, and add the bacon to the pan. Cook for the same amount of time, so that the bacon fat renders down. The smell is heavenly!

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Finely mince the garlic, and toss that into the pan, and fling in the onions and shallots. Again, a scent from heaven.

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Put in half the Belgian ale, stir a bit, and scrape any bits from the pan bottom, which will add to the flavor. Reduce the beer for about 5-6 minutes.

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Add the meat to the pot, and pour over the rest of the ale. It foams up so beautifully, and the hoppy smell just adds a perfect note to the meat.

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Put in the stock, the bouillon cube, the brown sugar, the apple cider vinegar, the herbs and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, give it a stir, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 1 and 1/2 hours. Add the mustard and Worchestershire sauce about 15 minutes before serving.

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Decant into bowls, and serve with some nice, crusty bread and lovely red wine. The vinegar and sugar really add a delicious and unique note that contrasts beautifully with the beer, which tenderizes the meat wonderfully well.

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As Holmes himself might say, it’s elementary, my dear readers!

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

This book took me five years to read, but not because it’s particularly long or boring. No, My Name is Red is one of the most entertaining and complex murder mysteries I’ve ever read. The book is told from 12 different viewpoints, including the murder victim himself – a painter in the Sultan’s palace; a Jewess matchmaker; the daughter of the house Shekure; her suitor Black; a dog painted on a wall; three of the murder victim’s colleague painters; Satan himself; the murderer; and the color red. Hence the title.

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I’ve read many books set during the Ottoman Empire, that is, Istanbul in the 17th century, but this is by far my favorite. It’s a murder mystery, a love story, and a very Byzantine – pardon the pun – treatise on the power and nature of art and symbols, politics and religion, and the meaning those concepts hold in everyday life.

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I am not an expert on the Islamic religion, but from this book, I took that representing the human form was required to be highly stylized – to be depicted as Allah would see the individual, not as the artist would – and that depicting anything from the Koran is deeply disrespectful and forbidden because of the fear that the image would be worshiped instead of God. It’s interesting, because I have a Jewish friend and a friend who practices Islam, and the three of us have had long and intense discussions about the nature of religion and God/Jehovah/Allah, and how different religions and cultures have their own ways of depicting the divine.

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The long and very complicated -and let’s face it, mostly warlike – relationship between the Jewish religion, the Christian/Catholic faith, and the beliefs of Islam do have some fascinating parallels and commonalities. They have as many points of differentiation, however, and it was so interesting to read this book and see how art and artists, in particular, were revered and feared in 18th century Istanbul as artists during the Renaissance, but for such different (and similar!) reasons.

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Esther, the matchmaker, is a Jew and carries love letters between Shekure and Black, the two main characters whose love story is a pivotal part of the book. One of my favorite voices in this book, Esther describes this beguiling passage about her own self-perception and the marvelous foods eaten at various ceremonial events.

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I love social gatherings because I can eat to my heart’s content, and at the same time, forget that I’m the black sheep of the crowd. I love the baklava, mint candy, marzipan bread and fruit leather of the holidays; the pilaf with meat……………

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I’ve been wanting to try and make baklava for ages now. I warn you, working with phyllo dough is a pain in the ass. It’s ultimately worthwhile, but my God, it’s fiddly. I would recommend having everything completely ready before you even start working with the phyllo, because it dries up so quickly. I also wanted to try my hand at a good pilaf dish, so I found a yummy recipe on Nigella Lawson’s website.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the old family recipe given to me by a Greek-Turkish acquaintance. The addition of the orange flower water and vanilla are mine. Though I didn’t give a method for the saffron chicken pilaf, the recipe calls for not just the saffron in the rice cooking liquid, but also some bruised cardamom pods. Cardamom is a new spice for me, but a definite favorite! It smells so lovely, light and floral and perfumey and adds such a unique note to the rice, as does the brilliant gold of the saffron threads.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups water
1 and 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 tablespoon orange flower water
2 tablespoons vanilla

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1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
4 generous tablespoons cinnamon
2 packets phyllo dough
1 and 1/2 cups melted butter

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350F. Combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a pan . Cook over medium-high heat until it boils. Keep it boiling for 5-6 minutes, whisking occasionally.

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Add the rosewater and orange flower water. Remove from the heat, stir again, and decant into a pitcher. Add the vanilla, stir, and put into the refrigerator to cool completely, where it will form a thin syrup.

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Melt the butter in the microwave, and mix the cinnamon with the pecans and walnuts.

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Dampen several paper towels and squeeze out the excess water. Unroll one packet of phyllo dough onto several damp paper towels. Cover immediately with the other damp towels.

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Spray a baking tray with butter spray. Carefully unroll two sheets of phyllo dough onto the baking tray, and brush with melted butter. Continue layering two sheets at a time, brushing each with butter, until you use all the phyllo sheets. (Remember to keep the unused phyllo covered at all times with damp paper towels, to avoid a world of hurt.)

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Sprinkle over the cinnamon-dusted nuts. You may have to press them into the phyllo dough with your hands to make them adhere.

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Repeat the phyllo layering with the second package of dough. Spread two or three sheets over the nuts, brush with melted butter, and continue in this vein until the second package is used up. Pour over the last of the melted butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon.

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Cut across in diagonal lines, then repeat crossways so you form diamond shapes. This is FAR easier in concept than it is in practice. Wear an apron, that’s all I’m saying. Bake for 35 minutes and remove from the oven to cool slightly.

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Pour over half the cooled syrup, let soak in for a few minutes, the pour over the rest. Let sit for 30 minutes, then scarf down.

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The saffron chicken pilaf was simple: cubed chicken thighs marinated in Greek yogurt, lemon juice and a bit of cinnamon and browned and rice cooked in saffron- and cardamom-infused chicken broth, mixed together in a skillet with toasted almonds and fresh green parsley. A divine treat to go with the baklava!

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

fernet

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

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

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

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

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

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced

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1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice

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1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

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

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

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

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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

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

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

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Ode to Tomatoes (A Poem) by Pablo Neruda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INGREDIENTS
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1-6 ounce can of good-quality tuna, drained and flaked
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 red onion, finely minced
1/2 celery rib, finely minced
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1/2 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
2 slices cheddar cheese
METHOD
Pre-heat your oven to 400F. Spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray. While the oven heats, saute the diced onion in a bit of olive oil and salt, just until it’s translucent. About 5 minutes should do it.
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While the onion is cooling, cut the tops of the tomatoes off about 1/3 from the top. Scoop out the seeds and pulpy juices, saving some.
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Drain the tomato halves upside down on a plate while you prepare the tuna salad.Mix the now-cooled onion with the flaked tuna, the celery and parsley, the tomato seeds and the lemon juice.
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 Add in the mayonnaise and mustard, and season with salt and pepper.
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Fill each tomato half with the tuna mixture, and top with a slice of cheddar cheese.
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Bake for 15 minutes, or until you see the cheese getting meltingly golden.
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While the tomatoes are roasting, boil two trimmed and stemmed artichokes in salted, lemony water for 15 minutes. Drain and allow to steam for another 5-10 minutes. Melt some butter and lemon juice in a bowl, and season with salt.
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Serve the luscious, meltingly good stuffed tomatoes on a platter with an artichoke, and with a lovely glass of Chilean wine, and enjoy the visual poetry of this ode to good food.
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Homme Fatal by Paul Mayersberg

While digging through my bookshelves the other day, I came across Homme Fatal, a pop fiction novel I’d bought years ago and held onto because the story was so fascinating.  Though quite a smutty novel, I primarily held onto it because the story, told about the same events from two viewpoints, had a sleazy, 1940’s film noir vibe to it, which I always like. Kind of Raymond Chandler meets Hugh Hefner.

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The premise is simple: a man named Mason becomes sexually obsessed with a woman he sees dragging a dead body down a hotel corridor. The woman, named Ursula, ends up coming to work for him in his office, and his obsession with her grows. But…….who is truly the one obsessed here? When did the obsession start? Which of them is more obsessed?

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What’s so great about this book is that Mason and Ursula both tell their sides of the same story, and you see exactly how twisted this obsession is on both their parts. I personally have always found the concept of obsession fascinating, particularly when you observe it in people who are otherwise very controlled and intellectual, because they are the last ones you’d ever think would be controlled by something so emotion-based. Obsession is a fascinating thing to study in others. Just beware that you don’t find yourself becoming obsessed, too!

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One of the other reasons I like this book, aside from its trashy noir style, is the fact that it begins and ends here in my home state. It is primarily set in Los Angeles, and all the sordid glamour of that town is well described. But the hotel where Mason first sees Ursula is in Artesia, New Mexico, a tiny, dusty town in the southern part of the state, not known for much other than oil fields and refineries; and the book ends in the Sandia Mountains, the beautiful, rose-colored mountain vista that frames my hometown of Albuquerque directly to the east.

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And taking place mainly in Los Angeles, there were of course several great foodie references. The one I enjoyed the most is the part where Mason is secretly following Ursula, and she meets Laszlo, her astrologist (how L.A. can you get, right?) in a cheesy Mexican restaurant. They both down margaritas and Ursula, in nervous hunger, wolfs down guacamole and chips.

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Now, guacamole is probably the easiest thing to make in the world, and this is really more of a method than anything else. There are many different ways of making it, though, and depending on who you talk to, it can have jalapeños, cayenne, lemon, lime, tomatoes, etc. Nigella Lawson, whom I worship as the Goddess that she is, made a version with blue cheese. I realize this is the season of excess, but that’s a bit too much for me. And of course, being from New Mexico and with the New Mexico references in the book, I had to make my grandmother’s guacamole with Hatch green chile.

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This is the method that works for me, every single time. I am kind of embarrassed to be presenting it here because it is so simple, but what the hell, I already divulged my secret love for trashy fiction above, so I’m sure my literary reputation is already down the tubes. FYI that I made this for a party I had on New Year’s Day, so the amounts are large. Feel free to scale down as needed.

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INGREDIENTS
10 large, ripe avocadoes
1 cup of lime juice, either fresh or bottled
3-4 tablespoons sea salt

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1 generous cup of New Mexico green chile, roasted and chopped.
12 grape tomatoes
6 garlic cloves and a generous handful of fresh cilantro

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METHOD
Halve the avocadoes by laying them on a cutting board and slicing in a circular method. Don’t go against your grandmother’s advice and hold up the avocado in your hand and slice it in a circle, because THIS will happen. Yes, Nana, I know. I know.

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In a large bowl, scoop out the green flesh of the avocadoes.

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Mash up the avocadoes. I use a potato masher because it’s easiest. I once tried using the food processor. Very bad idea. I won’t say what it looked like, but think of the pea soup scene with Regan in The Exorcist and you’ll get the gist.

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Dissolve the salt in the lime juice in a measuring cup. This is a great trick because it ensures the salt is mixed up in all the avocadoes. Note: Don’t get salt or lime in your sliced-up finger. Your neighbors won’t like the screams.

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Pour over the salty lime juice on the avocadoes. Mix together.

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Add in the green chile and mix again.

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Mince in the garlic cloves and mix again.

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Slice the grape tomatoes into small circles, and toss them into the mix. Stir, and taste for seasoning. This is the point where you can add more lime or more salt. Avocadoes soak up flavor, so even if you think you’ve added plenty of salt or lime, you may find you need to add more. I usually do.

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Chop up the cilantro, and add most of it to the guacamole. Stir together so that the cilantro is well mixed.

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Garnish the top of the guacamole with the remaining cilantro and serve with tortilla chips, or with anything you want. It’s great with taquitos, with chicken, with anything savory. If you have any leftover, it’s delicious on toast with a fried egg on the side, as a post-party breakfast.

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Happy New Year! Here’s to 2017 and to contentment, happiness, prosperity and peace of mind for us all.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Blessed Ramadan! Happy Holidays! Seasons Greetings! Happy Festivus! I hope everyone has had a happy and blessed holiday with their families, friends, loved ones, pets, and anyone else beloved.

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So today’s post is probably not a surprise. But, it’s Christmas. I HAD to do honor to How The Grinch Stole Christmas, because it wouldn’t be the holiday without this story. I always loved the Grinch, and as I got older, could certainly relate to him much more, though I never particularly cared for Christmas Day as a child, either.

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It was always a day of stress, my mother yelling about something, a mad rush to be seated at the table no later than 2pm because that was the time my grandmother insisted we eat, someone getting a little too tipsy and starting a fight, and when I got older, the heartbreak of waiting for the man I was in love with to meet me at my family’s house one Christmas and him never showing up and finding myself in tears in my grandmother’s bedroom. Not happy associations with a holiday that is supposed to be about joy and peace.

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It was only when I decided that I was going to have Christmas at my own house, on my own terms, and invite only those who brought happiness and peace to my life that I began to enjoy Christmas. I got to see the people who truly cared about me, I got to cook the food that I liked, there was no  mad rush to be seated at a certain time. We ate and drank and relaxed and listened to music and enjoyed a very leisurely day and I realized that I actually did feel Christmas in my heart, just like our grumpy green friend The Grinch. So in opening my own heart and home to those who bring happiness to my life, I discovered the joys of the holiday season in my own way.

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The part where he takes the last can of Who-Hash has always been my favorite, along with poor Max being forced into being a reindeer with the large antler on his head. “Then he slunk to the icebox. He took the Whos’ feast! He took the Who-pudding! He took the roast beast! He cleaned out that icebox as quick as a flash. Why, that Grinch even took their last can of Who-hash!’

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I love the fact that hash is a mixup of whatever you have on hand. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, herbs and spices, cheese, and topped with the obligatory fried egg. It’s the perfect hangover meal, great at using up leftovers, delicious at any time of day, and takes so little time to cook. And it always tastes great. I had a couple of sweet potatoes, a yellow onion, and some sausages that needed cooking, so this was my version of Who-Hash. Enjoy!

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INGREDIENTS
1 large yellow onion

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1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter
2 sausages, with the meat squeezed out of the casing
2 small sweet potatoes
3 cloves of garlic
Fresh thyme and fresh rosemary
3 eggs
Salt and pepper

METHOD:
Peel and slice the onion into little half-moons. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, and put the onions in to cook down slightly, about 5 minutes. Add salt for flavor, and to keep the onion from burning.

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While the onions are cooking happily away, chop the sweet potatoes. I don’t ever bother peeling potatoes, sweet or otherwise, because you get so much flavor (not to mention vitamins and minerals) from the skin. Chop into rough 1-inch cubes. Put into a bowl with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper.

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Grate in the garlic cloves over the sweet potatoes. Then, finely chop the rosemary sprigs, and strip several thyme leaves off their stems. Add these fragrant herbs to the potatoes and garlic, and mix together well.

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Add the potatoes to the onions in the pan, and allow to cook low and slow for up to 20 minutes. The idea here is to somewhat dry out the potatoes, so that they get nice and crisp and slightly blackened at the edges, which just adds to the flavor.

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Heat your oven to 425F at this point.

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After the potatoes and onions have cooked, add in the sausage crumbles, and cook another 10 minutes. Check to make sure the sausage is cooked through. The smell of the onions and meat and herbs frying up will make you salivate, so be prepared to slobber a little bit.

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Make three wells in the potato-sausage hash mixture, and crack an egg into each well. Sprinkle the eggs with salt and pepper. Put the pan into the oven and bake for 10 minutes, or until the eggs are set and cooked through.

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Serve piping hot. If you’re like me and love that golden, ooziness of poached or fried or soft-boiled eggs, you’ll love breaking the yolk and watching that yummyness drip its yellow deliciousness all over the hash. Delicious and tasty, and could warm even the tiny, cold heart of The Grinch!

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A very merry Christmas and joyous New Year to all of my readers! Thank you for the support in 2016, and I look forward to reading and cooking for you even more in 2017!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

For some reason, the Harry Potter books always evoke Christmas and the winter holidays, no matter what time of year I read them in or what time of year is represented in the books.

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I suppose it’s because these books, ostensibly for kids, are also a wonderful read for adults. They transport you into this magical world of wizards, wands, spells, Sorting Hats, magicians, and yet are still so based in the reality of a kid’s everyday life. The first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is as talented in describing magical spells, Quidditch, fantastic beasts and an otherwise enchanted world, as it is the realities we all went through on the first day of school, making new friends, learning new subjects, dealing with family difficulties. We can all relate, and it’s this sense of magic combined with the poignant sense of familiar that make J.K. Rowling’s books so successful. The movies don’t hurt, either.

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Sparky the Wonder Pug models his Christmas hat, which resembles the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts. At least, I think it does.

There is a huge amount of food in the Harry Potter books, and of a great variety. Chipolata sausages, roast chicken, trifles, butterbeer, candy with fantastical names such as Bertie Botts Every Flavor jellybeans, Acid Pops and Chocolate Frogs; black pudding, eggs and toast, roast beef, soups, fruits, nuts, desserts, ice cream, platters of vegetables………….it’s overwhelming in its excess, but I also think the variety of food discussed, in a way, is symbolic of the variety of characters in the book. Each has his or her own unique personalities and tastes, and as such, so the food represents them in a sense. Harry, who grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family unit, savors such simple foods as roast chicken and potatoes, because he is finally allowed to eat as much as he wants.

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I do love the scene on the Hogwarts Express train when the trolley-lady offers them all sorts of goodies, including pumpkin pasties, and Harry trades one for one of Ron’s rather gross corned beef sandwiches. Pasties are like what we call an empanada here in New Mexico, and which I think are ubiquitous in every culture. Meat or vegetables or fruit or any other type of filling, enclosed in a pastry shell, making a little hand-held pie.

Ron stared as Harry brought it all back in to the compartment and tipped it onto an empty seat. “Hungry, are you?” “Starving,” said Harry, taking a large bite out of a pumpkin pasty. Ron had taken out a lumpy package and unwrapped it. There were four sandwiches inside. He pulled one of them apart and said “She always forgets I don’t like corned beef.” “Swap you for one of these,” said Harry, holding up a pasty. “Go on……….”

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Having become more and more confident in my pastry-making ability this past year, I decided pumpkin pasties with homemade pastry would be my challenge this day. Not liking sweets much, I wondered how savory pumpkin pasties, with a hint of garlic, might taste.

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As well, I recently wrote a piece for the website New Mexico Nomad about the wonderful history of the Franzoy family in Southern New Mexico and their chile company, Young Guns Produce, and as part of the article, I was a lucky duck who got to taste their chile. I was dying to incorporate it into a recipe, and started thinking about pumpkin and red chile. So although no one in Harry Potter’s world likely ever had New Mexico red chile, I combined them in this recipe. Just think of it as my contribution to multiculturalism.

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As previously noted, pasties are very similar to empanadas, so I used my Nana Jean’s empanada dough recipe, which is 2 1/2 cups of flour, a pinch of salt, a stick of cold butter cut up into cubes, an egg, 1/3 cup ice-cold water, and a spoonful of white vinegar; then you incorporate the butter into the flour and salt until it looks like rubble, and slowly add in the liquid ingredients which have been mixed together.

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If you have a Kitchen Aid, use the pastry hook to mix and it will form the dough ball for you, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 hours before rolling out. Super easy. The filling recipe is all mine. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
2 sugar pumpkins, roasted and cubed

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1 container Young Guns Produce red chile sauce
5 cloves of garlic
1 cup herbed goat cheese
Pastry/empanada dough
1 egg, beaten with a bit of salt

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

Puree the roasted pumpkin cubes by putting into a food processor and pulsing until a thick puree forms.

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Heat the red chile sauce. Grate in the garlic cloves and add salt. Taste for seasoning. Chile sauce is so much a matter of individual taste that I highly recommend you taste as you go. Some people add onions, some people put in garlic, some folks like to add beef or chicken or pork drippings to boost the flavor. Really, it’s up to you.

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Roll out the dough on a floured cutting board and cut into large circles using a coffee cup or circle-shaped cookie cutter.

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Mix the pureed pumpkin with the goat cheese, and taste. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

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Pour over the garlic-scented red chile sauce a little at a time, and mix well to incorporate.

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Put about a tablespoon of the pumpkin mixture into each dough circle.

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Dampen the edge of dough, and fold over so that you have a half-moon shape. Traditionally, you would crimp the edges to seal the pasty. However, I cannot for the life of me master the damn crimp action, so I went the easy way and used a fork.

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Brush each pumpkin pasty with some egg, and pop those bad boys into the oven.

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Bake for 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When they are golden-brown on top, and the heavenly scent of pumpkin and goat cheese and the sunny smell of red chile waft through the kitchen, take the pasties out of the oven and allow to cool.

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I have to say, these are probably my proudest creation. They tie in with my own New Mexico culture, they are a nod to my grandmother’s baking techniques, yet they incorporate a more modern flavor combination, and best of all, they tie in with the magical world of Harry Potter and Christmas. Plus, they are damn delicious!