Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I am a diehard Bond Girl. I’ve seen all the films, read all the books and of course, have my own opinions about who has been the best Bond of all. Having a major crush on Timothy Dalton, I am biased in his favor, but there is also something to be said for the talents (not to mention eye candy quality) of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. All three are are quite handsome in a rough-hewn, craggy kind of way. Pierce Brosnan, though also quite a gorgeous specimen of the male gender, was a bit too polished and smooth for my taste. Roger Moore and George Lazenby were the weakest Bonds, in my book (haha!).

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In rereading Casino Royale, I came to the conclusion that the reason these rough-around-the-edges cinematic 007s are more to my taste is because they are closer to his book character, which is why I like them. A man who is elegant and polished, yet still has that roughness, that “throw down,” is incredibly sexy to me.

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James Bond is not a very likable character, for all his perspicacity as a spy. He’s witty, urbane, but with that dark edge that allows him to use people and not care about his effect in their lives. It’s not just with women, although they do tend to be rather interchangeable and disposable. As an agent provocateur, it is probably a matter of life or death to be able to sharply and coldly cut someone out of one’s life, and this aspect of Bond’s character is much more apparent in the books, as his thought process and internal meanderings are well described. In Casino Royale, you get the origin of his coldness toward women, when he meets and falls hard for Vesper Lynd, a fellow secret agent who initially is not very impressed with Bond…..which, of course, intrigues him It’s such a typically male response to a woman that it made me laugh.

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Vesper and Bond share a luxurious dinner at the Casino Royale, while they wait for the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre, whom they have been sent to watch and infiltrate his empire. Bond tells Vesper to order expensively and do honor to her fabulous evening gown. She takes him at his word and they order their meals.

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“I’d like to start with caviar and then have a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes souffles. And then I’d like to have fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Is it very shameless to be to certain and so expensive?” She smiled at him knowingly…………”While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing.”

Fraises de bois are wild strawberries, and difficult to find in New Mexico. However, seeing as strawberries and cream are one of my desert island meals, with the tartness of strawberries contrasting so nicely with a lightly sweetened cream, I couldn’t not make it to go with the centerpiece meal. An avocado pear, which is a half-avocado stuffed with whatever you like, is delish! Lobster and avocado have a natural affinity for each other and I love them together, the jade green of the avocado and the deep pink of the cooked lobster creating a beautiful food palette that’s almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And you can’t beat lobster for sheer luxury. I got mine at Nantucket Shoals, and I highly recommend you visit there, either in person or via their website.

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This is the method that worked for me for the stuffed avocado pear, taken from the great Emeril Lagasse, but with a few tweaks by me. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

For the avocado pear:
2 large avocadoes
2 cups lobster meat, cooked and finely cubed
1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise (see method below)
1 teaspoon of truffle oil

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Juice of one medium lemon
Fresh chives, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix together the lobster meat, the mayonnaise and the truffle oil. Let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

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Add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle in some sea salt if you think it needs it, but the homemade mayo has plenty of flavor and saltiness, so you may not.

Halve the avocadoes and carefully scoop out the meat, retaining their shape so that they form green cups. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice to keep the avocadoes from blackening.

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Put a large spoonful of the lobster mixture into each avocado half, so you have four tasty little green cups full of seafood heaven! Garnish with the chives and admire the beautiful pink and green deliciousness before chowing down. 007 would most certainly approve of this avocado pear!

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The homemade mayo was simply one egg yolk (organic and free range), 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one teaspoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of sea salt, and incorporated very slowly and whisked in drop by drop, a 3/4 cup of regular olive oil – all at room temperature. Don’t use a blender or it will be runny. I hand-whisked for 20 minutes and although it is quite an arm workout, the end result is so worth it.

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The strawberries, I simply marinated in Amaretto and lemon juice for about an hour, while I whipped some heavy cream with sugar and a dash or two of Campari liqueur. The Campari makes the cream a gorgeous, pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. It creates such a beautiful accent for the glistening, red strawberries. You pile it into a fancy glass and eat. Or, if James Bond were to drop by, you could have him feed it to you, berry by berry. (sigh)  A girl can dream!

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I would be a terrible Bond girl if I didn’t include this classic paragraph:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toast the bread, and slather on the mashed avocado.

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

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arrange the cucumber rounds on a platter.

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

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Spread the avocado mix onto each cucumber round.

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

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This is what you want.

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

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