Sexy Sunday! Little Birds by Anaïs Nin

It’s Sunday near the end of Lent, so what else could I have possibly read except some hard-core erotica by one of the world’s foremost feminist writers? Yes, it’s Sexy Sunday again, and Nicole of The Bookworm Drinketh has posted her own take on this book – and her alcoholic escape – over at her blog, so once you’re done reading mine, take a gander at what naughtiness she’s up to today. Here’s the link.

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So. Anaïs Nin. If you’ve heard of Henry Miller or his book Tropic of Cancer, you’ll know about Anaïs Nin. Or if you’ve read her without any prior knowledge of her hot and heavy sexual affair with Miller, you’ll understand what I mean when I say “damn, Anaïs!” Little Birds is her collection of erotic short stories, and what’s fascinating about them is that she explores each facet of sexuality in such a nonchalant, detached way. Some of the stories are a bit subversive, touching as they do on teen sexuality (something we aren’t supposed to acknowledge), and the simple fact that women as as much sexual beings as men are.

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Nin writes very much writes from a sexually liberated viewpoint, and her erotica is very hard-edged and not written with what you might traditionally expect from a female writer in this genre, which is why these stories are so unique and, in my opinion, beyond the usual erotica. I’d imagine most people would expect more flowery, romantic prose, but Nin writes very straightforwardly. This is erotica versus plain ol’ pornography, and I don’t know about you, but I much prefer something erotic and that engages and arouses the mind as much as the body.

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My favorite line has to be this one. “He was whispering over and over again the same phrase, “You have the body of an angel. It is impossible that such a body should have a sex. You have the body of an angel.” The anger swept over Fay like a fever, an anger at his moving his penis away from her hand. She sat up, her hair wild about her shoulders, and said, “I am not an angel, Albert. I am a woman. I want you to love me as a woman.” I’d think any normal, red-blooded woman who enjoys sexuality feels this way. I know I do. I don’t want to be treated like a Victorian maiden made of glass…….I want my lover to understand that I am his equal in terms of desire, fantasies, wants, needs and sheer lust.

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The titular story details a perverted older man who lures the young women from the school across from his apartment up by putting little birds in cages on his balcony, then exposing himself to them when they come to see the birds. Pig. Perhaps I should have made a roast pig dish, but, well, what else was I going to make with that title? Pizza? Yes, I made some little birds and goddamn it, I’m not sorry. OK, I’m maybe a little bit sorry, because quails are so darn cute but I got over being sorry pretty quickly as I crunched into those tasty little baked birdies. Hey, there’s a reason we’re on top of the food chain!

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INGREDIENTS
6 quail, 5 ounces apiece
3 strips bacon, each cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste
1 head of garlic, roasted
Handful of fresh rosemary sprigs. minced
Handful of fresh thyme sprigs, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 cippolline onions, peeled and halved
2-3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 pound red grapes

METHOD
Rinse the quail and pat dry, and season with salt and pepper both inside and outside, and put a half-strip of raw bacon inside each quail cavity.

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Add some of the fresh rosemary and thyme into the bird’s cavity, then squeeze out the roasted garlic cloves and push one inside each bird cavity as well. Drizzle with olive oil and let marinate a good 1-2 hours.

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Heat oven to 450F. In a cast-iron pan, toss the halved cippolline onions with salt, pepper, olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Mix well.

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Bake the onions for 20 minutes, until they caramelize slightly and soften and brown a bit. Set aside.

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Spread the remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs out onto a baking sheet, lay the marinated quail breast-side down, and sprinkle over some of the minced fresh herbs. Roast for 25 minutes, until they have browned nicely.

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Turn the oven up to 550F. Remove the quails, turn them over breast side up, and and scatter around the roasted onions and the red grapes.

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Roast another 10-15 minutes, until the skin crisps. Remove, let rest a good 10-15 minutes, and serve with steamed asparagus. The grapes create a nice, not overly sweet sauce that melds with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and is so deliciously sensuous to eat.

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The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre in the world, and anything set in my spirit country of Italy even more so. This marvelous book, The Chef’s Secret, not only meets both of those criteria, but it’s also about FOOD! And FORBIDDEN LOVE! and MYSTERY! And MORE FOOD! OK, I’ll calm down now, but you see why I am so excited about it. Aside from the fact that the author, the wonderful Crystal King, asked me to be part of the book’s publication by submitting a recipe for the companion e-cookbook, this book itself is so beautifully written, so full of familial and romantic and culinary love, that I, too, fell in love with it.

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Have you heard of Bartolomeo Scappi? Before Julia Child, before Jacques Pépin, before Emeril Lagasse and Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten and (my dearly departed future ex-husband) Anthony Bourdain, before the heyday of modern celebrity chefs, there was the immortal Scappi. He was personal chef to numerous cardinals and Pope Pius IV, was known to cook such exotic items as peacock, alligator and even fried chicken, and came to world fame when his meisterwork Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published in 1570. Though little is known about his personal life, this book tells the fictionalized account of his life in Renaissance Italy. And what a life it was!

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Scappi has just died in the opening pages, and his nephew Giovanni is mourning him terribly. Giovanni is the son of Scappi’s sister, and has been apprenticed to learn everything there is to be learned from his culinary genius uncle, and in fact, Scappi leaves him the bulk of his fortune, estate, and his collection of recipes that are hotly pursued and contested by rival chefs of the time. Among the papers he leaves to Giovanni is one book he requests be destroyed without being read. Well, in what literary world do you think THAT is going to happen? Of course Giovanni reads it, finding that it is written in a secret code, and attempts to decipher the mystery at the heart of his uncle’s life – the identity of the woman for whom Scappi had a deep, beautiful, abiding and forbidden love, whom he called “Stella” to protect her identity, and that colors the rest of Scappi’s life, and affects Giovanni in unexpected ways.

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Of course, this book brims over with luscious food passages and descriptions of simple meals, feasts, instructions on various kitchen utensils and equipment, table setting suggestions, and my personal favorite – roses carved from radishes by Scappi to show his love for “Stella.” But my own inspiration for the recipe I am detailing below and that was part of the wonderful e-cookbook, actually came from the passage when Giovanni meets Doctor Boccia in the street after Scappi’s death, and Boccia affectionately calls him “polpetta,” his endearing nickname for Giovanni reminding them both how they met when Giovanni was a young chef’s apprentice making meatballs.

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I was also incredibly touched, perhaps because I lost my mother to cancer during the time I was reading the book and developing this recipe, when I read the moving journal passage by Scappi’s affectionate family nickname for Giovanni – “little onion, cipollino.” Both affectionate names for Giovanni showed how loved he was by these figures in his life, which is the heart of the book after all.

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In Italian, what I made could be called polpette di vitello con pinoli, e cipolla con una riduzione di aceto balsamico, which has a lovely and poetic ring to it, in my humble opinion. 🙂 With that in mind, let’s go make some meatballs and onions in a balsamic reduction!

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For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon sea salt
Ground black pepper
2 large eggs, room temperature

Heat the oven to 400F. In a dry, hot pan, toast the pine nuts until they are golden brown and give off a nutty scent. Don’t let them burn. Remove from heat and allow to cool while you mix the other ingredients.

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With your hands, mix together the beef and pork. Add in the garlic, the parsley and the sage, and mix again.

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Add in the 1/4 cup of Asiago cheese and the cooled pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper.

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Add the eggs, and mix together again with your hands.

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Form small balls and lay them on a parchment-covered baking tray. Bake for 25 minutes.

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For the cipolline onions:
12 cipolline onions
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Lower the oven temperature to 350F. Peel the onions, trim the stems, cut them in half, and rinse them. Pat dry.

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Finely mince the rosemary.

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Heat a cast iron pan over medium high heat and and add the butter, the onions and sprinkle over the rosemary. Cook for 5-7 minutes on the stove.

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Transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes, until they brown and soften.

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For the balsamic reduction:
2 cups good quality balsamic vinegar. I used a Pinot Noir balsamic vinegar.
1 crushed clove of garlic

Pour balsamic vinegar into a metal saucepan, and add the crushed garlic clove.

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Boil on medium for roughly 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will reduce to a thick, syrupy glaze. Don’t leave it because the sugars in the balsamic vinegar can burn.

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Remove the garlic clove, and let cool slightly. Pour over the meatballs and cippoline onions. Eat immediately, with a glass of good red wine, and the spirit of Bartolomeo Scappi watching over you.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I don’t normally go for “best sellers,” mainly because I’ve found that what sometimes constitutes a best seller, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, is actually terrible literature. In this case, I was quite happy to be wrong. The Girl on the Train is wildly popular and being made into a movie, and is so well-written and intense that I devoured it in one afternoon of sofa slumping and wine sipping.

The premise: a woman who takes the train back and forth to London each day, sees the same couple in a house along the railroad tracks, and begins to make up stories about their lives. She ends up becoming involved in their lives for real when disaster strikes, and reality and fantasy collide. I liked the idea about watching other people’s lives and inventing tales about them, because we have all done that. I have endlessly imagined this man, that woman, what lives they lead behind their public facades, because let’s face it. We all have the side we show to the public, there is our private self, and oftentimes, there is what Billy Joel called “The Stranger,” that unknowable side of our inner self that often surprises us with how wonderful or horrible we truly are.  This book touches on all of those aspects of self and personality, told from three different viewpoints. What amazed me about this book is that it was so well-written, so fast-paced, and so gripping and addicting, and there was not a single character I liked. Couldn’t stand any of them, in fact. Well done, Paula Hawkins, well done. It’s rare to read a book in which every character is someone you’d never want to meet in real life, yet all of their actions are understandable and even draw sympathy, while you’re also cringing in humiliation or anger at them. Much like real life.

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Often, this book was like the proverbial train wreck…….ahem, pardon the pun. The behavior of the characters is often dreadful to observe, yet you can’t look away. It’s really an addictive story, so don’t start it late at night or when you’re going to have to put it down and do something else. I guarantee you won’t.

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The main character, Rachel, whose voice is the primary narrator, is a major alcoholic so right from the off, she is the typical unreliable narrator.(Not that any of them are reliable, but I digress.) Anyway, near the beginning of the story, she decides to make herself a healthy, substantial meal – something she hasn’t had in awhile – while her roommate is out.

“Cathy was out when I got home, so I went to the off-license and bought two bottles of wine. I drank the first one and then I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that she was out and cook myself a steak, make a red-onion relish, have it with a green salad. A good, healthy meal.”

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A clever bit of foreshadowing there with the bloody steak, setting the stage for bloodletting to come. But I don’t want to give away too much of the book, so back to the food. Steak is easy, and it was the red-onion relish I wanted to make. I’d tried caramelizing onions once before, which was great fun and the basis of this nifty little recipe. If you’ve never caramelized onions, give it a try some lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s like making risotto – constant stirring and stress relief all rolled into one. I find repetitive motion very soothing, and since I already think of cooking as therapy, this is my tried-and-true way of calming myself.

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Both the meat and the onion relish are more methods than recipes. The steak marinade was simple: soy sauce, Worchestershire sauce, garlic powder, red wine, olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, ground pepper, and a flank steak, no bones but nice marbling. Marinate the steak up to an hour, overnight if you’re not starving from a long-ass day of being a bureaucrat, like me, and cook it stovetop in a super hot, cast-iron pan for up to 6 minutes total, turning every 1 minute to ensure even cooking and a good searing. Prod the surface occasionally with your tongs to ensure it still has bounce and is not rock hard and thus, overcooked.And know that if your steak doesn’t have the bone in, it will cook much faster.

As for the onion relish, again, it’s a method so not a lot of specific measurements. And well, it’s all about the stirring once the onions get brown, so stay near the stove with a glass of wine in your hand and imagine how good these little glossy brown strands of flavor will taste piled onto a good, juicy, bloody steak.

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INGREDIENTS

5 small red onions or 3 large red onions, sliced into thin half-moons
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Knob of butter
Sea salt and ground pepper
3 cloves of garlic, grated
Pinch of sugar
Splash of red wine

METHOD

Heat the olive oil and butter in a cast-iron skillet. Put in the sliced onions, stir around and season them with the salt, pepper, grated garlic, red wine vinegar, and the sugar, which helps with the caramelizing down the road.

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Stir them fairly frequently the first 5-10 minutes, until the moisture begins to evaporate and that deep reddish-brown color starts to develop. At that point, leave them to cook and only stir occasionally. I go by eye, because until you’ve actually caramelized onions, it’s hard to describe.

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You’ll know by color and by the delicious smell of them, but it’s hard to describe in words. You probably don’t want to go over 30 minutes total cooking, but just go by eye and nose. We all know when something is overcooked, so trust your instincts and sense of smell and sight.

This is ultimately what you want.

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Sooooooo good! Sometimes only a slab of red meat will do. My meal of steak and caramelized onions went down well with a glass of red wine, and I didn’t have a single bloody thought at all while eating.

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“And I have to get up early tomorrow morning……to catch the train.”