The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.

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INGREDIENTS
4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

This is a bizarre, surreal, and very captivating read. I’d read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago by the same author, and although I enjoyed it greatly, it didn’t grab me the way this one has. Her Fearful Symmetry is one of the strangest and compelling ghost stories I’ve read in ages, although I warn you now that you’ll need some MAJOR suspension of disbelief to keep going.

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About six chapters in, I thought this was a lovely, well-written, and poignant love story about a woman – Elspeth – who dies (literally in the first chapter so no spoilers) and whose spirit is confined to her apartment. In life, she leaves this apartment and her money to her two identical twin nieces, Valentina and Julia, who must live in the apartment for a year before selling it, and come to experience their aunt’s ghost in some very unusual ways. Elspeth’s lover, Robert, lives in the same building, mourning her and working at the creepy and haunted Highgate Cemetery right outside the apartment. There are some other fascinating characters: Martin and Marikje; Edie who is twin’s mother and Elspeth’s own estranged identical twin; and Jack, the twin’s father.

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However, when I finished the book, I was torn. How to describe a book that is so gorgeously and atmospherically written and with characters that are mostly so very unlikeable? My perception of many of them definitely shifted as I kept reading. Robert, who in the beginning seemed a tragic and romantic hero, ended up being a weak and wimpy ass. Elspeth and Edie – well, all I have to say is, I’m glad I never had a twin. And Valentina and Julia’s own twisted and symbiotic relationship leads to the pivotal action in the book. There are family secrets, twin-swapping, body switching, ghostly conversations held through an Ouija board and written on dusty furniture, and the haunted apartment itself that to me, seemed like it must be drapery-shrouded, pale gray and blue, cold and mysterious overlooking the graves of Highgate.

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I’d suggest reading it, certainly. Niffenegger writes so beautifully and poignantly about life, love, death, and her brand of magical realism can turn even a modern-day London apartment into a spooky, gloomy, Gothic place of magic. I think what was difficult for me was the ease with which the characters completely accepted events that were not just bizarre, but completely outside the realm of reality. I get that it’s magical realism, but magical realism needs to have whimsy and sensuality to make it work. Here, the magic is there, the supernatural is there, but against a backdrop of rain-spattered windows, takeout containers, and a ghostly cat called Kitten of Death. The eerie and the mundane.

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Robert, grieving after Elspeth’s death, finds himself drawn to Valentina (how Freudian, right) and proceeds to court her, starting the process that ends in the most major plot twist. Part of his courting involves showing her and Julia – who dislikes him for taking her twin away – around Highgate Cemetery, where he brings them both lunch one afternoon, in a true clash of cultural vocabulary.

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“I’m fine. Thanks for bringing lunch, this is good.” Say something nice, Julia. “Yeah, really good. What are we eating?” “Prawn-mayonnaise sandwiches.” The twins inspected the insides of their sandwiches. “It tastes like shrimp,” said Julia. “You would call it a shrimp-salad sandwich. Though I’ve never understood where the salad idea comes into it.”

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Shrimp and mayonnaise together are a foodie match made in heaven, and though I omitted the bread, I still wanted to recreate the taste of prawns in homemade mayonnaise, so I came up with this tasty treat. I had some black olives to use up, so those got added to the mix. Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the homemade mayonnaise:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped black olives
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
Fresh basil

For the grilled shrimp:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
7 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons dried red chili flakes
1 lemon
Fresh basil
Fresh Italian parsley
3 dozen thawed shrimp

METHOD
Firstly, don’t let anyone tell you making homemade mayonnaise is hard. It’s not, it’s just time-consuming. Note: make sure all ingredients are at room temperature.

Whisk the egg yolk, the Dijon mustard, the white wine vinegar, the lemon juice and the salt, and then very slowly, drop by drop, add the olive oil and use a hand mixer to mix.

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Whisk it for 5-10 minutes as you add in each drop of oil, until the mayonnaise starts to thicken and emulsify. You’ll see and feel it, and I promise you the end result will be so worth it.

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Mix in the black olives, the sun-dried tomatoes, and the basil, stir to mix, taste for seasoning, and chill until ready to use.

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Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and add the garlic. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the red chili flakes, the juice of the lemon, and the rest of the chopped basil, and lightly saute for another 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

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Heat a ridged cast-iron grill pan to high. Slice the shrimp lengthwise down the middle and remove the vein. Season with salt and pepper and a bit more red chili flakes.

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Place the shrimp into the hot grill pan, grill for 3-4 minutes until the shrimp becomes pink, then quickly add in the cooked garlic, basil and parsley.

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Remove immediately from the heat. Pour over the remainder of the melted garlicky butter, and sprinkle with the remainder of the fresh chopped basil and parsley. Serve with the mayonnaise on a platter. Not only is it delicious, it’s extremely beautiful to look at as well. A treat any ghostly spirit or human might enjoy.

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The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Both a novel of psychological suspense and genuine supernatural horror, A Head Full of Ghosts is head case of a book…..pardon the pun. I love a book that cleverly uses meta-fiction, and this one definitely refers back to itself in such a funny way, by use of social media. (Speaking of which, there is a funny pic at the very end of this post used on one of the most popular social media sites out there, so keep reading for a good laugh.)

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The advent of reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others, has turned us into a society where every moment, thought, insight, and personal experience is documented for an audience of millions of strangers. We get validation for every aspect of our lives when we get likes or follows or retweets. This book takes it to an entirely new level, similar to how social media is used in my previous blog The Last Days of Jack Sparks, but here, it documents not just the possession and mental breakdown of a person, but an entire family.

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The book is the story of 13-year old Merry and her memories of her sister Marjorie’s psychological breakdown and subsequent possession – and the TV crew that documented all of it and relayed it to a television audience of millions. Merry is telling the tale in flashback at the age of 23, and recalls her parents’ terror and frustration at Marjorie’s condition, their increasing dire financial straits, and the questions that inevitably arise from such a horrific combination of scenarios.

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Is Marjorie truly possessed by a demonic force? Is she mentally ill? Is she just playing with their heads? Is it child abuse? What makes this book so addictive is that you are never quite sure what is going on. Is the narrator reliable? Who is wrong and what is right? Perception is reality, but then……what constitutes perception? Age? Seeing only what we want to see?

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It’s not so much horrifying – though it is definitely that – as it is uncomfortable. The unease and terror sneak up on you slowly, gradually, disturbingly, and as I got closer to the end, I found myself racing through the pages to see what was happening. If you’re a fan of psychological terror, supernatural horror, and a well-written story that makes you question your own perceptions, this book will definitely send you on a twisted ride.

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In one early scene, Merry is pondering an odd memory of her parents going away for a rare weekend, and wonders if they are leaving because of Marjorie’s behavior, or because of her own strange preference for pasta.

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“Away was the only word the four-year old me remembered. I had no concept of time or distance. Only that they were away, which sounded so weirdly menacing……..I was convinced they went away because they were sick of my eating pasta without spaghetti sauce. Dad had always grumbled about his not believing that I didn’t like the sauce………”

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I love pasta, but of course, it must have some type of sauce. This passage left quite a bit of leeway for cooking, so I decided linguine in a butter-lemon sauce with a creamy lemon chicken piccata was in order, to scare away all those ghosts in my head. This is the method that worked for me, serving 6 people, based on The Pioneer Woman’s delicious recipe. And yes, with requisite tweaks by me. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded quite thinly (great for stress relief)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 2 whole lemons
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
2 lbs fettuccine, or any long pasta of your choice
Fresh parsley for garnishing
Lemon slices for garnishing

METHOD
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter and the olive oil. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and dredge each one in flour. This is a messy step, so an apron is advised.

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Increase the heat to high, and cook the thighs in the skillet for about 10 minutes on each side. You want them nice and browned. Remove and set aside.

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Saute the shallots and chopped basil for about 5 minutes in the chicken pan juices.

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Lower the heat to medium low, and pour in the broth, the wine, the lemon juice, and the capers. Stir together and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Add back in the browned chicken pieces and pour in the juices they’ve accumulated on their platter. Pour in the capers, cover, and cook on low for 25 minutes.

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Remove the chicken pieces, then pour in the heavy cream, stir together, and taste again. Serve over linguine and garnish with lemon slices.

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We ate this fantastic dish with roasted grape tomatoes and mushrooms, and a gorgeous chocolate mousse cake, in honor of my sister’s birthday.

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As you can see, she is addicted to Snapchat filters. Dork that she is.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It took me awhile to read this book, though it had been recommended by numerous friends and fellow bloggers. There are some seriously good food mentions in this book, which is partly why I read it three times. Also, it’s just an addictive read. The gist of the book is thus: As a teen, Theo loses his mother in a freak accident when the museum they are visiting is bombed. He finds another survivor who indicates he should take the famous painting “The Goldfinch,” which he does.

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Theo’s life goes through various twists and turns as he lives with his friend’s wealthy family, moves with his father and father’s girlfriend Xandra to Las Vegas where he meets the pivotal character and friend Boris – and finds his heart and compassion in rescuing Xandra’s neglected Malti-poo dog Popper – my favorite sub-plot. Ultimately, he returns to New York City and grows up with Hobie, becoming something of a shady art and antique dealer, always hiding the secret of the painting. But like all secrets, it eventually comes out.

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The characters in this book alone make it worth the read. Theo’s dad is a complete and utter loser whom I loathed and despised from day one. Xandra I hated on principle because she neglected her dog until Theo came along. Hobie was the father/friend we all want and whom I fell in love with due to his kind and unworldly heart. Popper the dog worried me so much, so concerned was I for his safety for much of the book, that I actually went online and found a webpage that addressed his safety and assures us readers that Popper lives and indeed, once he is taken under Theo’s wing, thrives. So no worries there. And then, there is Boris, Theo’s best friend from his Las Vegas days who reappears in adulthood and wreaks havoc but also is somewhat of a savior.

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Boris is sort of an anti-hero. You can’t help but like him and feel sorry for him, while at the same time, some of what he does is despicable. But……like all of us, we have our good and our bad sides, our light and our dark, and we are all complex human beings capable of great things and equally terrible things. Perhaps that’s why Boris is so fascinating.

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Manicotti is the meal Theo eats at his first dinner with his jerk father after his mother dies, so although it’s not a happy segment, it’s poignant.

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The food had arrived and I’d poured myself another large but surreptitious glass of champagne before they returned. “Yum!” said Xandra, looking glazed and a bit shiny, tugging her short skirt down, edging around and slithering back into her seat without bothering to pull her massive, bright-red plate of manicotti towards her. “Looks awesome!”

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Cara Nicoletti wrote one of my favorite blogs – Yummy Books – and posted several recipes from “The Goldfinch,” seeming to enjoy it as much as I did and sharing the same ambivalence I had about Boris. I used her version of this dish as my inspiration for today’s recipe, with – of course – a few tweaks of my own. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marinara sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots
1 celery rib
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
3 whole tomatoes, finely diced
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon each of fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme, and basil
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
1 tablespoon tomato paste

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For the manicotti filling:
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely diced
5 oz fresh spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded parmesan, divided
1 cup cream cheese, softened
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs
10 manicotti shells

METHOD
Make the marinara sauce first, a day ahead if possible. Finely chop the carrot, celery, onion and garlic, and cook for 10 minutes in the olive oil and butter. Add a sprinkle of salt.

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Add the canned tomatoes, the fresh tomatoes, the red wine, the bouillon, the tomato paste, and the fresh herbs. The smell is out of this world good! Stir together again, turn to a low simmer, cover, and cook for up to three hours, stirring occasionally.

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Using  a stick blender, mix the sauce until it is somewhat smooth. Refrigerate overnight.

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Finely dice the shallot and saute with the spinach. Allow to cool.

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Mix the cheeses together, season with salt and pepper, and add the two eggs. Blend well.

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Mix together the cooled spinach with the cheeses, put in a large plastic bag, and and refrigerate for an hour.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Cook the manicotti shells in boiling, salted water for 6 minutes, or until al dente. Don’t overcook them, as they will still cook in the oven. Allow to cool.

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Spread a layer of the marinara sauce in a large baking pan.

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Snip a hole in the corner of the plastic bag with the spinach and cheese filling. Fill the cooled manicotti shells by squeezing one end of the bag, kind of like a piping bag in baking.

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Lay the filled shells in the pan and cover with the rest of the marinara sauce. Sprinkle over some more parmesan cheese and bake for 30 minutes. Heaven on a plate!

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography!

The Last Supper by the immortal Leonardo da Vinci always fascinated me, even as a child. Just looking at it takes you into that world, sitting beside Jesus, watching the disciples react to the news he would soon die, and noticing the amazing details of the work itself.

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Reading The Secret Supper took me back to my days of persistently asking questions about the nature of religion and God, because this book raises almost as many questions as it answers. Being raised Catholic, of course I’d heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples to take this bread and eat it, and take this wine and drink it, and the mystery of transmogrification, so seeing this painting as a child made me start to question what I had been taught. Of course, when you’re young and asking questions about religion, it tends to not go over well. In this book, when the main character, Father Agostino Leyre, begins asking questions about the nature of faith, God, and Leonardo’s masterpiece, it’s no different for him.

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One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is its similarity to The Name of the Rose, my all-time favorite book in the world. The monks, the literary mystery, one man trying to answer questions………although this one is less weighty on philosophy. Still a marvelous read, if you’re into the Italian Renaissance and symbolism in paintings and Da Vinci himself. Or if you’re into references about Italian cuisine, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

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My stomach was making noises under my habit. With solicitude, the librarian led me to the kitchen and managed to rustle up a few scraps from suppertime………”It’s panzanella, Father,” he explained, helping me to a still-warm bowl that heated my freezing hands. “Panzanella?” “Eat. It’s a bread soup, made with cucumber and onion. It will please you.”

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Panzanella is essentially a bread salad, rustic peasant food that used stale bread. Most likely, the very poor had only bread and onions as their panzanella base. It’s become traditional to include mozzarella, tomatoes and occasionally cucumbers, and an herb-based dressing with olive oil and vinegar, and being that I like to roast vegetables, I had the idea of roasting asparagus and garlic alongside the bread croutons, replacing the more usual cucumber which can get soggy. And being that it’s summertime and way too hot for soup, I opted for a traditional panzanella salad.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the New York Times version by the great Melissa Clark, with requisite changes by yours truly. As always.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 large head of garlic
1 stale baguette, cubed
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
2 large, ripe tomatoes at room temperature
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 bunch of fresh oregano
3 tablespoons capers
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Spread out the asparagus on a parchment-sheet lined baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle with more olive oil and some salt and pepper, and put into a well-soaked terracotta garlic roaster.

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Lay the cubed bread pieces on another baking sheet, and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Place all three items in the hot oven and bake for up to 20 minutes apiece, checking frequently. The bread will cook fastest so don’t let it burn and remove when it is golden-brown. The asparagus will take a few more minutes, and the garlic will take longest, so plan to cook it for up to 45 minutes.

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Cut up the tomatoes, and place them in a bowl with the mozzarella.

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Finely mince the onion, add a tablespoonful of garlic paste, and add to the tomatoes and mozzarella. Stir to mix everything.

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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Combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and the cut-up herbs in a large measuring cup, then slowly add in 3 tablespoons of Meyer lemon olive oil, whisking together to form a vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning.

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Add the cooled bread cubes to the tomatoes and cheese, then cut up the asparagus into smaller pieces and mix with the tomatoes and bread.

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Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the garlic head, and add to the tomato mixture. Toss in the capers and stir together.

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Pour over the vinaigrette, and stir to mix well. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, to let the bread soak up the delicious juices, which is the whole point of this dish.

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Enjoy with some grilled chicken or on its own as a light summer lunch. Delicious on a hot afternoon with some cool rosé wine.

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Thanks to TB for the photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pour in the tomatoes and stir again. Crimson heaven!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shining by Stephen King

Thanks to CHC for the photography.

I don’t think Stephen King has ever been accused of being a foodie, though he is most certainly the most visceral writer I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been reading his books since my early teens, starting with The Shining, as well as many others. But the story of the Torrance family remains my absolute favorite of all of his books. I have a thing for books that make the setting, the place, the hotel or house, as much a character as the people. Shirley Jackson did it with great style in The Haunting of Hill House, which I blogged about a few months back if you want to give it a whirl. Edgar Allan Poe did it with The Fall of the House of Usher. And then there’s the Overlook Hotel.

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Jack Torrance is one of the more interesting characters in literature. He is, for the most part, in tune with his own worst instincts……except for when he drinks. His intelligence makes him arrogant, yet he does truly care for his family. But it only takes a small chink in one’s armor for the enemy to pierce us, and this is what the spirit of the hotel does to him. It gets into Jack’s soul, tempts and taints him with liquor and with his violent, shadow side, and all goes to hell. His son, Danny, is the polar opposite. He is already in touch with his own shadow side, in the form of Tony, his “imaginary friend,” who is the actual, psychic side of Danny’s mind. In a sense, though their conflict takes violent place very much in the physical realm, the conflict is also mental, as both Jack’s and Danny’s emotionally tortured psyches also do battle.2016-10-09-19-39-45_resized

If you’ve read this book (or seen the Kubrick film), you know the story trajectory and I won’t bore you with a lengthy description. In a nutshell, the Torrance family is on their financial last legs and Jack Torrance accepts a job to be the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, just he, his wife Wendy and their son, Danny, who is psychic and whose power is referred to as “the shining.”

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I will say, however, that Kubrick’s notoriously misogynistic tendencies turned the film character of Wendy into a shrieking, nagging, needy harridan whom you almost wanted to see get chopped to bits. In the book, she’s tough, resourceful and sharp, still a bit on the weak side as she herself acknowledges. But it’s she who mostly saves the day in the book. Her transformation at Kubrick’s hands in the film makes her nearly unrecognizable, and which is annoying, because it’s certainly possible to have feelings of weakness and inadequacy and still find your inner strength and kick ass. Which Wendy does.

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Rereading this book in the here and now was fascinating. It was published nearly 30 years ago, and there are some seriously dated references that are hugely entertaining to read about. For example, when Halloran, the seasonal cook, is showing the family around the kitchen and letting them see the bounty of food he’s left them to get through the winter, he mentions something called a “Table Talk pie.” According to Google, it’s a prepackaged miniature fruit pie that was sold along the east coast. Another scene, kind of the calm before the storm, is when Wendy goes downstairs to make Danny some lunch after he’s seen the woman in Room 217 and Jack has started his spiral into menacing madness. She prepares canned tomato soup and a cheese omelette in a state of of nerves and terror.

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“She opened the can and dropped the slightly jellied contents into a saucepan. PLOP. She went to the refrigerator and got milk and eggs for the omelet. Then to the walk-in freezer for cheese. All these actions, so common and so much a part of her life before the Overlook, had been a part of her life, helped to calm her. She melted butter in the frying pan, diluted the soup with milk, then poured the beaten eggs into the pan. A sudden feeling that someone was standing behind her, reaching for her throat.”

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It reminded me of when I was a little girl and my paternal grandmother, Nana Baca, would make me canned soup and bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. Good stuff! I don’t buy canned soup these days, just because I prefer the taste of homemade (and it’s healthier, too). But I decided a reworking of the classic canned tomato soup and cheese omelette was in order here.

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Nothing goes quite so well with tomatoes as basil, and a creamy tomato basil bisque fit the bill perfectly, along with a cheese and broccoli egg frittata, which is like an omelette for kitchen idiots like me who can’t do the omelette flip without dropping the eggs on the floor. Basically, you mix the egg with the steamed broccoli, cooked ham, milk, sharp cheddar cheese, salt and pepper, put into a skillet and heat until the bottom has set, then put into the oven under broiler until the entire concoction sets. Super easy and you don’t have to worry about doing the damn omelette fold.

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Here is the soup method that worked for me, based on my own trial and error of making this soup for over 10 years. I think I’ve got it down pat, but feedback is always appreciated.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can San Marzano-style crushed tomatoes

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4-5 ripe Campari tomatoes
1 medium white onion, finely diced

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4 baby carrots, very finely diced
1 small can tomato juice
1 cup sherry
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream

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2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh basil leaves

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METHOD
In a skillet, saute the onion and carrot together in the butter and olive oil. The reason for adding carrot is because oftentimes, tomatoes can be overly acidic and adding sugar eliminates that acid. However, it’s much healthier and tastier to add carrot, which has natural sugar and offsets the acidity just as well.

Roughly chop the Campari tomatoes, and add them, along with the the canned San Marzano tomatoes, to the onion and carrot. Stir to combine.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and the tomato bouillon cube. Taste again. Add in the can of tomato juice here.

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Add in the sherry at this point, taste yet again for seasoning, toss in some of the fresh basil, and add salt and pepper if needed. It may or may not need it, depending on your taste palate.

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Let everything simmer together for a good 40 minutes. Then bust out the stick blender and go to town! Blitz it all until you have a soup the color and consistency of red velvet. Yum!

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At this point, add the heavy cream, swirling in gently and stirring. Turn off the heat, cover and let the flavors mix.

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Taste for seasoning, though it probably won’t need anything. Decant into small bowls, garnished with the rest of the fresh basil, and serve alongside the frittata. Eat with happiness. Be happy you’re not trapped in a blizzard in the Overlook Hotel with a madman and ……..horror of horrors………CANNED SOUP!

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The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

Dedicated to my friend and constant cooking inspiration, Luca Marchiori

I found The Fifth Gospel to be quite a great read, fast-paced and adventurous, but with a fascinating historical and Biblical premise as the storyline. It’s simple – a Greek Catholic priest living in The Vatican must defend his brother, also a Greek Catholic priest but one attached to the Pope’s staff, who is accused of murder. The victim? An artist who recreated the Shroud of Turin for a Papal art show and made a discovery that could possibly turn the Catholic Church upside down.

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It’s very well written, heavy on Church history (which I like) and yet has a human side in the main character of Father Alex Andreou, whose desperate efforts to prove his brother innocent are matched only by his dedication to the Greek Catholic church, raising his son Peter, and hoping his estranged wife Mona will return to them both. She does, mysteriously one evening, and when she reunites with Peter, she brings dinner with her, in that clever way women have of knowing that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

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“Mona reaches into a plastic bag by her feet and says ‘I brought dinner.’ ‘A gift,’ she clarifies. ‘From Nonna.’ Peter’s maternal grandmother. I recoil. Peter looks at the Tupperware and says…….’My favorite pizza is margherita.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Mona says, crestfallen. ‘All I brought is some cacio e pepe.’ Tonnarelli with cheese sauce. The devil inside me smiles. Her mother’s version of the dish will be too peppery for Peter. A fitting introduction to the mother-in-law I always found to be an acquired taste.”

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This post came about, in part, from an IM conversation I had with my friend Luca Marchiori of Chestnuts and Truffles. Luca is not only my cooking hero, he’s a marvelous chef, a talented food and travel writer, and takes the most wonderful photographs. He also lives in Italy and gets to travel around that beautiful country ALL THE TIME. Is it any wonder I want to be him?

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Anyway, I’ve gotten in the habit (annoyingly to Luca, I’m sure!) of asking his advice about the week’s upcoming blog post and my thoughts on how to make my recipe unique. Cacio e pepe is a traditional pasta dish that features three major ingredients – pasta, pepper and cheese. You really can’t go wrong with that trio, but I wanted to add my own unique twist on the recipe, so I asked Luca what he thought of perhaps a margherita-style cacio e pepe, combining two food descriptions in the passage above.

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Luca didn’t think combining two separate pasta dishes into one was the best way to go, and when I mentioned wanting to make something one’s own, he talked about the writing of Philippe Conticini, who was, in Luca’s words, “a great patissiere who had the philosophy that when you were revising classic dishes you should make sure you keep all the original ingredients and not add more. Change the way they are put together rather than leaving out or adding.”

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Something to consider. So, rather than trying to make it into something unique, I decided to challenge myself by simply recreating this classic recipe, and having roasted tomatoes on the side. Not IN the dish, Luca, so calm down. But as a garnish. And guess what? It worked!

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this article from Business Weekly, featuring the great and notorious Anthony Bourdain – my future husband – in Rome. I mean, Bourdain, Italy and pasta – the holy trinity, in my book. (And very fitting for today’s post!)

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb bucatini pasta. I found the De Cecco brand at Tully’s Italian Deli.
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons Pecorino cheese
Generous amount of ground black pepper

METHOD
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes, until the pasta is almost cooked, but not quite. You’ll see why in a minute.

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One of the best cooking tips I’ve ever gotten in my life was to save some of the boiling water that the pasta has cooked in, and add a bit to whatever sauce you are making. The starch in the water helps the sauce to emulsify and thicken somewhat, and also adds to the dense flavor. So keep about a cupful of the pasta water before draining the pasta. But do keep some of the water on the noodles. Anna del Conte, the matriarch of Italian cooking and food writing, calls this “la goccia,” which means “a drop” to keep the pasta moist.

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In a separate saucepan, add the butter and a very generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Melt the butter gently over low heat, then add the starchy pasta water. Swirl around to mix.

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Add the cooked and drained pasta to the saucepan with the pasta water, butter and pepper. Stir around with tongs to finish cooking the pasta, about 2-3 minutes more. Taste to see if the pasta is al dente, with a small bite but cooked.

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Remove from the heat, and add your cheeses to the hot pasta mixture. Stir again to mix and meld all the cheeses. You DO NOT want your cheese to be in lumps, which is why you want to do it when the pasta is hot off the stove. Just stir and swirl with your tongs and pretend you’re one of those bad-ass Italian chefs who have that technique down pat.

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Place a swirly pile in a shallow bowl, and sprinkle over more Parmeggiano, and add another generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. Et voila! Cacio e pepe alla Romana!

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Serve with roasted tomatoes on the side, which are simple to make. Slice the tomatoes thinly, and sprinkle over some slivered garlic. Toss with olive oil and dried basil, and roast at 425 for 30-35 minutes. Remove, let cool for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle over a dash of balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper as you like.

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A dish fit for a Pope!