A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a heavy and weirdly surreal read, but it’s far more lighthearted and satiristic than many other Russian novels of the similar period. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote this book as a sharp commentary and satire on the communistic and atheistic government of time, top-heavy with government bureaucrats and processes. This book was actually banned in the Soviet Union for many years, and with Bulgakov’s sharp eye for calling bullshit in his country and his scathing tongue when satirizing the government and religion, it’s no wonder the bureaucrats couldn’t handle it. Most people who abuse their power in government can’t handle being satirized and criticized. Sound familiar? 🙂

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Anyway, the story is told in three parts. The first section is where Professor Woland (the Devil in disguise, with apologies to Elvis Presley) appears in 1930s Moscow with his minions, including Behemoth the black cat who is my favorite animal character in any book. He’s a real smart-ass, wears a bow tie, totes a Kalashnikov and dude! Get this! The cat DRINKS VODKA! Professor Woland proceeds to turn the Russian government and wealthy society upon its head as he asks aggravating questions, pisses off the Establishment and makes a nuisance of himself pointing out the obvious nonsense going on in society and government.

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The second part of the book takes place in ancient Jerusalem and tells Pontius Pilate’s version of the story of Jesus Christ prior to the Crucifixion, which is not at all what one would expect, and although this was interesting, to me it was the weakest part of the book. I guess it’s because I know that story so well, but it’s interesting to see how tormented Pilate is over his part in Jesus’s crucifixion.

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The eponymous Master and his mistress Margarita appear about halfway into the book, and are the third part of the story. The Master, a tormented and failed writer during the 1930s, has written a book about Jesus and Pontius Pilate that has not sold. Margarita, madly in love with the Master, makes an odd agreement with Woland in which she acts as hostess for Satan’s midnight ball and and flies over Moscow naked on a broom. Yes, you read that correctly. She is able to torment the horrible publisher who rejected The Master’s book and made him so miserable. This is a woman unlike any other – she is brave, loyal, adoring, smart and unafraid to use the powers of Darkness to help the man she loves.

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I personally liked the irony of reading this book – which you could also call “Sympathy for the Devil” on Easter, but since it’s also April Fool’s Day, it seems rather appropriate. Woland is a rather sympathetic Devil, and actually quite a just one, as he rewards Margarita’s love and loyalty to her Master and punishes wrongdoings and injustices, particularly those perpetrated by the corrupt and evil Russian bureaucrats whose greed and selfishness condemn them. One such bureaucrat, Nikanor Ivanovich, who has a rare and expensive apartment in the heart of Moscow gained by greed and illicit actions, serves his Chairman a rather delicious sounding meal before he is later arrested and punished for his horrible deeds.

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“His wife brought pickled herring from the kitchen, neatly sliced and thickly sprinkled with green onion. Nikanor Ivanovich poured himself a dram of vodka, drank it, poured another, drank it, picked up three pieces of herring on his fork….and at that moment the doorbell rang. Pelageya Antonovna was just bringing in a steaming pot which, one could tell at once from a single glance, contained amidst a fiery borscht……..”

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A spicy, fiery borscht! Oh yeah! But I held off on the pickled herring. One has to have standards, you know.  🙂 My borscht was a take on Elise Bauer’s recipe at Simply Recipes, which is my go-to website for many dishes, with my own tweaks, as usual.

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INGREDIENTS
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. cubed boneless beef chunks
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 cups organic beef stock
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup red wine
3 large red beets
2 large potatoes
12-15 baby carrots
1 small head of red cabbage
5-6 bay leaves
2 tablespoons fresh dill
Sour cream for garnish

METHOD
Heat the olive oil a large cast-iron pot, and brown the beef chunks for about 5 minutes, turn them to brown on the other side, then add the onion and garlic, and cook those down for another 5 minutes.

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Pour in the beef stock, cover and cook for 45 minutes, until the meat is tender.

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While the meat is cooking, heat the oven to 375F. Slice the potatoes and beets into roughly similar slices, lay on a baking tray with the carrots, and pour over the olive oil. Roast them for about 30 minutes, then add to the beef and stock.

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Slice the red cabbage and add it to the pot, along with the fresh dill, the red wine vinegar, the red wine, and some salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper as needed.

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Add the bay leaves, cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, until the cabbage is cooked through. The color of the beets will deepen with cooking and you’ll have this beautiful ruby-red potful of stew that begs to be eaten.

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Serve in bowls with a tablespoon of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill, and optionally, an ice-cold sipping shot of Russian vodka, and pretend you’re soaring naked on a broomstick over Moscow………or not. Maybe just eat your borscht instead.

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

Thanks to JRB for the photography.

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!