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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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Thanks to JG for the photography.

Set in a slightly alternate universe, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been touted as the Harry Potter for adults. It’s far more than that, however. Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, its a lengthy book that delves deeply into the mythology of Faerie.

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One thing that has always stood out to me is the lack of a true mythology in England. There are the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but that’s not an origin myth, nor are there gods and goddesses in British lore. Faeries and other interesting creatures abound but there is no real etymology, similar to the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians or Aztecs. Just something to ponder while you’re cooking.

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Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it, it though it did take me a few tries to really get into it. Not because the story wasn’t fascinating, but because of THOSE DAMN FOOTNOTES! I loathe and despise footnotes. Probably left over from my time in graduate school,  because the amount of books I had to read with footnotes, and all the papers I had to write with footnotes literally, at times, drove me to drink! Not that it takes much, truth be told.

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In a nutshell, Mr. Norrell is a quiet, somewhat hermited English gentleman who has spent most of his life amassing the world’s biggest library on magical books. When he is approached by a local guild of magical theorists, he demonstrates his practical magical ability by bringing the stone statues on the local church to life. He is thus brought to London to become the king’s magical advisor, and it’s there that he encounters Jonathan Strange, a young gadabout who is looking for a career so that his love, Arabella, will finally marry him. He takes up the study of magic from Mr. Norrell, becoming far more adept at the magical arts than anyone would have ever dreamed.

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There are intertwining stories involving The Raven King, the magician Vinculus, and Lady Pole and her subsequent enchantment when she is ostensibly brought back to life by Mr. Norrell. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Mr. Norrell is not really much of a magician at all, as his skills and spells are all given to him by The Gentleman With Hair Like Thistledown. The story alternates between the England of the day, and Faerieland of the night, where people dance and dance until daylight, and return to their awakened selves still under the influence of Faerie.

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Being England, there was much mention of traditional British food such as roast beef, gravy, scones, Yorkshire puddings, and other such fare. Having never had fresh beetroot and a hatred of the disgusting canned stuff I had to eat as a child, this passage caught my attention.

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He wore a mourning ring on the fourth finger of his left hand with a thin strand of brown hair inside it and Sir Walter noticed that he continually touched it and turned it on his finger. They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.

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Beef and beet root sounded unusual, and after recently coming across several references to roasted beets in the NY Times Cooking section, doable. And if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my love for cheese. Cheese is God. Next to wine and coffee, that is.  So I thought I’d combine steak, roasted beets, and blue cheese.

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I marinate my meat in olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, Worchestershire sauce, roasted garlic cloves, and salt and pepper. The golden rule of grilling is oil the meat, not the grill, or everything will smoke like hell. And make sure the meat is at room temperature before grilling. Otherwise, just order pizza and call it a day.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on this lovely recipe at Olivia’s Cuisine, but of course, with my own added twists. Gotta be unique, you know!

INGREDIENTS
1 large steak, about 1 inch thick, marinated using the method above
3 beets
1 large sweet potato
1 cup of walnuts
5 cups fresh spinach
1 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
5-6 roasted garlic cloves (use from the steak marinade)
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and heat an oiled, stovetop, ridged grill pan. Yes, you can multitask!

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Slice the sweet potato into thick pieces.

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Then slice the beets. I highly advise wearing an apron and possibly kitchen gloves for this part. And don’t wear white, unless you want to look like Lady Macbeth.

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Lay the potato and the beets on a parchment-paper covered baking tray, and pour over some olive oil. Roast for 45 minutes, checking to make sure they don’t burn.

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While the veg are roasting, cook the steak on the grill for 8 minutes total, flipping every minute so that it cooks evenly, and gets those beautiful grill mark stripes. Let cool, then slice into similarly sized chunks as the beet and potato.

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In a dry, nonstick pan, toast the walnuts until just brown.

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Remove the potato and beets from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle over some sea salt, and in a large bowl, combine with the spinach, the steak slices,  and the toasted walnuts. Toss together well.

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Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the steak pan juices and the garlic cloves from the marinade, and the blue cheese, in a blender or food processor, to make a dressing. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and pour over the salad.

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It’s DAMN delicious! Fantastic with a strong red wine, the flavors are amazing and the roasted beets are amazing, nutty and sweet and perfectly textured.

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