Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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Food in Films – Coco

El Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead in English – is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the spirits of our beloved dead. It is far more complex than that, but who among us can’t relate to having lost a loved one, missing them, and wanting to honor their spirits? I know I do. Having lost both my parents, most of my beloved grandparents including my Nana Jean who raised me and who I loved more than any human on this earth, my first love just a few months back, as well as my sweet pug baby Sparky, I can well understand and relate to the themes in the film Coco.

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Death is part of life. That is an unarguable fact. How death itself is seen, however, and how it is conceptualized, is as varied as the cultures across the world. The concept of El Dia de los Muertos as we understand it currently comes predominantly from Mexico, and has its roots in ancient sun worship by the Aztecs as well as Catholic rituals brought from Spain by the conquistadores, as evidenced by the fact that El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints and All Souls Days on the Catholic calendar. Obviously, this is a very simplified version of the meaning of the day, but I could write 50 blog posts about the meaning of death and the cultural concept and constructs of El Dia de los Muertos, and that isn’t happening. Anyway, the overall idea is to honor the dead by celebrating them with food, drink, music, and parties, since death is considered only another part of life and on this day, the dead come back to celebrate with us.

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Coco embodies this concept so beautifully. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that me, a grown woman, had a major ugly cry at the end of this film, so closely did it hit me in the heart, both when Mama Coco remembers and engages with the world again, and when her spirit is reunited with her father. I loved my grandmother, Nana Jean, so very much and losing her was like losing a limb. I think when you lose someone you love so much that a part of your heart dies along with them. In this case, she was my rock, my security, my mother in every possible way, my source of advice, my teacher, my mentor. So the idea of a grandmother, locked in her own senility and her own memories of loss, and the wonderful journey of Miguel, the main character, who wants to become a musician very badly, really hit home. He is forbidden to pursue his music due to his great-great grandfather (a musician as well) having supposedly abandoned his family when young and turning the family against music.

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Miguel lives with his shoemaker family, including his elderly great-grandmother Mama Coco, who has lost most of her memory and sits in a wheelchair. On El Dia de los Muertos, the family makes an altar with photos of their beloved dead relatives, marigold wreaths, food and drink that the dead loved, candles, and many other items. (This is actually my permanent altar that I keep year-round so it gives you an idea of what they can look like.)

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Miguel accidentally takes a photo of his great-great grandmother and tears it, seeing a torn-off part of the photo that leads him into his next great adventure. He needs a guitar for a music competition so he heads over to the enormous crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico’s most famous musician, and whom Miguel believes to be his long-lost dead great-great grandfather, where he takes Ernesto’s iconic guitar and subsequently enters the Land of the Dead. Being that it is right around El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, November 1, the dead are allowed to visit for the day and see the altars and ofrendas their families make for them. He meets up with Hector, another long-dead musician who offers to show him around the Land of the Dead, and they get into many hilarious scrapes and funny adventures. Of course, if you have any kind of brain at all, you figure out pretty quickly that Hector is really Miguel’s great-great grandfather.

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The most touching part of the film is when Miguel returns from the Land of the Dead with the song that Mama Coco learned from her father and is the only thing she really still remembers. She and Miguel sing it and her memory returns. It is so incredibly beautiful. The entire film is visually stunning, in addition to tugging at your heartstrings, and I particularly loved how respectful of the Mexican culture it really is. In this time of such ugliness and hatred toward those of Mexican background and ethnicity, the joy and beauty and love demonstrated in this film gives me hope.

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Pan de los muertos – bread of the dead – is a dense, orange-flavored cake made each year and set on altars in honor of the dead, who are believed to come back just that one day to visit their families, enjoy offerings made in their honor, and enjoy food and drink of the living for one night. Traditionally it is made in the shape of a skull and crossbones, though I’ve seen in made in the shape of coffins, graveyards, crosses and skeletons, and I think nowadays you could make your pan de los muertos in any shape you desire. I made mine in a skull-shaped cake pan and used it as part of my altar I have every year with photos of my Nana, my parents, and others I have loved and lost.

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INGREDIENTS
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup full-fat milk, room temperature
1/2 cup lukewarm water
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 packages active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons anise extract (you can use anise seeds but I hate them because they get stuck in my teeth)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons orange extract
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of 3 clementines
4 eggs, room temperature

For the orange glaze:
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups grated clementine zest
1/2 cup orange juice

METHOD
Over medium heat, warm the butter, milk and water until the butter melts. Don’t let it burn.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid mixer, combine 1/2 cup of the flour, the yeast, the salt, and the sugar.

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Slowly beat in the warm milk, the orange, vanilla and anise extracts, and orange zest until well mixed.

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Add eggs, one at a time, mixing through.

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Slowly add in another 1 cup of flour, and continue adding flour until you have a soft, but not sticky dough, then turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for at least 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Add a bit of warm water if the dough seems dry. Form the dough into a ball.

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Wrap in plastic, cover with a tea towel, and leave to rise in a warm area until it doubles in size, probably around 2 hours.

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Preheat the oven to 350F, unwrap the dough and push it into your skull pan, pressing so that it fills in all the nooks and crannies. Bake for 30 minutes and remove from oven to cool.

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In another saucepan over medium heat, combine the rest of the sugar, the orange zest and the orange juice until it just boils and the sugar dissolves. Whisk to stir but don’t leave because the sugar burns easily. Remove from heat so it thickens.

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Turn the bread out onto a platter that shows off the skull shape, and brush the orange glaze all over it so it’s glossy and shiny. Decorate with marigolds if you so desire.

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Lay on your altar and eat a slice while remembering those you love who have passed on, knowing that they, too, will be enjoying the sweet bread while they are here visiting.

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Food in Books Has Reached 1,200 Followers!

Just a short note to say that I was just notified my little ol’ blog Food in Books, at: www.foodinbooks.com, just hit 1,200 followers! I couldn’t be more thrilled and surprised!

It’s because of the support from all of you that this has happened, and I am so grateful for your support, for your encouragement, for your feedback, and for always having something positive and beneficial to say about my blog. I am so very grateful!

As a thank you, I am having a book giveaway. It’s open to anyone. To enter, just comment at the bottom of this post telling either what book or what food – or both! – you’d have with you on a desert island and why, and if you’re not a follower, please follow my blog! The winner will be randomly chosen the week of November 9, and will receive a copy of the marvelous cookbook Adriatico by the wonderful food writer Paola Bacchia, whose Instagram feed is a thing of beauty and joy. Just don’t look at it when you’re hungry.  Please follow her if you’re on Instagram. She shares some of the most gorgeous Italian recipes, interspered with travel photos, and wonderful images of her Mamma, who was born in Italy. She’s amazing, and I know you’ll think so, too.

Thank you again from the bottom of my heart. xoxo

Vanessa

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t actually read this book when I was a kid, but since it’s ostensibly a kid’s book that weirded me out having read it as an adult, I think it fits snugly into my own Halloween canon this year. Coraline is just plain creepy. It hits a nerve for any kid, me included, who grew up wishing they had different parents. Well, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

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Coraline is a typical kid. She has quite an imagination and loves to wander off and find adventures. In fact, it’s her search for adventure in her new house that leads her to find the other side. Coraline is essentially ignored by her parents, which as an adult is somewhat understandable. As a kid, to simply want your parents to pay attention to you, to be “normal,” is an essential part of every kid’s experience growing up. Some parents are better than others. Coraline’s are not. They aren’t mean or abusive, nor do they neglect her in a bad way. They are simply wrapped up in their own lives, their own careers, their own interests and they seem to have forgotten that they have a kid who needs some feedback and attention.

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So when Coraline goes exploring and discovers the other house and the Other Mother and Other Father, who welcome her with such happiness and joy and wonderful home cooking and her own bedroom filled with magical toys and the promise that she can stay with them forever if she wants to, it’s no wonder she is tempted.

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What the underlying theme in this film is is bravery. Coraline is a brave kid, taking on a terrifying task of finding the souls of the three children whom the Other Mother has already taken, and possibly losing her own in the process.  The Other Mother is truly frightening. She has black button eyes and seems to know the deepest parts of Coraline’s mind and soul, anticipating Coraline’s moves when Coraline tries to find and release the souls of the other children trapped there. But it’s tempting for Coraline as well, because the Other Mother promises something Coraline doesn’t get from her parents – normalcy and attention. The fact that the Other Mother also does what any dream mother would do – cook a kid’s absolute favorite foods – is another mark in her favor since in her regular world, her real father cooks all this horrible gourmet food when he should realize that Coraline only wants microwaved food, like any regular kid. 🙂

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Coraline’s father stopped working and made them all dinner. Coraline was disgusted. “Daddy,” she said, “you’ve made a recipe again.” “It’s leek and potato stew, with a tarragon garnish and melted Gruyere cheese,” he admitted. Coraline sighed. Then she went to the freezer and got out some microwave chips and a microwave pizza.”

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Well, I don’t know about Coraline but to me, potato and leek soup with Gruyere and tarragon sound absolutely delicious, and perfect to make as the late summer weather changes to cool autumn temperatures. So that’s what I made. (Obligatory shot of my dog included, just because she’s cute.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, well cleaned and trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 leeks, trimmed and well washed
1 carton chicken broth
1/2 bottle white wine
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan. Slice the leeks into rounds and add to the butter. Let saute for about 5 minutes.

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Finely mince the garlic and the tarragon and add both to the leeks in the pan. Let them cook together for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash or two of sea salt.

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Cube the peeled potatoes and add to the leeks, tarragon, and garlic. Stir around to cover with the butter.

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Add the dried thyme, pour over the chicken broth and the white wine, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, until the potatoes have completely softened.

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Bust out the fabulous stick blender and blend until everything is smooth and velvety and unctuous.

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Add in the grated Gruyere cheese and stir to mix and melt. Let simmer a few more minutes, tasting for seasoning.

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Decant into soup bowls and garnish with some more fresh tarragon. The licorice hint from the tarragon is a perfect contrast to the starchy potatoes and rich cheese. So delicious! I think it might even convince Coraline to try it!

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Well, I had to, didn’t I? It’s October. What other book could I possibly blog about other than The Exorcist, that classic tale of demonic possession, faith, and terror? I’d never read the book, though I’ve seen the movie many times, especially in October. The film hasn’t lost its shock value, though it’s not as terrifying as it was when I saw it as a young girl.

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But the book is genuinely unnerving, creeping up with subtlety and giving you more insight into the characters than is comfortable. Chris MacNeil, in point of fact, is a much more likeable character in the book, though she is still somewhat irritating. Father Karras is even more likeable, particularly because his own crisis of faith and personal guilt are given much more attention and backstory.

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Blatty’s writing is accessible – short sentences, everyday words, and concise narration – which makes it all the more powerful in telling this horrific tale set in Georgetown. This is even more effective when describing some of the more disturbing scenes – Regan and the infamous crucifix, her head twisting completely around, some of the more profane and filthy things she says, the priest falling down those vicious stairs – which really exist, by the way. See below, from my trip to Washington a couple of years ago. A genuinely creepy spot.

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I think, at its heart, it’s a book about faith. Whether it’s faith in God, faith in the power of love, faith in science, or faith in the unknown, it’s the idea of believing in something greater outside of ourselves that is the thread tying it together. And then, of course, there was this passage. Of course you know what comes to mind when you read it.

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They went to the Hot Shoppe. Chris ate a salad while Regan had soup (haha, of course she did!), two sourdough rolls, fried chicken, a strawberry shake, and blueberry  pie topped with chocolate ice cream. Where does she put it, Chris wondered, in her wrists? The child was a slender as a fleeting hope.

2017-10-30 06.30.07_resizedSo soup. Of course I made soup! You’re damn right I made soup! SPLIT PEA SOUP! This is the method that worked for me, based on this recipe from Allrecipes.com, and of course, with my own additions. Plan for about 4-5 hours prep and cook time total.

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INGREDIENTS
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 large carrots or 10 baby carrots, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 lb. dried split peas
3-4 ham steaks, cubed
3-4 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 and 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons liquid smoke
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed

METHOD
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook and sweat them down for up to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash of salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the peas, and stir around to get the vegetable flavors incorporated.

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Pour in the chicken stock, the water, and the wine (how Biblical, right?), and give one good stir.

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Toss in the bay leaves and the sliced-up ham chunks.

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Add the liquid smoke, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, and cook on medium-low for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. The soup will thicken as it cooks.

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For the last hour, check the texture of the peas. If they are still somewhat hard, turn up the heat and bring to a hard boil for at least 45 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

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The potato chunks go in for the last hour, to soften up and break down. This also adds to the soup’s thick, unctuous texture.

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Serve in large bowls and eat with gusto and the knowledge that, with a soup this good, the Devil surely cannot possess your soul. This soup is perfect for a chilly autumn day or if you need to start spewing at a priest. The power of Christ compels you, you know.  #monstermenu

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Ode to Tomatoes (A Poem) by Pablo Neruda

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been big on poetry. The rhythm and meters necessary to appropriately read poems just bog me down. I love hearing poetry read by someone who understands how it should be enunciated, but when I try to read poetry, either in my head or out loud, I sound like an idiot. Well, with the exception of the poems of Pablo Neruda.

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Neruda is my favorite poet in all the world. He writes in a sensual, lyrical rhythm that is a gorgeous combination of the magical realism so common in Latin American writing, and a pure, romantic worldview centered around love. His arguable masterpiece of love poetry is his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, though I personally love Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets). Cien sonetos, in my humble opinion, is probably one of the most beautiful and erotic collections of poetry in the world, mature and beautiful and quite sensual. I highly recommend you read them if you haven’t already.

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As much a political figure as a poet, Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Chile. His poetry was considered beautiful, avant-garde, and at times, very subversive to the repressive government in his home country. Highly respected as both a writer and a political figure, he traveled extensively throughout the world, both as a diplomat and after he was forced into exile by after Chile outlawed Communism. A believer in pure Communist ideals, he was associated such other exalted revolutionaries as Garcia Lorca, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Allende. It is believed he was killed by the Pinochet government, which he had fervently criticized. Proof that words can be as powerful as any other weapon, if used correctly.

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Though I adore Neruda’s love sonnets, the Odes he wrote in homage to everyday, normal items such as food, are my absolute favorites. He wrote odes using these mundane objects as personification of the human experience. Odes to a tuna he saw in the marketplace, golden lemons, pearly onions, jade-green artichokes, ruby and topaz-colored wine, and tomatoes, comparing the crimson flesh of the tomato to the bleeding and suffering of mankind, but also finding the sheer joy in these common foods.

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Being both a reader and an avid cook, I’ve always found his odes to food so filled with pleasure and sensuality. It’s interesting that Neruda is as comfortable detailing his political beliefs in a logical manner as he is describing the eroticism of kissing his lover or the joys of drinking wine or eating a tomato.

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The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is halved like
a
tomato,
its juice runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
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among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding of the day,
parsley hoists its flag,

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potatoes bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent and fertile star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Isn’t that just beautiful? In honor of this magnificent poet, I decided to create an homage meal that incorporated tuna, onion, lemon, tomatoes, artichoke, and of course, wine. This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous recipe from Beauty and the Foodie, creating tuna-stuffed tomatoes alongside lemon-steamed artichokes and a beautiful, garnet-hued Chilean wine. I do think Neruda would approve wholeheartedly of this meal created in his honor.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1-6 ounce can of good-quality tuna, drained and flaked
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 red onion, finely minced
1/2 celery rib, finely minced
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1/2 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
2 slices cheddar cheese
METHOD
Pre-heat your oven to 400F and spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray. While the oven heats, saute the diced onion in a bit of olive oil and salt, just until it’s translucent.
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While the onion is cooling, cut the tops of the tomatoes off about 1/3 from the top. Scoop out the seeds and pulpy juices, saving some.
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Drain the tomato halves upside down on a plate while you prepare the tuna salad. Mix the now-cooled onion with the flaked tuna, the celery and parsley, the tomato seeds and the lemon juice.
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 Add in the mayonnaise and mustard, and season with salt and pepper.
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Fill each tomato half with the tuna mixture, and top with a slice of cheddar cheese.
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Bake for 15 minutes, or until you see the cheese getting meltingly golden.
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While the tomatoes are roasting, boil two trimmed and stemmed artichokes in salted, lemony water for 15 minutes. Drain and allow to steam for another 5-10 minutes. Melt some butter and lemon juice in a bowl, and season with salt.
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Serve the luscious, meltingly good stuffed tomatoes on a platter with an artichoke, and with a lovely glass of Chilean wine, and enjoy the visual poetry of this ode to good food.
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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

You can almost feel the Italian heat baking down, and smell the bougainvillea flowers, as you read this evocative novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom Ripley is a young man from New York, struggling to make something of himself. He’s approached by Mr. Greenleaf who mistakes him for a close college friend of his son, Dickie, who has run off to seaside Italy and essentially gone native there, living in a little house with his girlfriend Marge.

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Mr. Greenleaf offers Tom money to go to Italy and persuade Dickie to come back and resume a “normal” life. Tom meets Dickie and becomes caught up in the other man’s life, obsessively. They bond and become great friends, but several flies in the ointment, including Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend Marge and his obnoxious drinking buddy Freddie Miles, soon threaten their close bond.

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What makes Tom Ripley such a fascinating character study, psychopath that he is, is because we can all relate to him – having feelings of alienation and wanting to find an identity that matches our images of ourselves. Ripley is self-aware on a bizarre level, understanding his two identities and even acknowledging what he’s done by justifying his actions to others and himself. Yet for all the evil deeds he does, he’s not a classic antagonist. He is living his “normal,” as we all are, and the fact that I could sympathize and root for him and understand his motivations tells me that this book was written by a master. It didn’t hurt that the characters of Dickie, Marge and Freddie were all such annoying little prigs.

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Set primarily in Italy, then in France, the scenes in these countries evoke so wonderfully the Mediterranean sun and sea, the taste of salt from the ocean, the sound of boats and birds and busy harbors, and the marvelous flavors that these two countries sometimes share. When Tom is invited to Dickie’s house in Italy for the first time, Sunday lunch is being cooked by Marge – a roast chicken and artichokes –  two of my favorite foods. Yum!

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“The climb up the hill to Dickie’s house didn’t seem half so long as before. Delicious smells of roasting chicken drifted out on the terrace……….’I’m waiting for the darn artichokes to get done. You know that front hole. It’ll barely make anything come to a boil.'”

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Having recently gotten my hot little hands on some culinary lavender, I decided a riff on the classic Sunday roast chicken was in order, spiced up with lavender, lemons, garlic, new potatoes and of course, artichoke hearts – a wonderful melding of the flavors of France and Italy. Oooh la la, or as we tend to say here in New Mexico, oooooh a la!

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 large chicken, about a 6-lb roaster will do.
2 large lemons
2 heads of garlic
1 cup dried lavender granules
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups of artichoke hearts, drained and cut into long chunks
4-5 small red potatoes, cut in half
10-12 sprigs of fresh thyme

METHOD
Your chicken should be at room temperature before roasting, so take it out of the refrigerator a good hour before starting preparations.

Pre-heat the oven to 360F. Butterfly the chicken. This is much easier than you might think. Turn the bird breast-side down, tailside facing you, and cut out the backbone using very sharp kitchen scissors. Then turn it over and press down on it so it flattens and looks like a butterfly. Hence the term “butterfly the chicken.” This YouTube video was how I learned, and it was so easy. If a total klutz like me can butterfly a chicken, you most certainly can! Trust me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-8tMEwBnSA

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Once the chicken is laid out nicely in a large roasting pan, salt and pepper it well. Slice the lemons somewhat thinly, and lay them across the skin of the bird. Tuck some of the lemon slices between the skin and the meat, as well. This helps tenderize the bird and gives more flavor to the skin. Keep half of one of the lemons for later.

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Around the chicken, dot the artichoke hearts, the garlic cloves still in their papery skins, and the potatoes. The idea with the garlic is that they will steam inside the skins and come out soft and sweet and mellow and delicious. Everything looks beautiful in the pan, too.

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Pour the olive oil over the bird and the surrounding vegetables, ensuring everything is well-coated. Add a splash of good red wine, then squeeze the juice of the remaining half lemon over the vegetables. For the final touch, scatter over the dried lavender and the thyme sprigs. The scent is heavenly, spicy and floral and warm at the same time.

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Cover the bird and roast for 2 hours. The smell of the bird cooking, mingled with the lavender and all the yummy vegetables, will make your mouth water. At the 2-hour mark, remove from the oven, increase the heat to 425F, take off the cover, and baste the chicken and vegetable with the pan drippings that have collected at the bottom of the pan. Pour in some chicken broth if you think it looks dry. Tuck the uncovered pan back in the oven and roast under the high heat for another 25 minutes, so the skin darkens and crisps up. Keep an eye on it, though, to make sure the vegetables don’t burn.

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Remove the chicken from the oven, sprinkle over some sea salt, and let the dish rest for a good 10-15 minutes. Then serve and eat with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. But don’t actually START singing. You’ll frighten your guests and they’ll start thinking you’re a madman like Tom Ripley or something.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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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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The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I love being scared, although I prefer my frights to come from supernatural elements like ghosts, vampires, demons, witches, and the like. Scares that come from real-life terrors like serial killers, home invasions, break-ins, freak me out so badly that I can’t read about them or watch them. It’s just too close to home, pardon the pun. Andrew Pyper is the kind of writer that perfectly expresses both the horror of the supernatural with the eerie “otherness” of human frailty, and he combines them perfectly in this bizarre and creepy read, so even though it ostensibly is about the breaching of one home’s security, it is also about the breaching of our own sense of identity and the concept of what home and security really mean. Which is scary enough to ponder in real life, I might add.

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The Homecoming follows the general trajectory of what you’d expect from a book with this title. Aaron, a surgeon, learns of his father’s recent death and joins his mother and two sisters Bridget and Franny, at the strange estate his father has mandated they must all stay at for 30 days in order to inherit the money in his will. The estate, called Belfountain, is unknown to them all, except it’s not really because Bridget starts remembering being brought there years earlier. So you know some weirdness is going to come at you from left field…………and yuppers, it does!

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They are joined by four other people who claim to be their siblings – you know, the ol’ sister from another mister kind of situation – and they all settle in, trying to come to terms with their father’s “betrayal” of having another entire family, and learning about each new sibling’s odd personal dynamics. And of course, the scary stuff kicks into high gear, including being chased by what appears to be a witch, being stalked by an ax-wielding crazy man, and being cut off from the world against their will. Odd memories start to surface in all of them, and even creepier, they all start to have the same unusual dream about water and being submerged, and you start thinking it’s some kind of supernatural telekinesis. But boy oh boy, it gets so much more messed up than that!

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Pyper is extremely talented at taking traditional horror tropes like demons, vampires, and other such monsters, and cleverly twisting them together with normal human neuroses until you can’t really be sure what the fuck is happening. He did it so well in The Demonologist, one of my favorite books of his, and he does it again here. This book is a twisted combination of Cabin in the Woods, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s recent creepy-ass film Us, in that it mixes together the ubiquitous isolated house theme with some messed-up family dynamics combined with the whole “strangers who look like us” and turns it into one of the more unnerving books I’ve read lately.

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When Aaron first arrives with his sister Bridget, their mother is already there, taking charge the way any mother might, getting the kids settled in their rooms, feeding them. It’s kind of funny to see these characters trying so hard to hang onto their sense of normalcy and their traditional family roles in the face of such a bizarre situation, but that is likely what any of us would do in similar circumstances. Hold onto our perception of safety and normalcy, until the illusion is torn away and we realize that there really is no safety and no normal in the world.

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By the time we gather around Mom, she’s laid out Tupperware containers of cold roast chicken, broccoli salad, spinach dip. Picnic food. We set to spooning it onto plates, eating as we stand there together, not wanting to return to the unprotected expanse of the dining room’s banquet table. “That shit’ll kill you,” Franny says as I drop a handful of potato chips onto the side of my plate. “And didn’t you used to run four times a week or something? No offense, Aaron, but don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”

Oh, siblings. Ain’t they just so great?

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Anyway, broccoli salad isn’t something I have made previously, but the idea of a broccoli-chicken salad, despite the negative overtones of church potlucks and picnics from my misspent youth in Catholic school, sounded pretty damn good. And it is Sunday, after all. It’s as close to church as you’re going to get me these days.

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INGREDIENTS
2 heads broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
6 strips bacon
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely diced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 chicken thighs, poached

METHOD
Blanch the broccoli florets by boiling them for one minute, then submersing in a bowl of ice and cold water. That way, they cook a bit but retain their color. (I hate raw broccoli so for me, this step is necessary but if you like raw broccoli, skip it.)

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While the broccoli is blanching, cook the bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel, and crumble. Set aside.

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Slice the green onions into small pieces, including the stems, and toss into a large bowl.

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Chop up the toasted walnuts and add to the bowl with the onions.

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Finely chop the poached chicken and add to the green onions, the walnuts and the cooled broccoli.

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Add the mayonnaise and the red wine vinegar to the chicken and onions, and mix together well until everything is nicely coated.

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Sprinkle over the bacon, and taste. This is a savory salad, so if you prefer some sweet contrast, add in some raisins or dried cranberries or perhaps some honey. I personally loathe and despise fruit and chicken together in a salad, so I love it just as it is, nice and salty and savory and full of green flavor. But I’m a salty bitch anyway, so it’s perfect for me.

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