Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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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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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Sometimes a girl just needs an escape, and this book provided one hell of one! It’s probably one of the most fun, and possibly my favorite, of all sci-fi and fantasy novels, The Anubis Gates is a wild and imaginative romp through time, space, and history. Basically, a literature professor by the name of Brendan Doyle chosen to go back in time at the behest of an extremely wealthy and eccentric millionaire to hear a famous lecture by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Victorian England. He gets left behind – of course – in the past with no money or resources except his knowledge of the time period, and that’s when shit gets real.

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Throw in gates of time throughout the world and history, a murderous, deformed clown on stilts, tiny homunculi with knives, ancient Egyptian magicians who can also move through time, a body-jumping werewolf, a twist of romance, some Victorian steampunk elements, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly entertaining read. Doyle’s specialty is the Victorian poet William Ashbless, whom he intends to meet while in the past, and how this meeting comes about is one of the twistiest and surprising parts of the book, but it’s the premise on which the entire book hinges, so pay attention to the references to Ashbless.

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As with any kind of time travel book, pay attention to the smaller details, as they seemingly have no connection to anything, yet prove to be monumentally important later on. I personally loved the freaky clown on stilts, though in real life I despise clowns with a passion. Hello,  Pennywise! Otherwise,  Doyle’s grasp of history serves him well, and part of why I love this book is because you feel the Victorian environment of London so well, but without that dreary, depressing Dickensian vibe. And when Doyle is down and out and spends his last bit of money on street food, you feel his intense hunger.

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Returning to Thames Street, Doyle expended half his fortune on a plate of vegetable soup and a trowelful of mashed potatoes. It tasted wonderful, but left him at least as hungry as before, so he spent his last three cents on another order of the same.

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To me, vegetables and mashed potatoes translate naturally into one thing -shepherd’s pie. I mean, a gorgeous panful of delicious meat mixed with vegetables and topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. Hello, heaven on a plate! Of course, depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. I personally don’t give a damn what it’s called, just that is is soooo good. This method was based on the awesome recipe at Life in Lofthouse, is an excellent way to get rid of any random vegetables hanging around in your refrigerator, land is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day dish. Ideal for  soaking up all the green beer, Irish whiskey and whatever else booze you chose to indulge in.

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INGREDIENTS
4 large russet potatoes
1 stick softened butter
1 cup warmed milk
2 lbs ground beef
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 turnip, cut into cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup baby carrots, cut in half
1 onion
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup beef broth

METHOD
Butter a large glass or metal baking pan and heat the oven to 375.

Cut the potatoes in half and cook in boiling water until a fork pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Remember if there are hard parts still in your potatoes, those will translate to lumps in your mashed potatoes. Drain and let cool slightly.

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Dry-saute the mushrooms with only a bit of salt. This is a trick I got from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and holy crap, it really works!

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Put the sauteed mushrooms into a large bowl and add the frozen corn. The heat of the ‘shrooms will soften and thaw the corn.

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While the potatoes are boiling, finely chop the onion and garlic and cook with olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the ground beef, some salt, and the Worchestershire sauce, and cook until the meat is nicely browned. Drain the meat and add back to the hot pan.

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In the boiling potato water, cook the turnip, peas, and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the mushrooms and corn.

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Sprinkle over the flour on the meat, and cook again over low heat for about 10 minutes, to ensure the floury taste is gone.

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Add the red wine, tomato paste, and beef broth to the floured meat in the pan, stirring until everything is well mixed and warmed through well.

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Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer, add the butter and milk, and some salt, and stir. The potato ricer is a totally badass kitchen gadget because it negates the need to peel the potatoes. I personally loathe and despise peeling potatoes, so it makes me happy to bust out the potato ricer.

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Mix the cooked meat with the cooked vegetables, stir to mix well, and spread into the glass pan.

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Spread over the mashed potatoes. Doesn’t that look so yum?

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Bake for 35 minutes, until the potato topping has browned slightly and you can smell all the juices of the meat and vegetables and you’re drooling. Let cool slightly before serving, although having said that, it’s much better after a few hours in the refrigerator, eaten tipsily at midnight in the company of a handsome man after an evening out at the St. Patrick’s Day Blarney Bash. 🙂

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve blogged, loving as I do his writing and the way he so smoothly moves his characters between reality and the shadowy, mythic “other” world where things are never quite what they seem. Gaiman’s books are universal no matter your age because he treats childhood with the same seriousness and attention that other writers attribute to the adult years, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. What happens to us as kids can seriously fuck us up, and when we’re in a situation where we are victims of those adults who are supposed to love and cherish and protect us, it oftentimes twists our perspective in ways we’d never want nor expect. That’s why this book is so beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately, satisfying.

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The protagonist, who – in a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, is never named – arrives back in his old neighborhood as an adult, attending a funeral. Memories are awoken as he visits the neighbors the Hempstocks who had such a primal influence on his youth. Lettie Hempstock befriended him after a terrifying incident with a lodger killing first his kitten (accidentally) then himself. The beautiful and hideous Ursula Monkton enters his life, representing dark magic and the power of evil, and does battle with Lettie and her mother and grandmother as they work to protect the young protagonist.

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Why this book is so beautiful is because it can be read on so many levels. It can be read as a children’s story about the power of magic and love and terror and the pain of growing into adulthood – your typical bildĂĽngsroman. It can be read from the adult viewpoint looking back into the past and realizing how messed up adults can be and how much our parents can really screw us up. One of my favorite quotes emphasizes this perfectly. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometime monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

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It can be read as a symbolic treatise on time and physics and other dimensions, with a nod to the concept of Maiden, Mother, and Crone thrown in for good measure. It can be read as a treatise on feminism and the dual nature of power in a woman – the beauty and the motherliness and the protectiveness contrasted with the ugliness and hatred and desire to destroy – kind of like the dual faces of the goddess Kali. Giver of life and destroyer of life. Or, if you’re a devoted foodie like me, you can read it with an eye toward what delicious dishes you can try your hand. I found these beautiful multicolored carrots – heirloom, perhaps? – at my grocery store and decided to try and reenact this touching scene.

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Above: three of my carrot-loving cooking companions this past weekend.

Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs baby carrots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 400F, and finely mince the parsley and marjoram. In a large bowl, combine the carrots, olive oil, garlic slivers, and minced herbs. Season with sea salt and pepper, and mix together with your hands, which are really the best kitchen tool in the world. 🙂

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Spread the herb-flecked carrots onto a large flat baking tray, preferably lined with foil or parchment.

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Roast for 30 minutes, and check to make sure they don’t burn. You want them to have that nice, dark, roasted look but not to burn. Test with a fork, and if they are still too firm, cover with foil and cook another 15 minutes.

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In the spirit of the meal described in the book, I served this with a butterflied roast chicken and potatoes roasted with olive oil and some delicious lavender-scented herb mixture given to me by my dear and most handsome friend Richard. A truly delicious and comforting meal.

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The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography.

Not so much a novel as a dreamily connected series of 64 short vignettes, The Devil’s Larder tells of the many differing viewpoints about, from, on and against food in our culture. It’s a pretty twisted read in many ways, subversive against so many deeply held beliefs about food and nourishment and cooking in society. Some of the short stories are disturbing – cannibalistic, incestuous, sad, or just plain weird.

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The golden thread that runs seamlessly through all the tales is the luscious description of the various food. No matter how visceral the tale, it’s the food that is the centerpiece, pardon the pun. There are soup stones, manac beans, honey, blind-baked pies, razor clams, morels, kumquats, and aubergines. I warn you that many of the stories will probably turn your stomach, in that complex way that food sometimes tempts and disgusts us at the same time.

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There were three that stood out to me. The first was the tale of the young man whose grocery store card tells the story of his life – his type of shaving cream, his cat died because he no longer buys cat food, he has a proclivity for expensive beer and croissants, he hasn’t had sex in nearly two years because the condoms he bought back then are past their expiration date. This was trippy because I’ve never really thought about how our food habits are tracked by these cards – talk about Big Brother!

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The second tale was a disturbing story of a mother and 5-year old daughter who want to see if pasta really tastes the same through another’s mouth, so they proceed to eat food out of each other’s mouths. Disturbing, because it’s so matter of factly written, not overtly sexual or incestuous, but still viscerally creepy because the mother is completely all right with her daughter’s going past these boundaries. I certainly don’t look at pasta with pesto sauce quite the same now.

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The third tale, and the one that stood out to me the most was the vignette about a fondue party going wrong. The heroine, having used subpar ingredients in her fondue and serving it to her obviously unimpressed guests, suggests a game. If a bit of food is left in the fondue pot after a dip, the perpetrator must drizzle the scalding cheese onto a body part and choose one of the other guests to lick it off.

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The melted fondue was not as tasty as she’d hoped. Her seven friends were only playing with their long-handled forks. They pushed their cubes of bread inside the caquelon with hardly any appetite. She should have used a cooking cheese, or added chunks of blue, or paid the extra for some Gruyere or some Emmenthaler.

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I’m a cheese-aholic, and my grandmother used to call me a little mouse because cheese was my absolute favorite snack. In keeping with the spirit of this tale, I had a fondue party and invited some friends. No one dropped any cheese on anyone and licked it off, though. I promise. This is the method that worked for me, based on a gazillion classic fondue recipes.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb total of different cheeses. I used Camembert, Brie, Gruyere, and a few sprinkles of blue.
1 and 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

METHOD
Cut up the cheeses into cubes.2017-02-12-11-42-12_resized

Put into a saucepan over low heat. Add in 1 and 1/4 of the wine. Use something you’d drink.Mix together the cheeses and wine until you have a nice, thick, delicious, melty combination.

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Whisk together the cornstarch and the remaining 1/4 of the wine in a bowl. This will help thicken the cheese.

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Add the cornstarch/wine mixture to the melted cheese, stir again, and turn off the heat. Grate in the two garlic cloves, season with salt and pepper, and mix again. Cover the cheese while you prepare the fondue pot.

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Decant the cheese into a fondue pot over a Sterno can or spirit lamp and serve with whatever you’d like. I used cubed steak that was nicely cooked for a protein boost, and also because meat dipped in cheese is so damn good. I also used red radicchio, baby carrots, and endive leaves for dipping. So delicious! And you can lie to yourself that it’s healthy, because the vegetables offset the calories in the cheese. What, you didn’t know that?

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I would like to end this post with a little tribute to my sweet pug Sparky, who had a stroke early Thursday and who I had to put down on Friday. He was a darling baby, and brought such happiness to my life. Not to mention that he loved cheese, so he would have been particularly happy with this blog, as I’m sure I would have accidentally on purpose dropped some cheese on the floor for him. I miss him so much, my little furry baby.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Don’t you love a story told from an unexpected viewpoint, or from a character who has traditionally been portrayed in a certain way? It gives a much-needed shift in perspective, I think. Seeing things in only one way is both boring and limiting. It’s good to expand your worldview to look at something you always viewed in a specific manner, in a different way.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring is the story of a young woman in 16th century Holland, named Griet. She is ordinary, quiet, of a poor family of famous Delft tile makers, who lives a regular life. Her internal life, however, is another matter. She has the imagination and dreams of an artist and a philosopher, though she has never gone to school. Early in the story, she is taken into the household of the famous painter Vermeer to be an assistant housekeeper, and eventually Vermeer sees that she is different. He asks her to become his painting assistant, and then one of his painting subjects. The feelings between them develop, though they are never spoken.

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The overall feel of this book is reminiscent of the works of Vermeer himself – muted, subtle, calm, but with passion and emotion right beneath the surface. Just as Vermeer’s women always seem to be lost in their own thoughts as they go about pouring milk, trying on pearls, admiring themselves in mirrors, or looking out at the viewer as though inviting them into their world, so is this book a small window into another world. When Vermeer decides to paint Griet as his Girl With A Pearl Earring , all sorts of hell breaks loose – in his house, with his wife, with her family, with the other man who loves her. Oh, love…..the joy and agony it brings, often at the same time.

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The Girl with a Pearl Earring – the painting – has been analyzed endlessly. Her look of invitation – or is it fear? The exotic style of headdress she wears – is she from another country? The beauty of this painting is that it can mean anything you want. She can be a saint, a whore, a queen, a concubine, a servant. Women have been viewed by society in this black-and-white way since the beginning of time, which doesn’t take into consideration that all women have the saint and the sinner in them. The world seems to demand that we be one or the other. So silly, because all women have that capacity to be both angel and devil.

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Stories about women in history fascinate me, because there are so many tales untold. I think about all the dreams and hopes and fears of women throughout time, and wonder how it must have been to live in a certain place or era, and have to do what was expected of a woman in a certain historical time. I feel lucky to live in the time that I do as a woman, with the freedoms of choice we have, the ability to earn our own living and not be dependent upon anyone, to choose to marry or not marry, the privilege and the right to be independent. I hope it will always be so.

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In the opening passage, Vermeer and his wife Catharina come to Griet’s home to see her housekeeping skills. Griet is cooking, assembling ingredients for vegetable soup.

“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked. I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.” I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

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Later in the book, Griet becomes friendly with the butcher’s son, Pieter, who begins to give her parents gifts of beef as he courts their daughter. With the reference to pie in the book passage above, along with all the vegetables, I decided a hearty beef and vegetable pot pie was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me, loosely based on this one from The Food Network, but with my additions of peas, parsley, butternut squash, and herbs. The pie crust I made from scratch using my badass Kitchen Aid.

INGREDIENTS
2 lbs boneless beef chuck, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 red onion, finely diced
7 baby carrots, cut into circles
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely diced

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1 rib of celery, finely diced
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Half a butternut squash, cut into small cubes
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato bouillon
2-3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 cup frozen peas
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

METHOD
In a large Dutch oven or other stovetop pot that can also go in the oven, saute the beef cubes in the olive oil, after seasoning them with salt and pepper. At this stage, heat the oven to 365 F.

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Remove beef to a plate, and set aside.

Whisk in a tablespoon of flour to the pan juices, add about 2 tablespoons of beef broth and a tablespoon of wine. Mix together, adding a bit more flour, wine and broth, until you get a roux. Keep stirring, to get rid of that floury taste. Then add the tomato bouillon cube.

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When you have a thickened roux, add the Worchestershire sauce and the rest of the beef broth. I was fortunate to have my dear friend Angela, who is one of the most phenomenal cooks I know, cook along with me today and she brought some of her homemade beef stock. Yum!

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Add to the pan the diced celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, butternut squash, garlic and parsley. Saute the vegetables over medium-low heat for about 7 minutes, until they have cooked and started to soften. If brown bits have accumulated at the bottom, stir those in as they will add to the flavor.

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Put the beef back into this lovely-scented mixture, and bring to a low simmer. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper if needed. Cover, and cook in the now-hot oven for about an hour. Check for texture after 60 minutes, and cook a bit longer if the meat is not cooked to your liking.

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Increase oven to 400F degrees. Remove the pan and check the meat texture. Add 1/4 cup of broth and 1/4 cup wine, and stir to re-amalgamate. Add the peas and the paprika. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Roll out the homemade crust and press it over the top of the Dutch oven, using that as your pie pan. There wasn’t quite enough dough to cover the pan top, so I used it as a topping cover inside the pan. We do what we have to.

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Cut small slits in the top of the pie crust, and return to the oven for another 30 minutes, or until the crust has set and become golden-brown, and the juices start to bubble out. Delish!

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Serve and eat with relish on a chilly evening. So good, and comforting, too.

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Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Autumn is in the air. The mornings have that slight chill, and you need an extra blanket on the bed at night. The days are still sunny and warm, but in the evening, the sun dips below the horizon earlier and earlier, and the pervasive scent of leaves and smoke fills the air. It’s the time to curl up with a good book and enjoy the changing season. And speaking of good books, I’ve been rereading the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder again, something I do every year as the season turns to fall. Comfort reading at its best!

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It’s funny to read something as an adult that you loved as a child. These books were my escape as a little girl. I loved Laura and her intelligence and her naughtiness, and the fact that she, too, loved to read. I used to think the vagabond life lived by her, her two sisters and her Ma and Pa sounded so exciting and fun. But then reading as an adult, I found myself thinking how painful walking on a bare wooden floor would be if you stepped on a splinter, how hard it must be to sweep a dirt floor, and how horrible it would be to have to spin and dye wool and make your own clothes. And I found myself feeling sorry for Ma, what with Pa constantly running off on adventures and moving them from a log cabin in Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas to a mud house on a creek bank in Minnesota to – finally! – a nice home in South Dakota.

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In the seventh book of the series, “Little Town on the Prairie,” the family is (finally!) happily settled into their home in De Smet, SD, and all the girls are growing up. There are socials, parties, sleigh rides, in addition to the daily life chores of housework, caring for the farm animals,  and cooking. In fact, reading the food descriptions in this series are a great joy for me, as a home cook. On Thanksgiving, the entire town contributes to a communal Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. There is food galore, pumpkin pies and beans and casseroles and cornbread and pickles and all sorts of goodies, and each table has its own delicious chicken pie.

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“In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food. Those tables were loaded…….there were heaped dishes of mashed potatoes and of mashed turnips……there were plates piled high with golden squares of corn bread…….there were cucumber pickles and beet pickles and green tomato pickles………on each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.”

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I love chicken pot pie, and have always wanted to try making one from scratch, piecrust and all. But I’ve always wanted to make cornbread, too, so I decided to combine them into one yummy recipe, in homage of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the changing season.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my memories of chicken pot pie and all the goodies inside. The cornbread crust came from one of my Nana Jean’s recipe cards I found stuck inside her old cookery book from the 1950s……..a little bit of happy serendipity for me. And the beauty of a cornbread topping is that you don’t have to knead it into a dough. You just spread it on top of the pie filling and bake.

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INGREDIENTS

For the pie filling:
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached and shredded

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2 potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
12 baby carrots, cut into small circles

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1 and 1/2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cup frozen peas

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1 medium-sized onion, chopped
Olive oil and butter for sauteeing
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 and 1/2 cups flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup lowfat milk
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or more depending on your taste)

For the cornmeal crust:
1 and 1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg, beaten

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METHOD
In a saucepan filled with 1/2 cup of chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of butter, cook the potatoes, celery and carrots until soft, but not mushy, up to 30 minutes, but check them for texture. Add the onions and cook another 5 minutes. Add the frozen peas during the last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Put this mixture onto a plate and set aside.

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In the same pan, heat the olive oil and a bit more butter. Add the flour, a little at a time, to the the oil and butter, and stir to ensure all the flour is absorbed. This part is important, because you don’t want that floury taste. Gradually add the nutmeg as well, a bit at a time.

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Gradually incorporate the milk and the chicken stock, alternating between the two, slowly pouring into the flour and oil. Whisk vigorously with a metal whisk, creating a roux. The roux will create that thick sauce that characterizes the inside of a chicken pot pie, thickening as you keep adding liquid. Rouxs do take awhile, so be prepared to keep whisking for a good half-hour. Add in the bouillon paste as you’re whisking, and keep tasting to see if the flour taste has disappeared.

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Add the bouillon cube, the cooked potatoes, carrots, celery and peas to this mixture, and stir well to mix. Cook everything together for a couple of minutes. Add the shredded, cooked chicken, mix through and let heat through one last time. Cover and set aside.

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Heat the oven to 400F, and get on with making the cornbread crust.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. In yet another small bowl, mix together the milk, oil and egg yolk, then slowly add it to the dry ingredients. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s the idea.

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Spray the inside of 4-6 ramekins with olive oil spray, then fill about 3/4 of each with the chicken mixture.

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Top with the somewhat lumpy cornbread batter, as evenly as you can. Place the filled ramekins on a baking tray and pop into the oven to cook for about 15 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the formerly lumpy batter has puffed up and gotten golden-brown on top.

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Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then eat happily, and be thankful you didn’t have to go out and pick the potatoes or pluck the chicken, like you lived in a little house on a prairie or something.

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