Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I went into this book expecting a nice, escapist type of read as I recovered from minor outpatient surgery this past weekend. It was recommended by two friends of mine as a book filled with art and food and set in France, and both of them were sure I’d love it. I minored in Art History and of course, I am a foodie par excellence and love travel, so I gave it a whirl. When you’re recuperating from any medical procedure, minor or major, you don’t really want anything too heavy or deep.

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(sigh) That being said, Lisette’s List was boring. I’m sorry, I hate to slam on books and writers because God knows, I am not an author. The author of this book, Susan Vreeland, had previously written a wonderful novel called Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which told the story of a Dutch painting and its owners starting in modern times and going back through when it was painted, in a series of interconnected short tales. It was beautifully written and moved along brilliantly. This book? Not so much.

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The basic premise is a young woman, Lisette, who moves with her husband Andre, to a small town in Provence to help care for Andre’s ailing grandfather Pascal in the late 1930s. Pascal, before he dies, gradually teaches Lisette about painting and colors and life. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Dull. Andre goes off to fight the Nazis and of course, dies. Before he went off to fight, he hid away some family paintings worth millions. The rest of book is the tale of Lisette moving away from Provence, following her “list” that she had put together with Pascal of all the things she wanted to do with her life, including finding those family paintings before the Nazis get their nasty little hands on them.

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The book had a lot of promise, and the basic premise could have been done so much better. And of course, the lavish descriptions of rural French country towns, the art itself and the luscious food so typical of Provence and southern France were really the redeeming parts of the book. But the main character, Lisette, doesn’t ever really develop much as a character and in fact, makes some decisions which are downright annoyingly stupid. I mean, if you’re savvy enough to go off on your own throughout southern France in search of valuable family paintings, you’re surely smart enough to figure out who is your enemy. Anyhoo…..

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Like I said, the food descriptions were wonderful and in some cases, mouth-watering. There were any number of food passages I could have reenacted, but this particular dish sounded both intriguing and perfect for the current late summer bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that are on jewel-like, glowing display at every grower’s market. I was lucky enough to have purchased a large bag of organic heirlooms last week and decided to put them to delicious use.

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Soon, Odette’s daughter, Sandrine, whose brother Michel, would come home someday, and Madame Pinatel, the mayor’s wife, came to pay their respects. Then Melanie brought two jars of canned cherries from their trees and a bag of raisins. Aloys Biron, the butcher, brought a large salami. Most unexpectedly, Madame Bonnelly, a stout woman with thick arms whom I had never met, brought a gratin d’aubergines, an eggplant-and-tomato pie garnished with breadcrumbs.

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I have a love-hate relationship with eggplant, but the idea of a tomato pie sounded luscious, so I did a little culinary research and came up with this method which is a combination of Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes and a long-remembered recipe from Southern Living I read about a few years ago.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, preferably fresh and organic
4 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 cup of mixed shredded cheeses. I used sharp cheddar, pepperjack and Gruyere
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD:
For the piecrust:

Combine the flour with a teaspoon of salt, and gradually mix in the butter one small cube at a time. Add the water a bit at a time until the dough comes together in your Kitchen Aid and forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and freeze overnight.

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For the filling:

Slice the tomatoes, lie them out on some parchment paper, and sprinkle over salt and garlic powder. Leave to drain overnight.

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Mix together all the cheeses except for the Parmesan, then mince the garlic and add it to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the mayonnaise and the Greek yogurt and stir to mix well.

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Finely mince the  shallot.

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Heat the oven to 350F and roll out your cold piecrust to roughly 12 inches diameter, then press into a pie pan.

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Blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes, remove and prick the bottom of the crust a few times, and bake another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the shallots into the bottom.

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Spoon over the cheese-mayo-yogurt mixture and spread across so that it cover the pie base and shallot-garlic mix.

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Lay the tomatoes in overlapping circles over the cheese mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until the Parm is nicely golden brown. Apply to your face.

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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 Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

Ah Hamlet, the tragic and doomed Prince of Denmark, whose family puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. What I always liked about Hamlet is that his twisted family dynamic makes my own family look rather normal in comparison. Or maybe it goes to show that we all have messed-up family dynamics, and sometimes, as in Hamlet’s case, we can be one of the most messed-up members within it.

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I read the play in its entirety in 11th grade Honors English class, and it also helped seeing movie versions and having those characters brought to life by various actors, but when I saw Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, glorious, 4-hour long movie, that was possibly when I fell in love with Hamlet and all his arrogant, sad, romantic pain.

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He wants so much to do the right thing and avenge his father, and who can blame him?  What I could never understand was his turning on poor Ophelia. Talk about doomed love. That poor girl, all she wanted was to love him and help him and his perception of the world around him and his anger toward women – his mother particularly – twists his love for her and makes himreject her. And in her despair, she commits the ultimate act of pain and drowns herself.

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His rage at his mother’s betrayal is the pivot point from which most of the major actions happen. Hamlet is so angry at her weakness and for marrying his uncle so quickly after the death of his father, and he scalds her with his words. The guy could cut with his tongue, that’s for certain, and when he uses the analogy of the food served at his father’s funeral as being part of the wedding feast, it’s the ultimate food play on words.

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Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven or ever had I seen that day, Horatio! My father, methinks I see my father.

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Baked meats were often encased in pastry, called coffins, in Elizabethan times, when The Bard wrote his masterpiece. In an upscale Elizabethan kitchen, many spices would be used to flavor the meats, including nutmeg, pepper, onion, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar. I opted to make baked chicken mini pies – baked chicken in a “coffin”, using a pastry method taken from Elizabethan times via Tori Avey’s awesome food site, and making filling spiced with paprika, a tiny hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, mushrooms, heavy cream, and a bit of Parmesan cheese, which I had lying around and needed to use.

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INGREDIENTS
For the pastry dough:
1 cup of cold water
1 stick of butter, cut into cubes
3 cups flour
2 egg yolks at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
3 chicken thighs, poached or roasted, and finely cubed
1 cup wilted spinach
1 cup mushrooms, also wilted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 egg, beaten with salt and a bit of water

METHOD
Put the flour and salt into the bowl of your most awesome Kitchen Aid mixer, and gradually add the butter chunks. Mix using the pastry hook attachment at medium low speed.

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Add the egg yolks and mix to incorporate.

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Keep mixing on low, and gradually add the water, until the mixture forms a ball of dough. Wrap in plastic, let rest for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat the oven to 375F. While the dough rests, combine the spices with the cooked chicken, the mushrooms and spinach, and the heavy cream in a saucepan. Stir until well warmed through, taste for seasoning, and sprinkle in the Parmesan.

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Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each quarter out into sheets of roughly 1/2 inch thickness. Cut rounds using a biscuit cutter.

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Fill each round with the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture.

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Rub some water around the dough edge, and press over another pastry round to form a little pie. Press the edges with a fork tine to seal, and brush with beaten egg mixed with a bit of water and some salt.

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Bake for 50 minutes, or until golden brown and you can smell the spices and chicken. Very tasty, just as the Bard would have wanted.

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The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Being a sucker for fairy tales, The Snow Queen is a particular favorite. I remember reading it as a little girl and being fascinated by the oh-so-foreign Northern European world of Gerda and Kay, the two children in this tale, though I’d forgotten there are several small backstories that lead up to the actual tale in which Gerda rescues Kay from the icy heart and clutches of the Snow Queen.

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What’s cool about the Snow Queen is that she’s not actually evil, in the way of similar archetypal figures in The Brothers Grimm. She is simply ice-cold, and has a coldly calm and logical outlook on life. I appreciated that she wasn’t a cardboard evil queen and there was actually some psychology in Andersen’s description of her.

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I was quite interested to find out that this classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale inspired both the irritating Disney movie Frozen, and the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which are among my most favorite children’s books. I can definitely recognize The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe here.

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This story starts with a naughty hobgoblin who creates a looking-glass that reflects purely negative things, either things that exist in the world or in the perceptions of human beings. The glass breaks, and is scattered all over the world, into the hearts and eyes of humans across the world, making them unable to see or feel anything good or happy or positive in the world. Kay, the young boy who gets splinters in both his eye and heart, and is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen. Gerda, Kay’s best friend who loves him dearly, sets off on a quest to bring him back, and along the way, has some unusual adventures. My favorite was when she meets the Little Robber Girl, a wild child in the company of a band of thieves who kidnap Gerda. The Little Robber Girl is a rather brutal creature, though she does save Gerda’s life and offer her freedom to continue on her quest. When the thieves capture Gerda and bring her to their camp in the care of the Little Robber Girl, Gerda, who is starving, notices “there was no chimney; so the smoke went up to the ceiling, and found a way out for itself. Soup was boiling in a large cauldron, and hares and rabbits were roasting on the spit.”

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I started thinking about how to combine these two food references, and pondered making rabbit stew. But because I can’t bring myself to eat cute, furry bunnies, I reconsidered. The soup could be any type of soup, and being in a caramelizing mood, I decided French onion soup with Welsh rarebit croutons on top, in place of the traditional baguette and melted Gruyere, would be fun and tasty. Welsh rarebit is actually called Welsh rabbit in some areas, which was partly my inspiration.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on Tyler Florence’s French Onion Soup recipe, and the hilariously funny and smart Alton Brown’s recipe for Welsh rarebit. The requisite flavor tweaks by me were, of course included.

For the French onion soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 red onions, sliced
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4 garlic cloves, chopped
5-6 fresh thyme sprigs
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2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine, about 1/2 bottle
2 quarts beef broth
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tomato bouillon cube
For the Welsh rarebit sauce:
1 large slice of sourdough bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

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2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 large tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
1/2 cup Gruyere

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, and some salt and pepper to taste. Stir together on low heat.

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Add about a half-cup of good red wine to the caramelizing onions, and continue to stir. This is leisure cooking, so be prepared to cook low and slow. I personally find caramelizing onions to be incredibly therapeutic, like making risotto. You just stir and stir and stir, adding a bit of this or a bit of that to enhance the flavors.

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This is what you want your onions to look like. Depending on how low or high your heat, this may take 30 minutes or 2 hours.2016-12-11-17-26-25_resized

Add in your homemade beef broth to the onions, and toss in the bay leaves. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who loves to make stock, ask her to provide you some. Otherwise, use boxed beef broth but get a good, organic brand. The taste is just better.

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Simmer the broth and onions low and slow again for about an hour. Add the rest of the red wine, and the two bouillon cubes, and continue to cook very low, covered. The longer you cook this soup, the more the flavors will mingle so this is a perfect Sunday afternoon dish.

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While the soup is slowly simmering and filling your kitchen with the warm scent of beef and onions, make the rarebit sauce. Melt the butter in a smaller saucepan, and whisk in the flour gradually but thoroughly so as not to have that floury taste.

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Add the Worchestershire sauce, and the Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and whisk together. Taste for seasoning at this point.

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Add the heavy cream and the milk here, and stir together. You’ll see it thickening and browning slightly as you continue to whisk. This is good. You want it to brown somewhat, as that will add to the flavor.

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Now it’s time to add the grated cheddar and Gruyere. Whisk in these two cheeses until they melt thoroughly. Don’t let them form a lump, as that will not be attractive.

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Turn down the heat, add a bit more milk, and then toast the bread.

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Ladle the soup into a bowl, add a bread slice on top, and then add a dollop of the rich, creamy rarebit sauce. The Dijon adds such a note of savory that it goes perfectly with the sweetness of the onions and beef.

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Eat with happiness in your heart, instead of the ice splinter that pierced Kay and caused him to drag Gerda all over the ice-covered world. However, like all good fairy tales, they lived happily ever after. As will you once you eat this soul-warming soup. Yum!

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The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Thanks to KMQ for the photography.

We continue with our month-long Halloween theme and a particular favorite book of mine. I’m always excited to reread “The Witching Hour” which is on my top 10 absolute most favorite books in the world.

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I first discovered Anne Rice one summer when I was 12, visiting my aunt and uncle in Douglas, Arizona, a small town on the border of Mexico. I was wandering around the historic downtown area, happened upon the bookstore (of course) and while browsing, came across this luridly gold and red book cover titled “Interview with the Vampire.” I was hooked on this marvelous author from that day forward, and this one  remains high on my list of desert-island reads.

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Anne Rice has a lush, prosaic style of writing. She’s a sensualist, as is obvious in her descriptions of light, darkness, death, blood, spirit encounters and lovemaking. All of these descriptions are sprinkled throughout The Witching Hour, but though she is very much a sensualist, I don’t get a sense that she’s a foodie sensualist. What food descriptions there are in her books are not very detailed or ornate, compared to her luxuriant descriptions of other things. It makes sense, of course, because many of her books center around vampires, and they only ingest blood. But her witches seem to be more focused on wealth and luxury and power……..and there’s nothing wrong with that, either!

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This is an epic book, telling the story of one New Orleans family, the Mayfairs, and its history going back 13 generations. Each generation has an heiress to the huge family fortune, and each of these women are witches. These women can control spirits, at times read people’s minds and otherwise interact with the spirit world, and in fact, each generation has been haunted by a spirit called Lasher, who has helped the family amass its immense wealth and yet has caused much harm and damage.

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Just the history alone in this book is enough for any devoted history buff. Just the descriptions of the city of New Orleans are enough for any devoted architectural buff. And the depiction of the romantic relationship between Rowan, the last in the line of Mayfair Witches, and Michael, whom she rescued from drowning, is both sweetly sentimental and roughly erotic, as they seem to have a deep passion for each other emotionally and physically.

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In one scene, he has come back to New Orleans and is reveling in his stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which he remembers visiting as a child. He and Rowan have cemented their physical relationship with a passionate night of lovemaking – always wonderful for working up an appetite! – and orders the ultimate Southern breakfast.

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“He called Room Service. ‘Send me a big breakfast, Eggs Benedict, grits, yeah, a big bowl of grits, extra side of ham, toast, and a full pot of coffee. And tell the waiter to use his key.”

Michael, a true Southern gentleman, obviously loves his grits.

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I tweaked Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for shrimp and grits, combined with a creamy sauce loosely based on this one at myrecipes.com, but with a few flavor tweaks of my own. I added the green bell pepper because it is a staple of Southern cooking, and a dash of turmeric in the grits to add to the lovely golden color.

INGREDIENTS
1 teaspoon of sea salt

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1 cup of quick-cooking grits
4 cups of water
1 cup of combined Parmesan and sharp cheddar cheeses

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1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 large asparagus spears, cut into chunks
1 small green bell pepper, also cut into chunks
12-15 raw shrimp, deveined and shelled
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sherry
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
4 eggs

METHOD
Add the sea salt to 5 cups of water. Cook at high heat and bring to a fierce boil.

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Slowly pour in the cupful of grits, stirring to mix thoroughly. It will bubble up quite a bit so lower the heat immediately after pouring in the grits. Cover and cook for 10 minutes at very low heat.

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The grits will have thickened into a texture like porridge. It’s a good idea to whisk for a few minutes at this stage, since grits tend to be lumpy.

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Add in the cheeses and stir to mix.

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Taste for seasoning and add more salt and some pepper if so desired. Pour the cooked cheesy grits into a glass pan, and refrigerate for a few hours.

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Saute the asparagus and green bell pepper together, with some butter, olive oil, salt and pepper for flavor. Add the shrimp to the cooked vegetables, and cook until the shrimp are pink. Remove immediately from the pan.

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In the same pan, add the butter, flour, chicken broth, and half and half. Whisk together to make a thick cream. Taste for seasoning and flavor. Add the sherry, which will give the cream a nice, creamy, ecru color.

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Add the cooked shrimp, asparagus and green pepper to the cream sauce, stir to combine the flavors, and cover to keep warm.

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Poach four eggs, four minutes each. Set aside.

Take the chilled grits from the refrigerator. Cut circles out, using a small glass or coffee cup. It’s the same principle as making polenta, if you’ve made polenta, that is.

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In the same pan you used for the cream sauce, cook the grits patties 3-4 minutes a side, until golden brown.

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Put two grits patties on a plate, top each with a poached egg, and spoon over the lusciously flavored and scented cream sauce.

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It’s a lovely dish, suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I feel certain Anne Rice’s witches would not turn me into a frog if they tasted this dish made in their honor.

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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Who, I ask you, doesn’t love The Lord of the Rings trilogy, whether the books or the films? Or, like me, both! But the books are a pivotal read in anyone’s life, especially those of us who live primarily in their imaginations, who are fans of fantasy and sci-fi, or who study and love the construction of language and linguistics. The Lord of the Rings trilogy fulfills all those, plus they are just damn good adventure stories unto themselves.

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I read them all when I was about 13. They were my dad’s, who was also a huge bookworm, and the book containing all three stories is one of the things I’m most proud to have inherited from him, along with his love of books and reading. (That’s my dad! Wasn’t he handsome?)

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He always had several books in his car, and it was like a moveable feast of novels to climb in and see what he’d been reading. I think most of the books I was turned onto in my early teens were books he himself was reading. It by Stephen King, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, The Collected Works of Guy de Maupaussant, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, and of course, Tolkien’s masterpiece.

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My version has all three of the novels – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King – all in one large tome, and I’m on Book 2 right now. One of the funniest scenes in the book, and which was brilliantly visualized in the film, was from The Two Towers, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit,” when Frodo and Sam are searching for the One Ring, and they’ve captured Gollum to be their guide into Mordor. Sam, as usual, is hungry, which is the the usual state for a Hobbit, and tries to get Gollum to find some herbs to make a rabbit stew, which he dreams about garnishing with potatoes, or as he endearingly calls them “taters.”

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“Smeagol won’t go, O no precious, not this time,” hissed Gollum. He’s frightened, and he’s very tired, and this hobbit’s not nice, not nice at all. Smeagol won’t grub for roots and carrotses and taters. What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?” “Po-ta-toes,” said Sam. “The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly.”

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In the film, Sam is very sarcastic in describing what they are, telling Gollum “boil em, mash em, ‘stick em in a stew.” The movie scene is, of course, hilarious, but I also loved the scene in the book because I could just imagine Sam whapping Gollum upside his head for not understanding how important potatoes really are.

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Humor aside, The Lord of the Rings books are such a wonderful adventure of friendship, love, sacrifice, linguistics and symbolism, and ultimately doing something for a cause greater than yourself. The books have been analyzed and reviewed hundreds of times by scholars and readers far more intelligent than me, so all I will say is that everyone should read these books.

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Back to the po-tay-toes. Potato soup. With cheddar. And Guinness. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound delectable, fit food even for a Hobbit, who we know are discerning eaters and love their beer. I found this recipe on the delicious food blog Simply Recipes, and though I tweaked it slightly, the overall recipe remains faithful to Elise Bauer’s version and is, I think, a wonderful homage to Tolkien, Frodo, and of course, our own chef of Middle-Earth, Sam.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

Butter and olive oil
1 yellow onion
3 ribs of celery
4 cloves of garlic
2 carrots, peeled

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4-5 russet potatoes, peeled and sliced fairly thinly
3-4 cups chicken stock, enough to cover the potatoes
1 1/2 cups Guinness extra stout (probably the whole bottle because why waste it?)
Chicken stock cube
Ground thyme
2 bay leaves
7 ounces of extra sharp cheddar, shredded
Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
Paprika and fresh thyme leaves for garnish

METHOD

Finely dice the onion, celery, garlic and carrots, and cook in a large soup pot with the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Sprinkle over some salt to release their juices and keep from burning. Cook about 10 minutes, or until the veg are soft and translucent.

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Add the potato slices, stir so they are covered with the vegetable mush, then add the chicken stock, the Guinness and the stock cube.Oh, that lovely scent!

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Toss in a good tablespoon of the ground thyme, two bay leaves, cover and let simmer for about 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and tender and can be easily cut with a fork.

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Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. What’s fun about making this soup is it gives you an excuse to bust out the stick blender. I love playing with the stick blender, because it makes me feel competent and like I know what I’m doing. Add about a handful of the shredded cheese to the soup mixture, then blitz with the hand mixer. Go cautiously, so you don’t splatter yourself with hot soup. Continue adding in the cheese and mixing until all is combined into a smooth, golden consistency.

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Stir to mix and amalgamate everything, and put on low heat to gently get back to a nice, piping hot temperature.

Add in some dashes of Worchestershire sauce – dashes being the scientific measurement here – and strip off some fresh thyme leaves and sprinkle across the top. Add a sprinkle (another scientific measurement!) of smoked paprika for color and added garnish, and swallow down one heavenly mouthful at a time. Very good with any extra Guinness you might have on hand, or with a nice, bold red wine.

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“Faramir broke his fast with them. He had not slept since the battle on the day before, yet he did not look weary. When they finished, they stood up. ‘May no hunger trouble you on the road,’ said Faramir……..’Most gracious host,” said Frodo, ‘it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.”