Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-García

I’m as guilty as the next person of judging. I judge wine by the label on the bottle, musical artists by genre, and of course, books by their covers. In this case, can you blame me? The cover for Mexican Gothic is stunningly beautiful and hits me on all my levels: aesthetic, moody, mysterious, and colorful. Combined with the word “Gothic,” you’re damn right I pre-ordered this months in advance and devoured it in 6 hours when it finally arrived. It was well worth the wait.

The gist of the book is thus: Noemi is a wealthy socialite living the life in 1950s Mexico. She’s a beautiful and intelligent woman whose chief problem is that she lives in a time and a place where people can’t believe a woman can be both, so she compensates by putting on a bored persona. But inside, she is ready for something more. When her father gets a urgent letter from Catalina, Noemi’s recently-married cousin, indicating she is in danger in her new marriage, he sends Noemi to the town of High Place to find out what is going on and to bring Catalina home if necessary. Not so fast, though. Catalina’s in-laws and new husband are what you’d call shady.

Catalina has married into the very wealthy and extremely weird Doyle family, and boy, do they put the “fun” in “family dysfunction.” The family patriarch, Howard, is beyond creepy. He is somewhere between 90 and death, and is pervertedly fascinated with the beautiful Noemi. Catalina’s husband, Virgil, is handsome and flirtatious toward Noemi, and she is both sexually drawn to him and repulsed by him at the same time. Florence, Virgil’s sister, runs the household like a military commander, not allowing Noemi to do or say anything. You can imagine how well that goes over with a young, independent and intelligent heroine like Noemi.

And then there’s the youngest son, Francis, whose interest in botany, plants and growing fungi – namely mushrooms – are pivotal pieces of the book’s plot. Noemi finds herself becoming friends with Francis and the longer she stays in High Place, the more she starts to be affected by the house, with terrifying dreams and visions, and she starts to suspect that something very weird and very scary is happening. It’s not actually difficult to figure out what the source of the visions and hallucinations are, but it’s part of the fun in reading this beautifully-written and atmospheric novel.

This is a wonderful book that combines mystery with Gothic romance, eugenics with some creepy Mexican folklore, some really great horror elements including ghosts, visions of blood, terrifying dreams, and a unique take on the haunted house trope that makes for some genuinely riveting reading. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the film Crimson Peak, that eerie movie by Guillermo del Toro, with similar elements of hallucinations, incestuous relations, and just that overall sense of mystery and doom.

I’d consider this book more of a slow burn than one of non-stop, intense horror. The horror is there, all right, but it’s more of a low simmer, gradually escalating, grotesque, Lovecraftian, sickening horror that creeps up on you the further into the mystery you get, until you realize you’re trapped with Noemi there with no avenue of escape. I like the intense terror as much as any horror fan, but I really enjoyed the slow build toward the final unraveling of the mystery surrounding the Doyle family.

As with many of the other books I read, I found myself culinarily inspired by a passage that isn’t necessarily a food reference. when Noemi comes across Francis foraging in, of all places, the family cemetery! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right, but it also made me start thinking about what to make with those good ol’, fungus among us, mushrooms!

He glanced down, nodding, looking at his basket. Now that he was with her, she had regained her levity, and she peered curiously at him. “What do you have there?” she asked, pointing at the basket. “I’ve been collecting mushrooms.” “Mushrooms? At a cemetery?” “Sure. They’re all around.” “As long as you don’t plan to make them into a salad.” “What would be wrong with that?” “Only the thought of them growing over dead things.” “But then mushrooms always grow over dead things in a way.”

Yes, I was inspired to make a something from this passage about ‘shrooms growing over dead things. Well, I’m strange like that. Anyway, being that the book was set in Mexico, and that it’s also green chile season here in my home state of New Mexico, I decided a tasty recipe of mushroom, chorizo, and roasted corn queso fundido with homemade tortilla chips was on the menu. And the best part? I got to roast the green chile and the corn outside on my charcoal grill in my new backyard, thus breaking it in! In a manner of speaking. 🙂

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 lb chorizo sausage, squeezed out of the casing
1 lb white mushrooms, sliced
1 lb bella mushrooms, sliced
1 lb Monterey Jack cheese
1 lb Muenster cheese
1 lb queso fresco
6 Anaheim chile peppers, roasted and peeled
2 fresh ears of corn, still in the husks, roasted and cooled
1 dozen corn tortillas

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven, saute the onion and garlic until soft, then add the chorizo and saute another 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and saute again for another 10 minutes.

Cut the roasted corn kernels from the cobs, then add to the mushrooms and chorizo mixture. I actually did this using a Bundt pan, which was suggested to me by my friend and sous-chef Krista, and it was the best idea ever!

Chop the roasted green chile and add to the other ingredients in the pan.

Cube the cheeses into small pieces and add their gooey, melting goodness to the pan.

Mix everything together and cook on low, covered, so that the cheeses melt and get that lovely, unctuous texture that make your mouth water.

While the cheese is melting, heat the broiler in your oven and slice the corn tortillas into fourths, put on a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until they get golden and crispy. Let cool.

Serve the piping-hot, meltingly gooey queso fundido with the tortilla chips and devour. Sooooo delicious, rich and very decadent. Eat this on a day when you haven’t eaten another thing and have gotten in a good hour of cardio. It’s well worth it, and the mushrooms will only make you have visions of heavenly deliciousness!

Episode 8 of “Cooking the Books” Podcast Now Available!

Check out the latest episode of my podcast “Cooking the Books” and join me as we talk about vampires in 1990s Charleston, how one Southern belle wife and mom takes on this blood-sucking fiend, and make some delicious Southern party food, at:

https://anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/The-Southern-Book-Clubs-Guide-to-Slaying-Vampires-and-the-Bloody-Thrill-of-Cheese-Straws-ei0quq

The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch

You wouldn’t normally think that the Church of England would make for scintillating reading, but you’d be sooooooo wrong if you start reading the “Church of England” series written by British author Susan Howatch. I stumbled across one of them going on 15 years ago now, and was hooked. The series is broken up into two semi-series – for lack of a better way to put it – with the first six books focusing on the evolution of the Church from post-WWI into the late 1960s with all the attendant changes that happened in the world. The second series consists of three intertwined books that feature references and characters from the first six books, but are set in 1990s London and take on much more timely and controversial topics than the first six. The last book of the series, The Heartbreaker, goes pretty in-depth into prostitution, homosexuality, cult mentality, some paranormal and supernatural elements including a form of devil worship, and ultimately, love and redemption. I highly recommend all nine books, but the latter three are unputdownable.

The main character is Gavin Blake, a male prostitute whose clientele are wealthy, middle-aged gay men, but he is actually heterosexual. If you’re thinking “what the hell, how can a male prostitute servicing gay men be straight” you’d be where I was when I cracked open the book. But it’s incredibly fascinating how Howatch writes about human nature in all of these books, particularly the fluid nature of sexuality and how it’s possible to train your mind to do something completely alien to your nature if you’re in survival mode.

Gavin works for a woman named Elizabeth, who is his pimp but who also runs a very nasty little group made up of people who use bizarre sex and occult rituals to gain power in London. He has come to depend on her as he is traumatized by much loss in his own life, loss of his brother, messed-up parents, the works. He’s incredibly good-looking and charming, but the internal damage from his upbringing and the subsequent abuses he has gone through with Elizabeth turning him into a prostitute (though he doesn’t initially see it as abuse) make him very superficial and facile. He indulges in affairs with women who he then dumps in his charming way……he is the ultimate heartbreaker who leaves a trail of disaster and heartbreak in his wake because he himself has had his heart broken and been devastated. Well, we all have in some way or other, haven’t we?

When his path starts crossing with a woman named Carta Graham, he starts idolizing her and lusting after her, not realizing that she represents, on a very deep level, a way of life he used to have growing up and also a way of life that he is craving, though he continues to stay in the world of prostitution. He also meets Nicholas Darrow, the rector of a church called St. Benet’s, a part of the Church of England that works with psychologists, doctors, and holistic healers, to create a place where people can worship and heal both physically and spiritually. Gavin is so emotionally damaged that it takes him awhile to figure out there can be a different way of life for him through Carta and Nicholas, and his journey starts……..but not without danger along the way.

The ways of the subconscious are deeply explored in all of these books, and particularly here. I’ve always found psychology and our inner instincts and how they sometimes work against us and make us do crazy or awful things in the name of survival, to be utterly fascinating. As Gavin starts to gradually extricate himself from the life of prostitution, he is helped by Carta, by Nick, and most importantly, by Susanne, who also works for Elizabeth as a bookkeeper but who had previously also been a prostitute until she had a meltdown and couldn’t do it any longer. She represents someone who both can leave that lifestyle and heal themselves and get educated and be independent, which is why Gavin initially hates her because she has done what he wants to do with his life.

Flowers and Italian wine at my new kitchen table.

Susanne helps Gavin out of a major jam, involving blackmail sex tapes, illicit sex, etc., and to thank her, he takes her to the Savoy for champagne, dinner and dancing, and the next day, as they wait for the fallout from Elizabeth possibly finding out what they’ve done, Susanne grudgingly makes Gavin food and they begin to develop a friendship and a relationship that neither of them have had before. As they share a frittata and wine post-shag (as they call it in England), they start planning how to escape Elizabeth and her long, evil grasp.

After the shag Susanne keeps me organised by telling me I’ve got to eat some more, and she fixes what she calls a “fry-tartar,” a jumbo omelette stuffed with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. We have to have eggs again because she’s run out of everything else, but the frittata’s so good I don’t care. We drink Italian wine with it and the cat goes in and out through the cat-flap, just as it would in a normal home.

Frittatas are among my favorite things to make, and not just because they’re relatively simple. I hate to admit this, but I am kind of a dumbass when it comes to making omelettes because I can’t master the damn omelette fold and flip. I know, I know, it’s easy, blah blah blah. It’s not. I have fucked up many, many potential omelettes in my life, and there was that time that one ended up on the floor………….thank God for dogs, is all I have to say. Anyway, here’s my take on a classic Italian frittata, or as Susanne would call it, a fry-tartar!

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 eggs, room temperature
1 russet potato, peeled and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
3 green onions, finely diced
1 sausage link, squeezed out of its casing
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat your oven to 500 F. Add the oil to a heavy, cast-iron skillet and cook the potato until they soften, about 7-10 minutes. Set aside.

Mix the eggs together in a large bowl and whisk. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In the skillet, add a a bit more olive oil and add the diced red pepper, the diced onions, and the sausage meat, and stir together. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the onion is translucent and most of the liquid has cooked off.

Add the potatoes to skillet and mix everything together so everything is evenly spaced across the pan bottom.

Add the shredded cheese and the heavy cream to the eggs in the mixing bowl, whisk together again, then pour over the potato-pepper-sausage mixture in the skillet.

Cook stovetop over low heat until the eggs set on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Give the skillet a good swirl so the eggs evenly coat everything, then put the egg mixture into the oven and cook for another 5 minutes, so the eggs cook evenly.

Remove, let cool, and flip out onto a platter. Serve with the Italian wine of your choice. It’s such a delicious and simple way to cook eggs and it’s an excellent way to use up what’s in your refrigerator before it goes bad or expires. And people will think you’re a damn kitchen goddess!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

I found The Fifth Gospel to be quite a great read, fast-paced and adventurous, but with a fascinating historical and Biblical premise as the storyline. It’s simple – a Greek Catholic priest living in The Vatican must defend his brother, also a Greek Catholic priest but one attached to the Pope’s staff, who is accused of murder. The victim? An artist who recreated the Shroud of Turin for a Papal art show and made a discovery that could possibly turn the Catholic Church upside down.

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It’s very well written, heavy on Church history (which I like) and yet has a human side in the main character of Father Alex Andreou, whose desperate efforts to prove his brother innocent are matched only by his dedication to the Greek Catholic church, raising his son Peter, and hoping his estranged wife Mona will return to them both. She does, mysteriously one evening, and when she reunites with Peter, she brings dinner with her, in that clever way women have of knowing that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

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“Mona reaches into a plastic bag by her feet and says ‘I brought dinner.’ ‘A gift,’ she clarifies. ‘From Nonna.’ Peter’s maternal grandmother. I recoil. Peter looks at the Tupperware and says…….’My favorite pizza is margherita.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Mona says, crestfallen. ‘All I brought is some cacio e pepe.’ Tonnarelli with cheese sauce. The devil inside me smiles. Her mother’s version of the dish will be too peppery for Peter. A fitting introduction to the mother-in-law I always found to be an acquired taste.”

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This post came about, in part, from an IM conversation I had with my friend Luca Marchiori of Chestnuts and Truffles. Luca is not only my cooking hero, he’s a marvelous chef, a talented food and travel writer, and takes the most wonderful photographs. He also lives in Italy and gets to travel around that beautiful country ALL THE TIME. Is it any wonder I want to be him?

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Anyway, I’ve gotten in the habit (annoyingly to Luca, I’m sure!) of asking his advice about the week’s upcoming blog post and my thoughts on how to make my recipe unique. Cacio e pepe is a traditional pasta dish that features three major ingredients – pasta, pepper and cheese. You really can’t go wrong with that trio, but I wanted to add my own unique twist on the recipe, so I asked Luca what he thought of perhaps a margherita-style cacio e pepe, combining two food descriptions in the passage above.

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Luca didn’t think combining two separate pasta dishes into one was the best way to go, and when I mentioned wanting to make something one’s own, he talked about the writing of Philippe Conticini, who was, in Luca’s words, “a great patissiere who had the philosophy that when you were revising classic dishes you should make sure you keep all the original ingredients and not add more. Change the way they are put together rather than leaving out or adding.”

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Something to consider. So, rather than trying to make it into something unique, I decided to challenge myself by simply recreating this classic recipe, and having roasted tomatoes on the side. Not IN the dish, Luca, so calm down. But as a garnish. And guess what? It worked!

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this article from Business Weekly, featuring the late, great, notorious Anthony Bourdain – my future husband – in Rome. I mean, Bourdain, Italy and pasta – the holy trinity, in my book. (And very fitting for today’s post!)

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb bucatini pasta
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons Pecorino cheese
Generous amount of ground black pepper

METHOD
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes, until the pasta is almost cooked, but not quite. You’ll see why in a minute.

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One of the best cooking tips I’ve ever gotten in my life was to save some of the boiling water that the pasta has cooked in, and add a bit to whatever sauce you are making. The starch in the water helps the sauce to emulsify and thicken somewhat, and also adds to the dense flavor. So keep about a cupful of the pasta water before draining the pasta. But do keep some of the water on the noodles. Anna del Conte, the matriarch of Italian cooking and food writing, calls this “la goccia,” which means “a drop” to keep the pasta moist.

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In a separate saucepan, add the butter and a very generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Melt the butter gently over low heat, then add the starchy pasta water. Swirl around to mix.

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Add the cooked and drained pasta to the saucepan with the pasta water, butter and pepper. Stir around with tongs to finish cooking the pasta, about 2-3 minutes more. Taste to see if the pasta is al dente, with a small bite but cooked.

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Remove from the heat, and add your cheeses to the hot pasta mixture. Stir again to mix and meld all the cheeses. You DO NOT want your cheese to be in lumps, which is why you want to do it when the pasta is hot off the stove. Just stir and swirl with your tongs and pretend you’re one of those bad-ass Italian chefs who have that technique down pat.

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Place a swirly pile in a shallow bowl, and sprinkle over more Parmeggiano, and add another generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. Et voila! Cacio e pepe alla Romana!

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Serve with roasted tomatoes on the side, which are simple to make. Slice the tomatoes thinly, and sprinkle over some slivered garlic. Toss with olive oil and dried basil, and roast at 425 for 30-35 minutes. Remove, let cool for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle over a dash of balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper as you like.

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A dish fit for a Pope!

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

If you’re like me and you’re as drawn to a book’s title and cover as you are the contents of the book itself, then you’ll love this one. Grady Hendrix has a knack for writing about horror against the most banal, ordinary, American backgrounds. I think of him as the literary version of the Duffer Brothers in the sense that he, like they’ve done with Stranger Things, is able to take the best tropes of horror and not only turn them upside down but put them against a backdrop of ordinary, everyday life in a timeframe so familiar to us because most of us grew up then and can recognize the cultural and societal expectations of the time.

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The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is both satire and horror and it balances perfectly between the two. Patricia is a housewife in the mid-90s living in Charleston, in a very exclusive neighborhood called Pierates Cruze. She’s the average Southern belle turned wife/mom/daughter-in-law. Her husband is a doctor and works all the time; her two kids are teenagers and are perfectly horrible; she caretakes for her elderly, senile mother-in-law and of course, she has her group of friends who are equally boring, wealthy and proper……except they really aren’t. Well, they never are, are they?

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Their original book club fizzles out due to the sheer boringness of the books chosen by the first book club head, so Patricia, Kitty, Grace, Maryellen and Slick form their own book club in which they read true crime and horror and any manner of horrendous novels. So when James Harris moves in next door in all his scary, sexy glory and Patricia starts experiencing and seeing some very weird and frightening things, she is in the right mindset for horror. James claims to be the nephew of the awful old woman who suffers a psychotic episode and attacks Patricia, their house is overrun with vicious rats who – and this scene is not for the faint of heart (I skimmed it) – attack Patricia’s mother-in-law so viciously that she dies, and with this and some other gruesome goings-on, Patricia begins to strongly suspect the new neighbor is a vampire.

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Though the horror is intense and quite gross at times, for me the true horror was how easily Patricia is made to feel like she is crazy, how she is ostracized within her own group of friends, how her husband subjugates her, and how easy it is for her to doubt herself and question her own sanity when she knows what she has seen and when she tries to get people to realize what is going on. That was more monstrous than any vampire – that absolute lack of self-worth, lack of self-esteem, lack of any true resources of one’s own. I kept wanting to shake her and smack her upside the head to get her to realize that she did not have to allow herself to be treated the way she was.

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I like a good twist on a horror trope as much as the next girl, and Hendrix delivers. He is in that same modern group of horror novelists such as Paul Tremblay, Jason Arnopp and F.G. Cottam – and I have blogged all of them previously – who run with the horror tropes of vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, werewolves, demonic possession, home invasion and the occult – and give them new life by completely presenting them in unexpected ways. Hendrix kicks ass with this updated edition of Dracula. This vampire is meaner, grosser, way more visceral and so much more loathsome than the Count himself ever could be. This vampire still controls the mean creatures of the earth – bats, rats, bugs. This vampire is still dangerously sexy and able to entice its victims and he still needs to be invited over the threshold to enter a home……all little grace notes that I appreciated. But this vampire is the most vicious I’ve run across in modern literature and Hendrix is one hell of a visceral writer. Don’t read this while you’re eating……which I realize is ironic, considering the point of my blog. 🙂 Just don’t. Trust me on this.

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And of course, being set in the South, there is food. Lots of food, and exactly the type of food you’d expect from upper-class, wealthy Southern housewives – Boston cream pie, peach pie, any variety of casseroles, a crab boil, a massive amount of cocktails, Swedish meatballs, and of course, the inevitable party finger food consisting of crudités, ham biscuits, pimiento cheese sandwiches and my favorite, cheese straws. You can’t have a party in the Deep South and not have cheese straws. You’d get thrown out of Tara like Scarlett O’Hara, my dear!

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The party spilled from the living room into the dining room, where it swirled in a circle around a table overflowing with miniature ham biscuits, cheese straws, pimento cheese sandwiches, and a tray of crudités that would be thrown out untouched tomorrow morning…….

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This is the method for Southern-style cheese straws I used, based on the recipe by the late, great Edna Lewis, who is one of the great African-American chefs of the last 100 years and whose classic cookbook Taste of Country Cooking is one of my favorites.

INGREDIENTS
1 and 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into pieces
2 and 1/2 cups extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons water

METHOD
Sift the flour, mustard, salt and cayenne into a medium bowl.

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Using your most awesome red Kitchen Aid with the paddle attachment, beat together the cheese and butter on low until well blended.

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Gradually mix in the flour mixture until completely incorporated, then add the water and beat for another few minutes until the dough comes together.

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Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times, then roll it out into a rough rectangle on a parchment sheet-covered baking tray, and chill about half an hour.

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Heat the oven to 425F, and trim the dough edges, cut in half, then again into strips roughly 6 inches by 1/4″, but don’t get out the ruler. Just long, skinny strips will work.

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Bake for 20 minutes, or until they’re golden-brown, crisp, and you can smell the cheese. Let cool and enjoy with soup, salad, or as a snack with your evening cocktail. Any Southern belle would surely approve!

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The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

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On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

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On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

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On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

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Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because that’s what I had stashed in the freezer and wanted to avoid an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. As well, I had some porcini mushrooms I’d bought awhile back and it occurred to me that their rich, bosky, reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

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Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

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Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

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Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

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Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

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After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

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While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

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The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.

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 Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Apparently I missed National Hobbit Day, which was on Sunday, September 22. Well, hell! Who knew this was a thing? Me, it would seem. Anyway, three days later, I present this lovely blog post in homage to my favorite fictional fantasy foodies! 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 movable 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 – again. 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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INGREDIENTS
Butter and olive oil
1 yellow onion
3 ribs of celery
4 cloves of garlic
2 carrots, peeled
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, then 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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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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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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