Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest by José Griego y Maestas and Rudolfo Anaya

I’d consider this book of short stories, Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest, one of the pivotal books of my childhood. I’ve mentioned my father and his love of reading, and there were always books around him. In his car, in his house, you name it. As well, being a very strong proponent of civil rights, human rights, and a member of the Brown Berets on the campus of the University of New Mexico, he was also a proud Hispanic who liked to promote the work of his fellow Hispanic/Latino/Chicano educators, artists and writers, and José Griego y Maestas and Rudolfo Anaya exemplify all of these.

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Cuentos is Spanish for “stories” and these particular tales will resonate with any lover of folklore and fairy tales. Many traditional elements of fairy/folk stories are present in all these short stories – the elements, God and religion, true love, unrequited love, fathers and sons, talking animals who teach a lesson, humans who can transform into animals, and witchcraft. There is a strong Roman Catholic theme running throughout the book, which mirrors the faith of the Catholic conquistadores who came from Spain in the 1500s; but the influence of the Native American tribes and their belief in the afterlife is also very present.

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The Spanish versions of the stories are wonderful because Griego y Maestas retained most of the original language as possible, as many of these tales have their origins in the oral traditions of New Mexico’s founding families, most of whom came from Spain by way of Mexico and intermarried with the Native American tribes of what is now the state of New Mexico. The stories feature many words that are old-fashioned, even archaic. but just add depth and beauty to the stories. Rudolfo Anaya, who translated the  English versions, is my favorite writer in the world, and whom I know personally, as a mentor and a friend.

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Possibly my favorite out of all 23 of these short stories is Doña Sebastiana, which tells the tale of a poor woodcutter who meets Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Death herself one night when he is eating a chicken roasted on a spit and cooked with traditional New Mexico spices. Jesus and Mary both ask to share his meal, and he turns them both down because they ignore the poor people in the world and give much to the rich. However, when Death – Doña Sebastiana, personified as a skeleton old woman in traditional Hispanic culture – shows up and asks to eat, he happily shares his food because she treats everyone equally in death. And for this, she grants him a life-changing wish.

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“Buenas noches,” the woodcutter answered, trembling at the sight of the old hag in front of him. “Who are you?” “I am Death,” Doña Sebastiana answered as she slowly got down from her cart. “Will you share your meal with me?” “I never realized Death was so thin!” the woodcutter said as he looked at the skeleton in front of him……….”No, you treat us all equally. Sit down and share my meal.” After they had finished eating the roasted chicken Doña Sebastiana was very pleased, so she told the woodcutter to ask for any favor he wished and it would be granted.

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Chicken with New Mexico spices sounded both delicious and challenging, because there are so many spices considered traditional and that are used in many recipes. Garlic and cilantro are used in numerous recipes, and of course, a dish can’t be considered truly New Mexican unless it has chile on it. So, pondering this, I decided on some grilled chicken thighs marinated in garlic and green chile sauce and baked with with roasted green chile and cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat
1 cup green chile sauce
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
4 large Anaheim green chiles
2 cups Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses, shredded

METHOD
Put the chicken pieces into two plastic bags and pour over the chile sauce.

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Add the lime juice, the fresh chopped cilantro, and the salt and pepper. Smoosh around with your hands, and leave to marinate for up to an hour.

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Heat the oven broiler and line a baking pan with foil. Lay the green chiles on the foil and roast under the broiler for 20 minutes, flipping them after 10 minutes so both sides get blistered.

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Remove from the oven and put into a sealeable plastic bag. Leave for up to 30 minutes. The skins will steam off and this makes them much easier to peel.

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Rub olive oil into your hands, like putting on lotion. Trust me on this. The oil acts as a barrier from the seeds, which, if gotten into eyes, is not at all a pleasant experience. Then, remove the stems, peel off the skins, remove the seeds, and slice the chile into strips.

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Heat the oven to 400F, and heat a stovetop grill pan at medium high heat on the stove. Remove the chicken from the marinade, and grill each chicken piece for 5 minutes per side, so those nice, black grill marks are on both sides.

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Place the chicken thighs in a baking pan, and top each one with 1-2 strips of roasted green chile.

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Sprinkle over the cheese, and bake for 30 minutes. The cheese will melt in a golden crust of deliciousness and the smoky scent of roasting green chile is truly perfume for the senses.

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Then, just eat, happily. A meal that Death herself would surely approve of.

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The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

I’m a sucker for a good, creepy, scary novel, and this one scared the hell out of me, which was awesome. I hadn’t read anything genuinely terrifying in ages, but The Last Days of Jack Sparks fit the bill. In spades. It’s kind of like The Exorcist meets Black Mirror, except way scarier and more bizarre. Or as I like to call it, “50 Shades Of Way Fucked Up.”

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The title character Jack is an author and self-proclaimed Internet celebrity. He utilizes social media to record and share every single aspect of his existence, from purposely trying every known drug just to see how they are, to traveling the countryside on a pogo stick, to attending an exorcism in an attempt to prove something supernatural exists. He makes the mistake of laughing at the exorcism, and when a terrifying video appears on his YouTube channel, not uploaded by him, the horror begins. Jack proceeds to have an increasingly freaky and scary series of unexplained  and supernatural encounters that he subsequently shares on his Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook accounts.

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Beyond the obvious creepy factor of inviting the world to participate in and share ad nauseum EVERY FRICKING DETAIL of his life on social media – sound like anyone we know? – the character of Jack Sparks is frightening simply because he is so completely removed from reality. The book starts with him describing how he came to attend the exorcism in the first place and the reader is gently sucked into believing Jack Sparks is just another wanna-be Internet celebrity who inadvertently got pulled into some weird supernatural stuff.

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Not the case. Jack Sparks is possibly the scariest character in a book in recent literature. He is the classic unreliable narrator. What makes him so great is that he’s funny as hell. What makes him so scary is that he is the most self-absorbed asshole, and even the thought of the horrors he’s experienced and inflicted on those around him are only fodder for how many hits on social media he can get. And then the Devil comes calling………and you will be left wondering what is what, who’s who, and is anything real.

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Beyond that, it’s plain flipping scary. I read it in five hours and when I finished, I was totally creeped out. I read into the evening and it was dark when I finished. You better believe I ran like hell to the light switch at that point. It’s a very unique read, perfect for the beginning of Halloween season, and if you like your books weird and scary, this one is for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the lights, though.

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When Jack is in Hong Kong exploring the origin of the video, he attempts to eat a meal of curry, of course photographing it for Instagram. Nobody I know EVER does that. What a freak he is.  🙂  So, curry it was on today’s menu, using my own long-used method. If you use curry paste, it makes life so much easier, though if you want to grind and toast your own garam masala, be my guest.

My fresh green curry looks exquisite when I photograph it for my followers, but I’m finding it hard to eat. In my defence, the last three nights have been big.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon garlic oil
6 green onions
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 large tablespoons green curry paste
1 can coconut milk
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup lime juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 handful cilantro, roughly torn into pieces
2 cups frozen peas
1 dozen fresh asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces

METHOD
In a large pot, heat the oil. Add in the green onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

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Add the curry paste and stir together, so the flavors meld together. Cook for about 5 minutes.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs and stir well, ensuring that the paste covers all the meat.  The smell will waft up and hit your noise like a spicy hit of deliciousness.

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Pour over the coconut milk and the chicken broth.

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Add the fish sauce and lime juice, a few cilantro leaves, stir again, cover and cook for 30 minutes.

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After 10 minutes, add the asparagus. It takes a bit longer to cook when raw, so you want to give it a good 20 minutes to soften and cook.

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During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the frozen peas. They cook very quickly in the hot curry broth and won’t get mushy this way.

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Serve over rice. I prefer Japanese black rice so that’s what I used, but basmati or any plain white or brown rice would also be fine.This is sooooooo good and very simple, but lots of taste. The Devil himself would like it, I feel. 🙂

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Thanks to ET for the photography.

Anymore, reading about the experiences of immigrants who come to this country seems to be the norm. It makes sense, after all. We are a country built almost entirely upon waves of immigrants from around the globe. My own family were immigrants from Spain and the Netherlands via Mexico over 500 years ago, and we are proud of both our heritage and our American history. It baffles me that, in this day and age, the amount of disdain and even hatred for people who come to this country to find a better life. Didn’t all of our ancestors do just that?

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Anyway, The Namesake describes the experience of Ashoke and Asima Ganguli and their “assimilation” into life as American citizens. Within their Indian culture, the concept of names is extremely important. The name is what gives the person his or her identity – symbolism and semiotics brought to life. Their firstborn, Gogol, is named for Russian philosopher who saved his father’s life, is the wreaker of havoc. His real name, Nikhil, is meant to represent the respectable, outward man and his pet name of Gogol within his family is his softer, shadow side. It is this duality of nature epitomized in his two names that affects the entire life of Gogol, and in a way, is the personification of the dual nature of immigrants, and of humanity itself.

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That desire to hold onto the culture, beliefs, food and history that created you and your country of origin doing battle with the desire to fit in, assimilate, become American so that you’re not teased, or even worse, tormented and tortured……..it’s the human struggle. We want to hold on to what makes us unique, different, ourselves in our deepest soul; yet we also want to be accepted and thought of as part of a large community and sadly, when we don’t conform and fit into what is expected, we can be treated horribly.

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Cardamom is, for me, the quintessential Indian spice, in addition to cilantro. It’s light and floral, but doesn’t add a strong note to food. It just gives a hint of perfume and spice on the tongue and in the nose. It’s a wonderful spice, coming in pods and you can either toss the pods into sauces or soups, or crush the pods with the flat of a knife blade and this releases their scent and flavor even more.

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There were actually two food references in this book that inspired today’s recipe: the first being when Gogol and Maxine are having dinner together on the first night that they will make love, and she is preparing coq au vin; and the second is the heartwrenching aftermath of his father’s death in which he and his mother prepare the funeral feast of fish, meats, potatoes spiced with coriander which were his father’s favorite, and other things.

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They prepare an elaborate meal, fish and meat bought one bitterly cold morning at Chinatown and Haymarket, cooked as his father liked them best, with extra potatoes and fresh coriander leaves. When they shut their eyes, it’s as if it is just another party, the house smelling of food.

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For me, chicken is one of those universal dishes that every country and nationality has a variation on, and being that I so closely associate cardamom with chicken, I found this recipe for buttermilk-cardamom marinated chicken at the Cooking on Weekends website, and my fellow food blogger The Dutch Baker posted a heavenly-sounding recipe for potatoes roasted with garlic and coriander. So these were the dishes I made today and the methods that worked for me, my own homage to Indian cuisine and in honor of this beautiful, heartbreaking and honest book.

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INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
2 and 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
10 cardamom pods
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon maple syrup
10 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
1 tablespoon sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper

For the potatoes:
1 lb baby potatoes
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
Large bunch of fresh cilantro
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1-2 lemons

METHOD:
Put the chicken thighs into a large plastic freezer bag, and add in the buttermilk, oil, cinnamon, crushed cardamom pods, garlic and maple syrup. Squish everything around to ensure the marinade covers every piece of chicken. Refrigerate overnight if possible, and if not, at least 7 hours.

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When ready to bake, take the meat out of the fridge at least 3 hours, so the meat is room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400F. Take the chicken out of the bag and place on a foil-lined baking tray. Don’t shake off the excess marinade. Bake for 40 minutes, until the chicken is a nice bronze-gold.

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Allow to cool and sprinkle with salt and pepper while you prepare the potatoes. Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, then slice the potatoes and add them to the pan.

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Sprinkle over the salt, pepper and fenugreek seeds. Cook on medium low, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes dry out and the skins are golden-brown. This will take approximately 30 minutes, so keep your glass of wine handy.

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After about 15 minutes, add the slivered garlic, the chopped cilantro, and the sliced red onion to the frying potatoes. The smell is out of this world! Cook another 20 minutes, stirring to keep the potatoes from burning on the bottom. Taste for seasoning, then squeeze over the juice of one lemon. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

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Serve the chicken together with the potatoes. The flavors are incredibly intense and so delicious!

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Photography by me.

It’s a simple premise. Imagine that all the gods of ancient mythology and all the characters of folklore – we’re talking Anubis, Odin, Kali, Johnny Appleseed, John Bunyan, the Easter Bunny……well, maybe not quite a rabbit  -from every background and corner of the globe, actually existed and are still alive today, waging war with the new modern gods of the Information Age. Media, Celebrity, Technology, Drugs, etc. These gods, both ancient and modern, exist because people believe in them, worship them, pay homage to them. This, folks, is American Gods.

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We do worship our gods, if you think about it. Everyone believes in something. Whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, technology, fame, cooking, gambling, youth, beauty, sex, drugs, music, David Bowie, Harry Potter, the Dallas Cowboys, the music of Soundgarden……….we all worship at the altar of something. We may not realize we do it.

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But we all have our religions and gods that we worship, don’t we?

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Shadow Moon is the erstwhile main character, a somewhat hardened man who just got out of prison and who is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Shadow’s wife, Laura, has just died……….and yet, the beauty of this book is that things are never quite what they seem. People don’t stay dead. Sleight of hand, both literal and figurative, keeps everything off kilter. Gods and goddesses once worshipped now work as bartenders, morticians, and prostitutes. And yet, the themes of life, death and rebirth are as strong in the modern age as they ever were.

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When Shadow is on his way home to Laura’s funeral and is waylaid by Mr. Wednesday’s questionable charms, he stops to have a bite at a roadside diner. In his terrible grief, he  remembers Laura’s unique method for making chili. Having never made true Tex-Mex chili – spelled with an “i” at the end as opposed to the New Mexico “chile” with an “e,” I was pretty psyched, actually, to give this one a try.

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Laura made a great chili. She used lean meat, dark kidney beans, carrots cut small, a bottle or so of dark beer, and freshly sliced hot peppers. She would let the chili cook awhile, then add red wine, lemon juice and a pinch of fresh dill, and finally, measure out and add her chili powders. On more than one occasion, Shadow had tried to get her to show him how she made it: he would watch everything she did…………….

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There’s nothing as quintessentially American as chili concarne, except maybe apple pie, so the tie-in with these American gods seemed particularly appropriate. This is the method that worked for me, based on the self-titled “Best Damn Chili Recipe” on the Allrecipes.com website. With a name like that, I had to taste it for myself, ’cause that’s quite a claim. Requisite flavor edits by yours truly, of course.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion
5 cloves garlic
2 jalapeño peppers
1 Anaheim pepper
1 lb. organic ground beef
1 lb. organic ground bison
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 large tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 bottle dark Mexican beer, like Negra Modelo.
1 28-oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons red chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 16-oz. can of red kidney beans, drained
1 16-oz. can of pinto beans, in its juice
1 tablespoon sea salt

METHOD
Finely chop onion and garlic in a food chopper. Put in a large metal pan with the olive oil and a good scattering of sea salt. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes on medium.

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Chop the jalapeños and Anaheim pepper and add to the onions for another 5 minutes. Remove to a separate bowl.

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Add the two meats to the hot pot. Break down the meat with a wooden spoon, add the Worchestershire sauce, the beer and the smoked paprika. Cook for 5-7 minutes.

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Put the vegetables back in the pot, and stir to mix with the meat.

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Pour in the San Marzano tomatoes, and add in the tomato paste. Stir to mix, then toss in the red wine and the apple cider vinegar.

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Here is where you add in the chili powder, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, and cayenne. Go cautiously with the cayenne if you’re cooking for wimpy types; and if you’re cooking for someone you dislike, don’t worry about it.

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Cover, cook on low for two hours, and after the first hour, add in the beans and leave to cook another hour. Stir occasionally if you’re bored.

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Ideally, chili should sit overnight so that the flavors commingle and make a delicious dish. However, if you need to serve it immediately, let it simmer while you make the cilantro-sour cream garnish, which is terribly difficult and time consuming. Take a bunch of cilantro, stems cut off, mix together in a blender with a container of sour cream, and a tablespoon of salt, and serve with the cheddar-topped chili and some Fritos, wiping the imaginary – and Godlike, I daresay –  sweat off your brow as you do so.

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Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado

Thanks to JP for the photography.

The connection between food and sex is one I looked at in one of my very first blog posts, which you can read here if you’re so inclined. That connection is one of the major threads in this book, as well.

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In 1925 South America, Gabriela is a young woman from a terribly poor background who is “hired” by Nacib to do the cooking in his pub in the Brazilian town of Ilhéus. She is beautiful, from a very low social status, which was (and is) very important in the Brazilian culture. She has skin like cinnamon and gives off the scent of cloves, which entices everyone who meets her. Nacib is infatuated with her and they begin an intense love affair, which binds Nacib to her even more, because the connection between her cooking in the kitchen and her “cooking” in the bedroom have become intertwined in his mind. He marries her but then the challenges start.

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The concept of change and sexual politics are major themes in the book, the new overthrowing the old, and the old-school machismo personified in the beginning of the book, when Col. Mendonca kills his wife, Dona Sinhazinha and her lover, Dr. Pimentel, for adultery. Adultery is accepted among men, but God forbid a woman take a lover.

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What is ironic about the main tale of Nacib and Gabriela is that initially, she doesn’t fit his standard of what he believes he should have in a partner. She is beautiful, can cook like a dream, fulfills all of his sexual desires and fantasies, yet he is still held back by this expectation in his own mind that a relationship has to fit a certain mold. Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot change her, and in fact, to change her would be to lose the qualities about her he most loves.

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Passion colors every aspect of Gabriela’s life and it shows up in her food. Again, another book that features food as a type of medicine, a mood-altering substance that can make others feel joy, happiness, sexual passion and release. Gabriela’s passion is food – she puts everything she feels into her food, and by extension, everything she feels into life itself.

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She does not hold back her heart, and it is that openness that ultimately makes Nacib realize the value she brings to his life……and that in loving and accepting her as she is, it helps him love and accept himself and all the roiling changes happening around him. In her unchangeable passionate heart, she becomes his anchor and a catalyst for change in the entire town.

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Obviously, a book called Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon has some amazing food descriptions in it. Being set in Brazil with a cook as one of the main characters, the food is mouth-watering. Gabriela cooks Bahaian-style dishes involving manioc, rice, jerk chicken, shrimp, peanuts, bean fritters, stews………..so many delicious choices. This passage was the one I chose for today.

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Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits.

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Bean-paste balls are a type of fritter made from black-eyed peas and called acaraje in Portuguese, and are usually stuffed with shrimp or something called vatapá, which has ground cashews as its base.  So I decided some shrimp-stuffed acaraje and vatapá were in order. This is the method that worked for me, based on these two terrific recipes at www.cynthiapresser.com/recipe-blog. As usual, flavoring tweaks were made by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the acaraje:
2 14-oz cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 large white onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
Teaspoon of cayenne powder
Red palm oil for frying

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For the vatapá:
1 cup dried shrimp
1 cup unsalted cashews
2 pieces of day old-bread, torn into chunks
3 cups coconut milk
2 tomatoes
1 onion
1 jalapeno pepper
1 piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 scallions
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked shrimp, thawed

METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor. Set aside.

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Mash the black-eyed peas in the same processor until it forms a thick paste. Season with salt and cayenne.

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Mix together with onion and garlic in a bowl. Form little round patties.

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Heat the red palm oil in a frying pan. Fry 4-5 fritters at a time, for about 3 minutes per side, until crispy and orange-red in color. Don’t cook more than that at a time, because it will lower the oil’s temperature and make the fritters greasy.

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Chop the cashews and process for another minute or so until well mixed and rendered down. Add the dried shrimp, mix and set aside.

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Soak the bread in a 1/2 cup of coconut milk for a minute. Then process for another minute, until it forms a paste-like texture. Mix with the cashew and shrimp in a separate bowl.

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Finely chop the tomato, onion, ginger, cilantro, scallions and jalapeno in your well-exercised food processor, and set aside.

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Heat the remaining coconut milk in a pan, and add the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture, then spoon in the shrimp-cashew mixture. Simmer gently at medium low for about 10 minutes, then add the bread mixture, and a tablespoon of red palm oil, for thickening and color. Cook for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.

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Top the stew with the shrimp and cilantro, and apply to your face. Delicioso!

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Homme Fatal by Paul Mayersberg

Photography by me.

While digging through my bookshelves the other day, I came across Homme Fatal, a pop fiction novel I’d bought years ago and held onto because the story was so fascinating.  Though quite a smutty novel, I primarily held onto it because the story, told about the same events from two viewpoints, had a sleazy, 1940’s film noir vibe to it, which I always like. Kind of Raymond Chandler meets Hugh Hefner.

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The premise is simple: a man named Mason becomes sexually obsessed with a woman he sees dragging a dead body down a hotel corridor. The woman, named Ursula, ends up coming to work for him in his office, and his obsession with her grows. But…….who is truly the one obsessed here? When did the obsession start? Which of them is more obsessed?

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What’s so great about this book is that Mason and Ursula both tell their sides of the same story, and you see exactly how twisted this obsession is on both their parts. I personally have always found the concept of obsession fascinating, particularly when you observe it in people who are otherwise very controlled and intellectual, because they are the last ones you’d ever think would be controlled by something so emotion-based. Obsession is a fascinating thing to study in others. Just beware that you don’t find yourself becoming obsessed, too!

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One of the other reasons I like this book, aside from its trashy noir style, is the fact that it begins and ends here in my home state. It is primarily set in Los Angeles, and all the sordid glamour of that town is well described. But the hotel where Mason first sees Ursula is in Artesia, New Mexico, a tiny, dusty town in the southern part of the state, not known for much other than oil fields and refineries; and the book ends in the Sandia Mountains, the beautiful, rose-colored mountain vista that frames my hometown of Albuquerque directly to the east.

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And taking place mainly in Los Angeles, there were of course several great foodie references. The one I enjoyed the most is the part where Mason is secretly following Ursula, and she meets Laszlo, her astrologist (how L.A. can you get, right?) in a cheesy Mexican restaurant. They both down margaritas and Ursula, in nervous hunger, wolfs down guacamole and chips.

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Now, guacamole is probably the easiest thing to make in the world, and this is really more of a method than anything else. There are many different ways of making it, though, and depending on who you talk to, it can have jalapeños, cayenne, lemon, lime, tomatoes, etc. Nigella Lawson, whom I worship as the Goddess that she is, made a version with blue cheese. I realize this is the season of excess, but that’s a bit too much for me. And of course, being from New Mexico and with the New Mexico references in the book, I had to make my grandmother’s guacamole with Hatch green chile.

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This is the method that works for me, every single time. I am kind of embarrassed to be presenting it here because it is so simple, but what the hell, I already divulged my secret love for trashy fiction above, so I’m sure my literary reputation is already down the tubes. FYI that I made this for a party I had on New Year’s Day, so the amounts are large. Feel free to scale down as needed.

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INGREDIENTS
10 large, ripe avocadoes
1 cup of lime juice, either fresh or bottled
3-4 tablespoons sea salt

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1 generous cup of New Mexico green chile, roasted and chopped.
12 grape tomatoes
6 garlic cloves and a generous handful of fresh cilantro

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METHOD
Halve the avocadoes by laying them on a cutting board and slicing in a circular method. Don’t go against your grandmother’s advice and hold up the avocado in your hand and slice it in a circle, because THIS will happen. Yes, Nana, I know. I know.

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In a large bowl, scoop out the green flesh of the avocadoes.

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Mash up the avocadoes. I use a potato masher because it’s easiest. I once tried using the food processor. Very bad idea. I won’t say what it looked like, but think of the pea soup scene with Regan in The Exorcist and you’ll get the gist.

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Dissolve the salt in the lime juice in a measuring cup. This is a great trick because it ensures the salt is mixed up in all the avocadoes. Note: Don’t get salt or lime in your sliced-up finger. Your neighbors won’t like the screams.

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Pour over the salty lime juice on the avocadoes. Mix together.

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Add in the green chile and mix again.

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Mince in the garlic cloves and mix again.

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Slice the grape tomatoes into small circles, and toss them into the mix. Stir, and taste for seasoning. This is the point where you can add more lime or more salt. Avocadoes soak up flavor, so even if you think you’ve added plenty of salt or lime, you may find you need to add more. I usually do.

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Chop up the cilantro, and add most of it to the guacamole. Stir together so that the cilantro is well mixed.

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Garnish the top of the guacamole with the remaining cilantro and serve with tortilla chips, or with anything you want. It’s great with taquitos, with chicken, with anything savory. If you have any leftover, it’s delicious on toast with a fried egg on the side, as a post-party breakfast.

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Happy New Year! Here’s to 2017 and to contentment, happiness, prosperity and peace of mind for us all.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

One of the reasons I started this blog, beyond the joy of combining my loves of reading and cooking, was also my desire to travel, whether physically or through the pages of books. I wanted to challenge myself as well, to cook food that was outside my comfort zone.

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I’ve always wanted to gain a better understanding of both the history of China and its cuisine, however, and when one day I discovered this book The Ghost Bride, in the bargain bin at Bookworks, my favorite independent bookstore, and having no new books to read for a whole three days (a horror, let me tell you), I bought it, and proceeded to devour it in one sitting.

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It’s a very unexpected book. The premise, a young lady named Li Lan of a once wealthy but now impoverished family in colonial Malacca, is asked by her father to become a “ghost bride” to a young man who has recently died. A ghost bride is a young lady who marries a man who has died, usually who was young and had never been married before death. The idea is that the spirit will be placated by being given a bride and will not haunt his family after death. Li Lan initially balks at the idea (as we all probably would), but then is invited to the home of the dead Lim Tian Ching, whose mother had the idea of marrying his spirit to the living Li Lan. That’s when things start getting interesting.

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I consider this book to be educational as well as entertaining. I learned about Malacca and the Chinese population who lived there among numerous other ethnic and religious groups, a fascinating history of the Chinese culture and their diverse spiritual belief system, which also strongly influences their belief in the afterlife. Ghosts and spirits abound in this book, demons and the shades of people who have not passed yet into The Great Beyond, whether it be heaven or hell. The shadow world resembles the government of the time, structured, bureaucratic, with hierarchies of spirits and ghosts who build opulent houses and have their own caste system, just as the living do. Li Lan is unexpectedly cast into this shadow world when she tries to escape the spiritual advances of Lim Tian Ching, and finds herself on the adventure of a lifetime.

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Speaking of food, in the spirit world of Malacca, spirits cannot eat until the living offer them food and a prayer in the living world. Li Lan is starving there, until her family’s cook, Wong, who has been able to see spirits since he was a child, takes pity on her and dedicates his bowl of laksa to her. Laksa, this delicious sounding dish, is a type of soup that has elements of curry, but is loaded with lots of other goodies so it makes a full and easy street food dish. So what the hell – pardon the pun – I made the laksa and some pineapple cupcakes. Pineapple tarts are mentioned as a nyonya – a dessert – but being unable to find several of the key ingredients for making Malaysian-style tarts, I made cupcakes instead, using the recipe from Baked By An Introvert, being a glutton for punishment by cooking and baking in this muggy summer heat. Oh well. Keeps me out of trouble.

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“Can I have noodles?” Old Wong looked indignant. “Don’t you know that they never wash the bowl and chopsticks but simply pass them along to the next customer? I can make you far better noodles than that.” “But I can’t go home right now.” “You want to get sick?” I couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of this. “You don’t know……no noodles for you. Further on there’s a laksa stall. We’ll go there, not this kind of dirty place.”

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this terrific recipe from Feasting at Home, another excellent food blog. Along with tofu (which I loathe and despise), something called fish balls are traditionally added to the laksa, and as entertaining as the thought was to tell my friends that yes, the balls of a fish were part of this week’s blog, I decided against it. I’m nice like that.

INGREDIENTS
2 packets of laksa paste (available in any Asian market or online)
3 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
Chicken bouillon cube
2 cups of chicken broth
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk
4 chicken thighs, cubed

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12-15 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb rice noodles
2 cups fresh bean sprouts

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1 large lime, cut into quarters
Handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fried shallots (also available in any Asian market or online)
1 hard-boiled egg, cut lengthwise in half

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METHOD
Heat the laksa paste, the oil and the bouillon cube until the paste begins to soften. You’ll smell the chilies and the shrimp in the paste. Divine!

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Add the chicken broth and the coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, to allow the flavors to combine.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs and cook for another 15-20 minutes, to ensure they are fully cooked through.

In another pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and allow to cook for 30 seconds or so. They won’t take long at all. Drain and set aside.

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After 20 minutes of the chicken simmering, add a squeeze of lime juice to the laksa broth. Add the shrimp and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are nice and pink. Don’t overcook, because the shrimp will be rubbery. Gross.

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Ladle the broth and meat into bowls, add the rice noodles, and garnish each bowl with the cilantro, a handful of the bean sprouts, another squeeze of lime, the fried shallots, and half the hard boiled egg.

You can eat this in the traditional manner, slurping up noodles with chopsticks if you can manage them, and spooning up the broth. You see I have my chopsticks for the terminally incompetent here.

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Delicious! It’s spicy, tart from the limes, pungent from the cilantro, and tastes of the sea with the laksa paste. So good, healthy and, even though it’s hot outside, it’s very refreshing to eat. This one’s a keeper.

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The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

One of the most fun things about this blog is the opportunity to not just read new books, but also to try new food combinations. Challenging myself to step outside of my usual culinary and literary tastes has resulted in some wonderful meals, and given me the knowledge that I can probably accomplish anything I put my mind too, cookingwise.

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This book, The Mistress of Spices, caught my eye at an estate sale in my neighborhood. There was a tableful of books for sale, and a tableful of jewelry……….and was I torn! Sparkly things! Pages of words yet undiscovered! Who can choose? Not me, so I bought four books and two necklaces for a grand total of $5.00. Best money ever spent.

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Apart from falling in love with the chapter titles, each of which was named after a different spice, e.g., Turmeric, Fenugreek, Neem, Sesame, and so on, this book hooked me with its resemblance to both Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate, tying together the premises of food as medicine, and food – spices, in this case – as the key to opening up the heart. The heroine, an Indian woman named Tilo who is in the guise of an elderly crone, is actually an ancient “Mistress of Spices,” which is a type of genie who unlocks peoples hidden wants and desires with her clever applications of spices.

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Her identity is hidden to keep her magical self hidden from the world, especially those who would steal her talents. Her expertise with the spices also makes her a bit of a magician in the kitchen, affecting people and their emotions through her cooking and food. I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Food is medicine for the body and the soul, and that’s why I’m drawn to certain books that depict the alchemy of food and cooking and their effect upon people. When you cook for people, when you nourish their bodies with what you have created, you are also nourishing their souls.

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“But here is another image. A woman in a kitchen, cooking my rice. She is fragrant as the grains she rolls between her fingers to see if they are done. Rice steam has softened her skin, has loosened hair tied back taut all day……..Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to ring patience and hope.”

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Isn’t that just lovely to read and visualize?

Cooking is many things – alchemy, love, magic – and in this book, the spices add to the food a hint of immortality. Which is as it should be, since all things in this world are alchemized into something else, love is eternal, and magic is what happens each day when we wake up and embrace life one more time. This book epitomizes all of those things, and more.

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I don’t care for white rice much these days, finding it tasteless and bland. But I recently discovered the joys of cauliflower rice, and loving the many varieties of Indian curry, I decided to create a chicken curry garnished with cashew and cilantro, and some delicious cauliflower rice to go with, adapted from the this marvelous website.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the cauliflower rice:
1 large head of cauliflower, any color you want.
Salt and pepper
1 large scallion, finely chopped.
1 tablespoon garlic oil
1 tablespoon clarified butter (left from this post I made two weeks back)

For the curry:
1 tablespoons garlic oil, divided
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

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1 large scallion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons curry paste, any color. I used green here.
1/2 cup of coconut milk
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 cup of chicken stock
1 chicken stock cube
3-4 dashes of fish sauce (nam pla) – a trick I learned from Nigella Lawson
1-2 tablespoons of lime juice or to taste
Handful of cashews, ground in a food processor

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METHOD
Wash the cauliflower and break into florets. Either grate with a cheese grater, or pulse in a food processor, until the cauliflower breaks down into small, rice-like bits.

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In a large saucepan, add 1 tablespoon of garlic oil, a tablespoon of the clarified butter (though if you don’t have it, use regular butter), the cauliflower bits and one of the chopped red scallions. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, and saute for about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Using the same saucepan, add the other tablespoon of garlic oil, the other chopped red scallion, and saute until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the turmeric and the garam masala, and stir again.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs, the curry paste, the coconut milk and a handful of chopped cilantro leaves. Stir again to mix well and let the chicken pieces brown and cook for about 6-7 minutes.

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Add the chicken stock, the two stock cubes and the fish sauce. Cover with a lid and let simmer for about 30 minutes. After about a half-hour of cooking,  remove the lid and admire the lovely, bubbling greeny-gold color of the curry. Add in the lime juice, and let simmer without a lid for about 5 minutes more, to thicken slightly. Add in the cashews, stir and simmer another few minutes. I warn you, it smells like citrusy heaven!

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Put the cauliflower rice onto a plate, dollop over a good, thick, unctuous, delicious ladleful of the curry, and garnish with more cilantro, if you like. It’s a delicious dish, rich from the ground nuts and subtly flavored, spicy with the garam masala, and tangy from the lime. The cauliflower rice is surprisingly delicious, filling and has a flavor of its own but does not interfere with the curry. It’s a lovely substitute if you’re looking to omit carbs, and it’s even easier than cooking rice!

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“A warning to readers: the spices in this book should be taken only under the supervision of a qualified Mistress.”

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Talking To The Dead by Helen Dunmore

Nina, a London photographer, comes to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has just given birth to her first child. Nina’s brother-in-law Richard soon starts playing a major role in her life as she cooks for her sister and begins remembering the mysterious death of her and Isabel’s infant brother. The descriptions of a long, hot, drought-ridden summer in England resonate with burning sunshine, apple trees dropping their fruit-laden branches, scalding rivers, and lush descriptions of food. Chicken risotto, rustic bread smeared with unsalted butter and homemade apricot preserves, cream-filled doughnuts, and an ultimately doomed celebratory feast featuring figs, couscous with goat cheese and roasted vegetables, and……..the soup. Keep reading. It gets better.

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This novel is one of those rare birds that feature wonderful writing, sensually lavish descriptions of food, and characters that are both unlikable and yet addicting in their dysfunction. Toward the end, a celebration dinner is planned and each character must cook a dish. Edward comes up with what sounded like garlicky, stinky heaven…….a shrimp and garlic soup, with coriander (cilantro to us desert flowers.) Nom nom nom! Garlic! Shrimp! Cilantro! A culinary holy trinity, as far as I’m concerned, and a smelling-to-high-heaven broth of deliciousness that you could feed to an angel. But don’t. Keep it for yourself and spoon it down with glee.

I’ll make a fish soup,” Edward says. “If we’re going into Brighton, I know a good fishmonger there. ‘Shrimp and garlic soup with coriander. It’s the fish soup that takes the time.”

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What a crock…….of soup!  This soup took no time at all, and the freshness of the ingredients, mixed with the strong saline flavor of shrimp, the heat of the garlic, and the pungent coriander, made this a true pleasure both to cook and to greedily eat.

This is the cooking method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS:
6 ounces of butter, preferably unsalted
6 ounces of flour
12-15 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper

cayenne
6 cups of chicken stock or or seafood stock if you can find it.
1 cup good white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 tomato bouillon cube
2 bags raw shrimp, tails on
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Bunch of cilantro

METHOD

Melt the butter slowly over low heat using a heavy-bottomed metal or cast-iron pot.

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Gradually incorporate the flour one spoonful at a time, whisking like crazy. You don’t want to add all the flour at once, because it will turn into one big, floury-tasting lump. And who wants to eat a ball of flour? Not I. I found the best method for amalgamating the flour into the butter was to whisk when each spoonful of flour went in, then stir with a wooden spoon. Add the cayenne pepper, and the two cubes of bouillon cubes, and stir to mix, so their flavors can mix and add to the roux.

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Slice the garlic into thin shards, saute them in a separate skillet to brown and bring out their flavors. Then add them to the roux.

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Increase heat to medium and slowly add the stock, continuing to whisk so that it mixes with the roux. Again, do this gradually and stir and whisk as you incorporate the liquid. Your soup will thank you.

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Simmer on low for about an hour so the flavors can mingle and mix, and you can enjoy the heady perfume of garlic, butter and roux. Add the white wine after about 30 minutes, so that it too, can flavor the broth. After the hour of cooking time, add the chopped cilantro and the lemon juice, and which will add even more scent to the broth. Allow to simmer another 10 minutes, then add the shrimp. These will not need long to cook, just until they turn pink.

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Garnish with a bit more fresh cilantro and eat with joy in your heart. This soup is soooooooo good, and perfect served with good, crusty bread and a glass of deep red wine. Enjoy!