Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Those of you who know me know of my deep and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he is a well-known New Mexico writer who wrote what many consider the seminal work of Chicano literature – Bless Me, Ultima. His work tends to focus on the lives of his fellow New Mexicans, and he has made forays into children’s literature as well. He’s written poems, essays, short stories, and plays, but it is his fictional novels that reveal his heart and soul, as well as the intense love he has for his home state and in particular, for the city where we both reside, Albuquerque.

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His novel Alburquerque – yes, you read that correctly with the extra “R” – is a love story and homage to this unique character of a city. It tells the story of Ben Chavez, a writer and professor and his connection with a young boxer named Abrán Gonzalez, but that is only part of the tale. The story takes place against the backdrop of a nasty mayoral race, and incorporates a beautiful love story between Abrán and Lucinda, an adopted boy’s search for his birth father, the spiritual beliefs and mingled faith of the Catholics of Northern New Mexico, and the unique politics of Albuquerque.

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I love this book so very much, not just because I love Rudolfo Anaya, but because it so perfectly describes my city. From the stunningly blue springtime skies to the cottonwood trees along the bosque trails that frame the Rio Grande River, from the tall buildings of Downtown to the seasonal matanzas, from the mountains of the many small towns of Northern New Mexico to the gorgeous homes of Albuquerque’s North Valley, Anaya not only knows Albuquerque inside and out, he clearly adores this city.

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The story takes place right around Easter, and rereading it, I was struck by the beautiful description of the traditional Good Friday trek to El Santuario de Chimayó. Chimayó is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Albuquerque, and is world-famous for its church and for its holy dirt, which pilgrims take with them as a blessing. The dirt is believed to have healing powers and people come from around the world to see it. On Good Friday, devout Catholics trek on foot from surrounding towns, sometimes walking over 100 miles to show their faith and devotion. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus emergency, the trek was cancelled. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I understand the importance of this annual pilgrimage to the faithful, as well as the cultural identity we New Mexicans have with Chimayó. I pray that next year we can renew this wonderful tradition.

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Then, of course, there is the New Mexican food that is described in luscious detail by Anaya. Red chile enchiladas, tortillas, the scent of fresh green chile roasting, the tart zing of a margarita, and then there is this passage, describing the smells of food cooking as Abrán walks into the house where his mother Sara is cooking.

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Sara was up when he got home. The house was warm and welcomed him with the smell of tortillas on the comal and fresh coffee brewing. She called from the kitchen, where she was making Lenten food for Good Friday: tortillas, tortas de huevo, spinach mixed with beans and a pod of red chile, and natillas for dessert.

New Mexican Catholics have a traditional Lenten meal that we eat on Good Friday. It’s meatless, and almost always comprises salmon patties, torta de huevo with red chile,  (tortas de huevo are savory little egg cakes),  quelites (wilted spinach greens) mixed with cooked pinto beans, tortillas, and for dessert, natillas. Natillas is a delicious vanilla custard dusted with cinnamon and is very central to any New Mexican’s Lenten meal. So that’s what I made, using my own Nana Jean’s tried-and-true method. She used to make the Good Friday dinner every year, and my sister and I took up the tradition after she died. This year, sadly, we are all social distancing so no point in making all that food when we can’t be together to share it. But natillas are so delicious that I decided a bowl of them would be a good distraction from everything going on right now.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

METHOD
Mix together the whole milk, condensed milk, cornstarch and sugar over medium heat, stirring very frequently. The sugar burns easily so don’t leave it.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites and add the yolks to the milk mixture. Set aside the egg whites.

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Whisk the mixture for the first couple of minutes, so the cornstarch is better incorporated, then stir with a wooden spoon.

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Add the vanilla and cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens into a custard. Remove from the heat.

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Whisk the egg whites on high until they form stiff peaks.

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Fold the whipped egg whites into the custard mixture in a large bowl.

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Sprinkle with cinnamon and chill overnight.

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Heavenly to taste, light and sweet but not overly so, and just completely the taste of New Mexico Eastertime!

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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.

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

Fairy tales are probably my favorite genre of book in the world, though like all my other favorites, I am very picky about which ones I read. The prose has to be quality and the elements of each individual story must be present, though I love it when they are presented in a new and different way, or with a twist. And my favorite fairy tale of all time has to be the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I mean, how can it get any better than 12 daughters of a king who, every night, dance through their expensive shoes and refuse to explain how, an errant knight who finds a way to become invisible, and a magical world of golden trees, diamond branches and a ballroom both magical and terrifying? So when I was recently listening to the podcast Books in the Freezer (also, how can you not love that name and the Friends reference) and they mentioned the book House of Salt and Sorrows as being part of the horror-fairy tale genre and as a retelling of my favorite fairy tale, hell yeah I immediately ordered it from Amazon!

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I actually have a very old fairy tale book of the story itself, kept from childhood when I purloined it from my school library. I know, I know, that’s a lousy thing to do but in my defense……..well, I have none. But I have the book over 30 years later and I still swoon over the gorgeous illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Feel free to judge me for being a library book thief. But just feast your eyes on these stunning images from my childhood book!

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In a nutshell, this book is told from the viewpoint of Annaleigh, one of 12 daughters of Duke Thaumas. Four of his daughters have already died under horrible – and mysterious – circumstances, and Annaleigh starts to suspect there is more to their deaths than meets the eye. The kingdom and universe created in this book are marvelous, and perhaps one of the reasons I loved it so much was because of the strong use of ocean symbolism and metaphor. There is an entire mythology of gods that rule over the world, and Annaleigh’s people are called People of the Salt and the sea, and everything related to it, including salt, are intensely tied into their lives.

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The elements of the shoes are one of the major plot points, as well they should be. The enchanted forests of gold, silver and diamonds are also part of the tale, as is the knight who helps discover the mystery behind the shoes and the subsequent enchantment over the daughters of the Duke. There is also, as there should be in any fairy tale story, a stepmother whose intentions are seemingly innocent, and although I did figure out her role in the entire mystery about halfway (as will any discerning reader), there is a little unexpected twist at the end that I appreciated.

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Probably the most fascinating aspect of the universe created in this book is how it mirrors so much of ancient Greece and Judeo-Christianity in terms of gods, religion, rites and superstitions. The role of the priest, when burying the dead, is called the High Mariner. Bodies are not buried underground, but instead, put in wooden coffins in a cave where the sea will take the body back…….just like ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or in this case, from salt you came and to salt you will return. The god who rules over the sea is called Pontus and is visualized as a giant octopus. Water imagery is everywhere in book, images of fish and mermaids and seahorses and octopi and every ocean-living creature you can think of.

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The enchantment of the 12 daughters of the Duke results in some truly creepy results. The ghosts of the four previously dead daughters start to be seen around the castle, and they are not the restful souls you might expect. Even I, a horror aficionado, was skeezed out a bit by the description of these wraiths. Annaleigh resists the longest as she continues to investigate her sisters’ deaths and as a result, is haunted by horrific visions of being drowned by a vast sea monster. In fact, though this is not what you’d expect as a food-inspired moment, it actually did inspire me but then, I’m a black-hearted bitch sometimes and the scary stuff often inspires me. As it did here.

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I tried to scream for Camille but was suddenly yanked under by an unseen force. The dark water raced into my mouth, filling it with a brackish bite as I sputtered out a cry for help. I pushed upward, gagging on the fishy tang. It was a surprisingly familiar taste. One of Cook’s favorite dishes to make in the summer months was a black risotto, full of clams, shallots and prawns. The rice was an exotic obsidian, dyed with squid ink.

Yes, I was inspired to make squid-ink risotto with seafood by a passage where a young woman is nearly drowned. I’m evil like that.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups seafood stock
2 cups clam juice
1 cup Pernod (you could use white wine but Pernod adds a delicious aniseed note that goes well with seafood)
2 squid ink packets
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 shallot, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup arborio rice
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 can cooked clams

METHOD
In a medium sauce pan, combine the seafood stock, the clam juice and the Pernod, and bring to a low boil.

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Squeeze one packet of the squid ink into the hot liquid to dissolve, until the stock is as black as your heart. Leave to simmer on very low heat.

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In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat and add the shallots and garlic. Sprinkle with a bit of sea salt, and saute until soft, about three minutes.

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Add in the rice and stir, toasting it for about 2-3 minutes. This step is called la tostatura and is meant to toast the rice and give it a bit more flavor.

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One ladleful at a time, gradually add the hot, jet-black seafood broth into the rice, and stir with a wooden spoon until each ladleful of liquid is absorbed. Stir continually to allow the rice to absorb the broth. You cannot do this quickly, people. The idea is that slow incorporation of the liquid results in a lovely, creamy rice texture that is what makes risotto. Expect to stand and stir for about 30 minutes. It’s very Zen, actually.

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While you are stirring, heat the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil in a grill pan and when hot, grill the clams just a minute, then grill the shrimp until pink.

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Taste your risotto for texture and seasoning. You want it al dente – creamy but with a bit of a bite.

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Season with salt and pepper as needed and plate, first with a layer of black rice and then with the clams and shrimp. The taste of the blackest ocean is so salty and delicious on the tongue that you could drown in it.

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The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David Martín, and Fermín Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile Fermín and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including Martín, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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Talking To The Dead by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore has such a lush style of writing that you often don’t notice she’s sucking you into a maelstrom of subtle discord until it’s too late. Talking to the Dead is the first book by her I’d ever read and her literary style is absolutely amazing, combining the understated unease of family dynamics with the terror of repressed memories and the unacknowledged horror of how our childhoods can not only screw us up, but others as well.

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Nina, a London photographer, comes to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has just given birth to her first child. Isabel’s gay best friend Edward has also come to stay. 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.

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

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I suppose this book would fall under the category “chick-lit” which I generally loathe. However, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary years ago and remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and the film version with Renee Zellwegger, was similarly hilarious and heart-felt. It’s still as funny today and I found myself snickering yet again as I reread it last week. I suppose many of us who were singletons in our mid-30s could definitely relate to many of the themes in this book – wanting to find a relationship, parental issues, being stuck between two different lovers, trying to find the right job – but for me, the underlying theme that stood out to me then and now was the concept of loving yourself and finding someone who was going to love you just as you were, warts and imperfections and cellulite and all.

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We live in a society that idolizes appearance. We all want to look our best. These two elements combined have created a sense that if we don’t look homogenized, have long straight hair, have the perfect relationship, or be a size 6, that we are not worthy, not valuable, not lovable, not NORMAL. I think why this book resonates is because it shows that when you do kill yourself to look/be “normal” or all those catchphrases that society tells us we must adhere to, oftentimes we end up looking worse, feeling worse, not being true to ourselves. When we accept our faults and our quirky unique weirdness is when we are our true selves and when we are able and open to loving ourselves.

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The book, in a nutshell, is the adventures of Bridget Jones, 30-something, still single, and her quest for the perfect job, perfect weight, and perfect man. What makes it so hilariously funny is that she is about as far from perfect as you can get – in other words, she is just like us. She is funny as fuck, totally relateable as she goes from one disaster to another, constantly trying to stop smoking, quit drinking, drop pounds, etc.

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The film version is excellent, too, and actually I prefer her mother in the movie. Bridget’s mom in the book is a horrendous human being. She isn’t even funny. In the film, Gemma Jones plays her with a ditzy sympathetic self-centeredness, but the book Mrs. Jones is just a selfish, self-centered nightmare who really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself. She was quite an unpleasant character. Other than that, the book was most amusing.

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So of course Bridget is a walking disaster in the kitchen, which lends itself to possibly the funniest scene in the book, when she decides to cook herself and her friends a lovely birthday dinner. Of course, being Bridget Jones, it gets completely fucked up, and made even more hilarious by the fact that Mark Darcy shows up at her house as she is attempting her culinary masterpiece.

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7 p.m. Just got home. Right. Calm, calm. Inner poise. Soup will be absolutely fine. Will simply cook and purée vegetables as instructed and then – to give concentration of flavor – rinse blue jelly off chicken carcasses and boil them up with cream in the soup.

8:30 p.m. All going marvelously. Guests are all in living room. Mark Darcy is being v. nice and brought champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates. Have not done main course yet apart from fondant potatoes but sure will be v. quick. Anyway, soup is first.

8:35 p.m. Oh my God. Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue.
….
Horror-struck, took mouthful myself. It was, as he said marmalade. Realize after all effort and expense have served my guests:
Blue soup
Omelette
Marmalade

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Now, making an actual blue soup would be totally fun but I can’t imagine it would taste very good. So I decided to go another route and incorporate blue cheese into a spinach soup, and it was a most inspired decision, if I do say so myself.

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INGREDIENTS
5 ounces fresh baby spinach, preferably organic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 cup half and half (or full-fat milk)
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
1-2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup blue cheese crumbles

METHOD
Chop up the spinach finely and set aside.

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Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the flour to brown it, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn.

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Add the milk and keep whisking until the mixture thickens. You don’t want lumps so stirring continually is a good thing, and better yet, if you do it with a glass of wine in hand, you’ll feel confident and competent in the kitchen, just like Bridget Jones!

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Add the spinach, garlic cloves and salt and pepper, and stir.

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Add in the chicken broth, the chicken bouillon paste and the white wine, cover, and let simmer about 25-30 minutes.

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Tumble in the blue cheese crumbles and let melt into the hot soup.

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Decant into bowls and serve with more wine, in true Bridget Jones fashion. So good, rich and warming and decadent. Yum!

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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

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

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

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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 Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

I thought it would be fun to blog about books I loved as a kid that also scared the crap out of me. I clean out books on a fairly regular basis because I buy so many of them, and I donate many to Little Free Libraries around my city. So while cleaning out my books the other day, I came across a stack of children’s and young adult books I’d kept for years and had some pleasant nostalgia when I saw The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs. It features the character Johnny Dixon, a young boy who lives with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. He’s a bookworm, kind of nerdy, loves to read and loves radio drama, and loves chocolate. Well, we can all relate to that!

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Johnny is befriended by Professor Roderick Childermass, who is a hilarious character. He reenacts famous sea battles with plastic ships in his bathroom, is a professor of history who is extremely opinionated, plays chess like a wizard, and makes a mean chocolate cake. Naturally, he and Johnny become pals, which is fortunate because when Johnny discovers a mysterious book and a blue figurine in the cellar of his church that once belonged to the evil priest Father Remigius Baart, the curse comes back to haunt Johnny. A blue ushabti figurine – ushabti are small figures found in ancient Egyptian tombs with mummies usually representing servants expected to do certain agricultural labors required of the deceased in the land of the dead – contains the actual curse and when Johnny takes both the book and the figurine, all hell breaks loose.

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An example of ushabti figurines.

My edition also features the unique artwork of Edward Gorey, who I absolutely adore! Anyway, this book was a wonderful nostalgic trip down memory lane for me, taking me back to the days when I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight after my mom and stepdad had gone to bed and I was supposed to be asleep. I think I always particularly loved the friendship between Johnny and Professor Childermass, because I always was in search of an adult who would treat me as a peer and not a a kid, and these two definitely bond as friends over chess and chocolate. This is one of my favorite passages:

Johnny excused himself and went across the street. He had a great time that evening. The professor was a crafty and merciless chess player. He was every bit as good as Johnny was, and maybe even a bit better. As for the cake….well, Johnny had theories about chocolate cake. He felt that the cake part of the cake was just an interruption between the layers of frosting. As it turned out, the professor’s opinions about cake were similar to Johnny’s. The cake he served had three or four thin layers and the rest was a huge amount of good, dark, thick, fudgy frosting. And he served second helpings, too.

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In honor my sister’s birthday, I tried my hand at a four-tier, old-fashioned chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with focus on the ganache frosting. I decorated it for Halloween, in honor of this high holy season of horror!

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INGREDIENTS FOR THE GANACHE FROSTING
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups dark chocolate chips, 70% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Amaretto

METHOD
Make your cake tiers with whatever chocolate cake recipe you have to hand. Make sure they are completely cool before frosting them.

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In a metal saucepan, heat the heavy cream until small bubbles just start to form around the sides and you see steam rising. Don’t overheat the cream or it will curdle. Turn off the heat immediately.

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Pour in the chocolate chips and make sure they are covered by the hot cream. Add the almond extract, the vanilla extract and the Amaretto. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.

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Remove the lid, and whisk the mixture for 5 minutes. You’ll see the chocolate ganache start to amalgamate as you continue to stir, thickening into a luscious frosting.

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One layer at a time, frost the top of each cake layer and stack them on a cake stand, until you have this magnificent layer cake. Proceed to frost the cake top and sides.

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Decorate however you want. I tried to find little blue mummies but could not, so I just went full on Halloween instead. The result? Cute, kitschy, and ultimately delicious!

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Just look at those fudgy layers! Johnny Dixon would be proud!

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