Food in Films – Dangerous Beauty

I hadn’t done a Food in Films post in quite awhile and I’m sorry for that. These are among the most fun posts I can do, particularly because I enjoy the inherent creativity in recreating food from a movie. You really do have a lot of artistic license, almost more so than recreating food in a book because the visual aspect of the food and the necessity of understanding what the author had in mind is necessarily different from the vision of a filmmaker and their approach to food.

Being still working from home and trapped in this never-ending pandemic, I’ve been rewatching old favorites quite a lot, both on streaming services and also dusting off my own DVD collection. I was going through them the other day, and found an entire shelf of DVDs dedicated to, and set in, Venice. Well, Venice is probably my favorite city in the entire world, more so than even Barcelona and I love Barcelona! But there is something about the siren call of La Serenissima, as Venice is lovingly called by those who adore her as I do, that draws me back again and again. And in this case, the criminally underrated film Dangerous Beauty is on the menu today.

Dangerous Beauty, Harlequin romance title notwithstanding, is an absolute jewel of a film. It’s the fictionalized version of the life of a famous 16th century Venetian poet and courtesan named Veronica Franco. Veronica is of an old Venetian family but they are impoverished, and so her desire to marry Marco Venier, of one of Venice’s most notable families and who was expected to become one of the powerful Council of Ten (essentially the governing body of Venice) is not allowed. Her mother, Paola, gives her the options of becoming either a lady’s maid, working in a winery, becoming a nun, or turning her talents to becoming a courtesan. With those choices, I’d choose the path of courtesanship any day too, though it does tell you how bleak the choices were for women back then.

The film is lushly filmed, gorgeously captured, with the most stunning – if questionably authentic – costumes, gowns, hair styles, jewels, etc. Veronica herself is a closet heroine, being both highly educated and well-read, as well as being trained to be a wonderful female companion and of course, being one of Venice’s most famous courtesans, her sexual skills and prowess were also legendary. Venice itself is as much a character in this film as Veronica and Marco are, lending its beautiful canals and famously sinking, opulent palazzos to the backdrop of what is a fascinating early tale of feminism, finding your own destiny and path in life, and never bowing to those who would punish you for being yourself.

With witty dialogue and verbal ripostes like “If your prick is as limp as your verse, no price can buy time enough” (my personal favorite), “a coat of arms does not an inheritance make,” and of course this one “desire begins in the mind,” you can understand why I love this movie so much. It combines a feminist mindset with gorgeous sensuality, and reminds all of us that beauty is not just about looking a certain way but also having faith in yourself and understanding that looks are only a small part of what makes us who we are. An important part, but ultimately it’s having that education, that ability to read and write and learn…….those are things that are the most hard-won in life and the things that are nearly impossible to take away. After all, our looks will fade, we may lose our money or our jobs or our lovers, but our education and the wonderful workings of our minds will (hopefully) remain with us the longest and provide us the most satisfaction.

The cast of this film is also outstanding! Some of my favorite character actors make an appearance here, including the sexier-than-hell Rufus Sewell as Marco Venier; Fred Ward standing in as Domenico Venier; the always amazing Jacqueline Bisset as Paola Franco; Jake Ward (remember him from that rad TV series American Gothic?) as King Henry of France; Naomi Watts as Giulia de Lezze, the woman Marco is forced to marry; Moira Kelly as Marco’s sister and Veronica’s best friend Beatrice Venier; the wonderfully funny Oliver Platt as the dangerous Maffio Venier; and of course, the gorgeous and talented Catherine McCormack playing Veronica to perfection. I really don’t understand why McCormack wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, but Hollywood is full of dumbasses so perhaps it’s not surprising.

Possibly my most favorite scene in a film that is full of favorite scenes is when Paola is teaching Veronica how to become a courtesan. She tries to make her understand that lust starts in the mind, that beautiful clothes add to the package, and that pleasure is not a weapon but a tool that can be rendered even more powerful when the courtesan herself feels it, not just gives it through sex. Paola slowly eats an artichoke leaf, sips a glass of wine, then, oh so sensually, demonstrates her oral sex method by lasciviously deep-throating an asparagus spear before looking expectantly at her daughter to see if Veronica has internalized this important lesson. Veronica, of course, being angry at this is her only option, defiantly munches away on her own asparagus spear. It’s hilarious and erotic at the same time.

So what else could I have done but made Venetian-style asparagus, after a scene like that? I used my friend and fellow food blogger Luca Marchiori’s method to make sparasi alla Veneta. Traditionally, white asparagus is used in Venice, but it’s a bit more difficult to find where I am – sadly, not Venice – so I used green asparagus and it was lovely. And no, I didn’t deep-throat it. Read on!

“You must know pleasure to give pleasure.”

INGREDIENTS
20 asparagus spears, trimmed
4 hardboiled eggs
8 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Steam or boil the asparagus for 5-7 minutes, or until they are tender-crisp. Pat dry.

Peel the hard boiled eggs and put them into a food processor.

Add the anchovy fillets and the capers, and whizz together with the eggs until well combined.

Keep the mixer going at low speed, and slowly add in the vinegar and the olive oil until they both incorporate into a lovely, thin mayonnaise-like sauce.

With the asparagus served just warm, spoon over the sauce. The capers and vinegar pack a punch and the anchovies give it the perfect desired saltiness. Enjoy with a glass of Italian wine, preferably in a Murano glass goblet and whilst channeling your inner sex goddess/courtesan/poet while you do so.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

I will probably get a barrage of hate mail when I say this, but I kinda thought Wicked by Gregory Maguire sucked. I can’t really say why, other than I’ve never really thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fairy tale. It was, I don’t know, too American somehow? For me, the trappings of a fairy tale require a sense of magical realism that, for all that it was set in Oz and the Emerald City, etc., TWOZ just did not have. Maybe it was the lack of a true princess trapped in a castle somewhere. Maybe it was the insertion of the Wizard who ends up being from Dorothy’s time and kills the sense of fantasy, or the fact that her adventure was just a dream. And Maguire’s first book didn’t do anything to alleviate the humdrum nature of the kingdom of Oz.

Anyway, most everyone tends to associate Maguire with Wicked, which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the sympathetic viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. It got turned into a major Broadway musical and cemented Maguire’s reputation as a writer who turns traditional fairytales onto their heads. However, he’s written a few more books in the same vein which are, in my opinion, far better, such as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. As you can probably guess, this book takes the classic fairy tale trope of Cinderella and twists it so that it’s told from the viewpoint of one of the two ugly stepsisters. It’s done magnificently well and I’d have to say that this book is my favorite of Maguire’s fairy tale remixes.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Iris (or is it?), one of the daughters of Margarethe Fisher, who is escaping an angry religious mob in England who killed her husband Jack, the father of Iris and her sister Ruth, who is “simple.” They arrive in 17th-century Haarlem, in Holland, where Margarethe begins working as a housekeeper for the artist Master Schoonmaker. Iris grows fond of the Master and when he expresses a wish to paint her, she demurs at first because she knows she is plain and ugly. The Master begins to show her the basics of painting and they begin an ongoing dialogue that weaves throughout the book, taking on the nature of what exactly constitutes beauty and ugliness, and the relativity of both those concepts.

It’s true, if you think about it. What one person considers ugly can be considered beautiful, and vice versa. There are, I admit, certain universal qualities that render something or someone beautiful, but scratch the surface of any culture or time periods’ idea of beauty, and it is often dated, superficial and not considered beautiful at all by numerous other cultures. And Klara Van den Meer, who later becomes Iris and Ruth’s stepsister, possesses these universal beauty marks in full.

When Margarethe becomes the housekeeper for the wealthy Van den Meer family, she instantly clashes with the mistress of the household Henrika, who mysteriously dies later in the book, opening the path for Margarethe to marry Van den Meer, whose wealth is based upon the infamous Holland tulip trade of the 17th century. Klara, with her beautiful face and family wealth, had been kidnapped as a child and her parents had to spend a small fortune to get her back, so she is prone to numerous neuroses, as we’d call them nowadays. She loathes her new stepmother Margarethe and they constantly battle. But she and Iris develop an odd love-hate relationship, in which they become mutually dependent on one another in trying to survive the sheer horridness of Margarethe’s terrible mothering.

On a larger scale, Iris and Klara come to see themselves as flip sides of the same coin in terms of aesthetics and feminine self-worth and self-realization. Both are judged by society on the basis of their looks, which puts them into the same boat in a sense. Both are women trapped in a patriarchal society in which they must depend on men for their living and sense of worth. Both are able to change their own outlooks on life and take an active role in how their lives will develop. Klara is in danger of being married off to Van Stolk, an elderly lecherous merchant who offers her father and stepmother money, as they have lost their fortune due to the tulip crash. Iris is in danger of losing her nerve to become an artist, to study with the Master and to take seriously the courtship of the Master’s apprentice Caspar, who loves Iris.

The turning point and the climax of the book is, of course, the ball. Marie de Medici, Dowager Queen of France, comes to Haarlem to try and marry off one of her nephews (fictional, of course) and all the families in the town are invited. Klara, who has been living in the kitchen and working as the housekeeper to avoid her despised stepmother, is covered in ashes and soot but these cannot hide her beauty. In an attempt to avoid the planned marriage to Van Stolk, she, Iris and Caspar devise a plan to get her a gorgeous dress and her mother’s famous white satin slippers, never worn. Both Klara and Iris, and Ruth, who plays a much larger role in the book than you would imagine until closer to the end, each take life-changing actions to ensure their futures are not at the mercy of either their mother/stepmother, the changing fates of the tulip economy, or their beauty and lack thereof.

It’s a gorgeously written book, lush and elegant, almost like a tapestry woven with golden threads and sharp, stunning colors. The descriptions of paint colors, artwork, lavish gowns, gleaming jewels, the colors of the winter sky and the glint of sunshine on ice and snow, and the delectable and opulent descriptions of food all combine to create an effect of both wealth and strange magical realism. This paragraph inspired today’s dish:

Van den Meer leaves the Master and Caspar alone for a few minutes. Iris can hear him barking instructions to the kitchen staff for refreshments to be served in an hour: a platter of lobsters and a bowl of lemons – some greens, soaked to remove sand – a pitcher of beer and a pitcher of water and a pile of freshly ironed linens……

Lobster, lemons and wilted greens mean one thing to me – lobster lemon linguine with wilter spinach. Here’s how I did it.

INGREDIENTS
4 lobster tails
1 bottle dry white wine. I used Sauvignon Blanc
6-7 sprigs fresh thyme
10 ounces linguine pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lemon, to be zested and juiced
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of pasta water from the linguine

METHOD
Poach the lobster tails in the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and add the thyme leaves. Bring to a boil and cook until the lobster tails turn bright red and curl up. Remove and let cool.

Cut off the tail and cut down the back of the cooked lobster and remove the lobster meat. Chop into chunks and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the linguine for roughly 8 minutes, until just al dente, then remove a cup of the cooking water. While the pasta is cooking, finely dice the garlic and shallot.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, then cook the garlic and shallot about 10 minutes with some salt and pepper.

Pour in the heavy cream and raise the heat slightly so the cream simmers. Don’t let it burn or curdle, though. Once it is barely bubbling, turn down the heat and add the butter, the zest and juice of one lemon, the shaved Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper.

Stir until creamily melted together into a lovely sauce, and add in about half a cup of the pasta water, then add in the lobster chunks.

Add the pasta into the sauce and cook another couple of minutes, tossing the pasta with tongs to ensure every strand is lusciously covered with the creamy, lemony sauce. The sauce may thicken up a bit so add some more pasta water and more lemon juice to taste as needed.

Add in about 3 cups of fresh spinach, cover, and let the heat wilt the spinach down, then stir again, plate up and serve with a delicious Pinot Grigio or dry white wine of your choice. Delicious, beautiful, elegant – rather like the book itself. Salut!

Johannes Cabal The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

It’s rare for me to find a book that I love on as many levels as I do Johannes Cabal The Necromancer. It’s got a hero who sold his soul to Satan in order to gain knowledge of the occult and how to bring people back from the dead. It’s got an evil, yet hilarious, circus – very Ray Bradbury meets AHS: Freak Show. It’s got a vampire brother who loves the ladies. It’s got elements of horror, fantasy, Gothic romance, steampunk, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraftishness, a very sarcastic Satan, and tons of witty, black British humor. Oh, and in order to get into Hell, you must fill out paperwork. In triplicate times infinity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always pictured Hell to be place teeming with bureaucracy. It’s not compared to government for nothing, you know.

Johannes Cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy. Yes, that’s how he describes himself. He runs around in a black suit with a black hat, smoked glasses, a Gladstone bag containing his necromancy tools, various spells and potions, and of course, a gun. Because what else would a necromancer need besides a gun? Anyway, as the book opens, Johannes finds himself in Hell to demand Satan return his soul, as he needs it to continue his research into raising the dead, though not for the reasons you’d might expect.

Johannes Cabal is kind of an anti-hero but he is so deadpan, so witty and so unintentionally hilarious; and even though he raises the dead for a living, was responsible for turning his brother Horst into a vampire, and has no problem at all with swindling innocent people into selling their souls – part of his wager with The King of Hell to get his soul back – he is actually very lovable. I always enjoy when a writer is so talented that he can make an otherwise monstrous character into one that we love and root for. Tom Ripley is one such example, but Johannes Cabal is in a class all by himself. I guess the best way to describe him is that he’s soulless but he’s not heartless.

The characters are a motley crew of monsters, carnival attractions such as Layla the Latex Lady, a carnival manager literally made out of a bone, murdering magicians, swindling teenagers with attitude, a family of inbred and insanely wealthy misfits, a tough police detective trying to put all the pieces together, his beautiful daughter who ends up inadvertently helping Johannes Cabal break his contract with The Big Guy Downstairs, hilariously-named demons (Ragtag Slyboots, Despoiler of Milk and Tangler of Shoelaces, anyone?) and any number of snarky, witty, and grumpy observations by the necromancer himself.

Characters from the Johannes Cabal universe. From left: Satan, Frank Barrow, Leonie Barrow, Johannes Cabal, Horst Cabal, Bones the Carnival Manager, Dennis and Denzil, and Layla the Latex Lady. Image courtesy of AgarthianGuide on Deviantart.com. Here’s the link for more of her Johannes Cabal images: https://www.deviantart.com/agarthanguide/art/Johannes-Cabal-the-Necromancer-Linup-590426600

Toward the beginning of the book, once Johannes has made his Faustian wager with The Devil and goes back to Earth to start the circus, he finds he needs the assistance of his vampiric brother Horst. Horst, you see, was locked in the Druin family crypt several years before by Johannes himself as part of his necromaniacal researches. The Druin family, the aforementioned inbred and wealthy family, are all gradually picked off, one by one, by a mysterious aunt – and Horst’s crypt companion – who had a taste for bloodsucking and killed her psychotic nephews and nieces in some very gruesome and funny ways. Beatrice’s particular peccadillo involved creating the world’s largest museum of peas, so you can well understand how and why she came to her demise.

Then, one morning, the surviving family woke up and found themselves short one for breakfast. They discovered Beatrice tied by her ankles to the chandelier. Her expression was one of purest horror and she was quite dead. There were a lot of peas in the room. The post-mortem discovered another five pounds of them forced down her throat, jamming her esophagus shut and clogging her airways.

Yes, I was again inspired to cook a dish by a passage about someone’s gruesome death. I’m kind of cool that way. Anyway, mushy peas are one of those good old-fashioned classic British recipes that have basic ingredients and yet are so delicious. When I was in London a few years back, I fell in love with fish and chips served with a side of mushy peas, and when I came home, I started making them for myself. Aside from the fact that they are dead easy, you’d be surprised at the number of people who think I’m a culinary genius for coming up with that method! I generally don’t clear up the confusion. 🙂 Classic British mushy peas call for using mature marrowfat peas, but I just channel my inner Nigella Lawson here and use a bag of frozen peas. They’re just as impressive and tasty.

INGREDIENTS
2 12-oz bags of frozen peas
5 cloves of garlic, in their skins
2 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat a large saucepan of water and bring to a boil, and sprinkle in some salt. Cook the peas and the garlic cloves in the boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drain.

Peel the skins off the garlic cloves.

In the same pan, add the butter and toss in the peas and garlic cloves.

Add the heavy cream, and using a potato masher, mash the peas and garlic with the butter. You can use a food processor if you want, but the idea is to have a mix of mashed peas and semi-solid peas so I find it easier to get the right texture this way.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed before serving. Delicious! I served with a nice baked salmon fillet and it was perfect with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. And nary a pea was to be found stuffed down my esophagus, either!

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

No, I didn’t read this book out of any type of name ego toward the title……ok, maybe I did a little. But that quickly went by the wayside as I traveled deeper into this very hard read. This book takes on the concept of what it truly means to be a victim in our society. It takes the truth and plays with it in such a way that you don’t know who to blame, who to be angry toward, feminism, victim-blaming and victim-shaming, the sexual boundary between youth and adulthood, and what our minds do to protect ourselves and justify our actions, our thoughts and our beliefs.

The story is told in two timeframes: starting in 2000 when 14-year old Vanessa Wye starts attending a private high school and begins a tumultuous affair with her 40-something English professor Jacob Strane, and in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult, living a mediocre life of one-night stands, failed relationships, thrashed apartments and a dead-end job…….and still involved (if only emotionally) with Jacob Strane. It’s a clever device because it contrasts between the youth and hope and destructiveness of Vanessa’s teen year as she is gradually groomed into becoming Strane’s lover; and her cynicism, bitterness and inability to see herself as having been a victim as an adult. She can’t seem to get her life together in any real way, stuck as she is in her job and same ways of doing things and continuing with the dysfunctional and simultaneous love and repulsion she feels toward Strane.

It’s a sign of just how much he was able to manipulate her mentally and emotionally that even as an adult, Vanessa cannot separate her own desire to live her own life and not be considered a victim with her inability to separate herself from Strane. She is physically repulsed by him as an adult but cannot break that bond with him and still tells him she will remain loyal to him even as more and more students come out of the woodwork to accuse him of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior.

Nabokov’s disturbing book Lolita is invoked throughout, and there are shades of The Police’s rock hit “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” as well. It’s compelling and repulsive at the same time. Repulsion is a good word here, because it reminds me of that famous quote by Freud: “on the other side of desire lies repulsion.” For me, that quote perfectly sums up Vanessa’s feelings toward Strane. As a teenager, she loves his attention toward her, loves his passionate personality, loves the portrait of herself that he sees in his mind when he looks at her, and is physically repelled by the actual act of sexual intercourse with him. That pattern continues throughout their increasingly twisted relationship.

We all know that any 40-year old who pursues any type of relationship with a 14-year old is twisted. We all know that any teacher who pursues any type of sexual relationship with a student is messed up. Why this book is so hard to put down and so hard to continue reading is because there are times when you go back and forth about who pursued who and I think you’re meant to, to really get your head into that space of seeing exactly how subtle the manipulation is by Strane, but also recognizing that Vanessa genuinely loves his attention, loves him. I remember clearly being a senior in high school and becoming aware of my own feminine power and my own physicality. It’s hard, because a young woman just coming into her awareness of her own sexuality is a beautiful thing, and can be very empowering and also very heady. I think that’s why Vanessa has such a hard time allowing herself to truly believe she’s been a victim of Strane’s manipulation – it’s tied up in her own awakening and awareness of her own sexuality and the power that comes with that.

This is probably one of the heaviest reads I’ve come across in years. I couldn’t put it down but I had to at times because the intensity of Vanessa’s darkness, her switching back and forth between realizing how she’d been manipulated and abused and making excuses for Strane and blaming herself for what ultimately happens and maintaining this weird loyalty toward him……….this is the ultimate example of Stockholm Syndrome and you realize just how powerful his hold is over her. She starts gradually excavating her own feelings and realizations as the book goes on, and the ending implies she is at least starting to acknowledge how deeply and horribly damaged she was by Strane and what a bastard he truly is, and finding her own strength. But it comes at a cost, as does everything in life that makes us stronger.

I didn’t go into this book intending it as a food in books post, simply because my head wasn’t in that space due to the subject matter. But I did come across a few interesting food references, and this one in particular stood out to me since it was something I’d never heard of or made before. It’s when Strane takes Vanessa out to dinner during her senior year in college and he is trying to push her into going to graduate school……and with the expectation that after dinner, she’ll go back to his hotel with him. He takes her to some fancy-schmancy restaurant where she peruses the menu before getting drunk….so drunk that she can’t have sex with him…….her subconscious method of keeping the physical aspect of their relationship at bay. Yes, it’s creepy.

The first week in November, Strane makes a reservation at an expensive restaurant down the coast and books us a hotel room. He tells me to dress up, so I wear a black dress with thin straps, the only nice thing I own. The restaurant is Michelin-starred, Strane says, and I pretend to know what it means……..The menu is all stuff like scallops with asparagus flan, tenderloin crusted with foie gras. Nothing has a price.

So, asparagus flan it was.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A dozen asparagus spears, trimmed and halved
1 and 1/2 cups crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup of sour cream (or creme fraiche if you can find it)
3 large eggs, beaten
Zest of 1 lemon

METHOD
Heat the oven to 325F and butter four oven-safe ramekins. Put on your kettle at the same time so you’ll have boiling water.

Boil the asparagus in salted water for 1-3 minutes until bright green, then drain and plunge into ice water. Drain and pat dry.

Over medium heat, whisk together the blue cheese and the sour cream until smooth and creamily melted together.

Add the eggs gradually and mix together, then divide among the four ramekins, and top with the asparagus.

Grate the lemon zest over each filled ramekin.

Place the ramekins in a large glass baking pan and carefully pour in the boiling water, so that it comes to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is what you’d call a water bath or a bain-marie and it helps create a smooth and creamy baked texture.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, and let cool for up to 15 minutes, before serving with skillet-seared scallops in a lemon-wine-caper-butter sauce. It’s a delicious meal, rich and decadent and satisfying without being overwhelming.

Strange Highways: The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz

October is such a great month, isn’t it? The brutal heat of summer is over and the crispness of autumn is upon us, we’re getting ready for the holiday season, and it all kicks off with the creepy fun of Halloween. Being a former Goth chick, I still have a fondness in my heart for all things dark and eerie, and that includes literature. Each October, I blog all month long books that fall easily into the horror/supernatural genre and we’re continuing that fine family tradition by starting this month’s blog posts off with an anthology of short stories by my second-favorite horror writer of all time, Dean Koontz. (Yes, Stephen King is my numero uno when it comes to authors who write horror and I’m sure that surprises no one.)

The thing about Dean Koontz is that he writes in such a lyrical way about both the beauty and horror of the world. His characterizations are always fascinating, though he does tend to have fairly black-and-white characters, something I’ve seen more of over the years even as his writing has evolved. I don’t mind that, and in fact, it can be refreshing to have those clearly delineated lines of good vs. evil sharply drawn out, though occasionally Koontz’s characters can come across as almost a parody of whichever side they’re on. This is definitely the case in the short story that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Black Pumpkin is the second short story in the collection titled Strange Highways. I actually considered blogging the eponymous first story of the collection, which is itself a strange, dreamlike story of second chances, the terror we sometimes find only within our families, and the left-hand path- and I highly recommend it because it’s genuinely creepy and tense – but I opted instead to go with The Black Pumpkin because it has such a darkly humorous ending and I can’t resist a little giggle of amusement to enhance the flavor of fear.

The tale is short, a mere 19 pages long, and tells the story of Tommy Sutzmann, a young boy trapped in a family of liars, bullies and asshats. He is the lone decent individual, contrasting with his nasty older brother Frank, and his two politician parents. Well, with politicians for parents, are you surprised? Anyway, the parents take the two boys to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins to decorate for an upcoming Halloween party. Tommy is drawn to a particularly gruesomely carved black pumpkin, and the very scary pumpkin carver lets him have it for whatever he thinks it’s worth. Tommy’s brother rudely gives the man a nickel for it when Tommy refuses to buy it, but then the scary old man warns that the black pumpkin always gives what is deserved to those who earn it. I’m sure you can guess the rest when the pumpkin comes to life on Halloween night. We’ve got mayhem, murder, and a hilarious final couple of lines when Tommy tells the black pumpkin, after he’s eaten Tommy’s parents and brother:

“You missed a bit,” and pointed to the floor beside his brother’s nightstand. The beast looked at Frank’s severed hand. “Ahhh,” said The Black Pumpkin, snatching up the hand and stuffing that grisly morsel into its mouth.

Yes, I was inspired to create a culinary treat by a gruesome tale of a murderous pumpkin coming to life and going on a killing spree. I know, I know, I’ve been told about this twisted side of myself many times over, and you know what? It’s not going away! 🙂 Pumpkin is, of course, the ultimate symbol of this time of year, representing as it does the changing of the season, the colors of autumn leaves, and is the precursor to jack-o-lanterns that dot our neighborhood houses on All Hallow’s Eve. So I was inspired to make this fall-themed savory pumpkin casserole. Yum!

INGREDIENTS
2 cups wild rice, cooked in chicken stock
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached or roasted
Large handful of fresh sage leaves
2 cups of pumpkin puree
2 generous tablespoons of garlic powder
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1 cup goat cheese
Salt and pepper
1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Cut the cooked chicken into chunks and season with salt and pepper.

Slice the sage into thin ribbons.

Add the pumpkin puree to the chicken, and mix in the garlic, the sage, the Parmesan and the goat cheese.

Mix well and taste for seasoning before adding any more salt and pepper.

Mix the wild rice with the chicken and pumpkin mixture, then put into a glass baking dish. Top with the bread crumbs and the few remaining bits of goat cheese, then bake for 45 minutes.

Delicious! Rich yet delicate, with the sharpness of the cheese contrasting beautifully with the mellow sage, the savory chicken and the sweet pumpkin. A perfect Halloween meal, with hopes that The Black Pumpkin doesn’t come knocking on your door tonight!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-García

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers and Italian wine at my new kitchen table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my great disdain for “chick lit,” not because I think literature by women for women is bad but because so much of it is terribly written, horribly edited, dumbed down, and the topic of true love is often written about in such a sappy-ass manner, or it’s totally clichéd. I can’t stand clichés, in literature or in life. However, I would deem Cinnamon and Gunpowder as a type of “chick lit” except it was written by a man. So if you can imagine a clichéd story about a female pirate on the high seas who kidnaps a male chef and makes him cook a gourmet meal for her once a week as a way to earn his freedom, I’d say, yes it has the makings of a cheesy-ass Harlequin romance novel.

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But I’d be wrong. This book is so wonderfully and well-written, so descriptive of life at sea, and written with such dry wit, and best of all, it takes what could be considered a boring literary trope – a pirate kidnapping someone and taking them on the high seas on a quest – and turns it into a feminist manifesto of a sort. And you gotta love a good female pirate, right? There are actually some female pirates in history – Grace O’Malley being the one that comes immediately to mind. 

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Mad Hannah Mabbott – and seriously, how could she be anything but a pirate with a moniker like that? – is the captain of The Flying Rose, and committed to righting the wrongs done by Lord Ramsey and his British colonial Pendleton Trading Company. Owen Wedgwood is chef to Lord Ramsey and in the process of serving a delectable gourmet meal to Ramsey and his assorted, equally aristocratic and horrible British guests, Hannah swoops in with her motley crew, kills the men, and kidnaps Owen. Owen is taken to sea initially as a lark and to cook for Hannah, who tells him he must cook her a gourmet meal once a week. The fact that he has limited foodstuffs, nearly no equipment and must cook on a swaying sea vessel has little effect on her. I think I would lose my damn mind if I were taken hostage on a pirate ship and told to cook with next to nothing, but if the pirate captain was tall, dark and handsome and I had to cook for him, I suppose I could force myself to make the effort. 🙂

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As you can no doubt guess, eventually Owen falls under the sway of Hannah’s magic, not because she is trying to entice him sexually, as you’d likely find in a chick-lit book, but because she is truly a strong woman who has grown up in a whorehouse and been sold to many  men before she gains her own independence on the high seas, because she is kind and caring in her own tough way, and because she is the mother to The Fox, another pirate who is fairly insane in his own way and her mothering instincts are what finally break down Owen’s defenses. Owen resists until nearly the end, making three ill-advised attempts to escape the ship, each funnier than the next, until one such evening he serves her his latest concoction, he notices her beauty and the fact that she is a bit curvier than usual due to his culinary skills, and realizes he is a goner.

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Being a foodie, reading the descriptions of Owen’s attempts to cook gourmet meals on a ship with few ingredients was delightful! Owen nourishes a homemade yeast starter by keeping it next to his heart and feeds it with varying liquids to keep it active. He smokes eels in tea, is able to make a herring pâté, creates vanilla-scented amaretto cookies, brews his own banana ale, rolls out homemade ravioli, braises pigeon, attempts a delectable-sounding chocolate mole flavored with soy sauce, and my own personal favorite, concocts potato-crusted crab cakes, the description of which made my mouth water.

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The last of the potatoes went into the crab croquettes. After grating and salting the tubers, I squeezed out as much water as I could and put the liquid aside to settle out. In half an hour, the starch had precipitated. I poured off the water and stirred the starch back into the potatoes (such are the humble measures of an eggless world) along with the virginal crab meat, black pepper, and dried cilantro, and set them aside for frying.

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Luckily for me, I don’t live in an eggless world, so making potato crab cakes was for me, a walk in the park.

INGREDIENTS
1 large egg, room temperature
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Sprinkle of sea salt
8 ounces fresh lump crab meat
1 cup mashed potatoes (I just boiled and mashed two russets and added salt and butter)

1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Butter

METHOD
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, mayonnaise, parsley, cilantro, Dijon mustard, Worchestershire sauce, Old Bay, lemon juice and salt.

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Gently mix in the crab meat and the mashed potatoes and form small cakes with your hands, then cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

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Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Dredge each cake in breadcrumbs and dab the top of each crab cake with a small bit of butter before placing on the baking tray.

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Bake for 17 minutes or until light golden brown, and the smell of the crab and butter tortures you.

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Serve with a wasabi-lemon mayonnaise and dive in! So delicious, rich yet light, with the hint of the far-off sea and the zest of lemon. Wonderful! I feel certain I would not be drawn and quartered by a pirate queen for these.

Episode 7 of “Cooking the Books” Podcast Now Available!

The latest episode of my podcast “Cooking the Books” just dropped and it’s a good one! We’re talking literature’s most charming and horrendous psychiatrist and his fetish for organ meat, discussing the book – and film – that made him a household name, and I share a great method for chicken-liver crostini, so give it a listen at:

https://anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/The-Silence-of-the-Lambs-and-the-Cannibalistic-Joy-of-Chicken-Liver-and-Fava-Bean-Crostini-ef1i4u

I am also on Spotify so check me out there!

Food in Books on Mini Hiatus

Hi to all my readers! I hope you are all staying as well and safe – and sane! – during these ongoing crazy times. I hope you’re washing your hands, maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask in public for your own health and safety, as well as that of others.

I am taking a short hiatus from the blog as I am in the process of packing and moving! And when you have as many books and as much kitchen equipment and gadgets and dishes as I do, it’s a full-time job. 🙂  Anyway, there will likely be sporadic new posts, possible re-posts of earlier blog posts, and even a new episode of my podcast Cooking the Books so please keep an eye out this month and next. Once I am settled, I will have a sexy, spanking-new kitchen from which I will keep sharing all the good foodie book posts you’ve come to expect from yours truly. So stay tuned for new content and updates.

Stay well, my friends!