The Face by Dean Koontz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Photography by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken by Monica Bhide

Thanks to TB for the photography.

I have a thing for books that present food as medicine. Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate…..and now Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, are absolute favorites. Written by the acclaimed food writer turned novelist Monica Bhide, it extols the pleasures of friendship, giving back to those who have helped you, the power of love, and ultimately, the healing powers of cooking for those you love, and the pleasure of well-cooked food. Who couldn’t adore this book?

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The premise of this book is simple, and lovely. Set in present-day India, it tells the story of Eshaan, a young man who is raised by Buddhist monks. He has a heart that you could say is made of butter, so soft that it melts. Having nearly starved to death as a child before the kindly monks took him in after his mother’s tragic death, he one day has the idea to provide a hot meal to anyone in need. Given the vast population of New Delhi and the amount of poverty that exists in this city, to call Eshaan’s idea a momentous task is an understatement. But he starts his restaurant, and it is not quite what he envisions it. Of course, we all know that nothing ever quite turns out the way we plan or desire.

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Eshaan is such a sympathetic and kindhearted character you can’t help but cheer him on, even though he’s not the most practical-minded individual. From the get-go, he is focused on only one thing – feeding people in his restaurant and asking that they pay only what they can afford. Naturally, this leads to a horde of beggars and individuals who have zero money and who can’t – or don’t – pay for a thing. And of course, human nature being what it is, he also encounters those ungrateful types who complain about the food, who urinate on the floor of his immaculately prepared restaurant………..and these are the people he is trying to help!

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The scene that touched me the most is featured both at the very beginning and again toward the end, when Eshaan gets his golden chance to appear on the famous cooking TV competition show to earn money to fund his restaurant. The scene is given context when Eshaan’s turn comes to show the judges what he has cooked, the proviso being a dish that epitomized their childhood. Eshaan initially plans to make butter chicken, in his words, “a simple tomato, butter and cream sauce” for chicken that his mother used to make when she could afford it. But the crushing poverty of his childhood has stayed in his heart and soul all these years, and at the end of the competition, he throws away the dish he’s made and tells the judges, very poignantly, that the taste of his childhood was starvation and an empty bowl. I got choked up here and had to stop reading for a bit.

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Though of course I was inspired to cook the title dish, it was this passage that spoke to me the most. “In fact, I say a prayer for the spices, sparse as they may be, to help heal the person who eats the food. That reminds me. I have only one rule in this kitchen. The cooks’ energy gets passed into the dishes. Only food prepared with love will nurture. If not, it will just be another meal,” he said, placing his hand on his heart. That is so much how I cook – I try to always cook with love and pass that love on to those who enjoy my food. Because food is love.

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Anyway, this is the method for classic Indian butter chicken that worked for me, based on the Little Spice Jar‘s awesome recipe, with the requisite tweaks by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the meat marinade:
6-7 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 generous tablespoons tandoori masala
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil (or groundnut oil)
For the butter chicken sauce:
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), or a mixture of butter and oil
1 large red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 generous tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
2  8-ounce cans diced or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon each of: coriander, cumin, and garam masala
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder

3/4 cup heavy cream

METHOD

In a large plastic freezer bag, mix the chicken with the tandoori masala, ginger-garlic paste, yogurt and oil. Marinate for at least 3 hours before cooking, in the refrigerator.

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Melt the clarified butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan. Saute the onions about 7 minutes, until they’re translucent and you can smell the delicious scent wafting up at you. Add a pinch of sea salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the next spoonful of ginger-garlic paste to the onions, and stir well. Then, add the two cans of tomatoes, the chili powder, the coriander, cumin garam masala, and fenugreek seeds. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.

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Whip out your most excellent stick blender and blend the sauce until it is rendered down into a rich, red sauce. Turn the heat off, cover and let sit while you prepare the chicken.

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In another pan, add a bit more clarified butter and brown the chicken pieces. Make sure to use tongs and shake off the excess marinade beforehand. Cook for up to 10 minutes, to fully brown the chicken pieces.

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Pour the butter tomato sauce over the chicken pieces, and heat through. Add the cream and bring to a low simmer.

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I served this over basmati rice cooked in chicken broth, into which I put a few crushed cardamom pods, which add to the subtle flavor and scent. I have to say, this dish was FANTASTIC! The acidity of the tomatoes is perfectly offset by the richness of the butter and the cream, and the chicken marinade make the meat incredibly tender. Garnished with cilantro or parsley, it is a delicious dish.

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