The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pour over the coconut milk and the chicken broth.

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

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

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

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

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The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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

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

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

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

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

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Isn’t that just lovely to read and visualize?

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

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

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This is the method that worked for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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