The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

The Last Supper, that immortal painting by the equally immortal Leonardo da Vinci, always fascinated me, even as a child. Just looking at it takes you into that world, sitting beside Jesus, watching the disciples react to the news he would soon die, and noticing the amazing details of the work itself.

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Reading The Secret Supper took me back to my days of persistently asking questions about the nature of religion and God, because this book raises almost as many questions as it answers. Being raised Catholic, of course I’d heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples to take this bread and eat it, and take this wine and drink it, and the mystery of transmogrification, so seeing this painting as a child made me start to question what I had been taught. Of course, when you’re young and asking questions about religion, it tends to not go over well. In this book, when the main character, Father Agostino Leyre, begins asking questions about the nature of faith, God, and Leonardo’s masterpiece, it’s no different for him.

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One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is its similarity to The Name of the Rose, my all-time favorite book in the world. The monks, the literary mystery, one man trying to answer questions………although this one is less weighty on philosophy. Still a marvelous read, if you’re into the Italian Renaissance and symbolism in paintings and Da Vinci himself. Or if you’re into references about Italian cuisine, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

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My stomach was making noises under my habit. With solicitude, the librarian led me to the kitchen and managed to rustle up a few scraps from suppertime………”It’s panzanella, Father,” he explained, helping me to a still-warm bowl that heated my freezing hands. “Panzanella?” “Eat. It’s a bread soup, made with cucumber and onion. It will please you.”

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Panzanella can be in the form of a soup, but is essentially a bread salad, rustic peasant food that used stale bread. Most likely, the very poor had only bread and onions as their panzanella base. It’s become traditional to include mozzarella, tomatoes and occasionally cucumbers, and an herb-based dressing with olive oil and vinegar, and being that I like to roast vegetables, I had the idea of roasting asparagus and garlic alongside the bread croutons, replacing the more usual cucumber which can get soggy. A traditional panzanella salad is delicious anytime of the year, and is also an excellent way to use up any bread or tomatoes you have lying around.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the New York Times version by the great Melissa Clark, with requisite changes by yours truly. As always.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 large head of garlic
1 stale baguette, cubed
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
2 large, ripe tomatoes at room temperature
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 bunch of fresh oregano
3 tablespoons capers
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Spread out the asparagus on a parchment-sheet lined baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle with more olive oil and some salt and pepper, and put into a well-soaked terracotta garlic roaster.

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Lay the cubed bread pieces on another baking sheet, and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Place all three items in the hot oven and bake for up to 20 minutes apiece, checking frequently. The bread will cook fastest so don’t let it burn and remove when it is golden-brown. The asparagus will take a few more minutes, and the garlic will take longest, so plan to cook it for up to 45 minutes.

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Cut up the tomatoes, and place them in a bowl with the mozzarella.

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Finely mince the onion, add a tablespoonful of garlic paste, and add to the tomatoes and mozzarella. Stir to mix everything.

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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Combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and the cut-up herbs in a large measuring cup, then slowly add in 3 tablespoons of Meyer lemon olive oil, whisking together to form a vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning.

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Add the cooled bread cubes to the tomatoes and cheese, then cut up the asparagus into smaller pieces and mix with the tomatoes and bread.

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Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the garlic head, and add to the tomato mixture. Toss in the capers and stir together.

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Pour over the vinaigrette, and stir to mix well. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, to let the bread soak up the delicious juices, which is the whole point of this dish.

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Enjoy with some grilled chicken or on its own as a light lunch, but don’t forget the wine. Jesus would never forgive you, nor would Father Leyre.

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Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal. I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caldo de pollo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Well, I had to, didn’t I? It’s October. It’s Halloween weekend. What other book could I possibly blog about other than The Exorcist, that classic tale of demonic possession, faith, and terror? I’d never read the book, though I’ve seen the movie many times, especially in October. The film hasn’t lost its shock value, though it’s not as terrifying as it was when I saw it as a young girl.

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But the book is genuinely unnerving, creeping up with subtlety and giving you more insight into the characters than is comfortable. Chris MacNeil, in point of fact, is a much more likeable character in the book, though she is still somewhat irritating. Father Karras is even more likeable, particularly because his own crisis of faith and personal guilt are given much more attention and backstory.

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Blatty’s writing is accessible – short sentences, everyday words, and concise narration – which makes it all the more powerful in telling this horrific tale set in Georgetown. This is even more effective when describing some of the more disturbing scenes – Regan and the infamous crucifix, her head twisting completely around, some of the more profane and filthy things she says, the priest falling down those vicious stairs – which really exist, by the way. See below.

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I think, at its heart, it’s a book about faith. Whether it’s faith in God, faith in the power of love, faith in science, or faith in the unknown, it’s the idea of believing in something greater outside of ourselves that is the thread tying it together. And then, of course, there was this passage. Of course you know what comes to mind when you read it.

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They went to the Hot Shoppe. Chris ate a salad while Regan had soup (haha, of course she did!), two sourdough rolls, fried chicken, a strawberry shake, and blueberry  pie topped with chocolate ice cream. Where does she put it, Chris wondered, in her wrists? The child was a slender as a fleeting hope.

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You’re damn right I made soup. SPLIT PEA SOUP! This is the method that worked for me, based on this recipe from Allrecipes.com, and of course, with my own additions. Plan for about 4-5 hours prep and cook time total.

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INGREDIENTS
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 large carrots or 10 baby carrots, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 lb. dried split peas
3-4 ham steaks, cubed
3-4 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 and 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons liquid smoke
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed

METHOD
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook and sweat them down for up to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash of salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the peas, and stir around to get the vegetable flavors incorporated.

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Pour in the chicken stock, the water, and the wine (how Biblical, right?), and give one good stir.

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Toss in the bay leaves and the sliced-up ham chunks.

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Add the liquid smoke, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, and cook on medium-low for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. The soup will thicken as it cooks.

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For the last hour, check the texture of the peas. If they are still somewhat hard, turn up the heat and bring to a hard boil for at least 45 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

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The potato chunks go in for the last hour, to soften up and break down. This also adds to the soup’s thick, unctuous texture.

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Serve in large bowls and eat with gusto and the knowledge that, with a soup this good, the Devil surely cannot possess your soul. This soup is perfect for a chilly autumn day or if you need to start spewing at a priest. The power of Christ compels you, you know.

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A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Both a novel of psychological suspense and genuine supernatural horror, A Head Full of Ghosts is head case of a book…..pardon the pun. I love a book that cleverly uses meta-fiction, and this one definitely refers back to itself in such a funny way, by use of social media. (Speaking of which, there is a funny pic at the very end of this post used on one of the most popular social media sites out there, so keep reading for a good laugh.)

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The advent of reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others, has turned us into a society where every moment, thought, insight, and personal experience is documented for an audience of millions of strangers. We get validation for every aspect of our lives when we get likes or follows or retweets. This book takes it to an entirely new level, similar to how social media is used in my previous blog The Last Days of Jack Sparks, but here, it documents not just the possession and mental breakdown of a person, but an entire family.

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The book is the story of 13-year old Merry and her memories of her sister Marjorie’s psychological breakdown and subsequent possession – and the TV crew that documented all of it and relayed it to a television audience of millions. Merry is telling the tale in flashback at the age of 23, and recalls her parents’ terror and frustration at Marjorie’s condition, their increasing dire financial straits, and the questions that inevitably arise from such a horrific combination of scenarios.

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Is Marjorie truly possessed by a demonic force? Is she mentally ill? Is she just playing with their heads? Is it child abuse? What makes this book so addictive is that you are never quite sure what is going on. Is the narrator reliable? Who is wrong and what is right? Perception is reality, but then……what constitutes perception? Age? Seeing only what we want to see?

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It’s not so much horrifying – though it is definitely that – as it is uncomfortable. The unease and terror sneak up on you slowly, gradually, disturbingly, and as I got closer to the end, I found myself racing through the pages to see what was happening. If you’re a fan of psychological terror, supernatural horror, and a well-written story that makes you question your own perceptions, this book will definitely send you on a twisted ride.

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In one early scene, Merry is pondering an odd memory of her parents going away for a rare weekend, and wonders if they are leaving because of Marjorie’s behavior, or because of her own strange preference for pasta.

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“Away was the only word the four-year old me remembered. I had no concept of time or distance. Only that they were away, which sounded so weirdly menacing……..I was convinced they went away because they were sick of my eating pasta without spaghetti sauce. Dad had always grumbled about his not believing that I didn’t like the sauce………”

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I love pasta, but of course, it must have some type of sauce. This passage left quite a bit of leeway for cooking, so I decided linguine in a butter-lemon sauce with a creamy lemon chicken piccata was in order, to scare away all those ghosts in my head. This is the method that worked for me, serving 6 people, based on The Pioneer Woman’s delicious recipe. And yes, with requisite tweaks by me. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded quite thinly (great for stress relief)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 2 whole lemons
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
2 lbs fettuccine, or any long pasta of your choice
Fresh parsley for garnishing
Lemon slices for garnishing

METHOD
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter and the olive oil. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and dredge each one in flour. This is a messy step, so an apron is advised.

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Increase the heat to high, and cook the thighs in the skillet for about 10 minutes on each side. You want them nice and browned. Remove and set aside.

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Saute the shallots and chopped basil for about 5 minutes in the chicken pan juices.

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Lower the heat to medium low, and pour in the broth, the wine, the lemon juice, and the capers. Stir together and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Add back in the browned chicken pieces and pour in the juices they’ve accumulated on their platter. Pour in the capers, cover, and cook on low for 25 minutes.

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Remove the chicken pieces, then pour in the heavy cream, stir together, and taste again. Serve over linguine and garnish with lemon slices.

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We ate this fantastic dish with roasted grape tomatoes and mushrooms, and a gorgeous chocolate mousse cake, in honor of my sister’s birthday.

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As you can see, she is addicted to Snapchat filters. Dork that she is.

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The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pour over the coconut milk and the chicken broth.

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

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

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

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

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In terms of medieval books, The Canterbury Tales is right up there with Dante’s Inferno as my top favorites. Unless you’re a trained medieval scholar, however, I would strongly recommend reading a more modern English translation of the book, since the medieval English of Chaucer is quite difficult to read.

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The entire book essentially revolves around food, in particular because the overall framework of the book is a storytelling competition, the reward for which is a magnificent feast. Several disparate individuals stop to stay the night at the Tabard Inn in London on their way to the cathedral at Canterbury, on a religious pilgrimage. Harry Bailly is the innkeeper and suggests that the pilgrims all tell a story to pass the time on the journey – the best one wins.

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The pilgrims, among them The Prioress, The Summoner, The Knight, The Miller, The Wife of Bath, The Reeve, The Man of Law, and The Friar, are introduced in a long prologue that describes their various attributes. Then the book is broken into sections consisting of each pilgrim’s tale, as varied as the pilgrims themselves, and are by turns, funny, romantic, adventuresome, bawdy, and at times very sexually explicit.

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Any Chaucer scholar or reader of this book understands the role that food played in this historical context. Food was a clear marker of wealth and social rank. Bread was a customary food across all economic groups, but the wealthy ate finely milled white bread (which was also very unhealthy, not having any nutrients in it.)  Those of the peasant rank ate the brown wheat bread that was healthier but also still with grit and small rocks in it. Wine was to be had by most people, but again, the quality depended on your ability to pay.

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I always liked the description of the Franklin, being referred to as “Epicurus’ own son,” meaning that he greatly enjoyed his food. Part of the lengthy introduction of the book, which is a heavenly description of fish, meat pies, wine, chicken, fat partridges, dainties (candies or pastries), bread and ale. Then, The Summoner is described in foodie terms, as he likes garlic and onion and red wine, which were considered to be unhealthy, so as such, so he is considered in a negative light.

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So, a combination of chicken, wine, spices, and the previously mentioned garlic and onion, seemed in order, and for me, that means coq au vin. With so much leeway in this recipe, I used my own method that’s based on the great Jacques Pépin’s marvelous recipe, using a bit of spice that would have been used in medieval cooking, and served with a salad of arugula, roasted beets, blue cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy.

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, bone in and skin off
1 bottle fruity red wine, like Grenache or Beaujolais
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 strips pancetta, cut into pieces
1 large yellow onion
8 baby carrots, cut lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, slivered
15-20 bella mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
3 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (substitute for mace, a well-known medieval spice)
Egg noodles (optional)

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METHOD
Marinate the chicken in the red wine, garlic and herbs for up to 6 hours. Reserve the marinade.

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Fry the pancetta in the olive oil, then add the chopped-up onion and cook it for 10 minutes.

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Toss in the carrots and the mushrooms here, stir again, and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the chicken pieces, pour in the marinade, and add the bay leaves. Mix everything together, and add the nutmeg.

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Pour over the chicken stock, and simmer on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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For the last 45 minutes of cooking, add some egg noodles, which will absorb some liquid and thicken it. Taste again and season as needed.

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