The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I didn’t intend to do a blog post this week for several reasons, the main one being that my dearest and only aunt – my dad’s younger sister to whom I am very close – had an unexpected triple-bypass on Friday and that has been weighing on me. She came out of the surgery all right, but it was still a very worrying experience. Coupled with a very ugly fight with one of my sisters (it’s funny how stress can bring out the worst in families, isn’t it?), my heart wasn’t into doing much this weekend. But I came across The Rules of Magic on one of my bookshelves and thought “hey, this will be a total escape.”

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It was simply reading for the sheer pleasure, something that I sometimes forget about doing. Reading is, after all, a true pleasure with the feel of the pages, that sense of just falling into whatever world you’ve chosen, and when you come back to yourself, it’s almost a shock that the world is still there.

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If you’ve read Hoffman’s earlier book Practical Magic, you’ll recognize the characters of Frannie and Jet Owens. In the first book, they are the great-aunts of Sally and Gillian, and in this book, they take center stage. Frannie and Jet and their brother Vincent are raised away from the shadow of their notorious witch family in a stable, upwardly mobile manner. Their mother wants nothing to do with the magic that has touched and shaped their family for centuries, and love is the element to be avoided in this book. The three Owens children are raised to never fall in love, but when Aunt Isabelle enters their lives, she connects them with their heritage of magic and witchcraft and spells and it’s so beautifully described that I wished I’d been raised as a witch.

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I think the element I loved most in this book was the sheer sensuality of how scents are described, so vividly that my mouth almost watered. The herbs used in their spells, various recipes, the delicious smells of peppermint, patchouli, flowers, eucalyptus, chocolate, almonds, and most delectably, the savory scent of bacon. And of course, there was that passage that set the tone for how the children are perceived by other kids, describing how eerie Franny and Jet are in their youth.

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“Soon enough the other students knew not to irritate the Owens sisters, not if they didn’t want to trip over their own shoes or find themselves stuttering when called upon to give a report. There was something about the sisters that felt dangerous, even when all they were doing was eating tomato sandwiches in the lunchroom or searching for novels in the library.”

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I mean, it’s a total food and books reference RIGHT THERE! Eating tomato sandwiches! Looking for books! I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect passage. And a tomato sandwich – yum! Still, a plain old tomato sandwich, tasty as it, can be made better when you have a couple of ripe avocadoes, some bacon and a bit of imagination. Here’s my take on the Owens sisters’ tomato sandwiches. Magic is optional. But make sure everything is at room temperature, particularly the tomatoes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 ripe avocado
1 heirloom tomato
4 strips bacon
1 slice good quality bread, any type you want
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Fry the bacon and enjoy the salty, savory scent of it. I seriously don’t know how anyone could be a vegetarian with the smell of bacon around. Drain on a paper towel.

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Deseed the tomato and slice it into somewhat thick rounds. Add a bit of salt to the tomato slices.

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Mash the avocado and season it with the crushed red pepper, the lemon juice, and the salt and pepper.

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Toast the bread, and slather on the mashed avocado.

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Put the tomato rounds on top of the avocado, then add the bacon slices. Admire the lovely colors and textures before applying to your face. Sooooooooooo yum, and comforting too!

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another fun book about family dysfunction! Woo hoo! Shirley Jackson was introduced into my life many years ago when I discovered The Haunting of Hill House, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time and also which I blogged about awhile back – here’s the link if you’re interested. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is sort of the inverse of Hill House. Where that book was about the effect of the house upon its inhabitants, this book cleverly flips that premise and instead is about how the inhabitants itself turn the house into the place that is itself haunted.

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The two main characters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance, are sisters and the last remaining members – along with invalid Uncle Julian – of their family, all of whom perished when someone put poison in their sugar bowl, which was then sprinkled over their breakfasts. Mother, father, siblings and aunt all died, Uncle Julian was left crippled and somewhat mentally infirm, Merricat had been sent to her room, and Constance didn’t ever eat sugar.

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Constance is seen by the townsfolk as the murderer, and consequently, stays at home caring for Uncle Julian, cleaning, and cooking. Merricat wanders the property, does the grocery shopping in town to the insults and taunts of the village boys and men, collects poisonous mushrooms, and nurtures a secret loathing of everyone except her beloved sister. Her bizarre rituals of nailing books to trees, hiding silver dollars, and obsessively coming up with “safe” words that will continue to keep their little world secure, can only last for so long. When the inevitable conflict comes into their lives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, who arrives to see if there is any family inheritance to be had and begins a quasi-courtship of Constance, it’s the match that ignites – literally and figuratively – their lives.

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The question of who the murderer is isn’t hard to figure out, and that’s not the point of this twisted tale of psychological instability, co-dependency, and just sheer eerie creepy-ass weirdness. At one point, I actually wondered if Merricat was a ghost , due to the fact that Uncle Julian never interacts with her and at one point, refers to her as being dead. It started me wondering if Shirley Jackson was screwing with me even more than she did in Hill House. Merricat’s character is very much like Eleanor in Hill House – unreliable narrator, makes the unusual and weird somewhat normal, and even in her psychosis, she is somewhat sympathetic. And then, this little tidbit I picked up on – the similarities of the names Merricat and Merrigot! Holy shit! Merricat is the main character in this book and Merrigot is the name of the spirit haunting the Ouija board inside Hill House!! Coincidence?

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Toward the end, after all the horror and chaos, when the sisters have retreated back into their home – their castle – and the townspeople begin to tentatively make amends and gestures of reconciliation, one of the townsmen who had previously made no secret of his loathing of the family, quietly knocks on the door and leaves them food.

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It was not quite dark outside, but inside where we stood we could only see one other dimly, two white faces against the door. “Miss Constance?” he said again. “Listen.”……..”I got a chicken here.” He tapped softly on the door. “I hope you can hear me,” he said. “I got a chicken here. My wife fixed it, roasted it nice, and there’s some cookies and a pie”…………I brought it inside and locked the door while Constance took the basket from me and carried it to the kitchen. “Blueberry,” she said when I came. “Quite good, too; it’s still warm.”

Blueberry pie is one of the most quintessential comfort foods around, and this was my first time trying it out, and on Pi Day, no less!

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts (yes, yes, I know. Save the hate mail.)
4 cups fresh blueberries
1 large lemon
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/4 cup water

METHOD
In a large bowl, mix together the blueberries, juice of half the lemon, and zest from the entire lemon.

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Sprinkle over the flour, and stir to mix and ensure all the berries are covered. This will help create a thick syrup inside the pie when baking.

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Add in the sugar and the cinnamon, and mix again. Leave for about 30 minutes.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Unroll one of the pie crusts and press it into a 9-inch round pie pan. Sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon onto the bottom crust for added flavor.

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Pour the blueberries into the pie crust, cover with the second crust, and crimp with a fork, or if you’re not hand-eye coordination-challenged like me, crimp with your fingers.

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Cut four slits across the top of the pie crust, then brush the beaten egg and water mixture on top of the crust. Bake for 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 325F and bake another 40 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken and the crust becomes golden.

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Remove and let cool, and admire it. The cooked blueberries take on a deeper hue and look like reddish-blue jewels.

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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INGREDIENTS
1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was previously blogged about by a fellow food blogger, Cara Nicoletti, whose page Yummy Books was one of the inspirations for starting my own food and book blog. The Vacationers is about a family’s secrets and dysfunctions that come out over two weeks when they are vacationing in their house in Mallorca. I know, I know, it all sounds very dramatic and mysterious, but ultimately, it’s not.

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Though I always try to give every book a fair shake, I have to say that this one was  boring. Franny and Jim, the two main characters/couple/parents, are celebrating their 35th anniversary during the vacation, their daughter Sylvia just finished high school and hates her family (wow, big surprise, a teenager hating her family), the token gay couple, and the son and his beautiful girlfriend that everyone hates. Pretty cardboard and standard characters – the wealthy family, the cheating husband, the unhappy wife planning to leave the marriage, the spoiled kids – to whom I had a very hard time finding any point of relating.

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I did like Franny’s foodie-ness (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and her love of cooking to work out her irritations and frustrations through her culinary adventures. Kind of like me! It’s nicely written, don’t get me wrong. The descriptions of the beach, the ocean, the house, the food………all are beautiful and lyrical. But the characters really aren’t likable, other than Carmen (the girlfriend everyone loves to despise), and overall, it just didn’t grab me and stay with me, though this food passage made me start salivating a little bit.

 Franny and the boys were making dinner – bacalao on toast, shrimp in a garlicky sauce, wilted greens. Tapas at home.

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I didn’t have the wherewithal to soak bacalao for 24 hours before putting it onto toast, good as that sounded. However, some garlicky shrimp with tomatoes and wilted spinach  sounded very doable, simple, and tasty. I had a packet of tortellini that needed to be used, and so I combined them, thus evoking a summer’s evening overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 dozen grape tomatoes, halved
10 cloves of garlic, thinly slivered
1 small shallot, thinly slivered
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 lb partially thawed shrimp, tail on
4 cups fresh spinach
1 packet cheese tortellini

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METHOD
Boil a large potful of water, add a generous handful of sea salt, and cook the tortellini for about 5-7 minutes. Test it to ensure it is al dente, and save a cupful of the cooking water.

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In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the grape tomatoes, garlic and shallot for about 10 minutes.

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Splash in the white wine, the lemon juice, and the red pepper flakes, and cook together another couple of minutes. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and give some structure.

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Add the spinach, stir, and cover again, cooking for about 10 minutes so that it wilts.

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Add the shrimp to the mixture, cover and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently so the shrimp doesn’t overcook. When they are pink and plump, everything is ready.

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Toss in the cooked tortellini, stir and cook another couple of minutes, so all the flavors are mixed and mingled. Then serve and eat with happiness. Delicious, just like a day at the beach!

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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 Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

There are three celebrity cooks  – Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Emeril Lagasse – whom I love, but who are as much shrewd self-marketers as they are cooks. Then there are the three honest-to-God gourmet chefs whose writings have heavily influenced my own cooking and writing. Julia Child, the Goddess; Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame and an amazing food historian as she is a chef; and last but not least, my dearly beloved Jacques Pépin, who I remember watching on PBS as a little girl and being fascinated by how easy he made it all look.

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Jacques Pépin is my hero, for many reasons. He has had more than his share of trials and tribulations, and had to relearn many skills and reinvent himself many times. He survived a terrible car crash that could have permanently taken away his arm movement, and thus, his ability to cook. He has persevered to become the Grand Master of chefs in the world, and he continues to cook and learn and share.

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Many of his family memories and anecdotal stories are those that we can all relate to. He and his brothers learned to cook very early, working in their mother’s cafe, which served hearty buffet-style meals at what would be the equivalent of $1 today. I can’t even imagine having such deliciousness as a steak with frites for that amount!

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My favorite of his stories is when he goes to visit the late, great James Beard (of the Beard Foundation and one of the world’s great chefs) and is nearly kicked out for bringing him salmon baked in a rich, buttery sauce. Beard is in the hospital for angina, and so of course, what better for the heart than some butter! I laughed out loud reading this section.

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This beautiful crystal bowl was a Christmas gift from my dear and wonderful friend Richard. Had to show it off!

Peppered throughout the books are recipes that all have special meaning for Pepin, including his mother’s cheese souffle, her apple tart, a salad of dandelion greens, and what sounded to me like a plate of heaven – Ed Giobbi’s Primavera Pasta. Now, this recipe should by rights be made in the late summer when home-grown tomatoes are deeply red and ripe and bursting with flavor. But I figured, to hell with it. I found as good of quality tomatoes as I possibly could, let them ripen a few more days, and made this in the winter. And it was delicious, simple, and full of flavor.

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This gorgeous glass cutting board was another Christmas gift, this time from my beloved Aunt Sandy. Guess I was a good girl to get such great gifts! 

INGREDIENTS
5 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes
Handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil (my flavor addition)
1 tablespoon finely grated garlic
1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta
Abundant boiling and salted water

METHOD
Heat the water to boiling point, add a generous handful of salt, and cook the farfalle for 8 minutes, or until al dente, just cooked but still with a hint of firmness. Reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water and set aside.

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Slice the tomatoes lengthwise and deseed them. Put them in a large bowl and add the salt and pepper. Stir and leave a few minutes.

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Add the garlic, then the chopped basil, and stir again to mix the flavors. Pour in the lemon olive oil, and give another good stir.

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Add the cooked pasta to the tomatoes in the bowl, stir, and then add in a bit of the hot cooking water. This helps the starches in the pasta emulsify and helps make a sauce.

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Serve hot, with generous handfuls of shaved Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese. It’s truly delicious, strongly flavored but light and fragrant. I can imagine eating this in the south of France with a glass of rose wine with Chef Pepin himself. Wonderful!

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Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

Written by fellow blogger James J. Cudney, whose awesome blog This Is My Truth Now is among my favorite sites,  Watching Glass Shatter was a lengthy and awesome read about family secrets, family dysfunction, and ultimately, family bonds and love that keep people connected, even during some of the worst times.

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The premise of the story is thus: Ben Glass, the patriarch of the family, has just died. His widow Olivia – who I totally picture as Helen Mirren – learns of a potentially devastating family secret Ben kept from her. You learn one of the secrets early on in the book, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t reveal it. However, it is the impetus for Olivia to get to know all five of her sons in more depth, and as a result, learns that they each have secrets of their own.

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I like the analogy of glass shattering as representing the calm family facade that Ben and Olivia maintained throughout their marriage and the play on the word as it is also the family surname. Olivia reminded me a great deal of my own grandmother, very stoic and calm, sometimes cold in her manners, but with this smooth facade hiding lots of emotion and love.

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Each of the sons – Teddy, Matt, Caleb, Zach, and Ethan – have their own distinctive personalities and voices that come through very clearly, sometimes irritatingly so, because they are far from perfect. Yet, as I kept reading, I started understanding and even relating to each of them in their quest to maintain that Glass family facade. I liked Ethan the best because he is so close to his mother and seems initially to be the only son that truly cares for her well-being.

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In one early pivotal scene, Olivia’s sister Diane serves them both breakfast after the funeral, in Olivia’s elegant, calm, and beautifully decorated dining room. The room is very much like Olivia – almost untouchable in its exquisitely detailed beauty, and the appropriately elegant breakfast of gourmet coffee, juice and quiche that is described so delectably made me salivate just reading this scene.

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Grabbing a quiche out of the refrigerator, she sliced two giant wedges and put them in the broiler to warm up. While the coffee dripped, Diane set two places at the breakfast nook in the corner, her favorite spot in her sister’s house……..She checked the quiche, savoring the golden-brown crust and bubbling Gruyere, her nose tempted by the comfort it offered.

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Quiche Lorraine is that classic French dish that combines Gruyere cheese, eggs, and bacon into something heavenly that angels could eat happily.  I had some caramelized onions leftover, so I added those to the mix. And yes, I used, premade Marie Callender pie crust instead of making it from scratch. Don’t judge.

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INGREDIENTS
2 premade pie crusts (or go all out and make your own!)
6 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
8 slices of bacon
1 cup caramelized onions
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and prick the crusts in the center with a for, then blind-bake them for 10 minutes. Let cool.

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Cook the bacon, and when slightly cooled, crumble and sprinkle into the bottom of the piecrusts.

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Add a layer of onions on top of the bacon in the crusts.

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Beat the eggs together with the cream, the Gruyere, and the nutmeg, and add salt and pepper. The Gruyere is salty, so don’t go overboard with the salt.

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Pour the egg mixture on top of the bacon and onions in the piecrusts, and bake for 25 minutes. Check for texture and remove from the oven if it’s not wobbly anymore. If it’s still a bit wobbly, leave another 2-3 minutes.

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Let cool and serve. I personally think quiche is the most perfect dish in the world, and this recipe hasn’t changed my mind. DELISH!

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Thanks to ET for the photography.

Anymore, reading about the experiences of immigrants who come to this country seems to be the norm. It makes sense, after all. We are a country built almost entirely upon waves of immigrants from around the globe. My own family were immigrants from Spain and the Netherlands via Mexico over 500 years ago, and we are proud of both our heritage and our American history. It baffles me that, in this day and age, the amount of disdain and even hatred for people who come to this country to find a better life. Didn’t all of our ancestors do just that?

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Anyway, The Namesake describes the experience of Ashoke and Asima Ganguli and their “assimilation” into life as American citizens. Within their Indian culture, the concept of names is extremely important. The name is what gives the person his or her identity – symbolism and semiotics brought to life. Their firstborn, Gogol, is named for Russian philosopher who saved his father’s life, is the wreaker of havoc. His real name, Nikhil, is meant to represent the respectable, outward man and his pet name of Gogol within his family is his softer, shadow side. It is this duality of nature epitomized in his two names that affects the entire life of Gogol, and in a way, is the personification of the dual nature of immigrants, and of humanity itself.

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That desire to hold onto the culture, beliefs, food and history that created you and your country of origin doing battle with the desire to fit in, assimilate, become American so that you’re not teased, or even worse, tormented and tortured……..it’s the human struggle. We want to hold on to what makes us unique, different, ourselves in our deepest soul; yet we also want to be accepted and thought of as part of a large community and sadly, when we don’t conform and fit into what is expected, we can be treated horribly.

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Cardamom is, for me, the quintessential Indian spice, in addition to cilantro. It’s light and floral, but doesn’t add a strong note to food. It just gives a hint of perfume and spice on the tongue and in the nose. It’s a wonderful spice, coming in pods and you can either toss the pods into sauces or soups, or crush the pods with the flat of a knife blade and this releases their scent and flavor even more.

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There were actually two food references in this book that inspired today’s recipe: the first being when Gogol and Maxine are having dinner together on the first night that they will make love, and she is preparing coq au vin; and the second is the heartwrenching aftermath of his father’s death in which he and his mother prepare the funeral feast of fish, meats, potatoes spiced with coriander which were his father’s favorite, and other things.

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They prepare an elaborate meal, fish and meat bought one bitterly cold morning at Chinatown and Haymarket, cooked as his father liked them best, with extra potatoes and fresh coriander leaves. When they shut their eyes, it’s as if it is just another party, the house smelling of food.

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For me, chicken is one of those universal dishes that every country and nationality has a variation on, and being that I so closely associate cardamom with chicken, I found this recipe for buttermilk-cardamom marinated chicken at the Cooking on Weekends website, and my fellow food blogger The Dutch Baker posted a heavenly-sounding recipe for potatoes roasted with garlic and coriander. So these were the dishes I made today and the methods that worked for me, my own homage to Indian cuisine and in honor of this beautiful, heartbreaking and honest book.

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INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
2 and 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
10 cardamom pods
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon maple syrup
10 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
1 tablespoon sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper

For the potatoes:
1 lb baby potatoes
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
Large bunch of fresh cilantro
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1-2 lemons

METHOD:
Put the chicken thighs into a large plastic freezer bag, and add in the buttermilk, oil, cinnamon, crushed cardamom pods, garlic and maple syrup. Squish everything around to ensure the marinade covers every piece of chicken. Refrigerate overnight if possible, and if not, at least 7 hours.

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When ready to bake, take the meat out of the fridge at least 3 hours, so the meat is room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400F. Take the chicken out of the bag and place on a foil-lined baking tray. Don’t shake off the excess marinade. Bake for 40 minutes, until the chicken is a nice bronze-gold.

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Allow to cool and sprinkle with salt and pepper while you prepare the potatoes. Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, then slice the potatoes and add them to the pan.

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Sprinkle over the salt, pepper and fenugreek seeds. Cook on medium low, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes dry out and the skins are golden-brown. This will take approximately 30 minutes, so keep your glass of wine handy.

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After about 15 minutes, add the slivered garlic, the chopped cilantro, and the sliced red onion to the frying potatoes. The smell is out of this world! Cook another 20 minutes, stirring to keep the potatoes from burning on the bottom. Taste for seasoning, then squeeze over the juice of one lemon. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

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Serve the chicken together with the potatoes. The flavors are incredibly intense and so delicious!

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Thanks to JG for the photography.

I first heard about The Help when the movie, with Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson came out, and wanted to read the book first. The storyline, in a nutshell, is the story of two African-American maids – Aibileen and Minny in 1960s Mississippi – and how the lives they lead, complete with racism, inequality, and brutality, are told by Skeeter, a white girl who has just returned home after finishing college and wants to be a writer.

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She is compelled to write about the inequal treatment of black servants after her Junior League starts an initiative to install separate toilets in every house in Jackson, for the sole purpose of keeping their colored servants from using their bathrooms. Yes, this stuff happened, and far, far worse.

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As much as I loved the kindness and wisdom of Aibileen, my favorite of all the characters was Minny. She was hilarious, and had a mouth on her that could cut! I loved the fact that, even in the segregated, rural, racist South when whites had so much power over African-Americans that sometimes literally meant life and death, Minny still stood up for herself and told her hateful employers exactly what she thought of them. Hah! Of course, that meant she had been fired from all of those jobs, too. Her initial relationship with Celia Foote was very odd and funny, yet very transformational as well, as they develop an odd sort of friendship.

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It’s so odd to think that this entire class of wealthy white women, so focused on segregating their maids and yet trusting them to care for and bring up their children, cook their food, clean their houses, and wash their dirty laundry – literally and figuratively. There is such inequality in any type of employer/employee relationship as it is. Can you imagine the dynamics of that relationship compounded by racial inequality?

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I’ve read other opinions on this book, and the main issue seems to be two-fold: 1) that Stockett is promoting racial stereotypes in her portrayals of the maids, and 2) that for all her willingness to expose the ugly racial reality of that time, she still soft-pedals it. I don’t know that I agree with that, simply because she wrote what she experienced and remembered and tried to recreate it in the voices of these wonderful maids. Maybe it wasn’t the voices with which they would have told their stories, and perhaps others of the same background and experiences would have told it differently. That’s as it should be, but it shouldn’t devalue this book, either.

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Being a story of domestic goings-on as much as a treatise on racial inequality, the book abounds with mentions of so much delicious food that it was hard to choose one. Minny’s caramel cakes, fried chicken, and of course, the infamous chocolate pie. Oh poop! But early in the book, one scene sets the tone for the type of behavior these poor maids had to deal with, when Aibileen is serving a lunch of deviled eggs, ham sandwiches, and something called a congealed salad at Mrs. Leefolt’s house, and the gossip abounds about Celia Foote, who is considered “white trash” by these supposed pillars of the community.

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I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to them chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy and I know they ain’t discussing no politic.

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A congealed salad is a Southern staple at lunch, dinner or picnics. It’s essentially a Jello salad, that can be made either savory or sweet. with marshmallows, nuts, fruit, celery (!), and cream cheese. I wanted to try and recreate it, so this is my take on that Southern classic, lime congealed salad. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe at Never Enough Thyme. I did use walnuts instead of pecan, and I left out the celery, because yuck.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-oz. packet of lime Jell-o
1 8-oz. bar of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups boiling hot water
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup walnuts
2 cups miniature marshmallows

METHOD
Mix together in your most awesome Kitchen Aid the cream cheese and the lime Jell-o. That’s a lurid green, isn’t it?2017-03-26 10.39.46_resized.jpg

Reduce the mixer speed and add a little bit of the hot water. The idea is to loosen up the mixture.

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Add in the rest of the hot water and mix well to make sure the cheese, Jell-o and water are completely combined.

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Pour into a pan and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

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Remove from the fridge, and stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and walnuts. Put back in the refrigerator for another couple of hours. You might check on it once and stir a few times, as the marshmallows tend to sink and you want them incorporated through the salad.2017-03-26 14.45.21_resized.jpg

Remove one last time, and serve garnished with lime slices and whipped cream. To go full-on Southern, serve the lime congealed salad with fried chicken and deviled eggs.

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